Category Archives: Sermon

Custom survived: The Lion Sermon, St Katherine Cree, London

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“We pray and give thanks for the life and example of Sir John Gayer; for his deliverance from the lion and his endowment of this annual sermon in his memory.”

London is like many great cities a fascinating mix of old and new; ancient buildings exist cheek by jowl, and so do customs and ceremonies exist in the modern culture. St Katherine Cree is a church which typifies this juxtaposition between old and new. It lays in shadow of glass giants of the city such as the famed Gherkin. A church for the city. Such that it remembers one of the city’s own and his remarkable escape each year around the 16th October in a church which itself escaped the Great Fire unscathed.

Lion’s mouth

You might wonder what the prayer is talking about. In the 1894 Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance Leopold Wagner informs us that:

“This is in commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of Sir John Gayer, an opulent City merchant, and erstwhile Lord Mayor, from the jaws of a lion in an Arabian desert, two centuries and a half ago. By some means this good knight missed his caravan, and while in search of it, a huge lion stalked up to him. Perfectly defenceless, he gave himself up for lost, and on bended knee offered up his soul in prayer to God. To his intense astonishment, the huge animal ‘eyed him, and gently walked away’”

Leopold Wagner continues:

“Shortly afterwards Sir John rejoined his caravan none the worse for his extraordinary adventure; yet so fully impressed was he with the peril he had passed through, and the Divine interposition on his behalf, that he resolved to make an adequate provision for an annual thanksgiving sermon at the church of his ‘beloved Aldgate,’ in which his mortal remains now rest.”

He was true to his word and then 368 years later we are still remembering this lucky escape. Each year this main sermon being given not by a member of the clergy, although I would imagine up until recent history that was the case, but by some London notable. In previous years it was Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti who I’d imagine would have a lot to say about dealing with adversity!

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However, unlike many customs which their historical founder, this is no founder forgotten in the midst of time, each year the descendants of the Mayor attend the service and give readings. This year two members of the family gave appropriate readings, of course Daniel 6 10-23 ‘Daniel in the Lion’s den’ and less well-known lion containing Peter 5 5-11:

“Be sober be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about; seeking whom he may devour.”

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Lion’s share

Indeed, that could have been the subtext of ex Transport for London and Network Rail Chair Sir Peter Hendy CBE’s talk. In a time when the news is constantly discussing Brexit machinations and bearing in mind the church’s proximity to the city centre, I was expected to switch on my Brexitometer. However, he cleverly sailed past this and focused on his own career and how he avoided adversity, work together and how his adversary, a certain blonde haired mayor perhaps was a good analogy for a lion….he was not popular in the city. Indeed, I heard him described as the traitor of London…but Sir Peter eschewed any strong politics talk only to say how to work better! Discussion was made of TFL success of the Olympics and dealing with terror attacks all what he put down to team work  – a refreshing approach from a person in charge who has read those signs about bosses and leaders it seemed and did something!

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The service was peppered by suitable hymns including Who would true valour be, which has a sneaky ‘no lion can call him fright’ some sung by the Lloyd’s Choir in spine tingling joyfulness. At the end of the service we were all invited for a hot lunch and some drinks possibly part of the endowment to provide food for the poor…many appeared to have developed the appetite of a lion!

 

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Custom contrived: Brinsley Coffin Walk

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Many remote hamlets and small villages before the 1800s had no church and so it was not unusual to see a group of men winding their way through paths carved into the landscape carrying a loft a coffin. These coffin or funeral paths can be seen preserved in the place names and folklore across the country. They lay remembered but used say for recreational walkers adopted into the public footpath system. Brinsley in Nottinghamshire had one from its Chapel of Ease to the older medieval church of Greasley some three miles away. But whereas the others are unused, Brinsley for one day of year remembers the toil of its pallbearers in its annual Coffin Walk

Putting the fun in funeral?

The customs started some 14 years ago as an interesting way to remember Brinsley’s local history and celebrate its patronal day, St. James, as a consequence the custom is held on the Saturday nearest 25th July. What might sound a solemn affair is not and intend it wasn’t back in the 1800s when the parties would stop for a rest on specific resting stones on the route and drink to the memory of the occupant. It is said they could often turn up too late to the church for the funeral and find it locked up and vicar at home! Although now a more sober affair the walk was not solemn either but a good chance for local people to get some exercise and have a chat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life…albeit following a coffin! The website said wear lilac – but as the only lilac I had was a 70s disco shirt and fuzzy minion wig I thought that might be taking it too far!

