|Looking north from Hadrian's Wall (with ever-present clouds)|
I was intent on including the north of England--the old Northumbrian kingdoms--in my itinerary, primarily for two reasons: a) Northumbrian history is characterized by a certain rough romanticism, for this is the land of Kings Edwin, Oswald and Oswin, as well as Saints Aidan, Cuthbert, Bede, Cedd and Hild; and b) it is the land of my forebears. For a time, Northumbria could be said to be the leading light in Britain, the most literate and civilized place in western Europe (though at that period, the bar was not set particularly high). In my view, the synthesis of Saxon culture grafted onto Britain reached its peak in Northumbria, only later to be overshadowed by Mercia, and eventually incorporated into a Wessexian "England." But Northumbria's story is one of valor and tragedy, of nobility and treachery, of courage and deception. I intended to see the crosses of Ruthwell, Bewcastle, and Lilla, the the Holy Island of Lindesfarne, Yeavering Bell--the Holy Mountain of the Saxons, the battlefield of Heavenfield, the cathedrals at Hexham and Durham, the churches at Escomb, St. Gregory's Minster and Pickering, as well as Edington on the Whiteadder Water, the very spot where my ancestors lived for at least 160 years. My story begins here, with my own Northumbrian kin. The tale is of interest, not so much for its particulars, but rather for how it all came together. (If this sort of thing bores you, it will not hurt my feelings for you to skip over the following five italicized paragraphs.)
In 1719, my 7th great-grandfather David Cowan(e) and his grown sons arrived in the Pequea Valley of now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The sons worked adjoining farms totaling 900 acres and prospered quickly, suggesting that they arrived with some wherewithal. By 1750, large numbers of the growing family (including my William Cowan, a grandson of the emigrant David) starting peeling-off to the frontier, primarily the Piedmont of North Carolina. There, they built 2-story stone houses facing south, like they had done in Pennsylvania and in Scotland before. The particulars of their immigrant history were quickly shed, other than the knowledge that the family was "Scottish" in origin. Many years ago, I let myself be swept-up into the Victorian myth-making of Scottish clans and tartans, trying to link my family to the Clan Colquhoun of Loch Lomond. Over time, however, realism trumped romanticism, as the real history of my family began to come into sharper focus.
|Edington Mains (my ancestors lived in cottages opposite)|
Some of the family remained in the Pequea Valley. The youngest son of my emigrant brother John Cowan inherited his father's farm and the stone farmhouse. He married a first cousin from an uncle's neighboring farm. I don't much hold to any notion of "progress" and discount triumphalism in the narratives of both families and nations. Family stories are necessarily ones of decline, and salvaging, and rebuilding, just as it is in nations. The tales that ascend from height to greater height are as false as the lies nations tell themselves. And so, this family's stewardship of the land was troubled, and by the early years of the 19th century, their only surviving son lived on only 26 acres of the original farm. His 11 children, however, all grew up within sight of their ancestor's 1720s stone farmhouse. One of these children became a doctor, who lived a long life and practiced in an adjoining county. He never married. When quite old (in the 1880s), Dr. William Lightner Cowan wrote down in brief form the family history. He sent one copy to a niece in Ashville, North Carolina and another to a nephew in San Francisco. The unmarried niece assumed the mantle of family historian of the next generation, adding to his chronicle the oral tradition that this Scottish family specifically came from the Cheviot Hills. About 120 years later, copies of the letters fell into my hands. I noted that the Cheviot Hills are not actually in Scotland, but in Northumberland, adjoining the Scottish Borders region. But this clue told me that I should probably focus my search on the Scottish Lowlands.
