ENGLAND of my HEART
WITH MANY ILLUSTRATIONS BY GORDON HOME
TO MY FRIEND O.K.
England of my heart is a great country of hill and valley, moorland and marsh, full of woodlands, meadows, and all manner of flowers, and everywhere set with steadings and dear homesteads, old farms and old churches of grey stone or flint, and peopled by the kindest and quietest people in the world. To the south, the east, and the west it lies in the arms of its own seas, and to the north it is held too by water, the waters, fresh and clear, of the two rivers as famous as lovely, Thames and Severn, of which poets are most wont to sing, as Spenser when he invokes the first:
"Sweete Themmes runne softly till I end my song";
or Dryden when he tells us of the second:
"The goodly Severn bravely sings The noblest of her British kings, At Caesar's landing what we were, And of the Roman conquest here...."
Within England of my heart, in the whole breadth of her delight, there is no industrial city such as infests, ruins, and spoils other lands, and in this she resembles her great and dear mother Italy. Like her, too, she is full of very famous towns scarcely to be matched for beauty and ancientness in the rest of the world, and their names which are like the words of a great poet, and which it is a pleasure to me to recite, are Canterbury, Chichester, Winchester, Salisbury, Bath, Wells, Exeter, and her ports, whose names are as household words, even in Barbary, are Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Falmouth, and Bristol. All these she may well boast of, for what other land can match them quite?
But there is a certain virtue of hers of which she is perhaps unaware, that is nevertheless among her greatest delights: I mean her infinite variety. Thus she is a true country, not a province; indeed, she is made up of many counties and provinces, and each is utterly different from other, and their different genius may be caught by the attentive in their names, which are Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire. Her variety thus lies in them and their dear, and let us hope, immortal differences and characteristics, their genius that is, which is as various as their scenery. For England of my heart not only differs fundamentally from every other country of the known world, but from itself in its different parts, and that radically. Thus in one part you have ranges of chalk-hills, such as no other land knows, so regular, continuous, and tremendous withal, that you might think some army of archangels—and such might well abide there—had thrown them up as their vast and beautiful fortifications, being good Romans and believing in the value of such things, and not as the heathen despising them. These chalk downs are covered, as indeed becomes things so old, with turf, the smoothest, softest, and sweetest under the sun.
There are other hills also that catch the breath, and these be those of the west. They all bear the beautiful names of home, as Mendip, Quantock, Brendon, and Cotswold. And as there are hills, so there are plains, plains uplifted, such as that great silent grassland above Salisbury, plains lonely, such as the Weald and the mysterious marsh of Romney in the east by which all good things go out of England, as the legions went, and, as, alas, the Faith went too, another Roman thing many hundred years ago. There is also that great marsh in the west by the lean and desolate sea, more mysterious by far, whence a man may see far off the great and solemn mountains of another land. By that marsh the Faith came into England of my heart, and there lies in ruin the greatest of its shrines in loving but alien hands, and desolate.
I have said nothing of the valleys: they are too many and too fair, from the fairest of all through which Thames flows seaward, to those innumerable and more beloved where are for sure our homes. I say nothing of the rivers, for who could number them? Yet I will tell you of some if only for the beauty of their names, passing the names of all women but ours, as Thames itself, and Medway, Stour, and Ouse and Arun and Rother; Itchen and Test, Hampshire streams; and those five which are like the fingers of an outstretched hand about Salisbury in the meads, Bourne and Avon and Wylye and Nadder and Ebble; and those of the West, Brue, which is holiest of all, though all be holy, Exe and Barle, Dart and Taw, Fal under the sloping woods, Tamar, which is an eastern girdle to a duchy, and Camel, which kissed the feet of Iseult, and is lost ere it finds the sea.
Of the uplifted moorlands which are a part of the mystery of the west, of the forests, of the greenwood, of the meads, of the laughing coast, white as with dawn in the east, darkling in the west, I know not how to speak, for in England of my heart we take them for granted and are satisfied. They fill all that quiet and fruitful land with their own joy and beneficence, and are a part of God's pleasure. Because of them the name of England of my heart might be but Happiness, or—as for ages we have named that far-off dusky Arabia,—Anglia Felix.
And yet, perhaps, the chief thing that remains with the mere sojourner in this country of mine, the true Old England, is that in the whole breadth of it, it is one vast graveyard. Do you not know those long barrows that cast their shadows at evening upon the lonely downs, those round tumuli that are dark even in the sun, where lie the men of the old time before us, our forefathers? Do you not know the grave of the Roman, the mystery that seems to lurk outside the western gate of the forgotten city that was once named in the Roman itinerary and now is nothing? Do you not know many an isolated hill often dark with pines, but, more often still, lonely and naked where they lie of whom we are come, with their enemies, and they call the place Battlebury or Danesbury, or for ever deserted like all battlefields it is nameless? If you know not these you know not England of my heart, though you know those populous graveyards about the village churches where the grass is so lush and green and the dead are more than the living; though you know that marvellous tomb, the loveliest thing in all my country, where the first Earl of Salisbury lies in the nave of the great church he helped to build; though you know that wonder by the roadside where Somerset and Wiltshire meet; though you know the beauty that is fading and crumbling in the little church under the dark woods where the dawn first strikes the roots of the Quantock Hills.
There is so much to know, and all must be got by heart, for all is a part of us and of that mighty fruitful and abiding past out of which we are come, which alone we may really love, and which holds for ever safe for us our origins.
After all, we live a very little time, the future is not ours, we hold the present but by a brittle thread; it is the past that is in our hearts. And so it is that to go afoot through Southern England is not less than to appeal to something greater and wiser than ourselves, out of which we are come, to return to our origins, to appeal to history, to the divine history of the soul of a people.
There is a genius loci. To look on the landscapes we have always known, to tread in the footsteps of our fathers, to follow the Legions down the long roads, to trudge by the same paths to the same goal as the pilgrims, to consider the silence of the old, old battlefields, to pray in forgotten holy places to almost forgotten deities, is to be made partakers of a life larger and more wonderful than that of the individual, is to be made one with England. For in the quietness of those ancient countrysides was England made by the men who begat us. And even as a man of the Old Faith when he enters one of his sanctuaries suddenly steps out of England into a larger world, a universal country; so we in the earthwork by Thannington or the Close of Canterbury, or upon the hill where Battle Abbey stood, surely have something added to us by the genius of the place, indeed pass out of ourselves into that which is England, a splendour and a holiness beyond ourselves, which cannot die.
It is in such places we may best face reality, for they lend to history all its poetry and, as Aristotle knew, there is more truth in poetry than in history. And this, at least to-day, is perhaps the real value and delight of our churches; I mean those great sanctuaries we call Cathedrals which stand about England like half-dismantled castles and remind us more poignantly than any other thing of all we are fain to forget. There are the indelible words of our history most clearly written. Consider the bricks of S. Martin's, the rude stones of the little church of Bradford, the mighty Norman work of Romsey, the Early English happiness of Salisbury, the riches and security of the long nave of Winchester. Do we not there see the truth; can stones lie or an answer be demanded of them according to folly? And if a man would know the truth, let us say, of the thirteenth century here in England, where else will he find any answer? Consider it then, the joy as of flowers, the happiness as of Spring, in that architecture we call Early English, which for joy and happiness surpasses any other in the world. The men who carved those shafts and mouldings and capitals covering them with foliage could not curb their invention nor prevent their hands from beauty and joy. They forgot everything in their delight, even the great logic of design, even to leap up to God, since He was here in the meadows in this garden of ours that He has given us and blest.
But these great buildings, scarcely to be understood by us save by the grace of God and now a little lonely too, missing so many of their sisters, and certainly in an alien service, are how much less appealing and less holy than those village churches so humble and so precious that everywhere ennoble and glorify England of my heart. They stand up still for our souls before God, and are to be loved above all I think—and even the humblest of them is to be loved—for the tombs they shelter within and without. More than any Cathedral they touch in us some profound and fundamental mystery common to us all, that is the life and the energy of the Christian soul. They, above all, express England, England of my heart, in them we find utterance, are joined with the great majority and together approach, in their humility, beauty, and quietness, God who has loved us all and given us England therein and thereby to serve Him in delight. They kneel with the hind and now as ever in the name of Our Lord. It is enough. The Cathedrals are haunted by the Old Faith, and by Rome, whose they are: but the village churches are our own. Nor though we be of the Old Faith let us be too proud to salute their humility. They stand admittedly in the service of man, and this at least is admirable in the Church of England of my heart—I mean her humility. To her, unlike Rome, absolute Truth has not been revealed; she is so little sure of anything that she will condemn no man, no, not one of her officers, though he deny the divinity of Christ. She desires only to serve: and if any man, even an atheist, can approach the God he ignorantly denies most easily through her open gates, she will not say him nay, nor deny him, nor send him away. It is her genius. Let us salute its humility.
