Matthias lived in the latter part of what we know as the Middle Ages. Henry VI was on the throne. When this series opens, the King is still a teenager, relying heavily on his adult advisers. He is also not a Warrior king like his father, being more interested in religion and education.
Kings were all powerful. Weak kings, such as Henry VI, caused corruption in high places to flourish, and the nobility of the country were able to scrabble for position and power. The affairs of the king and the state have no part in the direct world of Matthias. The world of Sherborne in particular and Dorset in general certainly do. Although Henry VI did grant the licence for the Almshouses in Sherborne, there is no evidence that the king visited Sherborne. His laws and his will was passed down to the ordinary men and women by the Sheriff and his officers, one of whom would have been the Coroner. Most shires were entitled to elect two coroners but in Matthias’ world I have chosen to make it one.
Matthias lives in Milborne Port, a large village just over the border in Somerset but has an affiliation with Sherborne as he was educated there. Milborne Port was a good sized village boasting an ancient church, several ale houses, a bake house, a guildhall, several fulling mills and a well. It was a sheep farming area but also supported commercial trading.
Education and work
Education at this time was mainly for the wealthy and certainly mainly for boys.. Abbeys and monasteries were one of the chief educators, taking often second sons who would not inherit.
Two main universities were Oxford and Cambridge, and scholars followed a set agenda, often starting as young as fifteen....as Matthias did. Fees were high, which excluded any without some kind of wealth or sponsorship.
Poorer people had little chance of doing much more than work, although they were by now mostly free men, working for coin rather than owing fealty to a lord. The power of feudal England had undergone a great change since the devastating effects of the Black Death.
The beautiful West front of Sherborne Abbey glows in the sun, much as it has for centuries.
Education in the fifteenth century was led by religious institutions and was largely for boys. Universities ....only Oxford and Cambridge, were expensive and admittance to them was often a matter of birth and wealth. Teaching was by rote and was very traditional.
Today one can observe this beautiful ceiling by using a clever mirror on castors, thus negating the need to stretch your neck uncomfortably to take in the intricate tracery of this fan vaulting. Martin Cooper (Matthias Barton, Book 4) was not so lucky and had to tip his head and neck back to see what would have been an unfinished ceiling but nevertheless still breathtaking.
This ancient building in a corner of Milborne Port churchyard certainly evokes a sense of the medieval period in which Matthias lived.
The stone corbels are part of Sherborne Abbey, and were once coloured. They are often overlooked as they are high up, now not coloured and one or two have weathered rather poorly. Medieval bishops, monks, abbots and mythical beasts are portrayed in stone.
This part of Sherborne Abbey shows clearly a blocked door or window indicating where the Allhallows chapel was once attached to the Abbey. Allhallows was the source of the battle of the fonts which ultimately led to the fire in the Abbey.
The font is the same font used for baptisms in medieval times, although the wooden surround at the top in clearly an addition. Baptism was an important ceremony for medieval minds and it was also very lucrative for the Abbey. The battle of the fonts in Sherborne Abbey was hugely damaging to the town! (See Matthias Barton books 1 and 2)
The misericords can be seen under the choir stalls in Sherborne Abbey. Superbly carved some time between 1450-1500, this one is a schoolmaster, possibly thought to be Thomas Copeland, beating a scholar.
Look closely and you will observe a faint pink tinge in the walls of the Abbey in certain places. This is due to the Heat of the fire in 1437. reacting with pigment in the walls. Visit this magnificent Abbey and see for yourself.
The exterior of Sherborne Abbey still evokes a sense of wonder. The adjoining chapel of Allhallows has long gone, and where the monastery buildings stood is now Sherborne School. Indeed, what was the Abbot’s house is now part of the Headmaster’s domain.
Pen and ink can take us back over the ages as nothing else can. Scribes developed sumptuous manuscripts, some of which have been preserved for posterity in the British Library.
Side chapels of the Abbey stretch before the gaze, awe inspiring in their symmetry, and still with delicate tracery in the ceilings.