Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding.

I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop...
It was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Oriel out on the town

Last night I was dining with a friend at my usual Italian restaurant which has recently had large parties of students booking for what can be rather noisy and boisterous dinners. The owner had warned us that another such group was booked in, so we were forewarned. After a while a large party of smartly dressed young people turned up, with the inevitable bustle.

However before they stated a young man stood up and reminded his companions that there were others in the restaurant and to be thoughtful of us. A little after he came to the tables of the other diners to express the hope they would not disturb us. Seeing he was wearing an Oriel tie I said I was certainly not going to object as a fellow Orielensis. It emerged this was a party from Oriel JCR - second year males and first year females. All very courteous of him I thought.

Better was to follow as they ate and drank, and sconce one another for matters, well not quite the things I aim to raise on this blog. Never mind - some time later another student came round to see again if any of the other diners were upset ( they were n't). He was the JCR President - so I identified myself as a former MCR President.

The whole party was full of youthful energy, obviously intelligent, smartly dressed, good humoured - what, in fact, Oxford students ought to be.

When they were leaving the first young man and another came round again to be sure they had not disturbed our meal. My friend ( a town rather than a gown man ) assured them it had not and we thanked them for their concern and politeness and for their courtesy and wished them all well.

My friend was impressed by all this, and for my part it was very good to see the good humour,self deprecation and high spirits - typical of Orielenses. As I told all three they were good ambassadors for the college - a community that works hard and plays hard, but also with style and courtesy.

Floreat Oriel!

More on St Edmund

Cate Gunn posted a piece about St Edmund on the Medieval Religion discussion group today which I thought might interest my readers. I have slightly adapted it:

Edmund was born about 840/841 and elected king of East Anglia aged 14.  It is believed he was crowned on the hillside at Bures, overlooking the beautiful Stour valley . He was renowned for his piety in his personal life, and desire for justice. He led the defence of his Christian realm against the Danish chiefs Hinguar and Hubba; Hinguar laid his land waste and killed the people ‘men, women and innocent children’ (according to the account from Alefric’s Lives of Saints translated by Anne Dineen); Edmund refused to defile his hands with Hinguar’s blood but ‘mindful of his Saviour’ he discarded his weapons and imitated Christ’s example. In order to save his people, he submitted to the invaders; he was ‘bound and humiliated and beaten with sticks. Soon the King was taken to a tree rooted in the ground and tied and was beaten there with whips for a long time; and he always, between the beatings, called with true faith to Christ the Saviour. Then, because of his faith, the heathens became made angry, for he called on Christ to help. They shot him then with arrows, as in sport, until he was all covered with arrows like a hedgehog’s bristles, as Sebastian was.’  Finally his head was chopped off. Other sources suggest that he may have had the ‘Blood Eagle’ carved on his back.  This martyrdom is supposed to have occurred on 20th November 869/70, maybe at Hoxne in Suffolk.

When his men went later to recover his body, they couldn’t find his head; eventually it was found guarded by a wolf, who surrendered it and followed the procession to the grave in Heglesdune wood.  Years later the body was removed to Beodricksworth [variously spelt] where a church was built, later to become the great abbey of Bury St Edmunds. When Edmund’s coffin was opened the body was found to be incorrupt and the head reattached to the body, with only a thin red mark round the neck.

Edmund’s shrine was guarded by the Benedictine Ailwin, but when, around the year 1010 there was fresh trouble, the body was moved to London for safety, where it rested in St Gregory’s church. At this time, the martyr’s fame increased; when peace returned Ailwin wanted to take the body back to Suffolk, but Alphun, Bishop of London, planned to retain it and take it instead to St Paul’s. Edmund, however, seemed to have other ideas, and the coffin became too heavy to move until Alphun relented and Ailwin was able to leave London with the body in procession. All along the route people turned out to offer respect to the martyr, and were rewarded with miracles of healing.

Edmund’s body was returned in 1013, and last year a pilgrimage followed the route from London to Bury St Edmunds to celebrate the 1000th anniversary.

Edmund’s cult is discussed in the essays in St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint, ed. by Anthony Bale, published York Medieval Press/Boydell & Brewer 2009.

Modern statue of St Edmund by Dame Elizabeth Frink outside the west front of the abbey


Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds

Before leaving the theme of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds here is the monastic chronicler Jocelin of Brakelond's description of probably the most famous abbot of the monastery, Samson, born in 1135 and who ruled it from 1182-1211, and was a great patron of the building, and, in many ways, the hero, of Jocelin's Chronicle. Samson’s works for the abbey and general life at the abbey over the period 1173-1202, are the main subjects of the chronicle - famous today as a primer for teaching medieval Latin to historians. There is more by way of an introduction about the abbot himself at Samson of Tottington:

“ABBOT SAMSON was below the average height, almost bald; his face was neither round nor oblong ; his nose was prominent and his lips thick; his eyes were clear and his glance penetrating; his hearing was excellent; his eyebrows arched, and frequently shaved; and a little cold soon made him hoarse. On the day of his election he was forty seven, and had been a monk for seventeen years. In his ruddy beard there were a few grey hairs, and still fewer in his black and curling hair. But in the course of the first fourteen years after his election all his hair became white as snow.

