In this list I concern myself only with the eight largest houses in the whole length of the river. I do not mention parishes from which the revenues were not important (though these were numerous, for the abbeys held a large number of small parcels of land). I do not mention the very numerous holdings close to the river but not actually upon it (such as Burnham or Watereaton), nor, which is most important of all, do I count even in the riparian holdings such foundations as were not themselves set upon the banks of the Thames. Whatever Thames land paid rent to a monastery not actually situated upon the banks of the river, I omit. Finally the list, curtailed as it is by all these limitations, concerns only the land held at the moment of the Dissolution. Scores of holdings, such as those of Lechlade, which was dissolved in Catholic times, Windsor, which was exchanged as we have seen at the time of the Conquest, I omit and confine myself only to the lands held at the time of the Dissolution.
Yet these lands—though they concern only eight monasteries, though I mention only those actually upon the banks of the river, and though I omit from the list all small payments—put before one a series of names which, to those familiar with the Thames, seems almost like a voyage along the stream and appears to cover every portion of the landscape with which travellers upon the river are familiar. Thus we have Shifford, Eynsham, South Stoke, Radley, Cumnor, Witham, Botley, the Hinkseys, Sandford, Shillingford, Swinford, Medmenham, Appleford, Sutton, Wittenham, Culham, Abingdon, Goring, Cowley, Littlemore, Cholsey, Nuneham, Wallingford, Pangbourne, Streatley, Stanton Harcourt; and all this crowd of names upon the upper river is arrived at without counting such properties as attached to the great monasteries within towns, as, for example, to the monasteries of Oxford. It is true that not all these names represent complete manorial ownership. In a number of cases they stand for portions of the manor only, but even in this list ten at least, and possibly twelve, stand for complete manorial ownership. Then one must add Sonning, Wargreave, Tilehurst, Chertsey, Egham, Cobham, Richmond, Ham, Mortlake, Sheen, Kew, Chiswick, Staines, etc., of which many of the most important, such as Staines, are full manorial possessions.
It is clearly evident, from such a very imperfect and rapidly drawn list, what was the economic power of the great houses, and one may conclude, even from the basis of such imperfect evidence, that the directing force of economic effort throughout the Thames Valley was to be found, right up to the Dissolution, in the chapter houses of Reading, of Chertsey, and of Westminster, of Abingdon and of the lesser houses.
In a word, the business of Henry might be compared to what may be in future the business of some democratic European Government when it lays its hands upon the fortunes of the great financial houses, but with this double difference, that the confiscation to which Henry bent himself was a confiscation of capital whose product did not leave the country, and could not be used for anti-national purposes, as also that it was the confiscation of wealth which never acted secretly and which had no interest, as have our chief moneylenders, in political corruption. It was a vast undertaking and, in the truest sense of the word, a revolutionary one, such as Europe had not seen until that moment, and perhaps has not seen since.
It was effected with ease, because there did not reside in the public opinion of the time any strong body of resistance.
The change of religion, in so far as a change was threatened (and upon that the mass of the parish priests themselves, and still more the mass of the laity, were very hazy), did not affect the mind of a people famous throughout Europe for their intense and often superstitious devotion; but in some odd way the segregation of the great communities, their vast wealth, and perhaps an external contradiction between their original office and their present privilege, forbade any united or widespread enthusiasm in their defence.
Englishmen rose upon every side when they thought that the vital mysteries of the Faith were threatened. The risings were only put down by the use of foreign mercenaries and by the most execrable cruelty, nor would even these means have sufficed had the rebels formed a clear plan, or had the purpose of Henry himself in matters of religion been definite and capable of definite attack. But the country, though ready to fight for Dogma, was not ready to fight for the monasteries. It might, perhaps, have fought if the attack upon them had been direct and universal. If Henry had laid down a programme of suppressing religious bodies in general, he probably could not have carried it out, but he laid down no such programme. The Dissolution of the smaller houses was imagined by the most devout to be a statesmanlike measure. Many of them, like Medmenham, were decayed; their wealth was not to be used for the private luxury of the King or of nobles; it was to swell the revenues of the greater foundations or to be applied to pious or honourable public use. But the example once given, the attack upon the greater houses necessarily followed; and the whole episode is a vivid lesson in the capital principle of statesmanship that men are governed by routine and by the example of familiar things. Render possible to the mass of men the conception that the road, they habitually follow is not a necessity of their lives, and you may exact of them almost any sacrifice or hope to see them witness without disgust almost any enormity.
Moreover, the great monasteries were each severally tricked. The one was asked to surrender at one time, another at another; the one for this reason, the other for that. The suppression of Chertsey, the example perpetually recurring in these pages, was solemnly promised to be but a transference of the community from one spot to another; then when the transference had taken place the second community was ruthlessly destroyed. There is ample evidence to show that each community had its special hope of survival, and that each, until quite the end of the process, regarded its fate, when that fate fell upon it, as something exceptional and peculiar to itself. Some, or rather many, purchased temporary exemption, doubtless secure in the belief that their bribe would make that extension permanent. Their payments were accepted, but the contracts depending upon them were never fulfilled.
When the Dissolution had taken place, apart from the private loot, which was enormous, and to which we shall turn a few pages hence, a methodical destruction took place on the part of the Crown.
In none of the careless waste which marked the time is there a worse example than in the case of Reading. The lead had already been stripped from the roof and melted into pigs; the timbers of the roof had already been rotting for nearly thirty years, when Elizabeth gave leave for such of them as were sound to be removed. Some were used in the repairing of a local church; a little later further leave was given for 200 cartloads of freestone to be removed from the ruins. But they showed an astonishing tenacity. The abbey was still a habitation before the Civil Wars, and even at the end of the eighteenth century a very considerable stretch of the old walls remained.
Westminster was saved. The salvation of Westminster is the more remarkable in that the house was extremely wealthy.
Upon nothing has more ink been wasted in the minute research of modern history than upon an attempted exact comparison between modern and mediaeval economics.
It is a misfortune that those who are best fitted to appreciate the economic problems and science of the modern world are, either by race or religion, or both, cut off from the mediaeval system, and even when they are acquainted with the skeleton, as it were, of that body of Christian Europe, are none the less out of sympathy with, or even ignorant of, its living form and spirit.
The particular department of that inquiry which concerns anyone who touches the vast economic revolution produced by the Dissolution of the monasteries is the comparison of values (as measured in the precious metals) between the early sixteenth century and the early twentieth.
No sensible man needs to be told that such a comparison is one of the very numerous parts of historical inquiry in which a better result is arrived at in proportion as the matter is more generally and largely observed. It is one in which detail is more fatal to a man even than inaccuracy, and it is one in which hardly a single observer who has been really soaked in his subject has avoided the most ludicrous conclusions.
Again, no man of common sense need be told that a rigid multiple is absolutely impossible of discovery. The search for such a multiple is like a search for an index number which shall apply to all the varying economic habits of the modern world. One cannot say: "Multiply prices by 10" or "Multiply prices by 20," and thus afford the modern reader a sound basis; but one can say, after some observation: "Multiply by such-and-such a multiple" (wherever very large and varied expenditure is concerned) and you will certainly have a minimum; though how much more such expenditure may have represented in those very different and far simpler social circumstances cannot be precisely determined. What, then, is the rough multiple that will give us our minimum?
The inquiry has been prosecuted by more than one authority upon the basis of wheat. One may say that wheat in normal years in the early sixteenth century stood at about an eighth of wheat in what I may call the normal years of the nineteenth, before the influx of Colonial produce began to be serious, and before the depreciation of silver combined with other causes to disturb prices.
Those who have taken wheat for their basis, recognising, as even they must do, that 8 is far too low a multiple, are willing to grant 10, and sometimes even 12, and this way of calculating, largely because it is a ready rule, has entered into many books upon the Reformation. The early Tudor penny is turned into the modern shilling.
But this basis of calculation is false, because the eating of wheaten bread was not then the universal thing it is to-day. The English proletarian of to-day is, in comparison with the large well-to-do class of his fellow-citizens, a far poorer man than his ancestry ever were. Wheaten bread is, indeed, his necessity, but good fresh meat (for example) is an exception for him.
Now the Englishmen of earlier times made beef a necessity, and yet we find that beef will permit a higher multiple than wheat. Beef will give you a multiple of 12, and just as wheat, giving you a multiple of 8, permits a somewhat higher general multiple, so beef, giving you a multiple of 12, permits a higher one. So if we were to make beef our staple instead of wheat we should get a multiple of 13 or 14 by which to turn the money of the first third of the sixteenth century into the money of our own time.
But beef, in its turn, is not a fair standard; during much of the year pork had, under the circumstances of the time, to be eaten instead of fresh meat. Pork is to-day almost the only meat all the year round of many labourers on the land. Now pork gives a still higher multiple: it gives 20. For the pound that you would now give in Chichester Market for a breeding sow, you gave in the early years of the sixteenth century a shilling. So here you have another article of common consumption which gives you a multiple of 20.
