Tuesday, May 24, 2016

(1) In Wessex

St. Edward the Martyr (notice the snake in the drinking horn)
The prospectus for this series of posts can be found here.  

If you are fortunate in your travels, then things will not go as planned.  But don't fret it, and by all means, continue to plot your course.  I certainly do.  Just don't expect things to fall into place that way.  The unexpected is usually more interesting, and if nothing else, a needed reminder that we are not in control of everything, or really much of anything at all.  In this case, driving on the left in the U.K. is not a problem; nor is the steering wheel being on the right.  And I actually like roundabouts.  What I had forgotten, or perhaps not experienced to this degree twenty years ago, is the sheer intensity of the traffic in the south and southwest of the U.K.  (Driving in Wales and the North, however, is much less stressful.)  Simply put, there are too many people driving too many cars on too narrow roadways.  

Rural England is as picturesque as you would imagine.  You really cannot savor the bucolic countryside, however, for you must watch for oncoming traffic, on a road only marginally wide enough for one vehicle, with another automobile right on your tail, and with no place to pull over for a view or a picture.  You just have to keep whizzing along.  And going through the middle of most every village drops your average time down to the 30 to 40 mph range.  Finally, it rains here.  A lot.  I arrived on Tuesday and first saw the sun on Sunday.  And so, I was forced to drastically prune my intensive itinerary from the very beginning.

As I outlined in the prospectus, my goal was to visit sites associated with the Britain--both Celtic and Saxon--that predated the Norman invasion of 1066.  For old Wessex, I believed my journey must start at the immense Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, on the western fringes of Greater London.  This will take a bit of explanation.  By the early 1850s, a booming London no longer had room to bury its dead.  Investors purchased a large acreage west of the city for the "London Necropolis." For that time, it was the largest cemetery in the world (and still the largest in the U. K.), complete with its own rail line into London.  Every day the train brought coffins and mourners from the city out to Brookwood.  The North Station serviced "Nonconformists" who were buried in the unconsecrated section, while the South Station serviced Anglicans.  For about 80 years, the train pulled out of Waterloo Station every day bound for Brookwood, which became the final earthly destination for paupers and for respectable Victorians alike.  By the 1920s, the cemetery was starting to fall out of favor, and the Nazi destruction of the railway in 1941 hastened its demise.  In time, the owners took bankruptcy.  

Under new ownership, Brookwood is still a going concern, but nothing like it was in its heyday.  The cemetery resembles a slightly overgrown open forest, dotted with thousands of monuments.  Today it caters to what can only be called niche markets.  There are sections for most every ethnic group.  For example, if you are Latvian Catholic, there is a section set aside for you.  A very colorful Ismaili section is to the left of the main entrance.  And on it goes.  My goal was the Orthodox Christian section of the cemetery, adjacent to what had been the South Station and Mortuary Chapel.  For it is here, in an odd twist of history, that one finds the relics of King Edward, a Saxon king of the 10th century. 

This monarch, more properly known as St. Edward the Martyr to Catholics and the Orthodox, was the oldest son of King Edgar the Peacemaker and his first wife Ethelflaeda, elected king by the Witan upon his father's death, despite being a youth of only thirteen.    England had been enjoying a period of relative strength following Alfred's consolidation of power under the House of Wessex.  Strong kings followed--Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edgar--and now expectations rode high on the young king.  Edward was an upright and godly young man, well-regarded and on friendly terms with Bishop Dunstan and the monastic party.  While out hunting one day, he called on his step-mother Aelfthrith at Corfe Castle.  She met him at the gates, offering him a drink of wine, while giving the signal to one of her servants to stab him in the back.    Aelfthrith saw that her son Aethelred (as in the Unready) was elected king in Edward's place.  Aelfthrith had has body spirited away and buried without ceremony.

Edward suffered a cruel, unjust and untimely death, but he does not at first glance seem to be a likely saint.  Almost immediately, miracles were associated with him burial place.  The common people started referencing him as both Saint and Martyr.  Within two years, Bishop Dunstan had his remains removed to Shaftsbury Abbey, where his shrine soon became a popular pilgrimage site.  
Blessing the Irenes

Edward's martyrdom is a useful lesson in how quickly things can go horribly wrong for both people and peoples, for this one calculated act of treachery has rippled down through England's history. The half-brother, Aethelred the Unready, proved to be a particularly ineffectual ruler, at a particularly inauspicious time.  And this usurper in time took a Norman wife, who gave birth to their son, Edward "the Confessor."   The latter--the James Buchanan of Saxon kings--diddled away the kingdom, for all practical purposes passing it off to his Norman cousin.  In some ways, St. Edward the Martyr has become a symbol of all that what lost by the Norman conquest.

