An Old Church Library


“Langley Marsh! not a very inviting locality I should judge. What could attract you to a marsh, in your longing for country air?”

“It is no marsh. The soil is gravel. Believe Lady Hertford, the invoked by Thomson, the Countess who wrote thus to the Countess of Pomfret, about Richings, not a mile distant from my calumniated village: ‘One great addition to the pleasure of living here is the gravelly soil, which after a day of rain, if it holds up for two or three hours, one may walk over without being wet through one’s shoes.'”

“Well. Hume says, all Britain was marshy once; and I suppose this marsh has been drained in some rude agricultural fashion of the days before tiles, and instead of quagmires you have only standing pools.”

“Hume misquotes his authority when he says all Britain was marshy once; and I have little doubt some blundering topographer has misquoted an ancient title-deed, and made libellous English out of the obscure Latin which distinguished this Langley from others of the same family name.”

I was piqued at my friend’s scepticism about this district— a district of early cultivation, where grassy lanes, or paths across rich corn fields, lead to quaint farm-houses of many gables, overshadowed by majestic elms shutting the farm in with its snug orchards.

A district of abundant population in old times; for bells do knoll to church from many an ivy-mantled tower —from Langley, Upton, Iver, Horton, each within an easy walk of the other. A district which the enthusiastic Countess who dwelt at Richings, describes as coming “nearer to my idea of a scene in Arcadia than any place I ever saw.”

A flat Arcadia, certainly; and the modern Arcadians have too remorselessly lopped and trimmed the hedge-row elms near Richings, since the days when Pope and Addison, Gay and Prior, capp’d verses upon the carved bench amongst the trees which Bathurst planted. Nevertheless, though the Arcadia be somewhat damaged,” the most ruthless spirit of utility cannot wholly spoil nature; and this district has peculiar features of homely beauty, which like those of many an unobtrusive human face improve upon acquaintance.

All honour to those industrious men who have piled up our County Histories, folio upon folio. The four massive volumes of the History of Buckinghamshire, by George Lipscomb, may give me what I seek. Behold! Langley Marish, or Maires, is said to have derived its name from Christiana de Mariscis, who held this manor in the reign of Edward I. Is not “Marsh” a misnomer?

A County History, with its tombstone information, affords its own sober enjoyment. It is busy idleness to doze over its records — pleasanter even than the sweet do-nothing. No passion is roused, no prejudice is stirred, when I learn from lapscomb that in 1626 (2 Car. I.) the king by patent granted the manor of Langley Marish to Sir John Kedermister, and dame Mary his wife; that the manor-house, originally built by Sir John, was pulled down in 1758, and rebuilt by Spencer, Duke of Marlborough; that the family of Kedermister founded the Church of Langley — a parochial chapel subject to Wyrardisbury; that Sir John Kedermister erected here an alms-house for six poor persons; that the family monument of the Kedermisters is on the north side of the chancel.

Here is a fact more interesting to me than the description of that family monument: “The will of Sir John Kedermister, dated February 22, 1631, contains the following passage:

‘And concerning a Library which I have prepared and adjoined to Langley Church aforesaid,
for the benefit as well of ministers of the said town and such other in the county of Bucks
as resort thereunto, I do appoint that those books which I have already prepared be there
duly placed together with so many more as shall amount to the sum of twenty pounds.’

In 1631, Sir John Kedermister had prepared and adjoined his library to Langley Church. His will provides for additions to the existing books. They were “for public use,” as Lysons interprets the will; but with an express injunction that no book should be ever taken out of the library.

This extract from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury raises my curiosity. What books shall I find in the Library adjoined to Langley Church — a distinct building at the south-west angle? Worthy Sir John Kedermister evidently contemplated some wider diffusion of learning than was provided for in the parochial libraries of the century which succeeded him.

The statute of 1708, for the better preservation of such libraries founded by charitable contributions, says, “in many places the provision for the clergy is so mean that the necessary expense of books for the better prosecution of their studies cannot be defrayed by them.”

The clauses of the statute show that the parochial library of the beginning of the eighteenth century is for the exclusive use of the minister or ministers of the parish—the incumbent and his curate. The Act is not very confiding; for its express object is to compel such regulations as shall “preserve the books from embezzlement.”

Disappointing will be the search of the bibliomaniac who may expect to find treasures in the relics of such parochial libraries. They are generally contained in a worm-eaten chest of the vestry. You plunge into dust and mildew when the sexton lifts up the lid, painfully —for the hinges are broken; and there sleep some fifty volumes of controversial lumber, that indicate pretty clearly whether the parson and his charitable friends of the reign of Anne were of High-church or Low — were believers in Divine Right or in the Act of Settlement.

