William Morris Archive


I entered the door and started at first with my old astonishment, with which I had woke up, so strange and beautiful did this interior seem to me, though it was but a pothouse parlour. A quaintly–carved side board held an array of bright pewter pots and dishes and wooden and earthen bowls; a stout oak table went up and down the room, and a carved oak chair stood by the chimney–corner, now filled by a very old man dim–eyed and white–bearded. That, except the rough stools and benches on which the company sat, was all the furniture. The walls were panelled roughly enough with oak boards to about six feet from the floor, and about three feet of plaster above that was wrought in a pattern of a rose stem running all round the room, freely and roughly done, but with (as it seemed to my unused eyes) wonderful skill and spirit. On the hood of the great chimney a huge rose was wrought in the plaster and brightly painted in its proper colours. There were a dozen or more of the men I had seen coming along the street sitting there, some eating and all drinking; their cased bows leaned against the wall, their quivers hung on pegs in the panelling, and in a corner of the room I saw half–a–dozen bill–hooks that looked made more for war than for hedge–shearing, with ashen handles some seven foot long. Three or four children were running about among the legs of the men, heeding them mighty little in their bold play, and the men seemed little troubled by it, although they were talking earnestly and seriously too. A well–made comely girl leaned up against the chimney close to the gaffer’s chair, and seemed to be in waiting on the company: she was clad in a close–fitting gown of bright blue cloth, with a broad silver girdle daintily wrought, round her loins, a rose wreath was on her head and her hair hung down unbound; the gaffer grumbled a few words to her from time to time, so that I judged he was her grandfather.

The men all looked up as we came into the room, my mate leading me by the hand, and he called out in his rough, good–tempered voice, “Here, my masters, I bring you tidings and a tale; give it meat and drink that it may be strong and sweet.”

“Whence are thy tidings, Will Green?” said one.

My mate grinned again with the pleasure of making his joke once more in a bigger company: “It seemeth from heaven, since this good old lad hath no master,” said he.

“The more fool he to come here,” said a thin man with a grizzled beard, amidst the laughter that followed, “unless he had the choice given him between hell and England.”

“Nay,” said I, “I come not from heaven, but from Essex.”

As I said the word a great shout sprang from all mouths at once, as clear and sudden as a shot from a gun. For I must tell you that I knew somehow, but I know not how, that the men of Essex were gathering to rise against the poll–groat bailiffs and the lords that would turn them all into villeins again, as their grandfathers had been. And the people was weak and the lords were poor; for many a mother’s son had fallen in the war in France in the old king’s time, and the Black Death had slain a many; so that the lords had bethought them: “We are growing poorer, and these upland–bred villeins are growing richer, and the guilds of craft are waxing in the towns, and soon what will there be left for us who cannot weave and will not dig? Good it were if we fell on all who are not guildsmen or men of free land, if we fell on soccage tenants and others, and brought both the law and the strong hand on them, and made them all villeins in deed as they are now in name; for now these rascals make more than their bellies need of bread, and their backs of homespun, and the overplus they keep to themselves; and we are more worthy of it than they. So let us get the collar on their necks again, and make their day’s work longer and their bever–time shorter, as the good statute of the old king bade. And good it were if the Holy Church were to look to it (and the Lollards might help herein) that all these naughty and wearisome holidays were done away with; or that it should be unlawful for any man below the degree of a squire to keep the holy days of the church, except in the heart and the spirit only, and let the body labour meanwhile; for does not the Apostle say, ‘If a man work not, neither should he eat’? And if such things were done, and such an estate of noble rich men and worthy poor men upholden for ever, then would it be good times in England, and life were worth the living.”

All this were the lords at work on, and such talk I knew was common not only among the lords themselves, but also among their sergeants and very serving–men. But the people would not abide it; therefore, as I said, in Essex they were on the point of rising, and word had gone how that at St. Albans they were wellnigh at blows with the Lord Abbot’s soldiers; that north away at Norwich John Litster was wiping the woad from his arms, as who would have to stain them red again, but not with grain or madder; and that the valiant tiler of Dartford had smitten a poll–groat bailiff to death with his lath–rending axe for mishandling a young maid, his daughter; and that the men of Kent were on the move.

