Expressions Of Power ~ Secular And Spiritual?

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These Saxon carvings in Wirksworth’s St. Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire Peak District are around 1,300 years old. They appear to have been randomly placed in the walls during the rebuilding of the church during the thirteenth century. Nothing more is known about them, or of their precise age and origins.

At the time they were carved, Wirksworth, located in the English East Midlands, was part of the great Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose kings and sub-kings held dominion over most of England between AD 600 – 900. i.e. until the Vikings arrived and spoiled it all with the imposition of Danelaw.

Mercia also included my West Midlands home county of Shropshire and, though seventy odd miles apart, it turns out that Saxon, and indeed later, Wirksworth has much in common with Much Wenlock; so much so, I think the towns should be twinned.

One of the Mercian kings’ cunning strategies to cement their power over their extensive territory was the spreading of Christianity, and the setting up of religious foundations and church minsters on their royal estates. These were ruled by abbesses, kings’ daughters and noble women who had been thoroughly educated for the job.

In Much Wenlock we have Milburga, daughter of King Merewald  who ruled over the Wenlock dual monastic house (monks and nuns) from around 680 AD. Her sisters and mother also had charge of religious houses across Mercia, and this function further included the management of the considerable estates and the resources that went with them.

The spread of Christianity across Mercia had its beginnings some thirty years earlier when Elchfrida (also Alchfliad), daughter of King Oswui of Northumbria married Peada, son of Penda, the last great pagan king of Mercia. According to Bede, Oswui had murdered Penda, and the later marriage of his daughter to Penda’s son was part of a peace treaty between Northumberland and Mercia, conditional on Mercia adopting the new faith. Elchfrida thus travelled south into Mercia with an entourage that included missionary priests, and it is supposed that one of them, Betti, founded the church at Wirksworth in 653 AD.

Which brings me back to the Saxon carvings. We clearly have a king. And so perhaps also his queen? It would be nice to give them names – say, Elchfrida and Peada? On the other hand the looks they are giving us are a little disturbing; Sphinx-like, enigmatic; as if they know something they cannot now reveal. Even the wild boar that has been popped in beside them by the thirteenth century mason re-cyclers looks to have something worrying on his mind.

But there is a post-script to this story. It would seem that not long after the marriage, Elchfrida betrayed her king, which led to his murder. For a brief time, then, her father King Oswui held sway over Mercia, until the uprising of 658 AD when another of Penda’s sons, Wulfhere, restored Mercian authority. It makes one wonder if Elchfrida, Christian or not, wasn’t a double agent all along. I wonder what became of her.

Wulfhere apparently went on to implement the ‘dynastic power and faith’ model with the founding of Repton Abbey near Derby. Here he installed his daughter Werburgh (later sanctified like Much Wenlock’s St. Milburga) as the first abbess. So here we have yet another example of ‘Princess Power’ Saxon-style – of royal women extending and consolidating the temporal power of their fathers through the exercise of spiritual authority.

Back in Wirksworth a document from 835 AD indicates that at this time the Wirksworth township was under the jurisdiction of Abbess Cynewaru. But there was serious trouble afoot. It seems she was being forced to cede some of her land holdings to Duke Humbert of Tamworth. She was especially afraid that this would compromise the sending of a gift of lead, valued at 300 shillings, which she made every year to Christ Church, Canterbury. (Wirksworth had been an important lead-mining area since Roman times).  Just to make sure that Duke Humbert knows where his duty lies, and who has the upper hand spiritually speaking, she proclaims in the charter that ‘if anyone should take away this my gift from Christ Church, Canterbury, may he be smitten with perpetual anathema, and may the devil possess him as one of his own.’

Fascinating stuff all this power-wielding.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Black & White Sunday: Expression

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #3

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Saint Milburga’s Well is my choice for Day 3 of Hidden Wenlock. (Again thanks to Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This.)  It can be found just off Barrow Street, not far from the back gate to The Abbey which featured yesterday.

There are many strange myths associated with this particular saint, and her affinity with wells and springs: remnant (or not so remnant) pagan beliefs interwoven with notions of Christian miracles. But first some facts.

St. Milburga was a Saxon princess, daughter of the Mercian King, Merewalh, who held sway over much of the English Midlands during the 7th century.  These were turbulent times – the spread of Christianity going hand in hand with securing territory. And Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he made them rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.

According to Milburga’s contemporary, the historian Saint Bede, she was educated for her religious life at the monastery of Chelles in Paris. Then around 690 AD she returned to England and took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. It was a community of both monks and nuns, although they worshipped separately. There Milburga presided for the next thirty seven years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands.

As I said, there are hosts of legends about her, her healing powers and her ability to strike springs from the ground, and bring winter-sown barley from seed to harvest in the course of one day. There are also tales of her fierce resistance to male suitors, and rivers rising up to thwart her pursuers. After her bones were rediscovered in 1101, the cult of Milburga continued to grow over succeeding centuries. It was said, among much else, that she brought several people back from the dead.

