James Edmund Vincent.

Highways and byways in Berkshire; online

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middle of the sixteenth. The king came in the shape of
Henry VIII., of course, to find the abbey possessed of the
princely revenue of ,1,876 los. yd., which, as some say, was
about ^30,000 a year of our money ; but from the moment
one begins to enter into detail, it is plain that to attempt to
state an income of the past in terms of the present is very
delusive. For example, the Abingdonians of the fifteenth
century for which statistics are handier than for the sixteenth
could buy lambs at is., geese at 2\d. each, and eggs at $d.
a hundred ; but other things which are cheap to us were dear
to them, or perhaps not to be obtained at all, so that com-
parison of significance and exactitude is impossible. And
surely, from a general point of view, one might say that thirty
manors in Berks, manorial privileges, and lands in other
counties, must have been the sources of an income more con-
siderable in those days than ^30,000 a year is now.

In one amusing particular the prophecy in Piers Plowman
was qualified, if not falsified. The last abbot " had a knok of
a kynge," it is true, but, like his fellow Berkshireman of slightly
later times, the Vicar of Bray, famed in song, he was wise in
his generation. He saw the " knok " coming, and took all
measures to mitigate its severity by ready acceptance of the
Royal Supremacy in 1534. His was certainly not the temper
and the spirit of Bishop Fisher or of Sir Thomas More,
whom the Eystons of East Hendred proudly claim for ancestor,


who paid for their faith with their lives, and acquired im-
perishable fame. The abbot could not know of the glory to
come in this world from a display of steadfastness ; perhaps,
indeed, he would have cared little for it, seeing that he could
not live to enjoy it, if he could earn it by death only. At any
rate he took a more tangible payment for his easy complaisance,
in the shape of a life interest in Cumner Place, Amy Robsart's
Cumner to be, until that time the summer-house and the
sanatorium of the brotherhood whom he had been wont to
rule. Besides that Henry, always generous to those who
bowed to his will, rewarded the time-serving abbot with a hand-
some pension. So Abbot Rowland or Pentecost there seems
to be some uncertainty as to his exact name suffered a
"wounde" indeed, but hardly one that was incurable, and
became the first individual owner of a house which was to bulk
large, perhaps somewhat too large, in history and in romance.

That Seovechesham, the community planted at the junction
of the Thames and the Ock, at the mouth of a rich valley and
by the side of the waterway, had an individual history and
character may be presumed. But it is certain that, when the
abbey migrated from the hill at Sunningwell to the flat land
by the river's edge, the lay community by the abbey's side
lost its individuality as well as its name. We have seen from
Piers Plowman, of which the author was certainly not a
Berkshireman, though he may have been reared in Oxfordshire,
what one who was in advance of his age thought of the
splendour of the abbots. The lists of the property of the
abbey, the buildings which remain, all that we know of the
position and the influence of the abbeys of old time combine
to make it certain that Abingdon, the town, was nothing more
than a dependency of the abbey, and that its people were
hangers-on of the abbey. Trouble there was from time to
time between the abbey and the town, the occasions being
the privileges of markets and of fairs granted to the abbey,
privileges which could hardly fail to press hard on a community



situate in the heart of one of the richest agricultural districts
in England. Of one of these disputes, in the reign of
Henry II., Colonel Cooper King gives an interesting little
account, illustrating the difficulties arising from giving the right
of holding markets as a part of the revenue of an ecclesiastical
corporation, and there were other examples. The earliest,
perhaps, is the best.

The story, so far as one can reconstruct it, seems to have
been this. The abbot's men, that is to say, the abbot's
tenants, had a right of free market at Abingdon, and the
traders of Oxford and of Wallingford objected to a privilege
which shut them out, crying for a market " free for all
commodities." They tried violence, but the abbot's men were
too strong for them : they resorted to an appeal to the Crown
in vain. The first Plantagenet King had his troubles with the
Papacy, but he supported the claims of the abbey which his
great predecessors had favoured. Perhaps, indeed, for the
date is uncertain, the dispute may have reached his ears after
he had made his peace with Rome and after his pilgrimage to
Becket's shrine. At any rate he pronounced that "a full
market should be held at Abingdon to which only the abbot's
tenants should be admitted." So the townsmen retained their
privilege ; but they do not seem to have appreciated it
adequately. In 1327, the year of the murder of Edward II.
in Berkeley Castle and of the accession of Edward III., the
" town " were found making common cause with the Mayor of
Oxford, and some of the " gown " of Oxford also, against the
abbey, burning part of it, driving out the monks, and destroying
some of the muniments. But this triumph was short-lived ;
the monks returned to their abbey ; and a round dozen of the
ringleaders found their way to the gallows. Since Edward
was assassinated on September 2ist, when the year had barely
three months to run, the chances are that the penalty of death
was inflicted through the authority of the abbot, in the
turbulent days of Edward II. 's expiring reign, and not through


