The Children of Westminster Abbey Part 14

Even when he was ill in bed he insisted on having his cannon drawn up in his sight, and made his servant stand sentinel at his door as in a fortress. The faithful Jenkin told him stories of Alexander and Caesar, and on the sly studied the art of fortification, in order to teach the young duke more about it. But this was discovered by Lady Fitz Hardinge, who was the queen's spy in Princess Anne's household. Jenkin Lewis was threatened with instant dismissal if he ventured again to instruct the boy in matters with which he had no concern; and he was obliged regretfully to put away his fortification books. But he found a more allowable diversion in putting some of the young duke's words of command into verse, and had them set to music by Mr. John Church, "one of the gentlemen of Westminster Abbey, who had studied Mr. Henry Purcel's works and imitated his manner." It was not very grand poetry, but the little soldier was delighted. It begins--

Hark! hark! the hostile drum alarms; Let ours now beat and call to arms!

In 1696, after the discovery of the Rye House Plot, loyal addresses were offered to the king by both Houses of Parliament, and an a.s.sociation was formed to preserve King William or avenge his death, which was very generally signed throughout the kingdom. The Duke of Gloucester and his boys were eager to follow the public example. The duke composed an address which one of his boys wrote down as follows:

I, your Majesty's most dutiful subject, had rather lose my life in your Majesty's cause, than in any man's else; and I hope it will not be long 'ere you conquer France.

(_Signed_) GLOSTER.

He also dictated one for his boys and his household to sign, which was much to the point, and ran thus:

We, your Majesty's dutiful subjects, will stand by you as long as we have a drop of blood.

The prince and his boys were closely a.s.sociated in all their pursuits and interests. Not only did they study the art of war, but they were catechised together by Mr. Prat, the duke's first tutor. The child had been carefully instructed in religion from his infancy. "He had early suck'd in his mother's piety," says one writer, "and was always attentive to prayers." One day in the catechising, Mr. Prat asked him before his boys, "How can you, being born a prince, keep yourself from the pomps and vanities of this world?" And the little fellow made the simple and straightforward answer, "I will keep G.o.d's commandments, and do all I can to walk in his ways."


He was a pretty boy. Something like his royal mother in her younger days; for she is described as a "sylph-like creature" when a girl, though she afterwards grew to be the mountain of fat we know in most of her portraits. His face was oval; and for the most part glowed with a fine colour. His shape was fine, his body easy, and his arms finely hung.[115]

His disposition was naturally a sweet one; and he was admirably loyal to his friends and attendants, always willing to take blame himself rather than allow another to be scolded. But his weak health, a strong will, and a hot temper made him liable to fits of pa.s.sion in which he lost all control over himself. Jenkin Lewis describes some of these outbursts of fury, and one in particular when he was the object of the prince's wrath. Jenkin quietly turned him round to the looking-gla.s.s, so that the boy might see what a shocking spectacle he was making of himself.

Whereupon his pa.s.sion fell as quickly as it had risen. He grew calm upon seeing himself, and expressed his sorrow.

When he was nine years old, the king appointed Bishop Burnet to be his preceptor, and the Duke of Marlborough to be his governor.

The Bishop writes two years later, that he had made "amazing progress."

They had read together the Psalms, Proverbs and Gospels, and the bishop had explained things that fell in his way "very copiously, and was often surprised at the questions he put me, and the reflections that he made.

He came to understand things relating to religion beyond imagination."[116] Besides religion the good bishop seems to have crammed his pupil's head with a ma.s.s of knowledge--geography, forms of government in every country, the interests and trades of every nation, the history "of all the great revolutions that had been in the world;"

and he explained "the Gothic const.i.tution and the beneficiary and feudal laws."

No wonder that as one historian says, "his tender const.i.tution bended under the weight of his manly soul, and was too much hara.s.s'd by the vivacity of his genius, to be of long duration.... In a word, he was too forward to arrive at maturity."[117]

On July 24, 1700, the Duke of Gloucester was eleven years old. The next day Bishop Burnet tells that he complained a little: but every one thought he was tired with his birthday festivities. The day after he grew rapidly worse. A malignant fever declared itself, and he "died on the fourth day of his illness, to the great grief of all who were concerned with him." He was buried quite quietly, in the same vault as his great-uncle Henry, Duke of Gloucester, beside their common ancestress, Mary, Queen of Scots.

The death of this little boy was an event of enormous importance to England. The Stuart line was at an end, and the eyes of England now turned to George Lewis, the Elector of Hanover, grandson of that unfortunate Queen of Bohemia, who we know best as Princess Elizabeth, the favorite sister and playfellow of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.

And with the death of "the last hope of the race--thus withered, as it must have seemed, by the doom of Providence"[118]--our history of the children of Westminster draws to a close. Besides those whose lives and stories we have studied together, there are several of whom little is known but the facts of their death and burial in our stately Abbey. The year before little William, Duke of Gloucester, was born, two "holy innocents" were laid to rest at Westminster; one, Nicholas Bagnall, an "infant of two months old, by his nurse unfortunately overlaid," is commemorated by a white marble urn in the Chapel of St. Nicholas, among the Percys and the Cecils. And in the Cloisters there is a touchingly simple tablet which Dean Stanley delighted to point out to every one, bearing these words:

"Jane Lister, dear child, died October 7, 1688."

