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Alfred J. Church

Of My Sojourn in the House of St. Albans

There is but little change in the life of a monk, save that of nature which bringeth night after day and winter after summer, and that which the Church and our Founder have ordained, commanding that in each year there should be a succession of festivals and fasts, and in each day its due order of services. Neverthelessof one notable thing I may write, seeing that it came to pass in my own time, to wit, the choice of an Abbot. On the 10th day of January, 1464, died John of Wheathampstead, being, as was believed, for no man knew it for a certainty, four-score and one years of age. And on the 25th day of the same month, being the festival of the Conversion of St. Paul, he was buried in a great tomb that he had caused to be built for himself four and thirty years before, so mindful was he, even in the flower of his days, of his latter end. Never was abbot that did more for his house. Of these benefits I will mention the chief, believing that they are his fittest epitaph. He spent

On the buildings of the Abbey£886
On the Abbot's lodgings£126
On a mitre and staff£116
On the Church£222
On copes, chasubles, and other vestments for the same£861
On repairs of houses in the town and in the Abbey manors£1146
On lands that he bought£1362

And all this he did neither mortgaging any house or manor, nor cutting any timber beyond what was customary, nor pledging any precious thing that was in the treasury.

He greatly increased the library, to which, among many other books, he added Cato On Rural Matters, with a glossary, and Boethius On the Consolations of Philosophy. He was also a man of no little learning, and in the Latin tongue especially copious, using it with as great an ease as though it were that in which he was born. He was copious also in the making of Latin verses, but careful neither of metre nor of grammar. This is the more to be wondered at, seeing that he was himself well versed, as his epistles do testify, in Ovidius, than whom there is not a better exemplar of verse in the Latin tongue. But indeed I have noted, not once only, that a man in letters, as in other things, may know and approve that which is better, and yet follow after that which is worse.

On the day after the burial was sent a letter to the King, wherein his Grace was informed of the death of John of Wheathampstead, late Abbot, and permission asked that the brotherhood might proceed to the election of a successor. And four days after the said letter, letters were sent to the priors of the cells (that is to say, the smaller houses which do belong to the Abbey) to this purport, that the Abbot had departed this life, and that the election of his successor would be held on the twenty-fifth day of February following, and that their presence on the said day was entreated. On this day therefore there were present seven of the said priors, and all the great officers of the house, that is to say the archdeacon, the almoner, the precentor, the keeper of the shrine, and others, and all the brotherhood, of whom I, having now passed the year of my noviceship, was one. There were forty and four in all. But one brother was sick and languishing in the infirmary; the notary therefore was sent to ask his vote. This done, the notary stood at the door of the chapter-house, and proclaimed with a loud voice: "If there be any other prior or monk that hath a right to vote, let him come forth." After this the Prior said: "If there be any here that shall vote not having the right so to do, he is ipso facto excommunicate." This done, the notary read aloud the King's letters whereby the brotherhood had license to elect. And when there had also been read a certain law concerning the election of abbots, the Prior stood up in his place and said, "I, Nicholas Bond, Prior of this house, do name William Alban, doctor in theology, to be father, pastor, and abbot of this church." And when no man spake either to affirm or to deny, the precentor would have begun the Te Deum, thanking God that the business had had such quick despatch. But the doctors that were there would not have it so, but commanded that the notary should go round and ask each man singly for whom he gave his voice. And when all with one consent had answered "William Alban," then they bade the precentor to begin the Te Deum. This begun, the Prior, and with him the Prior of Tinmouth, being the eldest of the priors of the cells, took William Alban by the hand and led him through the cloister into the choir, and so up to the great altar. There he knelt till the singing of the Te Deum was ended. And when it was ended the Prior said to him, "Turn thyself to the people that they may see thee," for the church was filled from the one end to the other. And the eldest of the brethren said, "Hear all ye that are present: William Alban hath been duly and canonically chosen to be father, pastor, and abbot of this church." Then the said William departed to his own chamber, and the rest of the brethren returned to the chapter-house, but the two priors and the archdeacon remained in the church. Thence they sent two proctors to the said William in his chamber asking his consent to the election. The next day the Abbot rode to London that he might be presented to the King and swear fealty. This done he returned, not to the Abbey, but to the country-house of the abbot. Thence, on the day when he should be installed in his place, he rode on horseback, and came to the west door of the church. Here the brethren met him and led him to the choir, and the Prior set him on his throne; and when he had taken the oaths appointed, and the brethren also had sworn obedience, he returned thanks in a set oration. After this he entertained the brethren, with many guests of high degree, at a great feast.