the authority of the boy king his successor, wielded by Isabella
and Mortimer. In any case too much blood was being shed
recklessly elsewhere for the hanging of a few rioters at
Abingdon to be a matter of public interest. Yet again in
1431, when public attention was concentrated on France (for
it was the year of the capture and cruel execution of Joan of
Ark), the Abingdonians, headed by their bailiff, William
Masdeville, rose against the abbey, .and swore that they
"would make the heads of the clergy as cheap as sheeps'
heads, 3 or 4 a penny." But these were passing storms, and the
abbey continued to prosper, to hold the fairs and markets,
and to exact its dues until the dissolution.

The markets, on Mondays, so that they do not interfere
with the more important markets of Oxford, still remain, but
they are free. The fairs also endure, taking the form of mild
Saturnalia, partly for the purpose of hiring, for two autumn
days, with a supplemental day, entitled the "runaway fair,"
a week later. Other fairs there are, too, but the first-named
is the real institution. Your Berkshire labourer takes little
notice of Bank-holidays and like festivities, but his village
" feast " and " Abendon Fair " are to him as sacred institu-
tions, and on the days allotted to them he will by no means
work. Cost what it may, he will walk into Abingdon, or jog
thither in the carrier's cart, in his Sunday suit, accompanied
by his whole family, and " just about " enjoy himself in the
market square by the abbey gates. His spirit is probably
much the same as that which animated his forefathers, and
some of the amusements are substantially the same. Round-
abouts and biographs are modern of course, but harmless.
But fortunes are told, and boxing is exhibited in a booth to
patrons of the "noble art" at threepence a head, and beer is
drunk as freely as in the days of yore. The effects, also, are
the same, as they will continue to be to the end of time ; and
it cannot be denied that, of those who wend their way home-
wards from the fair, more than a few find Ock Street (which is

G 2


nearly as wide as Whitehall in these days) inconveniently
narrow. It is a pity, no doubt ; and the custom is not de-
fended for a moment; but if monotony of daily life and
miserable inadequacy of wage are an excuse for occasional
indulgence in beery hilarity, the Berkshire labourer of the
Abingdon district may claim it to the full. Hard by Abingdon
wages are us. a week on an average, with a little extra in
harvest time : not much, for machines are everywhere and
the rent of a cottage has to be paid in addition. It should be
added that " Abendon Fair " is still a genuine hiring fair, and
that, in October of 1904 and 1905, young men with whipcord in
their caps were to be seen in front of the Lion Hotel with
farmers, some of them actually in top-boots of the John Bull
type, scanning them with a view to employment. So the fair
has its uses no less than pleasures.

The fairs have taken us thus far, from the abbey to the
labourers ; let us follow that train of thought one step further
before returning to the abbey and the town, and let me justify
the digression on the ground that Homo sum, nihil humani a
me alienum puto. Leland wrote of Abingdon, " the town
stondeth by clothing." Colonel Cooper King writes : " The
clothing trade and manufacture that flourished in Berkshire at
Newbury, Hendred, Reading, Abingdon and elsewhere, fell off
and decayed with the disappearance of the monastic edifices
of the country." Mr. Falkner says : " This industry has long
ago forsaken it, and it is now mainly an agricultural centre."
Happily this is not strictly accurate. Hard as the Berkshire
peasant lives, compelled, as he often is, to include the field-
service of his wife and children at harvest time in his meagre
wage, he simply could not support existence on that wage
alone, and, although it may not be true any longer that
Abingdon "stondeth by clothing," the Abingdon district
does stand by clothing to a large extent. In Abingdon
is a clothing factory, in itself of no imposing appearance,
but representing a large industry. It has, indeed, no call


