Shocking Protestants

By Myrna Kostash | February 2, 2011


In Edmonton, in the 1950s, in Delton elementary school in an Eastern European working-class neighbourhood, the stately rhythm of official holidays – Easter, Queen Victoria Day, Dominion Day, Labour Day, Remembrance Day and Christmas – was only ever interrupted for two kinds of kids, the Jews and the Ukrainians.

 Jewish kids got the school day off for their High Holidays and we Ukrainians were excused for “Ukrainian Christmas” on January 6. I always thought I was getting away with something, namely an extra Christmas, but it never occurred to me, as might now be the case, that my classmates should celebrate with me. “English” Christmas on the 25th of December was everybody’s Christmas, with its department store Santas, Christmas cards, trees, and decorations, the caroling, the crèches, the churches with the spires and the lovely stained-glass windows. But ours was ours alone. Private, familial, and celebrated in an elaborate code of ritual that no one outside the Ukrainian language and the Byzantine rite Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic Churches would be expected to understand. And it was St Nicholas, garbed as a bishop (the original of St Nick) who gave us our presents on his feast day, December 17, Old Calendar. There would be gifts again under the Christmas tree December 25 but none on the Feast of the Nativity, January 6. Only Baby Jesus got presents then.

The Protestant church was the default position of the church-going who lived in a secular, English-speaking, bourgeois democracy. (I assumed Roman Catholics were like Protestants but more dramatic, with their costumed nuns and beaded rosaries; on the other hand, Catholic kids had their own schools, named for saints.) As I grew up, I gradually became aware of the various kinds of non-Orthodox Christians – from the pairs of Mormon youth in their snug blue suits who stood respectfully outside the screen door to talk with mother, to the stoical figures in parkas on the downtown street corners, holding up a copy of The Watchtower, from the Anglican girl sitting in the desk ahead of mine with the delicate silver crucifix, a Confirmation gift, hanging on her angora sweater, to the sisters next door who rushed off every Thursday evening after supper to the United Church in the next street, their distinctive CGIT [Canadian Girls in Training] white middies and blue ties marking them as their God’s own flying squad of virtue. But they were all nevertheless to me citizens of a republic of faith which was ubiquitous and intelligible, in a word, Protestant. They were in and of the world.  The Ukrainian Orthodox were not Protestant, and perhaps not even Western. We genuflected in front of an icon screen under a dome from which glowered the Pantocrator, the Lord of the Universe, and we worshipped in a Divine Liturgy lettered in Cyrillic, and named for a fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, while a bearded priest in glittering gold and white vestments swung a smoking censer around like a yo-yo.

 But in the Spring of 2008, while visiting churches in London, Bath and York over a month, I came to realize that the sweet and kindly normality of the Protestants of Edmonton had been purchased at a shocking price.

Green Park, one of London’s swath of greenery known as the Royal Parks, was, in March, promising Spring with its bushes in bud and the long tendrils of the Weeping Willows only just showing their new green sheen, although daffodils bloomed in masses on the green lawns. “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” then sat awhile on a bench to read, in Peter Ackroyd’s literary companion to London, about 16th century executions not far from here in Tyburn. Knowing that the Tyburn River once flowed where the stands of trees I admired from my bench now stood, my interest quickened.

Shortly after the events of the execution of Carthusian martyrs at Tyburn in 1535, Dom Maurice Chauncy, himself a Carthusian monk, wrote The Passion and Martyrdom of the Holy English Carthusians, and it was from this text, translated in 1935, that I read and learned of Carthusian martyrs. There were five of them, their bodies “tightly fastened with cruel cords” and dragged by horses to Tyburn, the well-known place of public execution. First to mount the cart, which stood under the gallows, was the venerable Father Houghton, “our father and our prior worthy of every title of respect, prior of the London Charterhouse.” As was the custom, the executioner kneeled before him and “craved pardon for the cruel death which he was going to inflict.”[1]

Of cruel deaths during Tudor England I knew something, from school textbooks and historical dramas on television and in the movies, and from those untraceable sources in the slurry of Anglo-Canadian culture in which everyone was immersed until the 1960s: Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, beheaded in 1535 for treason, dying as “the king’s good servant, but God’s first;” Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, editor of the Book of Common Prayer, burned at the stake in 1556 in Oxford (Oxford!); and with him, legions of unrepentant Protestants tortured and burned alive during the reign of the satisfyingly-named Bloody Mary (1553-1558). But of these tender Carthusians I knew nothing.

It is a pitiable story. Founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, the Carthusians established a Charterhouse or monastery outside the walls of London in the late 1370s principally to pray for the souls of those thousands who had died in the plague known as the Black Death. That’s what they were about, these monks: reading and writing and praying in enclosed monasteries, virtual hermits in their daily round of meditation, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and weeding in the garden. In fact, they had first been invited to England in 1182 by Henry II, anxious to pay penance for the murder of Thomas Becket.

Now here at the gallows they gave up some of their own, to Henry VIII and his rage against pious Catholics and clergy who would not bend to his Act of Supremacy passed by a compliant Parliament in 1534. Unable to move the Pope to annul his marriage of eighteen years with Catherine of Aragon (who had produced no male heir) in favour of marriage with the pregnant Anne Boleyn, Henry, by expedient act of a loyal Parliament, which severed ties with the papacy, became head of the Church of England.  Monasteries were forcibly dissolved and their communities dispersed. The King’s commissioners traveled from one location to another, leaving behind workmen to rip out gutters and rainpipes, melt lead, pull down bells and smash them to pieces with sledgehammers, the easier to transport the valuable metal in barrels. Monastic buildings were almost literally torn apart for their building stone, relics destroyed from ransacked tombs, and treasures carted away. The books in the great libraries of Worcester Priory and the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York were stripped of their leather bindings, the pages sold off by the cartload to those who found a use for them – “…some to serve theyr jakes [privy], some to scoure candlesticks, and some to rubbe thyr bootes.”[2] The lovely parish church in the village of Wellow, county Somerset, lost its fifteenth-century Rood Screen separating chancel from nave, with its green, red and gold paneling and its precious carving of pomegranate and vine. At the sacred pilgrimage site of Glastonbury, home to the medieval saints Patrick, Dunstan, Benedict, David and Bridget, the abbot was tried for treason, then hanged and dismembered.

By 1540, only one ghostly monastery was left standing in all of England and Wales, “an astonishing act of bureaucratic destruction……the most audacious act of vandalism in England in centuries,” according to a recent history of the dissolution of the Benedictine monastery in Durham, 1539.[3]

The Carthusians, obeying their conscience, refused the oath “by God Almighty” that Henry was the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England. Not even Henry’s royal commissioners, on their visit to the monastery, could force the oath out of them.

“[Father Houghton] was ordered to mount a cart placed just beneath the gallows on which he was to be hanged. Meekly he obeyed the cruel order. Then some man of note, one of the King’s council present by the King’s order, asked him if he would submit to the King’s command and will and the public edict. ‘If you will, on the King’s behalf I promise you pardon and life; if not, you see what a cruel death awaits you.’ The invincible soldier of Christ made answer before the people gathered in countless numbers to gaze at the tragedy: ‘I call to witness heaven and earth and God the Lord of heaven and earth, and before you, my beloved, I make confession…that my disobedience, if it deserves the name of disobedience, in refusing consent to your King and his law, arises not from malice or obstinacy or wish to rebel, but from the fear of God, King of Kings and Judge eternal lest I may offend His glorious majesty’.” [4]

And so, of his prior Father Houghton, Dom Maurice, who had himself signed the Oath and was to live years of self-loathing, wrote that “he made a rich sacrifice of sweet savour in return for an attack on truth and justice.” [5]

The bodies of the five executed men were then mutilated and disemboweled, “but the slayers, though their task was over, found more savage work to do. They cut off each head and mangled the bodies by quartering. All the portions – the principal object was to horrify the spectators – they parboiled in cauldrons. Finally, they hung them on gates or elsewhere in public places.”[6] Nine monks, sentenced to Newgate Prison, died there of starvation, eventually.