And so I look upon England of my heart and am certain I am of the civilisation of Christ. He hath said, ye shall not die but live— England blossoms in fulfilment. He hath founded his Church, whose children we are, whether we will or no, and after a far wandering presently shall return homeward. For those words endure and will endure; more living than the words even of our poets, more lasting than the cliffs of the sea, or the rocks of the mountains, or the sands of the deserts, because they are as the flowers by the wayside.
Therefore England is not merely what we see and are; it is all the past and all the future, it is inheritance; the fields we have always ploughed, the landscape and the sea, the tongue we speak, the verse we know by heart, all we hope for, all we love and venerate, under God. And there abides a sense of old times gone, of ancient law, of friendship, of religious benediction.
CHAPTER I TO CANTERBURY THE PILGRIMS' ROAD TO DARTFORD
CHAPTER II THE PILGRIMS' ROAD TO ROCHESTER
CHAPTER III THE PILGRIMS' ROAD—ROCHESTER
CHAPTER IV THE PILGRIMS' ROAD TO FAVERSHAM
CHAPTER V THE PILGRIMS' ROAD TO CANTERBURY
CHAPTER VI THE CITY OF ST THOMAS
CHAPTER VII CAESAR IN KENT
CHAPTER VIII THE WEALD AND THE MARSH
CHAPTER IX RYE AND WINCHELSEA
CHAPTER X THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
CHAPTER XI LEWES AND SIMON DE MONTFORT
CHAPTER XII THE DOWNS
CHAPTER XIII THE WEALD
CHAPTER XIV TO ARUNDEL AND CHICHESTER
CHAPTER XV CHICHESTER
CHAPTER XVI SELSEY, BOSHAM AND PORCHESTER
CHAPTER XVII SOUTHAMPTON
CHAPTER XVIII BEAULIEU AND CHRISTCHURCH
CHAPTER XIX THE NEW FOREST AND ROMSEY ABBEY
CHAPTER XX WINCHESTER
CHAPTER XXI SELBORNE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
CHEYNEY COURT AND THE CLOSE GATE, WINCHESTER
DARTFORD CHURCH AND BRIDGE
THE GATEWAY OF THE MONASTERY CLOSE, ROCHESTER
CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL FROM CHRISTCHURCH GATE
WEST GATE, CANTERBURY
ON THE STOUR NEAR CANTERBURY
A CORNER OF ROMNEY MARSH
THE WEALD OF SUSSEX, NORTH OF LEWES
THE MARKET CROSS, CHICHESTER
THE TUDOR HOUSE, OPPOSITE ST MICHAEL'S CHURCH, SOUTHAMPTON
IN THE NEW FOREST
NORTH TRANSEPT, WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL
ST CROSS, WINCHESTER
SELBORNE FROM THE HANGER
ENGLAND OF MY HEART
THE PILGRIMS' ROAD TO CANTERBURY
FROM THE TABARD INN TO DARTFORD
When I determined to set out once more to traverse and to possess England of my heart, it was part of my desire first of all to follow, as far as might be, in the footsteps of Chaucer's pilgrims. Therefore I sought the Tabard Inn in Southwark.
For true delight, it seems to me, a journey, especially if it be for love or pleasure, should always have about it something of devotion, something a little rigid too, and dutiful, at least in its opening stages; and in thus determining my way I secured this. For I promised myself that I would start from the place whence they set out so long ago to visit and to pray at the tomb of the greatest of English saints, that I would sleep where they slept, find pleasure in the villages they enjoyed, climb the hills and look on the horizons that greeted them also so many hundred years ago, till at last I stood by the "blissful martyr's tomb," that had once made so great a rumour in the world and now was nothing.
In many ways I came short of all this, as will be seen; but especially in one thing—the matter of time. Chaucer and his pilgrims are generally thought to have spent three and a half or four days and three nights upon the road. It is true they went ahorseback and I afoot, but nevertheless a man may easily walk the fifty-six miles from London to Canterbury in four days. I failed because I found so much to see by the wayside. And to begin with there was London itself, which I was about to leave.
It was very early on an April morning when I set out from my home, coming through London on foot and crossing the river by London Bridge. It was there I lingered first, in the half light, as it were to say good-bye.
I do not know what it is in London that at long last and in some quite impersonal way clutches at the heart and receives one's eager affection. At first, even though you be one of her children, she seems and for how long like something fallen, calling you with the monotonous, mighty, complaining voice of a fallen archangel, ceaselessly through the days, the years, the centuries and the ages. She is one of the oldest of European cities, she is one of the most beautiful, of all capitals she is by far the most full of character: and yet she is not easy to know or to love. Perhaps she does not belong to us, but is something apart, something in and for herself, a mighty and a living thing, owing us nothing and regarding us, whom she tortures, with a sort of indifference, if not contempt.
And yet she is ours after all; she belongs to us, is more perhaps our very likeness and self than the capital of any other people. What is Berlin but a brutalised village, or Paris now but cosmopolis, or Rome but a universe? She is ours, the very gate of England of my heart. For she stands there striding the boundary of my country, the greatest of our cities, the greatest even of our industrial cities—a negative to all the rest. To the North she says Nay continually, for she is English, the greater successor of Winchester, and in her voice is the soul of the South, the real England, the England of my heart.
Ah, we have never known her or loved her enough or understood that she is a universe, without the self-consciousness of lesser things or the prepared beauty of mortal places. Indeed, she has something of the character of the sea which is our home, its changefulness, its infinity, its pathos in the toiling human life that traverses it. Almost featureless if you will, she is always under the guidance of her ample sky, responding immediately to every mood of the clouds; and in her, beauty grows up suddenly out of life and is gone e'er we can apprehend it....
But to come into Southwark on a Spring morning in search of Chaucer and the Tabard Inn is to ask of London more than she will give you. It is strange, seeing that she is so English, that for her the living are more than the dead. Consider England, southern England, if you know her well enough, and remember what in the face of every other country of Europe she has conserved of the past in material and tangible things—roads, boundaries, churches, houses, and indeed whole towns and villages. Yet London has so little of her glory and her past about her in material things, that it is often only by her attitude to life you might know she is not a creation of yesterday. It is true the fire of 1666 destroyed almost all, but apparently it did not destroy the Tabard Inn, which nevertheless is gone—it and its successors.
Something remained that should have been sacred, not indeed from Chaucer's day but at least from that of the Restoration, something that was beautiful, till some forty years ago. All is gone now; of the old Inn as we may see it in a drawing of 1810, a two-storied building with steepish roofs of tiles, dormer windows and railed balconies supported below by pillars of stone, above by pillars of wood, standing about two sides of a courtyard in which the carrier's long covered carts from Horsham or Rochester are waiting, nothing at all remains. The last of it was finally destroyed in 1875, and the Tabard Inn of the new fashion was built at the corner as we see.
The old hostelry, which besides its own beauty had this claim also upon our reverence, that it represented in no unworthy fashion the birthplace as it were of English poetry, owes of course all its fame to Chaucer, who lay there on the night before he set out for Canterbury as he tells us:
When that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote.... Bifel that, in that season on a day In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, At night was come into that hostelrye Wel nyne and twenty in a companye Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle, That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde; The chambres and the shelter weren wyde, And wel we weren esed atte beste And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste, So hadde I spoken with hem everichon, That I was of hir felawshipe anon And made forward erly for to ryse, To take our wey, there as I yow devyse.
It is in these verses lies all the fame of the Tabard, which it might seem was not a century old when Chaucer lay there. In the year 1304 the Abbot of Hyde, near Winchester, bought two houses here held of the Archbishop of Canterbury by William de Lategareshall. The abbot bought these houses in order to have room to build himself a town house, and it is said that at the same time he built a hostelry for travellers; at any rate three years later we find him applying to the Bishop of Winchester for leave to build a chapel "near the inn." In a later deed we are told that "the abbots lodgeinge was wyninge to the backside of the inn called the Tabarde and had a garden attached." Stow, however, tells us: "Within this inn was also the lodging of the Abbot of Hide (by the city of Winchester), a fair house for him and his train when he came from that city to Parliament."
