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St Bartholomew’s birds

Churchyard

A congregation of cacophonous starlings
chatters vivaciously in the tops
of two trees only
and because of the birds’ blackness
against an indigo sky
and because they have chosen
for conversation a graveyard
by an ancient priory church
alongside its sister hospital
their chattering seems ominous,
filled with dark knowledge.

Birds whose ancestors witnessed the writhings
of martyrs burning in Smithfield,
now your excitable chorusing
arouses patients in the neighbouring wards
who stare into the night
from deep illuminated sockets:
are you celebrating the survival
of your kind and of your city,
recounting stories of the blitz?
or is your raucous cackle
of untold tribulation still to come?

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1991

[First published in Agenda, March 1992]

History of a relationship

SBG

My first visit I barely made acquaintance,
dragged along by a medic and musician boyfriend
in the hot summer of ’76;
while he discussed diapasons in the organ loft
I drooped around the pillars,
glad of somewhere cool.

My next encounter, more than ten years later,
I was ‘depping’ for a friend who sang.
Late November; I parked in Smithfield
and counted down the minutes to rehearsal.
Then I stepped into caressing darkness
and fell in love with mystery and shadow.

So began the years of Sunday evenings,
rarely unaccompanied by apprehension:
How many sopranos will there be tonight?
Can I cope? Will the final sung Amen collapse?
The organist be charming, irascible, or both?
For three months once I left,
but a longing pulled me back.

I meant to leave entirely when I gave up singing
but somehow never did,
that unpredictable organist, by sudden dying,
recalling and reminding me that love of place
can be as strong as love of persons,
make similar demands. I’m held now
in a firm and mutual embrace.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany]

Edward Cooke

Edward Cooke

Doctor of Physick, philosopher, you hold a teasing pen;
what wisdom would you give us if your hand could move again?

Scientific formulae, concepts to explain our mind and frame? –
the spread of human knowledge still your worthy aim?
Or would you spell out now the name above every name?

Have you entered on eternity, the everlasting life
our creeds proclaim? Is heaven true? – an end to strife
when death severs soul from body with her knife?

No point in asking you; you’ll never tell.
Unlike the quick, the dead keep silence well.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1966

First published in Awaiting an Epiphany

Three Stories from the Book of the Foundation

 

Seal SBGGODRIC THE BUTCHER

One day, as was his custom, Alfune from the Priory
was visiting the butchers one by one,
asking them for gifts to feed the poor;
he decided to approach a man named Godric,
famed as very stern and niggardly of mind.

When Alfune saw that Godric would give nothing,
being moved by neither fear nor love of God,
nor any human sense of shame,
he prayed for Godric and his hardened heart
and broke out with these words:

‘Oh you unhappy man! I beg you, wretch,
to lay aside your stubbornness;
give me just one morsel of your meat
and I swear you’ll sell that heap before the others,
losing nothing by this act.’

Exasperated by the old man’s importunity,
Godric turned towards his cheapest heap;
he chose a single piece of meat
and flung it at the priest,
calling him a vagrant.

At once a citizen drew near,
wanting meat for all his family;
just as Alfune had predicted,
he bought that cheapest heap
and took it all away.

butchering-pigs

MIRACLES

One day, towards evening, darkness at hand,
a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church
and remained for the space of an hour.

The sick lay prostrate, begging the mercy of God,
and calling on blessed Bartholomew.
The lamps glowed redly,
nor was God’s love far away.

For one man rejoiced with a cry of delight
at the cure of his aching head;
another man walked, a third heard again,
the limbs of a fourth healed of ulcers:
and all the people thundered praises to the saint.

bartholomewBulgarini

HUBERT’S VISION

There was in the congregation of the canons
one Hubert of distinguished birth,
advanced in years and wonderfully gentle.
In old age leaving all for Christ,
he had been admitted to the brethren
and directed all his zeal to loving God.

BVM

Once as he was praying at the altar
in the oratory which bore her name,
the Mother of Mercy appeared to him
and spoke to him with honeyed lips:
‘Here will I received the brethren’s prayers and vows,
for ever granting mercy and my blessing.’

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

 

 

 

 

First published in Awaiting an Epiphany

 

 

 

THE BURNING TIME Final extract from Introduction: Setting the scene

If we open our story in the year 1530 or thereabouts, we find little to suggest the turmoil to come – apart from the King’s increasing impatience with Rome, and the rise of Lutheranism in parts of Europe. (Soon after Luther’s teachings had been condemned by the Pope in 1521, his works had been publicly burnt in Oxford, Cambridge and at Paul’s Cross – the site of the open-air pulpit outside St Paul’s Cathedral – in London.) Henry was still married to Katherine of Aragon, though becoming increasingly desperate to cast her off and marry Anne Boleyn. He had been insinuating to Pope Clement VII that, if the Pope would not hurry up and make it possible for him to divorce Katherine, a way of dispensing with papal authority must be sought. In 1529 Henry had dismissed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey from the post of Lord Chancellor, under pressure from Anne, and replaced him with Thomas More. The disgraced Wolsey died in November 1530. Earlier that year, in July, John Stokesley, who was supportive of the King’s campaign for a divorce and involved in the making of the case for an annulment under canon law, was appointed Bishop of London in succession to Cuthbert Tunstall, who had become Bishop of Durham.