I closed Ackroyd’s book, stunned.

In public school I had studied the history of the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and eventually became familiar with the head-spinning proliferation of Protestant churches into sects, communes, cells and utopian colonies. And yet I was still unprepared for the violence that descended on Christians and their churches in the transformation from Catholicism to Protestantism, visible even now in the churches I was visiting. Through narratives of the centuries-long dominance of the Ottoman Empire over parts of Orthodox Christian Europe, I was used to the idea of non-Christian assaults on “our” churches, of the “them” and “us” of Orthodox Christianity: Muslim and Christian, Crescent and Cross, mosque and basilica, minaret and dome. But in contemplating the violent, physical internecine conflict in the west, I was reminded vividly of the frenzied atheism of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and later the purge of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – church buildings desecrated or turned into granaries and abbatoirs, priests sentenced to penal servitude, and a vulgar state campaign denouncing prayer, liturgy, alms, and sacrament.

In 1934, the stupendous eleventh-century cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv housed the Spartacus Brewery: to one writer who walked around its frescoed interior, the ancient walls now exuded “the sour smell of hops and malt.”[7] In 1943, in wartime Moscow, exiled Ukrainian film-maker Aleksander Dovzhenko, despondent in the grey, cold city, made a list in his notebook of the monuments of architecture that, in his lifetime, had been destroyed in Kyiv. He listed twenty-three, including monasteries, academies, churches, and even whole streets. He named no perpetrators, no guilty parties; only the “twentieth century” stood accused: “It has ridden roughshod over the remains of the nineteenth, seventeenth, and eleventh centuries, leaving debris, a crippled land, and disgusting stone boxes.” [8]On the site of the demolished belfry of the Piatnytska [Good Friday] church in Chernihiv, ancient city upstream form Kyiv, former seat of princes and bishops, the city council decided in 1963 to erect a public lavatory.

But at least there was recuperation, eventually, in the East: the Turks driven out of Europe, the Bolsheviks consigned to the dust bin of History, and the belfries rebuilt.

I reopened the Ackroyd book to an excerpt from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (first published in 1563) about the first Protestant martyr, John Rogers, executed twenty years after the Carthusians, at Smithfield, well east of Tyburn just outside the city walls on a smooth field already notorious as an execution site for political foes of the State. It was also the site of a cattle market hard by the Carthusian Charterhouse, long since dissolved.

John Rogers, who had abjured his Catholic faith, preached against “pestilent Popery, idolatry and superstition” in the dangerous time of Mary I’s restoration of medieval heresy laws. He was duly sent to the stake and, in the familiar narrative of martyrology, went there “as if he had been led to a wedding.” He did not endure the fire that roasted his flesh so much as bathe in it: “he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water. And, after lifting up his hands unto heaven, not removing the same until such time as the devouring fire had consumed them – most mildly this happy martyr yielded up his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father.” Foxe called this the Protestants’ “first adventure upon the fire.”[9]

In the end, John Rogers’ adventure prevailed. There would be no reunion with Rome. As in the waning days of Imperial Rome and the conflagration of the Christian martyrs in massacres that did not stop (in the eastern empire) until 304, it was these burnings and the heroism of their victims which helped to harden the hearts of the people against their Catholic Queen.

Looking back from the pyre at Smithfield, I would come to see that in those twenty-one short years since the passage of the Act of Supremacy, the ultimate success of the revolution against the catholicity of the Holy See was foreordained, so radical were its transformations not just of canon and doctrine but also of the humble, everyday practices of the faithful.

Catholic icons are destroyed at St Paul’s 1538-1559: Saturday 12 August [1559] the aulter in Paul’s, with the rood, and Marye and John in the rood-loft, were taken downe…This moneth allso, on the Eeven of St Bartlemewe, the daye and the morrowe after, were burned in Paules Church-yarde, Cheape and divers other places of London, all the roodes and images that stoode in the parishe churches. In some places the coapes , vestments, aulter clothes, bookes, banners, sepulchres, and other ornaments of the churches were burned….[10]

It was the second year of the reign of Elizabeth, who had just been confirmed Supreme Governor of the Church of England and who was embarked on a program of reversals of her Catholic half-sister’s reign, dismissing bishops whose replacements then protested loudly against the reintroduction of icons, crucifixes and roods in the Church of England.

After the rood-lofts, it was the turn of vestments, statues and stone altars. A new version of the Book of Common Prayer was introduced in the Anglican services, which were now compulsory to attend. But there were still many Catholics in the realm who hid their chalices and candlesticks and holy images, and prayed furtively before them. What is loot to one faction is a dearly-loved memento of faithfulness to the other. Even Elizabeth understood the diplomacy if not the psychology of it.

Elizabeth I interrupts a sermon at St Paul’s 1565: The day was Ash Wednesday, 1565, and the Queen had come in person to Paul’s Cross accompanied by the Spanish ambassador. She was doubtless anxious not to embarrass her companion and was consequently not pleased when the dean, in the course of his sermon, condemned the use of images, handling his subject “very roughly.”  “Leave that alone,” Elizabeth shouted from her seat. The zealous preacher did not hear and continued his tirade. “To your text, Mr. Dean,” she cried, her voice growing more angry, “To your text! Leave that; we have heard enough of that! To your subject!” The unfortunate Dr. Nowell completely lost his nerve…quite unable to continue. Elizabeth stamped off in a rage with the ambassador. The congregation, at least so we are told, were in tears.[11]

The dean’s zealousness is impressive, given the decisive victory of the reforming forces over the old order. Didn’t Dr. Nowell realize that he had long ago won the war as well as the battle?

On my own visit to St Paul’s – while a little celestial choir of white-robed Estonians sing antiphons in Latin under the great dome – I feel almost surreptitious as I make out prophets, but no saints, wrought into the iron of the gates which flank the high altar, and the Virgin Mary in a discreet nativity scene in a stained-glass window in the apse. That the Mother of God should have to be so modestly remembered while that sappy Holman Hunt painting of a dewy Teutonic Christ in lantern light, The Light of the World (1853), is given such prominence in the cathedral baffles me.

During the Cromwellian revolution, when kings fell alongside saints, and the monarchical institution known as the Church of England still stank of Rome to some, St Paul’s cathedral nave was turned into a cavalry barrack and stable. “From Inigo Jones’s noble portico the statues of the two kings (James I and Charles I) were tumbled ignominiously down, and dashed to pieces. The portico was let out for mean shops, to seamstresses and hucksters, with chambers above and staircases leading to them….The pavement was trampled by horses, the tombs left to the idle amusement of the rude soldiers, who, even if religious, were not much disposed to reverence the remains of a Popish edifice…”[12]

If I was indignant on behalf of the much-abused Church of England during this Puritan interregnum, it was in part because I already knew the details of a much earlier assault, Christian-on-Christian, in the twelfth-century Byzantine city, Thessalonica, occupied by brutish Normans from the West. Citizens fled to the Basilica of St Demetrius, but the Normans had got there first, offering up slaughtered priests as mock sacrifices, hurling icons to the ground, stomping on them or breaking them up as firewood. They ripped the silver off the saint’s tomb.

