The trick to keeping your community intact, when Henry VIII sent his men to rampage through, was to not be in any way religious.
England is littered with sacked monasteries; places which were never rebuilt. And all because they had popish loyalties and crates of cash.
Thus, a whole way of life was lost to us: evidence about how monks lived together in organised communities has been filched from broken stones and illuminated manuscripts. For real, flesh-and-blood communities could not outlive Henry’s ire, could they?
Oh, yes. One community could.
And it did; because it exploited a crucial loophole. Its brothers- though they wore robes, and called each other brother, and lived in a quadrangle round a small cathedral – its brothers were secular.
And consequently it still stands, and lives, and works, today.
It stands next to the water meadows at the foot of a Hampshire hill, an impossibly pretty setting a dog’s walk from Winchester. It was here that that powerful young blood, Henri De Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and Bishop of Winchester, was strolling one day back in the 12th century.
And he met a young girl. She and her family were in a terrible way because civil war had made the extremes of rich and poor even more polarised than usual. With nothing to feed on, the family would perish.
She must have had a pretty face. Or winning ways. Or just been a bally good orator. Because her words went like an arrow to young Henri’s heart. And as he wandered further through the water meadows, he came on some old religious buildings long since abandoned.
This would do, he resolved. He would build a place for the poor to live and eat. He began in 1133 and finished in 1136: and the Hospital of St Cross has been going ever since.
Henri made provision for 13 frail old men to live within the Hospital’s walls, and another 100 to be fed at the gates each day. The men were to wear black robes with silver crosses and trencher hats, and to be called Brothers Of St Cross. The hospital was given land and farms to generate the food for the poor. They called them black brothers.
Later on the red brothers were to join them. In 1445 a further bequest was left to them and the Order of Noble Poverty came into being. They, too, are called brothers. They wore claret, and sat on the opposite set of benches at the front of the hospital church.
A secular brother at mass is faced with a dilemma technically not experienced by the religious. Namely, abject boredom.
One knows one should pay attention. If one is old and infirm, one might disastrously drop off and find oneself snoring through the sermon, and that would not do at all. Offending the incumbent Master – the head honcho, a secular abbott – could prove a disastrous move which could rob one of the roof over one’s head.
Which order, I wonder, sat on the left side of the church as you face the altar?
Because the right side has an exemplary set of pews, immaculately kept after all these centuries. But the left one: once upon a time one brother could contain the tedium no longer and began a doodle in the wood beneath his restless fingers.
And it started everyone off.
It was the perfect occupation. And what remains today is the most extraordinary record of the doodling pursuits of the secular brothers more than 400 years ago.
They let their creativity range. And one small sketch outstrips all the rest for pure, unadulterated whimsy.
Towards the congregation end of the bench is a perfect illustration of a highwayman, holding up a stagecoach.
You’ve got to love these secular brothers.