Defacing Junipero Serra: Contemporary Image-Breaking and the Iconoclastic Tradition

In September 2015, a statue of St Junipero Serra in the courtyard of Carmel Mission was toppled to the ground and coated with green and white paint. The words “Saint of Genocide” were found written on a nearby stone.

A little more than two weeks later, in the adjoining town of Monterey, a statue of Serra was neatly beheaded. The head was recovered from a tidepool by a child in April 2016, but has yet to be reunited with the body. Over the last year, a third image of the saint, on Carmel’s Serra Avenue, has been repeatedly splashed with paint. Fifty miles up the coast, red paint was sprayed on the doors of Santa Cruz mission, accompanied by the text “Serra – St of Genocide.”

This is a familiar chain of events, though in an unexpected location. Over the last few years, I’ve thought and written quite a bit about the impact of iconoclasm in the early modern period. In particular, I’ve wondered how people in the years after the English Reformation responded to the headless statues and battered effigies in their houses of worship. Gazing at defaced images of saints in English churches and cathedrals, I’ve tried to imagine how they struck early modern eyes. But I never expected to find iconoclasm of this kind going on in my own childhood backyard.

Growing up in Carmel, California, I heard plenty both good and bad about the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra (d. 1784). The “apostle of California” lies buried in Carmel’s Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Serra is an icon of California history and the state’s Hispanic heritage. Yet he is also a controversial figure, in light of the harsh regime imposed on the native population by the mission system. Though statues and paintings of Serra depict him as a gentle and benevolent friar, many regard him rather as the flag-bearer of a genocidal conquest. His canonisation by Pope Francis in September of last year has sparked off a campaign of image-breaking.

I’ll write in a follow-up post about my personal response to these incidents. Here I want to reflect on how they echo the iconoclasm of the English Reformation. Whether or not the perpetrators had the precedent of early modern image-breaking in mind, their actions participate in a distinct iconoclastic tradition with its own motifs, customs, and conventions.

Some key differences should be acknowledged at the outset. The ideological origins of the attacks are entirely different. The defacement of statues in Carmel and Monterey was not motivated by a Protestant distaste for holy images nor (as far as we can tell) by anti-Catholicism per se, but by anger over the historical oppression of a people. Iconoclasm in the Reformation generally did not involve a specific animus against the person depicted (which might be Jesus or God the Father), but rather against the act of depiction; in the case of Serra, the anger of the iconoclasts is very much directed at the specific individual, and at the institution that has seen fit to canonise him.

In spite of these clear differences, and in spite of the centuries that separate them, these two manifestations of the iconoclastic impulse reveal a set of common tactics and strategies.

Reformation assaults on sculpted images often targeted the head, either by disfiguring the face or, very commonly, by outright decapitation. A range of explanations for this preference have been suggested. As Pamela Graves has argued, iconoclasts often targeted the same parts of the body – the head and the hands – which were subject to punishment in the case of human offenders. In some cases, where images embedded in niches were difficult to remove in their entirety, cutting off their heads may have been a practical solution. Yet perhaps the greatest attraction of this mode of iconoclasm is the shocking afterimage it produces. Headless bodies demand our attention; arguably, the effect is all the more disturbing where the rest of the statue remains undamaged.

The iconoclasts who beheaded Serra’s statue in Monterey were probably in no position to topple the heavy sculpture or carry it away. Yet it was certainly in their power to break off the hands, to gouge the stonework, and to deface the long inscription at the base. Instead, the pristine condition of the remainder seems to amplify the message of the assault. (Among other things, it makes it much more difficult for passers-by to attribute the damage to weathering or neglect.) As Joseph Koerner has argued with reference to Reformation iconoclasm, the image-breakers are also image-makers.

Pulling Down
Reformation injunctions for the removal of images repeatedly speak in terms of “pulling down.” The act of toppling an image has a resonance far beyond its practical function as a step toward removal. In the pulling down of statues, Reformation reformers saw a re-enactment of the fall of the idol of Dagon in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. (“Down went Dagon,” wrote John Aubrey wryly, reflecting on the iconoclasm of the Civil War. “Now no religion to be found.”) The pulling down of statues continues to serve as an emblem or promise of radical political change – think of the iconic fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in 2003, or that of Stalin in Budapest in 1956.

