Sunday, 3 March 2013

Mabon the Pilgrim and his friends

Here is an extract from "Jersey in the 15th and 16th centuries" (1931),  by A.C. Saunders. It gives quite a different rendering on the last pre-Reformation Dean from G.R. Bailleine's History of Jersey. Saunders does not take the view that there was corruption everywhere in the pre-Reformation church, but that movements for reform were stirring within that Church, of the kind that were later found with Reginald Pole. Balleine takes the Protestant Chronicler more or less at face value.

G.R. Balleine took the view that the run up to the Reformation was full of corrupt practices, and he takes note of the Chronicler who, writing in 1585, says the Dean "was an idolater and a great maker of images, who caused the poor to believe many lies and rascalities, so that they would bring him offerings. He made simple folk believe that the Virgin often appeared to him near the said Chapel [at Hougie Bie]".

Now in 1548, in England, the Commissioners unearthed a propaganda coup - at Boxley Abbey, they found a mechanical contrivance in the Rood of Grace, which was moved with levers to make "the eyes move like a living thing", this was seized and exhibited, first in Kent, then in London, then destroyed. The story was written up and widely circulated, as far as Zurich by letters to the Reformer Bullinger; the tale grew in the telling, and a simple mechanical artefact becomes a marvel of pipes, where Christ "scowls with his eyes, distends his nostrils, turns away his face, bends his back", and in a later letter "foamed at the mouth and poured tears down its cheeks".

This was a great propaganda coup, and news of this spread very widely, as a result. We know that knowledge of which was widely disseminated throughout England also to the Reformers in Switzerland, of Calvinist persuasion. Letters to Switzlerland from the time speak of the Boxley discovery that the Abbey  "had made a great profit by deluding the people of Kent" who were "basely deceived by an idol" worked by "wicked impostors and knaves".

In Jersey, the visit of the Commissioners in 1550 was to implement the provisions of the Act of 1547, which had been applied to Jersey and Guernsey in the Act of Uniformity of 1549. This was to take possession of obits and masses, superstitions, church bells (except one per parish), and close any chantry endowments. Images to which offerings or pilgrimages had been made were to be taken down, and candles before images were now forbidden.

But they reported no such impostiture at Hougue Bie, and it is only in 1585 that the Chronicler, as Saunders noted "when anything tending to Rome was in great disfavour" mentions this. And the tale grows in the telling. A later chronicler also speaks of a moving hand from the image of the Virgin, which took coins and was cunningly contrived to make a movement when the coin fell through thanking the donor. He writes that the people grew tired of making him rich, so he invented a new miracle, and hung candles by wires from the roof, and pretended that they were burning in mid-air.

But why did the Commissioners not reveal this imposture in 1550, when it would have been another great propaganda coup? Why is it not mentioned elsewhere in the public record, as with Boxley Abbey - after all, this is precisely the kind of propaganda coup that would receive widespread publicity, just as the burning of a pregnant woman did in Guernsey? Why is there no mention of it until much later, in 1585? That is the first of the question marks against the Chronicler's account.

The second question mark is raised by Dean Mabon's surrender of the Chapel in 1535 as endowment to two priests. This is not mentioned by the Chronicler, and one must wonder why it is passed over in silence. Might it be because it weakens the idea of a greedy impostor?

The third question mark is raised by the account of the deception itself. This seems to have undergone two versions, the second being a clear exaggeration, but also dates well after the story of Boxley Abbey, which could have reached the Island by a number of routes, particularly from the contacts between Jersey and Geneva. Bullinger in Zurich knew the tale, and we know he corresponded with Calvin in Geneva. Protestant Jerseymen had fled there in Queen Mary's short reign. Did the Chronicler, as is likely, know the story of Boxley Abbey? Was this the impetus for a Jersey version of the deceit?