“Even more unholy, and terrible for the faithful to hear,” wrote contemporary chronicler Niketas Chroniates, “was the fact that certain men climbed on top of the holy altar, which even the angels find hard to look upon, and danced thereon, deporting themselves disgracefully as they sang lewd barbarian songs from their homeland. Afterwards, they uncovered their privy parts and let the membrum virile pour forth the contents of the bladder, urinating round about the sacred floor…”[13]



Bath Literary Festival 2008: my visit to friends coincides with the Festival and, as it happens, with an event on the Saturday afternoon in the lovely apple-green and gilt Georgian ballroom of the city’s Guildhall. The Festival has announced a new sponsor, Highland Park Whiskey, and we are offered a tot from a silver tray as we enter the Hall. Very civilized, I remark to my friend. Civilization is all around: I learn that the Stuart-era Guildhall’s period rooms are available to rent to film companies (all those Jane Austen costume dramas, I suppose), which is appropriate given the 150 years’-worth of  celebrations, balls and plays that took place here, a real community centre for the rising bourgeoisie.

The Festival event features an on-stage interview with two authors of recent books about 17th-century English history. The Cambridge historian John Adamson has written The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles 1, a subject of vague familiarity to me but clearly still lively for British readers. It is a new examination of the political crisis that led to the overthrow and execution of King Charles I, and Adamson describes for us his excitement when he had come upon heretofore unpublished archives which helped him make his provocative case: that it was members of the English nobility who were in fact guardians of the nation’s “ancient constitution” so grievously flouted by Charles I and his Catholic wife who tried to gain the upper hand in Parliament. Puritan noblemen also feared the restoration of “popery” under the King’s high-handed Bishop Laud. It was a stand-off – Parliament vs Church and State – that would lead to civil war. The civil war may be said to have started the day the loyalists around Charles raised their standards at Nottingham on 22 August 1641, while London was held by a wildly popular Puritan mayor.

Adamson: “Why is there something different in my book as opposed to earlier interpretations? The Civil War is the key event of the last five hundred years: fighting on a matter of principle and on course to adopt a parliamentary monarchy form of government, forestalling bloody republican revolutions. How you viewed this framed how you oriented to contemporary politics. Ever since, everyone refights the civil war.

“Until recently, the House of Commons and the gentry have been seen as the driving forces of the War, embroiled in class conflict. I’ve put aside those ideological nostrums and gone back to the archives, which haven’t in fact been exhausted. Who were the figures that mattered to their contemporaries? A totally different set of characters than the ones we usually read about.”

As I don’t have any such set of characters in my own Canadian head, I am a disinterested but alert listener.

“In fact, the dominant political group remains the nobility. Why were they revolting? These aren’t just disgruntled barons but a group – all grandsons of the first Earl of Essex – asserting for the people not just for themselves. A populist explosion. What they set out to do is quite astonishing: the personal monarchy is unsustainable, and they almost achieve a republican aristocracy, as among the Dutch and in Venice. They want a king who is a Venetian Doge…and Parliament backs them in 1640.” Doge. Chief magistrate elected for life by the aristocracy.

Adrian Tinniswood is a professional writer who has also been mucking about in the archives, in his case a stash of some 30,000 letters found in an upstairs gallery of a country house in Buckinghamshire. From these he has fashioned a 592-page saga of a family torn asunder by the Civil War, The Verneys: Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England. Where the donnish Adamson has delivered a stirring lecture as though to a group of bright History majors, Tinniswood is at home with a camera in his face. He’s been interviewed many many times in television studios.

Adrian Tinniswood: “As the story unfolds in letters – I read them on microfiche in the British Library – of Mary Verney dying at 34, I felt, for the first time as a nonfiction writer of ten books that I wanted the story to turn out differently. I didn’t want her to die.

“The Verneys, Ralph and Mary, were 15- and 13 years-old when they married – an arranged dynastic merger – but they were deeply devoted to each other. Ralph outlived Mary by some fifty grieving years.

“The War ruined the Verneys. The patriarch, Sir Edmund, was a luke-warm Puritan but honour required him as a courtier to follow the King. It was to him that the royal standard was entrusted at Nottingham, and he died defending it. But his eldest son, Sir Ralph, did not take the King’s part, he took Parliament’s part, causing a terrible rift in the family. Matters of conscience transcend even family loyalties. The other son, Sir Edmund, had joined with his father, and was then killed by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers when they massacred a garrison in Ireland during Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland.

“The Verneys are fascinating. The family founder, Sir Francis, walked out on his wife in 1608 and kept on walking, to Morocco where he converted to Islam and became a Barbary Coast pirate.”

John Adamson: “All the interesting sources are in places where people haven’t chosen to look, for example at Buckminster Park, an estate owned by a branch of the family descended from Charles I’s whipping boy. The top letter in the stash was signed in Charles’s hand.”

On the way back to my friends’ I stop at a shop to buy a slab of Pennard Ridge, a fine local goat cheese which, for its long-ago association with a monastery dairy, gone all gone, puts me in mind again of what the Protestants have wrought.


The Domesday Book of 1086 records that a monastery church was situated where the much-restored Southwark Cathedral stands on the south bank of the Thames. The Cathedral’s foundations date to the thirteenth century, and I glimpse them in the excavation dug out from an exterior wall before I enter the nave, and take a deep breath as I look up the soaring shafts and flutes of Gothic columns aiming for the light. After years of immersing myself in Byzantine architectural space – in churches, monasteries, basilicas and chapels throughout the Balkans, ensconced within the dim light and nooks and crannies of the cruciform nave, four equal arms of a right-angled cross, all its surfaces darkened by blackened icons and frescoes, and where I fairly crouched under the dome of the heavens – I am exhilarated.

Southwark had begun as a trading place – Southvirki – held by the Danes along with strategic possession of a castle, bulwarks, ditches, and a bridge across the Thames. The Danes were Christians but this did not prevent King Aethelred the Unready seeking the help in 1014 of the Christian Norwegian King Olaf to confound them: Olaf’s fleet managed to sail under the bridge, where they tied cables around the piles from their ships, then sailed off: London Bridge is broken down, Gold is won, and bright renown…Odin makes our Olaf win.[14] Odin?

There has been a parish for a thousand years named by the grateful English for Olaf. My friend and I are seated in a pew at St Olave’s, within spitting distance of the fogged-up Thames, balancing a plate of lasagna and a glass of red wine while we wait for the posted event to start: “DON’T MISS: Parallel Lives – Companions in the City. Who Pepys knew and whom he didn’t! Milton-Dryden-Marvell-Bunyan and much much more. Every 1st Monday of the month in 2008; 6:15 for food and wine; 6:45 talk, readings, music.” I look around this softly-lit, well-proportioned space, grateful for the western church’s cheerful gift to world civilization of stained glass windows. There are poignant wall plaques in memory of the lamented dead: to Peter Capponi, who “endured with constancy the exile which he suffered, the victim of an unjust fate,” a Florentine gentleman dead of the Plague in 1582, aged 32. “He endured with constancy the exile which he suffered, the victim of an unjust fate.” To Sir Andrew Riccard, “a citizen and opulent merchant of London, frequently chosen chairman of the Hon. East-India Co.” d 1672. To Samuel Pepys himself, “erected 1883 by public subscription.”