 

Cardinal Wolsey, English School

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

 

At the heart of the small community of Augustinian canons living in St Bartholomew’s Priory was William Bolton, who had been the prior since 1505. Now nearing the end of his life, Bolton had in his heyday been not only a cleric but also a builder of some eminence, having been employed as ‘master [or clerk] of the works’ by both Henry VII and Henry VIII. (The word ‘builder’ in this context implies something more akin to architect or project manager in modern terms, rather than someone involved in the physical work of construction.) Bolton’s main work for Henry VIII had involved the rebuilding of New Hall in Essex, which the King had procured from Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, and grandfather of Anne. The prior had also undertaken large building operations at St Bartholomew’s itself and at Canonbury Tower in Islington, which formed part of the monastery’s possessions (and from where its water supply was derived). Another notable commission entrusted to Bolton had been the ordering of the chimney pots for Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court. But by 1530 Bolton’s active life was over; in addition to his post at St Bartholomew’s, he had for the last eight years been Rector of Harrow on the Hill, in Middlesex, but he was by now about eighty years old and virtually immobile. He died in April 1532.

Within the Priory Church, as was common in monastic churches, a chapel was set aside for the use of parishioners – the lay people who lived and worked in the monastic close. The parish also had its own priest, who would celebrate Mass in the chapel and look after the general spiritual welfare of the parishioners. It is not known who was fulfilling this role around the time of Prior Bolton’s death, but by the end of the decade the post was held by a man who remained a constant presence at St Bartholomew’s throughout all the turmoil of the burning time. This was Sir John Deane, the last parish priest of the chapel and subsequently the first rector of the parish church. In the early 1530s, Deane was already connected to the monastery, being Rector of Little Stanmore in Middlesex, one of the possessions of St Bartholomew’s.

 

Sir John Deane

Sir John Deane

 

Meanwhile, steadily making his way up a different professional ladder, negotiating the twists and turns of Tudor politics, was a lawyer of the Middle Temple called Richard Rich, in 1530 aged thirty-four and recently returned as Member of Parliament for the borough of Colchester in Essex. His is a name that is already well-known, if in fictionalized form, to readers of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series – where he appears as the principal villain – as well as to viewers of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Rich’s life would intersect with that of John Deane at many points over the following years, and both men would be witnesses at close quarters to all the horror of the burning time.

 

461px-1stLordRich

Richard Rich, by Hans Holbein the Younger

 

Nothing they had known before 1530, in their respective careers, could quite have prepared them for the sights, sounds and smells they would encounter over the next thirty years, as many of their closest acquaintances were consumed in the fires of Smithfield.

Read more in The Burning Time.

Portrait of an Old Man

i.m. Miron Grindea

Miron Grindea

A sultry afternoon; I identify the house;
walk twice round Emperor’s Gate
not wanting to be early …

A tousled grey head from an upstairs window:
– Who’s that? Are you the plumber?
“I sent some poems; you called me.”
– You haven’t come to mend the sink?
Well, never mind… I step inside the entrance,
have no idea which door to choose.
Querulous, the voice calls out again:
– Wait downstairs! I’m coming …

 

… that’s a portrait of me by Picasso,
and here I am with Jean Cocteau …
there’s a dedication from Chagall …
fifty years of Europe have visited this flat …

My wife’s out playing the piano …
I can’t go on alone, cancer, and too old …
Do you know someone who could help me?…
they all mysteriously disappear …

Have you been published in magazines? –
I mention the names of editors.
– Yes, he’s an alcoholic; as for him …
I try to help them when I can …

 

Next time I’m shown into the upper room
where chaos is revealed:
a round table piled with paper,
a dozen efforts at an editorial,
some previous helper’s notes ignored,
a scribbled card from Iris Murdoch …

– I used to see Eliot from this window,
he lived in the mews with his wife …
I spent half an hour with his corpse in the church …

I’m trying to write my memories … look …
and this one’s on the Jewish question,
Why does anti-Semitism exist?
… that may need more than just one article …

What can we do? I’m so embarrassed …
Can you put it on computer disk?
but what exactly shall we put?…
Edit this, but don’t change anything I say …

The Queen subscribed to ADAM once …
I reminded her when I got my MBE;
she looked vague and non-committal … English … –

You insist we sit together on the bed
to watch John Major make a speech.
You stroke my leg. The heat and hopelessness
make me too inert to move it.
You pour me sherry later;
I feel we’re celebrating
though I don’t know what.

 

Then phone calls:

– Will you take me to the ICA tonight?
You’re doing something else? well, what?
I’d put my hope in you …
– Listen to this letter, is it idiomatic?
Would you say very here or not?
Do you think so?… I prefer my version …

I left my ansaphone switched on,
didn’t return the call immediately …

– I needed you yesterday, it was urgent,
they’re taking me to hospital in half an hour.
Why didn’t you call me back? Another mystery …
Stop all this hypocritical politeness!
We know I won’t get better …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

The Smalpaces

Smalpace heads

Smalpace monument

Percival and Agnes stare from neighbouring frames.
She outlived him thirty years, as her lined face tells.
Stern in starchy Tudor collars, how remote they seem,
as though their eyes would barely recognise our world.

Yet underneath, their naked bodies tell another story
and inform the formal faces with more sympathy,
till hers seems sad, not stern, and his enduring:
seeing them lie dead has made them live.

Supine on a narrow couch, no throne
or wreathes for them, they leave no narrative,
unclothed, they’ve put aside all earthly glory
and rest unmoved by ritual, sermons, hymns.
Exposed through time, they illustrate surrender
of their bodies to the grave, their spirits to eternity.

Fragile, beautiful, such nakedness could be of any age,
including ours. Now we hear the man and woman speak:
Behowlde youre selves by us, sutche once were we as you
And you in tyme shal be even duste as we are now.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany]