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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment

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The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

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However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

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The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

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In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

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Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

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These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

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Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

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Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

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The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

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The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

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Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

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A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

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You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

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There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

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A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

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In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

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For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

Posted July 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglican Reformation, Archaeology, Assimilation, Bible, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Celtic, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Colonisation, Conquest, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Footpaths, France, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Henry V, Henry VIII, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Leisure, Linguistics, Literature, Maternity, Memorial, Middle English, Midlands, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Normans, Old English, Oxford, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Poverty, Recreation, Reformation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Shakespeare, south Wales, Statehood, Stuart times, Tudor England, Tudor times, tyranny, Uncategorized, Wales, War Crimes, Warfare, Wars of the Roses, Welsh language, West Midlands

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Early Modern English: The Sixteenth Century   1 comment

Tudor Styles and Spellings       

Just as the private letters of the Pastons and the Celys written in the fifteenth century give us some idea of everyday speech among the merchant families of the time, so the letters of the Lisle family, from the early sixteenth century, give us some idea of colloquial language fifty years later.

Writers at that time were still not using a nationally standardised form of spelling, but this does not mean that their spelling was haphazard or that they simply ‘wrote as they spoke’. There were inconsistencies, particularly in the use of the now redundant final ‘e’ in many words, but the authors of letters had clearly learnt a system of spelling. Variations were the result of the lack of dictionaries until the latter part of the century.

The Lisle letters were written to and by Lord Lisle, his family, friends and staff, when he was Governor of Calais, then still an English possession under Henry VIII, from 1533 to 1540. The letters reveal a wide range of styles of correspondence, both formal and informal, therefore providing important primary evidence of the state of the language in the first half of the century before the Anglican Reformation.

A letter of 1539, written by George Bassett, Lady Lisle’s fourteen-year-old son by her first marriage, reveals the use of purely formal family correspondence. George has no news to convey, being a servant in the household of Sir Francis Bryan in order to further his education, but he addresses his mother in the approved Tudor manner, according to Muriel St Clare Byrne, the editor of The Lisle Letters:

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Ryht honorable and my most dere and singler goode lorde and ladye/ in my most humble man(ner) I recomaunde me unto yow besechynge to have yor dailye blessynge/ and to here of yor goode and prospus helth/ fore the conservatione of whiche/ I praye dailye unto almyghty godde… ffurthermore I beseche yor lordship and ladishipe to have me heartilye recomendyde unto my Brother and Systers. And thus I praye godde to conserve yor ladyshipe ever in goode/ longe/ and prosperus helthe wt honor. ffrom Woburn the firste daye of Julye

By yor humble and

owne Son George

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So, George’s formal ‘duty letter’ to his parents does not tell us much about him, except that he can write very competently and in beautiful handwriting (see the facsimile above). He uses the ‘strike’ or ‘virgule’ (/) as a mark of punctuation, and the occasional full-stop, then called a ‘prick’.

Sir William Kingston’s letter of September 1533 to Lord Lisle (see facsimile below) is an interesting example of an educated man’s style, since Kingston was not only a member of the King’s Privy Council, but also Constable of the Tower of London. The presentation of the letter would be unacceptable to modern readers, since there is no punctuation. The content, however, refers to the gentlemanly pursuit of hawking, or falconry, and gives the names of several birds used in the activity.

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In January 1536, Sir Thomas Audley wrote to Lord Lisle as Governor of Calais to request a post of ‘Spear’ in the Retinue on behalf of Robert Whethill, whose father had been Mayor of Calais and was still resident there. He had been constantly at loggerheads with Lisle, who nevertheless replied affirmatively, though with obvious reluctance, to the request:

 

Rhyt honorabyll after my most hymbylyst wyse I commend me unto you & have reseyvyd yor yentyll letter in the favour of R whethyll cosrnyng the next speris rome within myn offyce her hit shall plesse yor good lordshype that ther is not the trustit srvat in yor house nother in yngland that shall gladlyer do yor commandment & plessur then I wold w owght desemylassion as evr deuryng my lyffe shall aper toward you & yors thys whethill & his father orderyd me opynly at lantern gate w word & countenans that I nevr sofferyd so muche of no degre sens I whas xvj yer old notwstandyng I woll at yor comandement forget all.

 

An example of formal written language contemporary with the Lisle letters is Sir Thomas Elyot’s The boke named the Governour, printed in London in 1531. It was dedicated unto the most victorious prince King Henry VIIIth, King of England and France, Defender of the True Faith and Lord of Ireland. Elyot’s purpose was to to describe in our vulgare tunge/ the fourme of a just publike weal (= welfare/ prosperity/ (common)wealth)… for as much as this present boke treateth of the education of them that hereafter may be demed worthy to be governors of the publike weal. He wrote it in English, but – in common with all educated men – regarded Latin and Greek as the essential languages of learning. He refers to the insufficience of our own langage when defining the words publike and commune which he borrowed from Latin. His ‘commune’ is the equivalent of the modern ‘common’, used in the sense of ‘commoner’ as compared with ‘noble’ or ‘lord’. Both words were taken from Old French during the Middle English period, but their sources were the Latin publicus and communis. Elyot, like many other scholarly writers of the period, anglicised many Latin and Greek words in order to express his meaning.