Here then from the Inn of the Abbot of Hyde Chaucer set out for Canterbury with those pilgrims, many of whose portraits he has given us with so matchless a power. The host of the inn at that time was Harry Bailey, member of Parliament for Southwark in 1376 and 1379. He was the wise and jocund leader of the pilgrimage as we know, and though Chaucer speaks of him last, not one of the pilgrims is drawn with a livelier touch than he:
Greet chere made our hoste us everichon And to the soper sette us anon; And served us with vitaille at the beste, Strong was the wyn, and wel to drinke us leste. A semely man our hoste was with alle For to han ben a marshal in an halle; A large man he was eyen stepe, A fairer burgeys is ther noon in Chepe; Bold of his speche and wys, and wel y-taught, And of manhod him lakkede right naught. Eek therto he was right a mery man, And after soper pleyen he bigan, And spak of mirthe amonges others thinges, Whan that we hadde maad our rekeninges....
A noble portrait in the English manner; there is but one, and that is wanting, we should have preferred. I mean the portrait of Chaucer himself—that "wittie" Chaucer who "sate in a Chaire of Gold covered with Roses writing prose and risme, accompanied with the Spirites of many Kyngs, Knightes and Faire Ladies." For that we must go to a lesser pen, to Greene, who thus describes him in his vision:
His stature was not very tall, Lean he was; his legs were small Hos'd within a stock of red A button'd bonnet on his head From under which did hang I ween Silver hairs both bright and sheen; His beard was white, trimmed round; His countenance blithe and merry found; A sleeveless jacket, large and wide With many plaits and skirts side Of water-camlet did he wear; A whittle by his belt he bear; His shoes were corned broad before; His ink-horn at his side he wore, And in his hand he bore a book;— Thus did this ancient poet look.
There is one other personage upon whom indeed the whole pilgrimage depended of whom Chaucer says next to nothing, but we should do wrong to forget him: I mean the "blissful martyr" himself—St Thomas of Canterbury. In old days, certainly in Chaucer's, we should have been reminded of him more than once on our way e'er we gained the Tabard. For upon old London Bridge, the first stone bridge, built in the end of the twelfth century, there stood in the very midst of it a chapel of marvellous beauty with a crypt, from which by a flight of steps one might reach the river, dedicated in honour of St Thomas Becket. This chapel was built in memory of St Thomas by one Peter, priest of St Mary Colechurch, where the martyr had been christened. It was this same Peter who began to build the great bridge of stone, and when he died he was buried in the chapel he had erected in the midst of it.
Such a wonder was, however, by no means the only memorial here, at the very opening of the way, of the great and holy end and purpose of it.
Every schoolboy knows St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth, but not all know that the saint whose name that hospital bears is not the Apostle, but England's Martyr. Now, until 1868 St Thomas's Hospital stood not in Lambeth but in Southwark, upon the site of London Bridge Station. [Footnote: The fact is still remembered in the name of St Thomas Street, leading out of the Borough High Street on the east.] It seems that within the precincts of St Mary Overy a house of Austin Canons, now the Anglican Cathedral of St Saviour, Southwark, was a hospital for the sick and poor founded by St Thomas, which after his beatification was dedicated in his honour. But in the first years of the thirteenth century, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, rebuilt the little house in a healthier situation—ubi aqua est uberior et aer est melior—where the water was purer and the air better, and this new house, finished in 1215, of course also bore the name of St Thomas of Canterbury. That the hospital fulfilled its useful purpose we know from a petition which it presented to Pope Innocent VI., in 1357, wherein it was stated that so many sick and poor resorted to it that it could not support its charges. Not quite two hundred years later, in 1539, a few days before the feast of St Thomas upon December 29, it was surrendered to King Henry VIII., the infamous Layton having been its visitor. From the king it was bought by the City of London, a rare comment upon its suppression, and so notoriously useful was it that Edward VI. was compelled to refound it, and therefore in some sort it still remains to us. It is curious to note that, ages before the hospital came to Lambeth, St Thomas was at home there, for he had a statue upon the Lollards' Tower, and it was the custom of the watermen to doff their caps to it as they rowed by.
It is meet and right that this pilgrimage should be begun with thoughts of St Thomas, and especially of what we owe to him, for the first few miles of the way upon what we need not doubt was of old the Pilgrims' road, is anything but uplifting, crowded though it be with memories, most of them of course far later than the Canterbury pilgrimage. As you go down the Borough High Street, for Southwark is of course the old borgo of London, and all the depressing ugliness of modern life, it is not of anything so serene as that great poet of the fourteenth century, the father of English poetry, that you think, but of one who nevertheless, in the characteristic nationalism of his art, in his humanity and love of his fellow-men, was only second to Chaucer, and in his compassion for the poor and lowly only second to St Thomas: I mean Charles Dickens. No one certainly can pass the site of the Marshalsea Prison without recalling that solemn and haunting description in the preface to "Little Dorrit": "Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years."
It is still of Dickens most of us will think in passing St George's Church, for was it not there that Little Dorrit was christened and married, and was it not in the vestry there she slept with the burial- book for a pillow? But St George's has other memories too, for it was there that Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who staunchly refused the oath of supremacy to Elizabeth, was buried at midnight after his death in the Marshalsea, on September 5th, 1569. There too General Monk was married to Anne Clarges.
These memories, for the most part so unhappy, have, however, nothing to do with the Pilgrims' Way. No memory of that remains at all amid all the dismal wretchedness of to-day, until one comes to the "Thomas a Becket" public-house at the corner of Albany Road. This was the site of the "watering of Saint Thomas":
A-morwe, whan that day bigan to springe, Up roes our host, and was our aller cok, And gadrede us togirde, alle in a flok, And forth we riden, a litel more than pas Unto the watering of seint Thomas.
The "watering of St Thomas" was a spring dedicated to St Thomas, and it came to be the first halting-place of the pilgrims. It is still remembered in the name of St Thomas's Road close by, and not inappropriately in the tavern which bears St Thomas's name. It was here that the immortal tales were begun:
And there our host bigan his hors areste, And seyde; Lordinges, herkneth, if yow leste. Ye woot your forward, and it yow recorde If even-song and morwe-song acorde, Lat see now who shal telle the firste tale....
No memory of the pilgrims would seem to remain at all in the road after St Thomas's watering until we come to Deptford. The "Knight's Tale" and the "Miller's Tale" have filled, and one would think more than filled that short three miles of road, till in the Reve's Prologue the host began "to spake as loudly as a king...."
Sey forth thy tale and tarie nat the tyme, Lo, Depeford! and it is half-way pryme.
Nothing more lugubrious is to be found to-day in the whole length of the old road than Deptford; but it is there that we begin to be free of the mean streets. For Deptford, which the pilgrims reached, after their early start, at "half-way pryme"—any hour, I suppose, between six and nine—lies at the foot of Blackheath Hill above Greenwich:
Lo, Greenwich, ther many a shrewe is inne.
Deptford Bridge, the only remaining landmark of old time, by which we cross Deptford Creek, had in the fourteenth century a hermitage at its eastern end dedicated in honour of St Catherine of Alexandria, and Mass was said there continually from Chaucer's day down to the suppression in 1531, the king, Henry VIII., having previously helped to repair the chapel.
It is at Deptford, as I say, that we begin to leave the mean streets, for at the cross-roads we turn up Blackheath Hill, and though this is not in all probability the ancient way, it is as near it as modern conditions have allowed us. The old road, as far as can be made out, ran farther to the east, quite alongside Greenwich Park, and not over the middle of the Heath, as the modern road does. Blackheath is not alluded to in Chaucer's poem, though it must have been famous at the time he was writing, for in 1381 Jack Straw, Wat Tyler, and their company were there gathered. Perhaps the most famous spectacle, however, that Blackheath has witnessed was not this abortive revolt of the peasants nor the rising of Jack Cade in 1450, but the meeting here in 1400 of King Henry IV. and the Emperor of Constantinople, who came to England to ask for assistance against the ever-encroaching Turk, then at the gates of Constantinople, which some fifty years later was to fall into his hands. Blackheath, indeed, has always played a considerable part in the history of southern England, partly because it was the last great open space on the southern confines of London, and partly because of the royal residence at Greenwich. Fifteen years after it had seen a guest so strange as the Emperor of the East, it saw Henry V. return from Agincourt, and the Mayor of London with the aldermen and four hundred citizens, "all in scarlet with hoods of red and white," greet the hero king.
