Becket, Pilgrims and Canterbury
About this time last year I was musing about Archbishop Sudbury and the subject of commemoration, a fitting topic for the last week in December. This year I’m going to start with another murdered archbishop because today, of course, is the anniversary of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in his own cathedral in 1170. Although I did not attend Evensong this evening when those events will have been remembered through an embellishment to the service that involves the archbishop leading the congregation to the Martyrdom, while the lay clerks continue Vespers in the quire. The events at the Martyrdom having been retold to the lay onlookers, the archbishop takes the congregation down to the crypt, where Thomas’ mangled body was similarly taken, the choir, as the monks, joining the assembled masses in the crypt for the remainder of the service. Much of this movement is undertaken by candlelight, greatly enhancing the atmosphere of this most evocative of services.
Today among the congregation were a number in medieval costume (see photo above), who had joined a ‘medieval pilgrim’ from Southampton, according to the ‘Black Prince’ whom I spoke to while he was resting by the Welcome Centre. My informant said the pilgrim had chosen Southampton as his starting point because he had located a medieval pilgrimage account which had begun there, but I did not have time to ask him whether this route had taken him first north to Winchester before, in effect, coming across country along the North Downs. Having visited Holy Cross Hospital near Winchester several years ago, this still magnificent medieval hospital that now functions as a modern almshouse, I’m assuming that he had indeed stopped off there too to receive the pilgrim’s fare of bread and beer (when I went I got a mince pie, so he may have been equally fortunate). Such a stopping off place is highly appropriate because not only can it be seen as the pilgrimage route from St Swithun’s shrine in Winchester to St Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury, but Cardinal Beaufort, the great founder and benefactor of Holy Cross had a rather nice house built for himself in Canterbury Cathedral precincts, the magnificent Meister Omers, now used by the Kings School. Not that Beaufort enjoyed it for long, dying in 1447soon after its completion, but such was the stature of the man, and that he had entered into confraternity at Christ Church in 1433, that the prior at Christ Church almost gave him free rein to have what he wanted, especially as he was footing the bill.
However to return to the topic of commemoration and more specifically looking back at the high points in the Centre’s past year, I’m just going to mention a few. The first is the ‘New Directions since Joan Thirsk’ joint conference (with Kent Archaeological Society) last March, which did commemorate her work on Kent rural society, as well as illustrating the exciting new lines of research taking place among the next generation of scholars. In a packed day an appreciative audience heard from eight speakers covering a wide range of topics from the activities of religious dissenters in the Weald (Dr Lorraine Flisher) to systems of patronage through the use of dedicatory manuscripts among the Protestant gentry (Dr Claire Bartram).
Another topic covered was what tithe disputes can tell us about friction and conflict in the countryside (Dr Paula Simpson), and this theme was discussed again by Dr John Bulaitis at the Nightingale Memorial Lecture, a joint undertaking with the Agricultural Museum, Brook. John’s fascinating lecture focused on events in the early 1930s when Kent was one of the main hotspots in these quite often acrimonious encounters between farmers (tithe payers) and the police and other authorities. As he discussed, such actions by both sides should not be envisaged as some little local difficulty or only of significance to those living in the countryside, for the ramifications of these conflicts were felt nationally – the farmers’ march down London’s Embankment and the links that were established with Moseley’s Black Shirts. As I noted a few weeks ago, John is intending to expand on his work on these disputes and is hoping to have a conference on tithe in 2017 – watch this space.
The role of conflict within the body politic was very much in evidence in several events linked to Magna Carta that involved a number of Canterbury Christ Church staff, although primarily Professor Louise Wilkinson. As one of the three leaders of the funded Magna Carta project, Louise has had a very busy year dashing around the globe giving lectures about the role and importance of Magna Carta to a host of groups and organisations. Closer to home she organised a one-day conference on the implications of Magna Carta in Kent, the large lecture theatre in Old Sessions almost filled to capacity. As well as being joined by Professors David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent, among her packed programme were others from Christ Church including Richard Eales, who spoke about the charter’s legacy in the later thirteenth century.
However it was not just large gatherings that involved the Centre, Louise and Magna Carta because she was also involved with putting on joint exhibitions with the Canterbury Museums Service and the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library, including a family trail. In addition she was also heavily involved in a day of workshops at the cathedral and in the archives, working with a group who were looking at the implications of Magna Carta for disadvantaged groups. By exploring the historical details of Magna Carta and how it has been appealed to by subsequent constituencies, the group was able to construct its own charter, which later formed part of an exhibition at the Beaney.
One topic that has loomed large in the public consciousness, and will do so for several years to come is, of course, the Great War. In addition to his lecture on the St Gregory’s war memorial in November 2014, Dr Martin Watts led a team from History and English Literature to look at the Great War and its legacy through several lectures and workshops last summer. Even though it was a relatively small group of participants, this helped to a degree because it provided opportunities for lots of discussion. Moreover, by encouraging participants to bring objects linked to these themes and asking them to talk about them as part of a more general discussion, Martin was able to engage more of his audience and such was the nature of the day that it was difficult to get people to leave – a sure sign of success!
So what of 2016? Well there is the Medieval Canterbury Weekend to look forward to and this is very much under way with tickets selling well. I’ll also be contacting medieval departments across the country’s universities again to make sure the message has got through about the postgraduate medieval poster competition. Dr Diane Heath has a short article in the online History Today that is talking about pilgrim tokens and also drawing attention to those lectures by Professor Vincent and Dr Diana Webb at the Weekend that will be featuring aspects of pilgrimage. We are hoping to do similar articles and features elsewhere in the run-up to the Weekend. A second medieval event will be the Becket lecture which will, I believe, be given by Dr Rachel Koopmans on Canterbury’s stained glass; while a third will be the publication of Early Medieval Kent, 800–1220, hopefully in the early summer, and this will be marked in some way, although not yet planned. What is further advanced is Martin Watts’ one-day conference on the history of Richborough, which will be in late June. More on that will be posted anon. Thus 2016 looks as though it will be an exciting year for the Centre, and again this sense of looking back into history will be much in evidence, whether it is remembering the appallingly heavy casualties at the Somme or the implications of Harold’s defeat at Hastings.