Its history, if one may call it history, is concerned with the owners of the manor of Ashford and not with any civil or municipal records. Indeed the earlier chroniclers, though they speak of Great Chart and Wye, know nothing of Ashford which in Domesday Book appears to have consisted of a few mills and a small church, the manor being in possession of Edward the Confessor, while St Augustine's at Canterbury and Earl Godwin held certain lands thereabout. Hugh de Montfort got what the King and Earl Godwin had possessed, after the Conquest, but the Monastery of St Augustine's seems to have continued to hold its land. We know nothing more of Ashford, which, as I have said, till late in the Middle Age consisted of a church and two mills and a dene for the pannage of hogs in the Weald. It is not one of the many owners of the Manor who is remembered to-day in Ashford as its benefactor, but the Lord of the Manor of Ripton during the Wars of the Roses, Sir John Fogge, who was Treasurer of the Royal Household and a Privy Councillor. In the fourteenth century the church had passed to Leeds Abbey, and with the abbey the church of Ashford remained until the suppression, when it passed to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. It was not, however, the Abbey of Leeds that rebuilt it as we see it, a poor example it must be confessed in spite of the nobility of the tower, of the latest style of English Gothic architecture, the Perpendicular. It was Sir John Fogge, who for this and other reasons, is the father of the town. He lies in a great tomb in the chancel. As for the Smyths, who lie in the south transept, Thomas, and Alicia his wife held the manor of Ashford in the sixteenth century. Alicia was the daughter of Sir Andrew Judde to whom the manor of Ashford had been mortgaged in the time of Henry VII. Her son, Sir Michael Smyth, lies close by. The family were later ennobled and bore the title of Viscounts Strangford.
For the outside world, however, Sir John Fogge is not Ashford's greatest son. This honour belongs surely to Jack Cade whom Shakespeare speaks of as the "headstrong Kentish man John Cade of Ashford," and who, according to the poet, if headstrong, proved in the end so feeble- minded that in Shakespeare's play we might seem to have a picture of one suffering from general paralysis of the insane. Jack Cade, however, was, as we are beginning to realise, a much greater and more significant figure than Shakespeare allows us to see.
But Ashford is not made for lingering, it is all for departure, the roads, if not the trains, lead swiftly away north, south, east and west. As for me I went by the south-west road which said twelve miles to Tenterden.
I went under a fine rain on a day of married white and blue, and even before I had forgot Ashford, which was long before I crossed the Stour, the rain had ceased, the sun shone forth and a great wind came out of the marsh and the sea full of good tidings, so that climbing up to Great Chart I laughed in my heart to be in England on such a day and on such a road.
Great Chart, as I saw while still far off, is a village typical of this country that I love, if indeed a place so completely itself is typical of anything: a little English village, but it outfaces the whole world in its sureness of itself, its quietness and air of immemorial antiquity. Many a city older by far looks parvenu beside Great Chart. Let us consider, with tears if you will, what they are making of Rome and be thankful that our ways are not their ways. For what wins you at once in Great Chart is the obvious fact that it has always stood there on its hill over the Weald, and as far as one may see at a glance, much the same as it stands to-day. And what delights you is the church there on the highest ground, on the last hill overlooking the great Weald, a sign in the sky, a portent, a necessary thing natural to the landscape.
What you see is a rectangular building with three eastern gables over three Decorated windows, a long nave roof over square Perpendicular windows and clerestory, flat outer roofs and tall western Tower, a noble thing significant of our civilisation and the Faith out of which it has come.
Within, one finds a church like and yet unlike that at Ashford. Nave and chancel are of the same width, and the arcades run from end to end of the church really without a break, though half way a wall, borne by three arches, crosses the church separating the chancel and its chapels from the nave. The central arch of the three is of course the chancel arch, but the wall it bears does not reach to the roof so that the nave, clerestory and roof are seen running on beyond it. All this is curious rather than lovely, but like every other strangeness in England of my heart, it is to be explained by the long, long history of things still—Deo gratias—remaining to us, so that when I said that our buildings were growths rather than works of art I spoke truth.
The church of St Mary of Great Chart is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey, but that a church existed here in the twelfth century is certain, for even in the present building we have evidences of Norman work, for instance in the walling of the south chapel, and in the vestry doorway. According to the Rev. G.M. Livett, [Footnote: K.A.S. 26.] the Norman nave was as long as that we have, which is built in all probability on its foundation. The aisleless Norman church, however, had a central tower to the east of the present chancel arch and transepts, as well as a chancel. This church appears to have stood till the fourteenth century, when it was entirely rebuilt and reclaimed, and all the lower part of the present church built, to be heightened and lengthened at the end of the fifteenth century when the clerestory and the chancel arcade were built, a new aisle wall set up on the north and the south aisle raised, the rood loft built or rebuilt.
We are reminded of all this history by the fine altar tomb in the north chapel where lie William Goldwell and Alice his wife (d. 1485). Their son James was Vicar of Great Chart in 1458, and became Bishop of Norwich in 1472, when he obtained from the Pope "an indulgence in aid of the restoration of Great Chart church which had been damaged by fire." Here is the cause and the source of the fifteenth century alterations and the church we see. The brasses in the church are also interesting. Many of them commemorate the Tokes of Godinton, who founded the almshouse in the village, which, rebuilt more than once I think, we still see. All these things and more than these the great yew in the churchyard has seen as its shadow grew over the graves.
From Great Chart I went on through the spring sunshine across the Weald to Bethersden, whose quarries have supplied so much of the grey marble one finds in Kentish churches, in the monuments and effigies and in the old manor houses in the carved chimney-pieces fair to see. These quarries are now all but deserted, but of old they were the most famous in Kent, which is poor in such things. Most of the stone for the cathedrals and greater religious houses in the county came from Caen, whence it was easily transported by water; but this stone not only weathered badly, but was too friable for monumental effigies or sculpture. For these harder stone was needed, resembling marble, and this Bethersden supplied, as we may see, in the Cathedrals of Canterbury and Rochester and especially at Hythe where the chancel arcade is entirely built of it.
Something too we may learn at Bethersden of the true nature of the Weald. I shall have something to say of this later, but here at any rate the curiously difficult character of this country in regard to the going may be understood, though of course less easily now than of old. It is said that before, at the end of the eighteenth century, the excellent system of roads we still use was built up, the ways hereabouts were so bad—they are still far from good—that when spring came it was customary to plough them up in order that they might dry off. We hear of great ladies going to church in carriages drawn by teams of oxen. Hardly passable after rain, the roads, says Hasted, were "so miry that the traveller's horse frequently plunged through them up to the girths of the saddle; and the waggons sank so deep in the ruts as to slide along on the nave of the wheels and axle of them. In some few of the principal roads, as from Tenterden hither, there was a stone causeway, about three feet wide, for the accommodation of horse and foot passengers; but there was none further on till near Bethersden, to the great distress of travellers. When these roads became tolerably dry in summer, they were ploughed up, and laid in a half circle to dry, the only amendment they ever had. In extreme dry weather in summer, they became exceedingly hard, and, by traffic, so smooth as to seem glazed, like a potter's vessel, though a single hour's rain rendered them so slippery as to be very dangerous to travellers." The roads in fact were and are, little more than lanes between the isolated woods across the low scrub of the old Weald.
The church of Bethersden is dedicated to St Margaret. It follows the local type having a nave with north and south aisles and a chancel with north and south chapels, vestry, south porch and western tower. The place is not mentioned in Domesday Book, but about 1194 we find Archbishop Herbert confirming the church of St Margaret of Beatrichesdenne, with the chapel of Hecchisdenne (Etchden) to the Priory of St Gregory in Canterbury. No sign of this Norman church remains, the building we see in Bethersden being mainly Perpendicular; but the double lighted windows at the west end of the north aisle are Early English and there is a Decorated niche under the entrance to the rood left. The tower is modern, but possesses a fourteenth century bell.
It is curious that though the church is dedicated to St Margaret and the fair, according to Hasted, was held upon July 20th, St Margaret's day, the place should be spoken of as Beatrichesdenne as though there were some local St Beatrice; but of her we know nothing.
Bethersden is connected with the Lovelaces for they owned it, Richard Lovelace, the poet, having sold Lovelace Place to Richard Hulse, soon after the death of Charles I. Three members of the Lovelace family lie in the church, their tombs marked by brasses; William Lovelace (1459) another William Lovelace, gentleman (1459), and Thomas Lovelace (1591).
From Bethersden I went on to High Halden, which stands upon a ridge out of the Weald, a very characteristic and beautiful place, with a most interesting church dedicated to Our Lady. Indeed I do not know where one could match the strange wooden tower and belfry and the noble fourteenth century porch, masterpieces of carpentry, which close on the west the little stone church of the fifteenth century. Within the most interesting thing left to us is the glass in the east window of the south chancel where we see the Blessed Virgin with her lily, part of an Annunciation. There, too, in another window are the arms of Castile and of Leon, a strange blazon to find in the Weald of Kent.