St Olave’s,  a medieval church that survived the Great Fire of 1666, was Pepys’s parish and it was here on several Sundays in 1663 that he squirmed while his wife Elizabeth’s dancing master, Mr. Pembleton, “leered” at her throughout the sermon from his own seat, and Pepys “realized that she had become uncharacteristically eager to attend both services at St Olave’s.” So writes Pepys’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, who also describes the horrors of the Great Plague as it ravaged London, and how, when Pepys returned from the more salubrious environment of Greenwich, in January 1666, “he was frightened by the sight of the churchyard at St. Olave’s, in which the graves were piled high; more than three hundred burials had taken place during the previous six months.”[15] Elizabeth has her own monument – she died at twenty-nine of unassuageable fever in 1669 – a marble bust fastened high on a wall which shows her wide-eyed, her mouth slightly open, as though caught in a moment of animated conversation. Pepys never remarried.

Our lecturer is Graham Fawcett, poet, editor, translator and radio presenter, and his aim is to bring to light the connections between these two parishioners of St Olave’s, John Milton and Samuel Pepys. It is a bit of a stretch, as Milton (1608- 1674) was already twenty-nine, a Cambridge graduate, a poet and a multi-linguist when Pepys was born in 1633. But they shared a schooling at St Paul’s independent public school, and an innovative literary bent. Fawcett: “Milton was a poet, scholar, teacher; radical republican, politician, propagandist; criminal and diabolical radical. He was the first to write an epic in blank verse in English. Pepys invented the diary.”

In 1649, Charles I was beheaded, an event that was to turn everyone’s life in London upside-down. Pepys, a fifteen-year-old bystander, was an enthusiastic anti-royalist who, after the Restoration in 1660, would be always nervous about being exposed as a “Roundhead” sympathiser. Milton served the Puritan and Parliamentary causes and became Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of Foreign Tongues. But after Cromwell’s death in 1658 – Pepys was still just a frustrated clerk in the Exchequer – the monarchy was restored, and Milton experienced the full “tyranny” of the Restoration: poets rushed to acclaim Charles II, Milton’s books were burned by the Hangman, and he was in fear for his life, and in fact was briefly imprisoned. “If it wasn’t for the poet and MP Andrew Marvell, who spoke in favour of Milton in the Parliament, we wouldn’t have the later works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes,” Fawcett elaborates. “It was only Marvell’s intervention that saved Milton from execution. By then, Marvell argued, Milton was old and blind and posed no threat to Charles II.” Blind, loyal to the end, he walked behind Cromwell’s funeral cortege in 1658, right through the street where, perhaps peeking through the curtains, the Pepyses lived.

Milton lived in quiet retirement with his third wife, and composed Paradise Lost, written “within a stone’s throw from the #38 bus route to Victoria Station, and was buried in St Giles Cripplegate (#43 bus),” Fawcett explains as though consulting a London Transport map, then adds that it was Karl Marx who said that the reason Milton wrote Paradise Lost was the same reason a silkworm makes silk: “It was an activity of his nature.”


The very young Milton could have seen Shakespeare on his way to the Globe Theatre along Bread St, working on Act IV scene 4 of The Winter’s Tale. (Shakespeare died in 1616.) Or Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern. Years apart, he and Pepys walked the same streets, breathed the same air. “It was a phenomenal time for the Mother Tongue” – and Fawcett cites the critic George Steiner – “when English stood at high noon.” Yet in 1697 none of Milton’s work was in Pepys’ library. When, twenty-four years after Milton’s death in 1674, an edition of Paradise Lost shows up in Pepys’ library, their “parallel” lives have intersected.

But Milton and Pepys had also lived lives buffeted by political and religious turbulence. The new king did not flinch from chopping off the heads of rebels of the party of the regicides who had executed his father, and mounting their heads on London Bridge. We know from Tomalin that “Pepys was horrified” when he learned that the body of Cromwell was to be dug up from its grave in a vault in Westminster Abbey and hanged on a gallows then decapitated, on the anniversary of Charles I’s execution. The head was stuck on the end of a pole and set up next to the Houses of Parliament. “Every man, woman and child was bound to see it sooner or later; because there it remained, as a warning against rebellion and republicanism, throughout the twenty-five years of Charles II’s reign.”[16]

Cromwell’s head, being embalmed, remained exposed to the atmosphere for twenty-five years, and then one stormy night it was blown down, and picked up by a sentry, who, hiding it under his cloak, took it home and secreted it in the chimney corner. Pestered for years by the Government, it was only on his death-bed that he revealed where he had hid it.

In 2009, visitors to the Abbey were able to view the nineteenth-century stone tablet covering Cromwell’s original grave while the blue carpet that covered it was in a deep freeze at -30° to kill off moth larvae. The thing is: was his decapitated corpse reinterred there? And where is the skull? It had passed to a series of opportunists who exhibited it in marketplaces and museums and finally into the care of Mr Wilkinson, “a medical man,” according to Peter Ackroyd’s A Traveller’s Companion to London, another amiable text for the literary flâneur in Westminster Abbey. And what did Mr Wilkinson do with it?[17]



Aethelred, begotten by Edgar the Peaceful, begat Edward the Confessor.

O God, who didst call thy servant Edward to an earthly Throne that he might advance thy heavenly kingdom, and didst give him zeal for thy Church and love for thy people: Mercifully grant that we who commemorate him this day may be fruitful in good works, and attain to the glorious crown of thy saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.[18]

Though he had died in 1066, Servant Edward, Confessor and ever since Patron Saint of the Royal Family, was ultimately interred in Westminster Abbey in 1269, his body still uncorrupted. He was the Abbey’s founder, and his Christian piety was such that when he wed Edwida, it was on the condition that they live chastely as brother and sister; and it was in the week before his death that he had rededicated the Norman Benedictine monastery church of St Peter’s (known as the “west minster”). His funeral procession can be seen on a panel of the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, four men in tunics carrying his bier on their shoulders as they walk toward the colonnaded Abbey.

His likewise-colonnaded shrine on a marble base is now unapproachable, protected from a too-numerous and curious public; but perhaps also because of the memory of the desecrations of Oliver Cromwell and the revolution of the Puritans, who had taken away its gold feretory, which contained his coffin, and destroyed his coronation vestments, which had been venerated as holy relics after his canonization.

The Anglicans, however, still keep his feast day, October 13, commemorating the translation of his body to the Abbey. Perhaps a residual memory of the night an Apostle walked among the English haunts them still.

“The dedication of the Abbey (10th century): The night before the dedication, it is related that St Peter, in an unknown garb, showed himself to a fisher on the Surrey side, and bade him carry him over, with promise of reward. The fisher complied, and saw his fare enter the new-built Church of Sebert, that suddenly seemed on fire, with a glow that enkindled the firmament. Meantime, the heavenly host scattered sound and fragrance, the fisher of souls wrote upon the pavement the alphabet in Greek and Hebrew, in twelve places anointed the walls with the holy oil, lighted the tapers, sprinkled the water, and did all else needful for the dedication of a church..” [19]

For the first time since 1964, I visit Westminster Abbey. I make a bee-line for Poets’ Corner, a miniature pilgrimage to the Mother Tongue: Lord Byron, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden – each with a line of memorable verse or prose. I have always adored Dylan Thomas’s sumptuous cadence, “Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea,” and I mouth it before moving on to George Eliot, who pronounces that “the first condition of human goodness is something to love: the second something to reverance,” and that is exactly what I stand here to do, to give thanks for the gift of this tongue which only became mine by the accident of immigration away from my ancestral speech. There had been a time, more than twenty years earlier, when I stood accused and guilty before the ancestors for the catastrophe of not speaking the Ukrainian language – which was never simply a language like other languages, a means of expression, but a carrier, a veritable caravan of cultural and political and psychic goods. It was as though I, unilingual in the diaspora, had stood idly by and watched it go tumbling over a cliff while on its way to the beleaguered colony of countrymen in western Canada.