Dying to find out more

I’d discovered the custom by accident searching for another event for my forthcoming book on Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies – unfortunately the week after it had happened.

I woke up on the allotted Saturday and looked outside, the premise for a three mile walk-starting at 9.30 – did not seem promising as outside it was raining and raining heavily! Then around half seven the clouds appeared to disappear and so I thought I’d risk it. Turning up just before the 9.30 walk off at the church I came across a small group of local people and members of the local funeral directors Gillotts and Steve Soult Ltd, coffin makers who may not equally had been looking forward to the walk through the rain. The weather had certainly put off the attendees, the year previous there was 28, this year around 7. After a brief blessing by the church warden and a group photo the curious cortege was on its way…without  a drop of rain!

The custom started when local historian, Stan Smith, researched the route of the funeral procession and thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk it. The first walks included a small doll’s house coffin with its doll. In an article in Nottinghamshire Post Stan Smith noted:

“Believe it or not it came from a dolls house catalogue!….It’s about four inches long and there’s even a body in a shroud inside it if you look closely enough. We really can call it a coffin walk now that we’ve got a coffin!”

Then local coffin maker Steve Soult offered to make a bespoke one. An altogether more authentic if heavier option. This coffin being a fine piece of workmanship having ‘Brinsley Coffin Walk’ on the side and the village’s famous headstocks, relics of its mining heritage, splendidly carved on the other side. Leading the coffin was the funeral director wearing a splendid period suit and top hat and lilac flower.

The year previously had been a sad event for it remembered also its founder local historian Stan Smith Yet despite the thought that the custom may end with him, a not uncommon occurrence with revived or contrived customs, it has continued – and I am sure he’d be happy to know that.

Walk of death?

Of we went out of the church and along the road to the bemusement of drivers who must have thought ‘there appear to be going the wrong way the church is behind them!’, then across the road and into the fields. The first gate was a fairly easy affair but after a while it appeared how arduous a task this would be. At one stile, the pallbearers had to propel the coffin akin to a basketball player through the narrow gap, gingerly guiding it through a narrow gap in the hedge. It didn’t rain but the evidence was there to see and feel, a flooded pathway resulted in the coffin being carried along a thin ledge under a railway arch! At one point the carriers zoomed off into the distance to overcome the only incline we had surprisingly in the journey. Finally, we were in sight of Greasley church where tea and biscuits awaited. The walk again garnered pace and the pallbearers naturally sweaty and worn out awaited those much-needed refreshments! A tiring exercise but think what it would have been like with a body inside! At the church, a sort service was given with a suitable walk based hymn sung and we gathered around the Rev John Hides who was the first joint vicar of the two parishes which finally in 1869 Brinsley was allowed to bury its own dead. All in all a great little unique tradition attended by friendly and helpful individuals…a great walk albeit a bit unusual but recommended!

Custom survived: Arundel’s Corpus Christi Carpet of Flowers

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Sitting high above the town of Arundel forming a skyline with its equally impressive neighbouring Castle, is the Catholic Cathedral. The site is impressive enough but go inside around the date of Corpus Christi and you will see a unique spectacle. A carpet that leads between the aisles towards the High Altar, the oldest such carpet in Britain.

Swept over the carpet

Corpus Christi Carpets of flowers are often outside displays and ca be found across Catholic southern countries such as Spain and Italy. The most famous carpet of flowers is in the town of Genzano near Rome and it is said that Duke Henry saw this whilst on holiday close by. So impressed was he that he decided to encourage the custom at Arundel in 1877. Originally these flowers were picked from the Duke’s garden being picked on the morning of the feast by his estate workers. Nowadays, the demand to see the flowers has resulted in it being lad earlier in the week to allow more visitors to see it. Indeed the visitors swell the Cathedral during the days and it is full with people leaning over pews to get a greater look or contorting, bending and standing in curious ways to get the best photo.

