William Morris Archive


Sometimes I am rewarded for fretting myself so much about present matters by a quite unasked–for pleasant dream. I mean when I am asleep. This dream is as it were a present of an architectural peep–show. I see some beautiful and noble building new made, as it were for the occasion, as clearly as if I were awake; not vaguely or absurdly, as often happens in dreams, but with all the detail clear and reasonable. Some Elizabethan house with its scrap of earlier fourteenth–century building, and its later degradations of Queen Anne and Silly Billy and Victoria, marring but not destroying it, in an old village once a clearing amid the sandy woodlands of Sussex. Or an old and unusually curious church, much churchwardened, and beside it a fragment of fifteenth–century domestic architecture amongst the not unpicturesque lath and plaster of an Essex farm, and looking natural enough among the sleepy elms and the meditative hens scratching about in the litter of the farmyard, whose trodden yellow straw comes up to the very jambs of the richly carved Norman doorway of the church. Or sometimes ’tis a splendid collegiate church, untouched by restoring parson and architect, standing amid an island of shapely trees and flower–beset cottages of thatched grey stone and cob, amidst the narrow stretch of bright green water–meadows that wind between the sweeping Wiltshire downs, so well beloved of William Cobbett. Or some new–seen and yet familiar cluster of houses in a grey village of the upper Thames overtopped by the delicate tracery of a fourteenth–century church; or even sometimes the very buildings of the past untouched by the degradation of the sordid utilitarianism that cares not and knows not of beauty and history: as once, when I was journeying (in a dream of the night) down the well–remembered reaches of the Thames betwixt Streatley and Wallingford, where the foothills of the White Horse fall back from the broad stream, I came upon a clear–seen mediaeval town standing up with roof and tower and spire within its walls, grey and ancient, but untouched from the days of its builders of old. All this I have seen in the dreams of the night clearer than I can force myself to see them in dreams of the day. So that it would have been nothing new to me the other night to fall into an architectural dream if that were all, and yet I have to tell of things strange and new that befell me after I had fallen asleep. I had begun my sojourn in the Land of Nod by a very confused attempt to conclude that it was all right for me to have an engagement to lecture at Manchester and Mitcham Fair Green at half–past eleven at night on one and the same Sunday, and that I could manage pretty well. And then I had gone on to try to make the best of addressing a large open–air audience in the costume I was really then wearing—to wit, my night–shirt, reinforced for the dream occasion by a pair of braceless trousers. The consciousness of this fact so bothered me, that the earnest faces of my audience—who would NOT notice it, but were clearly preparing terrible anti–Socialist posers for me—began to fade away and my dream grew thin, and I awoke (as I thought) to find myself lying on a strip of wayside waste by an oak copse just outside a country village.

I got up and rubbed my eyes and looked about me, and the landscape seemed unfamiliar to me, though it was, as to the lie of the land, an ordinary English low–country, swelling into rising ground here and there. The road was narrow, and I was convinced that it was a piece of Roman road from its straightness. Copses were scattered over the country, and there were signs of two or three villages and hamlets in sight besides the one near me, between which and me there was some orchard–land, where the early apples were beginning to redden on the trees. Also, just on the other side of the road and the ditch which ran along it, was a small close of about a quarter of an acre, neatly hedged with quick, which was nearly full of white poppies, and, as far as I could see for the hedge, had also a good few rose–bushes of the bright–red nearly single kind, which I had heard are the ones from which rose–water used to be distilled. Otherwise the land was quite unhedged, but all under tillage of various kinds, mostly in small strips. From the other side of a copse not far off rose a tall spire white and brand–new, but at once bold in outline and unaffectedly graceful and also distinctly English in character. This, together with the unhedged tillage and a certain unwonted trimness and handiness about the enclosures of the garden and orchards, puzzled me for a minute or two, as I did not understand, new as the spire was, how it could have been designed by a modern architect; and I was of course used to the hedged tillage and tumbledown bankrupt–looking surroundings of our modern agriculture. So that the garden–like neatness and trimness of everything surprised me. But after a minute or two that surprise left me entirely; and if what I saw and heard afterwards seems strange to you, remember that it did not seem strange to me at the time, except where now and again I shall tell you of it. Also, once for all, if I were to give you the very words of those who spoke to me you would scarcely understand them, although their language was English too, and at the time I could understand them at once.

Well, as I stretched myself and turned my face toward the village, I heard horse–hoofs on the road, and presently a man and horse showed on the other end of the stretch of road and drew near at a swinging trot with plenty of clash of metal. The man soon came up to me, but paid me no more heed than throwing me a nod. He was clad in armour of mingled steel and leather, a sword girt to his side, and over his shoulder a long–handled bill–hook.