The toppling of the statue of Serra in Carmel Mission undoubtedly created a more powerful visual impact than the theft of the object would have done. Although it has now been cleaned and restored to its plinth, the image of its disgrace remains seared on the web. (In a Google image search for “Carmel Serra statue,” seven of the first ten images depict the vandalism of September 2015.)

At Carmel Mission, empty paint cans were left on either side of the fallen statue, and paint has played a central role in all but one of the incidents to date. At first glance, this seems like a distinctly modern mode of defacement. Paint has been a favoured tool of other modern iconoclasts, including in a recent assault on a statue of Winston Churchill in London, and spray-paint attacks in museums and galleries. Iconoclasts in the English Reformation, who often objected to the gaudy colouration of church walls, windows, and images, do not seem to have made comparable use of paint. (Instead, they often made offending images disappear beneath a layer of whitewash.) Yet if we read this act more widely as a means of disgracing the image by coating it with inappropriate material, we can note parallels in the Reformation era, when statues might be daubed with spit, urine, or feces. Such assaults constitute a double humiliation of the image, identifying it with worthless or noxious substances, and revealing its powerlessness to resist such attacks.

The green and white paint covering the statue of Serra at Carmel Mission gives him the appearance of a fool or jester. In this respect it echoes another of the favoured tactics of Reformation iconoclasm, which was to associate reverenced images with foolery or “playing.” In 1538, the renowned Rood of Grace from Boxley Abbey was paraded through the towns of Kent, where the populace was invited to laugh at the mechanisms which caused it to smile and bow. The painting of Serra’s statues can be read as a comparable act of unveiling, revealing that there has never been anything here but a cheap show.

On at least two occasions, physical damage was supplemented by a textual gloss, identifying Serra as a “Saint of Genocide.”

The concise phrase has its own dark wit. Rather than insisting “Serra was not a saint” (though that, of course, is the real message), the graffito pretends to take the Catholic Church at its word: if Serra is a saint, this must be because the Church venerates genocide as a virtuous activity, and has appointed Serra as its patron. In its context at the missions of Carmel and Santa Cruz, the phrase both justifies the act of iconoclasm and serves as a caption to the new image that has been created. (In Renaissance terms, it creates a complete emblem, a picture with explanatory text.) Once again, there are parallels with early modern iconoclasm. When the statue of Charles I was pulled down from the porch of St Paul’s after his execution, the words Exit Tyrannum regum ultimus (Out goes the tyrant, the last of kings) appeared in the niche.

Media coverage of the attacks on Serra’s images over the last year has almost invariably referred to acts of “vandalism” rather than “iconoclasm.” This may be because the latter word would sound out of place in a news story about contemporary California, or because it might be held to dignify the violence in some way. Nevertheless, as I’ve outlined here, these actions mirror the iconoclasm of the Reformation and Civil War eras in ways that are both specific and profound. In a following post, I’ll endeavour to analyse my own reaction to these events, and ask what light this might shed on how worshippers after the Reformation responded to the afterimages of iconoclasm.

Why St Thomas Becket’s elbow still matters in the 21st century

Naomi Howell, University of Exeter

A small piece of bone thought to belong to St Thomas Becket is, after centuries of exile in Hungary, returning to Canterbury Cathedral where the archbishop was murdered in 1170. Encased in a dazzling modern reliquary, the bone will be displayed in several Catholic and Protestant churches on its way to Canterbury. Venerating medieval saintly relics such as this may seem quite unusual in these days of the modern Anglican Church, and one might wonder why anyone today should care about an 850-year-old bone.

Almost from the day he was cut down in the cathedral by four knights acting on behalf of Henry II, the martyred Becket was the most famous saint in England. Canterbury became the most popular site of pilgrimage in the land, with untold numbers of pilgrims travelling to pray before the shrine of what Chaucer later called this “holy blissful martyr”. What might have been a source of national humiliation – the murder of a leading clergyman at the apparent behest of the monarch – became instead a source of national pride.

