BESIDES mentions of the plague in 1603 and 1605, and of a lease granted by King James I. of several houses in Eton street, very little seems to. be known of the town for the first forty years of this century.
Its growth had probably been checked by two causes, namely, the pulling down of so many houses to make room for the building and the extension of the College, and further, the increasing importance of New Windsor. At any rate, the weekly market seems to have dropped out of existence.
But a new industry was started under the Provost, Sir Henry Savile, which although intended mainly for the benefit of the College, and to meet the growing demand for learning, must indirectly have affected the town, and given work to its inhabitants. This was the setting up of a printing press in the buildings which had served for men's almshouses in Henry VI.'s reign. This site is now occupied by Savile House in Weston's Yard, or 'the Stable Yard', as it was then called.
In the reign of Charles I. there was a little temporary stir. A regiment of soldiers was quartered in the town, contrary to the privileges granted to the College by Henry VI. A remonstrance was at once sent to the Duke of Buckingham, then Lord-Lieutenant of the county, pointing out the inconvenience caused to "the youth repairing to the Schole and lodging in the towne, with whom such companie doo not well comport."¹
It was towards the end of this reign, during the Civil War, that there was an alarming report that Essex and his levy of London apprentices were marching by Windsor towards Newbury. This report led to Windsor bridge being destroyed. At that date, the only other bridges were at Staines and Maidenhead.
As to the Church, the only changes noticed were the introduction of altar rails, under the order of Archbishop Laud, and in 1613 the erection of an organ beneath one of the windows.
Archbishop Laud, whatever his faults, saw the real greatness of the English Church in its two-fold character, as at once Catholic and Anti-papal, and in its double appeal to Scripture and History. But his over-zealous enforcement of stern discipline, while it had the effect he desired of reducing the Puritan party to outward conformity, increased the bitterness of their spirit, and led to his own fall and execution, as well as that of King Charles I. It enabled his enemies to strike, what seemed likely to prove a deadly blow, at both Church and Monarchy.
Cromwell and the Long Parliament were now in power. For the next seventeen years Church people had a sad time of it in Eton, as elsewhere.
Early in 1643, an order came to the College for-bidding the wearing of surplices in the Church as "against law and the liberty of the subject."
In December of the same year instructions were given to Colonel Venn, who had already displayed his zeal by destroying the monuments and pictures in St. George's Chapel, to do the same in the Church at Eton.
Then the Provost was deposed, and compelled to fly to the Continent, and a layman, Francis Rouse, afterwards Speaker in the House of Commons during the famous Barebones' Parliament, was appointed in his place.
The choir was disbanded, and the use of the Prayer Book was forbidden under heavy penalties.
A book called the Directory of Public Worship was ordered for use instead, and a special Catechist was appointed to instruct the youth of Eton and Windsor in what was accounted sound doctrine.'
The Collegiate and Parochial Church of Eton was now first called the Chapel, and the arms of the Commonwealth were put up in a conspicuous place, and the Common-wealth banners adorned the walls.
As some result of the prevalent teaching of those days, it is noticeable that from 1653 to 1661 no children are recorded as baptized in the parish.
Instead of baptisms, the date of birth only is recorded in the Register, and for two or three years marriages were performed by Captain Robert Aldridge, "a Justice of the Peace of the Commonwealth according to a late Act of Parliament made concerning marriages."
It appears also that the banns of marriages were published by the Registrar appointed for the parish, sometimes in the Parish Church, but more often on three market days in three several weeks, between the hours of eleven and two, in Colnbrook market². This must have been at that time the nearest market in the county.
Provost Rouse, the Speaker, died in 1659, a few months after Oliver Cromwell, and was buried at Eton. His burial is registered as that of " the Hon. Francis Lord Rouse." He left one good legacy to the place. The fine elms in the Playing Fields are said to have been planted by him.
The next Provost and Rector was an Independent Minister, formerly one of Cromwell's Chaplains, but he only held office about a year, and then prudently resigned it.
For fifteen dreary years, till the death of Cromwell, the Church of England remained in a state of suspended or stifled animation; its life still remained, but all out-ward signs of it were suppressed under heavy penalties. Then came what is known as the Restoration, and once more the ancient Constitution of the country was restored, and the ancient Church revived, although it was long before it threw off the effects of the crisis through which it had passed.
Once again Eton had a proper Rector, a clergyman being appointed Provost, who was brother of the famous General Monk. Presently signs of reaction showed themselves. The banners hung by Lord Rouse were torn down from the walls of the Church, and the book of Common Prayer again came into use. In December 1660 a notice was issued that the service would be held at ten o'clock each morning and at four in the afternoon. Holy Communion was to be administered at the three great festivals and on the Sunday after Michaelmas³.
The Choristers were also reinstated, and surplices again worn at all the services. An Act of Parliament was passed to entitle those who had been married by Justices of the Peace to such legal advantages as then belonged only to those who were married according to the rites of the Church.
In 1647 and 1662. there seems to have been another outbreak of the plague in Eton. In the former year seven burials appear in the Parish Register =died P. A pre-caution, taken by the College authorities to check its spread among the boys, must have helped the tobacconists' trade in the town. In a diary of a few years' later date occurs the following : " Even children were obliged to smoak—and I remember that I heard formerly Tom Rogers, who was yeoman beadle, say that when he was that year a school boy at Eaton, all the boys of the school were obliged to smoak in the school every morning, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoaking."⁴ A pest-house for the reception of patients was erected in Little Town-piece.
This visitation of the plague seems to have led to much distress in the town, for in 1677 contributions were sent from various places (from Chatham Lr Is. 8d. among others) for the relief of the inhabitants of Eton. A note to this effect in the register of Chatham Church led in the last century to a request being made to Eton to make a return contribution and help Chatham in some Church work.
In the Eton Parish Register for 1686 to 1688 there appear the names of fifty-four parishioners who were "touched for the evil," as it was then called.
From the days of Edward the Confessor to Queen Anne, it was the common belief that the King had power to cure certain skin diseases, which are nowadays treated at special hospitals, and there seems to be little doubt that, partly aided by the force of imagination and belief in this power, frequent cures were effected.
The `touching' was always accompanied by a religious service, which under the title of prayers for the healing' or at the healing' is to be found in Prayer Books of the reigns of Charles I. and II., James II. and Anne.
A Gospel was read, generally St. Mark xvi. 14, and those who were presented for healing knelt before the King, who "laid his hands on them and put the gold about their necks," while the Chaplain prayed for a blessing on the act.
The date of these records in the register agrees with the apparent revival of this custom by a proclamation in 1683, ordered to be published in every parish, specifying certain seasons for these public healings.
The revival was probably partly due to a desire to restore the King's popularity after the Civil War. The practice was discontinued when the Georges came to the throne.
There is also a curious entry among the burials, "On Sept. 2, 1678, Elizabeth Worland, buried in wollen only, no affidavit within 8 days according to the Act."
This refers to a law which discouraged the use of wool for such purposes.
1 Domestic State Papers, Charles I.
2 There are eight such publications recorded.
3 In the better days of the Reformation, the Church did all it could to encourage frequent Communion both among the clergy and the people, as is clear from the fourth rubric at the end of the Communion Office. The Puritanism of Buckinghamshire in th6o ignored this rubric.
4 Quoted Etoniana p. 57
OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text is has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.