Strong ale gives you a higher multiple still—one of nearly 24. You could then get strong ale at a penny a gallon. You will hardly get it at two shillings a gallon to-day; and yet it is made of the same materials. The small ale of the hayfield will give you almost any multiple you like; it is from eightpence to ninepence a gallon now: it was often given away in the sixteenth century as water would be.
The consideration of but a few sets of prices such as those we have quoted shows that the ordinary multiple might be anything between 8 and 24, with a prejudice in favour of the higher rather than the lower figure. But there are other lines of proof which converge upon the matter, and which permit a greater degree of certitude. For instance, even after the rise in prices in the early part of Elizabeth's reign, while sixpence a week is thought low for the board and lodging of a working man, a shilling is thought very high, and is only given in the case of first-rate artisans; and if we consider the pre-Reformation period, when the position of the labourer was, of course, much better than it was under Elizabeth, or ever has been since, we find something of the same scale. A penny a day is thought a rather mean allowance, but twopence a day is a first-rate extra board wage.
Again, in Henry VIII.'s first poll tax it is taken for granted that many labourers have less than a pound a year in actual wages, and that wages over this sum, up to two pounds, for instance, form a sort of aristocracy of labour that can afford to pay taxation. Of course some part of the wages so counted were paid in part board and lodging, especially in the agricultural industries, but still, the reception of 240 pence for a year's work in money gives you a multiple of far more than 20: you will not get a man about a house and garden for less than thirty pounds though you feed and house him, and the unhoused outside labourer gets, first and last, over fifty pounds at the least.
When the Reformation was in full swing the currency was debased almost out of recognition, and before the death of Edward VI. prices are rendered so fictitious by inflation that they are useless for our purpose. It is only with the currency of Elizabeth that they became true measures of value once more.
It is useless, therefore, to follow the inquiry after the Dissolution of the monasteries, for not only was the currency at sixes and sevens, but true prices were also rapidly rising with the influx of precious metals from Spain and America.
I have said enough in this very elementary sketch to show that a general multiple of 20, when one considers wages as well as staple foods, is as high as can be fixed safely, while a general multiple of 12 is certainly too low.
But even to multiply by 20 is by no means enough if one is to appreciate the social meaning of such-and-such a large income in the first part of Henry VIII.'s reign.
A brief historical essay, such as is this, is no place in which to discuss any general theory of economics; were there space to do so, even in an elementary fashion, it would be possible to show how the increase of wealth in a state is, on account of the increased elasticity in circulation of the currency, almost independent of the movement of prices. But without going into formulae; of this complexity, a couple of homely comparisons will suffice to show what a much larger thing a given income was in the early sixteenth century, than its corresponding amount in values is to-day.
Consider a man with some L2000 a year travelling through modern Europe. Prices, in the competition of modern commerce and the ease of modern travel, are levelled up very evenly throughout the area that he traverses. Yet such a man, should he settle in a village of Spanish peasants, would appear of almost illimitable wealth, because he would have at his command an almost indefinite amount of those simple necessities which form the whole category of their consumable values. Or again, let such a man settle in a place where the variety of consumable values is large, but where the distribution of wealth is fairly equal, and the small income, therefore, a normal social phenomenon—as, for instance, among the lower middle class of Paris-there again his L2000 a year would be of much greater effect than in a society where wealth was unequally divided, for it would produce that effect in a medium where the satisfaction of nearly every individual around him was easily reached upon perhaps a tenth of such an income.
When all this is taken into consideration we can begin to see what the great monasteries were at the time of their dissolution. It is hardly an exaggeration to multiply the list of mere values by 20 to bring it into the terms of modern currency. A place worth close on L2000 a year (as was, for instance, Ramsey Abbey) meant an income of not far short of L40,000 a year in our money, to go by prices alone. And that L40,000 a year was spent in an England in which nine-tenths of the luxury of our modern rich was unknown, in which the squire was usually but three or four times richer than one of his farmers, in which great wealth, where it existed, attached rather to an office than to a person. In general, the multiple of 20 must be further multiplied by a coefficient which is not arithmetically determinable, but which we see I to be very large by a general comparison of the small, poor, and equable society of the early sixteenth century with the complex, huge, wealthy, and wholly iniquitous society of our own day.
Supposing, for instance, we take the high multiple of 20, and say that the revenues of Westminster at its dissolution in the first days of 1540 were some L80,000 a year in our modern money, we are far underestimating the economic position of Westminster in the State. There are to-day many private men in London who dispose of as great an income, and who, for all their ostentation, are not remarkable; but the income of Westminster in the early sixteenth century, when wealth was far more equally divided than it is now, and when the accumulation of it was far less, was a very different matter to what we mean to-day by L80,000 a year. It produced more of the effect which we might to-day imagine would be produced by a million. The fortune of but very few families could so much as compare with it, and the fortunes of individual families, especially of wealthy families, were, during the existence of a strong king, highly perilous, and often cut short; nothing could pretend to equal such an economic power but the Crown, which then was, and which remained until the victory of the aristocracy in the Civil Wars, by far the richest legal personality in Britain. The temptation to sack Westminster was something like the temptation presented to our financial powers to-day to get at the rubber of the Congo Basin or at the unexploited coal of Northern China.
By a miracle that temptation was withstood. For the moment Henry intended to construct a bishopric with its cathedral out of the old corporation and abbey. He might have done so and yet have yielded immediately after to his cupidity, as he did with the Cathedral of Osney. It ended in the form which it at present maintains. The greater part of its revenues were, of course, stolen, but the fabric was spared and enough income was retained to permit the continuous life of Westminster to our own time.
Men are slow to conceive what might have been—nay, what almost was—in their national history; it seems difficult to our generation to imagine Westminster Abbey absent only from the national life; yet Abingdon is gone, all but a gateway, Reading all but a few ruined walls, Chertsey has utterly disappeared, so has Osney, so has Sheen—to mention the great river houses alone: Westminster alone survives, and the only reason it survives is that it had about it at the time of the destruction of the monasteries a royal flavour, and that its existence helped to bolster up the Tudors. But for that it would have been sold like the rest, the lead would have been stripped from its roof, the glass broken and thrown aside, and a Cecil or a Howard would have built himself a palace with the stones. It is but a chance that the words "Westminster Abbey" mean more to us to-day than "Woburn Abbey," "Bewley Abbey" or any one of the scores of "Abbeys," "Priories," and the rest, which are the names of our country houses.
Chertsey and Abingdon were less fortunate than Westminster.
Chertsey, indeed, has so thoroughly disappeared that it might be taken as a symbol of all that England had been for the thirty generations since Christianity had come to her, and then, in two generations of men, ceased suddenly to be. There is, perhaps, not one in a thousand of the vague Colonials who regard Westminster Abbey as a sort of inevitable centre for Britishers and Anglo-Saxons, who has so much as heard of Chertsey. There is perhaps but one in a hundred of historical students who could attach a definite connection to the name, and yet Chertsey came next in the list of the great Benedictine Abbeys; Chertsey also was coeval with England.
Chertsey went the way of them all. The last abbot, John Cordery, surrendered it in the July of 1537, but he and his community were not immediately dispersed, they were taken off to fill that strange new foundation of Bisham, of which we shall hear later in connection with the river, and which in its turn immediately disappeared. Not a year had passed, the June of 1538 was not over, when the new community at Bisham was scattered as the old one at Chertsey had been.
Of the abbey itself nothing is left but a broken piece of gateway, and the few stones of a wall. But a relic of it remains in Black Cherry Fair, a market granted to the abbey in the fifteenth century and formerly held upon St. Anne's Hill and upon St. Anne's Day.
The fate of this monastery has something about it particularly tragic, for the abbot and the monks of Chertsey when they surrendered did so in the full expectation of continuing their monastic life at Bisham, and if Bisham was treacherously destroyed immediately after the fault does not lie at their door.
With Abingdon it was otherwise. The last prior was perhaps the least steadfast of all the many bewildered or avaricious characters that meet us in the story of the Dissolution. He was one Thomas Rowland, who had watched every movement of Henry's mind, and had, if possible, gone before. He did not even wait until the demand was made to him, but suggested the abandonment of the trust which so many generations of Englishmen had left in his hands, and he had a reward in the gift not only of a very large pension but also of the Manor of Cumnor, which had been before the destruction of the religious orders the sanatorium or country house of the monks. He obtained it: and from his time on Cumnor has borne an air of desolation and of murder, nor does any part of his own palace remain.
When any organised economic system disappears, there is nothing more interesting in history than to watch the process of its replacement: for example, the gradual disappearance of pagan slavery, and its replacement by the self-governing peasantry of the Middle Ages, with all the consequence of that change, affords some of the best reading in Continental records. But the Dissolution of the English monasteries has this added interest, that it was an immediate, and therefore an overwhelming, change; there was hardly a warning, there was no delay. Suddenly, not within the lifetime of a man, but within that of a Parliament, from one year to another, a good quarter of the whole economic power of the nation was utterly transformed. Nothing like it has been known in European history.