Saints then

Though the medieval English Church was then part of Catholic Christendom, there was always a special pride (and profit) in homegrown saints. Among the most venerated were St Alban, the first saint martyred on British soil, by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd century AD; St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, buried in Durham Abbey; St Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon king whose shrine still dominates Westminster Abbey, and St Wulfstan, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Worcester before the Norman invasion. But in his standing as a saint and focus of pilgrimage, Becket was greater than any of these.

But this status provided no protection for his remains during the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, during which monasteries, abbeys, saintly shrines and holy relics were abolished, torn down or destroyed. The only survivors were the shrines of Edward the Confessor and the obscure St Wita in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset. While some saints’ bodies were removed from their shrines and given anonymous burials within the church, as Thomas had rebelled against his king he was the target of particular wrath by Henry VIII’s commissioners. The fate of his bones and relics remains mysterious, although contemporary reports claimed they were burned and scattered to the winds.

The martyrdom of St Thomas Becket turned him into a cause célèbre, much to the annoyance of the king.
Book of Hours/British Library

Saints today

Since the Reformation, the Anglican Church has maintained an ambiguous, ambivalent attitude toward traditional saints – celebrating their feast days, but declining to pray to them or grant them any special status. No saints have been added to the calendar. The veneration of saints’ relics has always been viewed with considerable suspicion as something medieval, distinctly Catholic, superstitious, and not least, in poor taste.

Yet it seems the Church of England today is willing to accommodate saintly relics and the range of beliefs about them from Christians of various denominations. In 2002, a shoulder-blade purported to be St Alban’s was returned to the saint’s home cathedral having been housed for centuries in a German monastery. Durham Cathedral has invested millions in a new exhibition centre in which to display the relics of St Cuthbert, opening in July. In Wales, the shrine of St David was restored and rededicated in 2012.

The modern reliquary containing St Thomas Becket’s bone fragment.
Archdiocese of Budapest-Esztergom

For some, respectful re-interment of British bodies – especially saintly ones – goes hand-in-hand with burying the hatchet with what went on during the Reformation. And it is perhaps this more secular age that has made this more possible than ever.

In a sermon delivered in 2010, the Dean of St Albans gave eloquent expression to the Church’s evolving attitude toward relics:

Well, ultimately of course it doesn’t matter; but I am still very glad and grateful [Alban’s relic] is there. For Christians and for human beings in general bodies matter, and location matters. In the Incarnation God became flesh and blood to save us at a particular time and at a particular place… [M]ost of us will still cling on to some material link with the person that’s gone – a photograph, a ring, a lock of hair, a memento that may be meaningless to someone who doesn’t know, but which may open floodgates of loving memory to the person left behind.

There are no doubt some who fear that the return of Becket’s bone to Canterbury will open the floodgates of medieval superstition. But the real significance of this event is not bound up with the theological niceties of relic-worship, or even with Thomas Becket. The re-homing of relics (the technical term is “translation”) is a way of making peace with the past, reintegrating estranged parts of our own history.

It also serves an important diplomatic function, just as it did in the Middle Ages. For the president of Hungary, whose government is often accused of looking east rather than west, the return of Becket’s bone provides a means of affirming the value of European links. For the British establishment, on the verge of the EU referendum, this demonstration of European harmony and cooperation is equally significant.

Naomi Howell, Associate Research Fellow in Medieval Studies, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Workshop at Buckfast Abbey

On April 17-18, the project held a highly successful workshop at Buckfast Abbey Devon. We are tremendously grateful to all who attended, gave papers, and joined in a series of lively discussions. The full programme is available here.

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion led by Anne-Lise Francois (UC Berkeley), Nick Groom (Exeter), and Stephen Mileson (Oxford). We’re grateful to Anne-Lise for permission to reproduce her closing remarks here, with other contributions to follow soon.


