Friday, 15 April 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 9: Bloodshed in the North

1016 in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton Tiberius B IV, f. 66)

1016 was a dramatic year in England. On this blog we've been marking the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest of England by following the course of this long-drawn-out conflict, and in the spring of 1016 things were finally coming to a head.

In the last installment, back in the autumn, we saw Cnut returning to England from Denmark with his fleet and raiding across Wessex. Meanwhile, King Æthelred was ill, and at odds with his son Edmund Ironside; the king's closest advisor, the Mercian ealdorman Eadric streona, had just defected to the Danes (not for the last time).

Six months on, the situation was not looking much better for Edmund and the English. Early in 1016, with Cnut's forces now increased by the addition of Eadric's ships, Edmund began to summon up an army, but he could not look for much help from his ailing father. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) begins its entry for 1016:
Her on þissum geare com Cnut cyning mid his here .clx. scipa. 7 Eadirc ealdormann mid him ofer Temese into Myrcan æt Cræcilade. 7 wendon þa to Wæringscire innon þære middewintres tide. 7 hergodon 7 bærndon 7 slogon eall þæt hi to comon. Ða ongan se æðeling Eadmund to gadrienne fyrde. Þa seo fyrd gesomnod wæs. þa ne onhagode him buton se cyng þære wære. 7 hi hæfdon þære burhware fultum of Lundene. Geswicon þa þære fyrding. 7 færde ælc mann him ham. Ða æfter þære tide þa bead mann eft fyrde be fullum wite. þæt ælc mann þe feor wære forð gewende. 7 mann sende to þam cyninge to Lundene. 7 bædon hine þæt he come ongean þa fyrde mid þam fultume þe he gegaderian mihte. Ða hi ealle tosomne comon. þa ne beheold hit naht þe ma þe hit oftor ær dyde. Þa cydde mann þam cyninge þæt hine mann beswicon wolde. þa þe him on fultume beon sceolden. Forlet ða þa fyrde. 7 cyrde him eft to Lundene.
[In this year King Cnut came with his army of 160 ships, and Ealdorman Eadric with him, over the Thames into Mercia at Cricklade, and then turned into Warwickshire during the midwinter festival, and they raided and burned and slew all that they came to. Then the atheling Edmund began to gather an army. When the army was assembled, they would not be satisfied unless the king were there and they had the support of the garrison from London. So they gave up the campaign, and everyone went home. Then after the festival the army was commanded again, under full penalty, that every man who was able should come, and the king was sent to in London and asked to come to join the army with all the support he could gather. When they were all come together, it was no use, any more than it had often been before. Then the king was told that they were going to betray him, those who should have supported him; he left the army, and went back again to London.]

This picture of disorganisation and general mistrust among the English leaders is typical of the chronicler's narrative of these years (whether accurately or not), and he sounds especially jaded here. The Chronicle goes on:

Ða rad se æþeling Eadmund to Norðhymbran to Vhtrede eorl. 7 wænde ælc mann þæt hi woldon fyrde somnian ongean Cnut cyng. Þa ferdon hi into Stæffordscire. 7 into Scrobbesbyrig. 7 to Legeceastre. 7 hergodon hi on heora healfe 7 Cnut on his. 7 wende him þa ut þurh Buccingahamscire into Beadafordscire. 7 þanon to Huntandunscire. andlang fennes to Stanforda. 7 ða into Lincolnescire. þanon to Snotingahamscire. 7 swa to Norðhymbran to Eoforwicweard. Ða Uhtred geaxode þis. ða forlet he his hergunga 7 efeste norðweard. 7 beah þa for nede. 7 ealle Norðhymbran mid him. 7 he gislode. 7 hine man ðeah hwæðere ofsloh. 7 þurcytel Nafanan sunu mid him. 7 þa æfter þæs se cyng Cnut gesætte Yric into Norðhymbran to eorle. eall swa Uhtred wæs. 7 syððan wendon him suðweard oðres weges eall be westan. 7 com þa eall se here toforan þam Eastron to scipon. 7 se æþeling Ædmund wende to Lundene to his fæder. 7 þa æfter Eastron wende se cyng Cnut mid eallum his scipum to Lundeneweard.

[Then the atheling Edmund rode to Northumbria to Earl Uhtred, and everyone thought they intended to gather an army against King Cnut. They went into Staffordshire and into Shrewsbury and to [Chester], and they raided on their side, and Cnut on his; and [Cnut] then turned out through Buckinghamshire into Bedfordshire and from there to Huntingdonshire, along the fen to Stamford, and then into Lincolnshire, from there to Nottinghamshire, and so to Northumbria towards York. When Uhtred heard this, he left his raiding and hurried north, and submitted out of necessity, and all Northumbria with him, and he gave hostages; but nonetheless he was killed, and Thurcytel, son of Nafena, with him. And after this King Cnut appointed Erik as earl in Northumbria, just as Uhtred was, and afterwards went southwards by another route, down the west. And then all the [Danish] army came to the ships before Easter, and the atheling Edmund went to London to his father, and after Easter King Cnut went towards London with all his ships.]

