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An essay by Arthur C. Benson

The Ever-Memorable John Hales

Title:     The Ever-Memorable John Hales
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

The churchyard at Eton is a triangular piece of ground, converging into a sharp remote angle, bordered on one side by the Long Walk, and screened from it by heavy iron railings. On the second side it is skirted and overlooked by tall irregular houses, and on the third side by the deep buttressed recesses of the chapel, venerable with ivy and mouldering grey stone.

It is a strangely quiet place in the midst of bustling life; the grumbling of waggons in the road, the hoarse calling of the jackdaws, awkwardly fluttering about old red-tiled roofs, the cracked clanging of the college clock, the voices of boys from the street, fall faintly on the ear: besides, it has all the beauty of a deserted place, for it is many years since it has been used for a burial-ground: the grass is long and rank, the cypresses and yews grow luxuriantly out of unknown vaults, and push through broken rails; the gravestones slant and crumble; moss grows into the letters of forgotten names, and creepers embrace and embower monumental urns; here and there are heaps of old carven, crumbling stones; on early summer mornings a resident thrush stirs the silence with flute-notes marvellously clear; and on winter evenings when wet, boisterous winds roll steadily up, and the tall chapel windows flame, the organ's voice is blown about the winding overgrown paths, and the memorials of the dead.

Just inside the gate, visible from the road among the dark evergreens, stands a tall, conspicuous altar-tomb, conspicuous more for the miserable way in which a stately monument has been handled, than for its present glories. It has been patched and slobbered up with grey stucco; and the inscription scratched on the surface is three-quarters obliterated. Let into the sides are the grey stone panels of the older tomb, sculptured with quaint emblems of life and death, a mattock and an uncouth heap of bones, an hourglass and a skull, a pot of roses and lily-flowers--such is the monument of one of Eton's gentlest servants and sons. "I ordain," runs the quaint conclusion of his will, "that at the time of the next evensong after my departure (if conveniently it may be), my body be laid in the church-yard of the town of Eton (if I chance to die there), as near as may be [a strangely pathetic touch of love from the childless philosopher, the friend of courtiers and divines], to the body of my little godson, Jack Dickenson the elder; and this to be done in plain and simple manner, without any sermon or ringing the bell, or calling the people together; without any unseasonable commessation or compotation, or other solemnity on such occasions usual; for as in my life I have done the church no service, so I will not that in my death the church do me any honour."

And the prophecy is fulfilled to the letter; in such a tomb he rests; and by a strange irony of fate, the pompous title claiming so universal and perennial a fame--the "ever-memorable"--is the only single fact which is commonly mentioned about him--he has even been identified with Sir Matthew Hale of just memory.

John Hales was neither an Etonian nor a Kingsman: he was of a Somersetshire family; and was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he spent no less than six years before taking his degree (in 1603), from the age of thirteen to the age of nineteen.

The Warden of Merton at that time was Sir Henry Savile, Queen Elizabeth's Greek tutor, supposed the most learned savant of the time, founder of the Savilian professorships for astronomy and geometry, a severe, clear-headed student. It is recorded of him that he had a great dislike for brilliant instinctive abilities, and only respected the slow cumulative processes. "Give me the plodding student," he said: "if I would look for wits, I would go to Newgate: there be the wits." He was not popular among the rising young men in consequence; John Earle, the author of the Microcosmography, that delightful gallery of characters that puts Theophrastus into the shade, was the only man he ever admitted, on his reputation as a wit, into the sacred society of Merton. For such intellects as he desired, he made search in a way that was then described as "hedge-beating."

Savile was attracted by Hales; he found in him a mind which, young as it was, showed signs of profundity. Savile's choice is a great testimony to the depth of Hales' attainments; for his later reputation was acquired more by his grace and originality of mind than for his breadth of learning. Savile was then at work on his Chrysostom, printed privately at Eton in the grave collegiate house in Weston's Yard, now the most inconvenient residence of the Præcentor. Hales became a congenial fellow-labourer, and in 1613 was moved to a fellowship at Eton, of which College Savile had for seventeen years been Provost.

A Fellow of Eton is now a synonym for a member of the Governing Body, that is to say, a gentleman in some public position, who is willing to give up a fraction of his time to the occasional consideration and summary settlement of large educational problems. Twenty years ago a Fellowship meant a handsome competence, light residence, a venerable house, and a good living in the country. In Hales's time it meant a few decent rooms, a small dividend, home-made bread and beer at stated times, a constant attendance at the church service, and the sustaining society of some six or seven earnest like-minded men, grave students,--at least under Savile,--mostly celibates. To such the life was dignified and attractive. Early rising, and a light breakfast. A long, studious morning, with Matins, an afternoon dinner, a quiet talk round the huge fire, or a stroll in the stately college garden with perhaps some few promising boys from the school--then merely an adjunct of the more reverend college, not an absorbing centre of life--more quiet work and early to bed. Busy, congenial monotony! There is no secret like that for a happy life!

