Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

I Enter the House of St. Albans

Being come to Oxford—and this I did on the Thursday after my departing from Worcester—I judged it best that I should go without delay to the Prior of Gloucester Hall, which place the Order of St. Benedict set up for the training of such scholars as should become brethren in their houses. Of the Prior of the said hall I had had some knowledge, and going to him and declaring my purpose I was exceeding well received. For indeed I had some little repute in the University, being known to have disputed for my degrees not without success, and to have the favour of the Lord Bishop of Winchester. And indeed for some time past there had been a certain decay in the number of those who sought to be admitted into the brotherhood of the monasteries; and yet more in their condition and dignity. Some of the smaller houses that had but poor estates could scarce find enough for their necessary offices; and the greater, though indeed they had no lack of men seeking to be admitted, were content to take not a few of low degree and little learning. And this evil—for such it is—is like to increase, seeing that there are year by year new ways of life opening, so to speak, before the eyes of men. So it was that I was received with no small honour and welcome, though it was needful that I should wait for the coming of the Lord Abbot of St. Albans—for this house slid I purpose to enter—before I could be in due form admitted.

When this was accomplished it was needful that I should be instructed in such things as a monk should know. And first the Prior would have me taught the art of plain singing, which art I was willing to learn, though indeed I doubted much of my ability thereto, and this not without reason. For when the teacher of' plain song would try my voice and sounded a note whereto, for so he said, I was to answer, I, scarce knowing what he meant, but seeking to do my best, uttered so strange a sound that he and the Prior, and one or two others that were present, did incontinently stop their ears. Then said the teacher, "'Tis incredible that a Christian man should be so like unto an owl," for I have noted that they who have knowledge of any art do commonly fail to understand why others should perceive that which they themselves do see. "Nay," said the Prior, "Master Aylmer hath gifts though they are not of this kind;" and to me, "'Tis manifest that it were lost labour to teach thee singing. But there are other ways of serving God. Canst thou write a clear hand?" And he bade him sit down at the table and write. And when I had written two or three lines, he, looking over my shoulder, clapped his hands softly, and said to the teacher of song, "Master Sharpe, there be twenty that can sing for one that can write like this youth." To me he said, "My lord Abbot loveth a skilful clerk above all others, and he will be right glad to hear of thy coming."

Monk writing


Not many days after cometh to the hall the said Abbot, by name John Wheathampstead—or rather John Bostock, for Wheathampstead was the place of his birth—of whom it is meet that I should write somewhat, seeing that none greater, whether you regard his learning or his capacity, path sat in the principal place of this house.

The said John was prior of the scholars in Gloucester Hall, from which place he was promoted in the year 1420 to be Abbot of St. Albans, being then not more than seven-and-thirty years of age. Being so advanced, he found that by the neglect of them that had gone before, the buildings of the Abbey, and more especially the church, had fallen into great decay. And because the revenues of the house, which had also suffered from the same cause, were not sufficient for their repair, he made application to many persons of good estate and dignity, and received from them no small moneys for this purpose. Especially did he renew a certain old custom which had fallen into disuse that pious men and women, who could not indeed wholly leave their places in the world and yet were minded to join themselves to the fraternity, should be so admitted. Such did take upon themselves no vows, neither were they bound by any rule, save that of sobriety and temperance which is laid upon all Christian persons; but they were counted to be of the house, and were permitted, on occasion, to vote in the chapter. Whether or no this custom is altogether profitable—as, indeed, what custom is?—I do not pretend to judge; but this is certainly true, that it did bind to the Abbey many friends of great repute and power, and did also no little advantage its revenues; for it is not to be supposed that the persons aforesaid were admitted to such privileges without due acknowledgment made. Thus in the third year of his abbacy the said John of Wheathampstead admitted to the fraternity that most noble Prince Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Jacqueline of Hainault his wife. And it is recorded that in the eighth year of his abbacy there were so admitted thirty noble persons and more, among whom was Sir Henry Beauchamp, son of the Earl of Warwick.

