Leaving the market behind, you see the new curate, Isaac Plume, turning uphill towards his church. He was only installed six weeks ago, and will not stay long: he is one of a series of curates for whom St Leonard’s church is a stepping-stone to greater and more lucrative things. He will not be much missed by the congregation as he has only a Bachelor of Arts degree, and not the Master’s degree entitling him to preach. A good sermon, in an age with few diversions, is much appreciated. His predecessor had an MA, but only stayed four months before he secured something better and became Vicar of Bapchild.
Why not follow Mr Plume?
He walks slowly up the hill. It is a very steep slope, known helpfully as ‘the Clymb’. You have seen the church in the distance on your journey here, but at close quarters it is breathtaking – and much too big. The original Norman church was enlarged and enhanced during the glory days of the Cinque Ports, when Hythe was a town and port to be taken seriously. Now it looks as though it could accommodate the entire population, and probably could, at a pinch.
You climb the steps of the impressive porch on the south side. Two men are there before you. They shake hands and money is passed between them. This is no clandestine deal, but a perfectly normal way to seal a contract in Hythe. Indeed, it is written into some contracts that they will be renewed in this way and in this place each year.
Passing into the church, you are struck anew by its sheer scale. The chancel has been raised to a higher level than the nave, and accommodates underneath a vaulted passageway. Both the chancel and the nave are high-vaulted and there is an imposing tower to the west. To the north is the chapel of St Edmund where, on the second of February each year, the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, the jurats choose a mayor, an election sermon is preached, the bells in the tower are rung and then the corporation retires to the ‘White Hart’ to celebrate.
The church you are seeing has changed fundamentally in the last sixty years or so. The rood loft with its great crucifix was torn down, the saints removed from their niches and the relics consigned to oblivion. The altar, although you must not call it that, now stands in the body of the church rather than in the chancel, and is called the communion table. The church cat is snoozing on it.
You see that Isaac Plume is waiting at the door. He is wearing his surplice, a leftover from earlier times which Puritans in the Anglican church think carries the taint of popery and should be abolished, along with a lot of other things. He greets a small party, arriving in their best clothes. It is Thomas Hutson, a fisherman like all his family, and his kinsfolk, come to baptise Thomas’s second child, Mary. The child’s mother is not among the group: she has not yet been ‘churched’ following the birth and must stay indoors, but she will be at the celebrations at the Hutsons’ house later. The churchwarden Thomas Stroghill, taking a break from his alehouse, is there to record the event in the parish registers, which the bishop will want to see at the end of the year.
Little Mary Hutson, like so many, will not live to see her first birthday.
Leaving the church, you turn at first eastward to look at the vault under the chancel. It is dark inside, but in the gloom you can make out, to your alarm, that it is full of human bones, not entire skeletons, but skulls and long bones, piled one upon the other. You instinctively recoil from this unlikely sight in a quiet Kentish market town. You cannot make any sense at all of why the bones should be there. And so it is to this day.
You retrace your steps rather more quickly out of the church. In the road in front of the church you notice the stocks, which today are empty, and see, not far away, the prison. It is a foul place, a single cell with a barred window. It is not used as a place of punishment, as the stocks are, but as a holding room while the law takes its course and until sentence has been pronounced, or until a debtor has found the means to pay what he owes. The corporation takes no responsibility for the welfare of the prisoner: that is the duty of his family and friends, although they are allowed to use water from the nearby well to quench the prisoner’s thirst and sluice out the cell, which lacks even basic sanitation.
You walk down to the bottom of the Clymb. On the main street, a woman is repeatedly slapping a small boy round the head while angrily berating him. No-one stops to intervene, or seems even to notice. You see that he is one of the little lads who killed the rat at John Oldfield’s; she is his mother and she is angry because he has ripped his breeches and hose while squirming around on the ground. She has enough to do without mending his clothes and he doesn’t have another pair of breeches apart from his Sunday best. What is more, he should not have been at the brewery with his friends but helping his father, a tallow chandler, by delivering some candles. He will, she tells him, go to hell and burn for all eternity for his sins. And go to bed with no supper.