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!
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.
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!