Effectively this was Cnut's conquest of the north. The Chronicle only details his route up through the Midlands into Northumbria, but Scandinavian sources tell us that along the way he was fighting battles in 'green Lindsey', and at Hemingbrough in Yorkshire. No wonder Uhtred made haste to meet him! As the most powerful man in the north of England, head of the family who had ruled Northumbria from Bamburgh for several generations, Uhtred was an important ally of Edmund and Æthelred; his murder, supposedly committed under a promise of safe-conduct, delivered the north to the Danes. Sources disagree on the immediate cause of Uhtred's murder: the C version of the Chronicle blames it on the advice of Eadric streona (which seems possible, but is a bit suspicious, given the habit of blaming everything on Eadric streona). A later but better-informed northern source says that Uhtred was killed by a man with whom he had a long-standing feud, Thurbrand Hold, and that his death began a series of revenge killings which lasted right into the 1070s. It's sometimes hard to get a clear picture of what was going on in the complex world of Northumbrian politics, but it seems here that Cnut had waded right into the middle of it. In Uhtred's place Cnut appointed (perhaps not straightaway, but certainly by 1017) England's first ever earl, a word which now began to be used in England instead of ealdorman: the Norwegian Eiríkr Hákonarson, one of his most experienced supporters.

Bamburgh from afar

And down in the south, both armies were now converging on London, where by mid-April Æthelred was entering the last days of his life.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

'That we may sing without ending'

Virgin and child (Medieval stained glass, Stowting, Kent)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for medieval carols, which - despite the associations the term may have for many people today - were not confined to the Christmas season. There are carols for all seasons of the year, on subjects sacred and secular, serious and light-hearted, and most things in between. (If you're in the UK you can watch me talking about this subject on the Easter Sunday edition of Songs of Praise, should you wish to...)

There are numerous medieval carols about the Passion of Christ, but not quite so many for the Easter season, for some reason. But here's one carol which seems appropriate for Eastertide. It comes from the collection of carols put together by the Canterbury Franciscan James Ryman in 1492, and it's a macaronic text which takes its Latin lines from the Marian antiphon used in the season of Easter, Regina caeli:

Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia.
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia,
For He whom you were merited to bear, alleluia,
Has risen, as he said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.

James Ryman's extensive collection of carols can be read in full online. It contains many carols in praise of the Virgin, and a fair number making use of a 'Regina caeli' refrain - I've posted two examples before here and here. They all cover pretty much the same ground, naturally, but they are variations on a theme - they experiment with different imagery, different ways of integrating Latin and English lines, and so on. Here's a more extensively macaronic example, which is a skillful piece of work. The following carol is not quite so difficult, but I like it for of its clever use of internal rhyme, which nicely echoes the form of the antiphon's rhyming third line (Resurrexit, sicut dixit). The Latin and English play out their own antiphonal structure of verse and response, and they work beautifully together - if you mentally translate the Latin phrases as you read, you'll see that in every verse they fit perfectly with the sense of the English lines, which is not an easy trick to accomplish! It feels like there's something playful about those chiming rhymes, even in a carol which is serious and devotional.

This is in modern spelling for ease for reading, but the Middle English can be found here.

Stella maris, micaris clare:
Regina caeli, laetare.

Behold and see, O lady free,
Quem meruisti portare,
God and man is he, thus believe we,
Regina caeli, laetare.

King Assuere, thy son so dear,
Quem meruisti portare,
In bliss so clear he hath no peer,
Regina caeli, laetare.

Since thy son is the king of bliss,
Quem meruisti portare,
With him and his thou shalt not miss, [shall not fail to be]
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord so good, with so mild mood, [disposition]
Quem meruisti portare,
Upon the rood shed his heart’s blood,
Regina caeli, laetare.

O lady free, glad mayst thou be,
Quem meruisti portare,
As he told thee, arise did he,
Regina caeli, laetare.

By thy sweet child, so meek and mild,
Quem meruisti portare,
Man, that was wild, is reconciled;
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord, who wrought all things of nought,
Quem meruisti portare,
Mankind hath bought and to bliss brought;
Regina caeli, laetare.

The heavenly choir that lord so dear,
Quem meruisti portare,
With voices clear laudeth in fere [praises in harmony]
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord and king to bliss us bring
Quem meruisti portare,
That we may sing without ending:
Regina caeli, laetare.

The reference in the second verse to 'King Assuere' is an allusion to the Biblical story of Esther, who was considered to be a typological figure of Mary as Queen of Heaven - a reminder that Ryman and any reader of his carols could be expected to have a sophisticated understanding of theology and Biblical exegesis.

Ryman's carols don't come with music, sadly, though this one feels more than usually singable. (With voices clear laudeth in fere...) But for some related music, you could do worse than listen to this jolly carol from half a century earlier than Ryman, or Byrd's Regina Caeli, from just over a hundred years later.

Coronation of the Virgin (BL Harley 2838, f. 51v)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

'When I see blossoms spring'

Iffley, Oxford

When Y se blosmes springe,
Ant here foules song,
A suete love-longynge
Myn herte thourhout stong,
Al for a love newe
That is so suete ant trewe,
That gladieth al my song.
Ich wot al myd iwisse
My joie ant eke my blisse
On him is al ylong.

Of Iesu Crist hi synge,
That is so fayr and fre,
Swetest of alle thynge;
His othwe hic oghe wel boe.
Wl fer he me sothte,
Myd hard he me bothte,
Wyth wnde to and three;
Wel sore he was yswnge,
And for me myd spere ystunge,
Ynayled to the tree.

When Y miselve stonde
Ant with myn eyen seo
Thurled fot ant honde
With grete nayles threo,
Blody wes ys heued,
On him nes nout bileved
That wes of peynes freo.
Wel, wel ohte myn herte
For his love to smerte,
Ant sike ant sory beo.

