Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

Of My Life in Shropshire

Sometimes I doubt whether I do well to call to mind the days of my sojourn in the household of John Eliot the elder, being, as I am, bound by vows to the religious life. Nor, indeed, do I deny that I was for the most part taken up with the love of Mistress Joan—a love which did begin with the very first sight of her; and that this love is a thing against which my heart is of necessity shut for ever. But verily—for I speak the truth and lie not—since the day when I did learn, as shall be told hereafter, that I had hoped in vain, there hath been with me no need of vows so to shut my heart. I should be single by choice if I were not single by profession. Yet I do not scoff and rail at the wedded estate, as do some of the brethren in this house, but count it, as indeed cloth St. Paul in his Epistle to Timotheus, a most honourable thing. And I do hold, that they who do live honestly and godly therein are not the less servants of God and men of religion than we who do specially take unto ourselves these titles. Nor do I count it shame that I did myself once aspire to this estate. For which reason, and because I find not that the remembering of these things maketh me unstable in the way that I have chosen, but rather refresheth and strengtheneth me, I have determined to write down in this book the sum of them.

The summer season of this said year 1459 was passing fine—unless, indeed, I do deceive myself, and do count the sunshine that was, if I may so say, in my heart, for that which cometh down from the heavens upon the earth. But doubtless it was without rain beyond what is to be commonly observed in this realm of England. I do remember especially that about harvest time there were many days in which, from the rising to the setting of the sun, there was not so much as the shadow of a cloud; and also, that Master Eliot did say there had never been a more prosperous and speedy ingathering of the fruits of the earth since he first had followed the farmer's life. In this ingathering we did all bear our part. Master Eliot himself did take the sickle in hand, though his wife and children suffered him not to labour during the heat of the day. As for John, for all that he had for many years handled book and pen only, his right hand had not forgot his cunning; and the lad William did service in the field beyond his years. There were three villains also that did labour continually on the farm; and to these there came out from Shrewsbury town three others who followed some handicraft at other times, but were wont to labour for hire at the ingathering of the hay and of the corn. As for me, I did essay at the first to handle the sickle with the rest; but when I had well-nigh done myself a damage, saith Master Eliot, "Nay, Thomas "—for the good man spake to me ever as to a son—"reaping is a handicraft, and may not be learnt by good will alone. At the best thou canst ply this tool but slowly, having given thy life to better things; and if perchance it wound thee, thou wilt hinder us sorely, taking the women from their work to cure thy hurt." After this I was content to help in such things as I was able to do, not being ashamed to bind the sheaves with the women; yea, being happy beyond measure in so doing when Mistress Joan was in the field. This was, for the most part, in the afternoon, for in the forenoon she was busy in the dairy with the making of butter, which at that season of the year is most conveniently done day by day. From the time when the sickle was first put into the corn until the stacks were fully made (but the thatching of the same was done after), was seventeen days, and there was never a drop of rain upon the corn from the beginning to the end. And when the harvest was ended, being the ninth clay of August, Master Eliot furnished a feast of ingathering, to which sat down he and his household, in the which I number myself, and the three villains and their wives, and the four men from Shrewsbury town with their wives also, but one was unmarried—fourteen in all; and there was much mirth and jollity, but nothing of riot and excess. And the next Sunday there was a thanksgiving in the church, which was finely decked with corn and flowers and fruits; and Brother John, a friar of the Order of St. Dominic, preached us a sermon, taking for his text, "Valles abundabunt frumento," for the parson of the parish, though he is an honest man and of a blameless life, is no preacher.

After the harvest there was a certain slackening of labour, though indeed the work of a farm never standeth still. Sometimes we would go down to Severn, where I would angle, the maids looking on and much applauding my skill. There on the twelfth day of August—for I do remember the day, nay, the very hour, for it was nine of the clock in the forenoon—I did first catch a salmon. How he did strive to quit himself of the hook, leaping in the air, and running with the river, so that I was fain to follow him with all the speed I might. For well-nigh an hour did I fight with him, thinking oft that I had lost him. And when at the last I brought him near to the land where the water was somewhat shallow, nothing would content Willie but he must leap in and thrust his fingers into the beast's gills, and so carry him to shore. And indeed I know not how without such help I should have handled him. He had a score of pounds in weight, wanting three or four ounces only. And though I caught not a few of his fellows after, there was not one of them so large.