[Ill.u.s.tration: A WESTMINSTER BOY.]

In 1711, three years before Queen Anne's death, a young Westminster Scholar, Carteret by name, aged nineteen, was buried in the North Aisle of the Choir, "with the chiefs of his house." This is, I think, the only instance of a Westminster boy being buried in the Abbey. And young Carteret, the Westminster Scholar, leads me to an inst.i.tution at Westminster which I have too long neglected. I mean Westminster School.

From the earliest days of the Abbey, from Edith and Edward the Confessor's time, a school for the training of the novices was attached to Westminster as to other great monasteries. When the const.i.tution of the Abbey was changed by the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539-40, Henry the Eighth founded a school in connection with the reformed Abbey.

But the school was refounded and enlarged by Queen Elizabeth in the year of the Armada, and to her we owe its prosperity and fame. The great tables of chestnut wood in the black-beamed College Dining Hall, are said by tradition to have been given by the queen from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada. From this time forth Westminster School took its place among the most famous public schools in England. The names of many of the greatest of England's worthies are inscribed on the walls of the old schoolroom. In Elizabeth's reign the famous Camden was its head master.

And a few years later we find young George Herbert being commended to the Dean for Westminster School, where "the beauties of his pretty behavior and wit shined and became so eminent and lovely in this his tender age, that he seemed marked out for piety and to have the care of heaven, and of a particular good angel to guard and guide him."[119]

Westminster School was always loyal, and during the Protectorate the boys were ardent partisans of the king, whose scholars they said they were and would always remain. "It will never be well with the nation until Westminster School is suppressed," said the Puritan Dean of Christ Church, John Owen.

However, the "King's School" remained vehemently loyal in spite of all the efforts of the Presbyterian and Independent preachers in the Abbey; and it was not suppressed.

In Queen Anne's reign the School buildings took their present form. The old Dormitory, which had been in the Middle Ages the Granary of the Convent, stood on the west side of Dean's Yard.

"The wear-and-tear of four centuries, which included the rough usage of many generations of schoolboys, had rendered this venerable building quite unfit for its purposes. The gaping roof and broken windows, which freely admitted the rain and snow, wind and sun; the beams, cracked and hung with cobwebs; the cavernous walls, with many a gash inflicted by youthful Dukes and Earls in their boyish days; the chairs, scorched by many a fire, and engraven deep with many a famous name--provoked alternately the affection and derision of Westminster students."[120]

So the Dormitory was doomed, and was re-built by Lord Burlington after designs by Sir Christopher Wren, in the College Garden--a lovely s.p.a.ce of cool green beyond the Little Cloisters--where it stands to this day.

The school of Westminster has been always intimately connected with the Abbey Church, since the days when the abbot sat on one side of the Great Cloisters with his monks, and the master of the novices on the other with his disciples. And quaint customs still survive from early days in which the Chapter and the Scholars take part more or less.

Across the Great School runs the famous Bar, over which it is the duty of the college cook to toss a pancake on Shrove Tuesday "to be scrambled for by the boys and presented to the Dean." Once a year the Dean and Chapter "receive in the Hall the former Westminster Scholars, and hear the recitation of the Epigrams, which have contributed for so many years their lively comments on the events of each pa.s.sing generation,"[121] a relic of the old custom by which the Dean and Prebendaries dined in the College Hall--the ancient Refectory--with all the School. Every Sunday and Saint's day during the school year, the Westminster Scholars troop into the Choir in their white surplices in front of the Abbey body, and take the seats which have been theirs by right since the coronation of James the Second. And in modern days their shouts from those seats have testified the a.s.sent of the people of England to the sovereign's election in the Coronation Service.

And now from the shouts of the young, vigorous, active boys of Westminster, let us turn once more to the Abbey. In its still dim aisles, under the vaulted, misty roof, let us bid a tender and loving farewell to its children--the Holy Innocents who have "gone before"--whose sweet memories live in the minds of men; whose souls are safe in G.o.d's good keeping; and whose ashes rest in England's Pantheon.


[109] Strickland. "Lives of the Queens of England." Vol. VII. p. 237.

[110] "Memoirs of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester." By Jenkin Lewis. p. 7.

[111] "Memoirs of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester." By Jenkin Lewis. p. 8.

[112] Memoirs. Jenkin Lewis. p. 8.

[113] Memoir. Jenkin Lewis. p. 16.

[114] "Impartial History of Queen Anne's Reign." Bishop White Kennett.

p. 39.

[115] Jenkin Lewis.

[116] Memoir. Jenkin Lewis. p. 100.

[117] Bishop White Kennet. "Impartial History of Queen Anne's Reign." p.


[118] "Memorials of Westminster Abbey." Dean Stanley, p. 196.

[119] Walton's Life. Vol. II. p. 24.

[120] "Memorials of Westminster Abbey. Dean Stanley." p. 536

[121] "Memorials of Westminster Abbey." Dean Stanley, p. 481.

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