What filled the void so made? The answer to this question is, the Oligarchy: the landed class which had been threatening for so long to assume the Government of England stepped into the shoes of the great houses, and by this addition to their already considerable power achieved the destruction of the monarchy and within 100 years proceeded to the ordering of the English people under a small group of wealthy men, a form of Government which to this day England alone of all Christian nations suffers or enjoys.
This general statement must not be taken to mean that the oligarchic system, whose basis lies in the ownership of land, was immediately created by the Dissolution of the great monasteries. The development of the territorial system of England, of which system the banks of the Thames afford as good a picture as any in England, can be traced certainly from Saxon, and conjecturally from Roman, times.
The Roman estate was, presumably, the direct ancestor of the manor, and the Saxon thegns were perhaps most of them in blood, and nearly all of them in social constitution, descended from the owners of the Roman Villas which had seen the petty but recurrent pirate invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries.
But though the manorial arrangement, with its village lords and their dependent serfs, was common to the whole of the West, and could be found on the Rhine, in Gaul, and even in Italy, in Saxon England it had this peculiarity, that there was no systematic organisation by which the local land-owner definitely recognised a feudal superior, and through him the power of a Central Government. Or rather, though in theory such recognition had grown up towards the end of the Saxon period, in practice it hardly existed, and when William landed the whole system of tenure was in disorder, in the sense that the local lord of the village was not accustomed to the interference of a superior, and that no groups of lords had come into existence by which the territorial system could be bound in sheaves, as it were, and the whole of it attached to one central point at the royal Court.
Such a system of groups had arisen in Gaul, and to that difference ultimately we owe the French territorial system of the present day, but William the Norman's new subjects had no comprehension of it.
It was upon this account that even those manors which he handed over to his French kindred and dependants were scattered, and that, though he framed a vigorous feudal rule centring in his own hands, the ancient customs of the populace, coupled with the lack of any bond between scattered and locally independent units, forbade that rule to endure.
William's order was not a century old when the recrudescence of the former manorial independence was felt in the reign of Henry II. Under the personal unpopularity of his son, John, it blazed out into successful revolt, and, in spite of the veil thrown over underlying and permanent customs by such strong feudal kings as the first and the third Edwards, the independence and power of the village landlord remained the chief and growing character of English life. It expressed itself in the quality of the local English Parliament, in the support of the usurping Lancastrian dynasty—in twenty ways that converge and mingle towards the close of the Middle Ages.
But after the Dissolution of the monasteries this power of the squires takes on quite a different complexion: the land-owning class, from a foundation for the National Government, became, within two generations of the Dissolution, the master of that Government.
For many centuries previous to the sixteenth the old funded wealth of the Crown had been gradually wasting, at the expense of the Central National Government and to the profit of the squires. But the alienation was never complete. There are plenty of cases in which the Crown is found resuming the proprietorship of a manor to which it had never abandoned the theoretical title. With the Tudors such cases become rarer and rarer, with the Stuarts they cease.
The cause of this rapid enfeeblement of the Crown lay largely in the changed proportion of wealth. The King, until the middle of the sixteenth century, had been far wealthier than any one of his subjects. By a deliberate act, the breaking up of ecclesiastical tenure, the Crown offered an opportunity to the wealthier of those subjects so enormously to increase their revenues as to overshadow itself; in a little more than a century after the throwing open of the monastic lands the King is an embarrassed individual, with every issue of expenditure ear-marked, every source of it controlled, and his very person, as it were, mortgaged to a plutocracy. The squires had not only added to their revenues the actual amounts produced by the sites and estates of the old religious foundations, they had been able by this sudden accession of wealth to shoot ahead in their competition with their fellow-citizens. The counterweight to the power of the local landlord disappeared with the disappearance of the monastery.
To show how the religious houses had furnished a powerful counterweight by which the Central Government and the populace could continue to oppose the growing power of the landed oligarchy, we may take all the southern bank of the Thames from Buscot to Windsor. We find at the time of the Conquest twelve royal manors and fifteen religious; only the nine remaining were under private lords. Four and a half centuries later, at the time of the Dissolution, the royal manors have passed for the most part into private hands, but the manors in the hands of the religious houses have actually increased in number.
At this point it is important to note an economic phenomenon which appears at first sight accidental, but which, on examination, is found to spring from calculable political causes. At the moment of the Dissolution it was apparently in the power of the Crown to have concentrated the revenues of all these monastic manors into its own hands, and this typical stretch of country, the Berkshire shore, shows how economically powerful the Central Government of England might have become had the property surrendered to the Crown been kept in the hands of the King.
The modern reader will be tempted to inquire why it was not so kept.
Most certainly Henry intended to keep, if not the whole of it (for he must reward his servants, and he was accustomed to do things largely), yet at least the bulk of it in the Royal Treasury, and had he been able to do so the Central Government of England would have become by far the strongest thing in Europe. It is conceivable, though in consideration of the national character doubtful, that with so powerful an instrument of government, England, instead of standing aside from the rapid bureaucratic recasting of European civilisation which was the work of the French Crown, might have led the way in that chief of modern experiments. One can imagine the Stuarts, had they possessed revenue, doing what the Bourbons did: one can imagine the modern State developing under an English Crown wealthier than any other European Government, and the re-birth of Europe happening just to the north, instead of just to the south, of the Channel.
But the speculation is vain. As a fact, the whole of the new wealth slipped rapidly from between the fingers of the English King.
When of three forces which still form an equilibrium two are stationary and one is pressing upon these two, then, if either of the stationary forces be removed, that which was pressing upon both overwhelms the stationary force that remains. The monastic system had been marking time for over 100 years, and in certain political aspects of its power had perhaps slightly dwindled. The monarchy, for all its splendour, was in actual resources no more than it had been for some generations. Pressing upon either of these two institutions was the rising and still rising force of the squires. It is not wonderful that under such conditions the spoil fell to the younger and advancing power.
Consider, for example, the extraordinary anxiety of so apparently powerful a king as Henry for the formal consent of the Commons to his acts. It has been represented as part of the Tudor national policy and what not, but those who write thus have not perhaps smiled, as has the present writer, over the names of those who sat for the English shires in the Parliament which assented to the Dissolution of the great monastic houses. Here is a Ratcliffe from Northumberland, and a Collingwood; here is a Dacre, a Musgrave, a Blenkinsop; the Constables are there, and the Nevilles from Yorkshire; the Tailboys of Lincoln, a Schaverell, a Throgmorton, a Ferrers, a Gascoyne; and of course, inevitably, sitting for Bedfordshire, a hungry Russell.
Here is a Townshend, a Wingfield, a Wentworth, an Audley—all from East Anglia—a Butler; from Surrey a Carew, and that FitzWilliam whose appetite for the religious spoils proved so insatiable; here is a Blount out of Shropshire; a Lyttleton, a Talbot (and yet another Russell!), a Darrell, a Paulet, a Courtney, (to see what could be picked up in his native county of Devon), and after him a Grenfell. These are a few names taken at random to show what humble sort of "Commons" it was that Henry had to consider. They are significant names; and the "Constitution" had little to do then, and has little to do now, with their domination. Wealth was and is their instrument of power.
That such men could ultimately force the Government is evident, but what is remarkable, perhaps, is the extraordinary rapidity with which the Crown was stripped of its new wealth by the gentry, and this can only be explained in two ways:
First, there was the rapid change in prices which rose from the Spanish importation of precious metals from America, the effect of which was now reaching England; and, secondly, the Tudor character.
As to the first, it put the National Government, dependent as it still largely was upon the customary and fixed payments, into a perpetual embarrassment. Where it still received nothing but the customary shilling, it had to pay out three for material and wages, whose price had risen and was rising. In this embarrassment, in spite of every subterfuge and shift, the Crown was in perpetual, urgent, and increasing need. Rigid and novel taxes were imposed, loans were raised and not repaid, but something far more was needed to save the situation, with prices still rising as the years advanced. Ready money from those already in possession of perhaps half the arable land of England was an obvious source, and into their pockets flowed, as by the force of gravitation, the funded wealth which had once supported the old religion. Hardly ever at more than ten years' purchase, sometimes at far less, the Crown turned its new rentals into ready money, and spent that capital as though it had been income.
The Tudor character was a second cause.
It is a pleasing speculation to conceive that, if some character other than a Tudor had been upon the throne, not all at least of this national inheritance would have been dissipated. One can imagine a character—tenacious, pure, narrow and subtle, intent upon dignity, and with a natural suspicion of rivals—which might have saved some part of the estates for posterity. Charles I., for example, had he been born 100 years earlier, might very well have done the thing.