It is very much to be desired, if I may here set down that which is in my secret mind, that there should be some change in the government of this house. Herein I speak not of the interior discipline thereof, but of its dealings with them that are without, and especially with the citizens of St. Albans town. For I have noted, from the time that I first came to this place, that the people are not so kindly affectioned to us as is to be wished. Some will turn out of the way rather than pay the customary reverence, and some of the bolder sort will pass us by without greeting; yea, I have seen one and another spit upon the ground. Now this at the first looking is a marvellous thing; for, as I have heard from them that have the charge of these things, the house dealeth not ungently with the tenants that hold farms and houses and the like, helping them not a little, if by reason of sickness, or murrain among their cattle, or ill harvests, they fail in their payments. And besides this every day there gather a great number of poor and halt and maimed at the Abbey gate (so great indeed is it that they must needs come from the whole country round) who are fed with broken meat. So that none in this town can be in any peril of starving. And if there be any sick in the town the leech of the Abbey is ready to minister to them. These things being so, it is to be looked for that we should be loved rather than hated, and yet it is not so.

And I do begin to understand the cause when I read in the chronicles of this house what hath befallen in these matters in time past, as for example in the chronicle of Thomas Walsingham, some time a monk of this house. I approve not indeed the doings of the townsfolk in the days of Walter Tyler, when they constrained the abbot by force to give up certain bonds and charters and burned them with fire, and did many other things worthy of blame; but, on the other hand, I verily believe that they had many things whereof to complain. For whereas in other places nobles and knights oppressed the commonalty—for how otherwise should they have risen in rebellion—here the very servants of God oppressed them. For it seemeth to me a tyrannous thing, and unworthy of them that are specially bound not to seek their own pleasure or profit, that for the sake of gain they should forbid any man to have so much as a handmill of his own for the grinding of corn, but constrain all the townsfolk to bring their corn for the grinding to the mill of the Abbey. And I marvel not a little that men of God should favour such ill deeds as were done in the name of justice by Sir Robert Tressitian, the Lord Justiciar. For when the jury that he had summoned would not find a true bill against William Gryndecobbe and other persons then accused, he threatened that they should themselves suffer in their stead. Thus he compelled them to find the bill aforesaid. This done, he summoned another jury, and having shown to them the names of them that were so indicted, asked, "What say ye about these men named herein?" And they, supposing that the things were true that were set down by the first jury, answered that they would have judged them to be guilty. And he did in like manner with a third jury also. But the men accused were never brought face to face with their accusers, nor suffered to speak for themselves, nor to make their defence. That they were innocent I say not; but they were condemned as the innocent are wont to be condemned. And it was a horrible thing that the friends and kinsfolk of these men, having carried away their bodies for burial, were compelled to bring them back and hang them again on the gallows with their own hands; and this thing was commanded indeed by the King, but invented, I doubt not, by the Abbot, as it is most certainly approved by the aforesaid Thomas of Walsingham.

I have heard how John the Abbot lately deceased dealt with one William Redhead, a maltster of Barnet town, that was accused to him that he had a certain book of heretical doctrines writ in the vulgar tongue. I excuse not this same William; nevertheless I cannot approve the sentence that was passed upon him by the said Abbot. For it was commanded him that he should once in the year for seven years go barefoot to the shrine of St. Alban the Martyr, and should there offer a wax candle of a pound in weight. This surely had sufficed. Nor did it profit either for the honour of God or for the correction of the wrongdoer that on three several Sundays he should walk naked round the churchyard in his parish of Barnet, and this done should proceed to the high altar and there offer a candle.

It humbleth me much to think of these and such like things, first and chiefly because they do not become them that are bound to be an ensample of charity, humility, and the preferring of others to themselves, but also because they seem to threaten no small peril. For the commons daily grow in power, being especially favoured by the King that now is, who indeed reigneth by their goodwill rather than by the goodwill of the nobles; and that they will continue so to grow I doubt not. And if in time to come we need friends, as they that have great wealth but nought wherewith to guard it will need them of a certainty, where shall we find them, the commons being ill-affected towards us? If the King desire to lay hands upon our possessions (which God forbid!), who shall hinder him if the people be not on our side? Wherefore I desire most earnestly that with the new men there may be, in these things at the least, other manners. But beyond this—and to wish is permitted to all of us, so that we wish not things forbidden—I will not go. I have no hand in the making or mending of such things; and I thank God therefor, for who am I that I should be wiser and better than the holy men who have been with me in this place? I will content myself therefore with doing with all my might whatsoever my hand findeth to do.