The Godless Brother and the Dandy Highwayman

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.

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55 thoughts on “The Godless Brother and the Dandy Highwayman

  1. Love the pics and once again I am enlightened on a subject that I knew nothing of. I thought that all the “Brothers” were religious, glad to see that they were just normal blokes and fab doodlers.

    • Refreshing, isn’t it, Lou? Whilst there are many almshouses across Britain – houses provided for the poor of the community – I have yet to hear of one like this and its singular requirements anywhere else.

  2. “because they had popish loyalties and crates of cash.”
    As I studied the theology of the Reformation I concluded that theological controversy as a dynamic was far less significant than economic concerns. Nations need coinage interchanging for commerce and prosperity to flourish. But the Roman Church’s ability to get its “cut” took so much money out of circulation that this inhibited economic growth. Secular powers recognized this. Certainly confiscation of church property was exercised but divestiture of the yoke of Rome was an economic boon for what became Protestant Europe leading to the rise of guilds, middle class and mercantilism at all levels of society. .

    • I agree totally, Carl. But this is one of the few communities, organised in this way, which survived: and it is secular. I can only conclude that either the community continued to have powerful friends and advocates; or that any wealth it had was not considered fair game because it was in effect, an almshouse, not a religious order.

    • Other communities such as Durham survived for far longer too. Besides, I think it should be pointed out that Henry VIII did not sanction pulling down or destroying the buildings. They were the hallmark of Edward VI’s reign.

      I think economics was an important part of the dissolution, but then again, it made practical sense. The monasteries were paying allegiance to Rome and giving away taxes to Rome. That would have been completely unacceptable.

  3. Every time I run across one of those ancient graffitis, I wonder so much about the person who left it. And, how they got their handwriting to be so gorgeous, even when carving in wood.

  4. Wonderful, Kate! Another spot to put on my list of places to see whenever I make it to your isle.

    I had the same teacher in fifth and sixth grade (about 10 and 11 years of age). She was wonderful for many reasons, but, your post reminds me of the one chair next to her desk; for discipline and for waiting to be complimented. The next one in line would sit there and there one would carve into the wood. Still in all, it wasn’t inside a church. tee hee

  5. Historical graffiti and doodles fascinate me. I’ve seen photos of graffiti from Roman sites, US Civil War sites, etc, and I just can’t get enough of this unique glimpse into the people of the time. I never heard of these secular brothers—their longevity is truly impressive.

  6. Another interesting slice of history – I go with Carl’s comment – follow the money is often the impetus to whatever happened. Nice these red and black brothers may have thought differently.

  7. Now here we have some serious doodles! Wow! I just can’t imagine how fascinating it would be to see these etched markings and to think of the men who put them there. Is it possible you could touch them? (I just want to know…). I think somehow I had heard of the black brothers, but I assumed it to be a religious order. This information is really fascinating, Kate! I really enjoyed your photos. They make it all come quite alive.

  8. I’m left with so many unanswered questions, Kate!

    Is it me?

    So the brothers are secular, (Secularity is the state of being separate from religion )
    but everything is based around a Church – and they are expected to attend the Church?

    Anyone male can apply, it seems (I have had look at the application form), but it not clear on what criteria each is chosen…

    All potential brothers have to take out a power of attorney and make a will before they are gowned…. does that mean they are handing everything over to the brothers?

    What happens to those who are no longer able to live independently?

    And is there an equivalent place for women?!

    What if there were no rhetorical questions? (That is, I’m not expecting you to know the answers, just that I can’t quite get my head around the arrangements :) )

    • Hi Pseu: the brothers have been attending the church since its building, I believe, but whether it is compulsory I could not say. Sounds like you could do with a chat with the Porter (yes, they have one, just like the Oxford Colleges)- I’m sure he could flesh out the details. Jolly nice chap.

  9. Kate, it’s not even 6am here and I’m on my first cup of coffee which explains why I had to read ‘pop ish’ twice to realize it was ‘Pope ish’ :)

  10. We took that lovely little stroll from Winchester to see the Hospital, but without reaching the depth you have attained. I am re-fascinated … fascinateder … extrafascinated … oh, fascinated with another chunk added on.

  11. Hi, Kate!

    Fascinating bits-an-pieces of history that “they” don’t get into in school!

    Have you posted that shot of the “Four ancient floor tiles which fit together. … It said: “Have mynde”.” that you mentioned at Nancy’s? (Preferably, outside of FB – I don’t have access, there…)

    Bright Blessings to you ~

  12. Fascinating Kate. Could it have been Henri De Blois’s brilliant strategy to fool Henry’s men? Love your photos especially the one of the highwayman doodle :-)

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