His armour was fantastic in form and well wrought; but by this time I was quite used to the strangeness of him, and merely muttered to myself, “He is coming to summon the squire to the leet;” so I turned toward the village in good earnest. Nor, again, was I surprised at my own garments, although I might well have been from their unwontedness. I was dressed in a black cloth gown reaching to my ankles, neatly embroidered about the collar and cuffs, with wide sleeves gathered in at the wrists; a hood with a sort of bag hanging down from it was on my head, a broad red leather girdle round my waist, on one side of which hung a pouch embroidered very prettily and a case made of hard leather chased with a hunting scene, which I knew to be a pen and ink case; on the other side a small sheath–knife, only an arm in case of dire necessity.

Well, I came into the village, where I did not see (nor by this time expected to see) a single modern building, although many of them were nearly new, notably the church, which was large, and quite ravished my heart with its extreme beauty, elegance, and fitness. The chancel of this was so new that the dust of the stone still lay white on the midsummer grass beneath the carvings of the windows. The houses were almost all built of oak frame–work filled with cob or plaster well whitewashed; though some had their lower stories of rubble–stone, with their windows and doors of well–moulded freestone. There was much curious and inventive carving about most of them; and though some were old and much worn, there was the same look of deftness and trimness, and even beauty, about every detail in them which I noticed before in the field–work. They were all roofed with oak shingles, mostly grown as grey as stone; but one was so newly built that its roof was yet pale and yellow. This was a corner house, and the corner post of it had a carved niche wherein stood a gaily painted figure holding an anchor—St. Clement to wit, as the dweller in the house was a blacksmith. Half a stone’s throw from the east end of the churchyard wall was a tall cross of stone, new like the church, the head beautifully carved with a crucifix amidst leafage. It stood on a set of wide stone steps, octagonal in shape, where three roads from other villages met and formed a wide open space on which a thousand people or more could stand together with no great crowding.

All this I saw, and also that there was a goodish many people about, women and children, and a few old men at the doors, many of them somewhat gaily clad, and that men were coming into the village street by the other end to that by which I had entered, by twos and threes, most of them carrying what I could see were bows in cases of linen yellow with wax or oil; they had quivers at their backs, and most of them a short sword by their left side, and a pouch and knife on the right; they were mostly dressed in red or brightish green or blue cloth jerkins, with a hood on the head generally of another colour. As they came nearer I saw that the cloth of their garments was somewhat coarse, but stout and serviceable. I knew, somehow, that they had been shooting at the butts, and, indeed, I could still hear a noise of men thereabout, and even now and again when the wind set from that quarter the twang of the bowstring and the plump of the shaft in the target.

I leaned against the churchyard wall and watched these men, some of whom went straight into their houses and some loitered about still; they were rough–looking fellows, tall and stout, very black some of them, and some red–haired, but most had hair burnt by the sun into the colour of tow; and, indeed, they were all burned and tanned and freckled variously. Their arms and buckles and belts and the finishings and hems of their garments were all what we should now call beautiful, rough as the men were; nor in their speech was any of that drawling snarl or thick vulgarity which one is used to hear from labourers in civilisation; not that they talked like gentlemen either, but full and round and bold, and they were merry and good–tempered enough; I could see that, though I felt shy and timid amongst them.

One of them strode up to me across the road, a man some six feet high, with a short black beard and black eyes and berry–brown skin, with a huge bow in his hand bare of the case, a knife, a pouch, and a short hatchet, all clattering together at his girdle.

“Well, friend,” said he, “thou lookest partly mazed; what tongue hast thou in thine head?”

“A tongue that can tell rhymes,” said I.

“So I thought,” said he. “Thirstest thou any?”

“Yea, and hunger,” said I.

And therewith my hand went into my purse, and came out again with but a few small and thin silver coins with a cross stamped on each, and three pellets in each corner of the cross. The man grinned.

“Aha!” said he, “is it so? Never heed it, mate. It shall be a song for a supper this fair Sunday evening. But first, whose man art thou?”

“No one’s man,” said I, reddening angrily; “I am my own master.”

He grinned again.

“Nay, that’s not the custom of England, as one time belike it will be. Methinks thou comest from heaven down, and hast had a high place there too.”

He seemed to hesitate a moment, and then leant forward and whispered in my ear: “John the Miller, that ground small, small, small,” and stopped and winked at me, and from between my lips without my mind forming any meaning came the words, “The king’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

He let his bow fall on to his shoulder, caught my right hand in his and gave it a great grip, while his left hand fell among the gear at his belt, and I could see that he half drew his knife.

“Well, brother,” said he, “stand not here hungry in the highway when there is flesh and bread in the Rose yonder. Come on.”

And with that he drew me along toward what was clearly a tavern door, outside which men were sitting on a couple of benches and drinking meditatively from curiously shaped earthen pots glazed green and yellow, some with quaint devices on them.