Now, knowing all this I was not astonished that they shouted at the thought of their fellows the men of Essex, but rather that they said little more about it; only Will Green saying quietly, “Well, the tidings shall be told when our fellowship is greater; fall–to now on the meat, brother, that we may the sooner have thy tale.” As he spoke the blue–clad damsel bestirred herself and brought me a clean trencher—that is, a square piece of thin oak board scraped clean—and a pewter pot of liquor. So without more ado, and as one used to it, I drew my knife out of my girdle and cut myself what I would of the flesh and bread on the table. But Will Green mocked at me as I cut, and said, “Certes, brother, thou hast not been a lord’s carver, though but for thy word thou mightest have been his reader. Hast thou seen Oxford, scholar?”

A vision of grey–roofed houses and a long winding street and the sound of many bells came over me at that word as I nodded “Yes” to him, my mouth full of salt pork and rye–bread; and then I lifted my pot and we made the clattering mugs kiss and I drank, and the fire of the good Kentish mead ran through my veins and deepened my dream of things past, present, and to come, as I said: “Now hearken a tale, since ye will have it so. For last autumn I was in Suffolk at the good town of Dunwich, and thither came the keels from Iceland, and on them were some men of Iceland, and many a tale they had on their tongues; and with these men I foregathered, for I am in sooth a gatherer of tales, and this that is now at my tongue’s end is one of them.”

So such a tale I told them, long familiar to me; but as I told it the words seemed to quicken and grow, so that I knew not the sound of my own voice, and they ran almost into rhyme and measure as I told it; and when I had done there was silence awhile, till one man spake, but not loudly:

“Yea, in that land was the summer short and the winter long; but men lived both summer and winter; and if the trees grew ill and the corn throve not, yet did the plant called man thrive and do well. God send us such men even here.”

“Nay,” said another, “such men have been and will be, and belike are not far from this same door even now.”

“Yea,” said a third, “hearken a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.” And he fell to singing in a clear voice, for he was a young man, and to a sweet wild melody, one of those ballads which in an incomplete and degraded form you have read perhaps. My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping–town; of the taking from the rich to give to the poor; of the life of a man doing his own will and not the will of another man commanding him for the commandment’s sake. The men all listened eagerly, and at whiles took up as a refrain a couplet at the end of a stanza with their strong and rough, but not unmusical voices. As they sang, a picture of the wild–woods passed by me, as they were indeed, no park–like dainty glades and lawns, but rough and tangled thicket and bare waste and heath, solemn under the morning sun, and dreary with the rising of the evening wind and the drift of the night–long rain.

When he had done, another began in something of the same strain, but singing more of a song than a story ballad; and thus much I remember of it:

The Sheriff is made a mighty lord,
Of goodly gold he hath enow,
And many a sergeant girt with sword;
But forth will we and bend the bow.
We shall bend the bow on the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
With stone and lime is the burg wall built,
And pit and prison are stark and strong,
And many a true man there is spilt,
And many a right man doomed by wrong.
So forth shall we and bend the bow
And the king’s writ never the road shall know.
Now yeomen walk ye warily,
And heed ye the houses where ye go,
For as fair and as fine as they may be,
Lest behind your heels the door clap to.
Fare forth with the bow to the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
Now bills and bows I and out a–gate!
And turn about on the lily lea!
And though their company be great
The grey–goose wing shall set us free.
Now bent is the bow in the green abode
And the king’s writ knoweth not the road.
So over the mead and over the hithe,
And away to the wild–wood wend we forth;
There dwell we yeomen bold and blithe
Where the Sheriff’s word is nought of worth.
Bent is the bow on the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.

But here the song dropped suddenly, and one of the men held up his hand as who would say, Hist! Then through the open window came the sound of another song, gradually swelling as though sung by men on the march. This time the melody was a piece of the plain–song of the church, familiar enough to me to bring back to my mind the great arches of some cathedral in France and the canons singing in the choir.

All leapt up and hurried to take their bows from wall and corner; and some had bucklers withal, circles of leather, boiled and then moulded into shape and hardened: these were some two hand–breadths across, with iron or brass bosses in the centre. Will Green went to the corner where the bills leaned against the wall and handed them round to the first–comers as far as they would go, and out we all went gravely and quietly into the village street and the fair sunlight of the calm afternoon, now beginning to turn towards evening. None had said anything since we first heard the new–come singing, save that as we went out of the door the ballad–singer clapped me on the shoulder and said: “Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?”