Jesu, milde ant softe,
Yef me streynthe ant myht
Longen sore ant ofte
To lovye the aryht.
Pyne to tholie ant dreye
For the sone, Marye.
Thou art so fre ant bryht,
Mayden ant moder mylde,
For love of thine childe,
Ernde us heven lyht.

Alas, that Y ne con
Turne to him my thoht,
Ant cheosen him to lemmon!
So duere he us hath yboht
With woundes deope ant stronge,
With peynes sore ant longe,
Of love ne conne we noht.
His blod that feol to grounde,
Of hise suete wounde,
Of peyne us hath yboht.

Jesu, milde ant suete,
Y synge the mi song;
Ofte Y the grete
Ant preye the among.
Let me sunnes lete,
Ant in this lyve bete
That Ich have do wrong.
At oure lyves ende,
When whe shule wende,
Jesu, us undefong.
Amen.

Here's a springtime poem for Eastertide, from the early fourteenth century. It's one of the 'Harley lyrics', from the collection of English, French and Latin poems found in British Library, Harley 2253, where it looks like this:


(The second verse I've included here comes from another version of the poem in British Library, MS Royal 2. F. VIII.)

'When I see blossoms spring', with its speaker pierced to love-longing by blossom and birdsong, begins very like another of the Harley lyrics (several of them, actually):

Bytuene Mersh ant Aueril,
When spray biginneth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge.
Ich libbe in loue-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge;
He may me blisse bringe;
Icham in hire baundoun.

(Between March and April, when the blossom begins to spring, the little bird takes its pleasure in singing in its own language. I live in love-longing for the loveliest of all things. She can bring me to bliss; I am in her power.)

But this is a secular love-poem, and the love-longing in this case is for a woman called Alisoun. The first verses of these two poems are almost interchangeable - gender aside - and you can see how smoothly 'When I see blossoms spring' takes the conventions of springtime love-poetry and applies them to Christ. The association between spring and Easter must have made such a device seem quite natural (in every sense), as in the texts I looked at in my last post and many others: of course spring is the season when Easter is celebrated, but spring is a reflection of the meaning of Easter, too. It's not a coincidence! You might like to compare the slightly earlier, but perhaps even more lovely, 'Summer is come and winter gone'.

Here's a modernised version:

When I see blossoms spring,
And hear the birds' song,
A sweet love-longing
Entirely pierces my heart,
All for a love new
That is so sweet and true,
That gladdens all my song:
I know in truth, iwis,
My joy and all my bliss
On him is all ylong. [is all because of him]

Of Jesu Christ I sing,
Who is so fair and free, [noble]
Sweetest of all thing;
His own ought I well to be.
So far for me he sought,
With suffering he me bought,
With wounds two and three;
Well sore he was swung,
And for me with spear was stung,
Nailed to the tree.

When I myself stand
And with my eyes see
Pierced foot and hand
With great nails three;
Bloody was his head,
On him was nothing left
That of pain was free.
Well, well ought my heart
For his love to smart,
And sigh and sorry be.

Jesu, mild and soft, [merciful and gentle]
Give me strength and might
To long sore and oft
To love thee aright.
Pain to suffer and endure
For thy son, Mary,
Thou art so free and bright!
Maid and mother mild
For love of thy child,
Win for us heaven's light.

Alas, that I am not able
To turn to him my thought,
And choose him as my love!
So dear he us hath bought
With wounds deep and strong,
With pains sore and long,
Of love we know nothing at all!
His blood that fell to ground,
From his sweet wound,
From pain us hath bought. [redeemed]

Jesu, mild and sweet,
I sing thee my song;
Often I thee greet
And pray to thee among:
Let me sins forsake,
And in this life amends make
For what I have done wrong.
At our life's end,
When we shall wend,
Jesu, us underfong. [receive]
Amen.

Blossoming cross (BL Stowe 39, f. 23v)

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

'This doubtful day of feast or fast': Good Friday and the Annunciation

Annunciation and Crucifixion, from BL Add. 18850, f. 204v

This year Good Friday falls on Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation. This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in patristic and medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion. It happens only a handful of times in a century, and won't occur again until 2157.

These days the church deals with such occasions by transferring the feast of the Annunciation to another day, but traditionally the conjunction of the two dates was considered to be both deliberate and profoundly meaningful. The date of the feast of the Annunciation was chosen to match the supposed historical date of the Crucifixion, as deduced from the Gospels, in order to underline the idea that Christ came into the world on the same day that he left it: his life formed a perfect circle. March 25 was both the first and the last day of his earthly life, the beginning and the completion of his work on earth. The idea goes back at least to the third century, and Augustine explained it in this way:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.

This day was not only a conjunction of man-made calendars but also a meeting-place of solar, lunar, and natural cycles: both events were understood to have happened in the spring, when life returns to the earth, and at the vernal equinox, once the days begin to grow longer than the nights and light triumphs over the power of darkness. Here's Bede explaining some of the symbolism of this latter point (from here, p.25):

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.
As Bede says at the end here, this dating is symbolic but it is not only a symbol; it reveals the deep relationship between Christ's death and all the created world, including the sun and moon and everything on earth. According to some calculations 25 March was also considered to be the eighth day of the week which saw the creation of the world (for more on that, see this post), as well as the date of certain events from the Old Testament which prefigured Christ's death, including the sacrifice of Isaac and the crossing of the Red Sea. It is the single most significant date in salvation history, and for that reason has also made it into some fictional history too: those of you who are Tolkien fans will know that the final destruction of the Ring takes place on 25 March, to align Tolkien's own eucatastrophe with this most powerful of dates.