A venerable church is this of Langley — with restorations in good taste. Beautiful, as well as spacious, is its churchyard. The low-roofed parsonage—a primitive cottage, such as George Herbert would have rejoiced in—is on the west. The south and the north are enclosed by the solid brick alms-houses of Sir John Kedermister, and by another alms-building of a later foundation, but equally massive. The churchyard itself is a very “garden of roses.” The cluster-rose and the China-rose climb over the railings of the well preserved tombs. The one yew, of six or eight centuries’ growth, is decaying amidst scores of rose-trees, the grafts of the last six or eight autumns. The wearied labourer, and the giddy schoolboy, pass reverently by these rose-trees, and touch not a flower; for some they recognise as tokens of love, and every tree that sheds its rich June blossoms over the grassy mounds soothingly whispers “all must die.”

But the Library. In the southern alms-houses I find its guardian—one of the six poor persons who there dwell, and have each a weekly half crown, through the bounty of the Library’s founder. There is no difficulty in obtaining admission. The neat and good-humoured dame unlocks a door in the southern transept, which the records call “a particular aisle dedicated to the family of Kedermister.” I step into the family pew of the lords of the manor of Langley, which is also the entrance to the Library. A curious structure is this elevated pew—shut off from the body of the church by a screen of carved latticework. Brief Latin sentences of scriptural admonition encompass the frames of the latticed door and windows; and fill every other vacant space where a text from the Psalms or the Gospels can be inscribed.

The Great Eye that looks upon all in heaven or earth is here attempted to be represented, wherever the humbled eye of the worshipper is turned. On the pupil of that eye we read “Deus videt.” At the east end of the seat are the coats of arms of the manorial lords from 1540—three generations of Kedermister; Henry Seymour; Spencer, Duke of Marlborough; Robert Bateson Harvey. The Kedermister monument in the church indicates a prolific race at one period. Under the kneeling figures of one lord and lady of the manor, nine small sons and daughters kneel. Under the corresponding figures of the other half of the tomb, is another pair of parents, with their miniature progeny also beneath them.

But the race dies out. Other lords and ladies sit in that quaint pew—antique memorial of the perished dignity of a great family, thus raised above their humble tenants, even in their approach to that Throne where there is no gentleman-usher to settle questions of precedence. The yeoman, and the yeoman’s wife, saw the velvet and lace gleaming through the screen, but might not see whether sleep or devotion prevailed hi that grand mysterious seclusion. Be that as it may, their good works survive them, and “smell sweet and blossom in the dust.”

I pass through this wondrous family pew, and find myself in a tolerably spacious room, of a very singular character. This is the Library ” prepared and adjoined to Langley Church.” Five presses, enclosed with panelled doors, line this room. The doors are painted, outside and inside, in various styles of ornamentation—escutcheons, trophies, small figures of apostles and prophets. The figures—in which we recognise the traditional forms which some of the great masters have handed down from the middle ages—are rather coarsely painted; but they are dashed in with a freedom that might not be unworthy of the hand of some minor Flemish or Italian artist, who came to England, as Tempesta came, to paint landscapes and groups upon the wainscoting of great houses. It was a fashion of the day of Charles I. The effect of the coloured panels of this library is not out of character with the purpose of the room. The Great Eye here, also, looks down to help and to admonish. Behind the ornamented doors, stand, in their proper numerical order, long files of folios, ranged shelf over shelf—well-preserved, clean. Crabbe has described the externals of such a collection:

That weight of wood, with leathern coat o’erlaid;
Those ample clasps, of solid metal made;
The close-press’d leaves, unclosed for many an age;
The dull red edging of the well-fill’d page.

It is a brilliant morning, this last of June. I am alone in this antique library. I gaze upon the great shield of arms over the chimney, in a frame adorned with paintings of the four cardinal virtues—Prudentia, Justitia, Temperautia, Fortitude I read the catalogue of the books, written on vellum, which hangs on the wall:—”Catalogus Librorum Omnium in hac Bibliotheca—Aprill, 1638.”

What curious volume shall I take down from its seldom-disturbed resting-place? Not one of the Greek or Latin classics is here; there is only one secular English writer. It is essentially a library for divinity scholars. Here is a large part of the armoury of the great controversialists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—plain names in this catalogue, without any saintly prefix even to the greatest of the Fathers of the Church. Here I find Ambrose, Anselm, Aquinas, Athanasius, Augustin, Basil, Bede, Bellarmin, Bernard, Bonaventura, Calvin, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Epiphanius, Erasmus, Eusebius, Gregory, Hilary, Irenosus, Jerome, Lactantius, Luther, Origen, Philo-Judseus, Tertullian. Very few Anglican divines — Andrewes, Gervase Babington, Willets, Williams.