Continue to Chapter 2
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Notes on Chapter 1 by Peter Wright

p. 198 para. 1 some Elizabethan manor house .... Queen Anne ... Silly Billy .... Victoria

In Morris's time modem architectural styles in England were still largely differentiated by the names of dynasties and reigns, rather than by the stylistic labels introduced since then by architectural historians, such as Palladian, Baroque, Greek Revival, etc. Thus Banister Fletcher, History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (first publ. 1896 [1954 edn. used]) only divides 'English Renaissance Architecture' (on p. 766 seqq.) into 'Elizabethan', 'Jacobean', 'Stuart' (1625-1702) and 'Georgian' (1702-1830). So the names of these monarchs given here are probably rather chronological than stylistic markers. 'Queen Anne' may appear because her name had been adopted to designate the new vernacular style developed from the 1860s and 1870s for domestic buildings, to replace Victorian Gothic, partly under the influence of Morris's friend Philip Webb.

Silly Billy

By 'Silly Billy' Morris refers to King William IV (reigned 1830-37), as appears in the version of John Ball revised for book publication. That king could suitably have been so called on account of his hearty but uncouth manners and intellectual oddity: see descriptions of him in Charles Greville's diary, under 16, 20, 25, 30 July 1830, in Leaves from the Greville Diary, ed. P. Morrell (1929), pp. 98-99, 101, 103-105. The nickname of 'Silly Billy' was originally applied to the king's cousin, the vacuous and pompous William Henry, 2nd duke of Gloucester (1776-1834): Oxford D.N.B. vol. 59, p. 119. It is not clear on what basis Morris came to apply it to the king.

much churchwardened

Over-thoroughly tidied, and even renovated, by the churchwardens in charge of its fabric


The architectural style with round-headed arches and windows prevalent in England from the late 11th century to the late 12th.

a splendid collegiate church

Collegiate churches were served and managed by a body of 'secular' canons, often under a dean, not bound by monastic vows, but residing and sharing the church's revenues as individuals. They usually had larger chancels than parish churches to accommodate the choral services performed by their canons, in person or by deputy. [[ cf. note on 'vicars' on p. 244 para. 4]]

water-meadows ... Wiltshire downs ....William Cobbett

The Radical journalist and politician William Cobbett made his main visit to Wiltshire (described in his Rural Rides, Everyman edn. 1912, vol. 2, pp. 34-99) during a fortnight of August to September 1826, when he travelled down the Avon to Salisbury and back up the western edge of the county. Occasionally, amidst extensive discussion of farming practices and political invective, he shows appreciation of the watered meadows amid the downs.

Cobbett shared Morris's opinion that the condition of ordinary labouring people had greatly worsened since the close of the Middle Ages, and his History of the Reformation (publ. 1824) was one of the few actual narrative histories that stood outside the progressive 'Whig' consensus of Victorian historians, offering a 'Tory Radical' view more typical of social critics, such as Ruskin and Morris himself. See J.W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent (1981), pp. 240-41. p. 199 para. I

down the Thames ... Streatley .... Wallingford

This is a little oddly phrased, given that Wallingford is upstream from Streatley. Perhaps Morris was thinking of going 'down' to his intended destination at Kelmscott: cf. William Morris Chronology, ed. N. Salmon (1996), p. 104, 14 Aug. 1880. The dream of a medieval city seems entirely imaginary, unless Morris was thinking of Wallingford itself, in the Middle Ages a quite important planned borough, built around a 12th-century castle; apparently it once had 12 parish churches.

** p. 199 para. 1 foothills of the White Horse

The northern edge of the Wiltshire downland, overlooking the Vale of the White Horse, through which the Upper Thames flows. It is named from the probably prehistoric figure of a 'white horse' cut into the chalk on the crest of the escarpment a little south of Uffington, which Morris and his family often visited from Kelmscott Manor. See May Morris, Intro. Collected Works, 18, pp. xx-xxi. That figure and an adjoining Iron Age hill fort inspired his description of Bear Castle and the 'hill-side carving' beside it in The Well at the World's End, bk. 1, chap. 4.

**Land of Nod Sleep: cf. Genesis, chap. 4, v. 16.

Apparently a punning 18th-century interpretation, ascribed to Swift.

p. 199 para. 1 Mitcham Fair Green

Morris's visits to Mitcham, a little east of his works at Merton, where he sometimes spoke in the open air, are discussed in Judith Goodman's talk on Morris and Merton, reported in the William Morris Society Newsletter, Autumn 2007, pp. 36-37.