Calendar, marking the Annunciation and Crucifixion on 25 March (BL Royal 1 D X, f.10)

But it's the link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion which has most fascinated theologians and artists over the centuries. Here's one beautiful passage from the Old English Martyrology, in its entry for March 25, explaining what was by the ninth century the common understanding of the date (the text is from this edition, pp.72-7, with my translation):

On ðone fif ond twentegðan dæg þæs monðes com Gabrihel ærest to Sancta Marian mid Godes ærende, ond on ðone dæg Sancta Maria wæs eacen geworden on Nazareth ðære ceastre þurh þæs engles word ond þurh hire earena gehyrnesse, swa þas treowa ðonne hi blostmiað þurh þæs windes blæd.... Ond ða æfter twa ond ðritegum geara ond æfter ðrym monðum wæs Crist ahangen on rode on ðone ylcan dæg. Ond sona swa he on ðære rode wæs, ða gescæfta tacnedon þæt he was soð God. Seo sunne asweartade, ond se dæg wæs on þeostre niht gecierred fram midne dæg oð non.

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.
At the Annunciation Mary becomes like the blossoming trees in spring, and like the tree which became Christ's cross: she bears new life to the world. The parallel reflects the ancient tradition which links Mary with scriptural images of the tree or the vine, frequently used in the liturgy on feasts of the Virgin - this, for instance. She is the root of Jesse from which grows the rod, the virgo who bears the virga. (For a fascinating discussion of this imagery in light of the parallel between Mary and the tree/cross in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, see this book.)

With Mary's Ave to the angel at the Annunciation began the work of redemption completed on Good Friday; her word makes her the inverse of Eva, the means by which Eve’s sin is turned to good. In the Old English Martyrology, the next entry describes how on 26 March Christ descended into hell, to save Adam and Eve and all those who had died before his coming. Eve appeals to him by merit of her kinship with Mary:

Đær hine eac ongeaton Adam ond Eua, þær hi asmorede wæron mid deopum ðeostrum. Đa ða hi gesawon his þæt beorhte leoht æfter þære langan worolde, þær Eua hine halsode for Sancta Marian mægsibbe ðæt he hire miltsade. Heo cwæþ to him: ‘Gemyne, min Drihten, þæt seo wæs ban of minum banum, ond flæsc of minum flæsce. Help min forþon.’ Đa Crist hi butu ðonan alysde ond unrim bliðes folces him beforan onsende, ða he wolde gesigefæsted eft siðian to þæm lichoman.

Adam and Eve saw him there too, where they were stifled in deep darkness. When they saw his bright light, after that long age, Eve implored him there for the sake of her kinship with St Mary to have mercy on her. She said to him: ‘Remember, my Lord, that she was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Help me for that reason!’ Then Christ released them both from that place and also sent a countless number of joyful people before them, when, triumphant, he set out to return to his body.

Crucifixion and Annunciation (BL Add. 44949, f. 5)

The traditional pairing of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion means that the two scenes are often depicted together in medieval art, as above in a fourteenth-century manuscript, and in the image at the top of this post. The first example from England is probably the one found on the eighth-century Ruthwell Cross, where a depiction of the Crucifixion was added directly below the Annunciation scene some time after the original design was completed:


Some six hundred years later, artists were still finding new ways to explore this conjunction. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the idea inspired the development of a distinctive and beautiful image found almost uniquely in English medieval art: the lily crucifix. This iconography combines the Annunciation and the Crucifixion by depicting Christ crucified on a lily amid an Annunciation scene. The lily is the symbol of Mary, of course, and is often referenced in depictions of the Annunciation and in poetry about the Virgin; this idea grafts that flower imagery into the tradition which links Mary to the root of Jesse and the tree of the cross. Here's a gorgeous example of a lily crucifix from a Welsh manuscript, the Llanbeblig Hours, made at the end of the fourteenth century:

The Virgin sits under a green canopy, while Gabriel in green and red kneels facing her.

Another slightly later manuscript image can be seen here, but the lily crucifix is found in all kinds of media - there are estimated to be 19 surviving examples in all, ranging from painted screens and stained glass to carvings on stone tombs, misericords and wall-paintings. Here's a painted ceiling from the Lady Chapel of St Helen's Church, Abingdon, with the lily bearing the crucified Christ between Mary and the angel:


The rest of this impressive ceiling, which dates from c.1390, depicts the ancestors of Christ in a form of Jesse Tree. There are more pictures here.

Not far away in Oxford, there's a beautiful stained glass window of a lily crucifix in the church of St Michael at the Northgate:


This too was originally part of an Annunciation scene, though the other panels are now lost.

And here's a wonderful example in alabaster, now in the V and A, where a giant lily-stem carrying Christ soars right up into heaven:


Click to zoom in and study the detail! The top half of the panel is damaged, but clearly showed God the Father holding the crucified Christ, part of a common depiction of the Trinity - compare the image at the top of this post, and there are more examples collected here.

Mary and John at the foot of the cross (BL Sloane 2321, f.111v)

The lily cross flanked by two figures, Mary and the angel, offers a visual parallel to the usual Crucifixion scene, where Christ on the cross is attended by Mary and St John. One of the ways in which medieval Christians were most often encouraged to approach the Passion was by imagining and entering into Mary's emotions, to see Christ, as his mother might, as a vulnerable human child even at the moment of his death as an adult. There are many superb examples of poetic meditations on this subject - here's a particularly moving one, and more can be found here. This four-line poem is one of the best-known:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

Although so short and apparently so simple, this is full of meaningful wordplay: as the sun sets behind the wood, so Christ the Son is shrouded in darkness on the wood of the cross, the tree. Rode can mean both 'face', and rood, of course.