A book or two of medicine; and, more valuable than folios before the days of Harvey or Sydenham, the “Pharmacopolium” of Langley Manor House, inscribed with the honoured names of John and Mary Kedermister, 1630; the Family Receipt Book, the written wisdom of choice directions for the kitchen and the still-room; the kitchen on which the lady of the manor-house looked down from her private closet upon the hind turning the sirloin before the mighty wood-fire; the still room, whither she retired with her favoured housekeeper to superintend the preparation of more potent remedies for fever and ague than many of the subtler combinations of the modern Pharmacopoeia.

I could not find on the shelves this bequest to posterity. Perhaps posterity did not appreciate it, and it is removed from profane eyes. Did the contemporaries of Sir John Kedermister appreciate his truly noble endowment for the cultivation of ecclesiastical learning? The vicar, perhaps; some of the clergy of the adjoining villages, perhaps. (Eton had its own library in this time of the provostship of Sir Henry Wotton.) Were there many “other in the County of Bucks” that did “resort thereunto?”

Out of the green valleys of the Thames did many ride to Langley to read and muse? Did reverend travellers come here from the distant beech-clad Chilterns to find the rare book that would give them matter for some of the disputatious treatises with which that age was flooded ?—to borrow eloquent sentences from Chrysostom, or subtle arguments from Aquinas? Were the saddle-bags often taken off the wearied nag, and did parson and horse rest for a night or two at the ancient hostelry of the Red Lion, on the west of the churchyard—the divine hoping that he might, peradventure, be asked to dine at the steward’s table in the great manor-house?

What a delicious place for study! The solemn yew shuts out the glare of the noonday sun from these quarried windows. A place for study—and for reverie. I take down, in a dreamy mood, the four folio volumes of “Purchas, his Pilgrimes.” I turn over the pages that used to delight my boyhood—those marvellous explorations by land and sea which this laborious old compiler got together with so much tasto and judgment. I look at his pilgrimages in India. I light upon the high turrets of Agra, “overlaid with pure massive gold.”

In the chapter upon “the Magnificence of the Great Mogoll,” I see the gorgeous despot, covered with ” huge gems “—diamonds, emeralds, pearls, rubies. I see fifty elephants, with turrets of gold, bearing ladies looking through “grates of gold wire,” canopies over them of “cloth of silver.” Jehanghir is giving audience. I half unconsciously repeat:

High on a throne of royal state which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold.

I turn to “The Holy Land Described “—Jerusalem, Emaus, Bethlehem, Sinai …. Let me think. Can He have conversed with these suggestive Pilgrimes in this solitary room? He, who old and blind, ceased not ” to wander where the Muses haunt,” but chiet

Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,
That wash thy hallow’d feet and warbling flow.

And why not? He who wrote L’Allegro, II Penseroso, Lycidas, Comus, Arcades, wrote them in his father’s house at Horton, within little more than two miles from this spot. From 1632, after Sir John Kedermister founded this library, to 1638, when that broad vellum catalogue was hung upon these walls, John Milton could walk over here through pleasant fields, and pass sweet solitary hours in this room.

I came again to this ancient library, having looked meanwhile at Milton and his biographers.* I came with a new feeling. The local associations connected with his seven years at Horton were familiar to me in my own youthful time. This passing fancy renews them—all with memories of happy hours when I strolled upon the banks of the Colrie,—his daily walks and ancient neighbourhood. I sit upon one of the high-backed carved chairs of the days of James I.

* The elaborate and elegant “Life of John Hilton,” by David Masson, supersedes, as far as it has gone, all previous biographies. The volume already published reaches to 1639.

Why should not the fair haired young man have sat in this high-backed carved chair, when, having left Cambridge, he came, as he records, to dwell “at my father’s country residence, whither he had retired to pass his old age?” In that house,” he continues, “I, with every advantage of leisure, spent a complete holiday in turning over the Greek and Latin authors.” He sometimes exchanged the country for the town, either for the purpose of buying books, or for that of learning something new in mathematics or music. He was irresolute during the earlier portion of his sojourn with his father at Horton, as to the especial dedication of the intellectual power of which he was conscious.

He had not altogether matured his resolution not to become a minister of the Church. He might still pursue the study of the old theologians as a preparation for future duties; we know how accurately he must have studied them for controversial purposes. In the days before he had made up his mind that  “he who would take orders must subscribe slave,” a friend at Cambridge had admonished him that the hours of the night pass on, and that the day with him is at hand, “wherein Christ commands all to labour while there is light.” To that friend he sends the “Petrarchian stanza,” the autobiographical sonnet, “On his being arrived at the age of twenty-three.”

One might be almost tempted to indulge the fancy that, musing in this Langley library amongst these three hundred folios—not altogether dreading the fate of him that “hid the talent,” but yet having compunctious fears that his “late spring no bud or blossom show’th,”—he might see the emblem upon the wall beneficently regarding him who prayed for grace to use his lot—

As ever in my great Task-master’s eye.