But the Tudors, for all their violence, were fundamentally weak. There was always some vice or passion to interrupt the continuity of their policy—even Mary, who was not the offspring of caprice, had inherited the mental taint of the Spanish house—and before the last of the family had died, while still old men were living who, as children, had seen the monasteries, nearly all this vast treasure had found its way into the pockets of the squires. In the middle of the seventeenth century every one of these villages is under a private landlord: before the close of it even the theoretical link of their feudal dependence upon the Crown is snapped: and the two centuries between that time and our own have seen the power of the new landlords steadily maintained and latterly vastly increased.
Apart from the transfer of the monastic manors there was yet another way in which the Dissolution of the religious houses helped on the establishment of the landed oligarchy in the place of the old National Government. The monasteries had owned not only these full manorial rights, but also numerous parcels of land scattered up and down in manors whose lordship was already in private hands. These parcels, like the small lay freeholds, which they resembled, formed nuclei of resistance to the increasing power of the squires.
The point is of very considerable importance, though not easy to seize for anyone unacquainted with the way in which the territorial oligarchy has been built up or ignorant of the present conditions of English village life.
At the close of the Middle Ages the lord of a manor in England, though possessed of a larger proportion of the land than were his colleagues in other countries, but rarely could claim so much as one half of the acreage of a parish; the rest was common, in which his rights were strictly limited and defined, to the advantage of the poor, and also side by side with common was to be found a number of partially and wholly independent tenures, over which the squire had little or no control, from copyholds which did furnish him occasional sums of money, to freeholds which were practically independent of him.
The monasteries possessed parcels of this sort everywhere. To give but one example: Chertsey had twenty acres of freehold pasturage in the Manor of Cobham; but it is useless to give examples of a thing which was as common as the renting of a house to-day. Now these small parcels formed a most valuable foundation upon which the independence of similar lay parcels could repose. The squire might be tempted to bully a four-acre man out of his land, but he could not bully the Abbot of Abingdon, or of Reading. And so long as these small parcels were sanctioned by the power of the great houses, so long they were certain to endure in the hands even of the smallest and the humblest of the tenants. To-day in a modern village where a gentleman possesses such an island of land, better still where several do, there at once arises a tendency and an opportunity for the smaller men to acquire and to retain. The present writer could quote a Sussex village in the centre of which were to be found, but thirty years ago, more than half-a-dozen freeholds. They disappeared: in its prosperity "The Estate" extinguished them. The next heir in his embarrassment has handed over the whole lump to a Levantine for a loan. Had the Old Squire spared the small freeholds they would have come in as purchasers and would have increased their number during the later years when the principal landlord, his son, was gradually falling into poverty and drink.
When the monasteries were gone the disappearance of the small men gradually began. It was hastened by the extinction of that old tradition which made the Church a customary landlord exacting quit rents always less than the economic value of the land, and, what with the security of tenure and the low rental, creating a large tenant right. This tenant right vested in the lucky dependants of the Church did indeed create intense local jealousies that help to account for much of the antagonism to the monastic houses. But the future showed that the benefits conferred, though irregular and privileged, were more than the landless men could hope to expect when they had exchanged the monk for the squire.
Finally, the Dissolution of the religious houses strengthened the squires in the mere machinery of the constitution. Before that Dissolution the House of Lords was a clerical house. Had you entered the Council of Henry VII. when Parliament sat at Westminster you would have seen a crowd of mitres and of croziers, bishops and abbots of the great abbeys, among whom, here and there, were some thirty lay lords. This clerical House of Lords, sprung largely from the populace, possessed only of life tenure, was a very different thing from the House of Lords that succeeded the Dissolution. That immediately became a committee, as it were, of the landed class; and a committee of the landed class the House of Lords remained until quite the last few years, when the practice of purchase has admitted to it brewers, money-lenders, Colonial speculators, and, indeed, anyone who can furnish the sum required by a woman or a secret party fund. A concrete example is often of value in the illustration of a general process, and at the expense of a digression I propose to lay before the reader as excellent a picture as we have of the way in which the Dissolution of the monasteries not only emphasised the position of the existing territorial class, but began to recruit it with elements drawn from every quarter, and, while it established the squires in power, taught them to be careless of the origin or of the end of the families admitted to their rank.
For this purpose I can find no better example than that of the family of Williams, which by the licence of custom we have come to call "Cromwell"; the most famous member of this family stands out in English history as the typical squire who led the Forces of his Order against the impoverished Monarchy, and so reduced that emblem of Government to the simulacrum which it still remains.
Putney, by Thames-side, was the home of their very lowly beginnings.
Of the descent of the Williams throughout the Middle Ages nothing is known. Much later they claimed relationship with certain heads of the Welsh clans, but the derivation is fantastic. At any rate a certain Williams was keeping a public-house in Putney in the generation which saw the first of the Reformers. His name was Morgan, and the "Ap William" or "Williams" which he added to that name was an affix due to the Welsh custom of calling a man by his father's name; for surnames had not yet become a rule in the Principality. He may have come, and probably did, from Glamorganshire, and that is all we can say about him; though we must admit some weight in Leland's contemporary evidence that his son, Richard, was born in the same county, at a place called Llanishen. Anyhow, there he is, keeping his public-house in the first years of the sixteenth century by the riverside at Putney.
There lived in the same hamlet (which was a dependency of the manor of Wimbledon) a certain Cromwell or Crumwell, who was also called Smith; but this obscure personage should most probably be known by the first of these two names, for his humble business was the shoeing of horses, and the second appellation was very probably a nickname arising from that trade. He also added beer-selling to his other work, and this common occupation may have formed a link between him and his neighbour, Morgan ap William.
The next stage in the story is not perfectly clear. Smith or Crumwell had a son and two daughters, the son was called Thomas, and the daughter that concerns us was called Katherine. It is highly probable, according to modern research into the records of the manor, that Morgan ap William married Katherine. But the matter is still in some doubt. There are not a few authorities, some of them painstaking, though all of them old, who will have it that the blacksmith's son, Thomas, loved Morgan ap William's sister, instead of its being the other way about. It is not easy to establish the exact relationship between two public-house keepers who lived as neighbours in a dirty little village 400 years ago.
Thomas proceeded to an astonishing career; he left his father's forge, wandered to Italy, may have been present at the sack of Rome, and was at last established as a merchant in the city of London. When one says "merchant" one is talking kindly. His principal business then, as throughout his life, was that of a usurer, and he showed throughout his incredible adventures something of that mixture of simplicity and greed, with a strange fixity in the oddest of personal friendships, which amuses us to-day in our company promoters and African adventurers. His abilities recommended him to Wolsey, and when that great genius fell, Cromwell was, as the most familiar of historical traditions represents him, faithful to his master.
Whether this faithfulness recommended him to the King or not, it is difficult to say. Probably it did, for there is nothing that a careful plotter will more narrowly watch in an agent than his record of fidelity in the past.
Henry fixed upon him to be his chief instrument in the suppression of the monasteries. His lack of all fixed principle, his unusual power of application to a particular task, his devotion to whatever orders he chose to obey, and his quite egregious avarice, all fitted him for the work his master ordered.
How the witty scoundrel accomplished that business is a matter of common history. Had he never existed the monasteries would have fallen just the same, perhaps in the same manner, and probably with the same despatch. But fate has chosen to associate this revolution with his name—and to his presence in that piece of confiscation we owe the presence in English history of the great Oliver; for Oliver, as will be presently seen, and all his tribe were fed upon no other food than the possessions of the Church. Cromwell, in his business of suppressing the great houses, embezzled quite cynically—if we can fairly call that "embezzlement" which was probably countenanced by the King, to whom account was due. Indeed, it is plainly evident from the whole story of that vast economic catastrophe which so completely separates the England we know from the England of a thousand years—the England of Alfred, of Edward I., of Chaucer, and of the French Wars—it is evident from the whole story, that the flood of confiscated wealth which poured into the hands of the King's agents and squires was a torrent almost impossible to control; Henry VIII. was glad enough to be able to retain, even for a year or two, one half of the spoils.
We know, for instance, that the family of Howard (which was then already of more than a century's standing) took everything they could lay their hands on in the particular case of Bridlington—pyxes, chalices, crucifixes, patens, reliquaries, vestments, shrines, every saleable or meltable thing, and the cattle and pigs into the bargain, and never dreamt of giving account to the King.
With Cromwell, the embezzlement was more systematic: it was a method of keeping accounts. But our interest lies in the fact that the process was accompanied by that curious fidelity to all with whom he was personally connected, which forms so interesting a feature in the sardonic character of this adventurer. It is here that we touch again upon the family of Morgan ap William, the public-house keeper of Putney.
When Cromwell was at the height of his power he lifted out from the obscurity of his native kennel a certain Richard Williams, calling him now "cousin" and now "nephew." We may take it that the boy was a nephew, and that the word "cousin" was used only in the sense of general relationship which attached to it at that time. If Cromwell had been a man of a trifle more distinction, or of tolerable honesty, we might even be certain that this young fellow was the legitimate son of his sister Katherine, and, indeed, it is much the more probable conclusion at which we should arrive to-day. But Cromwell himself obscured the matter by alluding to his relative as "Williams (alias Cromwell)," and there must necessarily remain a suspicion as to the birth and real status of his dependant.