Another good example of a text which approaches the Passion through Mary's motherhood is 'Stond wel, Moder, under rode', with its explicit appeal to a female audience and its poignant comment that by her grief Mary learns to understand 'what pain they have that children bear'. In this poem Mary's situation, though so extraordinary, gives her kinship with all women who have lost children or found in motherhood grief as well as joy. The link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion brings together in one circle the beginning and the end of Mary's motherhood, its joy and its sorrow, as well as completing the circle of Christ's life on earth.

Crucifixion (BL Harley 2851, f. 31)

However, although the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are so closely linked, they don't often occur on the same day. Good Friday fell on March 25 in 1608, too, when John Donne wrote this poem on the occasion:

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day
1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angel’s Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is, and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man, and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though one blood-drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

A paradoxical conjunction of feast and fast: was there ever a day more suited to metaphysical poetry? Although this wonderful poem is all so characteristically Donne, it explores many of the same parallels as the medieval texts and images we've already seen: the circle, the tree, beginnings and endings, and the two moments in the life of the Virgin, seen at once 'at almost fifty and at scarce fifteen'.

The coincidence of feasts gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - from falling 'some times and seldom'. It is, he says, an act of wisdom in the church, existing in time, to be moveable, while God is a fixed star, eternally the same. The overlapping cycles of the church's calendar offer many such conjunctions, which change every year as the fixed cycle intersects with the variable one. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'. They are moments which seem to reveal a purpose behind the randomness of life, to show both natural and man-made events and seasons to be part of an ordered and carefully structured universe. It's the calendrical equivalent of a pun, like the medieval poet's 'sun under wood' or Donne's orbity - a place where meanings meet.

This year's conjunction is a particularly rich example, but all through the year these coincidental graces can be found, as beauty and meaning are produced by the changing juxtaposition of feasts and fasts, the fixed and the moveable seasons. Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsun - all can at various times coincide with different fixed occasions, different stages in the seasons of spring and summer, and the experience of each can accordingly change from year to year. As the cycles intersect in different ways, familiar texts and images breathe new life into each other, and bring forth new and different fruit (to borrow the Old English Martyrology's metaphor for Mary's conception). In such ways the interlocking wheels of the calendar give cosmic meaning to the cycle of our own days, months, and years.

Crucifixion with living tree, sun and moon (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

Of course, a fixed date of Easter would do away with all this. As a medievalist, I found the discussion of the question of fixing a date for Easter a few months ago rather depressing. If there were any theological arguments under consideration, no one seemed to think it worthwhile to articulate them publicly; discussion focused mostly on solving the non-existent problem that some people (schools, maybe?) apparently find a movable date for Easter a bit inconvenient. I've never in my life heard anyone complain about being inconvenienced by the date of Easter, so I really struggle to imagine who considers this a pressing issue. And for that, churches would break with nearly two thousand years of tradition, a complex system worked out with great care and thought and invested over centuries with profound meaning. The fixed dates proposed for Easter are in April, so never again would Good Friday fall on the feast of the Annunciation. So much loss for so little gain!

Bede truly would be spinning in his grave. It strikes me (once again) that however much many people today, in their ignorance of all but the broadest stereotypes about the Middle Ages, stigmatise the medieval church as worldly, rigid, and oppressive, it was in some ways immeasurably more humane and creative than its modern successors. It was happy to see human life as fully part of the natural world, shaped by the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons; it was able to articulate a belief that material considerations, convenience, and economic productivity are not the highest goods, and not the only standards by which life should be lived. When confronted by calendar clashes with the potential to be a little awkward or inconvenient, the medieval church could have the imagination not to simply suppress them or tidy them away, but to find meaning in them - meaning which springs from deep knowledge of the images and poetry of scripture, the liturgy, and popular devotion.

So enjoy the coincidence this year, this meeting of dates which has inspired preachers, poets, and artists through many centuries of Christian tradition. Unless you plan to live until 2157, you won't see another in your lifetime - and if the date of Easter is fixed, it will never happen again.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Two Crucifixes and the Norman Conquest


In my column for History Today this month, I've written about a church in Oxfordshire which has two incredible surviving Anglo-Saxon sculptures: two roods, one a life-size carving of Christ with outstretched arms, the other a smaller scene including Mary and John at the foot of the cross. They probably date to the tenth or eleventh century, and are a sign that the church in this quiet village must once have had some wealthy patrons. I'm fascinated by Anglo-Saxon life-size figures of Christ, such as this or the one at Romsey Abbey, and have written about them before here. They have a remarkably human presence, and the various records of how people interacted with them as if they were living creatures, and stories in which they actually come to life, make perfect sense when you are standing in front of them. The one at Langford can be seen from the road, before you even enter the churchyard; although now headless and damaged, its open-armed, welcoming embrace is strangely moving.

Also intriguing, particularly this year, is Langford's connection with a man named Ælfsige of Faringdon, who owned lands in the area both before and after the Norman Conquest. In this year, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the events of 1066 are being commemorated in a variety of ways, including academic conferences, public events, and social media. I'm finding it all interesting to watch and participate in, especially because this year is also the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England by Cnut - a bigger anniversary, receiving considerably less commemoration. Unlike 1066, Cnut's conquest doesn't even have a hashtag; and these days, can an event be said to exist at all if it doesn't have a hashtag? (That's a joke. Probably.)

