|William Cobbett: Englishman|
He made these journeys on foot and on horse-back in the first quarter of the 19th Century. The wars with the French were recently ended, there was terrible rural poverty. As he comments on the state of the crops through the counties where he travels he also notes the situation of the farm workers. Where the land is rich, it has been enclosed by wealthy land-owners, and the poor are treated as slave labour. They fare much better in the poorer lands, where it has not been worthwhile for the rich to take them in; so they are able to keep pigs and poultry and gather wood for their fires; Elsewhere, they are persecuted for daring to snare a rabbit or kill a deer, and the harshest of penalties are handed down to them by those landowners and their friends.
He is very harsh too on the Church of England with so many of its clergy in sinecures, living off tithes extracted from struggling farmers. Hatred of the French, and of Catholicism, was deeply engrained in England by this time; yet Cobbett often has a good word for both the Catholic Church and for France. Forgive a rather long extract from his visit to Tenterden in Kent.
"The church at this place is a very large and fine old building. The tower stands upon a base thirty feet square. Like the church at Goudhurst it will hold three thousand people. And, let it be observed, that, when these churches were built, people had not yet thought of cramming them with pews as a stable is filled with stalls. Those who built these churches, had no idea that worshipping God meant, going to sit to hear a man talk out what he called preaching. By worship they meant very different things; and, above all things, when they had made a fine and noble building, they did not dream of disfiguring the inside of it by filling its floor with large and deep boxes made of deal boards. Some were not stuck into pews lined with green or red cloth, while others were rammed into corners to stand erect, or sit on the floor. These odious distinctions are of Protestant origin and growth. This lazy lolling in pews we owe to what is called the Reformation. " ... "I often wonder how it is,that the present parsons are not ashamed to call the churches theirs! They must know the origin of them; and, how they can look at them, and, at the same time, revile the Catholics, is astonishing to me."
|The history of Pues|
So to return to Cobbett. He was not only hard on the Church of England. "This evening I have been to the Methodist Meeting-house. I was attracted,fairly drawn all down the street, by the singing. When I came to the place the parson was got into prayer. His hands were clenched together and held up, his face turned up and back so as to be nearly parallel with the ceiling, and he was bawling away, with his 'do thou' and 'mayest thou' and 'may we' enough to stun one. Noisy, however, as he was, he was unable to fix the attention of a parcel of girls in the gallery, whose eyes were all over the place while his eyes were so devoutly shut up. After a deal of this rigmarole called prayer, came the preachy as the negroes call it; and a preachy it really was. Such a mixture of whining cant and of foppish affectation I scarcely ever heard in my life." So, if you have not yet read Cobbett for yourself, ask Father Christmas for the Rural Rides. I wish he were around to comment on some of what we dare call worship today - in both Catholic and Protestant churches.