to be imposing, since most of those who sew do their work
at home. But the carriers, those old-world gossips of the
country-side, who are a great institution in Berkshire, carry
out to the outlying villages every week vast store of pieces of
cut cloth, to be brought back again in due course as finished
garments ; many women too fetch their allotted tasks in per-
ambulators ; and the sums which the women earn in this way,
small and hardly won as they are, become items of real im-
portance in a weekly budget which is itself almost micro-
scopical. A reduction of the rate of pay (there was one not
long since) spreads consternation through a dozen villages or
more, amongst scattered workers whose circumstances are such
that they could not possibly resist, even if they were organised.
Also, since we are on the subject of manufactures, let it be
mentioned that Abingdon produces malt, carpets and reed mat-
ting, not wanting in artistic merit, and, like most country towns,
a sufficient quantity of sound and wholesome ale.

Strangely enough, this topic of ale has brought us back to
the abbey. The monks left it perforce, and betrayed by their
abbot, in the sixteenth century ; at the end of the seventeenth
century King Beer entered to reign in their stead, and remained
in possession almost until the end of the nineteenth century.
Incredible as it may seem, most of the abbey buildings which
remain were actually used as malt-houses and the like from
1690 until after 1890. After all, perhaps, that was no great
misfortune, for malting is a clean business, and, if the buildings
had not been in use, they might have disappeared altogether.
That has been the fate of the magnificent abbey church,
434 feet long, which has vanished so as to leave no trace. It
has not been the fate of the thirteenth-century house called,
rightly or wrongly, the Prior's House, nor of the Guest House,
probably fourteenth or early fifteenth century, nor of the
Abbey Gateway. The last-named was convenient and there-
fore it survived ; the two first were used, as stated, for trade
purposes, and so preserved, although in some measure defaced.


How the Abingdonians were wont to use the fragments of
portions of the abbey which were not converted to base uses,
the visitor may see in many an adjacent wall : but in the
"Prior's House" he may still notice the buttresses, the vault-
ing to a central pillar of the ground floor, some fine stone-
carving, and the striking chimney ; and in the " Guest House "
he may trace the marks of the partitions for the dormitories. The
" Guest House," then, is probably rightly named ; not so the
" Prior's House," which is both insufficiently considerable and
too near the " Guest House " to have been the dwelling of the
prior. It is far more likely to have been the habitation of the
steward. Curiously enough, the very ground once occupied by
the abbots is now the house of a twentieth-century ecclesi-
astical personage, the Bishop of Reading.

Let us enter Abingdon, pausing to inspect the Police Court,
which, like many another building in venerable Abingdon, has
a history. In these days minor malefactors are tried in it, the
magistrates hold their meetings, and the remarkably handsome
Corporation plate is stored in the building, which, according to
tradition, was once the chapel of the Guild of St. John the
Baptist. A year after the foregoing words were written came
an opportunity, easily to have been made before, of inspecting
the Corporation plate of Abingdon under the guidance of the
Mayor for the time being, Alderman Shepherd. It is certainly
worthy of something more than passing notice, of more space
than can be afforded here, of greater store of special knowledge
than is available in this instance. It would make a collector's
mouth water. Fascinating little silver maces of Edward VI.,
James I., and Charles I. ; salt-cellars of 1600 ; goblets, obviously
chalices and probably from the abbey, but " Ex dono Lionel
Bostock " ; a seal of 1609 ; a bowl presented by John Lenthall in
1659; a "dog" tankard, having a hole in the base of the
handle, so that it could be used as a whistle when duly
emptied of some two quarts of liquor, and the Corporation
mace are among the gems. The mace, a colossal affair, was

The Town Hall, Abingdon,


presented by a keen Royalist " in the twelfth year " of
Charles II. ; for the Commonwealth is completely ignored in
the legend. A remarkable feature in other pieces of plate, of
interest in themselves, is the fact that they were presented by
Berkshire magnates not closely connected with the Corpora-
tion, so that they are an indication of the respect in
which it was held. Martha and John Stonhouse, of Radley,
gave a bowl ; and Admiral Sir George Bowyer, also of Radley,
presented the huge vase given to him by " Lloyd's Coffee
House " in celebration of his part in Howe's victory. Sir
George Bowyer and the Stonhouses we shall meet at Radley.
A large bowl of Benares silver, presented in modern times by
the Earl of Abingdon, is a testimony that county respect for
the ancient Corporation has not entirely perished.

