Ian Coulson and William Urry
As a medievalist, I’m very interested in memory, memorials and commemoration (as readers of this blog may have gathered from previous posts!), but even though there are in many ways major cultural differences between the Middle Ages and today, such ideas are still very important. Consequently, I’m going to tell you about two acts of commemoration that are significant from my perspective this week. The first concerns the Medieval Canterbury Weekend. As many of you will know by now this is going to be a major occasion for the Centre in April. However the organising committee wanted to offer a legacy – just as those who organised the London Olympic Games in 2012 intended. Ours is more modest but hopefully achievable and it has a number of strands. Firstly, as part of the Weekend there will be a postgraduate competition for medieval students from British universities to showcase their work in terms of how they can make their research accessible to the general public. There will be two cash prizes, one judged by people attending the Weekend, the other by a panel of academics. It is hoped that entries will also be displayed digitally on the Centre’s website – legacy. The next strand involves revenue after expenses, of which half will go to help the iconic medieval buildings that are the subject of the Weekend’s guided walks – more legacy. The third strand is the one that personally I feel is exceedingly important because it will help some of the next generation of historians who wish to work on topics relating to Kent. The other half of the Weekend’s ‘profits’ will be used to fund the Ian Coulson Memorial Postgraduate Scholarship. For those of you who didn’t know Ian and his tireless work on behalf of education – making accessible the history of Kent, and also further afield to schoolchildren, adults, indeed anyone, I would suggest that you look back a few weeks on this blog and also see Ian Dawson’s webpage: ‘Ian Coulson: In Memoriam’ www.thinkinghistory.co.uk to give you an idea why I think this is so valuable with regard to legacy.
My second point of commemoration involves William Urry. I never met him but I often use his published works, especially his magnum opus, his study of Canterbury under the Angevin Kings. Not that the medieval period was his only interest, he was also particularly interested in Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury’s influence on this great sixteenth-century playwright, but the Angevins and St Thomas Becket really caught his imagination. Moreover he produced numerous pamphlets and articles, and gave lectures and guided walks covering a wide range of topics relating to Canterbury’s history up until his death in 1981, even though during the last twenty years of his life he suffered considerable ill health. And he was not only an extremely scholarly (and readable) historian because he had worked for several decades after the Second World War as the archivist and librarian for both the city of Canterbury and its cathedral. Consequently he was heavily involved in the restoration, reordering and recataloguing of the cathedral archives and library following damage sustained during the War, as well as earlier flood damage. Much of this Herculean task he performed himself, but it did mean that his knowledge of the archives and its contents was second-to-none. For he could populate eleventh and sixteenth-century Canterbury, in particular, knowing the places of business and the residences of many of the city’s citizens, and those of their neighbours.
To commemorate such an important member of the Canterbury community, and also that of Oxford where he moved in 1969 as a Visiting Fellow and Reader, the William Urry Memorial Lectures were initiated after his death. At first these lectures were given annually, alternating between Canterbury and Oxford, and given by such distinguished scholars as Sir Richard Southern and Frank Barlow; and more latterly Nicholas Vincent, who will be giving a talk at the Medieval Canterbury Weekend on Becket’s head and the medieval cult of relics – a fascinating topic. However after several years, like many such lecture series, this one fell into abeyance and the remaining funds were passed to Canterbury Archaeological Society, as it then was, to use as the committee saw fit.
This year Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society [CHAS] ie CAS’s successor has revitalised the William Urry Memorial Lecture, albeit more modestly, and the first of the new series was given by Dr Toby Huitson a couple of days ago. As Lawrence Lyle, an accomplished historian in his own right, explained in his brief resume of William Urry’s life, Toby was a fitting choice because he too is working at the Canterbury Cathedral archives, as well as researching aspects of medieval history, including examples from Kent. For his lecture, Toby had chosen to recount the various stages that he had gone through from the successful completion of his doctoral thesis in 2010, when he graduated from the University of Kent and also received the Hasted prize given by Kent Archaeological Society – another commemoration, to the publication of his book Stairway to Heaven, that examines the upper spaces of medieval cathedrals, churches and other buildings.
Although there is not space here to provide a summary of his lecture, I’ll just mention that firstly Toby described a few of the upper spaces that had particularly interested him: such as the relationship between the layout of the triforium at Canterbury Cathedral and St Leonard’s church at Hythe, the timber gallery, and the narrowness of the wall passages and stairs at Boxgrove Priory over the county boundary in West Sussex, and in Germany the arrangement of the early Gothic choir at Aachen Cathedral. Perhaps the most memorable image Toby showed was the upper passage above the chancel at Hythe lit by wax candles, an archaeological experimental reconstruction that illuminated (apologies for the pun) why uplighting may have been valued in the way it highlighted the moulding of the pillar capitals. If you want to know more about these fascinating architectural spaces, I recommend that you read Toby’s book – available from all good booksellers as it is often said.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a brief mention of a commemoration that may not have worked in the short term. Archbishop Simon Sudbury’s tomb, as I have mentioned before, is in Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m pretty sure the prior and senior monks in 1381 were keen to try to establish a new cult there. For many today, this system of belief is not seen as applicable but again as a medievalist I find such ideas can reveal much about medieval society. Consequently, as I explored in an essay in Monuments and Monumentality, edited by Michael Penman (Donington, 2013), the chronicler Thomas Walsingham of St Alban’s Abbey was keen to demonstrate that the archbishop had ‘died a death worth a martyr’s crown’ and that he too was capable, with divine assistance, of performing posthumous miracles. It is perhaps worth remembering that St Alban’s Abbey was also a major target of the rebels! Nevertheless, the prior and his brethren seem to have had limited success, as some of you may remember from a post about a year ago, but commemoration of the archbishop was revitalised at some point, possibly in the nineteenth century, and as I have shown again above the Christmas roses are a valued part of the link between cathedral and city – a good place to end.