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Sir Thomas Elyot set out a programme of education for young noblemen, beginning with the learning of Latin from the age of six. Strong feelings were aroused over accents and dialects, and Elyot directed that a young nobleman of this age should only be placed in the care of a nurse or serving woman who spoke none Englisshe but that which is cleane, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced. The texts from The Governour, one of which is shown in facsimile below,  reveal not only matters of substance and style, but also features of grammar and lexis, which mark out Elyot’s language as being in transition from archaic forms to standard English. He expressed a scholar’s view on the superiority of Latin and Greek, from which hundreds of words were borrowed into English in anglicised forms. These words were referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘inkhorn terms’, words coming from the scholar’s horn of ink and therefore often pedantic in use. George Puttenham called this development a ‘corruption’ of the English language, the result of the peevish affectation of clerks and scholars, introducing unnecessarily long, polysyllabic words.

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There were some who went even further in their rejection of not just the ‘inkhorn terms’ but of any borrowings from other languages:

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Above: Richard Verstagen’s

A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1605

During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the first dictionaries, spelling books and grammars of English began to be published. The writers of them were responding to a growing sense that the language needed agreed forms. They noticed that there were too few letters in the alphabet to match the sounds in English, and that the spelling of many words did not match their pronunciation. The common view was that the language had become ‘corrupted’. One of the earliest books to advocate a reform of English spelling was John Hart’s Orthographie, published in 1569 (see facsimile below). Hart pointed out two spelling conventions which are still part of the modern English system, but which he did not use in his reformed spelling. The first was the use of a final ‘e’ to mark a preceding ‘long’ vowel, as in hate/hat. The second was the use of double consonants to mark a preceding ‘short’ vowel, as in matting/ mating and robbing/ robing.

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The Great Vowel Shift  

Between the time of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century and Shakespeare two centuries later, all the long vowels in English spoken in the Midlands and South of England shifted their pronunciation in what has been called the Great Vowel Shift. John Hart’s reference to the ‘i’ vowel in exercise – that it was being pronounced as a diphthong by some speakers – is contemporary evidence of this shift. It was not complete by 1569, and there were both regional and social variations in dialect, but in time all the vowels were either raised or became diphthongs. However, right up until the present day, the spelling system in English has never been altered to fit these changed pronunciations. As a consequence, there are still only five letters corresponding to the fifteen vowels and diphthongs in Modern English.

Just as in Middle English there was no standard language, but a number of interrelated dialects, English today also consists of these dialects, spread throughout the world. However, in England people now tend to regard the Standard English dialect, with its ‘received pronunciation’ as ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English, looking down on the other regional and social dialects of English as substandard or inferior. This tendency is not new. Concern over differences in dialect dates back to the fourteenth century, with both Chaucer and Caxton referring to the ‘diversity’ of the English language. A written standard was the first form to develop. Educated men and women wrote in this standard form but continued to speak in the dialects of their regions. John Aubrey, writing in the seventeenth century, commented on Sir Walter Raleigh’s enduring dialect:

Old Sir Thomas Malett, one of the Justices of the King’s bench… knew Sir Walter, and I have heard him say, that notwithstanding his so great Mastership in Style and his conversation with the learnedest and politest persons, yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day.

 

Aubrey implies that this was somewhat unusual, and that gentlemen in his time did not speak in regional dialects at the Stuart Court, hinting that this would have been considered unfitting for learned and polite society. We also know, from surviving documents, that Raleigh often signed his name Rawley, clear evidence of how he himself must have pronounced it. Standard vocabulary and grammar eventually spread to spoken English as well as to written forms. By the end of the fifteenth century, there is less evidence in both printed and manuscript documents of the range of dialects in English. Regional and social varieties still flourished, but evidence for them is much more difficult to find. The language of informal letters or the dialogue of characters in prose drama is probably the nearest we can get to everyday speech in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. George Puttenham, writing in 1589 in The Arte of English Poesie, illustrates his awareness of the range of available regional and social varieties available before Standard English became a fully defined and accepted written variety (see the facsimile below):

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Puttenham was expressing a concern that was common to many sixteenth century scholars and writers, that there was too great a ‘diversity’ in the language. These were not simply social and regional, but also national in their characteristics. The dialogue of characters in plays cannot be taken as completely authentic evidence of the spoken language, but may indicate some of the more obvious dialectical features of speech. In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fift, there is a comic episode involving four captains – Gower (an Englishman), ‘Fluellen’ (Llewelyn – Welsh), Mackmorrice (Scottish) and Iamy (Irish):