|Parish church, Chirnside|
One peculiar characteristic of my particular Cowan family is that they were not Presbyterian, or at least not until they had to be. David Cowan and one of his sons helped organize the St. John's Pequea Church in 1729, where family members were very active in this parish for a number of generations. They lived in an area that was predominately Scots-Irish Presbyterian, with many local Calvinist churches. The Anglicans were much thinner on the ground. In other words, it would have been easy to be Presbyterian, whereas it took real effort to be Anglican in their part of Pennsylvania. Family members in North Carolina attempted to establish a diocese there, as well. Fierce opposition by their Scots-Irish Presbyterian neighbors prevented that from happening. Eventually, the family somewhat grudgingly settled-in to Presbyterianism in the South, although some of the lines (not mine) reverted to Episcopalianism once they had attained a certain level of affluence. This is significant, because as adherents of the established church, it implies that the family could be traced in British parish records, whereas as if they had been Scots-Irish Covenanters, no records would exist. Every extant birth, death and marriage record is available, and searchable online.
|Statue of Joseph Cowen, Newcastle|
A search of the records for the U.K. revealed only one match--the parish of Chirnside, a few miles north of the English border, in the foothills of the Cheviot Hills, in old Berwickshire. The church records only went back to the 1650s, but that was enough to find my particular family. Research in the Latin archives in Edinburgh, as well as in the private archives at Duns Castle, fleshed out the bare bones of the parish records. The family first appeared in area records in 1562, with my 11th-great grandfather. They were small yeoman farmers who owned their own land. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, they, along with other area families, were squeezed out by the landed gentry, in this case the family of Ramsay and Dalhoussie. They still lived in the same place, but now they were tenants of Lord and Lady Edington. The Cowans seemed to have some standing with the residents of Duns Castle, however. My ancestors often acted as agents for the family, and sometimes served as constables for the parish. Other family members, however, blanketed the official records with typical Scottish litigiousness.
In recent years, advances in genetic science have revolutionized what many families can know about their ancestry. For whatever reason, Cowan family members have been eager participants in the project. Ours is not a particularly common name, so most everyone thought that we were all related one way or another. YDNA samplings prove this not to be the case at all, and my particular Cowan family is no more related to others of the name than any two people would be who meet on the street. Interestingly, we share a genetic link to a family from the town of Ryton, in Durham, just west of Newcastle. They spell their name as either Cowen or Cowings. But the genetic markers indicate that we shared a common ancestor in the early to mid 1500s. This family produced a famous British politician from the Victorian era, Joseph Cowen (1829-1900). His roots were thoroughly working class and two generations were spokesmen for the workers movement in Newcastle. But the father also built a successful brick-making factory, which allowed Joseph Cowen the younger to pursue a career as a Liberal politician in Parliament, and as a newspaper owner. A grateful city of Newcastle erected a statue to him shortly after his death. In his biography, his particular family story is outlined. The family believed that they emigrated to Ryton from Lindesfarne after the dissolution of the monasteries (ca. 1539). They came there, as Catholics, because of the protection they would receive from the Catholic Tempest family. And so, if there is truth to this tale, then it is my story as well. It would seem that the Cowans left Lindesfarne after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. One branch moved south to Ryton in Durham. Another, apparently moved about 20 miles northwest into Berwickshire. I also note that the parish church in Chirnside was non-juror during the "Glorious Revolution," which means that they refused to renounce their oath to James II. The bottom line seems to be that my heritage is not so very Scottish at all, with my roots more accurately anchored in Saxonish Northumbria. (Of course, I do have plenty of Scottish ancestry if I want to claim it: my ancestors went three times to the same Stewart well in marriage.)