After three years, this was broken into by a piece of vivid experience--Hales accompanied Sir Dudley Carleton, Ambassador to Holland, as his chaplain, and was despatched by him in 1618 to the Synod of Dort.

It must be clearly borne in mind that theological and religious problems then possessed a general interest for the civilised world, and for Englishmen in particular, which it cannot be pretended that they possess now. Political gossip has taken the place of theological discussion. Then, contemporary writers thought fit to lament the time that common folk wasted in such disputes; when the Trinitarian controversy could be discussed on the benches of an alehouse, and apprentices neglect their work to argue the question of prevenient grace, we feel that we are in an atmosphere which if not religious, was at any rate theological.

Hales went to Dort a Calvinist--that, in those days, is equivalent to saying that he had never given his theological position much attention. What he heard there is uncertain, for a more unbusinesslike meeting was never held; "ignorance, passion, animosity, injustice," said Lord Clarendon, were its characteristics. There was no one to whose ruling speakers deferred. No one knew what subject was to be discussed next, often hardly what was under discussion. A third of the members disappeared, after what an eye-witness called a "pondering speech" from the President. Such a theological schooling is too severe for a reflective mind. Hales came home what was called a Latitudinarian, having, as he quaintly says, at the "well pressing" of St. John iii. 16, by Episcopius (a divine, present at the Synod), "bid John Calvin good-night." A Latitudinarian translated into modern English would be a very broad churchman indeed. For it is evident that Haley's native humour, which was very strong, prevented him from even considering religious differences in a serious light; "theological scarecrows!" he said, half bitterly, half humorously. When in later years he was found reading one of Calvin's books, he said playfully, "Formerly I read it to reform myself, but now I read it to reform him." And the delightful comparison which he makes in one of his tracts is worth quoting, as showing the natural bent of his mind to the ludicrous side of these disputes; he compares the wound of sin and the supposed remedy of confession, to Pliny's cure for the bite of a scorpion--to go and whisper the fact into the ear of an ass.

Only once did he encounter the little restless, ubiquitous, statesman-priest, who so grievously mistook and under-rated the forces with which he had to deal, and the times in which he had fallen--Laud.

The whole incident is dramatic and entertaining in the highest degree. Hales, for the edification of some weak-minded friends, wrote out his views on schism, treating the whole subject with a humorous contempt for Church authority. This little tract got privately printed, and a copy fell into Laud's hands (as indeed, what dangerous matter did not?), which he read and marked. He instantly sent for his recalcitrant subaltern, to be rated and confuted and silenced. The matter is exquisitely characteristic of Laud, both in the idea and in the method of carrying it out. "Mr. Hales came," says Heylyn, "about nine o'clock to Lambeth on a summer morning," with considerable heart-sinking no doubt. The Archbishop had him out into the garden, giving orders that they were on no account to be disturbed. The bell rang for prayers, to which they went by the garden door into the chapel, and out again till dinner was ready--hammer and tongs all the time: then they fell to again, but Lord Conway and several other persons of distinction having meantime arrived, the servants were obliged to go and warn the disputants how the time was going. It was now about four in the afternoon. "So in they came," says Heylyn, "high coloured and almost panting for want of breath; enough to show that there had been some heats between them not then fully cooled." The two little cassocked figures (both were very small men), with their fresh complexions, set off by tiny mustachios and imperials such as churchmen then wore, pacing up and down under the high elms of the garden, and arguing to the verge of exhaustion, form a wonderful picture.

Hales afterwards confessed that the interview had been dreadful. "He had been ferreted," he said, "from one hole to another, till there was none left to afford him any further shelter; that he was now resolved to be orthodox, and declare himself a true son of the Church of England both for doctrine and discipline."

Laud evidently saw the mettle of the man with whom he had to deal, and what a very dangerous, rational opponent he was, so he made him his own chaplain, and got the king to offer him a canonry at Windsor in such a way that refusal, much to Hales's distaste, was out of the question thus binding him to silence in a manner that would make further speech ungracious. "And so," said Hales, quietly grumbling at his wealthy loss of independence, "I had a hundred and fifty more pounds a year than I cared to spend."

During all these years Hales was a member of the celebrated Mermaid Club, so called from the tavern of that name in Friday Street. Thither Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Donne, and many more repaired. There he must have seen the coarse, vivacious figure of Ben Jonson, the presiding genius of the place, drinking his huge potations of canary, and warming out of his native melancholy into wit and eloquence, merging at last into angry self-laudation, and then into drunken silence, till at last he tumbled home with his unwieldy body, rolling feet, and big, scorbutic face, to sleep and sweat and write far into the night; a figure strangely similar down to the smallest characteristics, in his gloom, his greediness, his disputatious talk, to the great Samuel of that ilk, in all but the stern religious fibre that is somehow the charm of the latter.