But characteristic as Great Chart, Bethersden and High Halden are of this strange wealden county, they do not express it, sum it up and dominate it as does Tenterden Town, some two or three miles to the south of High Halden.
If we look at the ordnance map we shall see that the town of Tenterden is set upon a great headland thrust out by the higher land of the Kentish Weald, southward and east towards those low marshlands that are lost almost imperceptibly in the sea, and are known to us as Romney Marsh. This great headland, in shape something like a clenched fist, stands between the two branches of the Rother, the river which flows into the sea at Rye, and which was once navigable by ships so far up as Small Hythe just under the southern escarpment of the headland upon which Tenterden stands. Hither so late as 1509 the Rother was navigable, and we find Archbishop Warham on the petition of the people licensing a small chapel there of St John Baptist still in existence, for the use of the inhabitants and as a sanctuary or a graveyard for the burial of those wrecked on the "sea-shore" infra predictum oppidum de Smallhyth.
Now in this lies all the greatness of Tenterden. Rye, which had early been added to the Cinque Ports, was a place of very considerable importance, but upon the east it was entirely cut off by Romney Marsh, upon the west, too, a considerable marshland closed by a great and desolate hill country closed it in, but to the north was a navigable river, a road that is, leading up into England, and at the head of it a town naturally sprang up. That town was Tenterden, and her true position was recognised by Henry VI., when he united her to Rye. Till then she was one of "the Seven Hundreds" belonging to the Crown. Domesday Book knows nothing of her; as a place of importance, as a town that is, she is a creation of Rye, and her development was thus necessarily late and endured but for a season. I suppose the great days of Rye to have been those of the thirteenth and fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; and it was therefore during this period that Tenterden began its career as a town. After the failure of the sea, Rye sank slowly back into what it is to-day, but Tenterden would appear to have stood up against that misfortune with some success, for we find Elizabeth incorporating it under a charter.
There can be but few more charming towns in Kent than Tenterden as we see it to-day, looking out from its headland southward to the great uplifted Isle of Oxney beyond which lies the sea, and eastward over all the mystery of Romney Marsh. The church which should, one thinks, have borne the name of St Michael, is dedicated in honour of St Mildred. It is a large building of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the tower, its latest feature, being also its noblest. Indeed the tower of Tenterden church, if we may believe the local legend, is certainly the most important in Kent. For it is said, and, rightly understood, there may after all be something in it, to have been the cause of the Goodwin Sands. Fuller asserts "when the vicinage in Kent met to consult about the inundation of the Goodwin Sands (date not given) and what might be the cause thereof, an old man imputed it to the building of Tenterden steeple in this county; for these sands, said he, were firm sands before that steeple was built, which ever since were overflown with sea-water. Hereupon all heartily laughed at his unlogical reason, making that effect in Nature which
was only the consequent on time; not flowing from, but following after the building of that steeple."
According to Latimer, however, it was Sir Thomas More who drew this answer from the ancient, and if this be so, it certainly fixes the date. "Maister More," says Latimer, "was once sent in commission into Kent to help to trie out (if it might be) what was the cause of Goodwin Sands and the shelfs that stopped up Sandwich haven. Thither cometh Maister More and calleth the countye afore him, such as were thought to be men of experience, and men that could of likelihode best certify him of that matter, concerning the stopping of Sandwich haven. Among others came in before him an olde man with a white head, and one that was thought to be little lesse than an hundereth yeares olde. When Maister More saw this aged man he thought it expedient to heare him say his minde in this matter, for being so olde a man it was likely that he knew most of any man in that presence and company. So Maister More called this olde aged man unto him and sayd, 'Father,' sayd he, 'tell me if ye can what is the cause of this great arising of the sande and shelves here about this haven the which sop it up that no shippes can aride here? Ye are the oldest man that I can espie in all this companye, so that, if any man can tell any cause of it, ye of all likelihode can say most in it, or at least wise more than any other man here assembled.' 'Yea forsooth, good maister,' quod this olde man, 'for I am well nigh an hundred yeares olde and no man here in this company anything neare unto mine age.' 'Well, then,' quod Maister More, 'how say you in this matter? What thinke ye to be the cause of these shelves and flattes that stop up Sandwiche haven?' 'Forsooth syr,' quod he, 'I am an olde man. I think Tenterden steeple is the cause of Goodwin Sandes. For I am an old man syr' quod he, 'and I may remember the building of Tenterden Steeple and I may remember when there was no steeple at all there. And before that Tenterden Steeple was in building there was no manner of speaking of any flats or sands that stopped the haven; and therefore I thinke that Tenterden steeple is the cause of the destroying and decaying of Sandwich haven."
Post hoc, propter hoc and this silly old man has been held up to all ensuing ages as an absurdly simple old fellow. But what after all if he should be right in part at least?
Tenterden church, we are told, belonged to the Abbey of St Augustine in Canterbury, which also owned the Goodwin Sands, part, it is said, of the immense domain of Earl Godwin. Now it was in their hands that the money collected throughout Kent for the building and fencing of the coast against the sea had always been placed. We learn that "when the sea had been very quiet for many years without any encroachings," the abbot commuted that money to the building of a steeple and endowing of the church in Tenterden, so that the sea walls were neglected. If this be so, that oldest inhabitant was not such a fool as he seems to look.
I slept under the shadow of Tenterden steeple and very early in the morning set out for Appledore, where I crossed the canal and came into the Marsh. I cannot hope to express my enthusiasm for this strange and mysterious country so full of the music of running water, with its winding roads, its immense pastures, its cattle and sheep and flowers, its far away great hills and at the end, though it has no end, the sea. It mixes with the sea indeed as the sky does, so that no man far off can say this is land or this is water.
It is famous as a fifth part of the world different from its fellows. And indeed, if it resembles anything I know it is not with the wide moors of Somerset, Sedgemoor, or the valley of the Brue, nor with the great windy Fenland in the midst of which Ely rises like a shrine or a sanctuary, I would compare it, but with the Campagna of Rome, whose tragic mystery it seems to have borrowed, at least in part, whose beauty it seems to wear, a little provincially, it is true, and whose majesty it apes, but cannot quite command. It is the Campagna in little; the great and noble mountains, the loveliest in the world are sunk to hills pure and exquisite upon which, too, we may still see the cities, here little towns and villages, as Rye, Winchelsea, Appledore, Lympne or Hythe, dear places of England of my heart, and all between them this mysterious and lowly thing not quite of this world, a graveyard one might think, as the Campagna is, a battlefield as is the Trasimeno plain, a gate and certainly an exit not only out of England but from the world and life itself.
As one wanders about England here and there, one comes to understand that if its landscape is unique in its various charm and soft beauty, it is also inhuman in this, that most often it is without the figure of man, the fields are always empty or nearly always, the hills are uniformly barren of cities or towns or villages, it is a landscape without the gesture of human toil and life, without meaning that is, and we can bear it so. But no man could live in the Marsh for a day without that gesture of human life that is there to be seen upon every side. Lonely as it is, difficult as it is to cross, because of its chains and twisting lines of runnels, man is more visibly our comrade there than anywhere else in England I think, and this though there be but few men through all the Marsh. He and his beasts, his work too, and his songs, redeem the Marsh for us from fear, a fear not quite explicable, perhaps, to the mere passenger, but that anyone who has lingered there during a month of spring will recognise as always at his elbow and only kept out of the soul by the humanity which has redeemed this mysterious country, the shepherd with his flock, the dairyman with his cows, the carter with his great team of oxen in the spring twilight returning from the fields. And then there are the churches, whose towers stand up so strong out of the waters and the mist so that their heads are among the stars, and whose bells are the best music because they tell not only of God and his Saints but of man, of the steading and of home.
Take Appledore, for instance, with its fine old church, with its air of the fourteenth century and its beautiful old ivy grown tower, once a port they say, on the verge of the Marsh; what could be more nobly simple and homely? Within, you may, if you will, find, in spite of everything, all our past, the very altar at which of old was said the Holy Mass, the very altar tomb maybe where, upon Maunday Thursday Christ Himself was laid in the sepulchre, an old rood loft, too, certain ancient screens complete, a little ancient glass. What more can a man want or at least expect from England of my heart? And if he demand something more curious and more rare, at Horn's Place, not a mile away, is a perfect chapel of the fifteenth century which served of old some great steading, where, for a hundred years Mass was perhaps said every day and the Marsh blessed. Or take Snargate with its church of St Dunstan. It, too, has a fine western tower of the fifteenth century, but much of the church dates from the thirteenth, and upon the north chancel roof-beams are heraldic devices, among them an eagle and the initials W.R. And here is a piece of fine old glass in which we may see the Lord Christ. Or take Ivychurch; so noble and lovely a thing is the church that even without it catches the breath, while a whole afternoon is not enough to enjoy its inward beauty. Or take Brenzett, where, it is true, the church has been rebuilt, but where you will still find a noble seventeenth century tomb with its effigies in armour.
