F. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) Darton.

The marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England online

. (page 9 of 28)
Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 9 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to be observed everywhere, except in Arripay's country,
because he had burnt houses in Castile."

There is not much information of a definite kind about the
Dorset seafarers of this period, except for that vivid little
chapter of truculence. Inference from a few recorded facts,
hov/ever, shows living and active continuity. John ordered
rope in a hurry from Bridport in 1213. He and other kings
demanded ships for the French and Scottish wars. Lyme
(its Cobb, built in Edward I's reign, a wonder to all, and its
standing enhanced by his charter of 1284), Weymouth and
Melcombe, Poole and Wareham furnished vessels from time
to time, just as the abbeys and landowners furnished land
service and gave hospitality to the King's horses, men, and
prisoners. There were raids and counter -raids from France
and Spain and even visits from Barbary pirates. A system
of beacons — a natural anticipation of 1805 and 1914 — was
set up to guard against invasion.

In the midst of the foreign and domestic tumult kings
came to and fro. The strategy of castles bade them keep
a watchful eye on all parts of their kingdom, and Dorset
was still something of a sea-gateway from France and Spain
to the West and Middle-West of England. There were
castles at Corfe, Portland, Lulworth, Sherborne, Wareham,
Powerstock, and possibly three or four others of less im-
portance. The King constantly addressed to his Dorset
officers and subjects open letters — letters patent of favour,


of armistice, of protection : " The King to all his bailiffs
and faithful subjects, greeting . . . know ye that we have
taken under our safe conduct " some fortunate person who
could produce this document. Often enough he warned the
guardians of his coasts to be watchful and responsible, or
ordered his bailiffs " to select immediately the best and
strongest men of yom- ports, and those who are well armed,
to man our vessels, at our cost and for our service."

John visited the county with some frequency. He
afforested* the whole of Purbeck — \\Tongf ull}^ so the monks
of C«rne claimed : they owned rights in the isle, already
mentioned. In almost every year from 1204 to the end of
his reign he lay a night or two at some Dorset manor or
castle — Dorchester, Bridport, GiUingham (the ruins of his
house there are but green mounds), Powerstock, Corfe,
Bere Regis, Sherborne, Cranborne, and other places all
saw him : Corfe and GiUingham most often. Powerstock
Castle was either rebuilt or reinforced : there is an entry
of £104 spent on it, and of 100,000 nails brought thither for
the work. There is, too, a suggestive entry in the Patent
Rolls about Corfe :

"Teste 11 -Julv, at Corfe. Know, that we received at
Corfe on Tuesday, the Translation of St. Benedict, in the
18th year of our reign, from the hands of Agatha Trussebut,
wife of William de Albeny, and her chaplain William,
500 marks for the ransom of this said William de Albeny."

Poor Agatha ; and poor tenants of Agatha and William !

Edward I was another frequent visitor to much the same
places as John, except that he seemed to be specially fond
of Bindon Abbey, which William of Newburgh had re-
founded in 1 1 72. Piers Gaveston was thought to be a refugee
in the county in l.'Ul, and Edward II was imprisoned at
Corfe before he was removed to his murder at Berkelt'V
Castle ; while Margaret of Anjou, befriended by Cardinal
Moieton of Bere — a former monk (jf Cerne — rested at Cerne

• I'ul uiidor till) Fon^Ht Luwm : not pluntod trt>oH.


on one of her vain attempts to secure the crown for
her son.

The Dorset abbots and friars who took so large a share
in the public life of the country, in service to the King, in
education and in improving the land, have left, thanks to the
Dissolution and the passing of the monastic buildings into
the hands of Henry VIII 's favourites, few visible remains
of their greatness, except in three glorious buildings still in
use — Wimborne Minster, Sherborne Abbey, and Milton
Abbey. Wimborne — a royal chapel and college of secular
canons — contains not only Norman and Transition work,
but an Early English east window of great beauty, and the
grave of Athelstan. Milton has some splendour of the
Decorated period, and keeps a little of the gay hues that once
made the great chm'ches a marvel of rich colour : while
the fan-tracery of Sherborne is an unsurpassed glory.

Cerne — like Abbotsbmy, Sherborne, and Milton, a
Benedictine house — is but a fragment : Abbotsbury, save
for the noble barn, little more : Shaftesbury not as much :
while Bindon, a Cistercian foundation, is the most pathetic
forlorn ghost of grave beauty imaginable. Of it Mi\ Moule,
the Dorchester antiquarian, wrote feelingly : " You cannot
wall in the free heart : you cannot wall out the world ; but
the place where the effort was made is no common ground."
It suffered a curious irony in its death. It was dissolved
among the smaller monasteries in 1536, refounded by
Henry VIII himself in 1537, and again dissolved in

The priories, minor houses, and hospitals — there were
many lazar houses — have almost entirely vanished.

