Woodstock, by Walter Scott

Chapter the First.

Some were for gospel ministers,

And some for red-coat seculars,

As men most fit t’ hold forth the word,

And wield the one and th’ other sword.

Butler’s Hudibras.

There is a handsome parish church in the town of Woodstock — I am told so, at least, for I never saw it, having scarce time, when at the place, to view the magnificence of Blenheim, its painted halls, and tapestried bowers, and then return in due season to dine in hall with my learned friend, the provost of ——; being one of those occasions on which a man wrongs himself extremely, if he lets his curiosity interfere with his punctuality. I had the church accurately described to me, with a view to this work; but, as I have some reason to doubt whether my informant had ever seen the inside of it himself, I shall be content to say that it is now a handsome edifice, most part of which was rebuilt forty or fifty years since, although it still contains some arches of the old chantry, founded, it is said, by King John. It is to this more ancient part of the building that my story refers. On a morning in the end of September, or beginning of October, in the year 1652, being a day appointed for a solemn thanksgiving for the decisive victory at Worcester, a respectable audience was assembled in the old chantry, or chapel of King John. The condition of the church and character of the audience both bore witness to the rage of civil war, and the peculiar spirit of the times. The sacred edifice showed many marks of dilapidation. The windows, once filled with stained glass, had been dashed to pieces with pikes and muskets, as matters of and pertaining to idolatry. The carving on the reading-desk was damaged, and two fair screens of beautiful sculptured oak had been destroyed, for the same pithy and conclusive reason. The high altar had been removed, and the gilded railing, which was once around it, was broken down and carried off. The effigies of several tombs were mutilated, and now lay scattered about the church,

Torn from their destined niche — unworthy meed

Of knightly counsel or heroic deed!

The autumn wind piped through empty aisles, in which the remains of stakes and trevisses of rough-hewn timber, as well as a quantity of scattered hay and trampled straw, seemed to intimate that the hallowed precincts had been, upon some late emergency, made the quarters of a troop of horse.

The audience, like the building, was abated in splendour. None of the ancient and habitual worshippers during peaceful times, were now to be seen in their carved galleries, with hands shadowing their brows, while composing their minds to pray where their fathers had prayed, and after the same mode of worship. The eye of the yeoman and peasant sought in vain the tall form of old Sir Henry Lee, of Ditchley, as, wrapped in his lace cloak, and with beard and whiskers duly composed, he moved slowly through the aisles, followed by the faithful mastiff, or bloodhound, which in old time had saved his master by his fidelity, and which regularly followed him to church. Bevis, indeed, fell under the proverb which avers, “He is a good dog which goes to church;” for, bating an occasional temptation to warble along with the accord, he behaved himself as decorously as any of the congregation, and returned as much edified, perhaps, as most of them. The damsels of Woodstock looked as vainly for the laced cloaks, jingling spurs, slashed boots, and tall plumes, of the young cavaliers of this and other high-born houses, moving through the streets and the church-yard with the careless ease, which indicates perhaps rather an overweening degree of self-confidence, yet shows graceful when mingled with good-humour and courtesy. The good old dames, too, in their white hoods and black velvet gowns — their daughters, “the cynosure of neighbouring eyes,”— where were they all now, who, when they entered the church, used to divide men’s thoughts between them and Heaven? “But, ah! Alice Lee — so sweet, so gentle, so condescending in thy loveliness —[thus proceeds a contemporary annalist, whose manuscript we have deciphered]— why is my story to turn upon thy fallen fortunes? and why not rather to the period when, in the very dismounting from your palfrey, you attracted as many eyes as if an angel had descended — as many blessings as if the benignant being had come fraught with good tidings? No creature wert thou of an idle romancer’s imagination — no being fantastically bedizened with inconsistent perfections; — thy merits made me love thee well — and for thy faults — so well did they show amid thy good qualities, that I think they made me love thee better.”