... London doth pour out her citizens The mayor and all his brethren in best sort Like to the senators of the antique Rome With the plebeians swarming at their heels, Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in!
Across the Heath we go, taking the road on the right at the triangle, before long to find ourselves perhaps for the first time on the very road the pilgrims followed—the great Roman highway of the Watling Street.
I call the Watling Street a great Roman highway, for that, as we know it, is what it is, but in its origin it is far older than the Roman occupation. It ran right across England from the continental gate at Dover, through Canterbury to Chester, fording the Thames at Lambeth, and it was the first of the British trackways which the Romans straightened, built up, and paved. It has been in continuous use for more than three thousand years, and may therefore be said to be the oldest road in England. It is older than the greatness of London, for in its arrow flight across England it ignores the City. After the ford at Lambeth, to-day represented by Lambeth Bridge, an older crossing of the Thames than that at London Bridge, it mounted the northern slope, passing perhaps across the present gardens of Buckingham Palace and the eastern end of Hyde Park, where to-day it is lost or merely represented by Grosvenor Place and Park Lane, to cross the great western road out of London at Tyburn, the original "Cross Roads," the ancient place of execution close by the present Marble Arch, and to pursue its way, as we may see it still, directly and in true Roman fashion down what we know as Edgware Road. That great north-western highway lies over the very pavement of the Romans, which lies only a few feet below the surface of the modern road.
It is then upon this most ancient highway that in the footsteps of the Britons, the Romans their beneficent conquerors, and the English pilgrims our forefathers, we shall march on to Canterbury. The road of course is broken here and there, indeed in many places, and notably between Dartford and Rochester, but for the most part it remains after three thousand years the ordinary highway between the capital and the archi-episcopal city.
The Watling Street takes Shooters' Hill, so called, I suppose, from the highwaymen that infested the woods thereabouts, in true Roman fashion, and it is from its summit that we get the first really great view on our way, for that so famous from Greenwich Park does not properly belong to our journey. We must, however, turn to another and a later poet than Chaucer for any description of that tremendous spectacle. Here indeed, more than in any other prospect the road affords, the horizon is changed from that Chaucer looked upon.
For we turn to gaze on London, the Protestant, not the Catholic, city: A mighty mass of brick and smoke and shipping, Dirty and dusky, but as wide as eye Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping In sight, then lost amid the forestry Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy; A huge dun cupola like a foolscap crown On a fool's head—and there is London town!
Don Juan had got out on Shooters' Hill Sunset the time, the place the same declivity Which looks along that vale of good and ill Where London streets ferment in full activity; While everything around was calm and still Except the creak of wheels which on their pivot he Heard—and that bee-like, babbling, busy hum Of cities, that boil over with their scum.
The prospect eastward across the broad valley of the Darent, if less wonderful, is assuredly far lovelier than that north-westward over London; but from the top of Shooters' Hill we probably do not follow the actual route of the ancient way until we come to Welling. The present road down the hill eastward is said to date from 1739 only. [Footnote: See H. Littlehales, "Some Notes on the Road from Canterbury in the Middle Ages" (Chaucer Society, 1898).]
There is nothing to keep us in Welling, nor indeed in Bexley Heath, except to note that they are the first two Kentish villages upon our route, now little more than suburban places spoiled of any virtue they may have possessed. It is said that at Clapton Villa in the latter place there is preserved "an ancient and perfect sacramental wafer"— perhaps an unique treasure.
The road runs straight on through a rather sophisticated countryside, almost into Crayford, but in preparing to cross the Cray the old road has apparently been lost. We may be sure, however, of not straying more than a few yards out of the way, if we keep as straight on as maybe, that is to say, if we take the road to the right at the fork, which later passes Crayford church on the south.
Crayford, though it be anything but picturesque, is nevertheless not without interest. It is the Creccanford of the "Saxon Chronicle," and was the scene of the half-legendary final battle between the Britons here and Hengist, who utterly discomfited them, so that we read they forsook all this valley, even, so we are asked to believe, those strange caves which they are said to have burrowed in the chalk for their retreat, and which are so plentiful hereabouts, but which assuredly are infinitely older than the advent of the Saxon pirates.
The real interest of Crayford, however, as of more than one place in this valley, lies in its church. This is dedicated in honour of the companion of St Augustine, St Paulinus, who became the third Bishop of Rochester. The form of the church is curious, the arcade of the nave being in the midst of it, while the chancel, of about the same width as the nave, is possessed of two arcades and divided into three aisles; thus the arcade of the nave abuts upon the centre of the chancel arch. Parts of the church certainly date from Chaucer's day, but most of it is Perpendicular in style.
More interesting than Crayford itself are North Cray and Foot's Cray in the upper valley beyond Bexley. At North Cray there is one of the best pictures Sassoferrato ever painted, a Crucifixion, over the altar. At Foot's Cray, the church, besides being beautiful in its situation, possesses a great square Norman font.
These places are, however, off the Pilgrims' Road, which climbs up through Crayford High Street, and then in about two miles begins to descend into the very ancient town of Dartford, where it is said Chaucer's pilgrims slept, their first night on the road.
THE PILGRIMS' ROAD
FROM DARTFORD TO ROCHESTER
The entry into Dartford completes the first and, it must be confessed, the dullest portion of the Pilgrims' Road to Canterbury. Here at Dartford the pilgrims slept, here to-day we say farewell to all that suburban district which now stretches for so many miles in every direction round the capital, spoiling the country as such and making of it a kind of unreality very hard to tolerate. The traveller must then realise that it is only at Dartford his pleasure will begin.
Dartford, as one sees at first sight, is an old, a delightful, English town, full of happiness and old-world memories. Its situation is characteristic, for it lies in the deep and narrow valley of the Darent between two abrupt hills, that to the west of chalk, that to the east of sand, up both of which it climbs without too much insistence. Between these two hills runs a rapid stream from the Downs to the southward, that below the town opens out suddenly into a small estuary or creek. Where the Watling Street forded the Darent there grew up the town of Dartford, on the verge of the marshes within reach of the tide, but also within reach of an inexhaustible river of fresh water. The ford was presently replaced by a ferry, and later still, in the latter years of Henry VI., by a great bridge, as we see, but the town had already taken its name from its origin, and to this day is known as Dartford, the ford of the Darent.
The situation of Dartford is thus very picturesque, and as we might suppose its main street is the old Roman highway that the pilgrims used. This descends the West Hill steeply after passing the Priory, or as it is now called the Place House, the first religious house which Dartford could boast that the pilgrims would see. In Chaucer's day this was a new foundation, Edward III., in 1355, having established here a convent of Augustinian nuns dedicated in honour of Our Lady and St Margaret. The house became extremely popular with the great Kentish families, for it was not only very richly endowed, but always governed by a prioress of noble birth, Princess Bridget, youngest daughter of Edward IV., at one time holding the office, as later did Lady Jane Scrope and Lady Margaret Beaumont: all are buried within. In the miserable time of Henry VIII., when it was suppressed, its revenues amounted to nearly four hundred pounds a year. The king immediately seized the house for his own pleasure, but later gave it to Anne of Cleves. On her death it came back to the Crown, but James I. exchanged it with the Cecil family for their mansion of Theobalds. They in their turn parted with it to Sir Edward Darcy. Little remains of the old house to-day, a gate-house of the time of Henry VII., and a wing of the convent, now a farm-house; but considerable parts of the extensive walls may be seen.
It may well have been when the bell of that convent was ringing the Angelus that Chaucer and his pilgrims entered Dartford on that April evening so long ago. As they came down the steep hill, before they entered the town, they would pass an almshouse or hospital, midway upon the hill, a leper-house in all likelihood, dedicated in honour of St Mary Magdalen. Something of this remains to us in the building we see, which, however, is later than the Reformation.
