Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Next excerpt from "The Poor Preachers". Continuing Chapter 3 "The Making of a Shepherd."


Master William Smith never forgot William and invited him along to his own prayer gathering. Here William encountered the power of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way. 
The first glow of joy had begun to fade in William’s experience, since his encounter with the Great Shepherd. The enemy of his soul began to ‘remind’ him of his past sins and lowly beginnings, playing on his natural sense of inadequacy. 

He was able to pour out his troubles to Master Smith, who was a gifted prophetic counsellor. After prayer and laying on of hands, William felt the presence of God come upon him in waves of joy and power, and he received what Master Smith called ‘his language of heaven’. This totally transformed his times of devotion and was, in the days ahead, of tremendous help to him in his remarkable calling.

A day came when Hereford approached him at the gate of University College, in the company of a tall, gaunt, slightly frail figure William knew well.
‘I bid you good den, William!’ cried Nicolas cheerfully. ‘Here is one who is desirous of thine acquaintance. Should I so introduce?’

‘Doctor Wycliffe!’ exclaimed William, a little overcome as he took hold of the thin hand stretched toward him. ‘This is an honour indeed.

‘Well, well,” replied the great man genially, ‘the honour of the honourable is honour indeed, so quoth Master Okham, my mentor.’

His voice, oddly at variance to his frailty, had the resonance of one who was accustomed to lecturing to great crowds.
For a moment, he studied William with his hawk-like, sunken eyes.
Hereford speaketh highly of thee, my son. Thou’st excelled in thy studies, thou’st a heart for the common folk and….” his voice dropped a little, “...thou didst behold the face of the Lord Himself in vision.’

‘He hath revealed Himself as the Great Shepherd, Doctor,’ responded William, with a slight tremor in his voice.
Even after all this time, he felt his visitation as deeply as though it was but yesterday. ‘By His abundant grace, He hath called me from my flock to shepherd the flock of God.’

‘And by God, there is an abundant need for it!’ exclaimed Wycliffe, looking beyond them both, even beyond the walls of the university town to see the poor, wandering flock throughout the land.
‘In our generation, there is despair in the land, like to which we have never seen afortime. War, famine, pestilence, gross injustice and worse: gross darkness on the hearts of the people. God have mercy upon England!’

He gripped Hereford’s shoulder to steady himself, as if overwhelmed by the grief he felt.
Bringing his gaze back to the two men with him, he invited them both to dine with him at his quarters.

Once alone, he didn’t waste time in getting to the point he wanted to make.
‘My calling is to sound the trumpet in the land, but the great ones will not hearken to it, but for a few. I cannot shelter behind the shield of Gaunt of Lancaster forever, though he stood with me before Courtenay, Bishop of London.’

He gave a loud crack of derisive laughter as he remembered the fiasco in St. Paul’s cathedral.
‘John of Gaunt is but a reed, for he is moved by politic expediency alone, and that worketh for our cause for the nonce.  Yea. But for the nonce. For how long I wist not. We must use the door that God hath opened unto us whilst we can.
‘I have surrendered my post at Balliol that I may be free so to finish this work. We have proclaimed the Word of God in the churches in London and many a town in the heart of England, but we must go beyond and into the highways, byways and villages. The poor peasant folk and townsfolk hath as much right to hear the Word preached unto them as we.’
His face hardened as he continued grimly, ‘But many of these fat begging friars hath poisoned the minds of many against us, keeping the people in bondage unto fear and superstition in the guise of piety. Piety? Pish!’

He looked challengingly at William.
‘My dream is to raise up preachers from among the poorest -- them that will go among the poor, as poor preachers, but not to beg. If the people will accept them, and reject the papelardy* of these begging friars and their heresies, we can foil the works of the Devil. But whom can we send?’

‘It seemeth that Master Shephard hath already gone forth amongst them, Doctor,’ interpolated Hereford.‘Throughout Leicestershire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire have we laboured together, I in the pulpit, but Master William outside the door thereof. He hath begun many a disciple gathering from them that have hearkened unto the Word. Many a time hath he gone into the local villages to work with his own hands that he may come alongside the most wretched of the poor. In this way hath he shared the gospel and gathered many unto the fold.’

William coloured and bowed his head.
‘To gather the sheep is my calling, Doctor. I cannot stand aside and see them wander away again.’