Continue to Chapter 3 
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Notes on Chapter 2 by Peter Wright

Pp. 204-205 last and first paras.

The men of Essex

Violent opposition to the collection of the poll tax first broke out in villages in southwest Essex late in May 1381, and the rebel villagers of that area soon sent messages across the Thames to rouse rebellion there early in June. [[cf. previous para.] and Historical Introduction, I. Political Narrative, paragraph 2]

The poll-groat bailiffs

Groats (from gros deniers) were the larger silver coins, worth four pennies, introduced in England in 1351, to supplement with a higher denomination the pennies which had been the only silver currency since Anglo-Saxon times. The groat had the same design as a penny, but with only one circle of lettering round its edge: a groat of Edward III is illustrated in Coins, an Illustrated Survey, ed. M. J. Price (1980), p. 169, illus. 779 A, B.; cf.. description of the coins (probably pennies) on [[p. 202 paragraph 5]]. For the poll taxes of 1377-81, and the grievances they caused, see Historical Introduction, I. Political Narrative, paragraph 2.


In the Middle Ages 'bailiff was a term used to describe anyone acting officially as the deputy or agent of another. Most notably it meant in England the deputies acting under the sheriff in controlling the subdivisions of the shire called ‘hundreds' and their own subordinates: that class of officials became notorious for oppression and extortion--hence Morris's hostile references later in A Dream. (Agents appointed by lords to manage manors, not drawn from among their tenants, were also styled bailiffs, cf. [( p. 218, paragraph 4: 'the bailliff squeezeth' )] as were the chief magistrates of towns not governed by mayors.) Here Morris is referring primarily to the agents drawn from among the royal 'sergeants-at­arms', sent out in spring 1381 to stiffen the new commissions, and any underlings of theirs whom they employed to collect the poll tax.

**the old king's time

The reign of Edward III, 1327-77

** the Black Death

The epidemic, commonly reckoned to have been bubonic (aggravated by pneumonic) plague, which killed up to half the population of England (and of most other European countries) in 1348-49: cf. e.g. O.J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-53.

The lords that would turn them .. into villeins again

See Historical Introduction, III. Feudalism.

p. 205 soccage tenants

In the 11th century villagers basically free but who had bound themselves to 'seek' the soke or jurisdiction of a particular lord, especially numerous in the eastern counties, were styled 'sokemen'. In the 13th century there were still many 'free sokemen', lower in status than landholders who were fully free tenants. Here, however, Morris probably means the class of 'villein sokemen', unfree tenants on the king's 'ancient demesne', reckoned by the 13th century to consist of the manors held by the king in 1086, as recorded in the Domesday Book, even though those manors might have later passed into other ownership, (but not including estates that the king had acquired after 1086): their tenure was more privileged than that of ordinary villeins.

They were entitled to appeal to the king's courts to protect their possession of their lands and their rights of inheritance, and to prevent any new lords increasing the services due from their holdings beyond what was permitted by ancient custom. (In practice the royal judges frequently found legal technicalities enabling them to reject those sokemen's complaints against the new lords' encroachments; cf. Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, pp. 75 and following). The 14th-century campaigns in which villagers tried to have their burdens reduced by appealing to Domesday are discussed by Rodney Hilton, 'Peasant Movements in England before 1381', Economic History Review, vol 4 (1934), and in Hilton and Aston, English Rising of 1381, chap. 2.

p. 205 the statute of the old king

Morris apparently means the Statute of Labourers approved by Parliament in 1351 (cf. William Morris on History, p. 122) confirming an ordinance by Edward III and his council in 1349 (Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, pp. 63-68). Actually it had nothing to say about the length of the working day, or of meal breaks (or perhaps 'tea­breaks')* within it, which are probably what Morris means by 'bever-time', though that actual phrase does not appear in the Middle English Dictionary. Rather the new law was intended to restrain, both for farm workers and for craftsmen, the increases in wages that they had begun to demand, following the reduction of the workforce by the recent plague, and to compel them to accept the same daily rates of pay as had been previously usual, officially in 1347. They were also required, if not employed, to accept hirings for a year from anyone who wished to take them on. [[Cf. p. 253 paragraph 1]]

