Page:Henry VIII and the English Monasteries.djvu/31

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xxv
Monastic England

And all this was done without appeal to principles of democratic levelling. The heralds' "visitations" commence at the moment when the doom of the monasteries was already fixed. Up to that time the art of sifting out the "gentleman" from the "no-gentleman," which under the Tudors and first Stuarts grew to a pitch of perfection, was not yet evolved; and it may be safe to say that the monasteries, in ages which, if any, might seem fatal to it, kept up the idea of personal nobility.

The organisation of the various orders helped to qualify the most prominent of their members for taking part in the chief council of the realm. Besides their presence in convocation, the Benedictines and Augustinians had each a quadriennial chapter, composed of the abbots and conventual priors of the whole country, and numbering for the Benedictines as many as two or three hundred persons. On these occasions even individual monks, who might be deputed by their superior, could learn the practice of great deliberative assemblies, and how to deal with affairs of far-reaching consequence. It was thus not merely by honorific distinction that we find the commissions of the peace generally headed by some principal abbot or prior of each county. They had the practice of business, and they were in touch with men of all ranks—the country gentleman, the yeoman, the artisan, the peasant and the poor. It is no mere figure of speech when monasteries are called the common hostelries for people of all sorts and conditions, the general refuge of the poor. The daily life of the heads and officers of every monastic house must have brought them in constant and natural contact with all classes of society. The monks were not merely anchorites enclosed in narrow walls, but were affected by all the movements of public life. They were not men of war, but, like the knight and the baron, they had to provide men for the musters. As great landowners they, more than the yeoman, were concerned in the crops and the weather. They resided on the land in the