Eventually, I did learn to express myself in Ukrainian but it is only a learned language, not the Mother Tongue of my education, my literacy, my art. And just as my great-uncle Peter Svarich had once made a pilgrimage to Oxford and Cambridge universities just to be in awe of what they represented to him – the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon intellectual achievement which he had been cut off from in ancestral Galicia (where, however, he did speak Polish and German) – so I stand in the Abbey and look down on a black stone inscribed as a memorial “to Caedmon who first among the English made verses.” His is the first name we have of poets “singing” in their native English, and whose art came to him in a dream while sleeping in a cell at Whitby Abbey in the late seventh century.

The song he dreamt was Caedmon’s Hymn, his only surviving work as far as we know. Now hail we heaven-kingdom’s Lord, the Measurer’s might, and His mind’s thought, the Wonder-father’s work! Of all things He the Living Lord beginning made—ah! [20]

That “ah” holds me, an exhalation when the words run out.

Edward Confessor may be only a shadow of his former reputation but, as I leave the Abbey, I look back at the niches above the west door, which once held medieval saints and apostles, to see figures of Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan friar who voluntarily died in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for Christian opposition to Hitler’s persecution of Jews, and Bishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran good shepherd assassinated during Mass. Twentieth-century martyrs have been raised up in the places emptied of earlier heroes, the apostles, saints, prophets, as though we have periodically to do a kind of Spring cleaning of our spiritual attics, and assign ancestral objects of veneration to the local parish tip.

When you come into the church of St Martin’s in the Fields, you see the memorial to the “victims of injustice and violence during the apartheid era in South Africa” and over the arch to the High Altar the impressive Royal Arms of 1725. Along the north wall is a memorial to the Far Eastern prisoners in the Second World War – many of whom worked on the notorious Railway of Death in Thailand. Two pieces of the railway’s sleepers are preserved in a glass case, relics for a secular age, now that the left hand of John the Baptist, say, has no place in a modern church. But in a monastery in Montenegro, in the Holy Community of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Cetinje, it may be viewed through a small glass window, leathery but beautifully-formed in spite of missing two fingers, and resting on a velvet cushion.“We who venerate it will have our souls watered with life-giving piety,” my host Fr. Jovan had explained, “just as this hand baptized Christ with the water of the Jordan River.”

I’ve arrived at St Martin’s in time for Evening Prayer, and join a rather battered-looking and bewildered middle-aged man, a very fat young woman who periodically nods off, and the gray-haired vicar who wears the clerical collar, mannish trousers and shoes of her calling. Of hymns we sang not a note, for prayer we stood for none except when directed; but there were canticles, including the Magnificat, to chant, remnants of far older worship. A few days later, I am back, again for Evening Prayer, and again there are three of us, all women. Two lighted candles have been placed on a simple table and the “prayer director” mumbles into his prayer book as we each bow our heads over ours. The Book of Common Worship, which I have picked up, falls open at February 14, Cyril and Methodius Lesser Festival, for the two Greek brothers who translated Scripture into the language of the Slavs newly-arrived into the Christian cosmos. If it were February 14, we should sing this Collect/Kontakion in their honour, the short prayer for the day: “Lord of all, who gave to your servants Cyril and Methodius the gift of tongues to proclaim the gospel to the Slavs, make your whole church one as you are one, that all Christians may honour one another, and east and west acknowledge one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

Hallelulia! I move my lips to this prayer but wonder if it is ever said at all any more in this era of modern, “reformed” worship in the west? Am I the sound of one mouth mouthing?

It is very difficult now to reconstruct an England that had once been part of Catholic, let alone Orthodox, Europe, just as – come to think of it – it is almost impossible to reconstruct in today’s Balkan countries, now proudly etched into maps as singular ethnic and Orthodox entities, the fact that they had once been part of a multiconfessional Empire under the Ottoman Turks: minarets, madrasahs, synagogues, bathhouses, markets, cemeteries, all, all gone. I remember a friend’s bitter reminiscence in the ancient Bulgarian city, Plovdiv, of how under the strata of two thousand years of Christianity lies the rubble of Roman and Greek cultures, of how, as a student on summer archaeological digs, excavating Christian-era streets, he had been heart-broken to find the marble head of a beautiful Roman girl used as paving stone.

But the amount of sheer extraction from these maps gestures toward the fullness of the originals, some earlier and much more expansive space of European Christianity, where the cultures of east and west recognized a common matrix from which they had emerged, well before the Protestants of England in the Thirty-nine Articles of their faith abjured the ancient sacraments, the sacrifices of the Masses and the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome which had once bound them to this common narrative.



I am a baptized Orthodox Christian, for whom the Reformation is an event in the history of western Christianity. For eastern Christians, the great rupture within the one holy, universal (i.e. catholic) and apostolic Church occurred much earlier, in 1054. It is the date of the Great Schism, when both arms of the Church, in Rome and Constantinople, pronounced anathemas on each other. In that first olympian gesture of ecclesiastical overhaul, Cardinal Humbert, legate of the Pope, and Patriarch of Constantinople, Cerularius, excommunicated each other, forever – as it turned out – alienating Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches. (The anathemas were not rescinded until 1965 at a meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI).

Efforts east and west to reunite the two great Christian ekklesia were not in fact abandoned until the fall of “the Queen of Cities,” Constantinople, in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, but the irreperable damage had been done. Pressed hard and then overwhelmed by the forces of Ottoman Turkey – no “popish” excesses here when churches were even forbidden refurbishment – Orthodox Christians lamented and cursed their fate, increasingly embittered over the indifference of the western churches. They remembered the violence of Schismatic rhetoric and the trauma of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Crusaders. The assault of Christian armies upon a Christian power and one of the patriarchal seats of the Church was horrific: rape and pillage, desecration and looting, fire and sword.“I would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of the city than the Latin mitre,” protested Byzantine writer Nicetas Choniates.Even the Saracens are merciful and kind, compared with these men who bear the Cross of Christ on their shoulders.”[21] At the fall of Constantinople in 1453, as though it were an offense to the natural world itself, lamentations rose up from Armenian, Italian and Hebrew singers, all of them grief-stricken by the loss of the Second Rome, which had held sway on the Bosphorus for almost a thousand years and over many peoples. Now “in the desolate valleys, they are embracing dunghills, as the earth herself laments. There shall be a consumption in the midst of the land, for the earth is utterly broken down.”[22]

St. Gregory Nazianzen: And now I rove Estranged and desolate a foreign shore, And drag my mournful life and age all hoar Throneless and cityless…Living from day to day on wandering feet. Where shall I cast this body?  What will greet My sorrows with an end? What gentle ground And hospitable grave will wrap me round?…The air interpose, And scatter these words too.[23]

But their words were not entirely scattered, because many Byzantine artists, poets, philosophers and teachers fled to Italy where, with the dissemination of the Greek and Latin texts they brought with them, they are credited with inspiring in turn the European Renaissnance’s rediscovery of Classical humanism. Venice already boasted the 11th century Byzantine basilica of St Mark (adorned with treasures looted from the Sack of Constantinople) with its glories of fresco, mosaic and gold; and I think I see a conscious evocation of this in the Great Screen in Southwark Cathedral’s Choir erected in 1520, so  reminiscent of the icon screens of Byzantine-rite churches with their tiers or bands of holy images. The Reformation had forbidden all statuary and so the niches of the Great Screen remained empty of religious figures. But in 1930 the lower panel was gilded and a new panel, inspired by a panel in Venice’s St Mark’s, was added, with depictions of the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church. Mirabile dictu, historical memory! Once upon a time, after all, Christians of this realm did not flinch at the sounds of Greek in their sanctuaries and did uncover their foreheads for the anointing with holy oil and filled their humble clay vessels with blessed water while St Peter himself walked the paving stones.

Popish? I suppose critics meant the splendour, the grandiosity, the ornamentation, forgetting that what is pleasing to the eye may also be a conduit to the spirit. Churches with icons understand this, how the beautiful image meditated upon acts as a sort of hinge between the temporal and the eternal, and how the gold of its surfaces represents the brilliance of celestial light. In Westminster Abbey, I had noticed two very large icons placed outside the Choir, a Christ Pantocrator (Lord of the Universe) and a Theotokos (Mother of God), whose Byzantine presence in this most venerable shrine of the Church of England startled me, as it did an Anglican friend, who told me she wanted to throw them down and blow out the votive candles to boot. She muttered in exasperation, “Don’t they know we broke away from Rome!” But it seems to me that it is not just “Rome” she wants to have broken from but from all of ancient Christianity which wrote icons as early as the fourth century.

Not a year later after my visit to the Abbey, the spiritual head of the Church of England, Dr. Rowan Williams, said of icons: “Religious art in particular mustn’t just be representational of a day-to-day world but must somehow connect with the ‘dwelling of the light’, quite a challenge for westerners trying to make religious art today.”[24]

The Byzantine ecclesiastics used the terminology, “bright sadness,” the sorrow and the hope on which the gaze of the prayerful rest.

By the time Westminster Abbey was rebuilt in the thirteenth century, the high point of Byzantine art in the Balkans had been reached, in the churches and monasteries of Ohrid, Macedonia (now a UNESCO World Heritage site). And by the fifteenth century Byzantium could look back on a thousand years of artistic achievement, most of it inspired by the teaching and patronage of the Church.

The Royal Academy’s exhibit of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder has created something of a fuss in the London media. Royal Academy posters showing his Eve in the Garden, a high-breasted, slim-waisted, full-thighed, hairless beauty, with her nakedness draped in a diaphanous strip of see-through silk, had caused an uproar when they were plastered all over the Underground. But what I was not prepared for was the intensity of his paint. The blacks are pitch, to the point of emitting sulpher, the reds/burgundies are blood-coloured, the textiles are palpably fur, velvet, brocade, wool, and their embroidery and stitchery and jewellery lure the eye straight into their warp and woof. Figures are posed every which way in the cheek-by-jowl crowd scenes, mouths gaping, arms akimbo; and although the men are depicted with pitiless personality, the women strike nary a variation on Chastity/Fidelity and Seduction/Duplicity.

Cranach was a die-hard Protestant and worked with his close friend Martin Luther on his German Bible as well as issuing his pamphlets from his own printing press. He was also commissioned to do portraits of sombre burghers, and seems to have taken a dislike to real women. Some reviewers see in Cranach’s women a “celebration” of the female form “in all its alluring, fertile, nurturing glory.” [25] But perhaps his sexless, vapid females – as I see them – are simply how Protestantism now represented certain canonical subjects, female fleshiness such as the womb of the Mother of God and her milky breasts having gone the way of other Catholic excesses.

The other revelation was that he painted in the early 1500s, and is called a Renaissance master, but he seems much earlier, given his awkward, gawky humanism. Perhaps this is the gawkiness of the apprentice’s flourishes adapted from the Byzantine masters whose ancient, sophisticated and treasure-laden world was fading from Western view.

Did the two worlds not once know of each other? I stand in western, Protestant churches and wave back at that old world, trying to summon it into view. It is the sheer loneliness of the effort, though, which is becoming an agony.

In Westminster Abbey I visited the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I. Only Elizabeth is represented in effigy but we are assured both are interred within. I decipher part of the Latin inscription: “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection.” In 1977 an inscription was added to the floor pavement and so I read: “Near the tomb of Mary and Elizabeth remember before God all those who divided at the Reformation by different convictions laid down their lives for Christ and conscience’s sake.” We  may very well wish to compose such a prayer here. But where can I pray for those divided by the Great Schism of 1054?

And for those, a thousand years earlier, who were the first of the Church’s martyrs, the first to lay down their lives “for Christ and conscience’s sake,” the ones tortured, beheaded, burned at the stake in the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, especially savage in the east? St Polycarp, a bishop martyred in 155, defied the Roman proconsul in the stadium in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) and confessed, cheerful, even joyful – the stake and kindling were already prepared – to being a Christian. “You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Bring forth what you wish.”[26]

And for those in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) who built a church of St Sophia in the fourth century, in ruins under the now-impenetrable layer of stones, to which Constantine the Great, venerated in the East as the first Christian emperor, summoned the bishops to hammer out a common statement of faith and belief. I once stood on the site, within the ruins of  a later church, and crouched before a faintly-coloured fresco showing Mary and St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) who, together with Christ in Majesty, form the iconographic subject known as Deisis (Greek for “supplication”). These are the same Mary and John carved into so many rood-lofts in pre-Reformation churches in England, and which had caused such offense. But when Constantine summoned the bishops and they came, he did not release them until they had promulgated the Nicene Creed. Even Anglicans still accept this Creed as their profession of faith. But they’ve thrown out the rood-loft!

In 988, in the waters of the Dnipro River which flowed through the many-hilled city Kyiv, seat of the newly-Christian prince Volodymyr, throngs of men, women and children were baptized en masse while the totems of the old gods were smashed to smithereens. Where they stood rose churches in the Byzantine model and to serve them Greek-speaking patriarchs from Constantinople. I used to think, as a child, this happened a very long time ago, eons older than anything I knew of history anywhere else. But now I know better. Not even the Slavs who lived in Kyiv in the tenth century were as old as the Saxons and Angles and their Church in England, nor was their Christian faith yet so deeply rooted.

Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People [In 597] St Gregory the Great, being moved by divine inspiration, about the one hundred and fiftieth year after the coming of the English into Britain, sent the servant of God, Augustine, and with him several other monks who feared the Lord, to preach the word of God to the English nation.[27]


What follows is a disjointed time-line of conversions among the peoples of Britain long after the Romans had decamped, although the British had their first martyr in St Alban in 209 while the Empire still had the teeth to persecute Christians. Canterbury, Iona, Lindisfarne, King Arthur, St Cuthbert, are all legendary names even to those, like me, who claim no inheritance from them. London had its first Bishop, Mellitus, in 604, and the monks of Lindisfarne had their own superbly illuminated Gospels by 715. (We are still 273 years away from the conversion of the Slavs of Rus in the Dnipro). In 960 (28 years away) Dunstan, Bishop of London, established a Benedictine community on the site of Westminster Abbey, so we can be sure (according to the visitor’s guide) that God has been worshipped on this site for over a thousand years.

So it is not a trick or foolishness of overheated piety to confess a certain degree of nostalgia and yearning for what had once been imagined as one world, a shared cosmos of symbol, gesture, reverie, even as nobles beat serfs like clods of earth, priests chose Mammon over the salvation of souls, and the Kingdom of God, evoked in the opening of lines of the Eastern Liturgy – “Blessed be the kingdom of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever, unto ages of ages” – was not yet here, no, not in our lives yet, but was there, beyond our deaths.[28]


In Yorkshire in 1536, an army of some 30,000 gathered – men of the great families of the north, and yeomen, country gentry, freeholders and leaseholders – to march, as the Pilgrimage of Grace, under linen banners inscribed with the five wounds of Christ.

