With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

Of the Plague and other Matters

I was well content both with my lodging at Master Rushworth's, though I thought, doubtless for want of grace, he was too puritanically inclined, and with the school. Our good parson had grounded me so well in the rudiments of Latin that I took at the first a place beyond my years; and I used such diligence and ability, if I may say so much of myself, that I lost not this advantage afterwards. Twice in the year there was held an examination of the scholars, or, as they call it, probation; and they that acquit themselves well therein are nominated to a higher place. This promotion I never failed to gain, save the first time only, when I had been but three months in the school, and this in a form which had none other so young as I. I do believe, indeed, that even then I had earned promotion; but the usher kept me back of set purpose, thinking this to be the best for me, for which kindness, though it angered me at the time, I have since been most grateful. In the end it served me well, for, not to be tedious by, dwelling over long on such matters, I had obtained at the first probation of 1636, of which year I shall shortly have more to say, a most excellent place in the school, being promoted into the fourth form, in which there was not, I remember, one scholar but had, at the least, six months more of age than myself.

But now there came a most grievous interruption, not to me only, which had been but a small matter, but to the prosperity of the whole nation. In the third year of my schooling (that is to say 1635) the plague broke out with no small violence in the City. And though it abated somewhat in the winter, as it commonly does, the cold seeming to discourage it, so that 'twas hoped it would depart altogether, yet in the year following, so soon as the spring-time began, it grew to such a height as had never before been known, so far as the memory of living man could reach. But there had been worse before, the Black Death, to wit, which left, 'twas said, scarce a tenth part of the people alive, and the Sweating sickness in the days of King Henry VIII. From this visitation the school suffered greatly. I do not say that many scholars actually perished of the sickness, for of these there were not, I take it, more than three or four at the most. But our numbers were sadly diminished; for none came from the country, parents fearing to send their children into the midst of so deadly an infection, and of the London scholars also many were kept at home, lest, mixing with their fellows, they should either take the disease or convey it upon their clothes. It was a dismal sight to see the classes grow smaller, I may say, day after day. And when any boy was seen to be absent, there were rumours that he was dead of the plague; and though these, as I have said, were, for the most part, not true, yet we that remained were not the less troubled. At the last, when our numbers had dwindled down to a third or thereabouts of the full, came down an order from the Court that the school be shut. And this was done on the seventeenth of May, 1636.

I remember that we heard this news with a great shout of joy; for boys would rejoice in holiday though it should be brought about by the ending of the world; and now there was prospect of such a holiday as never had been known; and indeed the scholars were not again assembled together for the space of a year and five months, though Mr. Edwards, the chief master, taught some boys during that whole time, lest the school altogether ceasing to be, its property should be diverted elsewhere. But I was too young to be one of these.

As for myself, there was no small questioning what had better be done with me. My father indeed, as soon as there was talk of the school being shut up, had sent word that I should come home to him. But this was not easy to be done. For there was great fear throughout the country lest travellers from London should bring the infection of the disease with them, so that the roads were diligently watched, and all that were suspected of ailing thence were forthwith sent back, sometimes not without much maltreatment. This being so the river was the only highway that was left open. On this travellers were not hindered, provided only that they did not go forth from their boat into the villages round about. And by this highway I did in the end return home.

On the eleventh of June, for I remember that it was election day at the school, though the customary festivities were intermitted by reason of the plague, comes Richard Beasley with his barge, having with him a load of timber, and what I counted of more worth by far, the commandment from my father that I should return with him. And this I did about a sennight after, when he had finished the unloading of his cargo. We were six days on our journey, and I think that I never had so delightful a time. First it was no small joy to be quit for a time of London, which was indeed in those days a most dreadful place. None were seen in the streets save such as had urgent business; and these walked at such speed as if death were after them, (as indeed in a sense it was,) holding a handkerchief or pomander with some scent, recommended by the faculty, to their noses, as a safeguard against infection. As for the gallants in their brave attire and the fair matrons and damsels that had been wont to throng the public ways, they were invisible, and the church bells never gave forth a merry peal, but were tolling continually, till indeed this was forbidden as augmenting the terror of the citizens. And there passed continually along the streets the funerals of the wealthier sort of people and their families. But as for the poorer, the dead-cart carried them to their burying places, and this I, lying awake at night, have often heard rumbling awfully along, and also the cry of the men asking, whenever they saw a house shut up, whether there was anything for them. And I must confess, though it be to my discredit, that Master Rushworth and his wife wearied me with over long exercises of prayer such as they thought fitted for the occasion, not remembering my tender years. It may easily be concluded therefore that I was sufficiently glad to depart from London. And for the journey itself, it was, as I have said, delightful beyond all compare. We set out on the nineteenth of June, being, as I remember, a Saturday, for Robert, though he had all things ready, would not begin his journey on a Friday, a scrupulousness at which I was not a little offended, being above all things desirous to depart. That night we lay at Richmond, and the day following also, being a Sunday, on which day William Beasley was steadfast not to travel. He would say that, if a man cared not for his own soul, knowing it not to be worth a groat, he should have regard to his beast, which must be priced at twenty shillings at the least.