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In general, reading texts from Shakespeare’s time onwards into the seventeenth century, we find fewer and fewer features of vocabulary and grammar that are archaic and unfamiliar, and it becomes more difficult to specify exactly what differences there are between older and contemporary English. Facsimiles or exact reproductions make the language of the 1620s look more unfamiliar than it really is. There were some obvious differences in spelling and punctuation, but commas, colons, full stops (‘pricks’) were all in use, as were exclamation and question marks. In pronunciation, the raising or diphthongisation of long vowels in the South and Midlands (the ‘Great Vowel Shift’) had taken place, but was not yet complete. In vocabulary, the adoption of a large number of Latin words into written language had been made easy by the previous adoption of hundreds of French words. At the same time, a number of prefixes and suffixes were also adopted and used with English words. In general terms, the grammar of English at the end of the sixteenth century was the same as English today, except for the use of personal pronouns such as thou, thee, thy, thine and ye. The relative pronoun ‘which’ was still common, but ‘who’ and ‘whom’ had also come into regular usage. With verbs, the third person, the ending ‘-eth’ (southern) as well as ‘-s’ (northern) was still in use, as in ‘he maketh’ and ‘she makes’. The inversion of subject and verb in the simple present and past interrogative forms was also still in use, as in ‘knowest thou?’ and ‘came he?’, but the use of the auxiliary ‘do’ had also become common, as in ‘dost thou know?’ or ‘did he come?’.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part One: Princes, Prelates and Popes   Leave a comment

Henry Tudor reigned for twenty-four years, established the power of the monarchy over the nobility, kept England out of foreign conflicts and passed on a full treasury to his son. He also left a Suffolk churchman close to the throne, a man who was to dominate affairs of state for most of the next reign.

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Thomas Wolsey was the son of a grazier, a supplier of wool and meat to the clothiers and townsfolk of Ipswich, where a half-timbered house in Silent Street is still claimed as his birthplace. He entered the Church and used it as a pathway to royal service. He so impressed Henry VIII with his capacity for hard work and his grasp of state matters that the young King was soon happy to leave these matters in Wolsey’s hands. The rise and fall of the great Cardinal are part of national history, but Wolsey never forgot his origins, and the town never forgot him. There is even a stained glass panel of him in the County Library. He himself built a college at Ipswich which, had it survived his downfall, might have established Ipswich as England’s third university city, completing a neat triangle with Oxford and Cambridge.

At these universities, emancipated scholars with Renaissance ideas were challenging the accepted beliefs and traditions of the Church. Like the Lollards before them, they found allies in a growing number of less educated people who shared their disillusionment with contemporary society, though they were not always clear about what they wanted to put in its place. Most of this disenchantment and discontent expressed itself in attacks on the religious establishment. This was strongly represented throughout East Anglia, particularly through the great abbeys which, through the trade in pilgrimage and its control of land, dominated both town and countryside, from Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to Walsingham in Norfolk. In previous centuries, the simmering resentment of peasants and citizens alike could suddenly blaze up out of control, into white-hot rage, and anti-clericalism was by no means restricted to small urban areas, as the Peasant’s Revolt and the growth of Lollardy had demonstrated.

005Neither was anti-clericalism the only cause of discontent at this time. It was closely linked to social and economic causes, especially to the effects of enclosure in increasing poverty and vagrancy in Tudor times. The growing wealth of the trade in wool and woollen cloth was leading both to the growth of the newly enriched ranks of the gentry and to the dispossession of people on their lands in favour of sheep. The monks of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire enclosed whole manors which came into their possession, in order to convert the huge acreage into grazing for sheep. The Golafres of Gnosall in Staffordshire had also married into the Knightleys of the same county, who by the fifteenth century had moved to Fawsley Hall in Northants, from where they married into the Spencer family of Althorp. The effects of early enclosures by the gentry were being felt at this time. In 1498 an inquest jury recorded that sixty villagers had been evicted from the Althorp estate, and left ’weeping, to wander in idleness’ had ’perished in hunger’. New wealth, with no great affinity for the feudal responsibilities as well as rights of landholders was spreading across the countryside seeking out new property. Tudor government was soon to help them acquire it, by taking it from the monks at Coombe Abbey (above) and giving it to the likes of Sir John Harington.

 Many Suffolkers resented the parish priests to whom they paid burdensome tithes, however marginal their surplus harvest might be. Many of these priests were no more virtuous than themselves and, by contrast with thrifty, hard-working merchants who re-built the churches they said mass in, they were often less so. The standard of education among the parish clergy was often abysmally low, especially in Latin, which was the language of all church services. They mumbled their way through these, hardly understanding a word themselves, yet they were supposedly performing the miracle of transubstantiation at the mass, saying the words which turned the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ. They also had to hear the confessions of their flock, mediating between them and God, and imposing sanctions on them for moral misconduct.

King Hal seemed, at seventeen, a paragon of the Renaissance Prince – handsome, athletic and intelligent, as at home in religious disputation and debate as in jousting and hunting. Yet, even then, something happened to him which made him doubt the efficacy of the rites and rituals associated with his faith. All his children by Catherine of Aragon had died in infancy, except for Mary, and on the birth of yet another infant son he made the pilgrimage to Walsingham himself to pray for the baby. However, the boy died like all the others, and Henry, enraged within his grief, had the monks expelled, and the beautiful buildings of the priory, all except the east end of the Church, and its healing wells, were destroyed, plundered for their stone, and fell into ruins over the centuries.

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By the 1520s, heresies like those of John Wycliffe began to reach Suffolk again, this time from northern Europe via Cambridge, which had become the academic centre of the English Reformation. The teachings of Luther had set Germany alight, and rapidly spread through its cities and territories, along its trade routes, so that the international mercantile community became one of the principal agents in this spreading of unorthodox ideas and new doctrines to western Europe and into East Anglia. Books by German Protestants and English heretics in exile were smuggled in bales and barrels and then sent out along the pack-horse routes to wealthy clothiers, patrons among the gentry, yeomen farmers and merchants in the towns. One book in particular, Tyndale’s English New Testament, was to make a revolutionary impact on the towns and villages of East Anglia. One of the most remarkable of the itinerant preachers of   the Word was known as Little Bilney, whose simple and earnest style impressed many, but whose denunciation of idolatry and superstition enraged the local clergy. He was eventually burnt at the stake in Norwich in 1531. Three years later, the chronicler of Butley Priory wrote that

the charity of many people grows cold; no love, not the least devotion remains in the people, but rather many false opinions and schisms against the sacraments of the Church.

Within four years his beloved priory had been stripped of all valuables, its lead roof removed, its coloured glass smashed and its deserted walls left open to the weather and those seeking free building materials. Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries began in 1535 when royal commissioners made a lightning tour of all religious foundations in order to discover reasons, or excuses, for closure. However, it had been Wolsey himself who had inadvertently added to the vulnerability of the smaller monasteries. In 1527 he had been casting around for funds for his colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. He had obtained papal bills for the suppression of a number of small religious houses whose numbers had dwindled in size. Many of them were in his native county, including the priories of Snape and Rumburgh, and St Peter and St Paul in Ipswich. The lesson was not lost on the King or on Wolsey’s young secretary, Thomas Cromwell.

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The middle years of the sixteenth century were tumultuous times. In the 1380’s, John Wycliffe had been denounced as a heretic for his translation of the Bible from Latin into English, the Angel not the angel speech, as one contemporary commented. He went on, and so the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine. So Wycliffe and his dissident Lollard movement had been rigorously suppressed. The orthodox view was that to make the Bible accessible to the common people would threaten the authority of the Church, and lead the people to question its teaching. Similarly, when William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek in 1525, he entered into a conflict that eventually brought him to the stake (see inset above). Translating and publishing God’s word in the language of the people was a revolutionary act. However, in 1534, the English Reformation reached its turning point when Henry VIII defied the Pope and broke with the Roman Church. The following year, Coverdale, Tyndale’s disciple, published his vernacular translation of the Bible (see picture above). This was the turning point in the history of the English language. Between 1535 and 1568 five major versions were printed, including Cranmer’s Great Bible, which had Henry’s official seal (on the right is the title page, in which King Henry VIII is pictured giving copies to Archbishop Cranmer and Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who in turn distribute them to the people, loyally shouting ‘Vivat Rex’.

All were immediate bestsellers, and were the most widely read texts of the sixteenth century in English, with an enormous influence over the spread of the language as well as the egalitarian ideas contained within them. In 1536 all small religious houses were closed down. A few were in a state of decay, but the majority were simply valued at less than two hundred pounds. This was the reason why the nuns of Campsey Ash and Bungay were turned out, as were the Benedictine monks of Eye who had been established there at the time of the Conquest. The dissolution of Leiston Abbey also dates from this time (see the photos of the ruins below). After the suppression the king bestowed the abbey on his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. A farmhouse was built into the corner of the nave and north transept and the abbey ruins were used as farm buildings, the church itself being used as a barn.

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The Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, had his eyes on the lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Sibton, and used his patronage to install William Flatbury as Abbot in 1534. Flatbury then acted as the agent of Cromwell and Howard in persuading his brothers to surrender the Abbey in return for assured pensions. Thus, although Sibton was worth more than two hundred pounds in 1536, it was surrendered to the Duke in 1536.

The Northern Rising, or Pilgrimage of Grace, against the religious changes was quickly and savagely put down in 1536, with Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, playing a major role. He had succeeded to the title in 1524 upon the death of his father the 2nd Duke. One of the last of the old nobility, Howard found an early enemy in Cardinal Wolsey, whose destruction he helped to effect. He was active in battle and diplomacy throughout the whole of the reign of Henry VIII. He was present at Flodden; at the suppression of the `Prentice Riots’ in 1517; in the varying skirmishes against the Scots; in Spain and France; and in Ireland where he was Viceroy for about two years.

