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Bryan King and the Riots at St. George's-in-the-East

By William Crouch

London: Methuen, [1904]

Chapter XI. Avebury

"THERE is a village amongst the Wiltshire Downs lying in a hollow below broad green pastures and chalky hills. It has but one long street and a few straggling cottages and grey farmhouses amongst gardens and trees--happy and homelike as an oasis in the desert to the traveller who first looks upon them from the heights; and near it and within it stand smooth stones, giant in size, and deep and mysterious in their meaning, the relics of a heathen worship; and high grassy banks, upon which children play, and along which labourers plod, without a thought of the history pictured before their eyes, mark the precincts of those ancient temples. In the centre of the village is the Rectory (Vicarage), not looking towards the street, but fronting a pleasant garden and green fields, across which was a path leading to a vast mound said to be the work of human hands. Marvellous it is even as the mystic stones that tell of the creed of the generations gone by; and solemn and peaceful are the blue mists that rest upon it in the early morning, veiling its outlines as the shadows of the past. I have lingered at the garden gate day after day, gazing upon the old circular hill, and hearing no sound to break the stillness of the air, until I could have fancied that peace--the peace of a world which has never echoed to the sound of a human voice--the peace of the spirits who rest in hope, was lingering amidst that quiet village."

[148] The above was a favourite quotation of Mr. King's from Miss Sewell's Experience of Life, and it fairly expressed his own feelings in regard to the village of Avebury, to which he went as Vicar in November, 1863, and where he spent upwards of thirty years in patient and faithful ministry. Of course, life there was not without its troubles for him. Straightened pecuniary circumstances during the earlier part of his incumbency, occasional return of the ill health which the troubles at St. George's had aggravated, above all the slowness of an uneducated congregation, in one of the most backward parts of England, to accept the truths which he loved and taught, were sufficient to remind him that this is not our resting-place. Yet in his own words, written a few years before the close of his ministry at Avebury, "the scenes at St. George's which cost me months of keen distress have been so overruled that they have been made the direct means of procuring for me more than twenty-six years of such peace and tranquillity as fall to the lot of few. , . . The saintly Bishop Hamilton gave me a warm welcome into his Diocese; all the clergy of the neighbourhood received me with brotherly kindness; whilst my parishioners have ever treated me with greater consideration and regard than, as I am sure, I have ever deserved at their hands." Mr. King always recognised more readily the kindness and other good qualities of those he had to do with than their faults and shortcomings.

[149] Avebury, or Abury as it used to be called, the Old Town, is a place of singular interest to the antiquarian, and here Mr. King's taste in that direction found ample scope. The-old prehistoric temple is similar in character to the more celebrated one of Stonehenge, but was larger in extent, as it is supposed to be of greater antiquity; though the fact of the village being built partly within its precincts has led to the far greater part of the stones being used for building purposes. Although its remaining stones are fewer, Avebury is still superior to Stonehenge in one respect, for the surrounding dyke is almost perfect except where the cross-roads meeting in the village pass through it. Within this dyke are the remains of a large stone circle surrounding two small stone circles. From this circle two avenues of stones extended at right angles to each other for about a mile, of which traces still remain, and about midway between the extremities of these avenues stands Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, covering five acres of ground and standing 170 feet high. There are many other relics of bygone ages in the neighbourhood, and the place well deserves its name.

But although Mr. King took a great interest in all these relics, so much so, indeed, that it was partly through his influence that Lord Avebury, who took his title from the place, then Sir John Lubbock, purchased a field in which some of the remaining stones stand, and got Silbury Hill placed under the [149/150] protection of the Ancient Memorials Act, the pride of the village was, in his estimation, the beautiful old church, which he took pains to have so carefully restored and decorated as to preserve all its interesting historical features, which it was his great delight to show and explain to the numerous visitors who were attracted to Avebury by its weird and mysterious charms. The church contains Saxon work, including two un-glazed windows and three circular openings possibly belonging to an early British church of wattle and daub, with Norman and later additions, including a beautiful carved oak screen and rood-loft, which has been well restored and painted in accordance with traces which remained of the old colouring.

When Mr. King went to Avebury the church was in a terrible condition. Huge pews like horse-boxes crowded the poor out of their Father's House, and the most interesting architectural features of the building were hidden or disfigured. It was a fortunate coincidence that the roof became no longer rain-proof soon after the institution of a Vicar who combined a love for all that was ancient with a determination to adapt the church to modern needs. When the restoration became a necessity, one of the churchwardens, one of the last of the old school of genuine Tory farmers, said that, as it must be done, he did not like to be un-neighbourly, and would give £50, but that he would have gladly given .£100 to have the old church left alone. If the restoration of Avebury Church had [150/151] involved such disregard of all records of antiquity as too often occurred in those days, and which made the word restoration almost a bye-word, one would certainly sympathise with the churchwarden; but there was no danger of anything of that kind, and the one motive of the old gentleman was dread of change of any kind. He used to openly lament the days, not so far distant,--Avebury is even now seven miles from a railway station, and was in his younger days far from the realms of progress--when he and his fellow-churchwarden used to leave the church occasionally in the middle of the Sunday morning service and visit the ale-houses; when, if they found any idle vagabonds and topers, they would have them put in the stocks, or in aggravated cases have them whipped by the parish clerk, although neither of them was in the commission of the peace.