In 1538 this young Richard Williams got two foundations handed over to him—both in Huntingdon, and together amounting in value to about L500 a year.
We have seen on an earlier page how extremely difficult or impossible it is to estimate exactly in modern money the figures of the Dissolution. We have agreed that to multiply by twenty for a maximum is permissible, but that even then we shall not have anything like the true relation of any particular income to the general standard of wealth in a time when England was so much smaller than our England of to-day, and in an England where wealth had been until that moment so well divided, and especially in an England where the objects both of luxury and expenditure were so utterly different to our own: where all textile fabric was, for instance, so much dearer in proportion to food than it is now, and where yet a man could earn in a few weeks' labour what would with us be capital enough to stock a small farm.
It is safe to say, however, that when Cromwell had got his young relation—whatever that relationship was—into possession of the two foundations in Huntingdon, he had set him up as a considerable local gentleman, and whether it was the inheritance of the Cromwell blood through his mother, or something equally unpleasant in the heredity of his father, Morgan, young Williams ("alias Cromwell") did not stick there.
Early in 1540 he swallowed bodily the enormous revenues of Ramsey Abbey.
Now to appreciate what that meant we must return to the case we have already established in the case of Westminster. Westminster almost alone of the great foundations remains with a certain splendour attached to it; we cannot, indeed, see all the dependencies as they used to stand to the south of the great Abbey. We cannot see the lively and populous community dependent upon it; still less can we appreciate what a figure it must have cut in the days when London was but a large country town, and when this walled monastic community stood in its full grandeur surrounded by its gardens and farms. But still, the object lesson afforded by the Abbey yet remains visible to us. We can see it as it was, and we know that its income must have represented in the England at that time infinitely more in outward effect than do to-day the largest private incomes of our English gentry: a Solomon Joel, for instance, or a Rothschild, does not occupy so great a place in modern England as did Westminster, at the close of the Middle Ages, in the very different England of its time.
Well, Ramsey was the equivalent of half Westminster, and young Williams swallowed it whole. He was not given it outright, but the price at which he bought it is significant of the way in which the monastic lands were distributed, and in which incidentally the squirearchy of England was founded. He bought it for less than three years' purchase. Where he got the money, or indeed whether he paid ready money at all, we do not know. If he did furnish the sum down we may suspect that he borrowed it from his uncle, and we may hope that that genial financier charged but a low rate of interest to one whom he had so signally favoured.
Contemporaneously with this vast accession of fortune, which made Williams the principal man in the county, Cromwell, now Earl of Essex, fell from favour, and was executed. The barony was revived for his son five months after his death and was not extinguished until the first years of the eighteenth century, but with this, the direct lineage of the King's Vicar-General, we are not concerned: our business is with the family of Williams.
Young Williams did not imitate his protector in showing any startling fidelity to the fallen. He became a courtier, was permanently in favour with the King and with the King's son, and died established in the great territorial position which he had come into by so singular an accident.
His son, Henry, maintained that position, and possibly increased it. He was four times High Sheriff of the two counties; he received Elizabeth, his sovereign and patroness, at his seat at Hinchinbrooke (one of the convents), and in general he played the role with which we are so tediously familiar in the case of the new and monstrous fortunes of our own times.
He was in Parliament also for the Queen, and it was his brother who moved the resolution of thanks to Elizabeth for the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.
He died in 1603, and even to his death the alias was maintained. "Williams (alias Cromwell)" was the legal signature which guaranteed the validity of purchases and sales, while to the outer world CROMWELL (alias Williams) was the formula by which the family gently thrust itself into the tradition of another and more genteel name. The whole thing was done, like everything else this family ever did, by a mixture of trickery and patience; he obtained no special leave from Chancery as the law required; he simply used the "Williams" in public less and less and the "Cromwell" more and more. When he died, his sons after him, Robert and Oliver, had forgotten the Williams altogether—in public—and in the case of such powerful men it was convenient for the neighhours to forget the lineage also; so with the end of the sixteenth century these Williams have become Cromwells, pur et simple, and Cromwells they remain. But still the old caution clings to them where the law, and especially where money, is concerned; even Robert's son, who grew to be the Lord Protector, signs Williams when it is a case of securing his wife's dowry. Of Robert and Oliver, sons of Henry, and grandsons of the original Richard, Oliver, the elder, inherited, of course, the main wealth of the family, but Robert also was portioned, and as was invariably the case with the Williams' (alias Cromwell), the portion took the form of monastic lands.
Many more estates of the Church had come into the hands of this highly accretive family in the half century that had passed since the destruction of the monasteries. [Thus at the very end of the century we find Oliver telling the abbey land of Stratton to a haberdasher in London for L3000.]
The portion of this younger brother, Robert, consisted of religious estates in the town of Huntingdon itself, and it is highly characteristic of the whole tribe that the very house in which the Lord Protector was born was monastic, and had been, before the Dissolution, a hospital dedicated to the use of the poor. For the Lord Protector was the son of this Robert, who by a sort of atavism had added to the ample income derived from monastic spoil the profits of a brewery. It was Mrs Cromwell who looked after the brewery, and some appreciable part of the family revenues were derived from it when, in 1617, her husband died, leaving young Oliver, the future Lord Protector, an only son of eighteen, upon her hands.
The quarrels between young Oliver and old Oliver (the absurdly wealthy head of the family) would furnish material for several diverting pages, but they do not concern this, which is itself but a digression from the general subject of my book.
The object of that digression has been to trace the growth of but one great territorial family, from the gutter to affluence in the course of less than 100 years; to show how plain "Williams" gradually and secretly became "Cromwell"—because the new name had about it a flavour of nobility, however parvenu; to show how the whole of their vast revenues depended upon, and was born from, the destruction of monastic system, and to show by the example of one Thames-side family how rapidly and from what sources was derived that economic power of the squires which, when it came to the issue of arms, utterly destroyed what was left of the national monarchy.
The new regime had, however, other features about it which must not be forgotten. For instance, in this growth of a new territorial body upon the ruins of the monastic orders, in this sudden and portentous increase of the wealth and power of the squires of England, the mutability of the new system is perhaps as striking as any other of its characteristics.
Manors or portions of manors which had been steadily fixed in the possession and customs of these undying corporations for centuries pass rapidly from hand to hand, and though there is sometimes a lull in the process the uprooting reoccurs after each lull, as though continuity and a strong tradition, which are necessarily attached for good or for evil to a free peasantry, were as necessarily disregarded by a landed plutocracy. There is not, perhaps, in all Europe a similar complete carelessness for the traditions of the soil and for the attachment of a family to an ancestral piece of land as is to be found among these few thousand squires. The system remains, but the individual families, the particular lineages, appear without astonishment and are destroyed almost without regret. Aliens, Orientals and worse, enter the ruling class, and are received without surprise; names that recall the Elizabethans go out, and are not mourned.
We are accustomed to-day, when we see some village estate in our own country pass from an impoverished gentleman to some South African Jew, to speak of the passing of an old world and of its replacement by a new and a worse one. But an examination of the records which follow the Dissolution of the monasteries may temper our sorrow. The wound that was dealt in the sixteenth century to our general national traditions affected the love of the land as profoundly as it did religion, and the apparent antiquity which the trees, the stones, and a certain spurious social feeling lend to these country houses is wholly external.
Among the riparian manors of the Thames the fate of Bisham is very characteristic of the general fate of monastic land. It was surrendered, among other smaller monasteries, in 1536, though it enjoyed an income corresponding to about L6000 a year of our money, and of course very much more than L6000 a year in our modern way of looking at incomes. It was thus a wealthy place, and how it came to be included in the smaller monasteries is not quite clear. At any rate it was restored immediately after. The monks of Chertsey were housed in it, as we have already seen, and the revenues of several of the smaller dissolved houses were added to it; so that it was at the moment of its refoundation about three times as wealthy as it had been before. The prior who had surrendered in 1536, one Barlow, was made Bishop of St Asaphs, and in turn of St. Davids, Bath and Wells, and Chichester; he is that famous Barlow who took the opportunity of the Reformation to marry, and whose five daughters all in turn married the Protestant bishops of the new Church of England. But this is by the way. The fate of the land is what is interesting. From Anne of Cleves, whose portion it had been, and to whom the Government of the great nobles under Edward VI. confirmed it after Henry VIII.'s death, it passed, upon her surrendering it in 1552, to a certain Sir Philip Hoby. He had been of the Privy Council of Henry VIII. Upon his death it passed to his nephew, Edward Hoby; Edward was a Parliamentarian under Elizabeth, wrote on Divinity, and left an illegitimate son, Peregrine, to whom he bequeathed Bisham upon his death in 1617. It need hardly be said that before 100 years were over the son was already legitimatised in the county traditions; his son, Edward, was created Baron just after the Restoration, in 1666. The succession was kept up for just 100 years more, when the last male heir of the family died in 1766. He was not only a baron but a parson as well, and on his death the estate went to relatives by the name of Mill, or, as we might imagine, "Hoby" Mill. It did not long remain with them. They died out in 1780 and the Van Sittarts bought it of the widow.
