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, 11 November 2010

St Martin

Today is the feast of St Martin of Tours (316-397). He was the first confessor saint to be afforded liturgical honours and is the patron of numerous churches and cathedral across Europe. The Wikipedia article about him and his cult, with appropriate links, is here. The key text of the life of St Martin by Sulpicius Severus can be read here.

In a biography of St Martin I read some years ago there is the argument that in Britain missionary communities inspired by St Martin's life and example often placed their churches under his patronage. This seems to be borne out by churches such as St Martin in Canterbury - usually thought to pre-date St Augustine's mission of 597 - St Martin in the Fields in London, where recent excavations found late Roman burials underneath the present church, rebuilt in the early eighteenth century in its present form, and the cathedral of St Martin at Whithorn, established by St Ninian. It occurs to me that he is not infrequently found as a patron of histotic churches in cities with Roman origins. I do not know how far the theory has been tested, but it is an attractive one, and one I think plausible. It does, of course, depend on an accurate transmission of the dedication - something which has been questioned in south-west England. In the areas I know well I am not sure, but in most cases dedications seem well established, or changes are recorded.

In my home area there is the fine medieval church of St Martin at Womersley.

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Womersley, The Church of St Martin
© Copyright Gordon Kneale Brooke

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Womersley, Church of St Martin, the nave and Rood screen

Situated on the magnesian limestone ridge it is built of excellent local stone and has some Anglo-Catholic fine furnishings by G.F.Bodley, who carried out a sympathetic and striking renovation in the 1890s. Unfortunately the stencilled decoration he included has largely disappeared. Nonetheless with some beautiful glass and vestments it was, when I knew it, a prayerful building.

Womersley includes the site of a Roman villa or farmstead, and there have been other Roman finds within the parish, as there has of a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial with grave goods. Given that this part of what is now Yorkshire remained under Christian rule, in the kingdom of Elmet until the beginning of the seventh century, and only a generation or so before St Paulinus' mission in 625 to convert the north - where he found churches which had been deserted by their British clergy - the evidence of late Roman occupation, a pagan Anglo-Saxon presence and a church dedicated to a St Martin whose cult appears to have spread soon after his death in 397, all gathered together in a classically English village setting suggests that Womersley, on well drained land above the marshes to the east and the more wooded clay soils to the west , and not far from Roman roads and routes that have remained in use, may, and I only write may, be an argument for continuity of settlement from the Roman period onwards. It is a complex question, but this looks a tempting example.

Also in my home area, in the city of York is the church of St Martin le Grand in Coney Street. This was a fine mid-fifteenth century church , but tragically was bombed in 1942, and "restored" in the 1960s, which in my opinion, and as we would say up north, made a right mess of it. (Yes, I know the Luftwaffe messed it up to start with but that is no reason not to restore it properly. It is, in my opinion one of G.G. Pace's awful designs, though one website says it is "considered to be one of the best designs by architect George Pace". The whole thing smacks of the diocese of York ridding itself of unwanted and unloved churches).

It is the church where St Margaret Clitherow was baptized and married, so she would have seen the St Martin window.

Mercifully this, the great west window of circa 1442, and the gift of the vicar Robert Semer, had been removed at the beginning of the war and survived, and is still to be seen on site.


The figure of St Martin,
from the window in St Martin le Grand York,
given by the vicar, Robert Semer, circa 1442

Photo by Gordon Plumb

There are details of the window here, in photographs again by Gordon Plumb and also here, which highlights the episodes from St Martin's life as depicted in the window, and shows that Sulpicius Severus' life of the saint remained known.

And finally, simply because I like the paintings of El Greco, here is his depiction of the saint dividing his cloak. Although completely anachronistic in its dress and setting, it does convey the idea of Martin the idealistic young officer impelled to an act of Christian charity.


El Greco St Martin and the Beggar c.1597-99
National Gallery of Art,
Washington D.C.

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