There are many reasons for this disparity, some of which I explored three years ago when I began commemorating the anniversary of the Danish Conquest on this blog. (I'll consider it further later this year.) When it comes to engaging the public with history, anniversaries are very useful; as I've learned through my blogging and tweeting, there's no hook which seems to catch the public's attention more than 'On this day...' I don't entirely understand why this should be, but I think it's something more than idle curiosity; anniversaries have real power to stir the imagination, as I talked about briefly here, and I sometimes wonder about the relationship between this fascination, Twitter's daily obsession with new secular feasts in the form of 'National Whatever-it-is Day', and the fact that in the medieval church year, which I tend to follow in my blogging schedule, almost every single day is an anniversary of something in one way or another. (Most liturgical feasts are to some extent based on the idea of 'on this day', literally or metaphorically.)

It's interesting to watch the various responses to the anniversary of the Norman Conquest, and it provides a useful challenge to the historian: what's the best way to talk in public about this famous story, which is not just familiar but full of popular half-remembered facts (1066 and all that!) and bound up with some very deep-seated national myths? The focus on one watershed moment, even one so undeniably dramatic and important as the Battle of Hastings, threatens to come at the expense of nuance. Historians demanding nuance can be a little irritating, I know, but in this case I'm conscious that the alternative means a downplaying of stories which don't neatly fit the simple overall narrative. It's hard to simultaneously commemorate the anniversary of 1066 as a single decisive moment and to tell the longer story of what came before and after, and it's easier to overlook the facts and stories which might get in the way. 'Are you Norman or Saxon?' asks this clever little English Heritage quiz, but of course it's not as simple as that: there are a hundred extra factors to take into account, from the other parties involved in the events of 1066 (the Norwegians, not to mention the Danes, who took an active role in the aftermath), to the fact that those who fought on the defending side at Hastings were more likely to call themselves 'English' than 'Saxon' - as English as English Heritage itself. The fact that we don't often call them that says an awful lot about the effect the Norman Conquest still has on popular perceptions of history in this country, cutting off six centuries of English history and literature as if they belonged to some kind of pre-history of a people who are not 'us'. The English Heritage website classifies all of Anglo-Saxon England, right up until 1066 (!), as 'the Dark Ages', which is pretty revealing about where their sympathies lie.

Then there's the question of those, like Ælfsige of Faringdon, who lived through the Conquest, or were part of the first generation born after it. I've written about some examples on this blog before: St Wulfstan of Worcester, Earl Waltheof, St Margaret of Scotland, the monks of Canterbury, and more. It's not easy to classify the identities and allegiances of these people, nor perhaps should we wish to. I was pleased and amused to see that one of the questions in the English Heritage quiz helps you determine your allegiance by asking you to pick between pre-Conquest and post-Conquest manuscripts. The 'Saxon' images come from the New Minster Liber Vitae and the Bury Gospels, the 'Norman' ones from this Life of St Dunstan and a Passionale from St Augustine's, Canterbury. All four are beautiful manuscripts, and they make good contrasting examples of pre- and post-Conquest manuscript art from the early eleventh and early twelfth centuries. But, as it happens, they also nicely illustrate the complexity of the situation. The New Minster Liber Vitae is the manuscript which contains the famous image of Cnut and Emma presenting a cross, and dates to c.1031; if there's any such thing as an Anglo-Danish rather than an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, this is surely it. And the image from the Life of St Dunstan is of its author, the Canterbury monk and historian Osbern. Osbern grew up in England before the Conquest, lived through its aftermath, and spent time in Normandy; he wrote in the 1080-90s but only, and proudly, about English saints, drawing on his memories of the pre-Conquest monastery at Canterbury. I can't quite imagine his reaction to being used as a symbol of 'Norman' identity ;)

So it's all very complicated, and that just makes it more fascinating. Almost as interesting as these stories are the ways they have been talked about by historians, and Ælfsige of Faringdon is a good example of that. There was a tendency in the twentieth century to talk about people like Ælfsige or Wulfstan of Worcester in anachronistic language as collaborators, traitors, even 'quislings', as if a generation of historians who had grown up in the years after World War II were consciously or unconsciously applying the language of Nazi occupation to eleventh-century England. (Better historians than me have written about this.) It's revealing language - whatever you think of the Norman Conquest, the Normans were not the Nazis! Although now less common in academia, it still has quite a hold on popular history, and it can cause problems if it leads historians to talk about the aftermath of the Conquest as if there was only one right way to respond to it and anything else is a bit morally suspect. It leads to a focus on the oppression/rebellion kinds of stories (interesting as they are), and an omission of the more complicated ones, or of those people for whom violent rebellion was perhaps not an option - women, the young, the old, monks and nuns, and so on. There's lots of great research being done on these kinds of topics, and hopefully the anniversary will allow some of it to filter through to the public.

Anyway, there will be plenty of opportunities to think about these matters in this anniversary year. Though Langford is just a few miles from where I live, I only learned of its existence through a reader of this blog, who contacted me and invited me to go out and visit the church. It was a joy! I'll write a proper post about the church when I get a chance, but in the meantime you can read a bit more about it here.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

'And thanne mette I with a man, a myd-Lenten Sonday'


Something to read on Mid-Lent Sunday, from Piers Plowman.