The water from her well was also supposed to have very special powers, curing even blindness. Something of this belief persisted into the last century. Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, chatelaine of The Abbey until 1935, relates a conversation with a Wenlock girl, Fanny Milner. Her granny had sent her to fetch some water from the well  so she would be able to read her Sunday scripture, “glasses or no glasses”. This is what Fanny tells Lady Catherine:

“It be blessed water, grandam says, and was washed in by a saint – and when saints meddle with water, they makes, grandam says, a better job of it than any doctor, let him be fit to burst with learning.”

 

Lady Catherine also relates how the well  had once been long associated with rather less sacred pursuits:

It is said that at Much Wenlock on “Holy Thursday”, high revels were held formerly at St. Milburgha’s Well; that the young men after service in church bore green branches round the town, and that they stopped at last before St. Milburgha’s Well. There, it is alleged, the maidens threw in crooked pins and “wished” for sweethearts. Round the well, young men drank toasts in beer brewed from water collected from the church roof, while the women sipped sugar and water, and ate cakes. After many songs and much merriment, the day ended with games such as “Pop the Green Man down”, “Sally Water”, and “The Bull in the Ring”, which games were followed by country dances such as “The Merry Millers of Ludlow”, “John, come and kiss me”, “Tom Tizler”, “Put your smock o’ Monday”…

Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring in a Shropshire Abbey

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These days it is hard to imagine this gloomy and mysterious well being the focus of so much racy celebration. The well’s spring has anyway been capped, so there is no longer any holy water inside. But it might be nice to throw it a good party and wake it up, though I’m not sure about beer brewed from church roof water. Mm. Essence of mossy slates and lead guttering at the very least.

Now here’s a photo of the church in question. It stands on its green in the heart of the town. It was originally part of the Priory, and is said to be on the site of Milburga’s nuns’ church. If you look hard, you will see the plastic owl on the tower parapet. It’s there to discourage the pigeons, although I’m not sure if it works. From what I have seen of them on my allotment, Wenlock’s wily pigeons would know a plastic owl when they saw one.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

The idea of this challenge is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Janet Weight Reed at My Life As An Artist. For one thing she is a magical water colourist. For another, she is so very generous with her artist’s knowledge and techniques. One of her specialities is humming birds. Go and see. Believe me, they will fly out of your screen.

5 photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1

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Pauline at Memories are made of this tagged me for this challenge: a photo and a story for five consecutive days. On her blog she took us to some of the world’s most resonant places, including the Taj Mahal, so please do visit her.

I thought I’d stay at home for five days, and reveal some local secrets. In fact in this first photo I want to show you something you cannot see at all. I’ll call it a ghost -more of which in a moment.

The things you can see are the ruins of Wenlock Priory. Before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1540, it was one of the biggest monastic houses in Europe, and a sister house to the abbey of Cluny in France. The monks in Wenlock would thus have all spoken French as well as Latin. I suppose they must have had some resident interpreter to manage all the Shropshire serfs who would have been needed to tend the Prior’s extensive domain.

The Priory itself was a place of great pilgrimage, which in turn caused the small town of Much Wenlock, with its hostelries and traders, to grow up around it. Two of the towns surviving pubs, The George and Dragon and The Talbot  date from these pilgrim days. The big draw was St. Milburga and her healing miracles. She was the Saxon princess who was abbess of the town’s first religious house back in the 7th century. When her four hundred year old bones were conveniently rediscovered in 1101, they were said to glow, and smell sweetly as saints’ bones were wont to do.

Much Wenlock, then, has a long-established pedigree on the odour of sanctity front.

But now for that ghost – more a spirit of place really.  And it belongs to writer Henry James. In the days when the Priory comprised the personal ruins of the Milnes Gaskells who lived next door in the Prior’s House, Henry James was one of their many eminent house guests. In fact he came three times. There is more about his visit  in an earlier post  When Henry James Came To Wenlock, but first a postcard view of how the ruins might have looked back in his day, in the late 1870s:

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And now you have the setting, both past and present, you can conjure Mr. Henry James from his own words. As I have said elsewhere, during one of his times here he was apparently working on his own ghost story The Turn of the Screw: Here is his description of the Priory, these days in the care of English Heritage:

Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by the predecessor of your host, the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant and testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment and measure the great girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is in that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art should have arisen.

Henry James Portraits of Places

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Related posts:

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls

When Henry James Came To Wenlock

#5photos5stories

Shadowland: in Wenlock Churchyard

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I took these photos today  in a burst of winter sunlight on the wall of our parish church, Holy Trinity in Much Wenlock.  The sequence of shadows has a gothic feel despite the brightness of the light on the limestone wall. My overwhelming feeling was of spirits of the past remembered, the cycle of life and death. This church is very old, possibly with its roots in the 7th century when a Mercian princess, St Milburga was Abbess of Wenlock. A lot of humanity, then, has walked over this ground. It is good to think of them.