Norfolk rebuilt the huge family mansion at Kenninghall, near Norwich, because Framlingham, like other castles had become outdated as a domestic residence. Norfolk’s private life was disturbed by contentions with his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the 3rd and last Duke of Buckingham. He first married Anne, daughter of Edward IV, who died childless in 1512. Howard seems to have been as cruel and uncompromising in his dealings with his relatives as he was with his enemies in and out of Court. Though he promoted two of his nieces, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, to be Queens of England for purposes of family advancement, he felt able to abandon them (and indeed pass sentence of death on Anne) in their time of need. His treatment of the Catholics during the Pilgrimage of Grace was the subject of an apology from the King himself.

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However, Howard’s cruel crushing of the rebellion enabled Henry and Cromwell to move against the larger monasteries. Early in 1538 the Keeper of the King’s Jewels, Sir John Williams, arrived in Bury with a party of workmen. They marched into the great church and set to work with picks, hammers and chisels on the shrine of St Edmund. Henry and Cromwell had decided that the new religious ideas were right insofar as they complained of the superstitious influences of pilgrimages. With some difficulty, they removed the gold, silver, emeralds and various other precious stones, but left the Abbot very well furnished with plate of silver.By this time the royal strategy for the Dissolution had proved almost total successful in Suffolk. The friaries had all disappeared in 1537-8 and, of all the ancient monastic establishments, Bury St Edmund’s Abbey stood alone. Abbot John Reeve resisted until November 1539. Then, in return for an enormous pension, the highest granted to any abbot, he surrendered his office. From a nearby house, he watched the carts carry away the Abbey’s vestments, silver plate, books, bells, and rolls of lead from the roof, while crowds of townspeople cheered before falling upon the ruined buildings to see what they could scavenge and to cart away loads of stone for their own use. This was too much for the old Abbot, and he died at the end of March 1540, without drawing a penny of his pension. Most of the newly acquired church lands were disposed of through the Court of Augmentations in the form of grants to royal servants and sales to land speculators. By far the largest beneficiary was Charles Brandon, now Duke of Suffolk, after the execution of the last of the de la Pole Duke.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries swept away the active life of many of the holy places of the Middle Ages. The monks and nuns were expelled from their monasteries and convents and pensioned off, apart from those executed for active or suspected resistance to Henry VIII’s designs. The shrines and sites of pilgrimage were largely destroyed, together with venerated images and relics. The lands and buildings of the abbeys passed first into Henry’s possession and then into the hands of established and up-and-coming families. This wholesale expropriation gave rise to the biggest territorial and social upheaval in British history. In a prosperous county like Suffolk, there were many men able and willing to compete for monastic land. Neither was it just church land which came onto the market, but a large number of manors, estates and parcels of arable land, which gave opportunities for men of all degrees from great magnates to yeomen farmers to exchange, buy and sell property in order to consolidate their holdings. Yeomen farmers found it easier to consolidate their holdings in Suffolk than elsewhere where the feudal strip systems continued to complicate the land tenure. By 1536 many small freeholders had built up farms which could be simply and efficiently operated. Now they could add to these holdings by purchase, exchange and marriage.

However, it was the official publication of the English Bible in 1539 which brought religious discord out into the open. In 1545, Henry VIII himself was driven to complain that, that most precious jewel, the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same. Priests and objects of superstition were attacked. Preachers, licensed and unlicensed, wandered from church to church, market to market, and from one village green to another, planting new conviction in the hearts of some and confusion in the minds of many. The Lady Chapel of Ely is a superb example of the most ornate fourteenth-century church architecture, richly decorated with hundreds of stone carvings of saints and holy figures. In 1539 every face was smashed by religious zealots in one of the earliest acts of desecration done in defiance of the established church.

Alice de la Pole (granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer) had retained direct control of the family seat of Ewelme in Oxfordshire until her death in 1475, when the manor passed to her son John (d. 1492), Second Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to both Edward IV and Richard III. The last surviving legitimate male Plantagenet claimant to the throne, the Earl of Warwick, had died on the scaffold in 1499. The Second Duke was succeeded by his second son Edmund, who was demoted to the rank of earl by Henry VII and fled abroad in 1501, prompting the seizure of his estates. Formally attainted in 1504, he was imprisoned from 1506 and executed in 1513. However, the Poles did not give up their claim to the throne until 1525, when the younger of the two surviving brothers was killed at the Battle of Pavia. The fact that the Yorkist cause lived on for forty years into the Tudor dynasty shows how fragile the Tudor royal line really was, descended through the illegitimate child of John of Gaunt. Ewelme was one of several manors vested in trustees for the life of Edmund’s widow, but it was controlled by the Crown and granted to the new Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, in 1525. Henry VIII took it back in 1535, when he also obliged Brandon to exchange most of his Suffolk estates for lands in Lincolnshire, so that, after 1536, Grimsthorpe in that county became the principal seat of the Dukes of Suffolk.