It is, however, at Romney, Old Romney and New, that we shall find the best there is to be had I think in this strange country from which the waters have only been barred out by the continual energy of man. We are not surprised to find that New Romney is older than Old Romney, it is almost what might have been expected, but no one can ever have come to these places without wonder at the nobility of what he sees.
At New Romney there were of old five churches, dedicated in honour of St John Baptist, St Laurence, St Martin, St Michael, and St Nicholas, for Romney was, in the time of Edward I., the greatest of the Cinque Ports. It fell when, as we are told, in a great storm the course of the Rother was changed so that it went thereafter to serve Rye, and New Romney fell slowly down so that to-day but one of those five churches remains, that of St Nicholas. But what a glorious church it is, and if the rest were like it, what idea must we have of the splendour of New Romney in the thirteenth century? This great Norman church of St Nicholas with its partly fourteenth century nave, its clerestory, its fine chancel with sedilia and Easter sepulchre, and noble pinnacled tower is perhaps the greatest building in the Marsh. It belonged to the Abbey of Pontigny and was served by its monks who had a cell here, and the town it adorns and ennobles, was the capital of all this district.
Nothing so glorious and so old remains in Old Romney, where the church of St Clement has nothing I think, earlier than the thirteenth century, and little of that, being mainly a building of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and yet it is not to be despised, for where else in the Marsh will you find anything more picturesque or anything indeed more English?
Not at Dymchurch for all its Norman fragments. But Dymchurch is to be visited and to be loved for other reasons than that of beauty. It is the sentinel and saviour of the Marsh, for it holds back the sea from all this country with its great wall, twenty feet high and twenty feet broad and three miles long. Also here we have certain evidence of the Roman occupation of the Marsh, and may perhaps believe that it was Rome which first drained it.
I said that the church of St Nicholas at New Romney was the noblest building in the Marsh. When I said so had I forgotten the church of All Saints at Lydd, which is known as the Cathedral of the Marshes. No, glorious as All Saints is, it has not the antiquity of St Nicholas; it is altogether English and never knew the Norman. For all that, it is a very splendid building with a tower standing one hundred and thirty-two feet over the Marsh, a sign and a blessing. And yet before it I prefer the bell tower, built of mighty timber, aloof from the church, lonely, over the waters at Brookland. All Saints at Lydd belonged to Tintern Abbey, but All Saints at Brookland to St Augustine's at Canterbury, and as its font will tell us it dates from Norman times, for about it the Normans carved the signs of the Zodiac.
Brookland, hard to get at, stands on the great road which runs south- westward out of the Marsh and brings you at last out of Kent into Sussex at Rye. It was there I lingered a little to say farewell. As one looks at evening across that vast loneliness, so desolate and yet so beautiful and infinitely subject to the sky, lying between the hills and sinking so imperceptibly into the sea, one continually asks oneself what is Romney Marsh, by whom was it reclaimed from the all-devouring sea, what forces built it up and gathered from barrenness the infinite riches we see? Was it the various forces of Nature, the racing tides of the straits, some sudden upheaval of the earth, or the tireless energy of men—and of what men? Those seventeen miles of richest pasture which lie in an infinite peace between Appledore and Dungeness, to whom do we owe them and their blessedness? That wall at Dymchurch which saves the marshes, Romney, Welland, Guildford and Denge, who contrived it and first took advantage of those great banks of shingle and of sand which everywhere bar out the great tides of the straits and have thus created and preserved this strange fifth part of the world? Was it the Romans? May we see in Romney Marsh the greatest material memorial of their gigantic energy and art to be found in the western provinces, a nobler and a greater work than the Wall as well as a more lasting? And if this be so, how well is the Marsh named after them, for of all they did materially in our island, this work of reclamation was surely the worthiest to bear their name.
But to these questions there can perhaps never be an answer. Certainly the very aspect of the Marsh recalls nothing so much as the Campagna of Rome, in its nobility, loneliness and infinite subjection to the sun, the clouds, and the sky, so that at evening there we might almost think that Rome herself lay only just beyond that large horizon, and that with an effort we might reach the great gate of San Giovanni e'er darkness fell. It is as though in the Marsh our origins for once and unmistakably were laid bare for us and we had suddenly recognised our home.
RYE AND WINCHELSEA
Out of the vagueness and loneliness of the Marsh, with its strange level light and tingling silence, I climbed one spring evening at sunset into the ancient town of Rye, and at first I could not believe I was still in England. No one I think can wander for more than a few days about the Marsh, among those half deserted churches, far too big for any visible congregation, whose towers in a kind of despair still stand up before God against the sea, raging and plotting far off against the land, without wondering at last into what country he has strayed. In Rye all such doubt is resolved at once, for Rye is pure Italy, or at least it seems so in the evening dusk. When I came up into it in the spring twilight out of the Marsh, I was reminded of one of those Italian cities which stand up over the lean shore of the Adriatic to the south of Rimini, but it was not of them I thought when in the morning sunlight I saw those red roofs piled up one upon another from the plain: it was of Siena. And indeed Rye is in its smaller, less complete and of course less exquisite way very like the most beautiful city in Tuscany. Here, too, as in Siena, the red-roofed houses climb up a hill, one upon another, a hill crowned at last by a great church dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin. But here the likeness, too fanciful for reality, ceases altogether. It is true that Siena looks out beyond her own gardens and vineyards upon a desert, but it is a very different desolation upon which Rye gazes all day long, out of which she rises with all the confidence, grace, and gaiety of a flower, and over which she rules like a queen.
From the Porta Romana of Siena or the outlook of the Servi, you gaze southward across the barren, scorched valleys to the far-away mountains, to Monte Amiata, the fairest mountain of Tuscany. From the Ypres Tower of Rye or the Gun Garden below it, you look only across the level and empty Marsh which sinks beyond Camber Castle imperceptibly into the greyness and barrenness of the sea. To the east, across the flat emptiness, the Rother crawls seaward; to the west across the Marsh, as once across the sea, Winchelsea rises against the woods, and beyond, far away, the darkness of Fairlight hangs like a cloud twixt sea and sky.
Indeed, to liken Rye to any other place is to do her wrong, for both in herself and in that landscape over which she broods, there is enough beauty and enough character to give her a life and a meaning altogether her own. From afar off, from Winchelsea, for instance, in the sunlight, she seems like a town in a missal, crowned by that church which seems so much bigger than it is, gay and warm and yet with something of the greyness of the sea and the sea wind about her, a place that, as so few English places do, altogether makes a picture in the mind, and is at unity with itself.
And from within she seems not less complete, a thing wholly ancient, delightful, with a picturesque and yet homely beauty that is the child of ancientness. Yet how much has Rye lost! The walls of Coeur de Lion have fallen, and only one of the gates remains; but so long as the church and the beautiful strong tower of William de Ypres stand, and the narrow cobbled streets full of old and humble houses climb up and down the steep hill, the whole place is involved in their beauty and sanctity, our hearts are satisfied and our eyes engaged on behalf of a place at once so old and picturesque and yet so neat and tidy and always ready to receive a guest.
A place like Rye, naturally so strong, a steep island surrounded by sea or impassable marsh, must have been a stronghold from very early times; it is in fact obviously old when we first hear of it as a gift, with Winchelsea, of Edward the Confessor's to the Benedictine Abbey of Fecamp just across the grey channel in Normandy. Both Rye and Winchelsea remained within the keeping of the Abbey of Fecamp until, for reasons of State easy to be understood, Henry III. resumed the royal rights in the thirteenth century, compensating the monks of Fecamp with manors in Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire. For before the end of the twelfth century it would seem Rye with Winchelsea had become of so much importance as a port as to have been added to the famous Cinque Ports, Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings. From this time both play a considerable part in the trade and politics of the Channel and the Straits.
It was to enable her to hold herself secure in this business and especially against raids from the sea that the Ypres Tower was built in the time of King Stephen, by William of Ypres, Earl of Kent. It was a watch tower and perhaps a stronghold, but it was never sufficient. Even in 1194 Coeur de Lion permitted the town to wall itself. Nevertheless Louis the Dauphin of France took Rye, and it may well have been this which determined Henry III. to take the town out of the hands of the monks of Fecamp and to hold it himself.