In his “Introduction” to Pig Earth, John Berger describes cultures of progress as orienting themselves toward the future as toward an ever-widening, ever-expanding horizon, presumably because they are relieved by technologies of storage and reproduction from the never-ending task of reproducing past knowledge for the next generation. A “culture of survival,” by contrast, “envisages the future as a sequence of repeated acts of survival. Each act pushes a thread through the eye of a needle and the thread is tradition. No overall increase is envisaged” (xix). For Berger a culture of survival wants nothing for the future but the by no means automatic or guaranteed transmission of past practice. Lacking permanent or mechanically reproducible works of art and depending instead on the near but not always accessible past—borrowing from it only so much as to keep going, and getting only so far as to borrow again—such cultures are never relieved of the “obligation to remember,” as we are “once we’ve assigned monumental form to memory,” according to Lewis Mumford’s formulation that Ceri Price cited in her paper earlier this afternoon.

The past in its place. I have been thinking about Berger’s distinction in the course of these two days, all the while turning over the workshop’s title and its different senses— remembering through it Thoreau’s rather beautiful if ghastly image of the unburied dead being tucked into bed by the turning tide:

It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up, —a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them.  The carcasses of men and beasts together lie stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves, and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under them.

Thoreau, Cape Cod

Of these different senses then, there is first the use of place to contain the past, to store and sequester it, keep it in reserve and maintain access to it, but also to limit and control its impact on the present. Perhaps such exercises in containment have always been illusory but never more so now with the problem of nuclear waste, plastic garbage patches in the ocean, and the long afterlife of other toxic materials that will be with us for what is in some sense the rest of imaginable time, continuing to permeate the atmosphere for generations, if not millennia, after their fleeing use. In her talk yesterday Lucy Donkin touched on the illusory solidity of land into which we think of the dead as being deposited and laid to rest. Listening to her on the miracle of a substance conceived simultaneously as permeable enough to be impressionable—and solid enough to hold the image, I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s comments on groundwater as what is ceaselessly circulating under our feet:

Seldom if ever does Nature operate in closed and separate compartments. . Rain, falling on the land, settles down through pores and cracks in soil and rock, penetrating deeper and deeper until eventually it reaches a zone where all the pores of the rock are filled with water, a dark, subsurface sea, rising under hills, sinking beneath valleys. This groundwater is always on the move, sometimes at a place so slow that it travels no more than 50 feet a year, sometimes rapidly, by comparison, so that it moves nearly a tenth of a mile in a day. It travels by unseen waterways until here and there it comes to the surface as a spring, or perhaps it is tapped to feed a well. But mostly it contributes to streams and so to rivers. Except for what enters streams directly as rain or surface runoff, all the running water of the earth’s surface was at one time groundwater. And so, in a very real and frightening sense, pollution of the groundwater is pollution of water everywhere.

Silent Spring


Many of the papers have rightly focused on the difficult and precarious task of remembering—of carrying the past forward into the present. But what if what is also at risk is the ability to forget and leave behind, or put down in one place? To erase our tracks, to let them fade and be washed away by the tides? One instance of deliberate and protective erasure occurs in George Ewart Evans’ oral history of Suffolk farming Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, where he describes how shepherds would sometimes double as smugglers at night, using their sheep to cover up the tracks of the wagon carrying contraband:

Old Liney’s chief task on the night when a cargo was being run was to keep his eyes open and to turn his flock of sheep from the fold and quickly cover up the tracks of the wagon when it returned full—particularly did he do this near the spot, either barn or cottage—where the contraband was being hidden.


In another chapter Ewart Evans describes the onerous task of stone picking that was once set to children, despite the fact that “the yield from the land that had been left untouched was greater than that of the patch that had been cleared of its stones.”

With these two contradictory figures of path-clearing in mind, I’d like to whisk you at galloping pace through several memory-spots or what the Japanese call “poetic pillows.”  Listening to Lucy’s talk yesterday on Christ’s footprints, I couldn’t help but think of the “Stone for Rubbing Shinobu Figures” (Shinobu-moji-zuri-no-ishi) that Japan’s most celebrated poet Bashō goes looking for in the course of his travels recorded in Narrow Road to the Deep North. According to the editor Hiroaki Sato,

Shinobu, is a place name that also means ‘hare’s-foot fern’ and ‘think of (someone, the past).’ The stone was associated with the belief that you could make letters appears on it by rubbing a cloth placed over the stone with the sap of green leaves, as well as the belief that you could see the face of your lover by rubbing the stone with the sap of wheat.