With the house of Lee had disappeared from the chantry of King John others of gentle blood and honoured lineage — Freemantles, Winklecombes, Drycotts, &c.; for the air that blew over the towers of Oxford was unfavourable to the growth of Puritanism, which was more general in the neighbouring counties. There were among the congregation, however, one or two that, by their habits and demeanour, seemed country gentlemen of consideration, and there were also present some of the notables of the town of Woodstock, cutlers or glovers chiefly, whose skill in steel or leather had raised them to a comfortable livelihood. These dignitaries wore long black cloaks, plaited close at the neck, and, like peaceful citizens, carried their Bibles and memorandum-books at their girdles, instead of knife or sword. [This custom among the Puritans is mentioned often in old plays, and among others in the Widow of Watling Street.] This respectable, but least numerous part of the audience, were such decent persons as had adopted the Presbyterian form of faith, renouncing the liturgy and hierarchy of the Church of England, and living under the tuition of the Rev. Nehemiah Holdenough, much famed for the length and strength of his powers of predication. With these grave seniors sate their goodly dames in ruff and gorget, like the portraits which in catalogues of paintings are designed “wife of a burgomaster;” and their pretty daughters, whose study, like that of Chaucer’s physician, was not always in the Bible, but who were, on the contrary, when a glance could escape the vigilance of their honoured mothers, inattentive themselves, and the cause of inattention in others.

But, besides these dignified persons, there were in the church a numerous collection of the lower orders, some brought thither by curiosity, but many of them unwashed artificers, bewildered in the theological discussions of the time, and of as many various sects as there are colours in the rainbow. The presumption of these learned Thebans being in exact proportion to their ignorance, the last was total and the first boundless. Their behaviour in the church was any thing but reverential or edifying. Most of them affected a cynical contempt for all that was only held sacred by human sanction — the church was to these men but a steeple-house, the clergyman, an ordinary person; her ordinances, dry bran and sapless pottage unfitted for the spiritualized palates of the saints, and the prayer, an address to Heaven, to which each acceded or not as in his too critical judgment he conceived fit.

The elder amongst them sate or lay on the benches, with their high steeple-crowned hats pulled over their severe and knitted brows, waiting for the Presbyterian parson, as mastiffs sit in dumb expectation of the bull that is to be brought to the stake. The younger mixed, some of them, a bolder license of manners with their heresies; they gazed round on the women, yawned, coughed, and whispered, eat apples, and cracked nuts, as if in the gallery of a theatre ere the piece commences.

Besides all these, the congregation contained a few soldiers, some in corslets and steel caps, some in buff, and others in red coats. These men of war had their bandeliers, with ammunition, slung around them, and rested on their pikes and muskets. They, too, had their peculiar doctrines on the most difficult points of religion, and united the extravagances of enthusiasm with the most determined courage and resolution in the field. The burghers of Woodstock looked on these military saints with no small degree of awe; for though not often sullied with deeds of plunder or cruelty, they had the power of both absolutely in their hands, and the peaceful citizen had no alternative, save submission to whatever the ill-regulated and enthusiastic imaginations of their martial guides might suggest.

After some time spent in waiting for him, Mr. Holdenough began to walk up the aisles of the chapel, not with the slow and dignified carriage with which the old Rector was of yore wont to maintain the dignity of the surplice, but with a hasty step, like one who arrives too late at an appointment, and bustles forward to make the best use of his time. He was a tall thin man, with an adust complexion, and the vivacity of his eye indicated some irascibility of temperament. His dress was brown, not black, and over his other vestments he wore, in honour of Calvin, a Geneva cloak of a blue colour, which fell backwards from his shoulders as he posted on to the pulpit. His grizzled hair was cut as short as shears could perform the feat, and covered with a black silk scull-cap, which stuck so close to his head, that the two ears expanded from under it as if they had been intended as handles by which to lift the whole person. Moreover, the worthy divine wore spectacles, and a long grizzled peaked beard, and he carried in his hand a small pocket-bible with silver clasps. Upon arriving at the pulpit, he paused a moment to take breath, then began to ascend the steps by two at a time.

But his course was arrested by a strong hand, which seized his cloak. It was that of one who had detached himself from the group of soldiery. He was a stout man of middle stature, with a quick eye, and a countenance, which, though plain, had yet an expression that fixed the attention. His dress, though not strictly military, partook of that character. He wore large hose made of calves-leather, and a tuck, as it was then called, or rapier, of tremendous length, balanced on the other side by a dagger. The belt was morocco, garnished with pistols.