And I awaked therwith, and wiped myne eighen,
And after Piers the Plowman pried and stared,
Estward and westward I waited after faste,
And yede forth as an ydiot, in contree to aspie
After Piers the Plowman - many a place I soughte.
And thanne mette I with a man, a myd-Lenten Sonday,
As hoor as an hawethorn, and Abraham he highte.
I frayned hym first fram whennes he come,
And of whennes he were, and whider that he thoughte.
"I am Feith,' quod that freke, "it falleth noght me to lye,
And of Abrahames hous an heraud of armes.
I seke after a segge that I seigh ones,
A ful bold bacheler--I knew hym by his blasen.'
"What berth that buyrn,' quod I tho, " so blisse thee bitide?'
"Thre leodes in oon lyth, noon lenger than oother,
Of oon muchel and myght in mesure and in lengthe.
That oon dooth, alle dooth, and ech dooth bi his one.
The firste hath myght and majestee, makere of alle thynges:
Pater is his propre name, a persone by hymselve.
The secounde of that sire is Sothfastnesse Filius,
Wardeyn of that wit hath, was evere withouten gynnyng.
The thridde highte the Holi Goost, a persone by hymselve,
The light of al that lif hath a londe and a watre,
Confortour of creatures--of hym cometh alle blisse.
So thre bilongeth for a lord that lordshipe cleymeth:
Might, and a mene his owene myghte to knowe,
Of hymself and of his servaunt, and what suffreth hem bothe.
So God, that gynnyng hadde nevere, but tho hym good thoughte,
Sente forth his sone as for servaunt that tyme,
To ocupien hym here til issue were spronge -
That is, children of charite, and Holi Chirche the moder.
Patriarkes and prophetes and apostles were the children,
And Crist and Cristendom and alle Cristene Holy Chirche...

I hadde wonder of hise wordes, and of hise wide clothes;
For in his bosom he bar a thyng, and that he blissed evere.
And I loked in his lappe: a lazar lay therinne
Amonges patriarkes and prophetes pleyinge togideres.
"What awaitestow?' quod he, "and what woldestow have?'
"I wolde wite," quod I tho, "what is in youre lappe."
"Lo!" quod he - and leet me se. "Lord, mercy!" I seide.
"This is a present of muche pris; what prynce shal it have?'
"It is a precious present," quod he, "ac the pouke it hath attached,
And me therwith," quod that wye, "may no wed us quyte,
Ne no buyrn be oure borgh, ne brynge us fram his daunger;
Out of the poukes pondfold no maynprise may us fecch
Til he come that I carpe of: Crist is his name
That shal delivere us som day out of the develes power,
And bettre wed for us wage than we ben alle worthi -
That is, lif for lif - or ligge thus evere
Lollynge in my lappe, til swich a lord us fecche."
"Allas!' I seide, "that synne so longe shall lette
The myght of Goddes mercy, that myghte us alle amende!'
I wepte for hise wordes.

Souls in the bosom of Abraham (BL Stowe 17, f.188)

And with that I awoke, and rubbed my eyes,
and after Piers the Plowman peered and stared about;
eastwards and westwards I looked for him,
and went forth like a fool, searching the region
for Piers the Plowman; many a place I sought.
And then I met with a man, on mid-Lent Sunday,
as hoary as a hawthorn-tree, and Abraham was his name.
I asked him first whence he had come,
and where he was from, and where he was going.
"I am Faith," said that man, "it befits me not to lie;
a herald of arms in Abraham's household.
I seek for a man I saw once,
a most bold knight - I knew him by his blazon."
"What does that warrior wear," I asked, "as bliss betide you?"
"Three figures in one person, none larger than another,
of one degree and power in length and in breadth.
What one does, all do, and each does alone.
The first has power and majesty, maker of all things:
Father is his proper name, a person in himself.
The second of that lord is Truth, the Son,
guard of all who have wits, who ever was without beginning.
The third is called the Holy Ghost, a person in himself,
the light of all that live on land and on water,
comforter of creatures - of him comes all joy.
So three attributes belong to a lord who lordship claims:
might, and the means of expressing his might,
his own and his agent's, and what sustains them both.
So God, who never had beginning but what seemed good to him,
sent forth his Son, to be servant for a time,
to labour here until issue was brought forth -
that is, the children of charity, with Holy Church the mother.
Patriarchs and prophets and apostles were the children
And Christ and Christendom and all Christians are Holy Church...'

[He goes on to discuss the Trinity further, and tells some of Abraham's story.]

I wondered at his words, and at his voluminous clothes -
for at his bosom he bore something which he kept blessing.
And I looked within his cloak: a leper lay there,
among patriarchs and prophets playing together.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked, "and what is it you want?"
"I want to know," said I, "what is in your cloak."
"Look," he said, and let me see. "Lord, mercy!" I said.
"That's a precious gift; for what prince is it intended?"
"It is a precious gift," he said, "but the devil has seized it -
and me, as well," said that one, "and no ransom may redeem us,
nor can anyone pay our bail or free us from his power;
no payment of surety can take us out of the devil's prison,
until the one comes whom I speak of: Christ is his name,
the one who shall deliver us, some day, out of the devil's power,
and pay a better price for us than we are all together worth:
that is, life for life. Else we would lie thus for ever,
lolling in my lap, until such a lord saved us."
"Alas," I cried, "that sin so long should hinder
the might of God's mercy, which might us all amend!"
I wept for his words.

