‘And so,’ said Alice, ’I heard my Lord of Winchester saying how it were well to suppress the alien priories, and give their wealth to found colleges like that founded by Bishop Wykeham.’
For in truths the spirit of the age was beginning to set against monasticism. It was the period when perhaps there was more of license and less of saintliness than at any other, and when the long continuance of the Great Schism had so injured Church discipline that the clergy and ecclesiastics were in the worst state of all, especially the monastic orders, who owned no superior but the Pope, and between the two rivals could avoid supervision altogether. Such men as Thomas a Kempis, or the great Jean Gerson, were rare indeed; and the monasteries had let themselves lose their missionary character, and become mere large farms, inhabited by celibate gentlemen and their attendants, or by the superfluous daughters of the nobles and gentry. Such devotion as led Esclairmonde to the pure atmosphere of prayer and self-sacrifice had well-nigh died out, and almost every other lady of the time would have regarded her release from the vows made for her its her babyhood a happy escape.
Still less, at a time when no active order of Sisters, save that of the Beguines in Holland, had been invented, and when no nun ever dreamt of carrying her charity beyond the quadrangle of her own convent, could any one be expected to enter into Esclairmonde’s admiration and longing for out-of-door works; but the person whom she had chiefly made her friend was the King’s almoner and chaplain, sometimes called Sir Martin Bennet, at others Dr. Bennet, a great Oxford scholar, bred up among William of Wykeham’s original seventy at Winchester and New College, and now much trusted and favoured by the King, whom he everywhere accompanied. That Sir Martin was a pluralist must be confessed, but he was most conscientious in providing substitutes, and was a man of much thought and of great piety, in whom the fair pupil of the Canon of St. Agnes found a congenial spirit.
’That is a gentle and gracious slip of the Stewart. What shall you do with him?’ asked King Henry of James, as they stood together at one end of the tilt-yard at Westminster, watching Malcolm Stewart and Ralf Percy, who were playing at closhey, the early form of nine-pins.
‘I know what I should like to do,’ said James.
‘What may that be?’
‘To marry him to the Lady Esclairmonde de Luxemburg.’
Henry gave a long whistle.
‘Have you other views for her?’
’Not I! Am I to have designs on every poor dove who flies into my tent from the hawk? Besides, are not they both of them vowed to a religious life?’
‘Neither vow is valid,’ replied James.
‘To meddle with such things is what I should not dare,’ said Henry.