Doubtless Rye's greatest moment was this thirteenth century, nor did she appear much less in the fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth century. But often sacked and burned, the town was practically destroyed by the French in 1378 and 1448, when only the Ypres Tower, part of the church, the Landgate, the Strandgate and the so-called chapel of the Carmelite Friars escaped destruction. But from this blow Rye recovered to play a part, if a small one, in the defeat of the Armada, and though the retreat of the sea, which seems to have begun in the sixteenth century, undoubtedly damaged her, it did not kill her outright as it did Winchelsea, for she had the Rother to help her, and we find her prosperous not only in the time of the Commonwealth, but even to-day, when, with the help of a new harbour at the mouth of the river, she is still able to carry on her trade.
Nothing in fact strikes the visitor to Rye more than the bustle and life of a place obviously so old. All the streets are steep and narrow and the chief of them, the High Street, seems always to be gay and full of business, and is as truly characteristic of Rye as those still and grass-grown ways cobbled and half deserted, which lead up to the noble great church in its curious place.
It is of course to this great sanctuary dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin, that everyone will go first in Rye. It has been called the largest parish church in England, and though this claim cannot be made good, it is in all probability the largest in Sussex, is in fact known as the Cathedral of East Sussex, and if a church became a cathedral by reason of its beauty and size it might rightly claim the title. It is certainly worthy of the most loving attention.
The church of Our Lady at Rye is a great cruciform building with clerestory, transepts, and central tower, but without western doors, the chief entrance being in the north transept. The church is of all dates from the Norman time onward, a very English patchwork, here due to the depredations, not so much of time, as of the French who have so often raided and burnt the town. The oldest part is the tower, which is Norman, as are, though somewhat later, the transepts, where certain details show the Transitional style. In this style again, but somewhat later, is the nave. The chancel and its two chapels are Early English, but with many important Decorated, Perpendicular and modern details, such as the arcade and the windows. The Early English chapel upon the north is that of St Clare, that upon the south is dedicated in honour of St Nicholas. In the south aisle of the nave is an Early English chantry, now used as a vestry. The communion table of carved mahogany is said to have been taken from a Spanish ship at the time of the Armada, but it would seem certainly not to be older than the end of the seventeenth century. The curious clock whose bells are struck by golden cherubs on the north side of the tower, is said to have been a gift of Queen Elizabeth and to be the oldest clock in England still in good order. It is probably of late Caroline construction, but even though it were of the sixteenth century its claim to be the oldest clock now at work in England could not be upheld for a moment, that in Wells Cathedral being far older. The pulpit is of the sixteenth century. In the north aisle is a curious collection of Bibles and cannon balls, and here, too, is a small window with glass by Burne Jones.
To the south-west of the church is the so-called Carmelite Chapel, a late Decorated building. What exactly this was and to whom it belonged, is uncertain; it was not a chapel of Carmelite Friars. The only establishment belonging to that Order within the county of Susses was at Shoreham, founded in honour of the Blessed Virgin, by Sir John de Mowbray in 1316.
So far as we know the only religious to be found in
Rye at the time of the spoliation were the Austin Friars. Their house still stands—a building of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century—on the Conduit Hill. It has passed through many strange uses, among others that of a Salvation Army barracks. It is now the Anglican Church House. This was the only settlement of the Austin Friars in Sussex, and of its origin nothing is known. In 1368 we hear that the prior and convent of the Friars Eremites of St Austin in Rye permitted one of their brethren, a priest, to say Mass daily, at the altar of St Nicholas, in the parish church for the welfare of William Taylour of Rye, and of Agnes his wife. In 1378 the town granted them a place called "le Haltone" near the town ditch. But apart from these two facts their history is altogether wanting.
From the parish church one descends south-east to the Ypres Tower. This watch tower and stronghold was built in the time of King Stephen by William of Ypres, Earl of Kent, and is in many ways the most impressive building left to us in Rye. It is undoubtedly best seen from the river, but it and the garden below it afford a great view over the marshes on a clear day, eastward to the cliffs of Folkestone and westward to Fairlight. In itself it is a plain rectangular building with round towers at the angles, but with nothing of interest within. Yet what would Rye be without it. For many years it was the sole defence of the town.
Most of those who come to Rye enter the town, and with a sudden surprise not to be found elsewhere, by the Landgate upon the north. There were, it is said of old, five gates about the town, but this is the only one left to us. Nothing, or almost nothing, of the walls remain. Doubtless the French destroyed anything in the nature of fortification so far as they could, only the Ypres Tower they failed to pull down or to burn, and this great round towered gateway upon the north—why we do not know?
It is the Landgate which gives to Rye its power of surprise, so that a man coming up from the railway, at sight of it, is suddenly transported into the Middle Age, and in that dream enters and enjoys Rye town, which has never disappointed those who have come in the right spirit. For besides the monuments of which I have spoken there are others of lesser interest, it is true, but that altogether go to make up the charm and delight of this unique place. Among these I will name Mermaid Street where the grass grows among the cobbles and where stands the Mermaid Inn and the half timber house called the Hospital, Pocock's School and Queen Elizabeth's Well. Better still, for me at least, is the life of the river and the shipyards, where, though Rye is now two miles from the sea, ships are still built and the life of the place and its heart are adventured and set upon the great waters.
So alluring indeed is this little town that one is always loath to leave it, one continually excuses oneself from departure. One day I delayed in order to see the famous poem in the old book in the town archives which I already knew from Mr Lucas's book. It is certainly of Henry VIII.'s time, and who could have written it but that unhappy Sir Thomas Wyatt who loved Anne Boleyn—
What greater gryffe may hape Trew lovers to anoye Then absente for to sepratte them From ther desiered joye?
What comforte reste them then To ease them of ther smarte But for to thincke and myndful bee Of them they love in harte?
And sicke that they assured bee Ehche toe another in harte That nothinge shall them seperate Untylle deathe doe them parte?
And thoughe the dystance of the place Doe severe us in twayne, Yet shall my harte thy harte imbrace Tyll we doe meete agayne.
Then one sunny afternoon I went out by the road past Camber Castle across Rye Foreign for Winchelsea on its hill some two miles from Rye to the west.
There is surely nothing in the world quite like Winchelsea. Lovelier by far than Rye, not only in itself, but because of what it offers you, those views of hill and marsh and sea with Rye itself, like I know not what little masterpiece of Flemish art, in the middle distance eastward, Winchelsea is a place never to be left or at worst never to be forgotten. One comes to it from Rye on a still afternoon of spring when the faint shadows are beginning to lengthen, expecting little. In fact, if the traveller be acceptable, capable of appreciating anything so still and exquisite, Winchelsea will appear to him to be, as it is one of the loveliest things left to us in England, place, as Coventry Patmore so well said, in a trance, La Belle an Bois dormant. Nowhere else in England certainly have I found just that exquisite stillness, that air of enchantment, as of something not real, something in a picture or a poem, inexplicable and inexpressible. How spacious it is, and how quiet, full of the sweetness and the beauty of some motet by Byrd. History is little to us in such a place, which is to be enjoyed for its own sake, for its own unique beauty and delight. And yet the history of Winchelsea is almost as unique as is the place itself.
Winchelsea when we first hear of it as given by King Edward Confessor to the monks of Fecamp, was not set upon this hill-top as we see it to-day, but upon an island, low and flat, now submerged some three miles south and east of the present town. Here William the Conqueror landed upon his return from Normandy when he set out to take Exeter and subdue the West; here again two of those knights who murdered St Thomas landed in their pride, hot from the court of Henry their master. Like Rye, its sister, to whom it looked across the sea, Winchelsea was added to the Cinque Ports and was presently taken from the monks of Fecamp by Henry III. It was now its disasters began. In 1236 it was inundated by the sea as again in 1250, when it was half destroyed. Eagerly upon the side of Montfort it was taken after Evesham by Prince Edward, and its inhabitants slain, so that when in 1288 it was again drowned by the sea it was decided to refound the town upon the hill above, then in the possession of Battle Abbey, which the King purchased for this purpose. At that time the hill upon which Winchelsea was built, and still stands, was washed by the sea, and the harbour soon became of very great importance, indeed until the sixteenth century, when the sea began to retire, Winchelsea was of much greater importance than Rye. The retreat of the sea, however, completely ruined it, for it was served by no river as Rye was by the Rother.
The town of Edward I., as we may see to-day, by what time has left us of it, was built in squares, a truly Latin arrangement, the streets all remaining at right angles the one to the other. It had three gates and was defended upon the west, where it was not naturally strong, by a great ditch. It was attacked and sacked by the French as often as Rye, though not always at the same time. Thus in 1377, when Rye was half destroyed, Winchelsea was saved by the Abbot of Battle, only to be taken three years later by John de Vienne, when the town was burnt. No doubt these constant and mostly successful attacks deeply injured the place which, after the sea had begun to retreat in the sixteenth century, at the time of Elizabeth's visit in 1573, only mustered some sixty families. From that time Winchelsea slowly declined till there remains only the exquisite ghost we see to-day.