The Church had denounced the enclosing of common land for private sheep pastures but to no avail; tenant farmers and their families were being summarily evicted. Away from London, whose parish churches and university colleges received donations formerly deposited at the monasteries, communities were bereft of the charitable works once performed by the eight hundred local abbeys and convents. Where were the indigent, the lame, the abandoned, the sick to turn now? Laymen appropriated income from parish tithes. Monastic hospitals, schools and kitchens had closed. Only some fifteen per cent of the wealth that had been expropriated by the Crown had been reinvested as endowments for such good works. One now begins to hear of the packs of “sturdy beggars,” able-bodied men and women roaming the Tudor countryside begging for food.

The pilgrims were not looking to overthrow the King; they wanted the monasteries re-opened and protection from the abuses of the enclosure system. For this, they were called “seditious and traitorous.”

The Tudor Chronicler, Edward Hall, on the insurrection of the northern men of Yorkshire, 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII: They also declared, by their proclamation solemnly made, that their insurrection should extend no further than to the maintenance and defence of the faith of Christ and the deliverance of holy church, sore decayed and oppressed, and to the furtherance also of private and public matters in the realm concerning the wealth of all the king’s poor subjects. They called this, their seditious and traitorous voyage, a holy and blessed pilgrimage.[29]

With an army of less than 10,000, the Duke of Norfolk did not even attempt to fight but, negotiating for the King, promised a pardon for all rebels if they would only disband, as well as a session of Parliament to address their grievances. The Pilgrimage dispersed. But Henry betrayed them. He imposed Martial Law, arrested “rebel” leaders and executed them, hanging them in their chains.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.[30]

There was one more cathedral I wanted to see, in York, a massively-walled city from Roman times (first century CE) which boasts an important Gothic minster. Of the rest of its story I knew nothing but what I read while on the train north from London (e.g. in 1840 this journey would have taken thirteen hours). Its first church was dedicated to St Paul in 627, the city was captured by Vikings in 866 (who left wooden walls now under a shopping mall), there were anti-Semitic riots in 1190, and in 1472 the Minster was completed, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps.

This was another blustery day in early March, but full of sunshine, and I cheerfully made my way up and down streets, some of them laid out in Roman times, aware that three metres below lie the Roman barracks and baths. The fortress was called Eboracum and was once the capital of upper Britain but in 410 the Legions were forced to abandon the place as the entire Empire wobbled under Barbarian incursions along its frontiers. The Roman Empire: once upon a time the great pre-Christian cultural unifier from sea to sea.

York comes from Jorvik, the Viking name for their settlement outside the crumbling walls. At the Jorvik Viking Centre museum, I pay to have a replica of a Viking Age coin struck before my very eyes. It’s a tenth-century coin, and shows a cross, a sword and the hammer of Thor, covering all confessional bases. But, once inside Yorkminster cathedral, I am inside the wholly realized world of medieval western Christianity: built in the shape of the Roman not Greek cross, it is adorned spectacularly with stained glass, a Lady Chapel though Mary herself has been banished from the precincts, the domed octagonal Chapter House; with statues of fifteen kings of England in the Screen, the arms and shields of noble families in the arches, and the tombs of archbishops in the transepts. Thank God for the sun, lighting up the grey and green “grisaille” glass of the window of the Five Sisters, five tall and slender lancets, their panes filled in with the calligraphy of black lines etched into glass as though by text. This is another world away from the lugubrious, gaunt and haunted spirituality of so much of Byzantine Rite iconography.

Inside the Chapter House of the cathedral, the face of the Virgin and the head of the Christ Child on a 13th century monument have both been destroyed but a small carving of Mary suckling her infant has somehow been spared, the men with cudgels perhaps pacified by the tenderness of a mother and child embracing each other. But they did their work above the entrance to the Vestibule, whose empty niches once held statuettes of Christ and the Apostles said to have been made, wantonly, of silver.

A ghost map of medieval York would show all the vanished churches and abbeys suppressed and/or demolished in the period of the Dissolution of Monasteries: the 11th century All Saints at Fishergate had disappeared by 1549; St Gregory in Barker Lane, demolished; St John in Hungate, suppressed; St Mary’s Abbey, founded in 1080, deconstructed in the 16th century stone by stone as a virtual quarry for building sites all over Yorkshire. That St Nicholas in Lawrence Street had been severely damaged in 1644 by Parliamentarian cannon fire in the Civil War – York was held by Royalists – reminded me that, into the tumultuous narrative of Protestantism in England was now added the sub-plot of Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

Outside, I walk slowly around the spectacular circumference of the cathedral when, almost at the entry again, I come across an imposing bronze statue, larger than life size, of a seated Roman figure. In breastplate, he’s clearly a soldier and a regal one at that, with his right arm slung casually along the back of a lion-pawed throne, his left arm resting lightly on the pommel of an enormous sword which he is regarding with transfixed thoughtfulness, as though wondering whether even to wield it. He has a clean-shaven Classic but strong-boned face and a soldier’s short-cropped head. At the sculpture’s base, I read: “Constantine by this sign conqueror.”

Of course! In hoc signo vinces.


By this sign thou shalt conquer: the legendary promise made to Constantine in a dream or vision the night before the fateful Battle of the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber in 312. The next day he was to confront the army of his enemy, the vile and licentious emperor Maxentius; he won that battle and many more after, eventually in 324 to become Constantine the Great, emperor of all Rome, seated in the splendid new capital on the Bosphorus, Constantinople. The promise was “written” in the sign of the chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters in the Greek name for Christ (Christos/ Χριστος).

It was an epic journey which began in 306 very near this spot at what is now the cathedral entrance, when Constantine, who had come to Britain to assist his father, Constantius, in his campaign against the Picts, was immediately proclaimed their leader by the Legionnaires on Constantius’s death. “Where Caesar is there is Rome,” it says on the back of the statue’s base. Even here in Eboracum.

He entered the Empire as the son of a Roman officer and a Greek stable-maid, as a member of the court of Emperor Diocletian under whose watch Christians were savagely persecuted and probably as a devotee of the Persian god of light and truth, Mithras, protector of warriors; and he left it as the protector himself of Christians in the Empire whose civil liberties he recognized, whose churches he patronized, and into whose faith he made a death-bed conversion in 337. According to a plaque attached to the adjacent fence at the cathedral, by this conversion “he established the religious foundations of Western Christendom.” Actually, these were the foundations of all of Christendom, which was still one world. And, remembering this, Orthodox Christians call him, and his mother, Saints. They are often pictured together in icons in the church, the low-born mother at the side of the ruthless emperor, but draped in the long burgundy robes with jewelled borders of the Byzantine court, their heads wreathed in silver haloes, co-founders of a church and a civilization that held sway from the North Sea to the Black Sea and all around the Mediterranean, for a few centuries at least.

Constantine’s Vision of the Cross:  The year was the sixth of Constantine’s sway

Since he was raised up in the Roman kingdom

To be battle-lord and leader in war. […]

He was threatened with war,

Tumult of battle. The Hunnish tribe

And the Hreth-Goths also assembled a host. […]

Then to great Caesar as he lay in slumber […]

To him appeared a beauteous Presence […]

Then Constantine, the glorious king,

Protector of princes and Giver of gifts,

War-lord of armies, bade quickly work

And shape a symbol like the Cross of Christ

As he saw that sign revealed in the heavens.[31]

The Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf, who  may have resided sometime in the ninth century in Northumbria, in a kingdom whose capital was York,  has for his own reasons transposed Constantine’s great battle against the Roman army of Maxentius on the Tiber to a mighty clash with the Huns on the Danube. I suppose, by the ninth century, this seemed a livelier contest. But the Sign of the Cross is still there, and the “fair heavenly form” of his dream, and the standard of the Holy Tree “in the thick of the foe.” In York he is still remembered, and thrillingly, as the soldier. Great but no Saint. It was that Church which claims unbroken inheritance of his legacy, the Church in the East, which gave him the eternal Crown. His soldiers raised him on their shields and called him Augustus, his first biographer, Eusebius Bishop of Caesarea (d. 339), eulogized him “pre-eminent in every virtue that true religion can confer,” but the Church declared him “equal to the Apostles.” There was joy in this as well as reverence, for, as Eusebius tells us, in becoming emperor of all of Roman territory, “in a wide circle embracing north and south alike from the east to farthest west,” and abolishing the persecution of Christians, Constantine had “wiped the world clean from hatred of God,” and his people then “kept dazzling festival; light was everywhere, and men who once dared not look up greeted each other with smiling faces and shining eyes….good things present were enjoyed, those yet to come eagerly awaited.”[32] Not quite the Kingdom of God, but a place to start from: the ecclesia, from the Greek, to call out.