‘Good! Very good!’ said Wycliffe, with strong approval. ‘O, that we had more of thy spirit, Master William Shephard! God send us more shepherds and evangels.’

In a little while that prayer would be answered.

Before they parted, the great man fixed his gaze on William with a strange, curious gleam. His voice lost its customary touch of oratory.
‘Of what like was the Great Shepherd of thy vision, my son? Of what manner of raiment did he wear? His blessed face -- what likeness was He?’

William took his time answering, to keep mastery of his own emotions. Wycliffe nodded at each point of description, as if it confirmed his own convictions.

After William had gone, Hereford exclaimed, ‘Is it not thine own meeting in dreams of the night, Doctor John!’

‘The very same, my friend,’ Wycliffe agreed. He sat back in his chair by the fire and closed his eyes in reminiscence. ‘Whether in wisdom or in folly, I wore the same russet habit, as His disciple, for many a day thereafter.’

His oratory mode returned, and he opened his eyes with, ‘But it is not my destiny to wear it. Rather, it is for the new order of friar brethren that we must -- nay -- whom we shall send forth. Disciples of the Great Shepherd Himself, and William Shephard shall be the eldermost, I deem.

William finally completed his Bachelor Degree, and with it came a new sense of confidence. He had made many friends at University College, and they all came and cheered him at his graduation and then his ordination as a priest of Holy Church. 
But now it was decision time. He was in the position to choose from a number of comfortable livings, for highly qualified priests were scarce and in high demand. He could also further his studies, if he wished.

After the ordination ceremony, Master John Parker clapped him on the shoulder and genially said, ‘Well, well, Father William Shephard. Thy fame hath gone forth throughout the faculty, and many agree that thou’rt ready and indeed able to undertake a Master’s Degree in Theology. Thou’rt a good scholar, Father William. Indeed, if thou will do so, my friend Doctor Ashton is desirous to take thee as intern, so saith he yestereve. What sayest thou?’

William still could not get used to all the honour and kindness heaped upon him by the great men of Oxford. It sat uncomfortably upon his shoulders. He had visualised the dizzy heights to which he could go if he was ambitious, but decided it was not for him. He felt far more comfortable working amongst the poor folk, especially the folk of the villages. 
Even in his studies, he had avoided many of the purely academic doctrinal debates that many of his fellow students loved to become involved in. Instead, he looked more for principles of living, helpful scriptures to strengthen his faith and comforting words of hope that could be shared with those that had lost hope.
Therefore he smiled back at his well-wisher and said, ‘I thank thee for thy kindness, thy continued kindness, Master Parker. Had I not this calling to shepherd the poor folk upon mine heart, sickerly would I walk through this door that thou openest for me. Pray, think me not ungrateful.’

Master Parker did not seem too surprised, but looked approvingly upon him.
“Well, it seemed that thou wert the logical man to fill the post, for thou hast a great mind. But I also perceive that thou hast a great heart withal. I have observed thy progress and that thou art free of selfish ambition, neither dost thou desire fame nor fortune. God speed thee whithersoever thy destiny lieth. But forget not the principles of logic, my son. If the premise be strong, as the Word of God be, logic shall fail thee not.”

Doctor Hereford was relieved to hear that William would remain with him for the present, and laughed over Parker’s parting admonition.

Master Richard Waystract, another of Wycliffe’s party, also befriended William. Master Richard was a brilliant organiser and had conceived the idea of the disciple gatherings. He instructed theology students in the principles and practice of pastoring a local gathering, and in helping to get people’s lives in order.

Master James Crompe, yet another Wycliffeite, was strong in the area of counselling, especially for the broken. He could sense a kindred spirit in William and took him aside to give him special tuition.

Even Master Philip Repton, ‘the roiler’ as his colleagues jovially called him, returned from his wanderings to coach William in all the considerations of itinerant preaching.
Of all Wycliffe’s henchmen, Repton travelled the furthest and preached most frequently in his preaching rounds, bringing back news and local information that William would, one day, find very useful. He poured over Repton’s hand-made map of southern England, studying the southwest in particular.

So William grew strong through all he had learned, and a desire to go out and share these new truths grew in him. He would fall into conversation with strangers in the streets of Oxford, sharing his findings in ways they could understand. As a result, new disciple gatherings were formed.

One day, as he was walking back toward Hereford’s quarters, William heard his name called.
It was the same young student who had befriended William on his first day in Oxford. Because of William’s graciousness toward him before the three great men in the tavern, he had become a disciple.