The minister, thus intercepted in his duty, faced round upon the party who had seized him, and demanded, in no gentle tone, the meaning of the interruption.

“Friend,” quoth the intruder, “is it thy purpose to hold forth to these good people?”

“Ay, marry is it,” said the clergyman, “and such is my bounden duty. Woe to me if I preach not the gospel — Prithee, friend, let me not in my labour”—

“Nay,” said the man of warlike mien, “I am myself minded to hold forth; therefore, do thou desist, or if thou wilt do by my advice, remain and fructify with those poor goslings, to whom I am presently about to shake forth the crumbs of comfortable doctrine.”

“Give place, thou man of Satan,” said the priest, waxing wroth, “respect mine order — my cloth.”

“I see no more to respect in the cut of thy cloak, or in the cloth of which it is fashioned,” said the other, “than thou didst in the Bishop’s rochets — they were black and white, thou art blue and brown. Sleeping dogs every one of you, lying down, loving to slumber — shepherds that starve the flock but will not watch it, each looking to his own gain — hum.”

Scenes of this indecent kind were so common at the time, that no one thought of interfering; the congregation looked on in silence, the better class scandalized, and the lower orders, some laughing, and others backing the soldier or minister as their fancy dictated. Meantime the struggle waxed fiercer; Mr. Holdenough clamoured for assistance.

“Master Mayor of Woodstock,” he exclaimed, “wilt thou be among those wicked magistrates, who bear the sword in vain? — Citizens, will you not help your pastor? — Worthy Alderman, will you see me strangled on the pulpit stairs by this man of buff and Belial? — But lo, I will overcome him, and cast his cords from me.”

As Holdenough spoke, he struggled to ascend the pulpit stairs, holding hard on the banisters. His tormentor held fast by the skirts of the cloak, which went nigh to the choking of the wearer, until, as he spoke the words last mentioned, in a half-strangled voice, Mr. Holdenough dexterously slipped the string which tied it round his neck, so that the garment suddenly gave way; the soldier fell backwards down the steps, and the liberated divine skipped into the pulpit, and began to give forth a psalm of triumph over his prostrate adversary. But a great hubbub in the church marred his exultation, and although he and his faithful clerk continued to sing the hymn of victory, their notes were only heard by fits, like the whistle of a curlew during a gale of wind.

The cause of the tumult was as follows:— The Mayor was a zealous Presbyterian, and witnessed the intrusion of the soldier with great indignation from the very beginning, though he hesitated to interfere with an armed man while on his legs and capable of resistance. But no sooner did he behold the champion of independency sprawling on his back, with the divine’s Geneva cloak fluttering in his hands, than the magistrate rushed forward, exclaiming that such insolence was not to be endured, and ordered his constables to seize the prostrate champion, proclaiming, in the magnanimity of wrath, “I will commit every red-coat of them all — I will commit him were he Noll Cromwell himself!”

The worthy Mayor’s indignation had overmastered his reason when he made this mistimed vaunt; for three soldiers, who had hitherto stood motionless like statues, made each a stride in advance, which placed them betwixt the municipal officers and the soldier, who was in the act of rising; then making at once the movement of resting arms according to the manual as then practised, their musket-buts rang on the church pavement, within an inch of the gouty toes of Master Mayor. The energetic magistrate, whose efforts in favour of order were thus checked, cast one glance on his supporters, but that was enough to show him that force was not on his side. All had shrunk back on hearing that ominous clatter of stone and iron. He was obliged to descend to expostulation.

“What do you mean, my masters?” said he; “is it like a decent and God-fearing soldiery, who have wrought such things for the land as have never before been heard of, to brawl and riot in the church, or to aid, abet, and comfort a profane fellow, who hath, upon a solemn thanksgiving excluded the minister from his own pulpit?”

“We have nought to do with thy church, as thou call’st it,” said he who, by a small feather in front of his morion, appeared to be the corporal of the party; —“we see not why men of gifts should not be heard within these citadels of superstition, as well as the voice of the men of crape of old, and the men of cloak now. Wherefore, we will pluck yon Jack Presbyter out of his wooden sentinel-box, and our own watchman shall relieve the guard, and mount thereon, and cry aloud and spare not.”