 

DP Photo Challenge; Gone, but not forgotten

Charles Darwin, holy bones and wild orchids at Wenlock Priory

 

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I came upon this wild orchid last week: a single small spike, flowering in the un-mown margins of Wenlock Priory. The Priory is my hometown ancient ruin. In fact the town of Much Wenlock both grew up around, and then later out of the monastery. This latter occurrence was due to some opportunistic recycling on the part of the local populace. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540 (this in a bid to take control of the English church, marry Anne Boleyn and free up some  much needed monastic capital), the lead was ripped from the roofs, and over the years, the stones from the ensuing ruins used to build many of the town’s houses.

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The orchid is Anacamptis pyramidalis, a pyramidal orchid, and fairly common in Shropshire. This particular specimen was only a hand’s span in height, but the plant will grow taller. I did not get down to sniff it, and am sorry now, because I have since read that the flowers have a vanilla scent by day to attract pollinating butterflies. But then at night, when wet with dew, they give off a goaty smell that offends moths, or indeed anyone rash enough to get down on their knees for a quick nocturnal whiff. Their roots have medicinal properties when dried and ground into a sweet, nutritious powder called salep. It was once used to soothe upset stomachs. Perhaps the monks in the priory’s infirmary used it too, but please do not try this at home.

Incidentally, it was Charles Darwin who discovered that the structure of orchid flowers was designed specifically to be pollinated by either butterflies or moths with their long probosces. He wrote about it in Fertilisation of Orchids. Darwin also has a local connection. He was a Shropshire lad, born  in the nearby county town of Shrewsbury in 1809. Shropshire has a lot to answer for, and indeed be proud of.

It is also interesting to think of Darwin within these Priory confines. Just as his book On the Origin Species shook the foundations of Christian orthodoxy, so these ruins mark England’s break from the Church in Rome and a complete shake-up in religious belief that rebounded down the centuries. For years, Darwin put off publishing his theory of natural selection – “like confessing a murder”. Even his wife was concerned about the state of his soul. Only the realization that out in the Malay Archipelago, one Alfred Russel Wallace was arriving at similar conclusions to his own, prompted him to finish his book. In the first public airing that described Darwin’s work, Wallace was also given credit.

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But back to the orchid. I found it growing not far from the place where the Priory’s high altar would have stood, beneath the great east window. Behind that altar was said to be the shrine of St. Milburga. She was a Saxon princess famous for all manner of miracles, and who long after her death, became a big draw on the medieval pilgrim circuit.

For thirty years she had been abbess of the first monastic house in Much Wenlock. This predates the existing 12th – 15th century monastic remains by hundreds of  years, and was founded as a mixed house for both monks and nuns in 680 AD by her father King Merewahl of Mercia. Her grandfather had been the great King Penda, who, it is said,  personally abhorred Christianity, while nonetheless tolerating those with Christian beliefs.

All three of Merewahl’s daughters, and also his queen (after she forsook the marriage) headed religious houses. And I gather it was common in Saxon times both to have mixed-sex religious houses, although with separate places of worship and accommodation, and for them to be ruled by women. Milburga had been well educated at Chelles in Paris before she took up her office. She also controlled extensive estates, which later became part of the Cluniac monastery of Norman times, and yielded large revenues in agricultural produce.  It is clear that in Saxon times, princesses were deemed to have both political and spiritual power to wield. There was apparently no incentive for kings to marry them off in useful dynastic marriages.

The re-discovery of Milburga’s remains in 1101 during the rebuilding of her, by then, ruinous church greatly added to the Priory’s revenue and prosperity as pilgrims flocked to the newly established shrine.  The opulence of the Prior’s lodging, expanded in 1425 , gives an indication of the wealth and power enjoyed by its then Prior, Richard Singer.

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There are many historical accounts of grim goings on in Wenlock Priory – everything from monks counterfeiting coinage to plotting to murder their prior. But these will have to wait for another post. For now more views of the priory ruins and its other plants – wild and cultivated.

IMG_1230.jpgFoxglove in the cloister garden. Digitalis purpurea was used by monastic herbalists from the early Middle Ages to cure dropsy (oedema or swelling caused by fluid). It has also  long been used for heart conditions, although an overdose can prove fatal. Something else not to try at home.

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More mauve than purple – the lavender border (and topiary) in the cloister. Lavender has many soothing medicinal uses – for headaches in particular. I have no idea why the topiary hedges are there – a much more recent non-monastic addition it seems.

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

For more shades of purple go to Ailsa’s Travel Challenge HERE 

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