Nothing I think actually in the town can, as we see it, be said to have been there when Chaucer went by except the very noble church. He and his pilgrims looked and wondered, as we do still, upon the great tower said to have been built by Gundulph as a fortress to hold the ford, which, altered though it has been more than once, is still something at which one can only admire. The upper part, however, dates from the fifteenth century. Then there is the chancel restored in 1863, the north part of which is supposed to have been built in the thirteenth century in honour of St Thomas himself, no doubt by the pilgrims who, passing by on their way to Canterbury, were wont to spend a night in Dartford town, and certainly to hear Mass in the place of their sojourn e'er they set out in the earliest morning. The screen is of the fourteenth century, as are the arcades of the nave and the windows on the north, and these too Chaucer may have seen; but all the monuments, some of them interesting and charming, are much later, dating from Protestant days. Certain brasses, however, remain from the fifteenth century, notably that of Richard Martyn and his wife (1402), that of Agnes Molyngton (1454), and that of Joan Rothele (1464). There is, too, a painting of St George and the Dragon at the end of the south chancel chapel, behind the organ.
Within the town one or two houses remain, perhaps in their foundations, from the fifteenth century. The best of these is that on the left just west of the church, at the corner of Bullis Lane. This house, according to Dunken, the historian of Dartford, was the dwelling of one "John Grovehurst in the reign of King Edward IV. That gentleman in 1465 obtained permission of the Vicar and church-wardens of Dartford to erect a chimney on a part of the churchyard, and in acknowledgment thereof provided a lamp to burn perpetually during the celebration of divine service in the parish church. The principal apartment in the upper floor (a room about twenty-five feet by twenty feet) was originally hung round with tapestry, said to be worked by the nuns of the priory, who were occasionally permitted to visit at the mansion. The principal figures were in armour, and two of them as large as life, latterly called Hector and Andromache; in the background was the representation of a large army with inscribed banners."
The churchyard upon which John Grovehurst was allowed to erect a chimney was till about the middle of the nineteenth, century larger than it now is, part of it at that time being taken "to make the road more commodious for passengers." This road was of course the Pilgrims' Road, the Watling Street. That this always passed to the south of the church is certain, but it may have turned a little in ancient time to take the ford. It turns a little to-day to approach the bridge, and thereafter climbs the East Hill.
Dartford Bridge, which already in the Middle Ages had supplanted ford and ferry, happily remains to the extent of about a third of the width of the two pointed arches which touch the banks. It was kept in order and repair by the hermit who dwelt in a cell at the foot of the bridge on the east, a cell older than the bridge, for the hermits used to serve the ford. Here stood the Shrine of Our Lady and St Catherine of Alexandria, which was much favoured by the pilgrims, so we may well suppose that Chaucer and his friends did not pass it by without a reverence.
Here too at the eastern end of the town stood a hospital dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity, but this Chaucer knew not, any more than we may do, for it was only founded in 1452. It seems, however, to have been built really over the stream upon piers, perhaps in something the same way as the thirteenth-century Franciscan house at Canterbury was built, which we may still see.
Dunken tells us that "the steep ascent of the Dover road leading towards Brent was in ancient times called St Edmunde's Weye from its leading to a Chapel dedicated to that saint situated near the middle of the upper churchyard." This chapel, of which nothing remains, Edward III. bestowed upon the Priory of Our Lady and St Margaret. On its site, such is the irony of time, a "martyr's memorial" has been erected to the unhappy and unfortunate folk burnt here in the time of Queen Mary.
But Dartford is too pleasant a place to be left with such a merely archaeological survey as this. It is a town in which one may be happy; historically, however, it has not much claim upon our notice, its chief boast being that it was here the first act of violence in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 occurred, when Wat Tyler broke the head of the poll-tax collector who had brutally assaulted his daughter. Wat or Walter—Tyler, because of his trade, which was that of covering roofs with tiles—would seem, however, not to have been a Dartford man at all. The very proper murder of the tax-collector would appear to have been the work of a certain John "Tyler" of the same profession, here in Dartford.
The Peasants' Revolt, which, alas! came to nothing, brings us indeed quite into Chaucer's day, but it would have had little sympathy from him, nor indeed has it really anything specially to do with this town. The true fame of Dartford, which is its paper-making, dates from the end of the sixteenth century, when one Sir John Speelman, jeweller to Queen Elizabeth, is said to have established the first paper-mill.
If Dartford is poor in history, nevertheless it is worth a visit of more than an hour or so for its own sake, as I have said. It boasts of a good inn also, and the country and villages round about are delicious. All that upper valley of the Darent, for instance, in which lie Darenth, Sutton-at-Hone, Horton Kirby, and, a little way off Fawkham, Eynsford, and Lullingstone, is worth the trouble of seeing for its own beauty and delight.
There is Darenth for instance, Darne, as the people used to call it, only two miles from the Pilgrims' Road, it is as old as England, and doubtless saw the Romans at work straightening, paving, and building that great Way which has remained to us through so many ages, and which the Middle Age hallowed into a Via Sacra. What can be more worthy and right than that a modern pilgrim should visit this little Roman village to see the foundations of the Roman buildings, to speculate on what they may have been, and generally to contemplate those origins out of which we are come?
And then there is the church too, dedicated in honour of St Margaret, the dear little lady who is so wonderfully and beautifully represented in Westminster Abbey for all to worship her, high up over the rascal politicians. All the village churches in England of my heart are entrancingly holy and human places, but it is not always that one finds a church so rare as that of St Margaret in Darenth. For not only is it built of Roman rubble or brick, the work of the Saxons, the Normans, and of us their successors, but it boasts also an arch of tufa, has an Early English vaulted chancel of two stories, and a Norman font upon which are carved scenes from the life of St Dunstan, to say nothing of a thirteenth-century tower.
Not far away at Horton Kirby, to be reached through South Darenth, are the remains of Horton Castle and a very interesting, aisleless cruciform church of Our Lady with central tower, a great nave, arcaded transepts, and much Early English loveliness, to say nothing of the Decorated tomb of one of the De Ros family, lords of Horton Castle, and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century brasses. Horton got its name of Kirby in this manner. At the time of the Domesday Survey the place was held by Auschetel de Ros from Bishop Odo, but the heir of De Ros was Lora, Lady of Horton, who married into the north-country family of Kirby, who, however, had for long owned lands hereabouts. In the time of Edward I. the Kirby of that day, Roger, rebuilt the castle, but it is not the ruins of his work we see, these being of a much later building. Nor will any one who visits Horton fail to see Fawks, the famous old Elizabethan mansion of the London Alderman Lancelot Bathurst, who died in 1594.
All this valley, as I have said, was used and cultivated by the Romans, whose work we find not only at Darenth but also here at Horton. At Fawkham, however, on the higher ground to the east I found something more germane to the pilgrimage. For in the old church of Our Lady there, over the western door, is a window in which we may see one William de Fawkham clothed as a pilgrim with a book in his hand, and on one side a figure of Our Lord, on the other the Blessed Virgin.
But the goal of my journey from the highway was reached at Eynsford. Here indeed I found my justification for leaving the road while on pilgrimage to Canterbury. For not only is Eynsford a beautiful place in itself, beautifully situated, but it was the quarrel which William de Eynesford had with St Thomas Becket, when the great archbishop was in residence at Otford Castle, that led to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral and the great pilgrimage which has brought even us at this late day on our way.
Becket's quarrel with the king and the civil power was, as we know, concerning the liberty of the Church, and more particularly here a dispute as to the presentation to the church of St Martin in Eynsford, which still retains many features of that time. After the martyrdom, William de Eynesford, though he does not appear to have been directly concerned in the murder, was excommunicated, and Eynsford Castle was left without inhabitants, for no one would enter it. It fell into decay, and was never after used or restored or rebuilt, only Henry VIII. venturing to use it as a stable; but his work has been cleared away, and what we see is a ruin of the time of St Thomas, and indeed in some sort his work. The ruin bears a strong resemblance to the mighty castle of Rochester, and though it is of course very small in comparison with that capital fortress, it must have been a place of some strength when Henry II. was king.
St Martin's Church, whose spire rises so charmingly out of the orchards white with spring, has a fine western doorway and tower of Norman work, and a chancel and south transept lighted by Early English lancets. That tower certainly heard the rumour of St Thomas's murder, and frightened men no doubt crowded into that western door to hear William de Eynesford denounced from the altar.
Now when I had seen all this and reminded myself thus of that great tale which is England, I set out on my way back to Dartford, passing by the footpath through the park to the south-east towards Lullingstone Castle, which, however, is not older in the main than the end of the eighteenth century.