We travelled without any mischance save that at Bray, where the river is more than ordinary shallow, William Beasley's son having had the rudder in charge, ran the barge on a shoal, and would have had a great whipping from his father but that I took the blame on myself; which was indeed but fair, for I was distracting the lad with my talk when he needed all his wits for his work. At some of the ferries we had to serve ourselves, for the ferrymen would not venture themselves near to those that might be bringing, as they thought, the infection of the disease from London. And when we would buy anything from the town and villages, as eggs and milk, or the like, we left the money at an appointed place (the custom having grown up in former visitations), dropping it into a bowl of water; and the country folk afterwards brought their goods. And then, with a "God save you!" given and returned, we went on our way. 'Twas a doleful thing to be so shunned, as if we had been lepers; yet I could not blame the people, knowing that the plague had been carried down from London to the utter destruction of many villages. For a village, if it once take the infection, will often, for lack of ministration to the sick, suffer worse than the town. But once only did the riverside people show us any hostility; and this was at Wallingford, where they stoned us from the bridge, but without doing any considerable hurt.

But notwithstanding these incommodities, 'twas a most delightsome time such as I have ever remembered with pleasure, and shall remember so long as life be left to me. I have seen evil days since then—Thames running red with civil blood, if I may so speak, and all this fair land of England disturbed with the strife of brothers fighting against brothers. But these days had not then come; and if there were signs and tokens of the storms that were gathering, and such doubtless there were for them that had discerning eyes, I was too young to take note of them. And I was newly come from a city where there was but little talk of aught but pestilence and death, and doleful sights and sounds about me on every side, so that the country scenes, full of gladness and life, into which I had, as it were, escaped, were the more exceedingly delightful. Nor is there, methinks, a fairer thing in England, when one is once past the environs of the city, than Thames, nor any season in which Thames is more to be admired than that early summer in which we were then journeying. For the trees are in their fullest leaf and not yet withered at all by the heat, and the river banks are bright with flowers, as the forget-me-nots and the flags, both yellow and purple, and the water-plants, of more kinds than I can name, gay with blossom; also one may see the water-hens and the grebes, leading about their newly hatched broods, and the swans, carrying on their backs their cygnets, whose brown plumes show forth tenderly from out the silvery white, and the halcyons with their comely colours of green and red, carrying food to their young. All these and many more things that I have not the wit duly to describe did I see and note, young though I was, during our voyage.

Also as we went along William Beasley would cast a bait—a moth, may be, or a slug, or sometimes, to my no small wonder, a morsel of cheese—under the boughs that hung over the water, and draw out thence mighty big chevenders, or, as some call them, chubs. This he did with a most dexterous hand; ay, and having caught them, he would cook them no less skilfully, so that this fish, which I have since found to be tasteless, made as dainty meat as could be desired; or was it that the flavour was not in the dish but in its surroundings? And when we had accomplished our journey for the day, he would prepare an angle for me, and teach me to catch roaches and perches. And once, I remember, when I was pulling to me a roach that was on the hook, a pike of some six or seven pounds laid hold upon him, and would not let go, so bold and ravenous was he. And William Beasley, in the deftest manner that ever I beheld (and I have seen the same thing oft attempted since, but never accomplished), put a hand-net under the beast and brought him in. And he would have it, being one of the kindest hearts that ever lived, that I had caught the pike. And we had a great feast off him; 'twas excellent meat, white and firm, though somewhat weedy, said William; but I noted nothing amiss. Near to Oxford my father met me, and carried me home, where I lived with much content until the time when, as I have said, the Merchant Taylors' School was opened again, a space of fifteen months and more. 'Twas not lost time so far as learning was concerned, for our good parson took me in hand again and taught me. And, indeed, he had been teaching my sister Dorothy, so that she was a match, ay, and more than a match, for me, being both older and of a nimbler wit. But being the tenderest soul alive, and fearing that I should be grieved if she outstripped me too far, she would hold back; and I, thinking that I could vanquish her, and being sometimes by her suffered so to do, did my utmost. Verily I believe that I had not learned more at the school itself, though my preceptors there were diligent both with the voice and the rod, in which latter instrument of learning they had such faith as Solomon himself, who, methinks, has much affliction of youth to answer for, could not have excelled. Nor did I gain in learning only, but also in strength of body and health, in which, haply, I had fared ill had I been cooped within the City walls.

In the year 1643—for that I be not tedious to them that shall read this history I shall say no more of my schooldays—I, being then eighteen years of age and not unfit, if I may say so much of myself, to compare with the best scholars of the said school, did hope for my election to a vacancy in the College of St. John the Baptist at Oxford. But of this hope I was disappointed, not altogether, methinks, of my own fault. It came about in this manner. About the beginning of May comes a letter from the President and Fellows of the College, wherein they write that they dare not, by reason of the troubles of the times, venture so far as to come to London that they might take part, as their custom was, in the election of scholars to their College. So it turned out, to cut the matter short, that the Company held the said election privately by themselves. Now my uncle, Master Harland aforesaid, died about this time and as during his life he had been somewhat masterful, ruling most things according to his pleasure, so now, being dead, there was, so to speak, a turn of the tide against him and his, by which turn I suffered. They also to whom I looked for help, to wit the President and Fellows of St. John's College, were absent for the cause that I have already set forth. And so it happened that when it came to the election I had but two voices. And this I say not by way of complaint against them that ordered the election, nor of murmuring against God, but because I desire to set forth what befell me, and, as far as I can, the causes of the same. As for murmuring, indeed, I doubt much whether I lost any great profit in this matter, though I will confess that it was at the time no small disappointment and bitterness. For the same cause that hindered the Fellows of the College from coming to London, hindered also the scholars that were then elected from going to Oxford; so that it was a long time before they were admitted to their preferment. And, in truth, when they were admitted, it was but an unprofitable matter, for the College was almost at the point of dissolution for lack of means, many of its tenants not being able to pay their rents, and some that had the ability making pretence of the troubles of the times to cover their dishonesty. And thus my schooldays came to an end.