One comes up out of the Marsh into Winchelsea to-day through the Strand Gate of the time of Edward I., and presently finds oneself in the beautiful and spacious square in which stands the lovely fragment of the church of St Thomas of Canterbury.
This extraordinarily lovely building dates from the fourteenth century. As we see it, it is but a fragment, consisting of the chancel and two side chapels, but as originally planned it would seem to have been a cruciform building of chancel, choir with side chapels, a central tower, transept and nave. It is doubtful, however, whether the nave was ever built, the ruins of the transepts and of two piers of the tower only remain.
I say it was doubtful whether this nave was ever built. It has been asserted, it is true, that it was burnt by the French either in 1380 or in 1449, but it seems more probable that it was never completed owing to the devastation of the Black Death of 1348-9, though certain discoveries made of late would seem to endorse the older theory. Certain it is that until the end of the eighteenth century, there stood to the south-west of the church a great bell tower, a detached campanile, now dismantled, whose stones are said to have been used to build Rye Harbour.
The church, as we have it, is one of the loveliest Decorated buildings in the county; the Perpendicular porch, however, by which we enter does not belong to the church but possibly came here from one of the destroyed churches of Winchelsea, St Giles's or St Leonard's. Within we find ourselves in a great choir or chancel, with a chapel on either hand, that on the right dedicated in honour of St Nicholas and known as the Alard Chantry, that on the left the Lady Chapel known as the Farncombe Chantry. The arcades which divide these chapels from the choir are extraordinarily beautiful, as are the restored sedilia and piscina with their gables and pinnacles and lovely diaper work. The windows, too, are very noble and fine, and rich in their tracery, which might seem to be scarcely English.
In the Chapel of St Nicholas, the Alard Chantry, on the south, are the glorious canopied tombs of Gervase Alard (1300) and Stephen Alard. The first is the finer; it is the tomb of the first Lord High Admiral of England. The sepulchral effigy lies cross-legged with a heart in its hands and a lion at its feet; and about its head two angels once knelt. The whole was doubtless once glorious with colour, traces of which still remain on the beautiful diaper work of the recess. The tomb of Stephen Alard is later, but similar though less rich. Stephen was Admiral of the Cinque Ports in the time of Edward II. Another of the family, Reginald, lies beneath the floor where of old a brass marked his tomb (1354).
In the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, the Farncombe Chantry, are three tombs all canopied with a Knight in chain armour, a Lady, and a young Squire. We are ignorant whose they may be. It is certain that these tombs are older than the church, and they are said to have been brought here from old Winchelsea.
But Winchelsea has other ruins and other memories besides those to be found in the parish church.
The Franciscans, the Grey Friars, were established in Winchelsea very early, certainly before 1253; and when old Winchelsea was destroyed and the new town built on the hill by the King it was agreed that no monastery or friary should be built there save only a house for the Friars Minor. This was erected where now the modern mansion called 'The Friars' stands, the old convent having been pulled down so lately as 1819. A part of the ruined Chapel of the Blessed Virgin remains, however, the choir and apse. Decorated work not much later than the parish church, and of great beauty. Unhappily we know absolutely nothing of the Friars in Winchelsea, except that when the house was suppressed in 1538 it was exceedingly poor.
The Franciscans, however, were not the only Friars in Winchelsea in spite of the agreement made at the foundation of the new town. In 1318 Edward II. granted the Black Friars, the Dominicans, twelve acres on the southern side of the hill. This situation was found inconvenient, and in 1357 the Dominicans obtained six acres "near the town." Nothing, or almost nothing, remains of their house.
Besides these two religious houses, Winchelsea possessed three hospitals, those of St John, St Bartholomew and Holy Cross.
The Hospital of St Bartholomew was near the New Gate on the south-west of the town, and dated from the refounding of Edward. Nothing remains of it, or of the Hospital of Holy Cross, which had existed in old Winchelsea and was set up in the new town also near the New Gate. But the oldest and the most important of the three hospitals was that of St John. A fragment of this remains where the road turns towards Hastings to the north of the churchyard. Close by is the thirteenth- century Court House.
It is always with regret I leave Winchelsea when I must, and even the beautiful road through Icklesham into Hastings will not reconcile one who has known how to love this place, to departure. And yet how fair that road is and how fair is the Norman church of St Nicholas at Icklesham upon the way! The road winds up over the low shore towards Fairlight, ever before one, and at last as one goes up Guestling Hill through a whole long afternoon and reaches the King's Head Inn at sunset, suddenly across the smoke of Hastings one sees Pevensey Level, and beyond, the hills where fell the great fight in which William Duke of Normandy disputed for England with Harold the King. At sunset, when all that country is half lost in the approaching darkness, one seems to feel again the tragedy of that day so fortunate after all, in which once more we were brought back into the full life of Europe and renewed with the energy Rome had stored in Gaul.
THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
It is not often on one's way, even in England of my heart, that one can come upon a place, a lonely hill-side or a city, and say: this is a spot upon which the history of the world was decided; yet I was able on that showery morning, as I went up out of Hastings towards Battle and saw all the level of Pevensey full of rain, to recall two such places in which I had stood already upon my pilgrimage. For I had lingered a whole morning upon the battlefield where the Romans first met and overthrew our forefathers and thus brought Britain within the Empire; while at Canterbury I had been in the very place where, after an incredible disaster, England was persuaded back again out of barbarism into the splendour of the Faith and of civilisation. These places are more than English, they are European sanctuaries, two of the greater sites of the history of Europe. Perhaps as much cannot rightly be said for the hill where the town of Battle stands, the landing-place at Pevensey and the port of Hastings.
And yet I don't know. What a different England it would have been if William of Normandy had failed or had never landed here at all. And if such an England could have endured how changed would have been the whole destiny of Europe. I am not sure after all that we ought not to be as uplifted by the memory of Hastings as we are or should be by the memory of Caesar's advent. At any rate since Hastings was fought and won in the eleventh century any national prejudices that belong wholly to the modern world are quite as much out of place with regard to it as they are with regard to Caesar or St Augustine. And if we must be indignant and remember old injuries that as often as not were sheer blessings, scarcely in disguise, let us reserve our hatred, scorn and contempt for those damned pagan and pirate hordes that first from Schleswig-Holstein and later from Denmark descended upon our Christian country, and for a time overwhelmed us with their brutish barbarism. As for me I am for the Duke of Normandy; without him England were not the England of my heart.
Now the great and beautiful road up out of Hastings, seven miles into Battle, is not only one of the loveliest in Britain, every yard of it is full of Duke William's army, and thence we may see how in its wonderful simplicity all that mighty business which was decided that October morning on the hill-top that for so long Battle Abbey guarded as a holy place, was accomplished. For looking southward over the often steep escarpment, always between three and five hundred feet over the sea plain, we may see Pevensey Castle, the landing, Hastings, the port, and at last come to Battle, the scene of the fight that gave England to the Norman for our enormous good and glory and honour.
I say that the struggle for the English crown between Duke William of Normandy and Harold, King of England, was in no sense of the word a national struggle; on the contrary, it was a personal question fought and decided by the Duke of Normandy and his men, and Harold and his men. Indeed the society of that time was altogether innocent of any impulse which could be called national. That society, all of one piece as it was, both in England and in Gaul, was wholly Feudal, though somewhat less precisely so here than in Normandy. Men's allegiance was not given to any such vague unity as England, but to a feudal lord, in whose quarrel they were bound to fight, in whose victory they shared, and in whose defeat they suffered. The quarrel between King Harold and Duke William was in no sense of the word a national quarrel but a personal dispute in which the feudal adherents of both parties were necessarily involved, the gage being the crown and spoil of England. This is at once obvious when we remember that the ground of William's claim to the throne was a promise received from King Edward personally, unconfirmed by council or witan, but endorsed for his own part by Harold when shipwreck had placed him in Duke William's power. Such were the true elements of the dispute.
It is true that the society of that time was, as I have said, all of one piece both in England and in Gaul, but it is certain that in England that society was less precisely organised, less conscious of itself, less logical in its structure, in a word less real and more barbarous than that of the Normans. The victory of Duke William meant that the sluggish English system would be replaced or at any rate reinvigorated by an energy and an intelligence foreign to it, without which it might seem certain that civilisation here would have fallen into utter decay or have perished altogether. The service of Duke William then, while not so great as that of Caesar and certainly far less than that of St Augustine, was of the same kind; he rescued England from barbarism and brought us back into the full light of Europe. The campaign in which that great service was achieved divides itself into two parts, the first of which comes to an end with the decisive action at Hastings which gave Duke William the crown; the second consists of three great fighting marches, the result of which was the conquest of England. I am only here concerned with the first part of that campaign, and more especially with the great engagement which was fought out upon the hill-top which the ruins of Battle Abbey still mark. Let us consider this.