He was an exceedingly temperate man ; he possessed great energy and a strong constitution, and was fond both of riding and walking, until old age prevailed upon him and moderated his ardour in these respects. When he heard the news of the capture of the cross and the fall of Jerusalem, he began to wear under garments made of horse hair, and a horse hair shirt, and gave up the use of flesh and meat. None the less, he willed that flesh should be placed before him as he sat at table, that the alms might be increased. He ate sweet milk, honey, and similar sweet things, far more readily than any other food.

He hated liars, drunkards, and talkative persons; for virtue ever loves itself and spurns that which is contrary to it. He blamed those who grumbled about their meat and drink, and especially monks who so grumbled, and personally kept to the same manners which he had observed when he was a cloistered monk. Moreover, he had this virtue in himself that he never desired to change the dish which was placed before him. When I was a novice, I wished to prove whether this was really true, and as I happened to serve in the refectory, I thought to place before him food which would have offended any other man, in a very dirty and broken dish. But when he saw this, he was as it were blind to it. Then, as there was some delay, I repented of what I had done, and straightway seized the dish, changed the food and dish for better, and carried it to him. He, however, was angry at the change, and disturbed.

He was an eloquent man, speaking both French and Latin, but rather careful of the good sense of that which he had to say than of the style of his words. He could read books written in English very well, and was wont to preach to the people in English, but in the dialect of Norfolk where he was born and bred. It was for this reason that he ordered a pulpit to be placed in the church, for the sake of those who heard him and for purposes of ornament.”

Source: historicalragbag.wordpress.com

The seal of Abbot Samson
(Original is 3.5 inches long)

St Edmund and his abbey

Today is the feast of St Edmund, King and Martyr. My post from 2010 about him can be read at St Edmund, and there is a good online account of him and his cult, and the possible whereabouts of relics, together with a useful set of links and discussion, and a good bibliography here.


St Edmund crowned by Angels
From a Bury St Edmunds manuscript of circa 1130
Pierpoint Morgan Library New York

Image: Wikipedia

Traditionally said to have been martyred at Hoxne his shrine church was, of course, at Bury St Edmunds, where it was served by a major Benedictine foundation until 1539.

There is a very detailed year by year history of the abbey and its lands at the St Edmundsbury Chronicle site.

I have posted about the twelfth century ivory cross, now in New York, which is believed to have been made for the abbey in The Bury St Edmunds Cross.

The loss of the great church at Bury is agreat and irreparable loss, and all that survices today are foundations and pieces of rubble core - in an area short of ashlar the nasonry was doubtless quickly recycled. A portion of the west front remains, incorporated into later houses. The sheer scale of destruction is shocking and awesome.

Bury St Edmunds abbey today - the view from the east
At the rear is the splendid tower from 2000 of the Anglican cathedral


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One of the more substantial pieces of rubble core walling


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The crypt which lay under the sanctuary and choir from the north-east

Image: historicalragbag.wordpress.com 

The overall design looks to me to owe a lot to the great abbey at Cluny, both in its plan and its massing of the structure and the towers, not least the octagonal ones on the west front - very reminiscent of the transeptal ones at the Burgundian abbey. The central western tower and the apsidal chapels recall Ely, and the recessed arches Lincoln, and were a feature reinterpreted at Peterborough in the fourteenth century.

bury st8

bury st door

The remains of the west front of the abbey church

Image: historicalragbag.wordpress.com 

One building that has survived the destruction of the abbey is the Norman Tower. It was built 1120-1148 and was designed to be both a gateway to the abbey church and a belfry for the church of St James next door, and to which it still serves as a bell tower. It was funded by Abbot Anselm instead of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. It is a tantalising view of what the whole church must have been like.

bury st 7 

The Norman Tower
To the left is the present cathedral, and the remains of the west front of the abbey church can be seen to the rear on the right

Image: historicalragbag.wordpress.com

To envisage the complete abbey does, then, require the work of historians, archaeologists and architects as well as artists.