In September we would sometimes go by night into the cornfields with a great net wherewith to catch partridges, taking of these, I do remember, some eight or ten at one time, and among them a quail or a landrail; also we did set snares in the hedges for hares, setting by the empty spaces where they were wont to run, and traps for the rabbits. Of these creatures there was no small abundance, and they do no little damage, especially in the spring season, devouring the corn while it is yet in the blade.

Game of chess


But the most notable day of the whole summer was the fifteenth day of September, when John did shoot a stag with his crossbow. The said stag had escaped in the spring season from my lord Shrewsbury's park at Ingestre, and had done much damage to the farms thereabouts, nor had my lord's keepers been able to kill him. Wherefore it was notified to the countryside, that they had license to shoot him if so be that they could. And this many had sought to do, and indeed had not lacked opportunity; but to shoot at so great a quarry doth, they say, unsettle the aim even of them that are well used to this sport. Certain it is that not a few had shot at the beast and failed. And now came tidings to John that the said stag had been seen by the river-side, where the grass was yet plentiful—for in the country round about it was scarce by reason of the drought. Then said I, "Wilt thou watch all night for him?" "Nay," said he, "that would but ill fit me for my work in the morning. But we will rise betimes in the morning, two hours at least before sunrising, and take our place in a certain copse that I know, and there wait till he shall begin his feeding, which he will do, I doubt not, with the very first dawn." And this we did. We rose about four of the clock, and about five had sight of the stag. Now there was much mist by the river, and the beast seemed, as the mist is wont to magnify, to be a very monster for size. And I whispered, "See the stag, John! Wilt thou not shoot?" "Nay," said he, "for he is nigh a furlong distant, and if I miss this chance I trow that I shall have never another. But we will get somewhat nearer to him. Wilt thou come, or wilt thou abide in this place?" "I will come with thee, and be Iphitus to thy Hercules," "Then follow me, and speak not another word, for if the beast see thee, or hear thee, or so much as smell thee (but happily the wind setteth from him to us), then is our labour lost." Then he stripped himself of his doublet and I also. This done, he crept on his belly along a ditch which had been dug by the side of Severn. It was for the most part dry; but in one place and another there was mud, and for the space of four or five yards at the latter end, water somewhat foul and ill-smelling, having half a foot in depth. This being passed, we came to another copse, of which when we had passed to the further side, lo! the stag was yet feeding, being distant about seventy yards, but stood with his haunches towards us. And I, raising myself from the ground, chanced to break the branch, which was of dead wood, whereon I laid hold; and the beast turning at the sound, John shot him through the heart. For he leapt once into the air, but after never stirred more. A goodly quarry it was, having forty stones of weight; and his horns, which my lord had reserved for himself, had fourteen points.

Sometimes, especially if the rain kept us within doors—though this, as I have said, did but seldom happen—we would play at chess or draughts, and sometimes also at shovel-board in the hall. For this last game there is a long table of oak, polished as smooth as may be, and at the end of the table and at the side thereof, for the space of four feet or thereabouts, a netting. 'Tis played with weights of brass, of three ounces or thereabouts, which the players push down the whole length of the table, striving who should place them nearest to the end. He doeth best that can leave them so as to abide hanging, as it were, over the end, for if they fall into the netting, then they are counted dead. And the players strive not only to bring their own weights to the best places, but also to drive therefrom the weights of their adversaries. For the most part Mistress Alice and I would contend against John and the lad Willie. As for Mistress Joan she would play but rarely, and when she played would not be content but that she must have sides with John, not bearing even in sport to be against him.