Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

Of Bishop William and Others

I have not many things to write touching my sojourn at Oxford before I did proceed to the degree of Master of Arts. But whereas before I had doubted what manner of life I should follow, inclining rather to the priesthood, as one in my place was like to do (for none may be fellows at Magdalen College but priests only), I was now steadfastly purposed to follow the law.

And this purpose I declared, as in duty bound, to the good Bishop when he came, as his custom was, to see his college on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen, he himself giving me occasion of speaking. Saith he, "Nephew Thomas, what hast thou in thy mind to do? I have heard a good report of thee, how thou didst answer for the degree of Bachelor of Arts with much applause of all that were present, and hast always borne thyself soberly and discreetly; wouldst thou be fellow of this college, if I can so order it? only, as thou knowest, none are fellows here but such as are priests already, or, at the least, minded to be so in due course. And this I say to thee because I doubt nothing of thy honesty, but know that thou art not such one as would desire to be put into one of the priest's offices that he may eat a piece of bread. Hast thou then, thinkest thou, a desire or calling to the office of the ministry?" But when I knew not what to answer, but stood shamefaced, the Bishop looked at me more closely, as if he would read the secrets of my heart; and verily his regard, I had before noted, was exceeding keen. And after awhile, he steadfastly regarding me, and I, not so much as lifting my eyes from the ground, while my face burned, as it were, with fire, my good lord said, "Come now, Nephew Thomas, make confession; thy shame, I warrant, if indeed I have any skill in reading the countenance of man, is not other than honest. Thou art not—but who can answer for youth and love?—thou art not wedded already?" "Nay, my lord," I made answer;" I could not so forget my duty." And then I told him my story, not without beginning at the time when he had himself given the place of demy to John Eliot. And when I had made an end, he said, "And so thou wilt take Mistress Joan for such service as thou didst to Master John. I had not thought thee such an usurer. But, say, doth the maiden consent?" Then I said that I had not spoken, as not knowing what means of livelihood I might have; but that I hoped that she had, at the least, no misliking for me. Then the Bishop was silent for the space of three or four minutes; and after he said, "'They that marry,' saith the holy Apostle Paul, 'shall have trouble in the flesh;' yet have they also manifold blessings, of which not the least is this, that they are constrained to think of others rather than of themselves. As for thy livelihood, I will set thee in the way to earn it. Fellowship or benefice thou canst not have; but if, as I do conjecture, thou art purposed to follow thy father's calling, thou shalt not lack my good word. And when thou hast persuaded Mistress Joan, fail not to advertise me of your agreement, so that I may myself, if it be possible, join your hands, and find you somewhat for the plenishing of your house."

At these words of the Bishop I greatly rejoiced. But before many days my joy was dashed as I will now tell. I had, as I have before written, a sister that was a nun in the Priory of Godstow. It was my custom to see her once in the month, for more the Prioress suffered not, commanding that all scholars of Oxford desiring to see a kinswoman that was of the house should come on one day only. A fair building is this same Priory, hard by Thames; and the nuns have a church to which the country folk resort, very great and stately, that was built, as I have heard tell, by King Stephen; and also a chapel for their private use, near to which is the tomb of Rosamund de Clifford, who was surnamed the Fair. Her, for all that she had but an ill repute in her life, yet, because she was a benefactor to their house, the nuns suffered to be buried in their church, nigh to the high altar, and adorned her tomb with many adornments; and when St. Hugh, sometime Bishop of Lincoln, being visitor of the said Priory, commanded that the bones of the said Rosamund should be cast out of the church, they buried them hard by their own chapel. A very fair garden also they have, with a stream of clear water encompassing it, planted with all manner of sweet herbs and comely flowers.