We can, however, guess at a little of the local vigour
and sincerity of that life when religion was real and vital
to conduct as well as to salvation. Much of the beauty of
Sherborne is due to a desperately earnest quarrel. The
people of the place in 1436 had a bitter dispute with the
monks about the position of the font and their own entry
into the church. They came to blows, a riot ensued, and the

Knijruv<:d frt/m. a dntirniy hi/ ./. //'. (Jji/idin


old fabric was very seriously damaged by lire : the rebuild-
ing gave us much of to-day's loveliness.

That was a case of religious ardour. On the other hand,
the abbot of Abbotsbury of a century or so before, Walter do
Stokes, behaved like the traditional predatory abbot of
fiction, and a long enquiry into his conduct would probably
have ended in scandal but for his death.*

Of the glories of JShaftesbury I have already spoken. In
contrast to that world-wide fame is the gentle seclusion of
the Cistercian nuns at Tarrant Keynes, to whom a famous
treatise in Middle English was probably addressed — the
Ancren Biwle, or Anchoresses' Handbook, said to have been
composed for them about 1200 by Richard Poore, Bishop of
Salisbury. The Abbey was but a little house : at the
surrender in 1539 it contained an abbess and eighteen nuns.
When the Riwle was written, it was the refuge of tliree
sisters of gentle birth, with lay sisters and servants. Among
the reasons why they fled the world the wTiter gives these :

" It is a proof of nobleness and liberality. Noblemen and
gentlemen do not carry packs, nor go about trussed with
bundles, nor with purses. It belongs to beggars to bear bag
on back, and to burgesses to bear purses, and not to God's
spouse, who is the Lady of Heaven. Bundles, piu-ses, bags,
and packs are all earthly wealth and worldly revenues. . . .
Ye take no thought for food or clotliing, neither for your-
selves nor for your maidens. Each of you hath from one
friend all that she requireth ; nor need that maiden seek
either bread, or that \\ hich is eaten with bread, further than
at his hall. . . . The sorcerer would fain with flattery render
you perverse, if j'c were less gentle and docile. There is
much talk of you, how gentle women you are ; for your

• Tho \tXHi ablKjt uIho bs ullcgtd to have given offt-nco, lucording to H
docuin<«tit quote<l by Hutcliiiw : " Wlierfiw tlio .Mjbot tiiki'th to his own
iwo und huth nuuio great wu«to of wood hvl\vh wrongfully sold from his
brotliern and tbcir tcnantH, and also bath wnt ont of tlio tri>ivsury certain
jewebi more than balf (wIhtciih wc cannot judgt* tlai tru«> valun of the Hainc)
arul bath Hold it. . . . iio but b an alMiniinablc rul<< with kc(>|iiMg of woiiion,
not witb i, ii, or iii, but with many inoro tban 1 do writo of, and alwo no
religion tie kt>o[X)th nor by day iu<itlior by nigbt." Nut proven, »aya tho
Victoria County lliatory, in eflect.



goodness and nobility of mind beloved of many ; and sisters
of one father and one mother ; having, in the bloom of
yom- youth, forsaken all the pleasures of the world and
become anchoresses."*

All their daily customs, religious and lay alike, were
expounded to them in this generous-minded homily ; how
they were not to be liberal with other people's alms ; not
to buy nor sell ("a buyer and seller selleth her soul to the
chapman of hell ") ; not to use too harsh a discipline of
their bodies ; to have blood let four times a year (thereafter
resting : " talk with yom- maidens, and divert yourselves
together with instructive tales ") ; and " ye shall not possess
any beast, dear sisters, except only a cat."

That fine piece of South-Western dialect English gives
some hint of what was coming to pass in England. The nation
was becoming English, and so was its language. The
peasants saw the world in the great wars : they learnt at
Agincourt and Cre9y their own strength. The men of Dorset
fought on St. Crispin's day under their own banner of a
silver tower on a red ground. They had come gradually to
be part of an organism not merely local, their terms of
service secured by national, not local justice. But until the
long wars brought their inevitable penalties on Europe,
the English peasant had no real chance of freedom. It
was in Dorset, through the seaport intercourse with France
and the Channel Islands, that the greatest economic change
of this long period commenced. The Black Death broke out
at Melcombe Ragis in 1348. Within three years " the
inhabitants remaining are not sufficiently numerous to
protect (the coast) against our foreign enemies."!