Bashō tells us that:


In a foothills village far away, the stone lay half buried in the ground. A boy from the village came by and told us: “Long ago, this stone was on top of the mountain, but passersby would trample upon the wheat going to test the stone. People here hate it and pushed the stone down into this valley. So it lies here, face down.” A likely story, or was it?


While this easily reads as an allegory for the conflict between a touristic or contemplative relationship to the land, as the bearer of buried images, and a working relation to it, as the bearer of future harvests, the haiku with which Bashō completes the journal entry, begins to undo this binary:

Sanae toru temoto ya mukashi Shinobu-zuri

The hands taking seedlings recall the ancient rubbing

But a few pages later comes a reference to a tanka on ‘Love Compared to a Stone’ by Nijōin Sanuki:

My sleeves are like the stone in the offing, invisible with the tides out; unknown to anyone but no time to dry.


It helps to remember here that to wet one’s sleeves is a familiar euphemism for crying in classical Japanese poetry. I can’t help but think these two rocks—the one now lying face down so that it can never again render the faces of imaginary lovers, and the one offshore, not even visible when the tides are out—are connected. I also can’t help but think in this context of the story Sarah Orne Jewett tells in The Country of the Pointed Firs of an old sailor-fisherman turned farmer who rather than remove the stones from his field marked them with flags as if they were buoys. Jewett’s narrator tells us:

In the narrow field I noticed some stout stakes, apparently planted at random in the grass and among the hills of potatoes, but carefully pained yellow and white to match the house. . .

[Tilley explains]:

“Folks laughed at me when I first bought this place an’ come here to live,” he explained. “They said ’t wa’n’t no kind of a field privilege at all; no place to raise anything, all full o’ stones. I was aware ’t was good land, an’ I worked some on it—odd times when I didn’t have nothin’ else on hand—till I cleared them loose stones all out. You never see a prettier piece than ’ is now; now did ye? Well, as for them painted marks, them’s my buoys. I struck on to some heavy rocks that didn’t show none, but a plow’d be liable to ground on ’em, an’ so I ketched holt an’ buoyed ‘em same’s you see. They don’t trouble me no more ’n if they wa’n’ there.”

“You haven’t been to sea for nothing,” I said laughing.

“One trade helps another,” said Elijah with an amiable smile.


Jewett’s Elijah shows us one way to split the difference between clearing the ground and removing traces of previous deposits, and sequestering these traces, which may also be boundary markers and means of orientation, as relics to worship at a safe distance. I offer this thinly woven together tapestry of quotations by way of netting the theme interspersed through many of the papers this weekend—that of having to intuit what is missing and to infer the half- if not fully submerged or buried placeholders of the past, markers that promise to serve as guides into the future as much as stumbling blocks to its passage.




‘Memories are made of this’: Castle-an-Dinas

[In March 2015, the PASTPLACE team paid a visit to Castle-an-Dinas, Cornwall. Paul Bryant-Quinn reflects on a chilly but illuminating excursion.]

“Another PastPlace field trip, another cold” I grumbled to myself as, channelling my inner Victor Meldrew, I plodded on reluctantly after the now-distant (and much fitter) members of the project. To say that the wind was fresh would be something of an understatement, and rueful lines from an equally disgruntled early medieval Welsh poet came to mind:

Llym awel llum brin

Anhaut caffael clid


[Piercing wind, bare hill

It is hard to find shelter …]

It was worth it, though. Castle-an-Dinas, ancient hill fort and now scheduled monument of national significance, is one of the most impressive oppida in Cornwall. Its strategic importance is immediately evident, occupying as it does a position of exceptional strength on the high ground of Castle Downs between Goss Moor and St Columb Major. Standing some 700ft above sea level, to the north you look towards St Breock Downs; the south and east offer views across the Hensbarrow Downs, and away to the west are Newquay and the Gannel estuary.