It was in London, at one of these convivial gatherings, that Suckling, Davenant, Endymion Porter, Ben Jonson, and Hales were talking together; Jonson, as was his wont, railing surlily at Shakespeare's fame, considering him to be much overrated,--"wanting art," as he told Drummond at Hawthornden.

Suckling took up the cudgels with great warmth, and the dispute proceeded; Hales in the background, sitting meekly, with the dry smile which he affected--deliberately dumb, not from want of enthusiasm or knowledge, but of choice. Ben Jonson, irritated at last beyond the bounds of patience, as men of his stamp are wont to be, by a silent humorous listener, turned on him suddenly and began to taunt him with "a want of Learning, and Ignorance of the Ancients." Hales at last emerged from his shell, and told Jonson, with considerable warmth, that if Mr. Shakespeare had not read the ancients, he had likewise not stolen anything from them--"a fault," adds the biographer, "the other made no conscience of--and that if he would produce any one topic finely treated of by any of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same subject, at least as well written by Shakespeare."

This is an extraordinary instance of perspicuity of literary judgment; that Hales should draw a favourable comparison between Shakespeare and his contemporaries, would not be surprising; but to find him, classicist as he was, deliberately putting Shakespeare above all writers of any date is a very notable proof of critical acumen.

Neither did the combat end here. The enemies of Shakespeare would not give in: so it came to a trial of skill. The place agreed on for these literary jousts was Hales's rooms at Eton; a number of books were sent down, and on the appointed day Lord Falkland and Suckling, and several other persons of wit and quality came down; the books were opened, and Shakespeare was arraigned before antiquity, and unanimously (except for Sir John) awarded the palm. We may be sure it would have been different if old Ben Jonson had been present; there would have been less unanimity and more heat; but he was much troubled with symptoms of an old, recurrent paralysis, of which he had only partly got the better, and he was melancholic and therefore kept away. Still it is a scene to think of with envy--little Lord Falkland with his untuneable voice, brisk wit, and sweet manner, moderating the assembly; the summer afternoon, the stately collegiate room, overlooking the studious garden, girdled about by the broad and even-flowing Thames, among sedge and osier-beds, and haunted by no human presence. This period was probably the happiest time of Hales's life; he was at the height of his social reputation.

He was a man of an inveterately companionable disposition. He disliked being alone, except for study--in congenial company a sympathetic talker; once a year for a short time he used to resort to London for the polite conversation which he so much enjoyed, and when the Court was at Windsor he was greatly in request, being not only a good talker, but a better listener, as his biographer says; not only divines and scholars resorting to the rooms of this bibliotheca ambulans, as Provost Wotton called him, but courtiers, sprightly wits, and gay sparks from the castle. This it was that earned him his soubriquet. He was familiar with, or corresponded with, all the ablest men of the day, counting as he did, Davenant, Suckling, Ben Jonson, and Lord Falkland, and all that brilliant circle, among his intimate friends.

He was made Canon of Windsor in 1639. In two years the whole pleasant life breaks up before our eyes, never to be restored. Laud's death showed him that as his chaplain, he was in a dangerous position. Besides, the event itself was a frightful shock to him. He left his lodging in college, and went for a quarter of a year in utter secrecy to a private house at Eton, next door to the old Christopher Inn, the house of Mrs. Dickenson to whose lad he was godfather. Search was made for him unsuccessfully, though he says that his hiding place was so close that if he had eaten garlic he could have been nosed out. Here he subsisted for three months entirely on bread and beer (strange diet), fasting--as he appears to have done from mistaken medical notions--from Tuesday night to Thursday night. The reason for this retirement was the fear that certain documents and keys, entrusted to him as Bursar, should fall into the adversary's hands--for it is probable that at first he shared the belief with other enthusiastic royalists that the troubles would speedily blow over. He was, of course, ejected from fellowship and canonry, refusing with some spirit a proposal made to him by Mr. Penwarren, who succeeded him, that he should retain half--"All or none is mine,"--though he was reduced to the greatest poverty. He sold his library, which was large and valuable, for £700, devoting a large proportion to others suffering from deprivation. The account of his conversation with Faringdon, an intimate friend, is absolutely heartrending.