My first stop in the north of England and the Border regions was the magnificent Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire. With the remaining section standing over 17 ft. in height, the Saxon stone dates to about 700 AD, as they were consolidating their control over the area. The cross does not commemorate an individual or event, but is rather a preaching cross. The east and west panels depict a great number of scenes from the life of Christ, with accompanying Scripture in Latin. The north and south panels, however, are covered with the decorative Saxon vines and branches, filled with animal life. Around them are runes, a selection from the Germanic epic, "The Dream of the Rood." From G. Ronald Murphy, in "Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North"--"The tree on which Christ was crucified was the tree of life, but, not so much the tree of life from the Garden of Eden, of which we have no poetic description and only the briefest mention in Genesis, nor even Eden's tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but rather the magic and rune-bearing cosmic tree of Northern poetry." And, "a more startlingly emotional contrast to the sobriety of the Latin panel descriptions could scarcely be imagined. Do living people not recognize what was done on the wooden pole for their lives? Yggdrasil recognized him. The animals realized who he was. The eagle above the Tree is looking down, and sees...And so we come to a joint theme that binds the whole sculpture together: recognition, realization." The section of the "Dream of the Rood" included on the cross is, as follows:
|The Ruthwell Cross|
Almighty God took off his gear and clothes
When He wanted to climb onto the gallows,
Courageous in the sight of all men.
I did not dare bow,
I had to stand fast.
I lifted up the powerful king,
Heaven's lord. I did not dare bend or bow.
People mocked the tow of us together.
I was drenched with the blood
that poured out of this Man's side when he sent off his spirit.
Christ was on the pole;
Even so, noblemen were hurrying there from far away,
to the One alone. I beheld it all.
I was sorely troubled with sorrows.
To these men I bowed down, to their hands.
Wounded with arrowheads
They laid Him down, weary in limb.
They stood for HIm at the head of his corpse;
They beheld there Heaven's Chieftain. And he rested himself
there a while.
I found it hard not to be moved by the Ruthwell Cross--a 1,300 year old statement of faith and loyalty to "Heaven's Chieftain," and a bold testament of the intertwining of Christian belief into native cultures. But this sublime work of art had no place in the hard, dour dogmatism of Calvinistic Scotland. Their Assembly, meeting in 1640 passed an "Act anent to demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments," decreeing that in divers parts of the same, many Idolatrous Monuments, erected and made for Religious Worship, are yet extant--such as crucifixes, Images of Christ, Mary and the saints departed--ordaines the said monuments to be taken down, demolished, and destroyed, and that with all convenient diligence... And so, the Cross--then approached 1,000 years old--was to be destroyed. The parish vicar held off destruction for two years, but was finally forced to oversee the process. He insured, however, that the cross was carefully broken and laid to rest in the clay floor of the parish church. In the somewhat less severe year of 1823, the Ruthwell Cross was rediscovered and eventually returned to its place within the church. The vicar of that day found a way around the still-virulent British anti-Catholicism, reckoning that it wasn't really idolatrous since it was erected under the auspices of the "Celtic" Church and not that of the Roman Church. Such mental gymnastics allowed for the re-erecting of the Ruthwell Cross as we see it today.
|Artist's depiction of Bewcastle Cross|
|Remains of the Bewcastle Cross|
The Ruthwell parish church is noted as the oldest church still being used as such in the south of Scotland today. The way things are going, it may be the only one used for such purposes before long. By this time, I had visited a great number of churches in the U.K., a few of which I found to be quite memorable (Brookwood, the Church of St. Cadog, the Church at Pennant Melangel, for example). But after eleven years as an Orthodox believer, I am still struck by that which was once commonplace to me, namely, the lack of any sense of a "sacred space." Ruthwell is decidedly low-church Presbyterian in tone. The table--where it seems communion is served--is in the center of the church, near the Ruthwell Cross. But there is nothing particular to set it apart in much of any way, and the back side of the table is visible while viewing the Cross, and one could clearly see the cleanser and other cleaning supplies stored underneath. It was almost as if they were trying to underscore the utilitarianism of it all, and to impress the fact that there was "nothing irrational or supernatural going on here."
|Literally or figuratively, Scotland is far from Rome|
I cut across country to see the Bewcastle Cross, which is considered to be the compliment of the Ruthwell Cross, erected to honor King Aldfrith, whose reign began in 685 AD. The setting in the remote Bewcastle churchyard is spectacular, but a hard, driving rain made any in depth inspection of the Cross impossible. At the end of my time in Northumbria, I had hoped to visit the Lilla Cross. Lilla was a subject of King Edwin of Deira (southern Northumbria). An assassin sought to stab Edwin, and Lilla jumped between them and took the deadly blow himself. This act led the king to promise his Christian wife that he would convert to her faith. He eventually did, but took his own sweet time in doing so. This ancient stone cross commemorates that event in the life of Northumbria. I spent considerable time spotting the cross on British topographical maps and aerials, as it is deep in the Yorkshire moors. Again, weather conspired against me, and I had to mark this destination off my list.