So what are we to make of these stories. The most likely story is that Dean Mabon was a man of genuine piety, despite his involvement in politics (which was not uncommon for Deans in those days) who genuinely wanted to give some of his experience of pilgrimage to the people of Jersey. He was devoted to the cult of Mary, and may well have believed he had visions of her, and encouraged others to come themselves. At his death, we know he was building elsewhere yet another chapel, which is in keeping with the idea of a pious man, as is his surrender of lands and chapels at Hougue Bie. As  Joan Steven's notes: The portrait of Richard Mabon by Hans Holbein is that "not the face of a villain, but the face of a dreamer". And only a dreamer would trek to Jerusalem as a pilgrim.

Mabon the Pilgrim and his friends
By A.C. Saunders

During the suspension of Helier de Carteret, we know that one Jasper Pen was appointed by Sir Hugh Vaughan as Bailiff of Jersey and that he had as his colleague and adviser Dean Mabon, Rector of St. Martin. We know but little of Pen and what we know is not to his credit.

The old chronicler tells us that when at Southampton, he as Bailiff sold to some Spaniards a cargo of wheat from the Island of Jersey, and they advanced him the sum of forty pounds on the cargo-a very large sum in those days. In due course the Spaniards arrived in their ship in St. Catherine's Bay to get this cargo, but Pen, secure in Mont Orgueil Castle, pretended to know nothing about it. The Spaniards, seeing they had been duped, decided to take action to recover their money. They ascertained that the Dean was the next important official in the Island, and, having discovered the lie of the land, they landed one night a dozen men and made for the house of the Dean in the Parish of St. Martin, and on arrival, knocked loudly on the door. All the inmates were asleep but the Dean, hearing the noise, jumped out of bed and, as he was, went to ascertain what the trouble was about.

One of the Spaniards spoke English fluently, and, in answer to the Dean, he said he had an important message from the Castle, upon which Mabon opened the door and was immediately seized by the waiting Spaniards. They had no time to lose if they wished their adventure to be a success and so, bareheaded and barefooted and dressed in his night clothes, the Dean was hurried across the country to St. Catherine's where he was taken in a bleeding and fainting condition on board the Spanish ship. Here he was well treated but was told that unless he paid the sum of forty pounds, he would be taken to Spain.

Mabon had seen much of the world and knew that, as an Ecclesiastic of rank, they would not dare to take him to that country to tell his sad tale. In Spain the Pope's will was all powerful and most likely they would, if he refused to settle their demand, end the difficulty by throwing him overboard. So he managed to have the money paid and he was set ashore better clothed than when he went on board. He brought the matter before the Jurats and Governor. Unfortunately for Mabon the only satisfaction he got was that they treated the matter as a huge joke and told him that he was a fool to part with his money.

Vaughan and de Carteret returned to the Island apparently great friends but it was only on the surface, and Pen resented being deprived of a post out of which he saw great possibilities. Therefore it is not surprising that he should wish his supplanter a speedy end of his triumph. These were troublous days when those in power sought only their own ends, often irrespective of the laws of honour and justice.

Pen had a powerful friend in Sir Hugh Vaughan, who was still very resentful about his treatment by the Privy Council in his action against the Bailiff. So it is not surprising that one day when Helier and his brother John were walking in the market they heard a man shout out: "Donnez vows gard Monsieur le Bailly ou outrement vous etes mort! " The man had seen Pen and a servant following the de Carterets with drawn swords hidden under their cloaks. Upon hearing the warning Pen and his man rushed at their intended victims but the warning had been in time and with his small hanger Helier parried the thrust from Pen's sword, and John, having drawn his sword, smote that of the servant with such force that it broke off at the hilt and the man immediately bolted. Pen, thus left alone with two infuriated opponents, seized his opportunity, and seeing the door of a neighbouring house open, he slipt in and bolted the door. We know little more of Pen, but later on we gather that he died in a very suspicious manner for at the inquest we read: " the inquest knoweth not what auctoritie the King's grace highness gave hym nother hove he dyed. And they sawe the said Jasper a litill afor he dyed in the said Isle wt one called Fetypas."