Although graduating in his Degree in Natural History a year before William, he now wanted to complete a Theology Degree. He had become fast friends with William and looked up to him. This day he had a stranger with him -- a powerfully built young man with intensely blue eyes and a face that resembled a friendly lion. 
‘Benjamin Abyngdon!’ William cried gladly as they approached. ‘Well met and God save thee, my friend. Whither away? To the tavern again, thou wine-bibber?’

Eheu, Padre, peccavi!**’ answered Abyngdon, in mock contrition. ‘Thither have I been. Wist thou that young Holloway hath indeed withered away. Remember thou when he called thee Master Ragamuffin. He is expelled, alas and alack! But I bring thee one who hath asked of thee by name.

William turned his attention to the stranger, ready to welcome any friend of his friend.
He noticed that this young man had long sandy-golden hair which combined with his beard to form a lion-like mane. He had a prominent jaw and a smile that outshone the sun. Everything about him proclaimed a successful young farmer, positively bursting with life, strength, health and joy. 

But what chiefly struck William was the look of eternity in his eyes, which William had noticed in many of Wycliffe’s followers.
And God spoke to William’s heart concerning the stranger.

Holding out his hand and warmly welcoming the young man, it was gripped firmly by a huge paw that seemed to seal a permanent friendship. It was as though a spark of kinship recognition flashed between them; a bond strengthened with the joining of their hands.
‘I thank thee for thy welcome, Father William,’ he said with a strong tenor’s voice. ‘Thomas Plowman be my name.’

*Papelardy - a derogatory name given by dissidents to the papal system and practices.

** "
Eheu, Padre, peccavi!" - "Alas, father, for I have sinned!"

Friday, 16 February 2018

Next Excerpt from "The Poor Preachers: Adventures of the First Lollards." Chapter 3: The Making of a Shepherd


Soon William found himself in almost luxurious circumstances, partaking of good tender venison, fresh bread that melted in his mouth, butter, cheese and sweetmeats. He had never been treated as an honoured guest like this before, and once again, he felt overwhelmed. God was treating him right royally, as a king’s son. 

At first, he felt rustic and uncomfortable, not knowing how he should conduct himself amongst such exalted men, but their geniality and genuine interest in what he had to say set him at his ease. They were far more interested in William’s intellect and spiritual state than his social graces, status and appearance.

Hereford introduced the two other masters. 
Master John Parker, the eldest among them, was the one who had lost the wager, and Hereford made a little merriment over this, calling him the ‘Doubting Thomas’ among them. But, as Hereford explained to William, Master Parker was valued for his gift of objectivity, which kept their feet on Terra firma.
He was once a professor of Mathematics at New College, and dealt only in facts -- a characteristic of which he constantly boasted. He had studied further in Theology and joined the Wycliffeite Masters.

The other, Master William Smith, was a quiet man with dreamy eyes.
A lecturer in Theology at University College, where Hereford was based, he favoured the devotional side of Christianity, strongly advocating the doctrine of the Priesthood of Believers and a personal experience of God.
Some dismissed him as strangely mystical, but the dreams and visions he experienced were of far more practical use than most mystics of his day. He was in constant, good-humoured conflict with John Parker over spiritual matters, and had won that last wager.

Once they had assuaged the first pangs of hunger, Doctor Hereford asked William to tell his story, and not to hurry.

As William spoke, Hereford bent his powerful mind to what was being said, occasionally stopping him to ask very insightful questions. 
Every now and then, especially when William hesitantly came to describe his vision of the Great Shepherd, the men looked at each other in wonder. 

When William described Brother Joseph’s dream, Smith’s eyes grew wide, and he interjected:
'Tis the same! The memory cometh again unto me. In mine own vision I saw thy face with the Rod of Authority given from heaven!’ 
Looking toward his colleagues, he said with great conviction, ‘Gentlemen, let none further doubt this man’s credentials.’

‘Not indeed!’ agreed Doctor Hereford. ‘But pray continue, Master Shephard.’

Emboldened by this confirmation given, William was able to tell them of his experiences with the miraculous, without hesitation.
They listened intently and sat silently for a moment when William finished his tale. 

Then Master Smith commented to his colleagues, ‘Doctor Ashton had a like call, had he not? Yet he hath not wrought the miraculous that here we have heard. Even without them, I would cast my vote for this man’s admittance to our league of disciples. What sayest thou, John?’