Three (perhaps four) stone and earth banks would originally have enclosed a central area of about 20 acres, and finds at Castle-an-Dinas have dated its occupation from the 4th to the 1st centuries BCE. The archaeology does not offer any evidence of long-term settlement, however, and the fort may have served various functions: military and defensive, almost certainly, but trade and shelter also, as the need arose. But they who came here in the 4th century were not the first. The hill is also the location of two burial mounds which predate the iron-age fortifications and may date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Interestingly, the later occupants seem to have left these barrows undisturbed. Whether that instinct was born out of respect or fear, Castle-an-Dinas reminds us that the past had a past of its own which it sought to understand and come to terms with. Did the newcomers weave tales about the people who built those mounds and were buried there, just as later ages would in turn mythologise them?

And Castle-an-Dinas certainly was ― or became ― the stuff of legend: William of Worcester (c.1415– c.1482) came here in 1478 and recorded the story that this was where Cador ‘duke of Cornwall’ met his untimely end. A similar connection emerges in the early 16th–century Beunans Meriasek, where the ‘duke of Cornwall’ (who is strongly reminiscent of Arthur) challenges the tyrant ‘Teudar’: echoes of the An Gof rebellion of 1497 come to mind. In Meriasek, the duke states that Castle-an-Dinas is his dwelling, but that Tintagel is also his residence; the Galfridian background to this strand of the story is not hard to detect. Strategically, Castle-an-Dinas looks towards Tintagel; and Alan Kent has suggested that it may have been a seasonal or battle dwelling, with Tintagel itself providing longer-term residence. Interestingly, as Oliver Padel has noted, the Tristan legends position Tintagel itself as a defensive response to pressure from Irish raiders; and although there is no corroborating Cornish documentation for this, the presence of Dark-Age ogham inscriptions in the area do attest to an Irish presence. Does the Tristan story preserve folk memories of actual events?

It is not, however, the duke whose stories are interwoven with this landscape and whose name echoes out of legend, but Arthur. Medieval Welsh tales and poetry locate several of Arthur’s courts in Cornwall, and his association with this part of the world is central to the pre-Galfridian literature, such as Culhwch ac Olwen, the Triads, and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy. In the 11th/12th–century ‘Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle’ (Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr), a text which is independent of the tales invented or reworked in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur is the pagan “chief of the battalions of Cornwall”, and the eagle is the reincarnation of his dead nephew Eliwlad, who offers him Christian enlightenment:

Arthur of surpassing far-flung fame,

bear of the host, joy of shelter

the eagle has seen you before.

Here too we find ‘Arthur’s Hall’, on Bodmin moor; Treryn Dinas, one of his ‘castles’; and ‘Arthur’s Hunting Lodge’ (or ‘Seat’): this, by tradition, was Castle-an-Dinas itself. Oliver Padel has suggested that if the Thomas de Kellewik who was murdered at Gulval in 1302 came from these parts, then it is feasible that the toponym Celli-wig, noted in medieval Welsh tales of Arthur as his principle Cornish residence, may be associated with Castle-an-Dinas, although this identification is tentative.

We have to bear in mind, however, that for all the attacks on the Arthurian legends, until well into the 18th century their various strands were accepted not only as factual, but as defining elements both in regard to the history of these islands and the right of the English crown to still wider dominions. The Welsh themselves long considered these legendary accounts as validating their supposed descent from the nobility of Troy; Owain Glyndŵr and Henry Tudor alike propagandised their bids for power by appeal to Welsh vaticinal poetry (it was not by chance that Henry named his son and presumed heir ‘Arthur’); Henry VIII appealed to historical authority of these same legends, as did John Dee in his Brytanici Imperii Limites of 1578, his most important construction of the basis for territorial claims on behalf of the English monarchy in furtherance of its imperial ambitions.