To such a mind, even when not forming itself for the sacred calling, but “pluming its wings and meditating flight;” seeking for “the idea of the beautiful, through all the forms and faces of things;” there would be attractions in some of these venerable teachers which would amply repay young Milton for a morning walk from his own Colne to the upland hamlets. He knew each lane and every alley green — each dingle or bushy dell — every bosky bower. The ploughman whistles, the milk-maid sings, the mower whets his scythe. He crosses meadows trim with daisies pied; he looks upon the towers and battlements of Windsor, bosomed high in tufted trees. The cottage-chimney smokes, the tann’d haycock in the mead waits for the unloaded wain. He is at length seated in the quiet room adjoined to Langley Church; he is seated, as he describes his old tutor, Thomas Young:

Turning page by page, with studious look,
Some bulky father, or God’s holy book, **

**Forsitan aut veterum praelarga volumina patrum
Varsantem, aut vori biblia sacra Dei.                   Eleg. IV. (The translation is Cowper’s.)

The sun is westering. The book at length is closed, for the dim religious light is growing more dim. He has been dwelling with the cherub contemplation, and has forgotten time. He moves homeward through arched walks of twilight groves. Cynthia is rising gently o’er th’ accustomed oak. He lingers the woods among, to listen if Philomel will deign a song. He rests on a plot of rising ground to hear the far-off curfew. Father and mother welcome the pale student — the father, to whom he poured out his gratitude for this home. Thou

led’st me far away
From city din to deep retreats, to banks
And streams Aonian, and with free consent
Did’st place me happy at Apollo’s side.

The paternal home in the village of Horton is gone. Its very site is doubtful. Forty years ago I believed in an apple-tree which grew, or rather decayed, in the traditional garden of Milton. Nothing distinctive is left of him or of his family but the blue stone in the chancel of the church which covers the remains of “Sara Milton, the wife of John Milton, who died the 3rd of April, 1637.”

The young man who mourned for his mother did not long remain at Horton after her death. Early in 1638 he went abroad. The aspect of the fields on which we may track his footsteps has greatly changed. The smart villa here and there has taken the place of the yeoman’s homestead; but still the sweet-brier or the vine at the cottage window bid good morrow. The Colne still flows through willow banks. Still, but somewhat rarely now,

Young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday.

Such a holiday was anticipated by the side of the Come, on Queen Victoria’s coronation day of 1859. There was a holiday, but no sunshine. On that day the new Public Rooms of Colnbrook were to be first opened—of Colnbrook no longer hated by outside passengers on fast coaches for its rough pavement, but now a quiet village street. The rain poured down. The jocund rebecks were mute. There was no dancing in the chequered shade. But there were speeches in the new building from men of rank and zealous clergymen, who came there to aid the desire of the tradesmen and farmers and mechanics of this district to have a place of intellectual resort — a news-room, a lecture-room, a concert-room, a library.

That library has no broad foundation of ancient learning like its neighbour of Langley. A hundred or two of cheap volumes well-thumbed, sent about from subscriber to subscriber— no magnificent folios, never to be taken out of the room provided for them. But the inerudite readers of this humbler institution have fountains of knowledge which were not unlocked even for the young scholar of Horton, who wrote to Diodati, in 1637, “Where I am now, as you know, I live obscurely, and in a cramped manner.”

Great questions were stirring the heart of England. The indications of vast social changes were agitating all thoughtful men. “I want,” he said, “a more suitable habitation among some companions.” He pined for the talk of London — for its news. He wanted to learn there something more than mathematics or music — something that belonged to that exciting time of conflicting opinions. Hampden had refused to pay ship-money, and the great case was to be solemnly argued before the judges. The Star-Chamber had cut off Prynne’s ears. Scotland had declared against episcopacy.

What a time for a young man, burning with enthusiasm about the rights which a high-spirited nation claimed as its inheritance — what a time for him to learn nothing of the outer world, but from the meagre “Weeklie Newes” of Nathaniel Butter, which every now and then the Licenser suppressed! The subscribers to the Public Rooms of Colnbrook can watch every pulsation of the great heart of English life, day by day, almost hour by hour.

The wondrous agency of the newspaper has made us a nation “apt to learn;” and when the newspaper satisfies the daily curiosity, emulation is roused even in the imperfectly educated, to search in books for knowledge of which the newspaper opens the long vista in the hitherto dense woods. But upon such old foundations as that of Sir John Kedermister’s library, has whatever is noble and enduring in letters been raised. Let us never forget when we look upon ancient learning thus entombed—with whatever departments of human knowledge such volumes deal — that “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them, to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are: nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”***

*** Areopagitica

Author: 1859 Charles Knight.


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