‘Amen! So I do, and thy pardon I beg that I doubted thee, Nicolas,’ said the other. ‘Thomas the Doubter hath been schooled. But what sayeth this godly man? Will he join us indeed?’

‘Well, so we must ask it of him. And our tale we must tell also, that he may choose aright with understanding,’ declared Nicolas. 
He began by speaking glowingly about Doctor John Wycliffe, Head of Balliol College, the greatest mind in the whole of England, and a personal friend and mentor. 
They shared the same concern for the deterioration of morals, the poor morale throughout the land, the despair and suffering of the common people, and the profligacy of many of the hierarchy of Holy Church
Wycliffe and his men had become more and more impatient with the established church hierarchy, its arrogance and failure to address the ‘manifold iniquities’ within herself, while ignoring the sufferings of the people. 

The Wycliffeites had begun to pray earnestly and study the Latin Scriptures to find answers. Wycliffe had pointed out that the church in the apostolic age was so much simpler in her lifestyle, yet far more powerful and effective than the complicated and corrupt system of the present day.
He had become more and more outspoken in his criticism of the bloated and ungodly princes of the church, who demanded tithes and sold indulgences to build both their own wealth and huge cathedrals, while common people starved.

The eyes of the three men kindled as Hereford spoke of Doctor Wycliffe’s vision for the church and the nation, where the church functioned as God intended and the common folk found hope and comfort in the scriptures, in the same way as they had.

Master Nicolas spoke of the labours that Doctors John Wycliffe, John Purvey and himself had done over the years, translating the scriptures into the common tongue.
God had stirred the hearts of many of the Masters, students and even some Doctors who heard John Wycliffe proclaiming the Word of God in their own tongue, for they felt as though God was speaking directly into their hearts.

Master Nicolas went on to describe how a great movement had begun amongst these academics to study the scriptures more closely. Many ‘disciple gatherings’ came together to study copied portions of Wycliffe’s scriptures, and in doing so, had discovered wonderful truths that had been hidden or ignored for many years.

‘In very sooth,’ said Master Smith fervently, ‘‘tis a wondrous journey of discovery into the very heart of God! The love of God is, at last, clearly revealed in the Blessed Pages of Holy Writ. To feel Him come nigh and quench the thirsty soul when thou dost read the Psalms thou hast translated into the mother tongue, Hereford, my friend, what a priceless gift!” 
For a moment he forgot where he was; it was as though he was back in his own daily devotions in his study. 
‘“They that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall dwell under the shadow of the Almighty.”’ he quoted with a rapt look on his face.

Parker smiled as he turned his grizzled, bearded face to William to add his own perspective.
‘A time there was when I would have mocked them that be like to my mystical friend here, Master Shephard. But I have beheld with mine own eyes the power of God at work in the lives of those who have found God through the Holy Scriptures. ‘Twas not the traditions of men that turned loose-living profligates into humble, generous, holy men. Many of them that be drunken, or went a-whoring or fought in the riots at Merton Square, now find hope and instruction in the scriptures read at the disciple gatherings. Long have I observed the lives of them like to Doctors Wycliffe and Hereford here also, and seen the truth take root and bear fruit mightily. Logic alone brought me unto conviction that he that studieth the Living Word with his whole heart findeth the life-changing power of God. When one hath seen the results thereof, how can one think other?”
He shrugged his shoulders and added, ‘Quod est Demonstratum!

Hereford smiled at how the two men approached the truth in different ways.
‘Much more could we speak of all that God hath done in our midst, but we must now turn to thine own calling, Master Shephard, for it concerneth us also. Of late, the name of William Shephard hath come to mine heart when I have sought the face of God in my times of devotion. Then Master Smith received that self-same message that the holy brother at the Abbey of St Bartholomew did dream. But winter cometh on a-pace, and as our office here be in abeyance for this season, my friends and I sallied forth to our havens at Leicester. But this morning at prayers, Master Smith and I felt in our heart to tarry -- yea -- against reason!

Mea culpa!’ interjected Master Parker ruefully. ‘Mine was the reasoning to continue our journey north, and so I persuaded them. But even in mine own heart was there the still, small voice -- but I heeded it not. The call of the hearth, the fire and the feast of mine own hovel was stronger, I confess. But the conviction to turn back could not be stayed in my colleagues. They resolved to turn back and seek thee at the Bull and Book, for so did they feel it in their hearts. In mine unbelief, I fleered and I challenged them, wagering my copy of Hereford’s works against Smith’s copy of the New Testament that thou wouldst not so be found thither. But the scorn hath come upon mine own head, and much to learn have I. Strange doth it seem, that the more one learneth, the less doth one understand!’

