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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]

THE BURNING TIME Some more from the Introduction: Setting the scene

             

Of the burnings which took place in England between 1529 and 1558 by far the largest number occurred in one small area of London – the area known as (West) Smithfield. Just outside the City walls though still within its bounds, not far from Newgate prison, ten minutes’ walk from both the Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill (the old pre-Fire of London cathedral, over 600 feet in length and with a spire rising to some 500 feet), this was a convenient place to take people to die, with space enough to erect viewing stands from which ‘the great and the good’ could watch the spectacle. Smithfield, originally known as ‘Smoothfield’, had been a place of public execution for over 400 years; many witches and heretics had been burnt, roasted or boiled alive there. It was here that the Scottish hero and patriot, Sir William Wallace, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1315, and where Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was fatally stabbed by the Lord Mayor in 1381. Many tournaments had also taken place there, royal jousts having begun in Smithfield in the reign of Edward III (1327–77). The other activity for which the area was (and is) famous was the craft of butchery, meat having been traded in Smithfield since the tenth century.

Adjacent to the open space of Smithfield was the great Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew, one of the City’s most important monasteries. The annual Bartholomew Fair was held on the priory’s land, attracting all manner of people – cloth merchants from all around Europe mingling with jugglers, acrobats, innkeepers and pickpockets. It was also an area which drew the poor and the sick, the monastery’s sister-foundation, St Bartholomew’s Hospital (still world-famous as ‘Barts‘), offering relief for the body while the prior and canons (as the members of an Augustinian community were known) offered prayers for the soul.

Of the 288 people estimated to have been burnt for heresy during the five-year reign of Mary Tudor, forty-eight were burnt in Smithfield. The next-highest numbers were eighteen in Lewes in Sussex, seventeen in Stratford-atte-Bow (now Bow in East London), fourteen in Canterbury and seven in Maidstone (both these latter in the county of Kent). Some seventeen people had suffered the same fate in Smithfield under Henry VIII, as had two ‘Anabaptists‘ (extremists whom even Protestants regarded as heretics) during the brief reign of Edward VI.

However interesting and harrowing, the lives and deaths of individual ‘martyrs’ (and the meanings of that emotive word will be considered in due course), my hope is that this book will be more than a compilation of biographies. During the time I have been working on it, the questions that the stories of the Smithfield martyrs provoke have become ever more pertinent, the need for answers (if any exist) ever more urgent. What is it that makes people kill other people in the name of religion? Why are some people prepared to die – or kill – for their beliefs, while the rest of us are content to muddle along with compromise and uncertainty? What led to this ‘burning time’ in the history of England? Could it have been avoided and how was it overcome? Could it happen again? And, most importantly, is there anything we can learn from this dark period in our history to help bring an end to today’s deathly religious conflicts – or are we doomed to go on repeating the same mistakes, in different parts of the world, until we finally succeed in annihilating humankind altogether? The instances of heroism that emerge from the stories of the martyrs, the occasional glimpses of a different kind of light from that produced by flames, suggest it is worth struggling on …

Read more in The Burning Time.

The Vision of Rahere

Rahere #3

At the shrine of Rahere the cowled monks read
the same pages from Isaiah for eternity;
little heads cluster like buds around the canopy
and a winged creature with bestial but not unfriendly face
recalls the monster who seized Rahere in dream
before Bartholomew appeared to issue his commission.

With our worldview, sophisticated – so we think – by modern medicine
and psychology, we’re likely to dismiss such visions
as malarial delirium, chemical disturbance in the brain,
imagining Rahere through fever and a medieval fear of hell
hallucinated the encounter which guided him to Smithfield,
unconsciously bargaining with God for his salvation.

Whatever really happened, whatever ‘really’ means,
the fruit of Rahere’s vision can never be denied:
here lies King Henry’s jester, first prior of this church,
in the holy place he founded, adjacent to his hospital,
and for the work of healing practised here for centuries
the name Bartholomew is honoured through the world.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

My friend Walter Mildmay

Mildmay

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead …
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding]

Mildmay, in the dark you look ornate
but barely comprehensible, and so dead;
the tokens you’ve chosen to be remembered by
far less eloquent than the naked Smalpace bodies.
Your heavy marble out of place amongst the stone:
you intended to impose.

But now you know – if you know anything –
that evidence of the world’s approval
counts for nothing after death.
It is your soul that matters now,
not how many kings and queens you served
or colleges you founded.

And since you know, and cannot even answer back,
your boasts reveal unguessed humility.
I recognise you now: we’re kindred spirits.
Instead of shields, I’d spread my poems round a monument,
listing where they’d all appeared, the prizes won:
I’d never be content.

You meant to brag, show off, belittle me;
but wiser dead than you ever were alive,
we’ve had a conversation. You’ve reminded me
how trivial is the heaping up of honours,
of how success slips through our fingers
like the dust we must become.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996.

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]