And then from Lullingstone through the shining afternoon I made my way by the western bank of the Darent to Sutton-at-Hone, where there are remains of a Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem; the place is still called St John's. The church dedicated to St John Baptist is a not uninteresting Decorated building, the last resting place of that Sir Thomas Smyth of Sutton Place, who was not the least of Elizabethan navigators, director of the East India Company, interested in the Muscovy trade, and treasurer of the Virginia Company (1625). So I came back to Dartford and on the next day set out once more for Canterbury.
One leaves Dartford, on the Pilgrim's Road, with a certain regret, to find oneself, at the top of the East Hill, face to face with a problem of the road. For there on the hill-top the road forks; to the left runs the greater way of the two, into Gravesend; straight on lies a lane which after a couple of miles suddenly turns southward to Betsham, where the direct way is continued by a footpath across Swanscombe Park. Which of these ways was I to follow? That question was hard to answer, because the road through Gravesend is full of interest, while the direct way is almost barren all the way to Rochester. There can be little doubt, too, that many of the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury did pass through Gravesend, to which town doubtless many also travelled from London by water, while others landed there from Essex and East Anglia. But the lane which is the straight way and its continuation in the footpath across Swanscombe Park is undoubtedly the line of the Roman road and in all probability the route of Chaucer.
Face to face with these considerations, being English, I decided upon a compromise. I determined to follow the Gravesend road so far as Northfleet, chiefly for the sake of Stone, and there by a road running south-east to come into the Roman highway again, two miles or so east of Swanscombe Park, whence I should have a practically straight road into Rochester.
I say I chose this route chiefly for the sake of seeing Stone. This little place, some two miles and a half from Dartford, has one of the loveliest churches in all England, to say nothing of a castellated manor house known as Stone Castle. "It is a common jest," says Reginald Scot, writing in the time of Elizabeth, "It is a common jest among the watermen of the Thames to show the parish church of Stone to their passengers, calling the same by the name of the 'Lanterne of Kent'; affirming, and that not untruly, that the said church is as light (meaning in weight not in brightness) at midnight as at noonday." The church, indeed, dedicated in honour of Our Lady is a very beautiful and extraordinarily interesting building of the end of the thirteenth century, in the same style as the practically contemporary work in Westminster Abbey and, according to the architect and historian, G.E. Street, who restored it, possibly from the design of the same master-mason. Certainly nothing in the whole county of Kent is better worth a visit. It would seem to have been built with a part of the money offered at the shrine of St William in the Cathedral of Rochester upon the Pilgrim's Way; for Stone belonged to the Bishops of Rochester, who had a manor house there. The nave, aisles, chancel, and tower are all in the Early English style and very noble work of their kind, built in the time of Bishop Lawrence de Martin of Rochester (1251-1274); while to the fourteenth century belongs the vestry to the north of the chancel and the western windows in nave and aisles and the piers of the tower as we now see them. Perhaps the oldest thing in the church is the doorway in the north aisle which would seem to be Norman, but Street tells us that this "is a curious instance of imitation of earlier work, rather than evidence of the doorway itself being earlier than the rest of the church."
Within, the church is delightful, increasing in richness of detail eastward towards the chancel where nothing indeed can surpass the beauty of the arcade, so like the work at Westminster, borne by pillars of Purbeck, its spandrels filled with wonderfully lovely, delicate, and yet vigorous foliage. Here are two brasses, one of 1408 to John Lambarde, the rector in Chaucer's day, the other of 1530 to Sir John Dew. In the north aisle we may find certain ancient paintings the best preserved of which represents the Madonna and Child.
The north aisle of the chancel is not at one with the church; it was built in the early sixteenth century by the Wilshyre family as their Chantry. Here lies Sir John Wilshyre, Governor of Calais in the time of Henry VIII. The glass everywhere is unfortunately modern.
One leaves Stone church with regret; it is so fair and yet so hopelessly dead that one is astonished and almost afraid. Less than a mile along the road, to the north of it one passes Ingress Abbey, where once the nuns of Dartford Priory had a grange. The present house, once the residence of Alderman Harmer, the radical and reformer of our criminal courts, was built of the stone of old London Bridge.
Here upon the high road one is really in the marshes by Thames side; but a little way off the highway to the south on higher ground stands Swanscombe and it is worth while to see it for it is a very famous place. "After such time," says Lambarde, quoting Thomas the monk and chronicler of St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, "after such time as Duke William the Conqueror had overthrown King Harold in the field at Battell in Sussex and had received the Londoners to mercy he marched with his army towards the castle of Dover, thinking thereby to have brought in subjection this county of Kent also. But Stigande, the archbishop, perceiving the danger assembled the countrymen together and laid before them the intolerable pride of the Normans that invaded them and their own miserable condition if they should yield unto them. By which means they so enraged the common people that they ran forthwith to weapon and meeting at Swanscombe elected the archbishop and the abbot for their captains. This done each man got him a green bough in his hand and beare it over his head in such sort as when the Duke approached, he was much amazed therewith, thinking at first that it had been some miraculous wood that moved towards him. But they as soon as he came within hearing cast away their boughs from them, and at the sound of a trumpet bewraied their weapons, and withall despatched towards him a messenger, which spake unto him in this manner:—'The Commons of Kent, most noble Duke, are ready to offer thee either peace or war, at thy own choice and election; Peace with their faithfull obedience if thou wilt permit them to enjoy their ancient liberties; Warr, and that most deadly, if thou deny it them.'"
They prevailed according to the legend and this as some say is the difference between the Men of Kent and the Kentish Men, for the former retained their old liberties and were never conquered, and these dwelt in the valley of Holmsdale; but the rest were merely victi. As the old rhyme has it—
The vale of Holmsdale Never conquered, never shall.
It is pleasing with the memory of all this in one's heart—and upon it there is a famous song—to come upon Swanscombe church, in which much would seem to be of Saxon times, as parts of the walls of both nave and chancel, and the lower part of the tower, where one may see signs of Roman brick. The nave, however, at least within, is late Norman if not Transitional, and the windows in the chancel are Norman and Early English. Here, too, is the tomb of Sir Anthony Weldon, the malicious gossip [Footnote: He was the author of "The Secret History of the first Two Stuart Kings" and of "A Catt may look at a King, or a Briefe Chronicle and Character of the Kings of England..."] of the time of James I., who had acted as clerk of the kitchen to Elizabeth. His wife lies opposite him with others of his family. It is more interesting for us, however, to note that in Chaucer's day the church was chiefly famous for its shrine of St Hildefrith, a soveran advocate against the vapours.
I left Swanscombe in the early afternoon, and passing through Northfleet with its great church of St Botolph I followed the road with many happy glimpses of the Thames, avoiding Gravesend and making southward for the Watling Street, which I found at last, and an old Inn at the cross roads upon it. Thence I marched upon what I took to be the veritable way and was presently assured of this at Singlewell, which it is said was originally Schingled well, that is a well roofed with shingles of wood. This well stood within the parish of Ifield, but so famous was it, for it was known to every pilgrim, that it presently quite put out the name of the parish, which in 1362 is described as Ifield-juxta-Schyngtedwell, and to this day the place is marked on the maps as Singlewell or Ifield. A chapel was soon built beside the well and here doubtless the pilgrims prayed and made offerings. Singlewell, however, must not be confused with St Thomas's well a mile further on the road, which is still used and still known as St Thomas's well.
All this proved to me that I was indeed upon the old road, and so I went on across Cobham Park without a thought of the great house, intent now on the noble city of Rochester, which presently as I came over the last hill I saw standing in all its greatness over the broad river of Medway, its mighty castle four square upon the further bank. Then was I confirmed in my heart in the words of Chaucer—
Lo Rouchestre stant here fast by.
THE PILGRIMS' ROAD
One comes down the hill into Rochester, through Strood, on this side the Medway, to find little remaining of interest in a place that has now become scarcely more than a suburb of the episcopal city. Some memory, however, lingers still in Strood of St Thomas, for certain folks there hated him and to spite him one day as he rode through the village they cut the tail from his horse. Mark now the end of this misdeed. In Strood thereafter everyone of their descendants was born, it is said, with a tail, even as the brutes which perish.