Credo ut Intelligam.’ quoted Hereford, and as William looked mystified, he translated, ‘“I believe in order that I may understand.”’ 

He looked at his colleague and friend with approval.
‘But thus do we have deep respect unto thy scholarship and humility, Master John, that thou hast so learned of God cheerily and hardened not thine heart, as have many a proud master.’

He clapped his friend on the shoulder, then turned once again to William.
‘And so merrily do we meet, Master Shephard. Students all in the School of God are we all, not exalted fonts of wisdom. We would also learn of thee, for thy schooling hath been both stern and harsh, yet hath God spoken unto thee face-to-face.’

Impressed by the wisdom and humility of the men before him, William said, ‘Hither have I come to learn what I must to fulfil my calling, good masters. Proud would I be to be schooled of such men as ye be. But I wot not whither nor what I must do to be enrolled as clerk*, neither do I have the means anon. Also if classes be in recess for Yule-tide, I must winter me somewhither. I will not beg for my meat, but have resolved me to work for it, or starve. Wilt thou give me good rede³ in these matters?’

Master Hereford turned his keen gaze upon him and appeared to come to a decision. ‘I perceive that the hand of God is upon thee, Master Shephard!’

He leaned forward and put his goblet aside.
‘Thou’rt a lettered man, if I err not. It is custom and privilege for a Doctor of College to take unto himself a novice clerk that sheweth good promise as intern of his household. There that clerk doth assist the master in his labours and will, in turn, eat at his patron’s board and find shelter, hearth and bed until he complete his studies. I am in need of a skilled scribe, one who will copy and aid in my translations and lectures, yet with spiritual understanding. But a man of character and godliness he must be. What sayest thou? Wilt thou be Nicolas Hereford’s apprentice?’

The other two men nodded in complete approval.
William’s voice was suspended as a lump formed in his throat. God had more than supplied his needs. This was a dream come true.
Finally, he mastered his emotions enough to say huskily, ‘Can any man refuse such generosity, such an honour? But is there none other more worthy amongst the body of clerks in Oxenford that ….”

‘If there were such a one, Hereford would have chosen him anon,’ smiled Master Smith. ‘And methinks thou hast begun thine apprenticeship already, from thine history that thou hast related.’

‘But art thou soothly of a mind and hardihood that thou wouldst serve such an hard taskmaster?’ quipped Master Parker jovially. ‘He would of a certes make thee to pour his wine and scour his floors, and if thou leeren not thy Latin, he would scourge thee sore!”

They all laughed and Hereford protested that his stomach could not handle wine and opted for ale instead. Then they made plans to leave for Leicester, with William, the next day.

So William began his academic studies under the aegis of one of the greatest translators of his time. Being both intelligent and diligent, he progressed rapidly through his studies, and Hereford encouraged him to complete his Bachelor of Theology over the years that followed. 

There was much to do in between his studies.
Hereford had a large capacity for work himself, for he was translating the whole of the Old Testament, and more. But William felt like he was in heaven.

From Hereford himself he learned principles of translation and hermeneutics. But more than that, he absorbed much from the spirit of the man and his vision to reach the poor with the gospel.

From Master Parker he learned the principles of exegesis, systematic study and logical thought.

From Master Smith he learned to develop his devotional life and prayer.

From Master Ashton he learned much of the dynamics of homily, although his confidence took a while to build, and it was not until his encounter with the Spirit of God that he truly began to preach with power and authority.

He threw himself into his studies and college life, but he avoided much of the trivialities that students often indulged in. His escape from the trammels of daily life was to walk out into the countryside he loved and chat to the villagers nearby, sometimes rolling up his sleeves, girding himself with a labourer’s smock and helping with the work.

Villagers got to know and love him. He still retained all of the animal lore he had learned in his previous vocations, and the local herdsmen and animal keepers frequently asked his advice or shared their own experiences with him.

William was of invaluable help to his mentor. He was quick with the quill and an excellent listener when Hereford needed a sounding board for his translations or when preparing his lectures or sermons. Eventually, Hereford began to ask William’s opinion on points of doctrine, exegesis and exposition of the scriptures.