The main beneficiaries were smaller landowners who had few or no unfree tenants owing services and so depended on hired labour. Surviving records show that continual attempts were made over the next two or three decades, before 1360 by specially commissioned Justices of Labourers, to punish working men (but less often their employers), when they obtained higher wages. This was presumably as serious a grievance for landless workers as manorial lords' continued or renewed demand for labour services was for unfree landholders. (See Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, pp. 69-72; also B. H. Putnam, Enforcement of the Statue of Labourers (1908).

Possibly Morris was unconsciously led to describe that Statute as being concerned with working hours rather than wage rates by his adherence to Marxist history, prompting an unwillingness to admit that there was already an extensive use of wage labour in the 14th century.

*In towns the normal medieval working day for employed craftsmen was from dawn to sunset, varying in length with the seasons. In the countryside some manorial custumals suggest that villeins doing day's works for their lord had their actual length reckoned not by time, but by the amount of work needed to finish a particular task, (often less than a full day), having finished which they could presumably go back to their own land. In 1370 masons working on York Minster were allowed an hour's break for a meal at noon, also in the afternoon 'drinking time', in winter for as long as it took to walk ½ mile, in summer double that, besides a siesta ('sleeping time') of 'the time of a mile way': English Historical Documents,IV, 1327-1485, ed. A.R. Myers (1969), pp. 1182-84. Probably it was not then illegal to allow fieldworkers, toiling as heavily, as much time off.

Holy Church ... the Lollards ... holy days

Morris has suggested a strange alliance: given the strong antagonism between orthodox churchmen and John Wycliffe's Lollard followers, they could not be expected to co-operate on anything, still less on the elimination of an important element of Catholic piety. On the contrary, contemporary monastic chroniclers sought to link the Lollards to the rebels, mainly through John Ball, allegedly an associate of Wycliffe. (See Dobson, Peasant’s Revolt, pp. 372-78.) (Ball had actually been preaching his subversive doctrines since the mid 1360s.) There was at least a parallel between the peasants' demand on 15 June (perhaps inspired by Ball: cf. Dobson, p. 128) that the clergy and monasteries be deprived of their property beyond 'reasonable sustenance' (Dobson, pp. 164-65) and Wycliffe's programme, developed from the 1370s, for disendowing the church.

As for saints' days (most holy days apart from the great feasts commemorating Christ's life and death were in honour of saints), the Lollards did not object to them as such. But they condemned pilgrimages to saints' shrines and worship of their images as idolatrous, and also insisted that prayers be addressed not to saints, but directly to God. I have found one Lollard in 1428 claiming that it was lawful for men to work on Saturdays and other holy days. (English Historical Documents, IV, 1327-1485, ed. A. R. Myers (1969), p. 865.) However, not only before, but after, the Reformation,* when the number of holy days on which work was prohibited was reduced from about fifty to just under thirty (besides Sundays) by Act of Parliament (Statutes 5 and 6, Edward VI, Public Acts, no. 3.), parishioners were often reported to the church authorities for working on such days. (Probably the poorer classes would not have regretted not being forbidden to work then--if they chose.)

*Some historians of the development of capitalism have suggested that the replacement of the medieval system of irregularly occurring holy days with days of rest regularly recurring every seven days was part of the process by which the working class was disciplined for the continuous work required by machines in factories. Possibly Morris had some such argument in mind here.

p. 205 para. 2 serjeants See below on [[ p. 207 verses ]].

St. Albans ... the Lord Abbot's soldiers

The monks of many ancient Benedictine monasteries, including St. Albans (unlike the king and lay lords), were very reluctant to allow the inhabitants of the towns that had grown up outside their gates any chartered rights of independent municipal self-govermnent. (See David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, I (1948), chap. 24.) At St Albans the townsmen in mid June 1381 used threats of fire and slaughter, backed up by warnings of intervention from Wat Tyler, to compel the abbot to concede them a charter, such as they had obtained during a previous rising in 1327, and to relieve them from various, some humiliating, restraints on their economic and sporting activities. Their leader William Grindecobbe, however, induced them to act moderately, and no monks were actually killed. See Dobson, pp. 269-77. The abbot, having no armed force to protect the abbey had to temporise and practise appeasement until soldiers sent by the government arrived to help reimpose his authority in mid July.