Meanwhile, a paranoid Henry VIII carried on a vindictive campaign against the Pole family after the son of Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury’s son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, penned a stinging attack against the King’s divorce, from exile in Italy. This resulted in the execution of one of his brothers in 1539 and the suicide of the other. Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, was an old woman in 1541, once the governess to Mary Tudor, whose mother’s betrothal to Arthur, Prince of Wales, had caused the execution of her brother, Edward Plantagenet, the rival claimant to the throne. Despite this, she became a loyal Tudor courtier. However, because she was also a Neville, she was accused of complicity in the Northern Rebellion, and sent to the Tower without trial. From there she was executed in May, after ten or eleven blows of the axe. When Mary became Queen, her son became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and she herself was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Her granddaughter became a close friend of Elizabeth I. Perhaps by coincidence, in 1550 Ewelme was among the estates settled by Edward VI on the Princess Elizabeth. It remained in royal possession until 1628.

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At the end of Henry’s reign, when the succession was of doubtful continuance in the light of two daughters having been declared bastards and an only son who was sickly, inter-Court rivalry reached a peak over the protectorate of Edward VI. On the one hand were the Seymour brothers, Edward’s uncles, and on the other, the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey. Surrey acted rashly in the matter of armorial bearings and charges of treason were successfully, if unreasonably, pressed. Surrey lost his head and his father would similarly have died had not the King himself died during the night prior to the day fixed for Norfolk’s execution. Howard spent the next six years in the Tower.

In the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, under the guidance of Archbishop Cranmer, an episcopalian Protestantism with an English liturgy was established as the state religion. When, in 1553, the boy king died, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the de facto ruler of England from 1549, tried to exclude his sister, Mary, the Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon, from the succession by setting Lady Jane Grey on the throne. She was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The Commons of England were almost unanimous in rejecting Northumberland and his protégé, and the people of Suffolk soon had an opportunity to demonstrate their feelings in a practical way.

Mary was at Hunsdon, near Hertford, when the news of this attempted coup d’etát broke. She moved away northwards towards Cambridge when a messenger from London caught up with her and demanded her urgent return to the capital, advising her that the East Anglian ports had been blocked, rendering escape impossible. Mary sojourned at Sawston Hall, south of Cambridge, and then turned into Suffolk. She attracted support from nobles and commons alike, and received a royal reception at Bury, but Northumberland’s forces were already on the road, so she could not remain there in safety. She made her temporary headquarters at the Duke of Norfolk’s house at Kenninghall near Thetford, where she summoned all the local nobility and gentry to come to her aid with men and arms. She also ordered the release the old noble, also keeper of Framlingham Castle, the Duke of Norfolk, from the Tower of London. He was aged eighty, and died at Kenninghall within the year. His was a momentous life. He has been called a cruel man, but one who lived in cruel times. For over thirty years he had been one of the most powerful and active men in Tudor England, and perhaps his greatest triumph was that he survived in his important offices so close to a despotic King, dying in his bed and not upon the block. His magnificent tomb, and that of two of his wives, is in Framlingham Church (pictured right).

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DSC09612By the time she set out for Framlingham on 14 July, Suffolk had committed itself. A sizeable army encamped around the fortress under the leadership of the Sheriff, Sir Thomas Cornwallis, Sir William Drury and Sir William Waldegrave. Two days later, Northumberland’s men, on reaching Cambridge, heard rumours that Mary commanded thirty thousand men in arms. Their refusal to advance to Framlingham sealed the Duke’s fate. Mary was proclaimed Queen and quickly selected a council from among her supporters, emptied the prisons to swell her army, and secured the support of the main towns and east coast ports.  All opposition to Mary becoming Queen collapsed totally and swiftly.

As she made her way slowly through Suffolk and Essex a few days later it was at the head of a triumphant procession, not a cautious army. Towns and villages greeted the rightful heir to the throne who would, they felt, heed their petitions, and deliver them from self-seeking landlords. Yet this mood of celebration was soon replaced by one of disillusionment and hatred. Queen Mary could do little to re-establish the monasteries whose lands now belonged to families professing Catholicism on whom she depended for support, and the landlords, old and new, remained in power. The clothiers continued to keep as large a gap as possible between wages and prices, and destitution and vagabondage increased. Added to all these ills was a religious persecution of unparalleled savagery. Examinations and imprisonments began in 1554. Parish clergy were expelled from their livings for refusing to reinstate Catholic rituals. Women were encouraged to denounce their neighbours, and houses were searched for Protestant books. Heretics were cajoled, bullied, threatened and bribed into submission and recantation. There were many who would not recant, and so, in February 1555, the burnings started.

006Among the first to suffer martyrdom was Dr Rowland Taylor, the incumbent of Hadleigh. Ever since the time of Little Bilney, Hadleigh had remained an important centre of Protestantism. Taylor was appointed rector in 1544, and many of his parishioners became exceedingly well learned in the holy scriptures, so that a man might find among them many who had often read the whole Bible through…so..that… the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making and labouring people. Taylor was openly hostile to the religious policy of the Marian government, and therefore attracted a great deal of support from the ordinary people of Essex and Suffolk. When the Bishop was sent to say mass in Taylor’s church, he was turned away. Taylor was then called to London, where he was subjected to many trials and repeated examinations. He defended himself cheerfully, and refused to recant, so he was condemned to the stake and degraded from his orders. He was brought back to Hadleigh for his execution, and crowds of parishioners thronged the town to encourage him in his ordeal. So, the first Suffolk martyr perished on Aldham Common on 9 February 1555, where a stone monument marks the spot. A further seventeen men and women from the county died for their faith, and many more suffered ill-treatment, harassment and torture.