Almost 600 years later, the shrine of St. Edward was demolished with all the others during the English Deformation.  Shaftsbury Abbey, line all the others, was given to one of Henry's cronies.  In the 1930s, the owner of the property, himself an amateur archaeologist, discovered the relics of St. Edward, underneath the site of the ruined shrine.  He sought a permanent home for the bones and offered to give them to any church if they would meet three conditions:  1.  that they be recognize as relics, 2. that a shrine be established for them, and 3. that his feast day be observed.  He chose the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, as they were the only church that agreed to all of the terms, as well as the fact that it was thought they would be most similar to the church Edward would have known.  The church received title to the old South Station and Mortuary Chapel at Brookwood.  The Victorian chapel became an Orthodox church and shrine to St. Edward.  The section adjoining became an Orthodox graveyard.  

And so, my project really began at the Shrine of St. Edward the Martyr, and the veneration of his relics there.  The monks have done a good job in adapting the Victorian era chapel into a warm and familiar Orthodox temple.  The interior is all stone and timber, making painted iconography difficult, even if there had been the money for it.  Instead, the interior is covered with hundreds of small icons, none larger than 8" by 10", many of them no doubt gifted to the monastery.  I arrived about midway through the Liturgy, and standing in the nave, with the countless icons all around me, I had a very real sense of being "surrounded by a cloud of witnesses."  It was the feast day of St. Irene and St. Ephrem the New of Nea Makri.  The shrine to St. Edward, containing the chest with his relics, is on the north side of the nave.   
St. Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church

The four monastics were as friendly as could be.  The priest had a typically dry English humor.  As it was the feast day of St. Irene, they invited me to follow them to "the tombs" (the graveyard) where a blessing would be chanted over those with that name.  It was raining, but no matter.  As it turned out, there were six Irinas to be blessed.  Glancing at the tombstones, I noticed that two of them were princesses.  I did not recognize one, but I did recognize the princely family of Galitzen, or Golitsyn or Galitzine for the other.    I asked the deacon about her, and it turns out she was granddaughter of the last tsarist prime minister of Russia, shot by the Soviets in 1925 at age 75.  She lived in humble circumstances in London.  I also noted another name--Trollope.  I inquired, and sure enough, he was the great-great grandson of the author.  The monks sell these Orthodox burial plots, which helps support their monastery.  They also dig the graves with a backhoe parked nearby.  I was invited inside for coffee and breakfast.  I really needed to push on, but did stay for the coffee.  Fr. Sabas and I talked of
Shrine of St. Edward the Martyr
many things--the Norman conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the English Civil War and the ensuing secularization of the nation, how we both thought Trollope a better write than Dickens, the Puritan influence on the American character, the American Revolution and the utter and complete travesty that was Mel Gibson's "The Patriot," etc. And while I know that many Orthodox make way too much of it, he did say that in his estimation, the English church before the Normans was the closest to Orthodoxy among Western Christendom.  Before I left, he loaded me down with icon cards, as well as an enormous book on Orthodox religious art through the centuries.  As many Orthodox readers already know, these monks have aligned themselves with what we would characterize as a schismatic group--as I'm sure they would also characterize us.  The subject never came up, and that is how it should be.

I had next planned to visit the Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Aethelflaed at Romsey, the only one not demolished by Henry VIII.  The townspeople had already purchased it for their parish church.  Romsey is a 12th-century Normal structure, but the lower walls are Saxon, and it contains 2 remarkable stone crucifixion carvings from that earlier period.  One, a gift from King Edgar, is thought to exhibit Byzantine influences as well as seemingly incorporating elements of the Saxon Tree of Life (Yggdrasil).  The Abbey has interesting historical connections, as well.  The abbey was originally founded by King Edward the Elder for his daughter Aelflaed.  Later, King Edgar refounded it for his daughter Aethelflaed, the half-sister of King Edward the Martyr.  The siblings have a brother, Edmund, buried at Romsey.  But as it turned out, I was running behind schedule, it was raining, and I missed my exit.  So I had to pass on Romsey Abbey.  
10th-century Saxon at Romsey Abbey

I pushed on to Wareham in Dorset, where I visited the Church of St. Martin-on-the-Walls, dating from the year 1030.  The small church was easy to find--literally being on the old wall around the city.  From the outside, the church has changed little in almost 1,000 years.  It is not the main church in the city, but after being reconsecrated in the 1930s, occasional services are conducted there.  About the time I arrived, a volunteer arrived and unlocked the church so I could enter.  I hesitate to complain, for she did let me inside.  But she is typical of a certain type of English woman of a certain age--thin, unadorned, straight shoulder-length hair, and nervously chatty.  I know she was trying to be informative, and I do appreciate that, but it was more the tone that annoyed me.  I suppose I have spent too much time in Georgia.  In the Caucasus, there is reverence inside churches, even those not in regular use.  Such are holy places and one does not enter them casually.  I have seen ruins of Georgian churches, both in that country and in Turkey, where visitors have lit small candles in the jagged, ruined walls, for even in that condition, the places are holy.  My English volunteer was rattling on about it as casually as one would an old barn or blacksmith shop.  I know that you cannot extrapolate from one experience and draw conclusions about an entire society (although that has never stopped me before), but I do believe her attitude is broadly typical of the English today.  They are proud of these historical structures, but they are just that, and only that--structures.  