A model in the abbey grounds at Bury St Edmunds showing the abbey in its earlier phase, before the collapse of the west tower in 1430-31 and its subsequent rebuilding
The present cathedral is the church to the immediate north-west of the abbey in the rear centre


The model from the sourtth-east

Image nigelpurdy.co.uk


A plan by A.B. Whittingham of the abbey church at the time of the Dissolution


There is a virtual reconstruction of the abbey in a Virtual Reality model created in 1998. This can be accessed here and following the links should enable readers to view it. This shows the abbey church as first completed, and is good for the exterior. The interior is less convincing, especially as, for some reason, it aligns the shrine north-south. not east-west.

The late thirteenth century Lady Chapel to the north of the choir - in asimilar position to those at other great East Anglian Benedictine houses at Ely, Peterborough and Ramsey - may have looked somwhat like St Etheldreda's Holborn, the choir of Merton Chapel in Oxford or the nave of York Minster.

In 1430 Abbot Samson's central tower over the west front of the great church collapsed. It came down over a period of days as firstly only the south side fell. Then came the east side, but great jagged parts of the north and west side would stand for the next year or so before rebuilding could begin. The Abbot, William Curteys, blamed the negligence of previous sacrists and the excessive ringing of the bells. M.R. James wrote in 1895 that the two collapses were a year apart, the south side falling in December 1430, and the east side falling in December 1431. In  1432 the tower was taken down and rebuilt. Unfortunately its design appears unrecorded - was it a reconstruction or a new design?

Then in Jaunuary 1465 the roof of the church caught fire when workmen left their leadpans unattended during their morning break. The central tower spire fell in and the choir was burned out. Again the nature and appearance of the repair is unrecorded.


A modern reconstruction of the west front of the abbey as it may have appeared from the mid-fifteenth century 

Image: stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk 


A reconstruction of Bury St Edmunds in the later middle ages


Despite its destruction the abbey still looms as a ghostly presence over this very attractive market town, and the cult and story of St Edmund are clearly still promoted by the churchand teh local authority.

In addition Bury now possesses in the cathedral of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, created in 1914, and using the medieval church of St James, which lies adjacent to the remains of the west front, a noble church. Of all the twentieth century cathedral extensions in England this is by far the best, a delicate and subtle set of additions to this very late medieval Perpendicular building. Designed by Stephen Dykes-Bower it comprises transepts, a new choir and finally a central tower (paid for by the bequest of the architects estate in 2000 as a Millenium project), plus a cloister and cathedral hall including some Victorian work that was removed to extend the building. Scholarly and thoughtful, respectful of its setting, and very far indeed far from the cheap-looking and nasty extensions of some other Anglican cathedrals, it is a beautiful and prayerful creation, and very well worth going to look at.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Seeking to understand Pope Francis

At the weekend a friend, who has, alas, lapsed from the Catholic Church - though with no animosoity towards it - was asking me what I made of the Pope. I replied that I, like I suspect many others, find him rather hard to evaluate. There are things I certainly appreciate as strengths, and other things, well, I am not so sure about. I was very comfortable with Pope Benedict's style, I am less sure about that of Pope Francis.

That others are wondering can be seen in a post on Rorate Caeli which has extracts from an interview with Cardinal George of Chicago, where His Eminence reflects on his questions about the direction the Vatican is going under the present Holy Father. It is very interesting and can be read at The Great Division - U.S. cardinal: Pope Francis, "What are you doing here?"

The Romanian Monarchy - a short history

The Mad Monarchist has a history of the Romanian monarchy on his blog, which links in with his recent post about discussion as to apossible restoration there, which I linked to in Discussing a Restoration in Romania my other posts on the subject can be found by clicking on the links at the end of this post

His latest post can be seen at Story of Monarchy: Romanian Rise and Fall

Monday, 17 November 2014

Women Bishops

So the General Synod of the Church of England has finally, today, gone through all the necessary stages and legislated for Women Bishops.

As a former Anglican, who has found his true home in the Catholic Church I am no longer hurt by this move - still less, of course, affected - though I can still be nauseated by the prospect. I am however saddened - saddened at the pain caused to those who cannot accept this move yet wish to remain in the communion of their birth, saddened by the erosion of a tradition and claim to Catholicity, and saddened by the loss of a chance, however slim it may in reality have been, of some form of corporate re-union. Without the issue we would not have had the Ordinariates, but equally we might, just might perhaps, have had the possibility of the whole Church of England becoming the Ordinariate...
The historian in me does note what a day it is to choose to hold this vote - the 456th anniversary of the death in 1558 of Queen Mary I and of Cardinal Archbishop Pole, and the accession of Queen Elizabeth I and the advent of the Elizabethan Settlement. I bet Queen Elizabeth would not have been keen on Women Bishops.

It is also the feast of both St Hilda of Whitby and St Hugh of Lincoln. I cannot imagine they looked down upon the day's events with any sense of approbation.