“Nay, gentlemen,” said the Mayor, “if such be your purpose, we have not the means to withstand you, being, as you see, peaceful and quiet men — But let me first speak with this worthy minister, Nehemiah Holdenough, to persuade him to yield up his place for the time without farther scandal.”

The peace-making Mayor then interrupted the quavering Holdenough and the clerk, and prayed both to retire, else there would, he said, be certainly strife.

“Strife!” replied the Presbyterian divine, with scorn; “no fear of strife among men that dare not testify against this open profanation of the Church, and daring display of heresy. Would your neighbours of Banbury have brooked such an insult?”

“Come, come, Master Holdenough,” said the Mayor, “put us not to mutiny and cry Clubs. I tell you once more, we are not men of war or blood.”

“Not more than may be drawn by the point of a needle,” said the preacher, scornfully. —“Ye tailors of Woodstock! — for what is a glover but a tailor working on kidskin? — I forsake you, in scorn of your faint hearts and feeble hands, and will seek me elsewhere a flock which will not fly from their shepherd at the braying of the first wild ass which cometh from out the great desert.”

So saying, the aggrieved divine departed from his pulpit, and shaking the dust from his shoes, left the church as hastily as he had entered it, though with a different reason for his speed. The citizens saw his retreat with sorrow, and not without a compunctious feeling, as if conscious that they were not playing the most courageous part in the world. The Mayor himself and several others left the church, to follow and appease him.

The Independent orator, late prostrate, was now triumphant, and inducting himself into the pulpit without farther ceremony, he pulled a Bible from his pocket, and selected his text from the forty-fifth psalm — “Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty: and in thy majesty ride prosperously.”— Upon this theme, he commenced one of those wild declamations common at the period, in which men were accustomed to wrest and pervert the language of Scripture, by adapting to it modern events.

(See “Vindication of the Book of Common Prayer, against the contumelious Slanders of the Fanatic Party terming it Porridge.”

The author of this singular and rare tract indulges in the allegorical style, till he fairly hunts down the allegory.

“But as for what you call porridge, who hatched the name I know not, neither is it worth the enquiring after, for I hold porridge good food. It is better to a sick man than meat, for a sick man will sooner eat pottage than meat. Pottage will digest with him when meat will not: pottage will nourish the blood, fill the veins, run into every part of a man, make him warmer; so will these prayers do, set our soul and body in a heat, warm our devotion, work fervency in us, lift up our soul to God. For there be herbs of God’s own planting in our pottage as ye call it — the Ten Commandments, dainty herbs to season any pottage in the world; there is the Lord’s Prayer, and that is a most sweet pot-herb, cannot be denied; then there is also David’s herbs, his prayers and psalms, helps to make our pottage relish well; the psalm of the blessed Virgin, a good pot-herb. Though they be, as some term them, cock-crowed pottage, yet they are as sweet, as good, as dainty, and as fresh, as they were at first. The sun hath not made them sour with its heat, neither hath the cold water taken away their vigour and strength. Compare them with the Scriptures, and see if they be not as well seasoned and crumbed. If you find any thing in them that is either too salt, too fresh, or too bitter, that herb shall be taken out and better put in, if it can be got, or none. And as in kitchen pottage there are many good herbs, so there is likewise in this church pottage, as ye call it. For first, there is in kitchen pottage good water to make them so; on the contrary, in the other pottage there is the water of life. 2. There is salt, to season them; so in the other is a prayer of grace to season their hearts. 3. There is oatmeal to nourish the body, in the other is the bread of life. 4. There is thyme in them to relish them, and it is very wholesome — in the other is the wholesome exhortation not to harden our heart while it is called today. This relisheth well. 5. There is a small onion to give a taste — in the other is a good herb, called Lord have mercy on us. These, and many other holy herbs are contained in it, all boiling in the heart of man, will make as good pottage as the world can afford, especially if you use these herbs for digestion. The herb repentance, the herb grace, the herb faith, the herb love, the herb hope, the herb good works, the herb feeling, the herb zeal, the herb fervency, the herb ardency, the herb constancy, with many more of this nature, most excellent for digestion.” Ohe! jam satis. In this manner the learned divine hunts his metaphor at a very cold scent, through a pamphlet of six mortal quarto pages.)