Harold, the second son of Earl Godwin, was crowned King of England at Westminster upon the feast of the Epiphany in the year 1066. When Duke William heard of it he was both angry and amazed, and at once began to call up his feudatories to lend him aid to enforce his claim to the Crown of England against King Harold. This was not an easy thing to do, nor could it be done at all quickly. It was necessary to gather a great host.
Those lords who owed him allegiance had as often as not to be persuaded or bribed to fulfil their obligation; and they with their followers and dependents were not enough; it was necessary to engage as many as possible of those chiefs who did not own him as lord; these had to be bought by promises of gain and honour. Also a considerable fleet had to be built. All this took time, and Harold was therefore perfectly aware of what Duke William intended, and gathered his forces, both of ships and men, to meet him in the south of England. All through the spring and summer he waited, in vain. Meantime, soon after Easter, a strange portent appeared in the heavens "the comet star which some men call the hairy star," and no man could say what it might mean. It was not this, however, which delayed William; he was not ready. It is possible that had he been able to advance during the summer the whole history of England might have been different. As it was, when autumn was at hand with the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin, Harold's men were out of provisions and weary of waiting; they were allowed to disperse, Harold himself went to London and the fleet beat up into the Thames, not without damage and loss, against the wind, which, had he but known it, now alone delayed the Duke.
But that wind which kept William in port brought another enemy of Harold's to England with some three hundred galleys, Hardrada of Norway, who came to support the claims of Tostig, now his man, King Harold's exiled brother, to Northumbria; for the Northumbrians had rebelled against him, and Harold had acquiesced in their choice of Morkere for lord. Neither Morkere nor his brother Edwin, with their local forces, was able to meet Hardrada with success. They attempted to enter York but at Fulford on the 20th September they were routed, and Hardrada held the great northern capital.
Meanwhile Harold had not been idle. Gathering his scattered forces he marched north with amazing speed, covering the two hundred miles between London and Tadcaster in nine days, to meet this new foe; but this almost marvellous performance left the south undefended. He entered York on September 25th, and on the same day, seven miles from the city at Stamford Bridge, he engaged the enemy and broke them utterly. Three days later William landed at Pevensey.
What could Harold do? He did all that a man could do. William had landed at Pevensey upon Thursday, September 28th. It is probable that Harold heard of it on the following Monday, October 2nd. Immediately he set out for London, which by hard riding he reached, though probably with but a few men, on Friday, October 6th, an amazing achievement, only made possible by the great Roman road between York and London. Upon the following Tuesday and Wednesday he was joined by his victorious forces from the north, who had thus repeated their unequalled feat and marched south again as they had north some two hundred miles in nine days. Upon Wednesday, October 11th, Harold marched out of London at the head of this force, and by the evening of October 13th—a day curiously enough to be kept later as the feast of St Edward the Confessor—this heroic force had marched in forty-eight hours some sixty miles across country, and was in position upon that famous hill some two hours from the coast, overlooking the landing- place of William at Pevensey and the port he had seized at Hastings. That great march has, I think, never been equalled by any British army before or since.
It might seem strange that William, who had landed at Pevensey upon the 28th of September, had not advanced at all from the sea-coast when Harold and his men appeared upon that hill after their great march from York upon October 13th. But in fact William, Norman as he was, had a very clear idea of what he intended to do. He left little to chance. He landed his men at Pevensey, seized upon Hastings and beached his ships; then for a whole fortnight he awaited the hot and weary return of Harold. Harold appeared upon the evening of October 13th. Upon the following day, a Saturday, the battle William had expected was fought, Harold was slain and his heroic force destroyed.
The story of that day is well known. Harold's forces were drawn up upon the ridge where the ruins of Battle Abbey now stand. William, upon the thirteenth, had marched out of Hastings and had occupied the hill to the east called Telham, where to-day stands Telham Court. In those days probably no village or habitation of any sort occupied either of these heights; one of the chroniclers calls the battlefield the place of "the Hoar Apple Tree."
It is said that the night of October 13th was passed by Harold and his men in feasting and in jollity, while the Normans confessed their sins and received absolution. However that may be, in the full daylight, about nine o'clock of Saturday, October 14th, the battle was joined.
This tremendous affair which was to have such enormous consequences was opened by the minstrel Taellefer, who had besought leave of Duke William to strike the first blow. Between the two armies he rode singing the Song of Roland, and high into the air he flung his lance and caught it three times e'er he hurled it at last into the amazed English, to fall at last, slain by a hundred javelins as he rode back into the Norman front.
Thus was begun the most famous battle ever fought in England. It endured without advantage either way for some six hours till the Norman horse, flung back from the charge, fell into the Malfosse in utter confusion, and the day seemed lost to the Normans. But Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, retrieved it and from that time, about three o'clock, the Normans began to have the advantage. The battle seems to have been decided at last by two clever devices attributed to William himself. He determined to break Harold's line, and since he had not been able to do this by repeated charges, he determined to try a stratagem. Therefore he ordered his men to feign flight, and thus to draw the English after them in pursuit. This was successfully done, and when the English followed they were easily surrounded and slain. William's other device is said to have been that of shooting high into the air so that the arrows might turn and fall as from the sky upon the foe. This stratagem is said to have been the cause of Harold's death; for it was an arrow falling from on high and piercing him through the right eye that killed him or so grievously wounded him that he was left for dead, to be finally killed by Eustace of Boulogne and three other knights.
With Harold down there can have been little hope of victory left to his men, and indeed before night William had planted the Pope's banner where Harold's had floated and held the battlefield. There he supped among the dead, and having spent Sunday, October 15th, in burying the fallen, he set out not for London, but for Dover, for his simple and precise plan was to secure all the entries into England from the continent before securing the capital. When he had done this he marched up into England by the Watling Street, burned Southwark, crossed the Thames at Wallingford, received there the submission of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and at Berkhampstead the submission of London and the offer of the Crown which he received at Westminster at Mass upon Christmas Day; twelve days less than a year after Harold had been crowned in the same place.
One comes to Battle to-day along that great and beautiful road, high up over the sea plain, which still seems full with memories of the Norman advance from Hastings, thinking of all that great business. If one comes up on Tuesday, upon payment of sixpence, one is admitted to the gardens of the house in which lie the ruins of the abbey William founded in thankfulness to God for his victory, the high altar of which was set upon the very spot where Harold fell: "Hic Harold Rex interfectus est."
It was while William was encamped upon Telham Hill, expecting the battle of the morrow, that he vowed an abbey to God if He gave him the victory. He was heard by a monk of Marmoutier, a certain William, called the Smith, who, when Duke William had received the crown at Westminster, reminded him of his promise. The King acknowledged his obligation and bade William of Marmoutier to see to its fulfilment. The monk thereupon returned to Marmoutier, and choosing four others, brought them to England; but finding the actual battlefield unsuited for a monastery, since there was no water there, he designed to build lower down towards the west. Now when the King heard of it he was angry and bade them build upon the field itself, nor would he hear them patiently when they asserted there was no water there, for, said he: "If God spare me I will so fully provide this place that wine shall be more abundant there than water is in any abbey in the land." Then said they that there was no stone. But he answered that he would bring them stone from Caen. This, however, was not done, for a quarry was found close by. Also the King richly endowed the house, giving it all the land within a radius of a league, and there the abbot was to be absolute lord free of bishop and royal officer, [Footnote: The unique privileges of the abbot of Battle included the right to "kill and take one or two beasts with dogs" in any of the King's forests.] and very many manors beside. Yet ten years elapsed before the Abbey of Battle was sufficiently completed to receive an abbot. In 1076, however, Robert Blancard, one of the four monks chosen by William of Marmoutier, was appointed, but he died e'er he came to Battle. Then one Gausbert was sent from Marmoutier, and he came with four of his brethren and was consecrated "Abbot of St Martin's of the place of Battle." Beside the extraordinary gifts and privileges which the Conqueror had bestowed upon the Abbey in his lifetime, upon his death he bequeathed to it his royal embroidered cloak, a splendid collection of relics and a portable altar containing relics, possibly the very one upon which Harold had sworn in his captivity in Normandy to support his claim to England. William is said to have intended the monastery to be filled with sixty monks. We do not know whether this number ever really served there. In 1393, but that was after the Black Death, there appear to have been some twenty-seven, and in 1404 but thirty. In 1535, on the eve of the Suppression, Battle Abbey was visited by the infamous Layton who reported to Thomas Cromwell that "all but two or three of the monks were guilty of unnatural crimes and were traitors," adding that the abbot was an arrant churl and that "this black sort of develish monks I am sorry to know are past amendment." Little more than two years later the abbot surrendered the abbey and received a pension of one hundred pounds. The furniture and so forth of the house was then very poor. "So beggary a house I never see, nor so filthy stuff," Layton writes to Wriothesley. "I will not 20s. for all the hangings in this house...." In August 1538 the place was granted to Sir Anthony Browne, who is said to have removed the cloak of the Conqueror and the famous Battle Abbey Roll to Cowdray. This rascal razed the church and cloisters to the ground, and made the abbot's lodging his dwelling. It is said that one night as he was feasting a monk appeared before him and solemnly cursed him, prophesying that his family should perish by fire. To the fulfilment of this curse Cowdray bears witness even to this day.
