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The Chantry Priest of Barnet by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

MY LAST WRITING IN THIS BOOK

The 1st day of May, 1516.

[281] AS I draw near to the end of my life—and indeed my years have already approached that which the Psalmist hath laid down as the further limit of the days of man—some things that were before dark to me become clear, and some that I thought much to be desired appear no longer to be wished; and some for which I had scarce dared to hope, or of which I had not so much as thought, have come to pass beyond all expectation.

It is now more than fifty years since, being entertained at the Priory of Worcester and seeing how the brethren dwelt in great peace and content, I conceived the desire of being a monk. And though when this desire was fulfilled I found the life to fall somewhat short of [282] my hope, yet it was no small trouble to me when I was constrained to leave it for another. But now the matter is otherwise with me, so that I rather am thankful that I have been led away from that very place wherein I most desired to stay. And this thankfulness I first felt some twenty-and-five years since when, by the commandment of the Holy Father himself, Pope Innocent VIII. Dr. Morton, being then Archbishop of Canterbury, made a visitation of the House of St. Alban, of which visitation I wrote nothing at the time in this book, being neither willing to believe nor able to deny the things which the said archbishop laid to the charge of them that aforetime were my brethren, but of which I will now set down so much, to wit: that some things were magnified beyond the truth to the end that the King, who looked rather to the increasing of his treasure than to the encouragement of good living, might with the more reason exact a fine from the wrong-doers, but that the truth itself was such as no Christian man could hear without shame; that there had been much sinful and riotous living and very grievous breaking of vows; and that there [283] had been wasting of the revenues of the house; cutting down of timber beyond custom, so that whole woods had vanished away and selling of jewels and cups, nay of the very offerings from the shrine of St. Alban himself. And I do hear from those that are not like to speak falsely in such matters, that though there be houses in which all things are done decently and in order, yet there are others, and these especially of the smaller sort, in which such like abuses do flourish to this very day. Moreover I can see for myself—for I do hear it not unfrequently in the common talk of men—that this realm of England is growing somewhat weary of monks and their ways, and this the more now that their chief office of promoting learning and letters hath passed, it would seem, into other hands. And of this I heard but just now a most notable confirmation. For being at the house of the Worshipful Sir John More, of whom I will write more presently, the talk fell upon my lord of Winchester, than whom there is not in this realm of England a more notable scholar and patron of learning. The said Bishop was minded to found a college for a [284] warden and certain monks and scholars that should belong to the Priory of St. Swithin in Winchester; and indeed had already begun to build the same when he chanced to talk with my lord Bishop of Exeter on the matter. Whereupon saith my lord of Exeter, "Nay, my lord, shall we build houses and provide livelihoods for a swarm of buzzing monks, who have already more than they are like to hold, and whose end and fall we ourselves may live to see?" Whereupon the said Bishop hath changed his counsel, and will set up another college at Oxford, whereof much, I hear, is already finished, so that it shall in all likelihood be opened this same year.

And now to speak of a certain thing of which I have thought many times since the days of my youth, and which I have now in my old age been suffered by the grace of God to see with mine eyes.

This Sir John More, of whom I have written above, hath a house of which the name is Gobions, or, as some of the country-folk call it, More Place (for it hath been the inheritance of the Mores for sundry generations). He is an [285] old man, having indeed been born in the same year with myself, and hath been for many years one of the King's judges. I have had acquaintance with him for these many years, the said acquaintance beginning, if my memory serveth me, in the year 1489, and on this occasion. In this year the plague was in London, and Sir John dwelt longer than was his common use at his house of Gobions, to which he for the most part resorted only after that the courts had risen. Now he had a son, Thomas by name, that had then eleven years of age, and was a scholar in a school of some note in London, to wit, St. Antony's in Threadneedle Street, where he had made notable progress in learning. It disturbed him much that his son should endure such interruption to his studies, the lad himself being, I do verily believe, not the less vexed thereat. Seeking thus for some one who should give the boy instruction, that the time might not be altogether wasted, there was brought him a report of me, who did then teach the rudiments of polite learning to such as were willing to learn, and indeed continued so to do so long as my [286] strength permitted. So for the space of three months or thereabouts the lad came daily to me, riding on a little horse which his father had given him, and would not be hindered by any rain, howsoever great; and if his mother, being careful of his health, after the manner of women, was like to hinder him for cause of the weather, he would escape out of the house by stealth. He had marvellous parts, such as I never saw in any other whom I taught, and for jests there was no one that could match him. Nor did I give him such instruction that year only, but also afterwards, till indeed he had passed beyond my poor powers of teaching. This Thomas More has risen to a high place in the state, and is like to rise to yet higher. For when he was but twenty-four years of age he was a burgess of the Commons' House, in which place he showed a notable freedom, not altogether to the liking of them that were in power. And of late years he has been in high repute as an advocate, in which profession he has had such returns of money for his labours as have scarce been known before in this country, that is to say, more than three hundred and fifty [287] pounds by the year. And even now he hath been sent by the King's Majesty on an embassage to Flanders, from which office he hath returned with much credit and success. But for all his honours, to me he hath shown not kindness only but reverence, forgetting not that I taught him in old time, and ordering himself to me as doth a scholar to his master.