The language which, in its literal sense, was applied to King David, and typically referred to the coming of the Messiah, was, in the opinion of the military orator, most properly to be interpreted of Oliver Cromwell, the victorious general of the infant Commonwealth, which was never destined to come of age. “Gird on thy sword!” exclaimed the preacher emphatically; “and was not that a pretty bit of steel as ever dangled from a corslet, or rung against a steel saddle? Ay, ye prick up your ears now, ye cutlers of Woodstock, as if ye should know something of a good fox broad sword — Did you forge it, I trow? — was the steel quenched with water from Rosamond’s well, or the blade blessed by the old cuckoldy priest of Godstow? You would have us think, I warrant me, that you wrought it and welded it, grinded and polished it, and all the while it never came on a Woodstock stithy! You were all too busy making whittles for the lazy crape-men of Oxford, bouncing priests, whose eyes were so closed up with fat, that they could not see Destruction till she had them by the throat. But I can tell you where the sword was forged, and tempered, and welded, and grinded, and polished. When you were, as I said before, making whittles for false priests, and daggers for dissolute G— d d — n-me cavaliers, to cut the people of England’s throats with — it was forged at Long Marston Moor, where blows went faster than ever rung hammer on anvil — and it was tempered at Naseby, in the best blood of the cavaliers — and it was welded in Ireland against the walls of Drogheda — and it was grinded on Scottish lives at Dunbar — and now of late it was polished in Worcester, till it shines as bright as the sun in the middle heaven, and there is no light in England that shall come nigh unto it.”

Here the military part of the congregation raised a hum of approbation, which, being a sound like the “hear, hear,” of the British House of Commons, was calculated to heighten the enthusiasm of the orator, by intimating the sympathy of the audience. “And then,” resumed the preacher, rising in energy as he found that his audience partook in these feelings, “what saith the text? — Ride on prosperously — do not stop — do not call a halt — do not quit the saddle — pursue the scattered fliers — sound the trumpet — not a levant or a flourish, but a point of war — sound, boot and saddle — to horse and away — a charge! — follow after the young Man! — what part have we in him? — Slay, take, destroy, divide the spoil! Blessed art thou, Oliver, on account of thine honour — thy cause is clear, thy call is undoubted — never has defeat come near thy leading-staff, nor disaster attended thy banner. Ride on, flower of England’s soldiers! ride on, chosen leader of God’s champions! gird up the loins of thy resolution, and be steadfast to the mark of thy high calling.”

Another deep and stern hum, echoed by the ancient embow’d arches of the old chantry, gave him an opportunity of an instant’s repose; when the people of Woodstock heard him, and not without anxiety, turn the stream of his oratory into another channel.

“But wherefore, ye people of Woodstock, do I say these things to you, who claim no portion in our David, no interest in England’s son of Jesse? — You, who were fighting as well as your might could (and it was not very formidable) for the late Man, under that old blood-thirsty papist Sir Jacob Aston — are you not now plotting, or ready to plot, for the restoring, as ye call it, of the young Man, the unclean son of the slaughtered tyrant — the fugitive after whom the true hearts of England are now following, that they may take and slay him? —‘Why should your rider turn his bridle our way?’ say you in your hearts; ‘we will none of him; if we may help ourselves, we will rather turn us to wallow in the mire of monarchy, with the sow that was washed but newly.’ Come, men of Woodstock, I will ask, and do you answer me. Hunger ye still after the flesh-pots of the monks of Godstow? and ye will say, Nay; — but wherefore, except that the pots are cracked and broken, and the fire is extinguished wherewith thy oven used to boil? And again, I ask, drink ye still of the well of fornications of the fair Rosamond? — ye will say, Nay; — but wherefore?”—

Here the orator, ere he could answer the question in his own way, was surprised by the following reply, very pithily pronounced by one of the congregation:—“Because you, and the like of you, have left us no brandy to mix with it.”