What spoliation, time and neglect have left of the Abbey is beautiful, especially the great fourteenth century gateway which faces the Market Green. Nothing save the foundations is left of the great church. From the terrace, doubtless, we look across the battlefield, but all is so changed, the bleak hill-top has become a superb garden, that it is impossible to realise still less to reconstruct the battle, and indeed since we can only visit the place amid a crowd of tourists, our present discomfort makes any remembrance of the fight or of the great and solemn abbey which for so long turned that battlefield into a sanctuary impossible.
Nor indeed are we more fortunate in the parish church which was originally built by Abbot Ralph in the twelfth century. It has been so tampered with and restored that little remains that is unspoilt. There, and I think most fittingly, lies that Sir Anthony Browne who got Battle Abbey from the King who had stolen it.
Now when I had seen all this I went on my way, and because I was unhappy on account of all that theft and destruction, and because where once there had been altar and monks to serve it, now there was none, and because what had once been common to us all was now become the pleasure of one man, I went up out of Battle into the hills by the great road through the woods and so on and up by Dallington and Heathfield and so down and down and down all a summer day across the Weald till at evening I came to Lewes where I slept. I remember nothing of that day but the wind and the hills and the great sun of May which went ever before me into the west so that I soon forgot to be sorry and rejoiced as I went.
LEWES AND SIMON DE MONTFORT
I do not know of a more beautiful town than Lewes in all the wide south country; it is beautiful not only in itself but in its situation, set there upon an isolated hill over the Ouse and surrounded, as though they were great natural bastions set there in her defence, by Malling Hill on the north, Mount Caburn on the west, the broken heights of the Downs to the south, through which the Ouse flows towards Newhaven and the sea, and on the east by Mount Harry under which was fought the very famous battle of Lewes in which Simon de Montfort took his king prisoner.
The natural strength and beauty of this situation has been much increased by the labour of man, for Lewes is set as it were all in a garden out of which it rises, a pinnacle of old houses crowned by the castle upon its half precipitous hill. It is a curiously un-English vision you get from the High Street for instance, looking back upon the hill or from the little borgo of Southover or from Cliffe, and yet there can be few more solidly English places than Lewes.
That the Romans had here some sort of settlement there can be no doubt, that Lewes was a place of habitation in the time of the Saxons is certain, indeed in Athelstan's day it boasted of two mints, but the town, as it appears to us in history, grew up about the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras under the protection of the Castle, and to these it owes everything except its genesis.
Whatever Lewes may have been before the Conquest that revolution saw it pass into the power of one of the greatest of William's nobles, that William de Warenne who was his son-in-law. It was he and his wife Gundrada, generally supposed to be the Conqueror's daughter, who founded the Priory of St Pancras at Southover. It is probable, even certain, that a chapel, possibly with some sort of religious house attached to it, existed here before William de Warenne obtained from the Conqueror the rape and town of Lewes. In any case it can have been of small importance. But within ten years of the Conquest William de Warenne and his wife determined to found an important monastery at the gates of their town, and with this intention they set out on pilgrimage for Rome to consult, and to obtain the blessing of, the Pope. They got so far as Burgundy when they found that it was impossible to go on in safety on account of the war between the Pope and the Emperor. When they found themselves in this predicament they were not far from the great Abbey of SS. Peter and Paul at Cluny.
Now the Cluniac Congregation, the first great reform of the Benedictine Order, had been founded there in the diocese of Macon in 910, and it was then at the height of its power and greatness. Cluny was the most completely feudal of the orders, for the Cluniac monks were governed by Priors each and all of whom were answerable only to the Abbot of Cluny himself, while every monk in the Order had to be professed by him, that mighty ecclesiastic at this time can have been master of not less than two thousand monks. Cluny's boast was its school and the splendour of its ceremonies and services; God was served with a marvellous dignity and luxury undreamed of before, and unequalled since Cluny declined. It was to this mother house of the greatest Congregation of the time that William de Warenne turned with his wife when war prevented them on the road to Rome, and we cannot wonder that they were so caught by all they saw that they determined to put the monastery they proposed to build under the Abbot of Cluny and to found a Cluniac Priory at the gates of their town of Lewes. They therefore approached the Abbot with the request that he would send three or four of his monks to start the monastery. They did not find him very willing; for the essence of Cluny was discipline, the discipline of an army, and doubtless the Abbot feared that, so far away as Sussex seemed, his monks would be out of his reach and might become but as other men. But at last the Conqueror himself joined his prayers to those of William de Warenne, and in 1076 the Abbot of Cluny sent the monk Lanzo and three other brethren to England, and to them William de Warenne gave the little church of St Pancras especially rebuilt for their use with the land about it, called the Island, and other lands sufficient to support twelve monks. But the Abbot of Cluny had no sooner agreed to establish his congregation in England than he seems to have repented. At any rate he recalled Prior Lanzo and kept him so long that William de Warenne, growing impatient, seriously thought of transferring his foundation to the Benedictines; but at length Prior Lanzo returned and all was arranged as was at first intended. The monastery flourished apace and grew not only in wealth but in piety. Prior Lanzo proved an excellent ruler, and the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes became famous for its sanctity through all England.
To the same William de Warenne Lewes owes the foundation or the refoundation of its Castle the second centre about which the town grew.
A glance at the map will assure us that Lewes could not but be a place of great importance, increasing with England in wealth and strength. The South Downs stand like a vast rampart back from the sea, guarding South England from surprise and invasion. But this great wall is broken at four different places, at Arundel in the west where the Arun breaks through the chalk to find the sea, at Bramber where the Adur passes seaward, at Lewes where the Ouse goes through, and at Wilmington where the Cuckmere winds through the hills to its haven. Each of these gaps was held and guarded by a castle while the level eastward of Beachy Head was held by Pevensey. Of these castles I suppose the most important to have been Lewes, for it not only held the gap of the Ouse but the pass by Falmer and in some sort the Cuckmere Valley also.
But the great day of Lewes Castle was that of Simon de Montfort—I shall deal with that later. Here it will be enough to point out that only a fragment of the great building with its double keep, whose ruin we see to-day, dates from the time of the first De Warenne, the rest being a later work largely of Edward I's. time.
Let me now return to the Priory which, in the development of the town, played a part at least as great as that of the Castle.
The Priory had always been famous for its piety, and in 1199, Hugh, who had been Prior there till 1186, was raised to be Abbot of Cluny itself. This is interesting and important for we have thus an ex-Prior of Lewes as Abbot of Cluny during the great dispute between the Order and the Earl of Warenne. In 1200 Lewes was without a Prior, and Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander. For some reason or other De Warenne refused to accept him and even went so far as to claim that the appointment lay with him, an impossible pretension. Yet even within the Priory he is said to have won support, certain of the monks claiming that, save for a tribute of one hundred shillings a year to Cluny, they were independent. The Pope was appealed to and he of course gave a clear decision, not in the English way of compromise, which is the way of a barbarian and a coward, but like an honest man deciding 'twixt right and wrong. His judgment was wholly in favour of the Abbot of Cluny. The Earl then began to bluster and to attempt to appeal beyond the Pope; he even dared to place armed men at the Priory gate and to stop all communications with Cluny. The Abbot replied by an interdict upon Lewes, and things were in this confusion when the Pope appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Chichester and Ely to hear what De Warenne had to say in excuse for his violence. The Abbot of Cluny himself came over and was insulted in Lewes by De Warenne's men. In appointing English judges to hear the case the Pope must have known that all would end in a compromise. At any rate this is what happened, and it was decided that in future, when a vacancy occurred, the Abbot of Cluny should nominate two candidates of whom De Warenne should choose one for Prior. This ridiculous judgment decided nothing. Of two things, one; either the Abbot was right or he was wrong. If he were right why should he forego his claim, to satisfy De Warenne who was wrong? A decision was what was needed. In 1229 the Pope rightly declared the compromise null and void, and the Abbot of Cluny regained his rights. At once the moral condition of the house improved, and when it was visited in 1262 everything was reported to be satisfactory, and unlike any other Cluniac house in England this of Lewes was not in debt.
The turning point in the history of the Priory would seem to have been the one great moment in the story of the town; the appalling affair in which it was involved by Simon de Montfort in 1264 when he took the town, then Henry III.'s headquarters, and captured the King and young Prince Edward. It would seem that De Montfort's soldiers had very little respect for holy places, for we read that not only were the altars defiled but the very church was fired and hardly saved from destruction.