Somewhere hereabouts, too, was the Hospital of St. John, but
it has been established for the last century and more in that
northern part of Abingdon, near the singularly insignificant
railway station, which is known as the Vineyard. In the
County Hall above the Police Court are preserved a number
of royal portraits, Charles II. and James II. , George III.
and Queen Charlotte, the last-named a true Gainsborough,
the standard measures of Elizabeth's date, and a print,
dated 1727, of that noble building the Town Hall. This
last-named edifice is one of the most striking pieces of archi-
tecture in all Abingdon, and, although its date (1677) was
more than a quarter of a century later than that of the death of
Inigo Jones, its form and proportions speak eloquently either of
an original design by or of the abiding influence of that renowned
exponent of Palladian principles. The Town Hall was restored,
but not spoiled, in 1857. It is, however, reputed not to be over-
sound now ; still it is a rare pleasure to the eye, which sees
in it a building of fine proportions, with no side walls at all
to the ground floor, but with the chamber, as often occurs in
work by Inigo Jones, and by Christopher Wren also, supported
by a colonnade of pillars. The effect is distinctly airy and


attractive, and the shelter to be obtained under the chamber is
much appreciated both in the rain and when the sun is fierce.
In 1903, during a fair, this space was being used, profanely
perhaps, for the purposes of a miniature " roundabout," where
children of tender years could ride revolving cock-horses at a
dizzy pace for the sum of one farthing sterling. Here, too, the
men who have no work, or the men who do not want work, as
the case may be, are wont to stand " in the market-place."

The Town Hall, then, was built in 1677 ; and it filled a gap
which must have been a source of bitter memories to the
Abingdonians of the day, if they possessed any of that feeling
towards memorials of antiquity which ought to be, but seldom
is, natural to those who have been nurtured amongst old and
lovely buildings. Perhaps, having regard to the cheerful
fashion in which they used fragments of the abbey and its
church for buildings of all kinds, they may be inferred to have
been a people without a nice and sensitive taste in these
matters. Still, surely they must have had a regard for their
Market Cross, erected, so to speak, as a memorial of the in-
corporation of the town in the reign of Queen Mary, the place
of proclamations, and the scene of an extraordinary escapade
on the part of a Dean of Christ Church. Aubrey is respon-
sible for the remarkable story that Richard Corbet, then " Re-
verendus admodum doctissimusque vir " that is how an epistle
craving leave to depart for the vacation had to be addressed,
in accordance with immemorial tradition, to Dean Liddell and
to the present Bishop of Oxford when he succeeded him
broke out in most undecanal and even unclerical fashion.
Dean Corbet he was afterwards Bishop of Norwich, if you
please " being one market-day with some of his companions
at the taverne by the Crosse, a ballad-singer complayned that
he had no custom and could not put off his ballads ; where-
upon the jolly Doctor puts off his gowne, and puts on the
ballad-singer's leathern jacket, and being a handsome man,
and having a rare full voice, he presently vended a great many


and had a great audience." Well, for that matter, Liddell was
a handsome man, and he possessed a fine voice, and doubtless,
if he had ever dreamed of a like performance, he would have
collected as great an audience. To those who knew him, or
the stately Gaisford, it will seem almost strange that one of
them did not contrive to be born before his time in order to
rebuke his ribald predecessor.

