SIR WALTER BESANT'S "WESTMINSTER."
A HISTORY of Westminster, of anything like a full and
exhaustive character, would be a colossal task, not even to be restrained within the limits of many volumes ; for which reason Sir Walter Besant does well to confine his own re- searches pretty strictly within the bounds which he sharply defines in his preface. The actual history of Westminster, when it is also the history of the nation, he leaves alone. He also omits any detailed account of the Abbey Church, of the Great School, of Westminster Hall, and of the Houses of Par- liament. The Abbey, with its honoured dead, the School with its roll of famous scholars, the Hall with its coronations, trials, and receptions, and the Houses of Parliament, all these belong rather to the history of England than to Westminster in particular, and cannot receive adequate treatment at the hands of one chronicler. The task that Sir Walter has undertaken, is to show, in the first place, that the Isle of Bramble, upon which Westminster is situated, was a busy place of trade long before London existed at all ; secondly, to restore the vanished Palaces of Whitehall and West- minster; thirdly, to picture for us the life of the Abbey as a religious community and recall the full meaning and effects of its sanctuary; fourthly, to commemorate the connection of Caxton with Westminster ; and finally, to give us some idea of the place as an inhabited town and borough. It requires some effort of the imagination in these days to figure a separate existence for the component parts of London, to remember that London and Westminster were once twin cities, and that the latter was, in its day, not the less busy and important of the two ; but even the slowest imagination will answer to the stimulus of the volume before us, for its author has an almost unique gift of graphic description, and compels his readers to see with his own eyes. The growth of Westminster, too, is not easily pictured, for it differed widely from that of its sister city, whose history is so familiar to us. For something like six hundred years the Court and the Church divided the whole of Thorney Island, the Isle of Bramble, between them, leaving no space for citizens or for civic life. Westminster had no citizens ; a great palace she had, which numbered its inhabitants by thousands; a great religious foundation, one of the richest and most powerful in the Kingdom ; but for other residents, there were none but the fugitives and broken men who took refuge in her sanctuary. Her history might be summed up in these words, an abbey, a palace, and a city of refuge. Long after courtiers and monks were gone, the denizens of the last were left.
Sir Walter Besant supports his first contention, with regard to the early importance of Thorney Island, by an extremely interesting argument to which we have not space to do full justice. His strongest evidence is, perhaps, that of geogra- phical situation, proving that Thorney Island lay across the direct high-road, which, by the ford of the Thames, con- nected the great highways of Dover Street and Watling Street :—
" In other words, this wild, desolate spot, chosen, we are told, as a fitting site for a monastery because of its remoteness and its seclusion, was, long before a monastery was built here, the scene of a continual procession of those who journeyed south and those who journeyed north. It was a halting and a resting place for a stream of travellers who never stopped all the year round. By way of Thorney passed the merchants, with their hides bestowed upon their pack-horses, going to embark them at Dover : London had not yet gathered in all the trade of the country. By way of Thorney they drove the long string of slaves to be sold in Gaul. By way of Thorney passed the legions on their way north ; crafts- men, traders, miners, actors, musicians, dancers, jugglers, on their way to the towns of Glevnm, Corinium, Eboracum, and the rest. Always day after day, even night after night, there was the clamour of those who came and those that went : such a clamour as used to belong, for instance, to the court-yard of an old-fashioned inn, in and out of which there lumbered the loaded waggons, grinding heavily over the stones ; the stage-coach, the post-chaise — the merchant's rider on his nag — all with noise. The Isle of Bramble was like • westininster. By Walter Besaut, London: Ohatto and Windue.
that court-yard; outside the Abbey it was a great inn, a halting-place, a bustling, noisy, frequented place ; the centre, before London, the mart of Britannia ; no Thebaid ' at all ; no quiet, secluded, desolate place, but the centre of the traffic of the whole island. And it remained a busy place long after London Bridge was built, long after the port of London had swallowed up all the other ports in the country. When the river, by means of embankment, was forced into narrower and deeper channels, the ford disappeared."