008 (2)He was soon to be followed to the stake by his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who was, of course, the architect of the English Protestant Church. He was born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, and educated at Cambridge. He was a quiet scholar, but was summoned to Canterbury following the advice he had given on Henry’s divorce. He was well-respected by Henry throughout his turbulent reign, as the picture showing the course of the English Reformation demonstrates, with Henry pointing to his son and successor, with the Archbishop standing beside him as advisor. Cranmer was a godly man, Lutheran in theology, well read in the church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with a superb command of English. He was sensitive and brave, but cautious and slow to decide in a period bedeviled by turbulence and treachery. Cranmer preferred a reformation by gentle persuasion, rather than by force.

Like Luther, he believed in the role of the godly prince, who had a God-given task to uphold a just society, and give free scope to the gospel. He was responsible for the Great Bible and its prefaces; the Litany of 1545 and the two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552.

The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to bring about a restoration of the Western Protestant Church to the Catholic faith. When the Church of Rome refused to be reformed, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists on the continent. He also sought to restore a living theology based on personal experience and the mission of Christ. From this doctrine came his belief in justification by faith and of Christ’s presence in the sacraments. His third doctrine was that of the Holy Spirit, which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. At the end he experienced a long solitary confinement, and was brain-washed into recanting. But at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defense, and died bravely at the stake. He first thrust into the fire the hand that had once written the recantations. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Latimer and Ridley, whose deaths he had witnessed from prison in the previous year.

Bloody Mary died childless in November 1558, but her persecution of Protestants did lasting damage to the Catholic cause, ensuring that, in future, no Catholic monarch would accede to the throne. Her attempt to impose an English Inquisition had failed, and made earthly life intolerable for many English Catholics in successive generations, when even the private practice of their faith was barely tolerated, if at all. The young Queen Elizabeth made her first progress through Suffolk five years later, but the Marian counter-Reformation had left their mark on the people and clergy alike. Although well-received by the nobility, gentry and burgesses of Ipswich, the behaviour of the local clergy made her indignant. The Protestantism which had taken root in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI had been nourished with the blood of the martyrs and had grown into a strident Puritanism. Clergy refused to wear the surplice, were dissatisfied with the remnants of popery in the Anglican services and disliked the Prayer Book. Angrily, Elizabeth ordered them to conform. Some of them did so, at least outwardly, but a royal dictat in matters of religion was no longer going to make either the clergy nor the congregations of Suffolk conform against their consciences.

On the other hand, the new Queen continued to face the threat from resurgent Catholicism on the continent, which encouraged the resistance to conformity among the Catholic gentry at home. The association of the Golafre name with the plots and rebellions of the early Tudor period may have been one reason why the other members of the family were glad to adopt more anglicised and ’gentrified’ versions of the name. Interestingly, the Golafre family were closely related, through the marriage of Beatrix Golafre of Satley, Warwickshire, to the Arden family, through which the writer William Shakespeare was descended. Beatrix’s grandson, Robert Ardern of Park Hall (b. 1413), was the son of a Worcestershire gentleman, who had been one of the claimants to the Fyfield estate, following the death of Sir John Golafre. In 1452, he had been executed for taking part in the uprising of Richard, Duke of York. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Ardens were continually suspected of being first rebels and then recusants throughout the Tudor Period, and one of them, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for plotting against Elizabeth I. He was a close relative of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, who had lived near Stratford at a gentrified farmstead in Wilmcote before moving into the town.

It has often been strongly suggested that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic, hence his determination to prove his loyalty, first to Elizabeth and then to James, at a time when Midland gentry families fell under suspicion of harbouring Jesuits in priest holes, such as at nearby Baddesley Clinton, and of plotting against the Protestant monarchy and cause. They were seen as ’the enemy within’ and heavily fined for not attending their parish church and for having private masses said in their homes. The Jesuit priests who ministered to them were ’flushed out’ before and after the 1605 Rebellion, but their confessions in the state papers have left historians with detailed descriptions of the Catholic gentry of Northants, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and of their extensive conspiratorial network across the three counties. The Margaret Golafre, or Gollafor, who had married into the Hodington (Huddington) family was probably from a prominent gentry family herself. There does appear to be a link with the older, aristocratic family, however, in that her descendents, the Huddington heiresses, Joan and Agnes, married Robert Winter and William Strensham. By these marriages, both the Winters of Huddington and the Russells of Strensham were entitled to bear the Golafre arms. The brothers Robert and Thomas Winter (Wintour), were executed (hung, drawn and quartered) in 1606 for their part in the Gunpowder Plot and Midland Rebellion of the previous year. They had both grown up at Huddington Hall.