A more delicious picture, or one which emphasises more
acutely the change for the better, if the more dull, that has
come over England, it is impossible to conceive. When did it
happen ? Without digging into the records of Christ Church
to find when Corbet desecrated Tom Quad, one can tell within
a hundred years or so ; for the Cross, which was put up in
Mary's reign, was razed to the ground in the days of the Great
Rebellion. Waller was the Vandal in this particular case, and,
without sympathising with him in the slightest degree, one may
realise that everything connected with it was calculated to raise
his Puritan and democratic gorge within him. It had been
erected in the days of a Papist queen. It boasted no less than
three rows of what he doubtless called graven images. These
represented six grave kings, past wielders of the monarchy
against which he was arrayed ; the Virgin, four female saints,
and a mitred prelate, all of course rather more odious to him
than the monarchy ; and a number of apostles and prophets,
who had to go with the rest, and would have been hammered
to bits in any case, since they were "graven images." Still,
one is tempted to think that the prophets, in their denunciatory
moods, were more to Waller's mind than the apostles. Clearly
with its carved work, its octagonal form, and its coats of arms,
the Cross must have been a thing of beauty which should have
been a joy for ever, and one can well credit the story that it
served as a model for the Cross of Coventry. A rude picture
of it is still preserved on the river side of Christ's Hospital.
Its destruction was one of those futile and exasperating
outrages which have an almost irresistible tendency to make


our judgment of those who were, after all, the founders of our
liberties, more harsh and less grateful than it ought to be.
One who thinks that, if he had been alive in rhe 'forties of the
seventeenth century, he would have fought for Charles, can yet
understand the execution of the king who betrayed Strafford,
but for the life of him he cannot forgive the brutal and sense-
less destruction in which the Puritans revelled. This particular
example of it occurred in May, 1644. The gap which it left
remained an eyesore for precisely thirty-three years ; and then
in its place the stately fabric of the Town Hall it is really all
that sprang "like some tall palm." It is admirable still,
albeit not too sound internally; but the loss of the Cross is
none the less grievous.

Passing the ancient house of the grammar school founded
by John Roysse in 1563 (or, as Colonel Cooper King says, in
1571) and leaving St. Helen's Church unvisited for a while, we
go, by a quiet path through the churchyard, to the curious and
ancient structure in one story known as Christ's Hospital. It
is a long range of chambers, built of mellow brick and imme-
morial oak, having in their centre a small hall, darkly wains-
coted, the very table in which makes a collector sinfully covetous.
In front of the modest doors of the chambers, inhabited by
almsmen and almswomen, runs a tiny cloister with oak pillars,
so that the inmates may visit one another dryshod in any weather.
Each door, too, bears a text from the Old or New Testament.
A more .typical relic of the old world, a more sequestered haven
of rest, than this row of lowly buildings, looking up to the great
church in front, and with its windows opening on to green turf
bordered with flowers in the rear, it could not enter into the
heart of man to imagine. Ancient as it looks and is, it is
honourably and indissolubly connected with all that is best and
most energetically useful in the history of Abingdon, and that
perhaps is why the genius loci is more inspiring to those who
visit that miniature hall than it is to those who linger among
the scanty if interesting relics of the vast abbey.


Towards the end of the fourteenth century, it would appear,
the best men in Abingdon, that is to say, those laymen who
had the temporal and spiritual welfare of the community at
heart, formed themselves into a gild, entitled " The Fraternity
of the Holy Cross." Amongst the earliest members was
Geoffrey Barbour, of whom mention has been made in con-
nection with Burford Bridge. A great man of business was
this, for he was Mayor of Bristol once, as well as Abingdon's
best friend. Associated with him in the gild were the other
bridge-makers. So, although the gild did maintain from the
beginning a priest and two proctors, and although they decor-
ated St. Helen's with a handsome cross at an early period, its
members were clearly men who had an eye for the temporal
well-being of the community. In 1442 the good work of
founding the bridge being already to the credit of the gild or
of its founders, came incorporation and endowment, the trustees
being Sir John Golafre and Thomas Chaucer. It has been the
pleasant fashion to assume that this Thomas was the son of
Geoffrey ; but the better opinion is that this theory, based
upon purely heraldic premises, is quite inconclusive. The
matter is one of those, in fact, on which we must be content to
have no certainty. The incorporated gild was, indeed, a
typical mediaeval institution of the best kind. It built, or took
in charge, the bridge that was the making of the town com-
mercially ; it kept the road, which the bridge rendered highly
useful and important, from Abingdon to the ancient Cathedral
of Dorchester; and in 1446, four years after incorporation, it
built the hospital as a quiet resting-place for thirteen poor men
and thirteen poor women : and there the hospital stands, ful-

Online LibraryJames Edmund VincentHighways and byways in Berkshire; → online text (page 7 of 33)