Dives and Lazarus (BL Egerton 3277, f.128)

The image of the dead, those who had died before the coming of Christ, resting in the bosom of Abraham comes from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It was a popular subject in medieval art; here, the combination of the idea with Abraham's explanation of the nature of the Trinity strikingly echoes an image found in medieval English alabaster, such as this beautiful example (follow the link for more images):


The poem brings this iconography unforgettably to life, as we see the 'patriarchs and prophets playing together' in Abraham's lap. The little naked souls in these images look like children, and here they are 'the children of charity, with Holy Church the mother'; like children they 'loll' in their parent's lap, happy enough but helpless 'til such a lord us fetch.' It's a tender, maternal image, fitting for this moment in the liturgical year, as the poem is starting to run towards Jerusalem to re-enact the events of the Passion: the Epistle for Mid-Lent Sunday speaks of the two children of Abraham, and of 'Jerusalem our mother'. But here there's something more poignant than comforting about Abraham's tenderness and the little creatures' vulnerability; no wonder it moves the dreamer to tears.


The story of Dives and Lazarus, as told in an English folk-song:



And reimagined by Vaughan Williams:


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Death of King Ethelbert

Worth, Kent

Today is the 1400th anniversary of the death of Ethelbert, king of Kent, the first English king to convert to Christianity. Ethelbert died on 24 February 616, around twenty years after receiving the mission of St Augustine and his companions, who had been sent from Rome to spread Christianity to (what they thought) a 'barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation'. So today is a good day to read Bede's account of Augustine's meeting with Ethelbert in 597, and what came after it. This is how Bede describes Augustine's coming, in Book I of his Historia Ecclesiastica (beginning at chapter 25, taken from here):

Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern.

On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet containing, according to the English way of reckoning, 600 families, divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs over, and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea. In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men.

Augustine landing (St Laurence, Ramsgate)
They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.

The king, having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.

The traditional site of Augustine's landing, Thanet
Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.

When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."

Augustine preaching to Ethelbert (Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford)
Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."

Augustine processing to Canterbury (St Augustine's, Ramsgate)
As soon as they entered the dwelling­-place assigned them they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church; applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.

There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly, and build or repair churches in all places.
A statue of Queen Bertha in the church of St Martin's
When he, among the rest, induced by the unspotted life of these holy men, and their delightful promises, which, by many miracles, they proved to be most certain, believed and was baptized, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to associate themselves, by believing, to the unity of the church of Christ. Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow­-citizens in the heavenly kingdom.

For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his preachers a settled residence in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of different kinds as were necessary for their subsistence.
Ethelbert and the towers of Canterbury Cathedral
Later on, in Book II:

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 616, which is the twenty-first year after Augustine and his companions were sent to preach to the English nation, Ethelbert, king of Kent, having most gloriously governed his temporal kingdom fifty-six years, entered into the eternal joys of the kingdom which is heavenly. He was the third of the English kings that had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber, and the borders contiguous to the same; but the first of the kings that ascended to the heavenly kingdom...

King Ethelbert died on the 24th day of the month of February, twenty-one years after he had received the faith, and was buried in St. Martin's porch within the church of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, where also lies his queen, Bertha. Among other benefits which he conferred upon the nation, he also, by the advice of wise persons, introduced judicial decrees, after the Roman model; which, being written in English, are still kept and observed by them.
The ruins of St Augustine's, Canterbury;
in the foreground is the porticus where Ethelbert was buried

...post regnum temporale, quod L et VI annis gloriosissime tenuerat, aeterna caelestis regni gaudia subiit...

In telling of the king's death, Bede carefully (though not perhaps accurately) notes the length in years of Ethelbert's reign and the geographical extent of his kingdom, as if to underline the point that the king is departing from these temporal and territorial limits to a kingdom without boundaries and without time. Here in the realm of time and space, we make a virtue of these limits by commemorating the when and where of history: keeping anniversaries and marking sites. Most of the images in this post are of physical memorials to Ethelbert and Augustine from the area where they are most plentifully memorialised, in Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet. In this region a disparate collection of memorials, many more than are pictured here, commemorates not just the people in this story but the places where it played out, the meaning-rich landscape of island and mainland, marginal shore and royal capital, which is symbolic as well as real. Thanks to a combination of folklore, genuine continuity, and dedicated local history-making, you can visit most of the sites mentioned in Bede's story, from the shore where Augustine landed to the well where he baptised the king, to the city where Queen Bertha's church still stands, the cathedral soars, and the foundations of King Ethelbert's burial-place are neatly marked out in English Heritage stone. If so inclined, you can now walk the way (or even canoe it) in Augustine's footsteps.

St Augustine's Cross, Cliffsend

Some of these memorials also mark anniversaries. This cross, erected in 1884, is near the supposed site of Ethelbert's meeting with Augustine, and was the focus of celebrations for the 1300th anniversary of Augustine's arrival in 1897. One of my own first encounters with Anglo-Saxon history was witnessing the commemoration of the 1400th anniversary in Ramsgate in 1997 (I was eleven years old, and it would be nice to say that this event fired me with a love of Anglo-Saxon history and inspired me then and there to become a medievalist - but actually I don't recall being especially clear on what we were commemorating...). Ethelbert is the first Anglo-Saxon king whose date of death we know in part because the coming of Augustine, of Christianity, also brought to the English new ways of marking time and of recalling and commemorating history. Like the making of memorials, the marking of anniversaries is a creative act, a work of the historical imagination through which we can locate ourselves in time as well as place, with ever-richer possibilities as the passage of time adds more and more layers. So perhaps it's a good day to celebrate not only Ethelbert but the historian who gives him to us. Bede looked back on Ethelbert from the distance of 140 years, and we're now 1400 years away; but with even the historian's history under threat, it's all the more important to go on telling his stories.

A memorial of a memorial (St Laurence, Ramsgate)