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Religious unrest in Suffolk, as elsewhere in England, continued throughout   Elizabeth’s reign. As her government and bishops pursued its via media (middle way), extremists at both ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum were periodically pressed to conform.   A number of Catholics were fined and imprisoned if they did not attend the parish church, otherwise the government turned something of a blind eye to private masses in manor houses owned by the gentry. A show of unity, or uniformity, in public was what was essential, since the Virgin Queen’s reign was continually beset by plots and planned invasions, even after the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588. Puritanism was much more of an everyday problem, however, because parish clergy, as well unlicensed preachers could easily stir up their congregations against all religion that was not pure. The Bishop of Norwich’s officers often brought offenders before the magistrates only to find, on many occasions, that the JP himself was sympathetic to puritans, if not to nonconfomists. Many of the leading county families were, by this time, of a Puritan persuasion. They patronised preachers, appointed radical clergy to their parishes, where the livings were in their gift and not that of the bishop, and even opened their houses to separatist meetings.

004However, as with the Catholics, it was not, at this stage, the separatists who met in isolated congregations, mostly secretly, who posed the biggest threat to the authorities, but those who were forming themselves, however loosely, into an organised grouping or party, both within the county and at the national level, in Parliament. In 1582 there was a meeting held at Cockfield, of…

three score ministers, appointed out of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk… to confer of the Common Book, what might be tolerated, and what necessarily refused in every point of it; apparel, matter, form, days, fasting, injunctions, etc.

The rector of Cockfield, John Knewstub, was a leading light among the Puritans in West Suffolk, with others in the important centres of Hadleigh, Ipswich and Beccles. Puritanism therefore went from strength to strength in East Anglia and it is no coincidence that the first group of separatist pilgrims intending to settle permanently in the New World, or at least New England, were from Old Anglia, and that the distinctive dialect of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk can still be detected in much of the eastern seaboard they settled, remaining distinct from the Midland English which predominates across most of the United States.

018 (2)The Reformation may be seen as the triumph of the venacular over the old international Latin culture of Western Catholicism. Religion became a matter of the word rather than the image, of the sermon rather than the sacrament. In England the new liturgy remained much closer to the old forms it replaced and so most churches required few changes to their interiors. Churches and college chapels continued to be built and decorated in the late Perpendicular Tudor style of Gothic. Wealthy London merchants came to live in Suffolk, men like Sir Thomas Kytson at Hengrave, who built a splendid new house for himself. Local clothiers also put their wealth into land, buying themselves into an expanding gentry class. Both men and women established charities as memorials, as well as setting up elaborate tombs and monuments in brass, marble and stone in the parish churches. The history of Woodbridge has been substantially influenced by the life of its greatest benefactor, Thomas Seckford, who crowned a brilliant legal career when he became Master in Ordinary of the Court of Requests. In 1587 he decided to donate a measure of his wealth to Woodbridge by endowing charities which still pay for the hospital, almshouses, dispensary, lending library and grammar school (see photos). He was also a Tudor statesman and in 1550, 1563 and 1572 was elected to parliament by the burgesses of   Ipswich.

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At St Mary’s Parish Church in Woodbridge, besides the tomb of Thomas Seckford (d. 1587) on the north wall of the sanctuary, there is the interesting Pitman monument on the south side of the chancel, in fine ornate marble (above far right). It commemorates Jeffrey Pitman, a tanner and haberdasher and Churchwarden in 1596 and 1608. He was also High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1625 and left a considerable amount of money for the repair and maintenance of the church. His monument also contains figures of his two wives and his two lawyer sons. In St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham, besides the magnificent tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, there is the tomb of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, which was given into the keeping of the Duke of Norfolk by his father (see above right).

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Printed Sources:

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

David & Pat Alexander (eds.)(1997), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury

What May Day may mean to the many…   11 comments

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Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)

 

In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.

Walter Crane, 1886
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:

A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.

He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:

Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,

Together pull, strong and united:

Link your hand like a chain the world round,

If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,

Shall build, in the new coming years,

A fair house of life – not for others,

For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

May Day 2008 024
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)

Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes.  In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree.  Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.

While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…

All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.

Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England.  He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.

However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’  once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’  A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the  most powerful telescope in the world.

However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:

Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers

 That your little ones shall see

Brighter Days – O men and brothers –

When Life and Labour ye set free!

Sound upon the pipe and tabor!

Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!

Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!

Come a-maying, toilers, come!

However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of  ‘class war’:

March they not in shining warfare,

No sword they bear, or flashing blade;

But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,

But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.

‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’

This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations.  Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.

The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.

When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.

The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

 NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap  from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.

The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.

No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.

Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent  madrigal  ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:

 

Remember us poor Mayers all!

And thus do we begin – a

To lead our lives in righteousness

Or else we die in sin – a.

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