Hereford and other preachers of Wycliffe’s persuasion occasionally travelled around Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Leicestershire proclaiming Wycliffe’s message of the gospel. A few of Hereford’s most telling lectures included some of William’s input.

Once the people realised that Wycliffe and his party truly had their interests at heart, they had invitations and acclaim wherever they went.
With William’s help, Nicolas Hereford worked tirelessly to spread the Word of God, and people wondered greatly to hear the scriptures in their own language. After their lectures and homilies, folk from all walks of life would approach them to ask questions.

Many of the common folk, that were able to hear him, found new hope, and this rejoiced William’s heart. Often he would chat outside the church with those who were interested, giving them portions of scripture he had copied -- often in his own time. He encouraged them to form discipleship groups that followed the same model as those at Oxford, and he occasionally attended the groups to instruct and shepherd them. 

Doctor Hereford commended him for this innovation, noting that he was developing his calling quite rapidly. 

William drank in every word that Wycliffe, Hereford, Ashton and others spoke in their lectures, and his diligence, devotion, insights and wisdom soon made him top student whichever class he attended.

He attended Wycliffe and Hereford’s disciple gatherings to discuss the deeper and more controversial matters of scripture as it was read in English. They would often follow this with prayer. Chiefly, they prayed for the nation -- that God would reach the people with His healing hand and open the floodgates of Truth.

William avoided some of the more extreme and political disciple gatherings, such as the fanatical Master Swynderby’s, although he admired the man’s courage and bold, outspoken railings against the abuses in the church and state. 

He once heard Swynderby’s intern, the fiery Father John Ball, deliver a tirade against the rich aristocracy, both secular and the church. He stridently advocated equality of classes and had aroused the wrath of the authorities against himself for it more than once.
His imprisonments and floggings only made him more embittered and determined.  

His battle cry was:

‘When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

William preferred to see social change by the power of God, than by the violent arm of the flesh.

......... to be continued.

*Clerk = Cleric. Also a student and lawyer.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Here's the next excerpt from my 1st publication: "The Poor Preachers". Second part of Ch 2: Oxford

He had very little time to ponder over the miracles that had just occurred, for down the road from Hungerford rode a company of men.
William stepped off the road and watched as they passed by. He enjoyed observing the colourful variety of humanity going about its business. 

This group was interesting, for at its head was a man richly clad, probably a merchant. He was followed and flanked by three huge men-at-arms on magnificent white horses, which cast the merchant’s dappled palfrey in the shade.
The soldiers themselves made their charge look insignificant, for they were all abnormally large, handsome, strong and well-disciplined. Their armour reflected the sun like a mirror. The merchant himself looked nothing out of the ordinary, except he had a crooked nose in the midst of a kindly face.

The group drew nearly abreast with William, when one soldier reached over, touched the merchant’s shoulder and muttered something.
The man raised his head and pulled up his horse. His guard did the same in perfect precision.
Looking around in a puzzled way, it was as if the merchant was unaware of his cort├Ęge. Then the soldier leaned over and muttered something again.
The merchant sat up straight in his saddle and looked in William’s direction.
William bowed respectfully and made as if to pass on, but the merchant called out to him in a friendly manner.
‘Hail, good fellow! Whither away? To Hungerford?’
‘Verily do I, good sir,’ replied William, feeling surprise at being noticed by a wealthy man, many rungs up the social ladder than he. ‘But I journey beyond and beyond for many a league yet.’
He came closer, encouraged by the stranger’s friendly manner.
‘I perceive thou’rt a goodly man, for I see it in thy demeanour,’ said the kindly merchant, ‘and also that thou’rt in great need, if thy raiment speaks sooth! Thy name?’
‘William Shephard am I, kind sir,’ William replied. ‘Great has been my need, but God hath been bountiful unto me, therefore I beg not for my living. He hath strengthened mine hands for honest toil.’ 
William was anxious to show the worthy man that he was not hoping for largesse. He had a certain measure of pride, without arrogance, after all.
The other man appeared pleased with his answer.
‘Then my heart hath not misled me! God hath prospered me greatly and given me His protection where’re I go. Hence, I fear not to journey alone, nor to address strangers. Wilt thou receive of a fellow servant of God a gift? ‘Tis my joy to give when the good Lord doth so prompt mine heart.’
He reached into his saddlebag and brought out a purse full of money.
‘A worthy man thou art, Master Shephard. Pray receive this small gift of the good Lord and so fulfil the joy o’ this fat chapman. Never do I feel so rich as when I give. In return, pray thou a blessing upon mine head and upon mine house, for God heareth the prayers of the lowly in heart.’