It was upon the poor, living in squalor, that the plague
fell most heavily. But it had its compensations. In a
short time, instead of being bound ineluctably to forced
toil, the peasants, through the reduction in then- numbers,
could sell their labour at a high price, and employers had to
compete for it, and did compete for it, in spite of the
* Camden Society's translation. j Gasquet, The Black Death,


successive Statutes of Labourers which tried to fix tlie con-
ditions.* The wages system had arrived, though with
nuiny local variations and survivals of the old tenures and
compulsions. And one lesult of thi.s weakening of com-
l)ulsiun was that within two or three generations English
was perforce the common language of all classes.

Whether the wages system made for the real happiness
of the poorest labourers, or not, can be better judged when
we come to the revolts of five centuries later. A hundred
small hardships and injustices, not easily remedied when all
the real force was in the hands of those who wore armour,
embittered the relations between the villagers and the lords ;
and in 1381 the Peasants' Revolt flamed out. It was easily
put down, after a dangerous but sporadic success. Dorset
seems to have taken no great part in it, unless a reported
local increase of crime is an outer ripple of the whirlpool.

It is in walking through a tract of deserted churches and
lonely villages, it seems to me, that something of the multi-
farious, excitable life of this time (Chaucer's pilgrims were
always at the zenith of their personalities) can be recaptiu-ed.
Start again at Maiden Newton, from what was once the
revered village cross : it is now a centre of children's
games and a leaning-post for those who await the opening
of licensed houses. Hither came the Abbot of Milton's
corn to market, borne by his forced labourers ; and Cerne
Abbey held a third of the manor. Go past the station by
the whito track, steeplj^ uphill. Near the top cross the
fields to the left : you will walk over a British village : if
haply you have a dog, he will go down to the annals of
innumerable rabbits as a sudden piratical raid which caused
great terror. A little further west, you cross the Roman
road from Dorchester to Ilchester, a lovely grass-grown
straight track filled with eternal peace. Down a path

• Some Htriking but not alwayH exact paralluLi may bo found between
tbcH4» Htatut<'H (ttiul their inteiitioiin) an<l the arj^nmfiilH in iwe at tlio
prvHcnt moment in regard to tlie deeeaned Agricultural WagoH lioard.
I'rof. Oman, in hix Htandard work, nuikt«u a quotation from Piem Plowman
about the grcH'dy labourcra which might come from o retrograde farmer


westwards which hardly exists,* you come to an odd hedged
lane leading nowhere, with a private walk alongside : some
vanished or disused idea never fully carried out : and so to
Sydling St. Nicholas, where are a fine Tudor barn and a
sturdy church and as many Georgian houses, deliciously
spaced, as could well be desired ; and streams and ducks all
down the wide pretty street.

The church itself is curiously impressive in its historical
gaps. It is an immensely strong building, shored up by
very heavy buttresses, and mostly Perpendicular in style.
It has large grotesque gargoyles, a fine tower — and inside,
a number of monuments to eighteenth and early nineteenth
century London aldermen and their families. On the tithe
barn are cut the initials of the wife of Elizabeth's Secretary,
Walsingham, who held the manor from Winchester College.
Imagination tends to dwell on what is not there, rather than
on what is. The village is so neat, so quiet, so primevally
domestic, that there ought to be visible evidence of the
period when the church was first built.

Sydling may well claim to be one of the haK- dozen most
beautiful villages in Dorsetf — or even in England. It lies
in a deep valley in the chalk, well watered, full of sheep.
North there is a noble walk to the main ridge. But the way
now lies past a well, where it is good to sit and hear running
water, and over the high hills again. And as at last you
descend, you see on a hill opposite the Cerne Giant.