All eyes turned to the audacious speaker, who stood beside one of the thick sturdy Saxon pillars, which he himself somewhat resembled, being short of stature, but very strongly made, a squat broad Little John sort of figure, leaning on a quarterstaff, and wearing a jerkin, which, though now sorely stained and discoloured, had once been of the Lincoln green, and showed remnants of having been laced. There was an air of careless, good humoured audacity about the fellow; and, though under military restraint, there were some of the citizens who could not help crying out — “Well said, Joceline Joliffe!”

“Jolly Joceline, call ye him?” proceeded the preacher, without showing either confusion or displeasure at the interruption — “I will make him Joceline of the jail, if he interrupts me again. One of your park-keepers, I warrant, that can never forget they have borne C. R. upon their badges and bugle-horns, even as a dog bears his owner’s name on his collar — a pretty emblem for Christian men! But the brute beast hath the better of him — the brute weareth his own coat, and the caitiff thrall wears his master’s. I have seen such a wag make a rope’s end wag ere now. — Where was I? — Oh, rebuking you for your backslidings, men of Woodstock. — Yes, then ye will say ye have renounced Popery, and ye have renounced Prelacy, and then ye wipe your mouth like Pharisees, as ye are; and who but you for purity of religion! But I tell you, ye are but like Jehu the son of Nimshi, who broke down the house of Baal, yet departed not from the sins of Jeroboam. Even so ye eat not fish on Friday with the blinded Papists, nor minced-pies on the 25th day of December, like the slothful Prelatists; but ye will gorge on sack-posset each night in the year with your blind Presbyterian guide, and ye will speak evil of dignities, and revile the Commonwealth; and ye will glorify yourselves in your park of Woodstock, and say, ‘Was it not walled in first of any other in England, and that by Henry, son of William called the Conqueror?’ And ye have a princely Lodge therein, and call the same a Royal Lodge; and ye have an oak which ye call the King’s Oak; and ye steal and eat the venison of the park, and ye say, ‘This is the king’s venison, we will wash it down with a cup to the king’s health — better we eat it than those round-headed commonwealth knaves.’ But listen unto me and take warning. For these things come we to controversy with you. And our name shall be a cannon-shot, before which your Lodge, in the pleasantness whereof ye take pastime, shall be blown into ruins; and we will be as a wedge to split asunder the King’s Oak into billets to heat a brown baker’s oven; and we will dispark your park, and slay your deer, and eat them ourselves, neither shall you have any portion thereof, whether in neck or haunch. Ye shall not haft a ten-penny knife with the horns thereof, neither shall ye cut a pair of breeches out of the hide, for all ye be cutlers and glovers; and ye shall have no comfort or support neither from the sequestered traitor Henry Lee, who called himself Ranger of Woodstock, nor from any on his behalf; for they are coming hither who shall be called Mahershalal-hash-baz, because he maketh haste to the spoil.”

Here ended the wild effusion, the latter part of which fell heavy on the souls of the poor citizens of Woodstock, as tending to confirm a report of an unpleasing nature which had been lately circulated. The communication with London was indeed slow, and the news which it transmitted were uncertain; no less uncertain were the times themselves, and the rumours which were circulated, exaggerated by the hopes and fears of so many various factions. But the general stream of report, so far as Woodstock was concerned, had of late run uniformly in one direction. Day after day they had been informed, that the fatal fiat of Parliament had gone out, for selling the park of Woodstock, destroying its lodge, disparking its forest, and erasing, as far as they could be erased, all traces of its ancient fame. Many of the citizens were likely to be sufferers on this occasion, as several of them enjoyed, either by sufferance or right, various convenient privileges of pasturage, cutting firewood, and the like, in the royal chase; and all the inhabitants of the little borough were hurt to think, that the scenery of the place was to be destroyed, its edifices ruined, and its honours rent away. This is a patriotic sensation often found in such places, which ancient distinctions and long-cherished recollections of former days, render so different from towns of recent date. The natives of Woodstock felt it in the fullest force. They had trembled at the anticipated calamity; but now, when it was announced by the appearance of those dark, stern, and at the same time omnipotent soldiers — now that they heard it proclaimed by the mouth of one of their military preachers — they considered their fate as inevitable. The causes of disagreement among themselves were for the time forgotten, as the congregation, dismissed without psalmody or benediction, went slowly and mournfully homeward, each to his own place of abode.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00