But it was stated that " he had no sufficient lernyng for to exercise suche office of Justice as the bayleyship is there."

Mabon was made Dean of Jersey on several occasions and it was in the year 1509 that he was first appointed and soon afterwards started on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It required a brave enthusiast to undertake such a journey in those days when travel would be slow and often on foot with many halts on the way. There would also be the difficulty of language and he would have to pass through countries where even the dress of a holy man was not respected. However, he managed to return to the Island in safety and exercised the office of Juge-Delegue from 1524-1527, having been appointed to such duties by Royal Letter dated August 1524. He was Rector of St. Martin, the richest living in the Island, from 1514 to 1541, and was appointed Dean for the last time on 20th May, 1542, and died on the 14th June, 15:43.

His father, Colin Mabon, belonged to St. Saviour and owned land there and it is probable that it was through his father that he became the owner of La Hougue Bie.

We know that on the 11th May, 1533, the feast of St. Perrenelle, he appeared before the Lieut.-Bailiff, Pierre de Carteret, and passed a contract in which it was stated that after his return from his pilgrimage " a fait edifier et fonder sur une certaine place nomme le Hougue-bie.. une chapelle en l'honneur de 1'Assomption a la Vierge Marie. et au but de devers l'Est de la dite chapelle, joignante a icelle, une autre petite chapelle.. nominee Jerusalem, et dessous icelle une autre petite oratoire en maniere d'un Sepulchre semblabie on veron au St. Supulchre do Jerusalem."

There was no doubt but that he was a very zealous priest and did everything in his power to encourage the devotion of the ignorant people to the church he loved so well. He hesitated not to work miracles for their benefit and made them believe that in the " Sepulchre " he had built, the Virgin Mary often appeared to him. The old chronicler, writing at a time when anything tending to Rome was in great disfavour, describes him as an idolater and adorer of images, who imposed upon the ignorance of the people in order to obtain their offerings. Evidently there was some truth in his statement, for when the Royal Commissioners arrived in 1531, one of the complaints was that " wt out grete supporte the saide Mabon Dean shulde not ixacte of the poor people at his pleasure as he dothe."

He died worth a good deal of money and property, and he left the Hougue-bie to two priests, Maitre Jacques Amy and Sire Lucas Falle, Jerseymen, so that they might say masses for his soul and for those of Colin Mabon, his father, and Tassine, his mother. A considerable part of his possessions he left to his sister Marion, who had married Jermyn Mourant, and to her son Drouet Mourant.

And thus a notable figure in Jersey history passes away and at the Reformation all his wishes, as regards the chapels at La Hougue Bie came to nought. For many years after they were left to go to rack and ruin, and the money he had left for religious purposes passed into other hands.

When he died the world was in a very unsettled state. The church had become very rich and powerful, and proud prelates, not content with their religious duties, endeavoured to obtain the great state offices in the political world, much to the detriment of their religious work. Even in Jersey we see Dean Mabon acting as judge Delegate, although it was ordered that he must not interfere in criminal matters as they might clash with his religious duties.

Men were holding many benefices, leaving a curate to carry on duties at a small income, whilst they took possession of the revenue. Curates in those days were expected to live on 20 to 3o francs per annum, but at that time the franc or livre was worth 20 pieces of silver and each piece of silver was valued at 12-14 pence. Bishop Gibson tells us of twenty-three clergymen who each had eight benefices. The result was that irregularities and immoralities crept in and were often connived at by those in authority, with the result that the church, which was the church of most people at that time, acquired a bad reputation through the misdeeds of the few.

Wareham and Wolsey endeavoured to suppress the irregularities and many useless monasteries were abolished and the money used for the better education of the people. With the new learning and the new religious teachings from Germany, many thoughtful men began. to ask themselves whether all was well with the church which they and their fathers had followed so devotedly. Thus the seed of the reformation was sown and later on we will try and see how it affected the little Island of Jersey.

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