When I last sat on the slope and looked at the Giant, I
felt myseK back in a scene of a year before. I was then
in the Town Hall at Dorchester. It was full, quite full, of
farmers, with a sprinkling of gentry and humbler folk, and
a few obvious agents : a gathering huge by the side of the
coteries of Sotheby's or Christie's. I had in my hand a
monstrous fine folio book about Cerne, which the auctioneers

* Across the Roman road, immediately opposite your track : close along
a hedge which must be kept on the right.

f Other claimants in Dorset are Corfe Castle (without recent additions),
Affpuddle, Bvirton Bradstock, Rampisham, Chideock (except the inn and a
building opposite), and Milton Abbas, and Hammoon, and Okeford
Fitzpaine, and — but this ia becoming a gazetteer.


had bestowed upon me for nothing. An austere man witli
a Httle white pointed beard and a monotonous voice was
saying, " Any advance on £700 ? £750. Any advance on
£750 ? Going at £750 . . . going. . . . Gone at £750. 'Sir. X.
Bought by the tenant." There was hardly even an inflexion
in his coknirless voice as he asked " any advance ? " But
in the audience there was a subdued undercurrent of feehng
which coukl not be mistaken : it broke out in cheers when
a tenant bid successfully.

For a whole village was changing hands. I had been into
some of the cottages a few days before. There were holes
in almost every ceiling : most of the walls were perishing :
slugs of the Giant's kin were in many rooms — they were
exhibited with a kind of pride. The Abbey Farm was shut
and deserted :* the lovely orchard behind it many feet deep
in grass and nettles, the little fabric of beauty in the old
gateway and the oriel window in the barn losing its mortar
and drawing still nearer to final decay.

If Goldsmith wanted to WTite a new Deserted Village, or
\y . TT. Hudson an even more sombre Shepherd's Life, Cernc
Abbas might be the inspiration. The wide street is alwaj'S
empty, save when charabancs vomit incongruous crowds.
There seems to be hardly even the ordinary tiny activity
of a general shop — though there are several shops, in point
of fact. I doubt if a man could get drunk in the inns : they
arc too desolate. If anyone lives in the two or three comely
private houses, it must surely be some aloof Mrs. 8parsit.
Even on the streams of the village, to which I was told
(my informant wearing an air of shy half-credulity) the
Giant came down to drink at nights, there are few ducks, and
those meagrely loquacious.

The church is a beautiful skeleton. Outside it has little
flying pinnacles of a lovely design, in yellow stone, niches
with some saints still inhabitant, a i\uc tall tower. Inside

• I h1io»iI«1 liko to Bny lioro tlmt tlio jirosont tciiAiit of lli<« farm, who in
working Mtn«iiuoib<Iy witli liw own liuntirt to rcpiiir thi> pr(>|M«rty, Nrry
rightly rcwntH wIioIi-hiiIc intntxion on liin orcliurd mid firld. 'I'hi' (lulcwiiy
ruin tun Ia; mtii by dfcont im«oj)1c wlio iwk dccontly und Ix-huvo dccontly.


it is as frigid as a neglected museum. There were at one
time recently no less than three fonts in it : one venerable,
of the Middle Age (so simple in design as to have no marked
characteristic) ; one modern, of which the less said the better,
for it is ugly ; and one delightful absurdity of the Georgian
era — a sort of small hand-basin on a leg, composed of wood
or some composition painted to look like marble. As at
Batcombe, there is a stone rood-screen. As at Abbotsbury,
there is a good seventeenth-century pulpit. There is a decent
pompous wooden screen, also, at the west end of the nave.
The Perpendicular east window is remarkably large. The
church is a spacious building.

One of its exhibits (I must use the word : the chui'ch does
not " show off," but it is not instinct with any reality) is a
stone coffin. There are plenty of others in Dorset. But I
cannot quite conceive the mind which thus preserves a
void grave, out of its designed place, and insignificant, in
an edifice dedicated to public worship. It can hardly be
doubted that some successor of MMvic, some abbot or high
officer of Cerne Abbey, lay in this massive bed : dead, in the
faith of Christ. We know that stone was used for coffins,
and we know (at least, we are always told so) that churches
are places of worship, not museums. We should inspect
empty stone coffins, therefore, as exhibits, in a, real museum :
not at the spot where their vanished tenants were once
bm-ied with the rites of Holy Church. Would any vicar, any
parishioner, prop up to-day against a wall, for a show, the
empty oak box that recently held his grandfather's decaying
flesh and bones ? Antiquity is no defence. What do a few
centm-ies matter to the principle ? It might be argued that
the remains of the pious dead, or their relics, should abide
at or near the place where they were committed to the mercy
of God. But their mortal bodies, in such cases as this, are
not there to await the resurrection. The "sad and solemn
priests " sing no longer for their souls. The tomb or chantry
of a dead man, his perpetual ornament, a piece of architecture,
remains rightly part of the church in which he worshipped.


was biiricd or commemorated. But hero the empty re-
ceptacle of his person is made a show.