When I came into the parlour I saw not there my sister, but the sub-Prioress only, who said, "Sister Agnes" (for that was Alice's name in religion) "is in great weakness of body, so that she had not strength to come into the parlour. And the cause is this. Thou knowest that we receive into our house certain young maids to teach and train. Of these one, newly coming from her home, though she seemed to be in good health, had yet a fever upon her. And this so spread, that in the space of ten days there lay sick eight in all, of whom some were like to die. Then Sister Agnes, to whom Our Lady hath given such gentle and gracious ways that sick folk do dearly love to be tended by her, did give herself over to the work of nursing these young maids, scarce departing from their chamber day and night, and then only by strict command of the Prioress. And now the maids are recovered (and Master William the leech saith that, after God, it is thy sister that hath worked their cure), but she is grievously sick, not indeed of the fever, for that she hath escaped, but of weariness: but come, for she looketh to see thee." So I followed the Prioress to a little chamber where they are wont to bestow such sick persons as are in most desperate case, as I was afterwards told. And when she saw me she beckoned with the hand that I should bend down my head, being scarce able to speak for weakness. So I kneeled down by her side, and she said: "Oh! Thomas, I had thought that God had set me in this place that I might pray for you that are without in the world. For you will have many cares and temptations; but here is peace and safety, so that I can care not for my own soul only, which surely it were a base thing to do, but also for them whom I love. But now I perceive that He hath ordered it otherwise. Wilt thou not then give thyself to His work, taking the vow in some house of religion, that when I shall have departed hence there may yet be some one to pray for them that are without." But I could not answer her a word, for it seemed that in a moment's space all my light was turned into darkness. And at the last I said, "O Alice, this is a hard thing thou askest. There is one—" but more I could not for the tears rose in my throat and choked me, and that not for myself only, but for her, to see her lying in such case. "Art thou promised, then?" said she, knowing not from my words only, but also from my face, what was in my heart. Then I answered, "Not so, yet I have a hope." Then I told her how the good Bishop had consented to the thing. And when she heard this she said, "If I had known this sooner I had not spoken. Nevertheless it was laid upon me to speak, or so, at the least, it seemed, for all now is darkened to me. But I ask no promise from thee; God will order these things as He will." Then I began to recover myself, and would have cheered her, saying, "Be of good courage; thou shalt pray for us all yet many years; and I will bring her for thy blessing, if all be well." "If God will," said she, "though indeed it is better to depart." Then she would hear what I could tell her of Joan Eliot; and as she lay listening with much content there came into her cheek, that was before deathly pale, the colour of the hedge-rose when the bud is now ready to break forth, and the dimness passed from her eyes, so that I began to have good hopes that she should do well. And when I parted from her, she said, "Thou wilt serve God, dear Thomas, whether thou be under rule or no." And these were her last words, for on the morrow she departed this life.

These things troubled me much; nevertheless I applied myself with all diligence to the study which I had chosen, hearing such as lectured on the canon law and the civil law, and not neglecting to be present in the schools if any disputed on such matters. And it was my purpose, when the proper time should have come, to enter myself at the Inner Temple, of which learned society my father had been a member until he was made serjeant. And when my mother heard of my intent, she sent to me certain books of my late father's, among which were many notes, written with his own hand, of cases wherein he had himself taken part, or at the hearing of which he had been present. Also there were judgments of notable judges and a book of the lectures of Master Thomas Littleton, who is, at this date of writing, one of the king's judges of the Common Pleas.

On the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen came Bishop William to his college. Dinner being ended he sent for me, and when he had inquired of my welfare, and how I prospered in my studies, he would know whether I had thoughts of any journey. Then I answered, not without blushing, that I purposed to set forth on the morrow for Shropshire. Thereupon he said, "Thou wilt return, as I suppose, to London, for thy work in this place is ended. Come therefore to me at my house in Southwark, and we will take counsel together what it were best for thee to do. And now I have a riddle which thou shalt guess, not now, but hereafter." And he took from his pouch a little coffer of cedar-wood, very fragrant, bound about with two cords of white silk, which were sealed with his smaller seal, that, to wit, which he was wont to use in his private affairs. This he gave into my hands, saying, "Here is a riddle, Nephew Thomas. Lo! I give thee this, and yet 'tis not for thee, but for another, and when thou shalt give it to this other, then shall it be thine." After this he gave me his blessing and let me go.