I walked away from Wellow Square, turned down Mill Hill, crossed Wellow Brook over a stone footbridge, turned right onto a bridlepath, walked uphill until a sign indicated “Historic Site of the Stoney Littleton Long Barrow,” and turned right to walk across an open slope, where primroses and daffodils shook in the wind. I could see what I was heading for: a great grassy mound gently rising from a point of elevation which gave a good view all around. Wind whipped me something fierce and spat shredded plastic shopping bags onto the thorns of the hedges lining the lovely course of Wellow Brook below. Sheep safely grazed on the slopes. Besides the flapping of my coat in the buffeting winds, there was total silence, not even a bleat out of the sheep.

A plaque on the encircling fence read: The mound in front of you is the remains of a Neolithic shrine or tomb. It was built about 5000 years ago and probably served a local farming community. At the south-east end of the mound is a central gallery with three pairs of side chambers which formed the burial area. Tombs like these were used over hundreds of years before being sealed and abandoned.

Through a hole in the roof made c. 1760 by the farmer who owned the field and was scavanging for stones to fix his roads, a Reverend John Skinner of Camerton and his brother Russell, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and his steward and surveyor Philip Crocker, assisted by a labourer named Zebedee Weston, all gained entry May 25 and 25, 1816. There was a lot of rubbish to clear away from the interior before they could identify anything of archaeological interest. And when they did, they could see that what the mound had concealed was a burial chamber: in the end chamber, leg and thigh bones; in the west innermost side-chamber, a confused heap of bones; in the east innermost side-chamber, four jawbones with “perfect” teeth, upper parts of two long crania (middle-aged male and elderly female), both unusually flat in the forehead; in the west central side-chamber, bones of two or three skeletons. Not a week later, “some riotous colliers” from the local pits broke the slab which sealed the entrance and made off with some of the bones and anything else which appealed to them.[33]

There is nothing of the ossuary to these chambers now. But posted near the entry is an “artist’s impression” of the burial ceremony which may have been performed here: a white-cloaked priest holding a human skull stands in a cow’s head mask in front of the barrow. The newly-dead is laid out on a platform. On another lies a pile of bones, the ancestors, I supposed. Three figures in the foreground prostrate themselves in the grass.

I looked down into the valley of the Wellow onto the stone buildings of the village. The Roman Empire once embraced this now soothingly-peaceful spot – local history refers to it now as the Roman “occupation” – for as well as a villa there was once, speculatively, a Christian church here. Well, why not?  The Edict of Milan, 313, which was promulgated by Emperor Constantine, lifted the persecution of the Empire’s Christians, and so perhaps the Romans who packed up and left Wellow c. 400 were Christians.

After them the Saxons built a church and then the Monastery of St Andrew. In 1117 Henry I established an order of Augustinian Canons at Cirencester (once an important Roman town) in the Cotswolds and gave to them the “ancient churches of Froome and Wellow.” After the ravages of the Black Death in mid-fourteenth century, the church, it seems, fell into decay. But on May Day in 1372, at the feast of St. Philip and St. James, a new church was consecrated, St Julien the Hospitaller Parish Church, named for a pious medieval pilgrim to Rome, whose bells still chime the quarter-hour. Perhaps once they chimed rather for that round of prayer of matins, vespers and vigils, terce, sext and none, which gathered medieval Christians together in the Liturgy of the Hours. Now it is the ineluctable, forward-pressing passage of time which preoccupies us; then it was the reassuring cycle, which brought us every morning once again to the promise of the Risen Messiah.

The oldest site I know of near my hometown in Alberta are the two Standing Ribstones which bear signs of human carving and which may be thousands of years old, or 250 years-old. They too lie on a high point of land, from which approaching herds of bison could have been sighted, although there were no burials there.

The Wellow Barrow is a very well-preserved tumulus, its sod covering a structure founded on carefully-laid stacks of flat stones (I imagine hauled up from the creek) which also form the inner walls of the chambers. I peered in and could see the burial chambers clearly, sepulchral berths in the underworld.  Hill and dale have been farmed as far back as the Neolithic. Before Christianity, before Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation, before Protestants and Bolsheviks, I have finally found a source for my spirit beyond which I discern no other: a ghost-pile of bones, and a potshard.

Myrna Kostash

January 17, 2011

11,786 words

[1] From The Passion and Martyrdom of the Holy English Carthusians by Dom Maurice Chauncy (trans. A.F. Radcliff) in Peter Ackroyd, A Traveller’s Companion to London (Interlink Books: 2004), 219.

[2] John Bale, 1549:

[3] Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Purgatory be damned,” London Review of Books, 17 July 2008. 28-9

[4] in Ackroyd, op. cit. 220

[5] ibid, 221

[6] ibid, 222.

[7] Danilo Kis, “The Mechanical Lions,” A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Penguin, 1980), 40

[8] The Poet as Film-maker, ed. Marco Carynnyk (MIT Press, 1973)

[9] from Acts and Monuments by J. Foxe,” in Ackroyd, London, 172.

[10] from A Chronicle of England by Charles Wriothesley, in Ackroyd, London, 62

[11] from A History of Saint Paul’s ed. W.R. Matthews and W.M. Atkins 1957, in Ackroyd, London, 65

[12] from E.H. Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (London 1702-4) in Ackroyd , London, 67

[13] O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniates,  trans. Harry J. Magoulias. ( Wayne State University Press, 1984), 167 ff.

[14] From J. Stow, Survey of London (London, 1598) in Ackroyd, London, 140.

[15] Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Viking, 2003), 177.

[16] Claire Tomalin, op. cit., 117.

[17] It then passed to a series of opportunists who exhibited it in marketplaces and museums and finally into the care of Mr. Wilkinson, “a medical man.” The Times 1874, in Ackroyd, London, 260


[19] from W. Thornbury, Old and New London, 6 vols. (London, 1873-8) in Ackroyd, London, 245.

[20] Robert P. Creed ,“How Caedmon Got  His Hymn.”

[21] in Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church new edition (London, 1997), 60.

[22] Michael Ben Shabbetai  Cohen Balbo, trans. Avi Sharon, “A Hebrew Lament From Venetian Crete on the Fall of Constantinople,”

[23] From Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (London, 1863) in


[25] Sarah Greenberg, “The shock of the nude,” RA Magazine, Spring 2008. 13

[26] Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006), 72.


[28] I am grateful to Brian Fawcett for this note.



[31] “Two Rune Signatures of Cynewulf,” An Anthology of Old English Poetry, trans. Charles W. Kennedy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 135-137.

[32] Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine trans. G.A. Williamson (London, 1989 rev), 332.

[33] StoneyLittletonGuideBook.htm

12000 words  February 2, 2011


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