The next day, I ventured north into the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and Durham, as well as the Scottish borders. I drove along the top of what had been Hadrian's Wall for some time. I had crossed the wall twice before, many years earlier, but was able for the first time to get a real sense of what the structure entailed. I stopped off at the church of St. Oswald, built near the battlefield of Heavenfield, where King Oswald believed his prayer for divine assistance was answered. The church sits is a shady churchyard, atop a hill amidst a pasture. I parked on the road and walked across the meadow to the church. The present structure is not ancient, though they are well aware of their historical associations with St. Oswald. An Orthodox church in Norwich had given them an icon of St. Oswald, along with an explanation (which they had mounted) of what an icon was, exactly, in an Orthodox understanding. The church had the icon on a stand, in a nook of the church, with a candle in front--trying to accommodate the occasional veneration of this Saxon saint within a decidedly Calvinistic venue.
|Icon of St. Oswald in St. Oswald Kirk|
Of course I visited Lindesfarne--the Holy Island--on my way up, as the incoming tides would cover the causeway and make it a true island about mid-afternoon. This is a small place with just about enough room for the village. A large car park handles the steady stream of tourists who descend on the island in the morning hours. The island is truly historic, and with its associations with Sts. Aidan and Cuthbert, is definitely a place of pilgrimage. And yet, perhaps because of the crowds, it did not rate high among my experiences in the U.K. The priory (the ruins of the 13th-century church of St. Peter) is managed by English Heritage. As it stands, however, I could see everything I needed to see by standing on the outside, without purchasing a ticket to view the inside of the ruins. The more important stop, however, was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The present structure dates to about the same time as the priory, but it was built on the ancient foundations of the church that St. Aidan founded. This church seems to be more than just a historical way-station, with evidence of a real parish life, despite the steady inflow of tourists.
From Lindesfarne, it was just a little over 20 miles to the village of Edington, where my family lived hundreds of years ago. I stood in the field that they tilled, and viewed the site of their former cottages. I visited the churchyard where they are no doubt buried (though no monuments survive from that early a date). I can now say that I have been there and have something of a feel for the region. But perhaps it was the lousy weather, but I did not feel much of a connection with the area. In fact, I felt very American, and not a little thankful that they boarded that ship in 1719. On my return to Durham, I visited Yeavering Bell, the rounded hill in the Cheviots that the early Saxons considered holy. One of their capitals lay at its base--so confident were they that they never fortified the site. Again, weather prevented further exploration.
|The Saxon Church at Escomb|
I visited two cathedrals in the North country: Hexham and Durham. Cathedrals, as such, were not really on my itinerary as I did all that sort of thing back in 1994 and 1996. And frankly, they do not impress me as they do some. True, they are architectural wonders and should be appreciated on that level. But in my mind, they are often cold and sterile, with their austere vaulted ceilings trying to reach to the heavens. In my biased experience, even the largest Orthodox temple, with its domes and rounded ceilings, envelops you, aiming not for awe and grandeur, but for a real sense of intimacy, with the heavens laid out above and creation all around you. This is, of course, only my simple layman's observation. The two I visited were immense, particularly Durham. They are so large, that there are often many things going on within at the same time. They are forced to market themselves as half tourist site and half holy place simply due to the incredible cost of maintaining these piles. In Hexham, I visited the Saxon crypt, the only remains of the Saxon era church of St. Wilfred, which predated the Norman cathedral. The crypt is a quiet refuge beneath the main sanctuary--in times past, a site of pilgrimage.