William was overwhelmed.
‘Churlish would I be to refuse such a gift from such a generous heart, kind sir. And may God’s richest blessings be upon thee and thine house. For God’s blessings maketh rich and doth add no sorrow to it.’
‘Ha! ‘Tis the very words that good young Master Ashton uttered at Mass yestermorn,’ said the good man, bridling with pleasure. ‘Now wist I that God hath given me the gift of giving. Go forth unto good fortune and thy destiny, whatever it be, good William the Shepherd, and God speed!’

He threw the bag to William, waved farewell and passed on.
His escort bowed their heads toward William in respect, something that men-at-arms normally did not do to common folk. They also smiled at each other in deep satisfaction.

William watched the retinue trotting down the road, his mind in a whirl over the accumulated wonders he had experienced that day. But there was yet one more.
As he watched, the three soldiers faded into thin air, leaving one solitary rider diminishing into the horizon.
‘Holy angels! A day of miracles has this been, O Lord, and I thank Thee for this grace,’ he breathed.
He looked down at the purse and counted out the golden coins. It was more than twice the amount he had found in his pocket and emptied into the aspiring young hermit’s bowl one hour earlier.
‘And thou didst not fear to ride alone, nor to accost strange men?’ he muttered to the tiny dot disappearing over the horizon. ‘Yet thou wert not alone, master chapman. May God keep His warrior angels guard over thee alway, that thou mayest ever be a ready vessel of His bounty.’

Pocketing his wealth, William strode on to Hungerford, rejoicing. Now his resources could be stretched comfortably through Marlborough, Wantage and Abingdon, without the need to stop and work for his faire.
Occasionally, he even indulged himself by sleeping on a real bed, rather than a pile of hay, as was his wont. He made rapid progress, which was fortunate -- or God’s provision -- for winter was rapidly approaching.

Finally, he saw the towers of Oxford in the distance. Oxford -- the greatest centre of learning in his day, and he was to study there!
He crossed the little bridge over the river Cherwell, passed through the neglected and crumbling stone walls, and walked along the streets of Oxford town, barefoot and weary, but happy. He had no idea where he would find Nicolas Hereford, but he was sure that God would show him the way. His faith had been strengthened by the events of the week before, which still sent a tingling feeling down his spine when he thought about them.

That faith was about to be tested.
Walking up St Aldate’s Street, William saw the sign of a cosy-looking tavern called the Bull and Book, reflecting both the rural and academic nature of the town. He walked in, hoping to find information concerning his quest as well as sustenance. 
Looking around, he saw two groups of men, sitting at opposite ends of the main taproom. One group, dressed in clerical garb, was obviously made up of students.
They drank, chatted and laughed cheerily, heedless of the dark looks thrown at them by the townsmen at the other table.

William had heard rumours of the recent riots and fighting between the students and townsfolk before Merton College, and there were still simmering tensions between both parties. However, these did not concern William personally, so he bought his tankard of ale from the gruff draper and approached the student group. Surely intelligent young scholars would befriend and guide him to his goal.
‘Good morrow, good sires,’ he said, as they turned to look askance at this ragged commoner coming boldly into their midst. ‘Prithee tell me, if ye will, whither can one find Master Nicolas Hereford?’

The supposedly good sires exchanged derisive glances with each other. One bold-faced fellow, who appeared to be the peer-leader, sat back and stared at him in an insolent manner. ‘Eheu, condiscipuli,*’ he drawled at last, addressing his grinning comrades. ‘This poor specimen of  Homo sinsapiens** hath mislaid the good Doctor Hereford. ‘Twas careless of him, dreadless.’ 
Laughter greeted this sally, and also William’s confusion and embarrassment. He was made to feel rustic, uncouth and unlettered. 
Nevertheless, he was used to put-downs, so stood his ground.