Consider Chertsey, from which Bisham sprang. The utter dispersion of the whole tradition of Chertsey is more violent than that perhaps of any other historical site in England. The Crown maintained, as we have seen to be the case elsewhere, its nominal hold upon the foundations of the abbey and of what was left of the buildings, though that hold was only nominal, and it maintained such a position until 1610—that is, for a full lifetime after the community was dispersed. But the tradition created by FitzWilliam continued, and the Crown was ready to sell at that date, to a certain Dr. Hammond. The perpetual mobility which seems inseparable from spoils of this kind attaches thenceforward to the unfortunate place. The Hammonds sell after the Restoration to Sir Nicholas Carew, and before the end of the seventeenth century the Carews pass it on to the Orbys, and the Orbys pass it on to the Waytes. The Waytes sell it to a brewer of London, one Hinde. So far, contemptuous as has been the treatment of this great national centre, it had at least remained intact. With Hinde's son even that dignity deserted it. He found it advisable to distribute the land in parcels as a speculation; the actual emplacement of the building went to a certain Harwell, an East Indian, in 1753, and his son left it by will to a private soldier called Fuller, who was suspected of being his illegitimate brother. Fuller, as might be expected, saw nothing but an opportunity of making money. He redivided what was left intact of the old estate, and sold that again by lots in 1809; a stockbroker bought the remaining materials of a house whose roots struck back to the very footings of our country, sold them for what they were worth—and there was the end of Chertsey.
Then there is also Radley: which begins as an exception, but fails. It was a manor of Abingdon, and after the Dissolution it fell a prey to that one of the Seymours who proved too dirty and too much even for his brother and was put to death in 1549. It passed for the moment, as we have seen several of these riverside manors do, into the hands of Mary. But upon her death Elizabeth bestowed it upon a certain Stonehouse, and the Stonehouses did come uncommonly near to founding a family that should endure. Nor can their tradition be said to have disappeared when the name changed and the manor passed to the nephew of the last Stonehouse, by name Bowyer. But Bowyer did not retain it. He gradually ruined himself: and it is amusing at this distance of time to learn that the cause of his ruin was the idea that coal underlay his property. Everyone knows what Radley since became: it was purchased by an enthusiast, and is now a school springing from his foundation.
Or consider the two Hinkseys opposite Oxford, both portions of Abingdon manors; they are granted in the general loot to two worthies bearing the names of Owen and Bridges: a doctor.
These were probably no more than vulgar speculators upon a premium—"Stags," as we should say to-day—for a few years afterwards we find a Williams in possession of one of the Hinkseys; he is followed by the Perrots, and only quite late, and by purchase, do we come to the somewhat more dignified name of Harcourt. The other Hinksey, after still more varied adventures, ends up in the hands of the Berties, obscure south-country people who date from a rich Protestant marriage of the time.
Cholsey, again, with its immemorial traditions of unchanging ecclesiastical custom, receiving its priests in Saxon times from the Mont St. Michel upon the marches of Brittany, and later holding as a manor from the Abbot of Reading, remains with the Crown but a very few years. In 1555 Mary handed it over to that Sir Robert Englefield who was promptly attainted by her successor. It gets in the hands of the Knowleses, then of the Rich's, and ends up with the family of Edwardes-seventeenth-century Welshmen, who, by a plan of wealthy marriages, became gentlemen, and have now for 100 years and more been peers, under the title of Kensington.
The mention of Sir Robert Englefield leads one to what is perhaps the best example in the whole Thames Valley of this perpetual chop and change in the holding of English land; that example is to be discovered at Pangbourne.
Pangbourne also was monastic; and the manor held, as did Cholsey, of Reading Abbey. In the race for the spoils Dudley clutched it in 1550. When he was beheaded, three years later, and it passed again to the Crown, Mary handed it (as she had handed Cholsey) to Sir Robert Englefield. His attainder followed. Within ten years it changes hands again. Elizabeth in 1563 gave it to her cofferer, a Mr Weldon. This personage struck no root, nor his son after him, for in 1613, while still some were alive who could remember the old custom and immemorial monastic lordship of the place, Weldon the younger sold it to a certain Davis.
Davis, one would hope—in that seventeenth century which was so essentially the century of the squires, and in that generation also wherein the squires wiped out what was left of the Crown and left the King a salaried dependant of the governing class—Davis might surely have attempted to found a family and to achieve some sort of dignity of tradition. He probably made no such an attempt, but if he did he failed; for only half-a-century later the unfortunate place changes hands again, and the Davises sell it to the Breedons.
The Breedons showed greater stability. They are actually associated with Pangbourne for over a century, but even this experiment in lineage broke down, through the extinction of the direct line. In 1776, by a sham continuity consonant to the whole recent story of English land, it passes to yet another family on the condition of their assuming the name of Breedon—which was not their own.
All up and down England, and especially in this Thames Valley, which is in all its phases so typical and symbolical of the rest of the country, this stir and change of tenure is to be found, originating with the sharp changes of 1540, and continuing to our own day.
Anywhere along this Berkshire shore of the Thames the process may be traced; even the poor little ruined nunnery of Ankerwike shows it. The site of that quiet and forgotten community was seized under Edward VI. by Smith the courtier. Then you find it in the pockets of the Salters, after them of the Lysons. The Lysons sell it to the Lees, and finally it passes by marriage to the Harcourts.
The number of such examples that could be taken in the Valley of the Thames alone would be far too cumbersome for these pages. One can close the list with Sonning.
Sonning, which had been very possibly the see of an early bishopric, and which was certainly a country house of the Bishop of Salisbury, did not pass from ecclesiastical hands by a theft, but it was none the less doomed to the same mutability as the rest. In 1574 it was exchanged with the Crown for lands in Dorset. The Crown kept it for an unusually long time, considering the way in which land slipped on every side from the control of the National Government at this period. It is still royal under Charles I., but it passes in 1628 to Halstead and Chamberlain. In little more than twenty years it is in the hands of the family of Rich. Then there is a lull, just as there was in the case of Pangbourne, and a continuity that lasts throughout the eighteenth century. But just as a tradition began to form it was broken, and in the first years of the nineteenth century Sonning is sold to the Palmers.
Parallel to the rise of the squires and their capture of English government has gone the development of the English town system. And this, the last historical phase with which we shall deal in these pages, is also very well and typically illustrated in the history of the Thames Valley. That valley contains London, which is, of course, not only far the largest but in its way the fullest example of what is peculiarly English in the development of town life; and it contains, in the modern rise of Oxford and Reading, two of the very best instances to show how the English town in its modern aspect has sprung from the industrial system and from the introduction of railways. For neither has any natural facilities for production, and the growth of each in the nineteenth century has been wholly artificial.
The most recent change of all, with which these notes will end, is, one need hardly say, this industrial transformation. It has made a completely new England, and it nourishes the only civilised population in the world which is out of touch with arms, and with the physical life and nature of the country it inhabits, and the only population in which the vast majority are concerned with things of which they have no actual experience, and feel most strongly upon matters dictated to them at second or third hand by the proprietors of great journals.
What that new England will become none of us can tell; we cannot even tell whether the considerable problem of maintaining it as an organised civilisation will or will not be solved. All the conditions are so completely new, our whole machinery of government so thoroughly presupposes a little aristocratic agricultural state, and our strong attachment to form and ritual so hampers all attempts at reorganisation, that the way in which we shall answer, if we do answer, the question of this sphinx, cannot as yet even be guessed at.
But long before the various historical causes at work had begun to produce the great modern English town, long before the use of coal, the development of the navy, and, above all, the active political transformation of our rivals during the eighteenth century, had given us that industrial supremacy which we have but recently lost, the English town was a thing with characteristics of its own in Europe.
In the first place, it was not municipal in the Roman sense. The sharp distinction which the Roman Empire and the modern French Republic, and, from the example of that republic, the whole of Western Europe, establish between town and country, comes from the fact that European thought, method of government, and the rest, were formed on the Mediterranean: but the civilisation of the Mediterranean was one of city states; the modern civilisation which has returned to Roman traditions is, therefore, necessarily municipal. A man's first country in antiquity was his town; he died for his town; he left his wealth to his town; the word "civilisation," like the word "citizen," and like a hundred words connected with the superiority of mankind, are drawn from the word for a town. To be political, to possess a police, to recognise boundaries—all this was to be a townsman, and the various districts of the Empire took their proper names, at least, from the names of their chief cities, as do to-day the French and the Italian countrysides.