Polydore Vergil’s scepticism in regard to the Galfridian tales was met with stubborn resistance, and for a surprisingly long time: Leland excoriated Vergil and, in doing so, preserved stories and traditions about Arthur which would otherwise have been lost. Sir John Prise wrote his Historiae Britannicae Defensio (1553) in similar vein, and the chorographer and historian Humphry Llwyd too was a staunch defender of the essential historical basis of the accounts, as were recusant authors in the 16th–and 17th centuries. As late as 1716, Theophilus Evans of Carmarthenshire could appeal to this ‘history’ as the cornerstone of his people’s dignity. Here we see the sustaining myth at work: as the 15th–century Welsh poet Siôn Cent reminded his listeners, ‘For all our travails and humiliations, we are not as they [the English are] are: we are the descendants of a noble race, and we hope for that which is to come’. In 1575, Morys Clynnog, custos of the English and Welsh Pilgrim Hospice in Rome, made a paraphrase of this same poem for Pope Gregory XIII as he highlighted the plight of his people under Elizabethan rule. With all of them, their point was that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fables were not the only source of the surviving Arthurian references. From what came to be called the ‘Old North’ through Wales to Cornwall, some of the Arthurian associations have affinities with much older material: for example, the stone now associated with St Columb, said to bear the imprints of Arthur’s horse, is curiously reminiscent of a similar legend recorded in the 9th–century Historia Brittonum. Who would not look at a site like Castle-an-Dinas and see in it the fortress of some mighty king of the past, as its very name suggests; and of them all, who greater than Arthur?

In any event, place-lore is both consistent and central to the early Arthurian legends; and as Padel says,

What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.

Castle-an-Dinas drew the attention of later writers too: Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony in Cornwall comments on it in 1602, as does John Norden (c.1547-1625), the cartographer and antiquary, in his Survey of Cornwall of 1610. Even in the 19th century, there was a curious legend that the John Trevisa, who translated Higden’s Polychronicon, also wrote an account of King Arthur and a book of his acts. Perhaps he did.

The ‘bare hill’ of Castle-an-Dinas reminds us that the past in its place is never just “the past”, and it is not only our place. From the people who built the ancient barrows to those who constructed the iron-age ramparts, and from the weavers of myths to the partial interpretations we create and believe to be true, here we find an interplay of many pasts and many understandings. Quondam et futurus: we are only the latest to pass this way.

In 1987, Castle-an-Dinas was acquired by the Cornwall heritage Trust from the Duchy of Cornwall for £4,000. Even on a day of biting cold and winds, it seems like money well spent.

Paul Bryant-Quinn


Speaking with the Dead in Leicester, III: The Cathedral Gardens

An unanticipated extra on my trip to Leicester was the sight of the newly laid out Cathedral Gardens. In keeping with what’s going on both within the cathedral and across the road in KRIII, repositioned memorials to the dead are a central feature. Amidst the low hedges, planted beds, and benches, eighteenth and nineteenth century gravestones have been laid out in various eye-catching formations.

2014-10-20 15.53.59

All of the headstones are of a similar thickness and grey hue, though they vary in height and contours. With one stone often standing no more than 18 inches behind another, they are obviously no longer fulfilling the function of marking individual graves. Rather, they resemble clusters of prehistoric standing stones — perhaps in particular the similarly thin and grey Callanish Stones of the Outer Hebrides. Continue reading

Speaking with the Dead in Leicester, II: Leicester Cathedral

Emerging from the King Richard III Visitor Centre, I walked across Peacock Lane to St. Martin’s Cathedral. A small placard at the entrance advised (or warned?) the visitor that, though Richard III belonged to an era of turbulence and violence, “Leicester Cathedral is called to be a place of peace.”

The peace of the interior was inevitably somewhat disrupted by the ongoing preparations for the installation of Richard III’s tomb and the interment of the King in March of next year. Much of the building is off limits and screened off. I had not grasped the extent to which the whole structure and meaning of the cathedral is being reorganized around this controversial royal tomb. Although architectural plans and artists’ drawings were everywhere on display, I found it difficult to get a sense of what the cathedral would look like when the work was finished (or, indeed, what it had been like before the work began). Continue reading

Speaking with the Dead in Leicester, I: The King Richard III Visitor Centre

This Monday I made a long-looked-forward-to visit to Leicester to view the new King Richard III Visitor Centre and the cathedral where the royal remains will soon be interred. Having followed the Greyfriars saga closely over the last two years, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but there were still some eye-openers and surprises.

One thing that struck me was the extent to which the KRIII experience was all about Shakespeare, even where (especially where) it was defiantly Not-About-Shakespeare. The first thing on the tour is in fact a Shakespearean history play in miniature: “Richard Plantagenet, Young Warrior: An Historical Play in Five Acts.”