The church of Strood, restored in 1812, is without interest, but close to the churchyard is the site of a Hospital, founded, in the time of Richard I., who endowed it, by Bishop Glanville of Rochester. This place must have been known to Chaucer and his pilgrims. It was dedicated in honour of Our Lady and cared for "the poor, weak, infirm and impotent as well as neighbouring inhabitants or travellers from distant places, until they die or depart healed." Those who served it followed the Benedictine Rule. A singular example of the hatred of these for the monks of Rochester appears in the story of the fight between the monks and the Hospital staff with whom sided the men of Strood and Frinsbury, a village hard by, which took place in the orchard of the Hospital. The Bishop, however, soon brought all to reason, and as a punishment the men of Strood were obliged to go in procession to Rochester upon each Whit-Monday, carrying the clubs with which they had assaulted the monks.
That Strood stood on the ancient way its name assures us, since it is but another form of Street or Strada, as they say in Italy. From Strood we cross the great iron bridge, the successor of that at the Strood end of which Bishop Glanville built a small chapel. The story of the bridge is interesting. We do not know that there was a bridge at all in Roman times, but certainly a wooden bridge was supplemented in the time of Richard II. by a new one of stone, consisting of twenty-one arches of different spans. This bridge stood higher up the river than that of to-day, nearer indeed to the Castle, and as at its western end there was a chapel, so at its eastern under the Castle, John de Cobham founded, in Chaucer's time, in 1399, a Chantry for all Christian souls, of which some ruins remain. This bridge, patched, altered, and constantly repaired, lasted till the existing bridge was built in our own time on the site of the old one of wood.
From the bridge we enter the High Street, almost certainly lying over the old Roman road. Here are the old Inns, the Crown, the Bull, and the King's Head. It is even probable that Chaucer may have stayed at the Crown, the oldest of the three, not of course in the present house, but in that which stood on the same site till 1863, and which was said to date from the fourteenth century. [Footnote: The old house was famous at least as the scene of Shakespeare's "Henry IV.," pt. i. act ii. sc. i., as the resting-place of Queen Elizabeth in 1573, and as the inn honoured by Mr Pickwick. It should never have been destroyed.]
In Rochester, serene and yet active, the very ancient seat of a bishopric, we have something essentially Roman, the fortress on the Watling Street guarding the passage of the Medway, precisely as Piacenza was and is a Roman fortress upon the Emilian Way guarding the passage of the Po. The Romans called the place Durobrivae, and though we know little of it during the Roman occupation of Britain, we may be sure it was a place of very considerable importance, as indeed it has remained ever since, twice in fact in our history the possession of Rochester has decided a whole campaign.
Rochester, indeed, could not have escaped the military eye of the Romans. It must be remembered that the natural entry into England is by the Straits of Dover, and that for a man entering by that gate there is only one way up into England and that the line of the Watling Street, for he must cross the Thames, even though he be going only to London. The lowest ford upon the Thames is that at Lambeth, which the Watling Street used. Now there is but one really formidable obstacle in the whole length of the Watling Street south of the Thames. That obstacle is the estuary of the Medway, which Rochester guarded and possessed. Rochester then was first and foremost a great fortress, just as Piacenza was and is.
What was its fate in the Dark Age that followed the failure of the Roman administration we do not know; but with the advent of St Augustine Rochester at once received a Bishop. It was, indeed, the first post in St Augustine's advance from Canterbury, King Ethelbert himself building there a church in 597 in honour of St Andrew. It thus became a spiritual as well as a material fortress. Of its fate after the Battle of Hastings we know little, but it submitted without resistance and came into the hands of that Odo of Bayeaux who gave so much trouble to William Rufus.
It is now that we see Rochester suddenly appear in its true greatness. Odo, expelled by William, had on the Conqueror's death returned and successfully obtained of Rufus his estates, among them the Castle of Rochester, which he had built. In 1088, however, he was once more in rebellion against the Crown on behalf of the Conqueror's eldest brother, Robert of Normandy. Rufus struck him first at Pevensey, which was the Norman gate of England. He took it but unwisely released Odo, on his oath to give up Rochester Castle and leave the country. Rochester was then in the hands of Eustace of Boulogne, sworn friend of Duke Robert, and when Odo appeared with the King's Guard before the Castle, demanding its surrender, he, understanding everything, captured his own lord and the king's guard also and brought them in. Rufus then turned to his English subjects and demanded their assistance, for his Barons were then, as they have invariably been throughout English history, against the Crown, which truly represented and defended the people. They flocked to the Royal Standard, and after six weeks' siege, plague and famine ravaging the garrison, Odo surrendered and was imprisoned at Tonbridge, and later expelled the kingdom. As this great rascal Bishop came out of Rochester Castle, the English youths sang out "Rope and Cord! Rope and Cord for the traitor Bishop." But Odo was too near to the king.
That was the first time we know of in which Rochester stood like the gage of England; the second was in the Barons' wars. When King John, in 1215, had taken Rochester and notably discomfited the rascal Barony, they immediately invited Louis of France to assist them. He set sail with some seven hundred vessels, landed at Sandwich, and retook Rochester, which had been so badly damaged that it could not defend itself. Forty-eight years later, in 1264, Henry III. being king, Simon de Montfort coming into Kent, burnt the wooden bridge over the Medway which was too strongly held by the loyal inhabitants of Rochester for him to capture, took the city by storm, sacked the Cathedral and the Priory, and laid siege to the Castle. He failed, and Lewes could not give him what Rochester had denied.
Rochester Castle, which hitherto only famine had been able to open, was to fall at last to Wat Tyler and his Peasants in 1381, with the help of the people of the city. After that culminating misery of the fourteenth century, which was so full of miseries, Rochester plays little part in history for many years. She appears again to take part in innumerable pageants, such as that in which Henry VIII. in 1540, and on New Year's day, first saw Anne of Cleves and was astonished at her little beauty, or that which greeted Elizabeth in 1573, or that which greeted Charles I. and his bride after their wedding at Canterbury, or that which shouted for the Merry Monarch, when Charles II. rode down the High Street in 1660, after his landing at Dover. It was his brother, unfortunate and unhappy, who came in without any herald and stole away in the night of December 19, 1688, having foregone a throne and lost a kingdom.
All these, sieges or pageants, however, what are they but a tale that is told. There remains, in some sort at least, the Cathedral. This is the oldest thing in Rochester and the most lasting. It was founded in the end of the sixth century as we have seen, and its first Bishop was that St Justus who had come with St Augustine from the monastery of St Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome, the monastery we now know by the name of the man who sent them, St Gregory the Great. St Augustine and St Justus were not, however, at first received with enthusiasm in Rochester. Indeed, it is said that fish tails were hung to their habits as they went through the city and that in consequence the people of the diocese of Rochester were ever after born with tails, and were thus known as caudati or caudiferi, while upon the Continent this beastly appellation was even till our fathers' time applied to all English people.
What the Cathedral suffered in the centuries between its foundation and the Norman Conquest, we shall never rightly know. That it was ravaged, burnt and sacked by the Danes is certain and it seems even at the time of the Norman Conquest to have scarcely recovered itself. Indeed, Pepys, who was in Rochester in 1661, tells us that he found the western doors of the church still "covered with the skins of Danes." Nor did it fare much better when Odo of Bayeaux was lord. But when Gundulph, the associate of the good and great Lanfranc, became bishop in 1077, the Cathedral was almost entirely re-established and the Priory which served it rebuilt. Gundulph, however, would have nothing to do with the seculars who had hitherto served the great church. He established Benedictine monks in their place and Ernulph, Prior of Canterbury, where Lanfranc had done the same, succeeded him.
Of the Saxon church which St Justus built, he and his successors, nothing remains but the foundations discovered in 1888. This church, which was very small, about forty-two feet long by twenty-eight feet in breadth, was furnished with an apse, but had neither aisles nor transepts.
Of the first Norman church which Bishop Gundulph built, very little remains, perhaps a part of the crypt, the nave, and the great fortress tower he built on the north side of the church. This church was a very curious piece of Norman building. It was a long aisled church, that was unbroken from end to end, but the choir-proper was shut off from its aisles by walls of stone as at St Albans. There were no transepts or central tower, but two porches, one on the north and the other on the south, and in the angle formed by them with the choir, Gundulph built towers, one a belfry, the other a fortress detached from the church. To the south of the nave stood the first monastery and it is there that we may still see fragments, five arches in all, of Gundulph's nave.