Norwich ... John Litster

Geoffrey Litster (though called John and placed at Norwich in the main chronicle account of him), a village dyer (the meaning of his surname), was the leader of the revolt in East Norfolk. Details in Dobson, pp. 256-61. For Morris's telescoping of chronology in this paragraph, from ignorance or for rhetorical effect, see Grennan, William Morris: Medievalist and Revolutionary, p. 100 at end, and [[Historical Introduction, II. Comparison, section 3]].

The tiler of Dartford

The tale of how a Dartford tiler (John not Wat) avenged his daughter's being molested by a tax collector was first certainly reported by the antiquary John Stowe in his Annales (1631 edn. p. 284), though he claimed an old chronicle as his source. See Dobson pp. 395 n, 135; William Morris on History, p. 141; Morris, like T. Rogers, History of Agriculture and Prices, vol. 1, p. 83, assumed that Wat Tyler was the hero of this story.

p. 206 para.2 rye-bread

A historical Will Green might have fed his guest less roughly. In mentioning this bread Morris possibly recalled how Ball (in Froissart) claimed that the peasantry had only rye (seigle) to eat (so Froissart, tr. Johnes; Berners translates it ‘chaff’*). By the 1370s even the poor probably fared better. Morris could have seen Langland's complaint (Piers Plowman, B version, Passus VI, lines 302-19) that even beggars then despised all but the best white bread. Rye was little grown at that period in southern England (outside some regions with poor soils) for human consumption.

*J. R. Green, Short History of the English People, chap. 5, section 4 (Everyman edition, 1915, p. 235), oddly says 'oat-cake'. Even then oats were in England (as Dr. Johnson noted) mainly fed to beasts.

Dunwich ... keels from Iceland

There was a lively trade between England and Iceland in the 15th century. English merchants sold there goods such as breadcorn, metalwork, and broadcloth, which Iceland could not produce for itself; and brought back mainly stockfish (dried cod), herring, and other fish for eating on fast days. This trade, which Morris might have known of from the 'Libelle of English Policy' (chap. 10) of the 1430s (included in Hakluyt's Voyages), did not start, however, until the 1410s. In the period just before, Icelanders had apparently been almost cut off from engaging in voyages abroad, because they had no timber for ship-building. They had to rely on ships from Norway, of which their island had been a dependency since 1261. (See Studies in English Trade in the 15th Century, ed. E. Power and M. M. Postan (1933), chap. 4, pp. 155-82.)

That trade with England was mainly conducted from East Coast ports such as Hull and Lynn, though probably not from Dunwich, by then in decay as a harbour, (as Morris might have remembered), owing to the coastal erosion which has since virtually destroyed it. Morris possibly named it through recalling how he had brought John in 'The Land East of the Sun ...' ashore at Dunwich from Norway: lines 2405-2408 (The Earthly Paradise, ed. F.S Boos, vol. 2, p. 99). p. 206 para. 1 a lord's carver Carving meat dextrously, even gracefully, was an accomplishment that well-born youths were expected to acquire during their training: cf. Chaucer's Squire, who 'carf biforn his fader at the table': Canterbury Tales, Prologue, line 100.

**Oxford, scholar

Morris's regretful memories of the streets of Oxford as he had seen them, still little spoilt, when he studied there in the 1850s, are eloquently expressed in his lectures, e.g. 'The Aims of Art'.

p. 206 para. 5/6 Robin Hood

The traditional ballads about the famous outlaw, clearly loved by Morris, were probably known to him in 19th-century reprints of earlier chapbooks, 'garlands', and broadsides, following that of 1795 by Joseph Ritson. (The whole set are contained in F. J. Child's collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols. (1882-98), in vol. 3, and the earlier ones in Rhymes of Robyn Hood, ed. R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor (1976). In the 19th century the few lines in the 15th-century 'Geste of Robin Hood' in which Robin tells his men to spare the poor and plunder the wealthy, along with accounts of his shooting for food the deer in the king's forests in south Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and of his conflict with the sheriff of Nottingham[shire], were taken to imply that he robbed the rich to help the poor and oppressed*.

