Saturday 26 August 2023

Despoliers denied


I’ve taken pleasure in the last month in this flower peeping over a local wall.  And in Bennachie, this small Scottish mountain (less than 530 m or 1750 ft), which the whole of my mother-in-law’s family climbed together as we buried her cremated remains nearby (as we had done when we did the same for her husband, my father-in-law, in 2010). 

Also coming across Jarod Anderson’s observation that ‘bats can hear shapes and bees can dance maps’.  And in knowing that a new Rector has come into post in Haworth – which lessens my feeling of guilt at having appeared to bail out on them, although, intriguingly, I’ve detected how I also feel jealous  of him as he gets stuck in creatively there.

I’m also much caught up in different bits of Lincolnshire artistic and church history (some more of which I should really post here more regularly) especially just now with what those in the Seventeenth Century thought was the site of the grave of St Hugh in the Cathedral.

In the 1670s, Bishop Fuller (a friend of Samuel Pepys) had it marked.  He was a poet (some of his work was set to music by Purcell) so the Latin inscription takes a literary bent, a touching detail I’d never noticed before. 

He alludes to the destruction of the saint’s shrine in 1540 when he begins:

Gold, not marble, would have covered these remains,

if we did not fear another sacrilegious plundering;

our sorrow is that what was silver is now marble,

although mere stone somehow suits this denegerate age.

It is now just one of the table tombs in the retrochoir (the area east of the high altar) near where the substntial solid base of High’s head shrine is still prominent and honoured.  Fuller himself is buried next to it.

Apparently shortly before the mammoth 1644 Cromwellian destruction of much of the shrines of Bishop Grosseteste and what was then called Little St Hugh and of much of the rerodos (the wall behind the high altar), the future Bishop Sanderson had recorded the (then widely shared?) assumption that this was the site, the footings of metal railings still being visible.

Reading, I’m reminded that it can’t be his original burial place in 1200 (this site is partly outside the then eastern edge of the building, and a chapel off the north choir transept is almost certainly the original burial site), nor the site of the shrine into which his remains were translated in 1280 after the Cathedral was extended to house them (the site is too small, off centre, and later investigation shows no indication of foundations for the shrine which may in fact have been on top of the rerodos).

When those ill recorded investigations took place in the 1880s, a coffin was found buried beneath the memorial erected by Bishop Fuller which looked a bit as if the stone coffin into which it was placed had to be roughly remodelled to accommodate it, within which were linen, vestments and tiny remains of gold thread, but no body.

Could it be that, when the richly jewelled reliquaries of his body and separately of his head were removed in 1540 and his remains simply disposed of, all that was left was this coffin?  Could it be that this one remaining link with his shrine was (hurriedly?) buried in an available slot nearby, later (discretely?) enclosed by railings?  Could it be that there was some (confused?) memory of this in the 1640s?  Was Bishop Fuller aware of at least some of this? 

This is speculation, more like the creation of historic fiction than of well evidenced history.  But the story much more often shared today (that a headless skeleton found in a grave in the Chapter House in the 1880s might be Hugh’s body saved from the despoliation) makes greater assumptions on much less evidence.

Whatever the truth, I love now encountering Fuller’s poetical inscription.