One of the students, a lively yet tolerant fellow sitting on the outside of the group, took pity on him and said, ‘Good fellow, one doth not find Doctor Hereford. He hath much to do with weighty affairs and abideth not for any save the King’s messengers. A man of his position findeth thee, if he hath occasion thereto. If thou’rt a message-bearer, leave it with the porter at University College in Logic Lane.’
‘But it would avail thee not, Master Ragamuffin,’ piped in the bold-faced student.  ‘The good Master left for his home in Leicester, yea, even yester-eve. Alas and alack! Build thou thy mud-hovel against his return in the spring, but not inside the town walls, I beg of thee.’ 
More laughter and they all turned away from him, considering the interview over. They had little time for ignorant peasants in rags.

Bowing his thanks to the more helpful of his informants, William retired to an empty table, crestfallen and discouraged. God had led him this far. How could it end in apparent futility like this?
Then he remembered the other seemingly impossible situations where God had miraculously intervened. He breathed his favourite prayer, ‘Lord, aid Thou me,’ and felt peace settle on his heart.
If he had to find shelter over the winter on short commons, so be it. But God may work another miracle yet.

And God did.
A short while later, the door of the tavern opened and three men in academic gowns, proclaiming the distinction of Masterhood, strode inside.
With one glance at the newcomers, the students jumped to their feet, respect and astonishment written all over their faces. Even the townsmen at the other table turned and bowed in respect at the three men.

The tavern-keeper bustled forward obsequiously, wishing to know their Worships’ pleasure. It was seldom that such great dignitaries honoured his hovel with their presence.
The foremost Master held up his hand and looked around the room. He had an air of authority as a leader among men and accustomed to commanding respect, yet flattery was wasted on him.

Although only five summers older than William, his responsibilities made him look older. He had fine features, a broad brow and intelligent, piercing, grey eyes.

With a clear and cultured voice, accustomed to addressing crowds, he addressed the room in general.
‘Pray tell me, gentlemen all, is there one William Shephard in your midst?’
He brought his gaze around to where William hesitantly rose to his feet, and a kind of strange recognition flashed in his eyes.
For a few heartbeats, there was a pregnant silence in the room.
‘Indeed, Master, I be that same,’ William said quietly at last, feeling humbled in the presence of the great man and astonished that he was so looked for.

The great man turned around to his colleagues with a look of triumph.
‘Ha! Thanks be to God! Said I not so? “Follow thine heart’s still small voice, liefer than thine head,” quoth Doctor Ashton. Thy wager is lost, Master Parker.’
He was apparently continuing an ongoing debate with his colleague, and Master Parker smiled, bowed his head and lifted his hands in a good-natured gesture of defeat.
A true scholar admits it when he is proved wrong, and he was such a man.

The great man turned back to William and offered his hand.
‘Thou’rt right welcome to Oxenford, Master William Shephard. Strange dreams and portents have I received concerning thee, but more of this when thou hast supped with us, if thou wilt. Is the name of Nicolas Hereford aught of significance unto thee? For so I am.’
Grasping his hand gratefully, William replied, ‘Of great signification indeed, Doctor Hereford, for so have I been sent, and a strange tale do I tell, and a strange road have I walked to meet with thee.’
‘Thou’st the manner of a natural scholar, Master Shephard, rough though be thy raiment. Haply we can amend the latter.’ 

Turning, Hereford noticed the stupefied group of students.
‘And I trust that this good man hath been comely welcomed to Oxenford, as becometh worthy clerics and gentlemen?’ 
He looked sternly across the group, and many of them paled and quailed, the bold-faced one not the least. A flogging for grossly unscholarly behaviour was still in force -- also expulsion, which was a worse punishment for many impoverished students.
They waited, quaking, for William’s inevitable condemnation of his recent treatment at their hands, but it never came. William remembered how much God had forgiven him and felt, instinctively, that he had no right to condemn.
He was human enough to enjoy their discomfiture, but would not take advantage of it.
‘Indeed, indebted am I to this gentleman for information, Doctor!’ he said, bowing toward the tolerant youth. That worthy flushed with gratitude and smiled; the rest breathed an almost audible sigh of relief.

‘But no joyous feastings at thy coming, methinks,’ said Hereford dryly. ‘Very well. Be ye seated gentlemen, and be thankful for one that cometh amongst us who hath natural chivalry. Learn ye from such an one.’ 
He spread his arm out invitingly to William, and smiled.
‘Come and sup with us at our board. There is much we would speak on with thee.’

So saying, he shepherded William into his capacious carriage with the other masters.

...to be continued..

*‘Eheu, condiscipuli,’ = "Alas, fellow-students"
** Homo sinsapiens = Witless man