So, in novels such as Scott's Ivanhoe, and compilations of traditional stories about Robin, such as that by the Radically minded scholar Joseph Ritson (from which derives the conventional modern dating to Richard I's reign, not reported before 1500) Robin is portrayed, as Morris here describes him, as a champion of freedom against tyranny and a pioneer of social insurrection.

Since 1958 there has been a controversy among medieval historians about the social significance of the tales about Robin, as presented in the earliest surviving (probably 15th-century) ballads about him. Left­wing historians, such as Rodney Hilton (see his essay of 1958 in Peasants, Knights, and Heretics, ed. Hilton (1976), and, initially, Maurice Keen, Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1st edn. 1961) esp. chaps. 10-12, have urged the view, accepted here by Morris, that Robin's robberies present him as a champion of the poor against the classes that oppressed them, what some modern historians have designated a 'social bandit'.

Others, especially J. C. Holt, (e.g. in Robin Hood (1982)), have argued that Robin, despite his outlawry and deer-poaching forest life, was reckoned a member of the class of yeomen, who were then not the prosperous farmers to whom the term was applied from the 15th century. Rather, since they served in the households, and sometimes the forests, of the aristocracy, they were attached to the dominant orders. It is claimed that Robin does not challenge the social hierarchy: his adversaries are not lords or knights, but evil officials, such as sheriffs, and wealthy monks, and (like the peasants in 1381) he respects the king. A recent discussion, A. J. Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood (2004), esp. chapter 7, takes a mediating position, noting that the poor might enjoy stories that showed their social superiors being attacked and humiliated, even when the protagonist came from a different social level.

*Robin's 'taking from the rich to give to the poor' was not described in those terms until about 1600: see Holt, op. cit. p. 184.

p. 207 verse 1 The sheriff ... a mighty lord

By the late 14th century the sheriff was no longer the almost all-powerful governor appointed by the king in the 12th and early 13th centuries, often for long periods and chosen from men high in his trust and favour, to manage almost all his business in the shire, judicial and financial, besides keeping public order. Such sheriffs were encouraged to squeeze its people because they were allowed to keep the difference between the fixed sum that they owed to the king from its revenues and what they actually collected.

Opposition from the 'county community', gentry and freeholders, to the resulting extortion had resulted by the mid 14th century in sheriffs being usually chosen to serve for a single year from a shire's more prominent gentry. They were by then concerned chiefly with still important, but mostly routine functions, leaving less scope for oppression, though a sheriff was still able to do useful favours for those who won his support by kinship or influence, and to make trouble for their opponents (as appears in the Paston Letters).

Morris's poem reflects the sheriff's earlier predominance, as still evidenced in popular memory in the Robin Hood ballads. For the sheriff in his prime of power, see W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), and for his late medieval decline, The English Government at Work, 1327-36, vol. 2, ed. W.A. Morris and J.R. Strayer (1947), chap. 2.

many a sergeant

One of the medieval meanings of 'sergeant' referred to those officers serving the powerful who applied physical force in support of authority. The king had 'sergeants-at-arms' who guarded him and might be sent out on missions not requiring high rank (cf. above on the poll tax). Morris might have learnt from Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, (chap. 6, pt. 1), that the police force of medieval Paris consisted of sergeants. [[Cf. below p. 214 paragraph 2. ]]

verses 2 and 4 the king's writ

The written order(s) sent out from the king's chancery to authorise the starting of lawsuits, or, more relevantly to these lines, directing the sheriff to arrest supposed criminals.

** verse 4 the grey-goose wing

Arrows were often fledged with goose feathers. Cf. [[ p. 221 paragraph 2; p. 223, paragraph 1 ]].

p. 208 verse 5 the hithe

A hi/ythe is usually taken to mean a landing-place in a port or on a river: O.E.D.

** p. 208 para. 2 plain-song of the church

Morris is probably recalling the singing he and his friends heard in the French cathedrals on their tour of France in 1855: cf. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, ed. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1904), vol. 1, p. 113.