Thus it came to pass—and this indeed cannot be reckoned as a laudable thing—that the Abbey became more like unto a king's court than a house of God. It is recorded that in the year 1423, being the year of his admission into the fraternity, the said Duke Humphrey kept Christmas at the Abbey, having three hundred men with him. And three years afterwards he came again with a like following, at which time the Abbey was like to have been burned; for when the monks had gone forth to take him on his way to Barnet, the chamber wherein the feast had been served caught fire, and was scarce saved, and that not without destruction of the tapestry wherewith it was hung. In the Easter of this same year came King Henry with Queen Katharine his mother, and was royally entertained for nine days.

After he had filled the Abbot's place for twenty years, John resigned it again into the hands of the brotherhood. But whether he did this from frailty of health (which may be doubted, seeing that he lived thereafter four-and-twenty years), or from weariness of the state and dignity of his office, or, as I myself am inclined to think, because the signs of the time did seem to portend trouble to come, cannot certainly be known. Into the room of the said John the brotherhood choose another, John of Stoke, of whom nothing need here be said; and he having deceased eleven years afterwards, John of Wheathampstead was again chosen, no voice contradicting, and held his place for fourteen years.

Abbott John of Wheathamstead


This John therefore came in the year of which I am now writing to Gloucester Hall, of which he was always a great favourer, having given, among other things, no small monies for the building of a chapel and a library. He was somewhat infirm of body, being indeed nigh upon fourscore years of age, but vigorous of mind; and one who would not suffer aught to be done where he had authority without his knowledge and consent. I do remember with what weighty speech, with what vigour of gesture and carriage, the old man did tell at table (for I was privileged to sit with the seniors) how in the year before his then coming there had been a great battle in the very streets of St. Albans town, between the army of Queen Margaret and the army of my lord Warwick. "Lord Warwick," he said, "held the town, and when the Queen's men, who were for the most part of the north, had gotten by force of arms to the market cross, for so far they came, his men let fly a great shower of arrows and drave them back. Then the northern men, being driven forth from the town, joined their fellows that were without, and marching to Bernard Heath, where the greater part of my lord Warwick's army was set, fell upon them, and after a very fierce battle put them to flight. Which when they had done they came back to the town, and with no great labour took it. Then the Queen and King Henry with her (for he had been with my lord Warwick upon the field, and had been left by him when he fled) came to the gate of the Abbey, and were straightway admitted. And first they went to the great altar to offer thanks, and then to the shrine of the Saint, and after that—for it was now late and he was weary, being indeed of a feeble habit—to his chamber. But first I besought him on my knees that he would give command to his men that they should not plunder the town. This he did forthwith, sending words to his captains. But this availed nothing, for the men spared nothing whereon they could lay their hands—no, not the poor that have their alms at our gate. And what they took not they wasted, so that the whole countryside was as desolate as the wilderness. But the Abbey they harmed not; and in that, by God's mercy, we had good provision of food, so that when the northerners departed—and this they did in not many days, the Queen having but few friends in those parts and the citizens of London for her chief enemies—we fed the townsfolk, ay, and the countryfolk also, that came to us from many miles round about. But now, God be thanked therefor, we are like to have peace."

After I heard, but the Abbot said nought of the matter, that the prior and the archdeacon and many of the brethren fled from the house during these troubles; so that but for the constancy of the Abbot, affirming that he would not leave the flock of which God had made him overseer, the place had been altogether deserted. The Abbot had speech with me while he tarried at the hall, and after he had inquired of my studies and other matters he said, "If thou art ready, as I doubt not, to take the orders of subdeacon at Whitsuntide next ensuing, after thou shalt go to see thy kindred if thou wilt, and come to the Abbey about the Feast of St. Michael."

St. Alban's Abbey


But of this time, and of my first coming to the Abbey, and of the year of my noviceship, I will write nothing; for there was, as it were, a great cloud of grief and trouble over me—"Adhæsit pavimento anima mea."