Awkward questions

Para. 2 white poppies

Opium, made from white poppies, was used in the Middle Ages in making soporific and would-be anaesthetic potions: C. Rawcliffe, Medicine and Society in Late Medieval England, (1995), p. 77. The repeated later mention of poppies of this colour, [[below, p. 238 para. 3; p. 240 para. 1; p. 256 para.4]] may, however, be intended to be symbolical of dreaming, or of transition between sleep and waking.

In Morris's 'Love of Alcestis', her husband Admetus is told to set poppy-leaves at his bridal chamber door: The Earthly Paradise, ed. F.S. Boos, vol. 1, p. 505. A white poppy is brought to the expiring Beloved in Rossetti's picture, commemorating Elizabeth Siddal, 'Beata Beatrix'.

** Roman road

The roads laid out during the Roman occupation of Britain (1st-4th centuries A.D.) were proverbially straight. Compare that mentioned, [[ p. 224 para. l ]] p. 200.

para. 1 small strips .... the unhedged tillage

Given the state of knowledge in his time, and his purpose in writing, Morris was entitled to portray his Kentish village as one of the supposed standard medieval type, with common fields divided into strips owned by individual villagers (and only hedged around their outer edges), and subject to an annual rotation of crops over two or three years, and with a common pasture grazed by the villagers' cattle in a single herd [[cf. p. 223-24]]. Actually Kent had even in the late Middle Ages few or no villages of this sort, but was one of those regions enclosed into individual farms very early; there were some 'open fields' with land belonging to more than one owner, but these seem to have resulted from division among heirs, and there was almost no trace of communally managed rotations or pasturage on the scale of a whole village: see Studies in Field Systems in the British Isles, ed. A. R. Baker and R. A. Butlin (1973), chap. 9 (pp. 377-419).

p. 200 para. 2 to summon the squire to the leet

The squire

In the late 14th century the title of 'squire' was in transition from indicating a military function to meaning, as in modem times, the social rank of the country gentleman who owns the largest estate in a village and expects to dominate (though not actually to administer) its affairs. Earlier, in the 13th century, squires (originally, as scutiferi, or armigeri, junior warriors attending older ones) had been p1imarily the less well equipped portion of the mounted warriors (in paid 14th-century English armies, they received only half a knight's wages), and, when younger, like Chaucer's Squire, were those who in attendance on knights were learning the martial and social skills of chivalry before receiving knighthood [[cf. p. 213 end]].

In the 12th century most English landowners owning a manor or more would have accepted the rank of knight; from the mid 13th however, the increasing expense of knighthood, both the higher costs of armour and warhorses, and those of the ceremony of knighting and of the display required by that rank, led many lesser landowners to refrain from being knighted, although they still claimed to belong to the 'gently-born' aristocracy. From about 1350 such lesser aristocrats began to be called squires: cf. the distinction in the socially graduated poll tax of 1379 (see Dobson, Peasants' Revolt, p. 107,) between squires wealthy enough to be knights, those of lesser estate, and those, not owning property, in service or in arms. Here, and [[p. 250 para. 4]], Morris probably intends mainly the social meaning; on [[p. 232 para. 3]] ('squires and knights'), he is using the military one. These developments are fully discussed in N. Saul, Knights and Esquires (1986), chapter 1.

The leet

Lords of manors usually held two types of court for their tenants. One, later technically styled a 'court baron', dealt with the rights and obligations of those tenants (primarily the unfree) related to the lands that they occupied. The other, the leet, formally called the 'view of frankpledge', handled the enforcement of public order and the repression of such nuisances as badly maintained roads and drainage ditches, wrongly sited dung heaps, etc., also often controlling the quality and price of bread and ale. In practice the two kinds of court were usually held on the same day(s), (though leets came at longer intervals), one after the other, and Morris may not intend to distinguish between them.

** gown ... hood .. bag The Dreamer’s costume is modeled on that worn in the late 14th century by educated lay civilians; the head-dress in particular resembles that worn by Chaucer in his traditional portraits. p. 20 I para. 2

St. Clement

In early Christian legend St. Clement I, a close successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome, was martyred by being thrown into the Black Sea, to whose coasts he had been exiled, fastened to an anchor. Hence he was reckoned as the patron of workers in iron, such as blacksmiths.

** the butts

English medieval villages were expected, and eventually required by law, to have archery butts where men could practise using the national weapon, the long-bow.

p. 203 para. 2 John the Miller ... The king's son of heaven .... These lines, here taken as the peasants’ password, are the opening ones of verses in one of the gnomic letters circulated among peasants, this one openly ascribed to John Ball, (see Dobson, Peasants' Revolt, pp. 380-33) in which they tried to arouse awareness of their discontent. The use of such letters to spread the message of revolt is discussed in S. Justice, Writing and Revolt: England in 1381 (1994). Morris has substituted 'that' for the 'hath' of the original verses.