It would not be right to mention this churchwarden, Mr. George Brown, and to omit all reference to his colleague in later times, Mr. Thomas Kemm, who lived at the Manor House, a charming old building which, through the non-residence of the lord of the manor, had become a farmhouse. Mr. Kemm, though not fully sharing in the antiquated principles of his fellow churchwarden, was a typical example of the sterling race of old English yeoman farmers--simple, staunch, and honourable. He survived Mr. King only by a few years. The Vicarage and Manor House families were always on terms of close [151/152] intimacy, and to those who knew the Avebury of those days it cannot seem the same place without the well-known figure so constantly seen about the place on the almost as well-known pony and with his favourite dog.

Avebury Church was reopened when the restoration was completed on St. James' Day, the Patronal Festival, 1883, when Bishop Goodwin, of Carlisle, Mr. King's brother-in-law, preached one of the most remarkable of his thoughtful sermons on the lessons to be learned from the stones of the Old Town.

During the latter part of his incumbency of Avebury Mr. King suffered from almost total deafness, an infirmity which, although it hindered the active exercise of his ministry in his parish, and prevented his taking much part in public efforts for the welfare of the Church at large, was borne with remarkably patient cheerfulness. Difficult as it was to converse with him, those who had the privilege of his acquaintance, and acquaintance with him soon ripened into intimate friendship, always found him a genial and sympathetic companion, from the depth of whose solid learning, refined taste, and mature thought, profitable advice and encouragement could always be obtained. A strong sense of humour, which is the very salt of all wisdom, had always been a marked feature of his character, and this did not desert him in his affliction. Although he could take little part in the general conversation of his family circle, [152/153] nothing in the way of a joke ever escaped his keen observation. This deafness made him very dependent on his wife, the most unselfish of women, who devoted herself entirely to him, and, by her complete self-abnegation and identification of herself with him, did so much to mitigate the inconveniences and vexations of his affliction. During the last few years that he was Vicar of Avebury his youngest son, the Rev. Gilbert A. King, assisted him in the work of the parish as assistant curate, and, by his earnest labours, so won the esteem of the parishioners that a very general desire that he might be presented to the Vicarage of Avebury on his father's resignation was expressed to the patron. This, however, was not to be. The advowson, having been sold during Mr. King's incumbency, was found to be in the hands of a lady who presented her own husband. Since then an exchange has been effected by which the spiritual care of the parish has unfortunately come into the hands of a Low Churchman. That a parish which had been in the loving care of one of the pioneers of the Catholic Revival for more than thirty years should be so treated is a sad reflection on our system of patronage, or at least on its abuses; but it may be hoped that so many years of patient self-denying labour will not be lost, and that in happier days to come the seed sown will bring forth abundant fruit. The grand old church of Avebury, in its renewed state a worthy memorial of its Catholic-minded [153/154] Vicar, will certainly never readily lend itself to the propagation of the cold and bare negations of Protestantism.

It would scarcely be supposed that, with his strong Tory principles, fostered by the University life at Oxford which was so congenial to him, and his subsequent life at old-world Bruges and rural Avebury, Bryan King would have advocated the Disestablishment of the Church; but when the Church League for the Disestablishment of the Church was started under the chairmanship of his old friend, A. H. Mackonochie in 1877, he was one of the first to join it, although his political convictions never changed. There is, in fact, this in common between Tories and genuine Radicals which distinguishes them from opportunists, whether calling themselves Conservatives or Liberals, as well as from political dissenters, that they act upon definite principles. Consequently, when Bryan King recognised the fact that the State had not merely ceased to be definitely Christian, but had shown a determination to repudiate the declaration of Magna Charta and of the Reformation Statutes, that the Church of England should be free to decide in all spiritual matters, he felt that the subjection of the Church to the State in spiritual matters, apparently involved in the continuation of the Establishment of the Church, was intolerable.

One of the few occasions on which he came out of the retirement of his rural charge to take any public [154/155] part in ecclesiastical affairs was when the Ridsdale case was agitating the Church in 1877. He then boldly proposed that when the use of Eucharistic vestments was attacked in any diocese those parish priests who sympathised with the clergy of the churches attacked, but had not yet themselves revived the use of vestments, should inform the Bishop of their intention to do so. This was not a mere brutum fulmen, like some declarations which have been followed by a lamentable backing down; for he took the opportunity of reviving the use of vestments in his own parish.

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