The quarrel between the King and his barons would seem, too, to have involved the monks, for we find the sub-prior and nine brethren were expelled from Lewes for conspiracy and faction and went to do penance in various houses of the Congregation. Indeed such was the general collapse here that before the end of the century the Priory was practically bankrupt.
That Lewes suffered severely from the Black Death of 1348-49 is certain, but we know very little about it, and indeed the history of the house is negligible until, in the beginning of the fifteenth century the whole system of Cluny was called in question and it was claimed on behalf of Lewes that it should be raised to an abbacy with the power to profess monks. It will be remembered that the Abbot of Cluny—the only Abbot within the Congregation—alone could profess, and in times of war, such as the fourteenth century, this must have been very inconvenient. Indeed we read of men who had been monks their whole life long, but had never been professed at all. It is therefore not surprising that such a claim should at last have been put forward. It is equally not surprising that such a claim was not allowed. The Abbot of Cluny refused to raise Lewes to the rank of an abbey, but he granted the Prior the privilege of professing his monks; this in 1410. So things continued till in 1535, the infamous Layton was sent by Thomas Cromwell to inquire into the state of the Priory of Lewes, to nose out any scandal he could and to invent what he could not find. His methods as applied to Lewes are notorious for their insolence and brutality. He professes to have found the place full of corruption and rank with treason. And in this he was wise, for his master Cromwell wanted the house for himself. Upon November 16, 1537, the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes was surrendered. It was then served by a Prior and twenty-three monks and eighty servi; and it and its lands were granted by the King to Thomas Cromwell.
Such was the end of the most famous Cluniac house in England, the sanctuary founded by that De Warenne who had built up Lewes between his Castle on the height and his monastery in the vale. Almost nothing remains to-day of that great and splendid building, but in 1845, in building the railway, the coffins of the founders De Warenne and his wife Gundrada were found. These now lie in St John's Church, here in Southover close by, which belonged to the Priory. It was originally a plain Norman building of which the nave remains, the rest of the church as we see it, being for the most part either Perpendicular or altogether modern.
Of course the Priory of St Pancras was not alone in the fate that befell it at the hands of the Tudor in 1537. The only other religious house in Lewes suffered a like fate. This was the convent of the Franciscans, dedicated, as most authorities agree, in honour of Our Lady and St Margaret. The Friars Minor were established in Lewes before 1249, and their convent was one of the last to be surrendered, in 1538.
From St John's Church, the visitor, not without a glance at the old half timber house close by said to have been the residence of Anne of Cleves, will pass up to the High Street where, under the Castle, stands the parish church of St Michael, the only ancient part of which is the round Norman tower, a rare thing. A fourteenth century brass to one of the De Warennes is to be seen within. Further west is the Transitional Norman church of St Anne, with curious capitals on the south side of the nave. Here is a fine basket-work Norman font, and in the south aisle at the east end a vaulted chapel. To the north of the chancel is a recessed tomb.
But it is not in the churches we have in Lewes that we shall to-day find the symbol, as it were, of that old town, still so fair a thing, which held the passage of the Ouse through the Downs and in the thirteenth century witnessed the great battle in which Simon de Montfort, mystic and soldier, defeated and took captive his king. For that we must go to the Castle ruin that crowns Lewes as with a battlement.
The Castle is reached from the High Street near St Michael's church by the Castlegate. It was founded, as I have said, by the first De Warenne, but the gate-house by which we enter is later, dating from King Edward's time, the original Norman gate being within. The Castle had two keeps, a rare feature. Only one of these remains, reached by a winding steep way, and of this only two of the fine octagonal towers are left to us. These two are thirteenth century works. From the principal tower, now used as a museum, we may get the best view of the famous battlefield under Mount Harry, one of the most famous sites of the thirteenth century in England, for the battle that was fought there seemed to have decided everything; in fact it decided nothing, for its result was entirely reversed at Evesham by the military genius of Prince Edward.
The cause contested upon these noble hills to the north-west of Lewes is one which continually recurs all through English history; the cause of the Aristocracy against the Crown. The monarchies of western Europe, which slowly emerged from the anarchy of the Dark Ages and helped to make the Middle Age the glorious and noble thing it was, are, if we consider them spiritually at least, democratic weapons, or rather, politically, they seem to sum up the national energy and to express it. In them was vested, and this as of divine right, the executive. Without the Crown nothing could be done, no writ issued, no fortress garrisoned. In the Crown was gathered all the national ends, it was a symbol at once of unity and of power. Against this glorious thing in England we see a constant and unremitting rebellion on the part of the aristocracy. It was so in the time of King John when the rascal barons curbed and broke the central government; it was so in the time of Henry III. when Simon de Montfort led, and for a time successfully, the rebellion. It has been so always and not least in the Great Rebellion of the seventeenth century so falsely represented as a democratic movement, when the parvenu aristocracy founded upon the lands and wealth of the raped Church in the sixteenth century, broke the Crown up and finally established in England a puppet king, a mere Venetian Doge incapable, as we have seen in the last few years, of defending the people against an unscrupulous and treasonous plutocracy led by a lawyer as certainly on the make as Thomas Cromwell. The infamous works of such men as these have most often been done under the hypocritical and lying banner of the rights of the people as though to gain his ends the devil should bear the cross of Christ. It is so to-day; it was so in the time of Simon de Montfort.
I have said that the King was the fountain of all power in the England of Simon; it was therefore his supreme object to get possession of the King's body that he might have control of the executive machinery of the country and thus in fact be king de facto. It was this which he achieved upon the battlefield of Lewes in 1264.
For some ten years before that battle the Barons of England had been restless under the yoke of the central government, the Crown, which stood not for them but for us all. They had already wrung from Henry III. under compulsion, when he was within their power and not a free agent, certain concessions which now he refused to confirm to them. They called him liar and covered him with the same abuse that their successors hurled at Charles I.; but Henry stood firm, he refused what had been dragged from him by force, and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, raised an army not from the people but from his own feudal adherents and his friends and took the field, striking into the valley of the Severn, where he seized Hereford, Gloucester, Worcester and Bridgnorth with their castles. Then he marched straight upon London where, among the Guilds, he had many adherents and friends. War seemed inevitable, but, as it happened, a truce was called, and the question which Simon had made an excuse for his rising, the question of the King's refusal to confirm the grant of privileges wrung from him by force, was submitted for decision to St Louis of France, undoubtedly the most reverent, famous, and splendid figure of that day. St Louis, unlike an Englishman, decided not with a view to peace as though justice were nothing and right an old wives' tale, but according to law and his conscience, honestly and cleanly before God like an intelligent being. Of two things one, either the King was right or he was wrong. St Louis decided that the King was right, and this upon January 23rd, 1264.
Simon refused to abide by the decision. This man in his own conception was above law and honour and justice, he was the inspired and privileged servant of God. In this hallucination he deceived himself even as Oliver Cromwell did later and equally for his own ends. He, too, would break the Crown and himself govern England. He, too, was brutal beyond bearing, proud and insolent with his inferiors, imperious even to God, a great man, but one impossible to suffer in any state which is to endure, a dangerous tyrant.
This great mystical soldier at once took the field, and when Henry returned from Amiens, where the court of St Louis had sat, he found all England up, the Cinque Ports all hot for Simon, London ponderous in his support, and in all south-eastern England but one principle fortress still in loyal hands, that of Rochester.
North and west of London, however, things were less disastrous, and Henry's first move was to secure all this and to cut off London, the approach to which he held on the south-east in spite of everything, since he commanded Rochester, from the Midlands and the West. Simon's answer was the right one; he struck at Rochester and laid siege to it. Down upon him came King Henry to relieve it and was successful. Simon swept back upon London, there he gathered innumerable levies and again advanced into the south against the King.
Henry having relieved Rochester, marched also into the south, doubtless intent upon the reduction of the Cinque ports; for this, however, Simon gave him no time. He came thundering down, half London weltering behind him, across the Weald, and Henry, wheeling to meet him, came upon the 12th of May up the vale of Glynde and occupied Lewes. On the following day Simon appeared at Fletching in the vale of the Weald, some nine miles north of Lewes; there he encamped. Very early in the morning of the 14th May, Simon arrayed his troops and began his march southward upon the royal army. Dawn was just breaking when his first troopers came over the high Down and saw Lewes in the morning mist, the royal banners floating from the Castle—all still asleep. Slowly and at his ease Simon ordered his men. Upon the north, conspicuously, he set his litter with his standard above it and about it massed the raw levies of London. Upon the south he gathered the knights and men-at-arms led by the young Earl of Gloucester. As for himself he remained with the reserve. Then when all was ready he gave the order and both wings, north and south, began to advance upon the town "hoping to find their enemies still abed."