I think the most liuman thing in Cerne church is one of
its two or tliree interesting epitaphs. " Here lies the body
of Robert White, who died Jan. 0th, 1753, aged 40 : having
been upwards of 20 years hi Antigua in South America,
and returning home with a good character, which is well
known by the best sort of people in that island." The exile
from the little village, with a good character vouched for by
the best people ... I am sm-e his character was truly good.

Yet life here must have been real once. Consider the
legend of the name Cerne Abbas. You will find (if you go
about it in the right way), near the gate-house of the
old Abbey and the orchard, a well — St. Austin's or St.
Augustine's well, A stone step of its superstructure, in
Hutchin's time, bore five Latin words — " Of Thomas Corton
thirty-fomth abbot." Corton was the last Abbot of Cerne,
He preserved a continuity which by tradition went back to
him after whom the well is named. St. Augustine is said
to have come hither and to have been mocked by the
inhabitants. They tied fishes' tails (some say the tails of
cows) to tJie skirts of himself and his followers and drove
them out. But the saint immediately in a vision saw their
destiny, and called out, in a loud voice, " I see God (cerno
Deura), Who will pour into them a better spirit." The men
of Cerne in a short time repented and asked him for forgive-
ness and begged him to return, Cerne is the place of the
vision of God.

Tlioro are other explanations, not less credible, of the
founding of the Abbey. It is probably at least a ninth-
century creation, it owned many manors. To-day there
are left of it some stones in the dead village, many in tlie
fine Abbey Farm, an oriel in one of the farm buildings, and
the lovely gate-house. But like Biiidnii Al)bey, it liolds the
soul of man. When at one time bifore the farm was re-
occujjied I went through its empty deep-grassed orchard,
saw the ever-running well-stream, the dim green lines


behind the Gate-house which showed where once the
structure of beauty and worship had confronted the world,
the place seemed populous with futile, baffled ghosts. It
was a little house, maybe, as abbeys go.

The Giant — " ithyphallic and clavigerous " — may have
Vvatched with a cynical eye many generations of peasants,
and a few great men. He saw — if the explanations of him
are true — he saw the Romans on the hills near him, and the
Celt driving the Iberian out of the dens that mottle the
green turf still. He saw Brichtuin holding the land in the
Confessor's time, and under William : and no more than the
Giant was Brichtuin allowed to " depart from the land."
He saw the monks at work upon their famous Book and
Cartulary. Even when there was a fanatical Protestant
or a no less fanatical malignant swaying the village, humble
lovers must still have looked with a curious wonder upon his
shameful form. The coaches of the turnpike era let inquisitive
passengers ask questions about him. The smugglers ex-
changed their goods in his secret mart : and if he had not
preferred the village streams, so numerous and pretty, the
Giant might here have quenched his thirst with " a beer
superior perhaps to any liquor of the kind ever known ":
so its fame ran of old.

From Cerne go up over Black Hill to Piddletrcnthide,
by a lovely road giving wonderful views. Piddletrcnthide
is a long village of pleasant houses and cottages. In its
church, more beautiful without than within, is a modern
window showing a figure of a man in khaki — the earliest
I have seen to perpetuate thus the Great War. I v/onder
why (colour apart) the uniform looks so ignoble by that of
the saints and other warriors in the same window ? Is it
the humbug of ancientry that makes armour seem more
beautiful ? It was a clumsy garment at best.

Follow still the byroad, due south. You will come shortly
to the straggling village of Piddlehinton. The chm-ch here
has that cm^ous thing, a palimpsest brass — or rather, one
which has been used on both sides. There is also a remark-


able brass of a vicar with a walking-stick : ho is Thomaa
Browne, " parson of this place seven and twenty years,"
who died in 1617. The registers of the church contain much
interesting matter which has not been published : how
stranded sailors (so far inland) were relieved, how a gi'ocer
of London whose house had been burnt was given a small
dole, and the like. Oddly enough, I met that grocer long
ago at Oxford : it was exactly the same yarn.

From here the road cm-ves south-east to Piddletown.
And here the church again is to be venerated. It contains
all the life of England, and that not, in its atmosphere of
preservation, in the manner of a dead survival. The font
is Saxon or possibly Norman, with a fine interlacing design.
It stands under a seventeenth-century gallery, from whose
floor depend canvas buckets of 1805, the property of a
Bath insurance company. Tho east end has been altered ;
but tho roof is good. There is the greater part of a carved
three-decker pulpit. Antl if j'ou go through the Martin

Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 9 of 28)