|St. Wilfred's Crypt, Hexham|
At Durham, I venerated the relics of St. Cuthbert, in a special chamber behind the main altar. Despite the bustle of ticket booths and tours, and the meandering independent visitors, the tomb of St. Cuthbert is an oasis of secluded quietude. Instinctively perhaps, tourists are silent and contemplative there, or like me, venerating this saint on the rugs laid out in front of the tomb. I wanted to also visit the grave of the Venerable Bede, in another part of the church complex. A service was in progress,however, so I was unable to do so.
|Martyrdom of St. Edmund, Pickering|
I also purposely skipped the ruins of Whitby Abbey. While this location looms large in the history of Saxon Northumbria, the ruins are from a much later era. Also, the entire site is managed by English Heritage, requiring an admission ticket--something I instinctively balk at if I am visiting a place of pilgrimage. Their website plays up the Bram Stoker/Dracula connection as well, marketing the ability to "converse with people from Whitby's past such as Abbess Hild, a monk, and Bram Stoker, through entertaining and interactive touchscreens." Thank you, no.
|Come The Day, these will see it out of the corner of their eyes ;)|
I had more fruitful engagement with some of the old Saxon churches in the area: Bywell St. Andrews, St. Peter's at Monkwearmouth, the Saxon church as Escomb, Pickering, the Church of St. Mary at Lastingham and St. Gregory's Minster outside Kirbymoorside. The small Saxon church at Escomb is perhaps the most perfectly preserved church from the Saxon era, dating to the late 600s. St. Gregory's Minster, near Kirbymoorside, was another favorite. I talked briefly--if it can be called that--with one of the volunteers. He was clearly on the far side of 80 and as deaf as a post. The church showed signs of an active parish life and he informed me that there were 18 members in the choir, though no doubt he had not actually heard them in years. The churchyard was as neat and tidy as the church itself, with a newer graveyard across the road. The stones were all facing east, awaiting the Resurrection, except in one corner, where the stones for those cremated were all facing north. I know--it's a little thing, but not without, I think, some significance. The Church at St. Mary's at Lastingham is on the site of an ancient Saxon monastery where St. Cedd, brother to St. Chad, labored. His tomb and shrine is in the Saxon crypt below the somewhat newer church above.
|Shrine of St. Cedd, St. Mary's Church, Lastingham|
I went to the church at Pickering for a different reason. The church only dates to the 13th-century or so. Pickering is a larger town than you might think, and the church is wedged-in close in the old town. It is a bit down-at-the-hills, obviously far larger than any need for it today. Yet inside is one of the great unheralded treasures of England. During the Reformation, admidst the general de-sanctification of the churches, interior walls were whitewashed to cover "idolatrous" wall paintings. In an 1852 renovation of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the artwork was uncovered. The reverend of the parish was shocked. "As a work of art [they are] fairly ridiculous, would excite feelings of curiosity, and distract the congregation." He had them quickly re-covered in a thick yellow wash. The discovery was not forgotten, however, and a subsequent vicar had more appreciation for what was underneath. The paintings were uncovered again and crudely "restored" by the mid 1890s. The most famous scene is that of the Martyrdom of St. Edmund, but there are other extensive scenes, such as a treatment of the life of St. Catherine and the Beheading of John the Baptist.
|Beheading of John the Baptist, Pickering|
It is these upper walls of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering, along with the recently discovered paintings on the Church of St. Cadog in Llancarfan, Wales, that offer a glimpse into medieval English worship spaces, and leave the viewer with a melancholy realization of all that was lost in the iconoclastic frenzy of the English Reformation and Civil War. They are the poorer for it, and as this particular history has worked its way out and into modernity, I cannot help but place much blame there for the hollowness at the core of Britain (and we their former colony) today.