Another clerk who was “not much of a scholard” used to allow no difficulty to check his fluency. If the right word did not fall to his hand he made shift with another of somewhat similar sound, the result frequently taxing to the uttermost the self-control of the better educated among his hearers. He was ill-mated to a shrewish wife, and one was sensible of a thrill of sympathy when, without a thought of irreverence, and in all simplicity, he rolled out, instead of “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech!” “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Missis!”
Old age at length puts an end to the power of the most stalwart clerks. That must have been a very pathetic scene in the church at East Barnet which few of those present could have witnessed without emotion. The clerk was a man of advanced age. He always conducted the singing, which must have been somewhat monotonous, as the 95th and the 100th Psalm (Old Version) were invariably sung. On one occasion, after several vain attempts to begin the accustomed melody, the poor old man exclaimed, “Well, my friends, it’s no use. I’m too old. I can’t sing any more.”
[Illustration: OLD BECKENHAM CHURCH]
It was a bitter day for the old clerks when harmoniums and organs came into fashion, and the old orchestras conducted by them were abandoned. Dethroned monarchs could not feel more distressed.
The period of the decline and fall of the status of the old parish clerks was that of the Commonwealth, from 1640 to 1660. During the spacious days of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts they were considered most important officials. In pre-Reformation times the incumbents used to receive assistance from the chantry priests who were required to help the parson when not engaged in their particular duties. After the suppression of the chantries they continued their good offices and acted as assistant curates. But the race soon died out. Then lecturers and special preachers were frequently appointed by corporations or rich private individuals. But these lecturers and preachers were a somewhat independent race who were not very loyal to the parsons and impatient of episcopal control, and proved themselves rather a hindrance than a help. In North Devon and doubtless in many other places the experiment was tried of making use of the parish clerks and raising them to the diaconate. Such a clerk so raised to major orders was Robert Langdon (1584-1625), of Barnstaple, to whose history I shall have occasion to refer again. His successor, Anthony Baker, was also a clerk-deacon. The parish clerk then attained the zenith of his power, dignity, and importance.
[Footnote 39: The Parish Clerks of Barnstaple, 1500-1900, by Rev. J.F. Chanter (Transactions of the Devonshire Association).]