Church of St. Martin on-the-Wall, Wareham

Like most English churches after the Reformation, the inside is whitewashed and sterile.  Preservationists had, however, exposed what lay underneath on the north side of the apse.  A faded mosaic depicted scenes from the life of St. Martin.  Where the whitewash to be removed throughout, who knows what might be revealed.  I recognize it for what it was--iconography (though crudely done in comparison to Georgian, much less other Orthodox cultures).  The English seem more comfortable with the term "wall paintings."
"Wall Paintings," Church of St. Martin

The volunteer pointed out another mural, painted in the 1600s, I believe, depicting the coats of arms of a number of English monarchs.  Above them was the word, Yahweh, which to press the point that the churches authority was rooted in the God of the Old Testament, and not, as the volunteer explained with a wrinkle in her nose, of that awful Roman Catholicism.  This later painting interested me not much at all.

Finally, the church of St. Martin contains an effigy of T. E. Lawrence.  He has always been a great favorite of mine after reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom many years ago.  The volunteer gave a rambling account of how the effigy came to be here--as Lawrence is actually buried in a country churchyard not far away.  By this time we had two other visitors, and I exited with the excuse of going to take some exterior pictures.  I had seen enough.
Effigy of T. E. Lawrence

From there, I continued on west into Devon, where I stopped at the Church of St. Candida (St. Wite) at Whitchurch Canonicorum.  This was not a Saxon church, but a later Norman structure. Its significance, however, is that it contains a complete shrine over the relics of St. Wite.  This church was a popular pilgrimage site for centuries.  During the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, these shrines to the saints were busted-up and destroyed all over England.  What was left of this sort of thing was demolished a 100 years later under Oliver Cromwell's regime.  The scope of destruction is hard to imagine, and is generally glossed-over in the triumphalist view of English Reformation history.  But over 90% of England's art was destroyed in a fevered frenzy of iconoclasm.  As efficient as the Cromwells were, both Thomas and Oliver, they somehow missed the shrine to St. Wite.  And so it alone remains.  I have never understood those who feel compelled to destroy a thing of beauty, whether it is a work of art, a tree, a hillside, an old building.  I just don't.  The church was locked up, so I was not able to view the shrine.  The churchyard contained several interesting Saxon crosses, however, and I spied a small statue of St. Wite just under the roof line.
St. Wite

I left old Wessex, and entered Dumnonia (Cornwall).  A couple of days later, I entered Wessex again, where I hoped to visit the grave of Evelyn Waugh, and the monument to Alfred the Great at Athelney.  The latter is a monument to Alfred's time there during England's dire struggle against the Danes.  Evelyn Waugh is not necessarily a favorite author of mine.  He did, however, write Black Mischief, one of the funniest novels I have ever read.  And there is a line from his Sword of Honour trilogy that has always stayed with me.  If I remember correctly, the female character Virginia was calling upon Guy's uncle, Peregrine Crouchback.  His butler ushered her into the library to await the elder Crouchback with the admonition (to the best of my memory), "There is plenty in here to interest one.  That is, if one is interested in things."  I have remembered that line of dialogue, for even at that time, I realized that it somewhat encapsulated my view of life.   

I had to abandon both of these goals, however, when I left my luggage at an inn in north Cornwall.  The innkeeper called me when I was seventy miles down the road.  I doubled back, and the loss of close to three hours eliminated these stops.  In my initial foray into Wessex, however, I was able to do a drive-by on the Giant of Cerne Abbas.  This neolithic novelty at least proves that the English were not always reserved and unassuming.
The Cerne Abbas Giant


John said...

Excellent! I continue to be amazed at your knowledge of history. What does a Saxon cross look like?

elizabeth said...

I enjoyed this! thank you! Someday my husband and I hope to take a pilgrimage trip to England so your notes here are very helpful! I can just imagine the woman doing her best to be helpful but having no clue to the reverence of place, esp. for old Churches. The tragedy of the destruction of so much is great. Lord have mercy. Thanks again for writing, I always take note when I see a new thing from you in my feed reader. ps: passed this on to my husband who I think if you and he lived close would have much to discuss.

Mimi said...

Thank you. Enjoy your travels and pray for me

Mimi said...

Thank you. Enjoy your travels and pray for me