Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

Of My Manner of Life at Barnet

The Feast of St. Peter, 1471.

This day I sang mass for the first time in the church of Barnet. But I should say that the priest of Barnet, when he heard of my coming, constrained me to lodge with him till my own dwelling should be built. And this I did right willingly; but I also constrained him on my part to take somewhat of me for my lodging and food, knowing that he was a poor man (for he had not a church of his own, but is deputy only to the priest of East Barnet), and having also a good provision by the bounty of the King. So I persuaded him, but not easily (and I have noted that the poor are oftentimes hospitable even above their means, and that the rich are not less grudging), that he should take from me two shillings by the week, beside that which I did pay him day by day, according to the King's letter, for the using of the church.

There is one thing which it were ill done of me not to set down in this place. Yestereven, when it was just about to grow dark, there came to the priest's lodging one asking for me by name. And when I went forth to speak with him, I perceived that he was the serving-man that had come on Barnet Field to fetch me to the Earl of Warwick, his master. When he had saluted me he said, "Sir Edward, thou art to sing mass, men say, by the King's command, for the souls of them that fell fighting on his party on Barnet Field. Canst not add thereto the name of my master? I have somewhat in my pouch that I saved in my good lord's service, nor can I better bestow it than to this end." 'Twas a strange thing, doubtless, to ask of a priest, but the man spake according to his light, and I loved him for his faithfulness. "Nay," said I, when he would have given me some gold pieces that he carried in a bag; "nay, it would ill become me to take pay for such service, both from my lord the King and from another. Keep thy pieces; or, if thou wilt, bestow them upon the poor, for almsdeeds go up even as do prayers for an offering of a sweet savour to God. But I will not forget thy master, nor do I think that I transgress against either charity or duty, if I make mention of his name, if not upon my lips, at least within my heart." Then the man departed, but somewhat downcast, as it seemed to me, thinking haply, that that which had cost him nothing would nothing avail.

I have been considering much with myself from the day that I first heard of this office how, my due service being finished—and this is indeed but a small matter—I had best bestow my time. I know that chantry priests are often but lightly spoken of, being, 'tis said, men of a mean spirit who, that they may live in idleness, are content with small wage, which, nevertheless, they do eke out in no reputable fashion. But that any man must of necessity be idle I do not allow, so long as there are the unlearned to be taught and the sick and afflicted to be comforted. And now I will set down my resolves.

First, then, I purpose to teach the rudiments of learning to such lads as their fathers, being of yeoman's degree or the like, shall be willing to send to me. It seemeth to me a shameful thing that in this realm of England there should be so slender a provision for the teaching of the young. Schools there are at Oxford, and at Cambridge, and at Winchester, and at Eton, and in some of the monasteries, but not in all (though how should a monk's time be better bestowed than on such works), but 'tis but a small portion at the best of our English youth that are taught even so much as to read and to write. Of the poor wretches that are brought to the gallows, of whom there are I know not how many thousands in the year, how few do claim what men of the law call the "benefit of clergy," that is, that a man shall not die if he can read and write. For myself I cannot discern why all men, though they be but churls, so that they have but the necessary reason, should not be so taught. But this, I doubt not, is a fancy that is never like to become fact in this world. Yet will I do my little part in this great work, and so make a return not of thanks only, but of service for the great benefits which by the grace of God and the favour of good Bishop William I myself received.

This I can not do till I dwell in my own house, which I hear will scarce be finished for a year to come. Meanwhile I will make such preparation as I may. Haply I may get some help in the way of books from the school-master of St. Albans; and some I can buy, having more of money than I can spend on myself. And I doubt not that in London such things may be more readily bought than elsewhere.

Also I shall doubtless find some sick folk to whom, with leave first had of the parsons of Barnet and Hadley, I may minister.

Nor shall I want for due recreation. An I cared for hunting and fowling, such sport I might have in plenty, for there is a great abundance of hares and conies and of birds of all kinds; but this pursuit I shall not follow, having no inclination thereto, not to speak of the ill-repute in which hunting priests are commonly held. But angling, which by common consent is allowed to spiritual men (though indeed the difference is of word rather than deed), I shall practice with moderation. Rivers there are none at hand, and of streams but few and these small, but ponds and lakes are plenty. Finally, I have a good hope that I may yet pracise something of my art. If indeed I seek to read a book for any space of time beyond the shortest then there cometh upon me the old trouble of the head, but I have made pictures in colours without damage, so far as I could tell to myself. And here I shall have a great store of things which I may so copy. I do not fear but what I shall have abundance wherewith to occupy my time. Finally, the place, I like right-well. The air, may be, is somewhat over keen for them that have ailments of the chest, but 'tis marvellously pure and fresh. And the people are a simple, kindly folk, among whom I shall be well content to live. I could wish indeed that there were not so many masterful vagabonds on the road. These are found to be coming, as it were, in a perpetual stream to London, which indeed draweth to itself both bad and good, as a magnet draweth the iron. The number of such is now greatly increased by the late wars, and will be diminished, I have a good hope, when the times shall be more settled. As for myself I fear them but little; for though they, for the most part, would as lief rob a priest as a common man, yet I have the greater security of poverty. Though my abode be lonely, and indeed it is not within hearing of any house, small or great, yet I shall dwell safely.

I doubt much whether I shall ever have occasion again to write again in this book, for what can happen to a poor chantry priest that shall be worthy note? Yet will I keep it by me, ready to be used, if haply such occasion should arise.