Doubtless in Roman times the governing forces of Britain attempted a similar system here. But it does not seem ever to have taken root in the same way that it did beyond the Channel. The absence of a municipal system in the fullest sense is one of the very few things which differentiates the Roman Britain from the rest of the Empire, others being a land frontier to the west, and the large survival of aboriginal dialects.
The Roman towns were not small, indeed Roman London was very large; they were not ill connected with highroads; they were certainly wealthy and full of commerce; but they gave their names to no districts, and their municipal institutions have left but very faint traces upon posterity.
The barbarian invasions fell severely upon the Roman cities of Britain, in some very rare cases they may have been actually destroyed, but in the much more numerous cases where we may be reasonably sure that municipal life continued without a break throughout the incursions of the pirates, their decay was pitiful; and when recorded history begins again, after a gap of two hundred years, with the Roman missionaries of the sixth and seventh centuries, we find thenceforward, and throughout the Saxon period, many of the towns living the life of villages.
The proportion that were walled was much smaller than was the case upon the Continent, and even the most enduring emblem and the most tenacious survival of the Roman Imperial system—namely, the Bishop seated in the chief municipality of his district—was not universal to English life.
It is characteristic of Gregory the Great that he intended, or is believed to have intended, Britain, when he had recivilised it, to be set out upon a clear Latin model, with a Primate in the chief city and suffragans in every other. But if he had such a plan (and it would have been a typically Latin plan) he must have been thinking of a Britain very different from that which his envoys actually found. When the work was accomplished the little market town of Canterbury was the seat of the Primate; the old traditions of York secured for it a second archbishop, great London could not be passed over, but small villages in some places, insignificant boroughs in others, were the sites of cathedrals. Selsey, a rural manor or fishing hamlet, was the episcopal centre of St. Wilfrid and his successors in their government of Sussex; Dorchester, as we have seen, was the episcopal town, or rather village, for something like half England. In the names of its officers also and in the methods of their government the Anglo-Saxon town was agricultural.
With the advent of the Normans, as one might expect, municipal life to some extent re-arose. But it still maintained its distinctively English character throughout the Middle Ages. Contrast London or Oxford, for instance, in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, with contemporary Paris. In London and Oxford the wall is built once for all, and when it is completed the town may grow into suburbs as much as it likes, no new wall is built. In Paris, throughout its history, as the town grows, the first concern of its Government is to mark out new limits which shall sharply define it from the surrounding country. Philip Augustus does it, a century and a half later Etienne Marcel did it; through the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth, the custom is continued: through the nineteenth also, and to-day new and strict limits are about to be imposed on the expanded city.
Again the metropolitan idea, which is consonant to, and the climax of, a municipal system, is absent from the story of English towns.
Until a good hundred years after the Conquest you cannot say where the true capital of England is, and when you find it at last in London, the King's Court is in a suburb outside the walls and the Parliament of a century later yet meets at Westminster and not in the City.
The English judges are not found fixed in local municipal centres, they are itinerant. The later organisation of the Peace does not depend upon the county towns; it is an organisation of rural squires; and, most significant of all, no definite distinction can ever be drawn between the English village and the English town neither in spirit nor in legal definition. You have a town like Maidenhead, which has a full local Government, and yet which has no mayor for centuries. Conversely, a town having once had a mayor may dwindle down into a village, and no one who respects English tradition bothers to interfere with the anomaly. For instance, you may to-day in Orford enjoy the hospitality, or incur the hostility, of a Mayor and Corporation.
On all these accounts the banks of the Thames, until quite the latest part of our historical development, presented a line of settlements in which it was often difficult to draw the distinction between the village and the town.
Consider also this characteristic of the English thing, that the boroughs sending Members to Parliament first sent them quite haphazard and then by prescription.
Simon de Montfort gets just a few borough Members to his Parliament because he knows they will be on his side; and right down to the Tudors places are enfranchised—as, for example, certain Cornish boroughs were—not because they are true towns but because they will support the Government. Once returning Members, the place has a right to return them, until the partial reform of 1832. It is a right like the hereditary right of a peer, a quaint custom. It has no relation to municipal feeling, for municipal feeling does not exist. Old Sarum may lose every house, Gatton may retain but seven freeholders, yet each solemnly returns its two Members to Parliament.
From the first records that we possess until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the line of the Thames was a string of large villages and small towns, differing in size and wealth far less than their descendants do to-day. In this arrangement, of course, the valley was similar to all the rest of England, but perhaps the prosperity of the larger villages and the frequency of the market towns was more marked on the line of the Thames than in any other countryside, from the permanent influx of wealth due to the royal castles, the great monastic foundations, and the continual stream of travel to and from London which bound the whole together.
Cricklade, Lechlade, Oxford, Abingdon, Dorchester, Wallingford, Reading, and Windsor—old Windsor, that is—were considerable places from at least the period of the Danish invasions. They formed the objective of armies, or the subject matter of treaties or important changes. But the first standard of measure which we can apply is that given us by the Norman Survey.
How indecisive is that standard has already been said. We do not accurately know what categories of wealth were registered in Domesday. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, barbaric in this as in most other matters, would have it that the Survey was complete, and applied to all the landed fortune of England. That, of course, is absurd. But we do have a rough standard of comparison for rural manors, though it is a very rough one. Though we cannot tell how much of the measurements and of the numbers given are conventional and how much are real, though we do not know whether the plough-lands referred to are real fields or merely measures of capacity for production, though historians are condemned to ceaseless guessing upon every term of the document, and though the last orthodox guess is exploded every five or six years—yet when we are told that one manor possessed so many ploughs or paid upon so many hides, or had so many villein holdings while another manor had but half or less in each category; and when we see the dues, say three times as large in the first as in the second, then we can say with certitude that the first was much more important than the second; how much more important we cannot say. We can, to repeat an argument already advanced, affirm the inhabitants of any given manor to be at the very least not less than five times the number of holdings, and thus fix a minimum everywhere. For instance, we can be certain that William's rural England had not less than 2,000,000, though we cannot say how much more they may not have been—3,000,000, 4,000,000, or 5,000,000. In agricultural life—that is, in the one industry of the time—Domesday does afford a vague statement to the rural conditions of England at the end of the eleventh century, and, dark as it is, no other European nation possesses such a minute record of its economic origins.
But with the towns the case is different. There, except for the minimum of population, we are quite at sea. We may presume that the houses numbered are only the houses paying tax, or at least we may presume this in some cases, but already the local customs of each town were so highly differentiated that it is quite impossible to say with certitude what the figures may mean. It is usual to take the taxable value of the place to the Crown and to establish a comparison on that basis, but it is perhaps wiser, though almost as inconclusive, to consider each case, and all the elements of it separately, and to attempt, by a co-ordination of the different factors given to arrive at some sort of scale.
Judged in this manner, Wallingford and Oxford are the early towns of the Thames Valley which afford the best subjects for survey.
Wallingford in Domesday counted, closes and cottages together, just under 500 units of habitation. It is, of course, a matter of conjecture how much population this would stand for. A minimum is here, as elsewhere, easily established. We may presuppose that a close, even of the largest kind, was but a private one; we may next average the inhabitants of each house at five, which is about the average of modern times, and so arrive at a population of 2500. But this minimum of 2500 for the population of Wallingford at the time of the Conquest is too artificial and too full of modern bias to be received. Not even the strongest prejudice in favour of underrating the wealth and population of early England, a prejudice which has for it objects the emphasising of our modern perfection, would admit so ludicrous a conclusion. But while we may be perfectly certain that the population of Wallingford was far larger than this minimum, to obtain a maximum is not so easy. We do not know, with absolute certainty, whether the whole of the town has been enumerated in the Survey, though we have a better ground for supposing it in this case than in most others. Such numerous details are given of holdings which, though situated in the town, counted in the property of local manors that we are fairly safe in saying that we have here a more than commonly complete survey. The very cottages are mentioned, as, for example, "twenty-two cottages outside the wall," and their condition is described in terms which, though not easy for us to understand, clearly signify that they could be taken as paying the full tax.
The real elements of uncertainty lie, first in the number of people normally inhabiting one house at that time, and secondly, in the exact meaning of the word "haga" or "close."
As to the first point, we may take it that one household of five would be the least, ten would be the most, to be present under the roof of an isolated family; but we must remember that the Middle Ages contained in their social system a conception of community which not only appeared (and is still remembered) in connection with monastic institutions, but which inspired the whole of military and civil life. To put it briefly, a man at the time of the Conquest, and for centuries later, would rather have lived as part of a community than as an individual householder, and conversely, those indices of importance and social position which we now estimate in furniture and other forms of ostentation were then to be found in the number of dependants surrounding the head of the house. A merchant, for example, if he flourished, was the head of a very numerous community; every parish church in a town represented a society of priests and of their servants, and of course a garrison (such as Wallingford pre-eminently possessed) meant a very large community indeed. We are usually safe, at any rate in the towns, if we multiply the known number of tenements by ten in order to arrive at the number of souls inhabiting the borough. To give the Wallingford of the Conquest a minimum of 5000, if we were certain that 500 (or, to speak exactly, 491) was the number of single units of taxation within the borough, would be to set that minimum quite low enough.
