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Widow Lambert liked to be told, a very few years ago, that the Abbey Farm was as great an ornament to her native district as the abbey itself could ever have been in the days of its splendour. She recalled the tales with which she had been struck in her childhood, before her sober father forbade her climbing old apple-trees, and her strict mother ordained the adoption of the Quaker cap, and the handkerchief she had worn ever since;—tales of the former grandeur of this religious house, with its eighty monks and its hundred and ten servants: and it gratified her maternal pride to be assured that her two comely sons and their labourers kept the estate in as flourishing a condition as their predecessors,—the ecclesiastics and their lay brethren who were subordinate to them.
This abbey was believed to have held a distinguished rank among the religious houses which existed before there was any division of land into parishes, or when a parish meant the same as a diocese does now: when every man paid his ecclesiastical dues to any church he thought fit, provided he paid them to some; and when these dues were delivered into the hands of the bishop, to be divided among the four objects to which they must be appropriated,—the ease of the bishop, the aid of the church, the relief of the poor, and the support of the administering clergyman. Nor was it afterwards in less repute, when the dignitaries of the church were otherwise amply provided for, and the tithes were appropriated to three objects instead of four. The monks were of opinion that a very small sum was sufficient for the maintenance of the officiating priest; and they were active in gathering in their dues on the plea of the wants of the poor, while their train of servants was lengthened, the beauty of their abbey improved, and their fields and gardens were made to abound in the means of luxurious living. By a liberal expenditure of their peculiar purchase-money, masses and obits, and sometimes by a sacrifice of solid gold, they obtained all the advowsons within their reach, and became patrons of a great many benefices. It was made worth while to royalty to grant its license for such appropriation; and the consent of the bishop was regularly granted in return for the promise that the service of the church should be duly cared for. The brethren, therefore, were enriched from year to year with tithe and glebe; while, instead of presenting any clerk, they themselves contributed as much as they chose to the spiritual aid of the flocks they had thus gathered into their own ample fold. This process of appropriation went on very smoothly, (to the brethren, however it might be to the people under their charge) till this spiritual corporation was dissolved by Henry VIII; his bluff majesty constituting himself parson in their stead. There was little wonder that he busied himself about the Faith when he became at once parson of more than one-third of the parishes of England. However zealous he might be in his office, it was too burdensome for any man. The work of appointing vicars to so many benefices was more than the king could undertake. He sold the appropriations,—not always to holy men, (for he had himself deprived the holy of the power of bidding high for the property he had to sell,) but to laymen who transmitted them to their children, or disposed of them to other laymen, without any scruple as to thus alienating the pious contributions of believers to the church. This alienation was made the more extensive by a statute of the same monarch which ordained that the church lands purchased by laymen should remain exempt from tithes, as if they still belonged to the ecclesiastics. In this respect alone did the Abbey Farm of Mrs. Lambert’s time resemble the abbey domain of the day of Henry VIII. Instead of the cowled company whose members issued in state from the splendid building, to mount their sleek steeds to go forth and counsel the punctual payment of their dues, there was now Sir William Hood, the impropriator of the parish, marking with quick eye, from the rectory window, the luxuriance of the abbey fields, and calculating the loss to himself from their being tithe-free. Instead of the shaven priest who went down when required to perform some spiritual service, there was the gowned student muttering Hebrew in the little vicarage garden, or allowing himself to be talked to by his daughter Alice, when she tempted him abroad among his people. Instead of travellers of high and low degree craving hospitality at the portal of the monastery, there was the staid widow Lambert moving quietly between the poultry yard and the dairy, while her sons were training their fruit-trees against the grey unroofed walls which had once...