2014-10-20 14.37.35

This video drama consists of a series of soliloquies by Richard’s mother, his guardian Warwick the Kingmaker, his armorer, his bride-to-be Anne Neville, and his brother Edward IV, all pondering Richard’s rise to greatness. The language flirts feverishly with iambic pentameter and Shakespearean diction: “And though I once was princess of Wales, I shall content myself with Duchess of Gloucester, and proudly bear him sons and heirs. Pray God that in these shifting times this may yet prove to be a match.” Continue reading

Poem of the Week: Wordsworth at Plas Newydd

Several of us will be heading back to Llangollen next week for further research, and so “Poem of the Week” is heading that way as well.Dedicated readers of this blog (surely they are legion!) will recall Anna Seward’s Llangollen Vale. Here’s a rather briefer tribute from William Wordsworth, who visited the Ladies of Llangollen in 1824. The sonnet is basically an exercise in onomastics, pondering the origins of the name of the nearby Glyn Myfyr and offering up a flattering new toponym for the vale in which Plas Newydd is situated. It didn’t catch on.

To Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Miss Ponsonby,
Composed in the grounds of Plas-Newydd, Llangollen

A stream to mingle with your favorite Dee
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose,
Or, haply there some pious Hermit chose
To live and die — the peace of Heaven his aim,
To whome the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d, where faithful to a low roof’d Cot
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long,
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb
Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time.


Speaking with the Dead at St Albans

The Speaking with the Dead exhibition has arrived at St Albans, where it will be open to visitors in the Hudson Memorial Library through Thursday 4 September.

Items on display include a fragment of the shrine of St Amphibalus, long encased within a partition wall, and the remarkable lid to the heart case of Roger de Norton (d. 1291), with its distant origins and intriguing Arabic inscription.

William Page, ‘Notes on the Heart-Case of Roger Norton’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd S, Vol XXII, April 1st, 1909: pp.253-4.

One of our favourite memorials in the Abbey is that to the Welsh schoolmaster John Jones (d. 1686). Jones was the author of Fanum Sti. Albani, a Latin poem on the history and monuments of St Albans. His unobtrusive wall memorial promises that this literary opus will prove more lasting than “this stone, this building, and this age.”

John Jones

Jones’s poem is still extant, but unfortunately it did not prove possible to source a copy for display in the exhibition. Then again, maybe this was for the best. If, as the inscription implies, the building and the book are in a kind of mortal competition, bringing them together could prove disastrous!

Speaking with the Dead Exhibition at Exeter Cathedral

Events commemorating the start of World War I were everywhere today, but at Exeter Cathedral we were taking the longer view, with the launch of the “Speaking with the Dead” exhibition. Showcasing items from the Cathedral archives and collections alongside posters illustrating the research we have been pursuing over the last three years, the exhibition will occupy the north choir aisle for 10 days, before travelling on to St Albans (and perhaps beyond…). Philip Schwyzer and Naomi Howell gave a public lecture in the Cathedral’s Chapter House to mark the occasion. Those attending also had the opportunity to view the Cathedral’s unique and enigmatic funeral pall, stitched (it would seem) out of pre-Reformation vestments into an object of new and complex significance. (A comparable pall from the nearby church of St Mary Arches is on display in Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.)

Although the unique wax votives associated with the tomb of Bishop Lacy are too fragile to be put on display, the exhibition features evocative replicas designed by Fiona Knott. Other highlights include the episcopal chalice of Bishop Bitton, found in his grave when it was opened in 1763; the Exeter Martyrology; the earliest manuscript monumentarium of the cathedral by J. Jones (1787); and condolence books inscribed by members of the public following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The exhibition also features video and interactive displays, highlighting the innovative work of Patricia Murietta-Flores and Ruth Nugent in applying technologies such as Reflectance Transformation Imaging to the study of cathedral inscriptions and graffiti. Sarah Grainger, who designed the magnificent posters, was on hand to assist in arranging the displays.

Below, a selection of photos taken on the day.

Continue reading