Some days ago being called to dinner at Sir John More's house (whither I was conveyed in a carriage, as his custom with me is), I found, besides two or three others, gentlemen of these parts, or whom Francis Goodere was one, Master Thomas More, and with him a right worthy and learned divine of whom I have heard many speak, and that with much praise, for these twenty years past, yet have never chanced to see; that is to say, Master Colet, the Dean of St. Paul's Church in London. There be some, I know, that fear him, thinking that he goeth overmuch after novelties and forsaketh the soundness of the faith. And indeed I have heard that my lord of London would gladly have deposed him from his dignity, yea, and have brought him into judgment for heresy, but [288] that the King's Majesty bare him harmless. 'Tis certain that he is a lover of the new learning, for the better promoting of which he hath newly founded a grammar school in London; and he hath so far departed from the old way, that he hath studied the Greek tongue; yea, and did lecture at Oxford on the Epistles of St. Paul, as so written. (Methinks that they who do rail at Greek forget in marvellous fashion that the words of Christ and His Apostles are written down for our edification in that tongue.) I noted that he gave me but a passing regard, as though it were enough to have seen my monk's habit (for he is no lover of monks). Then saith Master Thomas More, "I would have you acquainted, Master Dean, with Sir Thomas Aylmer, chantry priest of Barnet," which he did of mischief, knowing that Master Colet, if he loveth monks but little, loveth chantry priests yet less. Then when he had greeted me—not discourteously indeed, for this it is not in the nature of the man to do, but as one that seeketh not further acquaintance proceedeth Master More, "and is learned also in the Greek tongue;" at which I saw Master [289] Dean regard me with no little amazement. But before he could speak Master More saith further, "I do hope that my father will not turn him from his house as one that hath about him a dangerous commodity. Say, father, didst thou not cut short my sojourn in Oxford, fearing that I should learn overmuch Greek, and so fall into dangerous heresies?" Then the old man laughed and said, "'Twas even so; but I am wiser now, having grown to years of discretion, for then I was but a youth of three-score or so." After this Master Colet and I had much talk together, and I told him how I had gained some knowledge of the Greek tongue, with which relation he was mightily pleased. And he would have me sit by him at dinner, desiring, it would seem, to make amends if perchance I had thought him wanting in courtesy.

After dinner Master Thomas discoursed in wittier fashion than ever before I heard from the lips of man on a certain book which he hath it in his mind to write. 'Tis of the ensample of a State, and he will call it by the title of Utopia, which may be interpreted "Nowhere." I cannot [290] call to mind a tenth part of the things that he told us, but I do remember that he said that these said Utopians have it for a fixed rule that they will make no treaties with other nations, as having learnt that there is nothing in this world that can so easily be broken; and that those who rule this commonwealth have ordered it in such wise as never commonwealth was ordered upon earth, for every man's house has a fair garden to it, and their watercourses such that none lack of clean water as much as they need; and that there are hospitals where all sick folk may be healed, none being in danger of infection from another, and common halls where the citizens make good cheer together with all sobriety; and that every child, from the highest to the lowest, is taught even as though he were to follow the calling of a lawyer or a priest.

When he had finished his discourse he opened the door of the chamber and rang upon a bell that was hard by. Thereupon came a serving-man carrying something wrapped in a cover of black silk. This Master Thomas More taking in his hand gave to the Dean, [291] saying, "There is no man in this realm of England that deserveth better to have the first handling of this treasure than thou. Take it, then, as my gift; and I doubt not, that though thou hast long looked for its appearing, 'twill even now be somewhat of a surprise."

Then Master Dean openeth the cover, and lo! beneath it a book, of a folio size, somewhat thin. And he read aloud the title page, which, being in Latin, I shall here set down in English.

"THE NEW TESTAMENT OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST,
Brought forth under the care of Desiderius Erasmus."

When he had read this we all sat silent for a space. Then said Master Colet: "What if some learned man should render this book, wherein are the very words of Christ and His Apostles, into our English tongue; and this dream also of thine, Master More, come true, and every child shall learn to read it!"

But Master More shook his head as one that doubted. "Thou rememberest that there are [292] therein many things hard to understand, which the unlearned wrest to their own destruction."

"Yea, but it was of the unlearned that the gospel was first preached and first received," answered Master Colet.

As for me, I held my peace. But I do not doubt in my heart that Master Colet's words shall come true. For what end can there be to the multiplying of books by this new art of printing? And what book should be multiplied rather than this? And if books be multiplied what shall hinder the people from reading? And as for the rendering of the book into English it hath been done already, though not from the original tongue, by Baeda, surnamed the Venerable, and by others; and that it shall be done wholly and from the original itself, as indeed is fitting, I am assured. And though I live not to see this, for I am old, and there are yet many who are of Master More's way of thinking, yet now I rejoice to have looked upon this book. It is well that the printer take the place of the scribe, if he can give such a gift to Christian men. And here I end my writing in this book.


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