The second difficulty is that of establishing the meaning of the word "haga." In some cases it may represent one single large establishment. But on the other hand we can point to six which between them covered a whole acre, and no one with the least acquaintance of mediaeval municipal topography, no one, for instance, who knows the history of twelfth-century Paris, would allow one-sixth of an acre to a single average house within the walls of a town. A close would have one or more wells, it is true; some closes certainly would have gardens, but the labour of fortification, and the privilege of market, were each of them causes which forbade any great extension of open spaces, save in the case of privileged or wealthy communities or individuals.
From what we know of closes elsewhere, it is more probable that these at Wallingford were the "cells" as it were of the borough organism. A man would be granted in the first growth of the town a unit of land with definitely established boundaries, which he would probably enclose (the word "haga" refers to such an enclosure), and though at first there might be only one house upon it, it would be to his interest to multiply the tenements within this unit, which unit rendered a regular, customary and unchanging due to its various superiors, whatever the number of inhabitants it grew to contain.
If we turn to a comparison based upon taxation we have equal difficulties, though difficulties of a different sort. We saw in the case of Old Windsor that a community of perhaps 1000, probably of more, but at any rate something more like a large village than a town (and one moreover not rated as a town), paid in dues the equivalent of thirty loads of wheat. Wallingford paid the equivalent of only twenty or twenty-two. But on the other hand the total Farm of the Borough, the globular price at which the taxes could be reckoned upon to yield a profit, was equivalent to no less than 400 such loads.
Judged by the number of hagae we should have a Wallingford about five times the size of Old Windsor. Judged by the taxable capacity we should have an Old Wallingford of more than ten times the size of Old Windsor.
Here again a further element of complexity enters. It was quite out of the spirit of the Middle Ages to estimate dues, whether to a feudal superior or to the National Government, or even minor payments made to a true proprietorial owner at the full capacity of the economic unit concerned. All such payment was customary. Even where, in the later Middle Ages, a man indubitably owned (in our modern sense of the word "owned") a piece of freehold land, and let it (in our modern sense of the word "let"), it would not have occurred to him or his tenant that the very highest price obtainable for the productive capacity of the land should be paid. The philosophy permeating the whole of society compelled the owner and the tenant, even in this extreme case, to a customary arrangement; for it was an arrangement intended to be permanent, to allow for wide fluctuations of value, and therefore to be necessarily a minimum. If this was the case in the later Middle Ages where undoubted proprietary right was concerned, still more was it the case in the early Middle Ages with the customary feudal dues; these varied infinitely from place to place, rising in scale from those of privileged communities wholly exempt to those of places such as we believe Old Windsor to have been, which paid (and these were the exceptions), not indeed every penny that they could pay (as they would now have to pay a modern landlord), but half, or perhaps more than half, such a rent.
Where Wallingford stood in this scale it is quite impossible to say, and we can only conclude with the very general statement that the Wallingford of the Conquest consisted of certainly more than 5000 souls, more probably of 10,000, and quite possibly of more than 10,000.
Having taken Wallingford with its minute and valuable record as a sort of unit, we can roughly compare it with other centres of populations upon the river at the same date.
Old Windsor we have already dealt with, and made it out from a fifth to a tenth of Wallingford. Reading was apparently far smaller. Indeed Reading is one of the puzzles of the early history of the Thames Valley. We have already seen in discussing these strategical points upon the river what advantages it had, and yet it appears only sporadically in ancient history as a military post. The Danes hold it on the first occasion on which we find the site recorded, in the latter half of the ninth century: it has a castle during the anarchy of the twelfth, but it is a castle which soon disappears. It frequently plays a part in the Civil Wars of the seventeenth, but the part it plays is only temporary.
And Reading presents a similar puzzle on the civilian side. It is situated at the junction of two waterways, one of which leads directly from the Thames Valley to the West of England, yet it does not seem to have been of a considerable civil importance until the establishment of its monastery; and even then it is not a town of first-class size or wealth, nor does it take up its present position until quite late in the history of the country.
At the time of the Domesday Survey it actually counts, in the number of recorded enclosures at least, for less than a third of Old Windsor; and we may take it, after making every allowance for possible omissions or for some local custom which withdrew it from the taxing power of the Crown, for little more than a village at that moment.
The size of Oxford at the same period we have already touched upon, but since, like every other inference founded upon Domesday, the matter has become a subject of pretty violent discussion, it will bear, perhaps, a repeated and more detailed examination at this place.
Let us first remember that the latest prejudice from which our historical school has suffered, and one which still clings to its more orthodox section, was to belittle as far as possible the general influence of European civilisation upon England; to exalt, for example, the Celtic missionaries and their work at the expense of St Augustine, to grope for shadowy political origins among the pirates of the North Sea, to trace every possible etymology to a barbaric root, and to make of Roman England and of early Medieval England—that is, of the two Englands which were most fully in touch with the general life of Europe—as small a thing as might be.
In the light of this prejudice, which is the more bitter because it is closely connected with religion and with the bitter theological passions of our universities, we are always safe in taking the larger as against the smaller modern estimates of wealth, of population and of influence, where either of these civilisations is concerned, and, conversely, we are always safe in taking at the lowest modern estimate the numbers and effect of the barbaric element in our history.
To return to the ground we have already briefly covered, and to establish a comparison with Wallingford, the word "haga," which we saw to be of such doubtful value in the case of Wallingford, is replaced in Oxford by the word "mansio." The taxable units so enumerated are just over 600, but of these much more than half are set down as untaxable or imperfectly taxable under the epithets "Uasta," "Uastae." What that epithet means we do not know. It may mean anything between "out of repair," "excused from taxation because they do not come up to our new standard of the way in which a house in a borough should be kept up, and because we want to give them time to put themselves in order," down to the popular acceptation of the word as meaning "ruined," or even "destroyed."
We know that at the close of the eleventh century, or indeed at any time before the thirteenth, the small man who lived under his own roof would live in a very low house, and that, space for space of ground area, the cubical contents of these poor dwellings would be less than those of modern slums. On the other hand, we know that the population would live much more in the open air, slept much more huddled, and also that a very considerable proportion—what proportion we cannot say, but probably quite half of a Norman borough—was connected with the huge communal institutions—military, ecclesiastical, and for that matter mercantile, as well—which marked the period. We know that the occupied space stood for very much what is now enclosed by the line of the old walls, and we know that under modern conditions this space, in spite of our great empty public buildings, our sparsely inhabited wealthy houses, and our college gardens, can comfortably hold some 5000 people. We can say, therefore, at a guess, but only at a guess, that the Oxford of the Conquest must have had some 3000 people in it at the very least, and can hardly have had 10,000 at the most. These are wide limits, but anyone who shall pretend to make them narrower is imposing upon his readers with an appearance of positive knowledge which is the charlatanism of the colleges, and pretends to exact knowledge where he possesses nothing but the vague basis of antiquarian conjecture.
It is sufficiently clear (and the reading of any of our most positive modern authorities upon Domesday will make it clearer) that no sort of statistical exactitude can be arrived at for the population of the boroughs in the early Middle Ages. But when we consider that Reading is certainly underestimated, and when we consider the detail in which we are informed of Old Windsor, Wallingford, and Oxford, with the neglect of Abingdon, Lechlade, Cricklade, and Dorchester, one can roughly say that the Thames above London possessed in Staines, Windsor, Cookham, probably Henley, perhaps Bensington, Dorchester, Eynsham, and possibly Buscot, large villages varying from some hundreds in population to a little over 1000, not defended, not reckoned as towns, and agricultural in character. To these we may add Chertsey, Ealing, and a few others whose proximity to London makes it difficult for us to judge except in the vaguest way their true importance.
In another category, possessing a different type of communal life, already thinking of themselves as towns, we should have Cricklade, Lechlade, Abingdon, and Kingston among the smaller, though probably possessing a population not much larger than that of the larger villages; while of considerable centres there were but three: Reading the smallest, almost a town, but one upon which we have no true or sufficient data; Wallingford the largest, with the population of a flourishing county town in our own days, and Oxford, a place which, though in worse repair, ran Wallingford close.
Henley affords an interesting study. At the time of the Conquest, Bensington was no longer, Henley not yet, a borough. To trace the growth of Henley is especially engrossing, because it is one of the very rare examples of a process which earlier generations of historians, and notably the popular historians like Freeman and the Rev. Mr Green, took to be a common feature in the story of this island. They were wrong, of course, and they have been widely and deservedly ridiculed for imagining that the greater part of our English boroughs grew up since the barbarian invasions upon waste places. On the contrary most of our towns grew up upon Roman and pre-Roman foundations, and are continuous with the pre-historic past. But Henley forms a very interesting exception.