Admitting that this picture of Thorney Island, opposed though it be to the idea of all other historians, be a true one, there still remains the doubt whether, on the disappearance of the ford, it did not lapse back into a deserted solitude, bounded and cut off by the marshes upon which St. James's Park, Victoria, and Chelsea now stand. Sir Walter says not, in that its river frontage still served to bring it traffic; but we are a little doubtful. At any rate it no longer depended upon wayfarers for its life, when Edward the Confessor established his Court hard by the Abbey gates. From then till the removal of Henry VIII. to York House, Westminster Palace became the chief seat of the English Sovereign. The author says, with some truth, that the common fault of antiquarians, in attempting to re- construct the past, is that they persist in looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and, because their materials are scanty, cause everything to dwindle to the same size That is not the author's fault, and, even though his imagina- tion may sometimes have run to the other extreme, we owe him a debt of gratitude for his brilliant attempt to rebuild the vanished glories of Westminster and Whitehall. He premises his description of Westminster Palace at the time of Richard II., with the assertion that the inhabitants within its walls probably reached the number of twenty thousand ; all having " bouche of court "—that is to say, a right to lodging, food, arms, and pay—and necessitating a fairly large extra-mural population to supply their needs. The figure is a large one, but, taking everything into consideration, it is difficult to deny its possibility. It would be well to quote here a passage in which the author tries to draw a picture of the palace as it stood :—
"It is impossible to assign these buildings and places to their original site. Take the plan of Thorney with its Palace, Abbey, and City. Remember that there was an open space for the Inner Bailly—Old Palace Yard ; and another for the Outer Bailly—New Palace Yard. Leave also an open space east of the wall from the Jewel House to the outer wall for the gardens and herbaries- perhaps, like the Abbey, the Palace had gardens in the reclaimed meadows outside. Then fill in the area between the King's House and the river, with other halls, houses, offices, galleries, wardrobes, and cloisters. Let barracks, stables, shops of all kinds run under the river-wall; let those narrow lanes winding about these courts, connecting one with the other, and all with the Inner and the Outer Bailly and the Palace stairs. This done you will begin to understand something of the extent and nature of the King's Palace in the fourteenth century. Add to this that the buildings were infinitely more picturesque than anything we can show of our own design, our own construction, our own grouping. The gabled houses turned to the courts and lanes their carved timber and plaster fronts; the cloisters glowed in the sunshine with their lace-like tracery and the gold and crimson of their painted roofs and walls ; grey old towers looked down upon the clustered and crowded little city; everywhere there were stately halls, lofty roofs, tourelles with rich carvings, gables, painted windows, windows of tracery most beautiful, archways, gates, battlements ; granaries, storehouses, barns, chantry-chapels, oratories, courts of justice, and interiors bright with splendid tapestry, the colours of which had not yet faded, with canopies of scarlet and cloth of gold, and the sunlight reflected from many a shining helm and breastplate, from many a jewelled hilt and golden scabbard, from many a trophy hanging on the walls, from many a coat of arms bright with colour—azure, or, gales, and argent. It is the colour in everything that makes the time so picturesque and bright."
The author's telescope is evidently something of the kaleidoscope also, but it is a pleasant instrument to look through. The splendour of Westminster Palace has departed ; gone as though it had never been. Gone also are the greater glories of Whitehall, leaving no trace behind save the Banqueting Hall built for the Stuarts by Inigo Jones. Of the Tudor Whitehall not one stone seems to be left. The palaces of Buckingham, St. James, and Kensington, all, by the way, within the boundaries of old Westminster, hardly console us for what we have lost. Of the great Benedictine Abbey, too, there is bat little left but the Abbey Church. We hardly expected to get from the author a very sympathetic account of the inner life of the Abbey, so that its description has not disappointed us. He is, we think, a little prejudiced and a little unfair to the old monks. With the exception of the anchoret, who literally immured himself for life, he fails to discover that they did much for the glory of God or the benefit of man, or had any business in life except to live comfortably and die in the odour of sanctity. It is a one-sided view ; and, in spite of the vivid and powerful sketch in which the author presents it, it is not a convincing one. It is true that the right of sanctuary, which the Church so jealously guarded, was not an unmixed blessing to Westminster. Of later years, after the monks were gone, this right in its altered form still increased the population of Westminster with undesirable residents.
And this brings us to a curious consideration, that West- minster, the city of the Church and the Court, of palaces and holy houses, should have been notorious, even to our own day, for the infamy of its slums. Sir Walter Besant quotes an authority (Bardsley, on Westminster Improvements), who wrote about the district in 1839, and more or less explained the fact as follows :—
" Thorney Island consisted chiefly of narrow dirty streets, lined with wretched dwellings, and of numerous miserable courts and alleys, situate in the environs of the Palace and Abbey, where in the olden time the many lawless characters claiming sanctuary found shelter ; and so great had been the force of long custom that the houses continued to be rebuilt, century after century, in a miserable manner for the reception of similar degraded outcasts. The inhabitants of these courts and alleys are stated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth to be for the most part of no trade or mystery, to be poor, and many of them wholly given to vice and idleness.' And in James I.'s time, almost every fourth house is an ale-house, harbouring all sorts of lewde and badde people.' And again.—' In these narrow streets, and in their close and insalubrious lanes, courts, and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggle with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked, and in the atmosphere of which the worst diseases are generated and diffused.' "
Not a pleasant picture ta place by the side of Sir Walter's fair palaces. The worst of it is that the palaces are gone, and the slums—many of them, at least—still remain. We would not take leave of our author without some expression
of the thanks we owe him for an extremely interesting book. He belongs to the rare class of antiquarians whose literary capacity equals their industry of research ; and in his case it is a capacity which is singularly fitted for the task of making dead bones live. This volume is an excellent companion to the author's London, and it would be difficult to find a higher term of praise. It is also most generously provided with good illustrations.