Do tread on the carpet

The reason for the carpet is like other carpets to be walked over. To the lay person’s eyes this seems a terrible thing to do the hours. Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) is a Catholic feast day which celebrates the ritual of the Eucharist on the eighth Thursday after Easter. As a feast it was lately adopted in the Christian faith in the 13th century and did not survive into the Reformation, returning to England with the Catholic faith. In the ceremony, the importance of the Sacred Host representing the body is emphasised by the use of a carpet of finery. Despite shocked faces it is intended they walk on it – despite taking two days to lay!

Carpet bagging

The custom looked in peril when in the mid-1950s, the Norfolk Estate begun to reduce its ground staff, but the headteacher of Tortington Park Girls School offered to supply flowers. Her school gardeners and some pupils would then help lay the carpet. However, when in 1969 the school closed the carpet again seemed in peril! Fortunately, in 1970 the Cathedral stepped in and since ladies from the parish obtain the flowers from nurseries, supplemented by donations from local people’s gardens.

Each year the carpet boasts a different design often taken from the focus the church is given by the Papal authority. However notable special events are recorded such as the celebration in 1990, the silver jubilee of the formation of a new diocese of Arundel and Brighton back in 1965 and 150th anniversary of Saint Bernadette’s apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes.

Laying the carpet

The flowers have their stems removed so they can lie flush to the ground, are sorted in colours and shades. An evergreen foliage background is used. Originally the carpet was 98 foot long going right up to the altar but now it has lost five feet to enable visitors to walk around the carpet.

The designs are lined out in chalk on a black paper and templates are used to outline the more intricate shapes used and maintain the symmetry as the flowers are laid.

Flowery procession

Of course, it is not just the carpet but the full celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a festival of prayer, sacrament, song, procession as well as the flowers.

The climax being the solemn High Mass. When I attended this mass, the Cathedral was full with no space hardly to sit. Those non-Catholics rather lost in ritual awaited for the moment. Then at the end of this mass that the Blessed sacrament is carried down and over the carpet by the Bishop. It’s a shame they have to walk on it could be overheard from behind but after all that was the reason for it.

The procession then makes its way outside where a special canopy awaits. For many years this processional canopy was that presented by Henry XVth Duke of Norfolk and was first used in 1883. Now a more modern but no less splendid one is used. Beneath this canopy the Host in its golden monstrance is carried.

This procession is led by a cross bearer followed by a banner of the Sacred Heart. This is followed by girls dressed in white carrying posies and then boys carrying sprays of flowers and wearing sashes. Once the petal strewers walked backwards in respect and reverence now the girls do, often those who have had their first Holy Communion.

All along the route speakers are affixed to the walls and the voices of the priest back in the cathedral can be heard as they continue the mass, everyone is the town is enveloped in the ceremony.

In the procession banners are proudly carried which show Blessed sacrament, Mary Mother of Jesus and depict saints associated with the church as well as local parish organisations. Amongst them Knights of the order of chivalry and of the Papal order of Gregory XVI. These include the Order of the Knights of Malta wearing black cloaks with white Maltese crosses who walk nearest the sacrament, the Knights of St Gregory in green, and the Knights of Holy Sepulchre white caped with red Jerusalem cross. Once the procession has travelled down the street it enters the castle and around the gardens to assembly in the quadrangle of the castle. Here there is the continuation of the Mass, here the people gathered are blessed by the sacred host. After the Benediction the congregation leave the castle and process back to the cathedral. Back at the cathedral a second Benediction is celebrated with the Sacred Host is transferred to the Cathedral’s finest monstrance, a wedding gift to Henry Duke of Norfolk in 1904 and apparently every Catholic contributed 1d to its purchase. The mass is long, longer than some could cope with and many had disappeared after the castle benediction – the carpet now looking a little worse after its second trampling – it’ll soon be swept away for next year!

Custom Survived: William Hubbard Graveside Easter Singing, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

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An Easter Custom. — On each recurring Easter Eve, in pursuance of a custom which has continued for more than a century (and which, as a fund was left for the purpose, will continue for centuries to come), the church choir of Market Harborough visit the ‘God’s Acre’ of St. Mary’s, and sing at midnight the beautiful Easter hymn over the grave of Mr. Hubbard, the founder of the chantry of that name.”