Mr. Faringdon coming to see Hales some few months before his death found him in very mean lodgings at Eton, but in a temper gravely cheerful, and well becoming a good man under such circumstances. After a slight and homely dinner, suitable to their situation, some discourse passed between them concerning their old friends and the black and dismal aspect of the times; and at last Hales asked Faringdon to walk out with him to the churchyard. There this unhappy man's necessities pressed him to tell his friend that he had been forced to sell his whole library, save a few volumes which he had given away, and six or eight little books of devotion which lay in his chamber; and that for money, he had no more than what he then showed him, which was about seven or eight shillings; and "besides" says he, "I doubt I am indebted for my lodgings." Faringdon had not imagined that it had been so very low with Hales and presently offered him fifty pounds, in part payment of the many sums he and his wife had received of him in their great necessities. But Hales replied, "No, you don't owe me a penny, or if you do, I here forgive you, for you shall never pay me a penny, but if you know any other friend that hath too full a purse and will spare me some of it I will not refuse that."

For a few months he went as nominal chaplain and tutor to the children of a lady living at Richings Park, near West Drayton, where there was a little college of deprived priests, among them being Bishop King of Chichester. But when this society was declared treasonous, he retired again to Eton to the same faithful friends, the Dickensons, the house being called his own lest the accusation of harbouring malignants should fall on the real owner.

A charming contemporary description of him at this date is left by John Aubrey, the antiquary, who went to see him.

"I saw him, a prettie little man, sanguin [i.e., fresh-coloured], of a chearful countenance, very gentele and courteous. I was received by him with much humanity; he was in a kind of violet-coloured cloth gowne with buttons and loopes (he wore not a black gowne), and he was reading Thomas à Kempis. It was within a year before he deceased. He loved Canarie, but moderately, to refresh his spirits; he had a bountiful mind."

At last the end came very quietly. He was in his seventy-third year, "weary of this uncharitable world," as he said. Only a fortnight ill, and then dying so quietly that Mr. Montague, who had been talking to him, left the room for half-an-hour and found him dead on his return.

He was one of those great men who have a genuine dislike of publicity. He could not be induced to publish anything in his lifetime except a Latin funeral oration--not that it mattered, as one of his contemporaries hinted, "for he was so communicative that his chair was a pulpit and his chamber a church." In fact it became so much a matter of habit that his friends should propound questions on which he should discourse, that he is recorded to have made a laughing refusal; "he sets up tops," he said, in his allusive way "and I am to whip them for him." But it is plain that he had a genuine contempt for his own written style: he says that on the one side he errs by being "overfamiliar and subrustic;" on the other as "sour and satyrical." He evidently had the ironical quality in great perfection; his writings and recorded conversation abound in quaint little unexpected turns and capricious illustrations; he had one of those figurative minds that love to express one idea in the terms of another, and see unexpected and felicitous connections. His sermons are strange compositions; they straggle on through page after page of thickly printed octavos, "he being a great preacher according to the taste of those times," says an antique critic of them, going on to object that they keep the reader in a "continued twitter throughout." He must have been very light of heart who could have "twittered" continuously through the good hour that the very shortest of them must have taken to deliver. Quotations from Homer, mystically interpreted, strange mythological stories, well worn classical jests; perhaps the sense of humour was as different among the men of that era from ours as their sense of theology undoubtedly was--more discursive if not deeper!

It has struck more than one writer about John Hales, that the following is a curious trait: he was a remarkably good man of business: he was bursar of Eton for many years, and his precise, formal signature may still be seen in the audit books, and it is told of him that he was accustomed to throw into the river at the bottom of the college garden any base or counterfeit coin that he chanced to receive on behalf of the college, paying the loss out of his own pocket.

Pure-minded, simple-hearted little man, reading Thomas-à-Kempis in his violet gown; poor, degraded, but not dishonoured; what a strong, grave protest your quiet, exiled life, self-contained and serious, is, against the crude follies, the boisterous energies of the revolution seething and mantling all about you! the clear-sighted soul can adopt no party cries, swears allegiance to no frantic school; enlightened, at the mercy of no tendency or prejudice, it resigns all that gave dignity to blessed quiet, and takes the peace without the pomp; with unobstrusive, unpretentious hopes and prospects shattered in the general wreck, the true life-philosopher still finds his treasures in the old books, the eternal thoughts and the kindly offices of retired life. This is a gentle figure that Eton's sons may well be glad to connect with her single street, her gliding waters and her immemorial groves; though as yet the reverence of antiquity sate lightly upon her, though she was not yet in the forefront of the loud educational world, yet in her sequestered peace there was a cloistral stateliness that she somewhat misses now. Not that we grudge her the glory of a nobler mission, a wider field of action, a more extended influence, in days when the race and battle are more than ever for the fleet and strong. But we lament over the nooks that the ancient years so jealously guarded and fenced about from the world and its incisive voice, where among some indolence and some luxury and much littleness the storage of great forces was accomplished, and the tones of a sacred voice not rarely heard. Ah! it is an ideal that this century has lost the knack of sympathising with! Perhaps she is but creating the necessity for its imperious recall.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Ever-Memorable John Hales