It was Ernulph who built the second monastery to replace the probably wooden buildings of the first, to the south of the choir of which parts remain to us. This done, he turned to the Cathedral and began entirely to rebuild it, recase it with Caen stone or to remodel what he left. It is therefore twelfth century Norman work we see at Rochester. All this work, however, some of it not twenty-five years old, was damaged in 1179 by fire, and once more the monks began to rebuild their church. They seem to have begun on the north aisle of the choir, and then to have set to work on the south aisle. Thence they proceeded to rebuild the eastern end of the church, erecting a transept beyond the old choir, finishing their new sanctuary in 1227.
The work did not stop there, however; by 1245 the north-west transept was finished, and by 1280 the south-west and the two eastern bays of the nave. It is astonishing to find the monastery able to support such immense and extravagant operations, but we know that in 1201 the monks had successfully established a new shrine in their church, the shrine of St William. This popular sanctuary was the tomb of a Scotch pilgrim from Perth who had been a baker. "In charity he was so abundant that he gave to the poor the tenth loaf of his workmanship; in zeal so fervent that in vow he promised and in deed attempted, to visit the places where Christ was conversant on earth; in which journey he made Rochester his way, where, after he had rested two or three days, he departed towards Canterbury. But ere he had gone far from the city, his servant—a foundling who had been brought up by him out of charity—led him of purpose out of the highway and spoiled him both of his money and his life. The servant escaped, but his master, because he died in so holy a purpose of mind, was by the monks conveyed to St Andrews and laid in the choir. And soon he wrought miracles plentifully."
The enormous fame of St William and the popularity of his shrine, not only with those who were on the way to Canterbury, but with such as were merely travellers to the coast, lasted for nearly a hundred years, enriching the monks of Rochester. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, this shrine of St William had been utterly eclipsed by the fame of the shrine of St Thomas. For this reason, then, the monks of Rochester were happily never able to rebuild their nave, which remains a Norman work of the twelfth century.
In the fourteenth century the central tower was at last completed, but it ceased to exist in 1749. Indeed, the resources of Rochester seem to have been small after the third quarter of the thirteenth century. They had no Lady Chapel and when one was provided it was contrived out of the south-west transept. Later the north aisle of the choir, always dark on account of Gundulph's tower, was heightened and vaulted and lighted with windows. Later still, similar Perpendicular windows were placed in the old nave, the Norman clerestory was destroyed and a new one built, together with a new wooden roof and the great western window was inserted. In 1830 Cottingham, and in 1871 Scott, worked their wills upon the place under the plea of restoration. Little has escaped their attention, neither the beautiful Decorated tomb of Bishop Walter de Merton (1278) nor that of Bishop John de Sheppey (1360). The best thing left to us in the Cathedral and that which gives it its character is the great western doorway with its sombre Norman carving of the earlier part of the twelfth century. The nave is also beautiful and the crypt is undoubtedly one of the most interesting monuments left in England. Of the Priory practically nothing remains but a few fragments.
Doubtless Chaucer and his company did not leave the great church unvisited nor fail to look curiously, nor perhaps to pray, at the shrine of St William, for they, too, were travellers and pilgrims. But the spectacle in the little city which it might seem most filled their imagination, as it does ours, was not the Cathedral at all, but the great Keep which stands above it, frowning across the busy Medway. Nothing more imposing of its kind than this great Norman Castle remains in England. Having a base of seventy feet square, and consisting of walls twelve feet thick and one hundred and twenty feet high, it still seems what in fact it was, almost impregnable by any arms but those of the modern world. Its great weakness lay always in the matter of provision, but it was perfectly supplied with water, by means of a well sixty feet under ground, in which stood always ten feet of water. From this well a stone pipe or tunnel, two feet nine inches in diameter, led up to the very roof, access to it being given on each of the four floors into which the keep was divided within. These apartments one and all were divided from east to west by walls five feet thick, so that on each floor there were two chambers forty-six feet long by about twenty feet in breadth. That this enormous keep is the work of Gundulph and contemporary with the Tower of London, there seems to be no reason to doubt. Of the great part it played in English history I have already spoken. But even in ruin it impresses one as few things left to us nowadays, when everything we make is so monstrous in comparison with the work of our fathers, are able to do. To stand there on the platform a hundred and twenty feet in the air and look out over the Medway crowded with shipping, ringing, echoing with factories on either shore, to see the great ships in the tideway and the fog and smoke of Chatham and its dockyards down the stream, is to receive an impression of the fragile, but tremendous, greatness of our civilisation such as few other places in South England would be able to give us suddenly between two heart beats.
Such a vision of feverish and yet noble energy and endeavour, wholly material if you will, and seemingly unaware of any world or life but this, is altogether alien from Rochester itself, where an old fashioned leisure, an air almost Georgian lingers yet. Indeed, one expects to meet Mr Pickwick in the High Street or at least Charles Dickens come in from Gadshill.
The only mood that has quite passed from Rochester, and that is yet more securely crystallised there in the Cathedral and the Castle than any other, is that of the Middle Age. You will not find it in any of the churches now, nor in any inn that is left to us, nor in the houses often both interesting and charming. All day long Rochester expects the coach and not the pilgrims; but at night, under a windy sky, if you wander up the hill and linger about the Cathedral in the shadow of the great Keep while the moon reels steeply up the heavens, you may in early Spring at any rate return for a little to that age which built such things as these, so that they have outlasted everything that has followed them and put it under their feet. And yet their heart was set upon no such victory, but in the heavens. It was the great and self-forgetting act of an obscure baker, but a saint of God, that built the mighty half abandoned church we see at Rochester, nor was he for sure altogether forgotten when all England went by to kneel and to pray beside Becket's shrine at Canterbury, raised there in a heavenly cause, which must prevail in the end, though neither Rochester nor Canterbury to-day might seem to bear out any such certainty.
The modern pilgrim, knowing what he knows, will be fain to remember at Rochester, on his way to St Thomas, one who died in the same cause, but as it might seem, disastrously without success.
For the liberty of the Church St Thomas died, that neither the king nor any civil power should control, or govern that which Christ had founded long ago upon the rock of Peter. In that same cause died Blessed John Fisher, the last Catholic Bishop of Rochester, in the year 1535. He was almost the first of Henry's victims, and he was beheaded, as was Blessed Thomas More, for refusing to recognise the royal supremacy. It was treason to deny the king's right to the title of Supreme Governor of the Church in England; and though it be still treason to deny it, a host to-day will gladly stand beside St Thomas Becket and Blessed John Fisher of Rochester.
This quarrel need never have arisen had not Henry, perjured and adulterous, desired to make the Pope his accomplice in putting away his lawful wife in order that he might marry Anne Boleyn. Because the Pope refused to aid him in this crime Henry destroyed the Catholic Church in England, and he and his successors founded the so-called Church of England, with himself as first Supreme Governor.
Among those who had most strenuously opposed the claim for divorce was Blessed John Fisher of Rochester, and with equally unflinching firmness he opposed the doctrine of the royal supremacy. He asserted that "The acceptance of such a principle would cause the clergy of England to be hissed out of the society of God's Holy Catholic Church." He was right, his prophecy has come true, and he nearly won. His opposition so far prevailed that a saving clause was added to the oath of convocation, "so far as the law of God allows." This Henry refused. The King persecuted him, Anne Boleyn tried to poison him, all England was putrid with lies concerning him contrived by those masters of lies, the Tudors; but the imperial ambassador asserted that the Bishop of Rochester was "the paragon of Christian prelates both for learning and holiness," and the Pope made him Cardinal with the title of San Vitalis. Henry, in November 1534, with the passing of the Act of Supremacy, attainted him of treason and declared the see of Rochester vacant. But Blessed John Fisher said, as St Thomas had said, "The King our Sovereign is not supreme head on earth of the Church in England." For this he was condemned to die a traitor's death; that is, to be hanged, disembowelled, and quartered at Tyburn in order that Henry might enjoy his Kentish mistress in peace, and found a new Church eager to acknowledge his adultery as lawful and to enjoy the spoil of God.
That death, once shameful but soon to be rendered glorious by the Carthusians, was denied to Fisher. His sentence was commuted to that of death by beheading upon Tower Hill, where he suffered upon June 22, 1535. His head was exposed on London Bridge; his body, interred without ceremony, now lies in the Tower, where a little later that of Blessed Thomas More was laid beside it—two countrymen of St Thomas Becket martyred in the same cause.