The History of Market- Harborough in Leicestershire and its vicinity by William Harrod (1808)

On the outskirts of Market Harborough is a ghostly shell of a church twixt between an industrial site, the railway station and the urban sprawl. Surrounded by a few graves it is a mysterious place. There are many such derelict churches open to the elements slowly decaying, unvisited all bar the curious- this one is an exception though for despite being a ruin once year on the evening before Easter Sunday this desolate place is warmed by the sounds of heavenly voices in a custom which has been done for over 200 years.

Willed to sing

The originator of this unique bequest was William Hubbard, a gardener and more importantly churchwarden. When he died in 1786, aged 63 his will stipulated:

“at the decease of his wife to the Singers of Harborough for the time being for ever the sum of One Guinea yearly on condition of their finding over his grave every Easter eve the EASTER HYMN the said guinea to be paid out of the rent of a house now in the tenure of Mr Clark painter &c In cafe the singers should neglect complying with the donor’s desire the said legacy is to be applied to purchasing shoes for widows.”

Sadly those local widows have shoeless because without fail the congregation of the more substantial St. Dionysius church dutifully come here every Easter Saturday to sing since 1807, presumably the death date of his widow. That guinea has gone a long way! I am not sure whether it pays for anything now but in 1957 a rent charge was still being taken.

Sing when you’re winning!

When I first came to experience this custom, it was a balmy Easter Saturday in 1996, 7th of April. The churchyard was quiet, mysterious and unloved. I located the grey slate gravestone of William Hubbard and waited.

Soon a small choir appeared. Arched around the grave the vicar, curate and choir made a fine sight in themselves but when the hymns were sung it was magical.

1996

2016 – Spot the difference!

Obviously it is a short service. It started with Chorus novae Jerusalem

“Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory to hymn in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his soldiers, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.”

Then a reading is given in 2016, the Gospel for Easter was Matthew 27 a very adapt piece about Jesus’s burial:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The Guard at the Tomb: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

The Easter Hymn was sung

“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia! who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia! But the pains which he endured, Alleluia! our salvation have procured, Alleluia! now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”

Then an Easter Collect and Prayer finishing with a sung grace

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Eighteen years later passing this way I came to again experience it. However, my sources were incorrect and I’d missed it by an hour! Finally, again in 2016 I came again, on a most appalling Easter evening. Dark clouds were building up and the wind howled through the ghost of the church. After a while I was beginning to think my sources had been incorrect, had the weather put them off…no soon more and more people arrived. The first thing I noticed is how much the congregation had grown since 1996; despite the awful weather it was clear that this custom was still a popular one…and even the dreadful rain was not going to stop the custom. In 1984, so Brian Shuel in his Traditional Customs of Britain was informed by the vicar:

“in really nasty weather, such as the previous year when it was snowing, they have been known to do it themselves”

It did not stop them, nor did it in 1876 as a local newspaper reports:

“Easter Eve – The old custom to sing the Easter hymn over Mr. Hubbard’s grave, in St. Mary’s burial ground, was carried out again on Saturday last, at 8.30, by the church choir. To get to the grave yard this year there was something very unusual. The waters, from the rapid melting of the snow which had fallen on the two preceding days, were out, near the Toll-gate and Gas works, but this obstruction was bravely encountered by about thirty of the choir, besides a few others. Many more who intended to go, declined, when they got to the end of the walk, not liking to got through the flood, and returned again to the town. One gentleman was kindly carried over the flood by a young man named Toomes. This little incident amused the choir boys and one of them was overheard to whisper, ‘I wish he’d drop him.’ We understand this is the 70th year that the above custom has been carried out.”

The only shame was that the weather had prevented the congregation wearing their traditional choral attire. Yet in a way it made the custom seem even more bizarre.

Before the Reformation, sung songs and prayers were common from chapels to great Cathedrals, but although these Chantry chapels survive the bequests have long gone, siphoned off to support schools such as Thomas Burton’s in Loughborough or incorporated into general funds. What is of course unusual with Hubbard is that this is a post-Reformation one. Little did he also know that he think that when he made the bequest that the church would fall into disuse and ruin. Yet this is part of the curious nature of the custom, despite the church and the possible temptation of removing the grave to somewhere more convenient the custom continues.

All in all, Hubbard’s bequest is without doubt one of the countries, a beautiful uplifting tribute to a man long forgotten but still remembered!

Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

Custom contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.

 

Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

Standard

“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.