Iconoclasm in the Rear View Mirror

As the lyricist Jim Steinman once observed, “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are.” When it comes to actual mirrors, of course, the opposite is the case: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. But when it comes to the memory of iconoclasm in sacred spaces such as cathedrals, Steinman had a valid point. Consider the case of Bishop John Grandisson’s tomb in Exeter Cathedral.

Grandisson died in 1369 and was buried in St Radegund’s chapel, which he had himself audaciously inserted into the west entrance of the Cathedral. It seems likely that he was represented in effigy, gazing up at the image of Christ that adorns the chapel ceiling (much as his predecessor Walter de Stapledon does in his canopied tomb in the north aisle). Grandisson’s tomb does not survive, but when exactly it disappeared remains unclear.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Exeter historian John Hooker recorded that Grandisson’s “tombe was of late pulled up, the ashes scattered abroad, and the bones bestowed no man knoweth where.” Some historians have taken the word “late” to indicate that the opening of the tomb occurred in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (in spite of her edict against precisely this sort of desecration). But is this necessarily the case? After all, Shakespeare in the 1590s refers to the monasteries dissolved in the 1530s as “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73). For aficionados of nostalgia, like Shakespeare and perhaps like Hooker, such losses are always recent or “late,” even if they occurred some decades before the writer’s birth. Given how frequent the desecration of medieval tombs was in the 1530s and 40s (and given the specific resemblance between Hooker’s account of what happened to Grandisson and reports of the destruction of Becket’s shrine and the scattering of his ashes in 1538), the likelihood is that Hooker was referring to events that took place fifty or sixty years before at the height of the Reformation?

Whether or not Hooker fell prey to the Rear View Mirror Effect in this case, subsequent writers clearly did. Writing in 1630, Thomas Westcote recorded that Bishop Grandisson “was taken up shrouded in lead, not long since, the lead melted, and the chapel defaced.” In 1677, Richard Izacke complained that “his tomb was of late ransack’d by sacrilegious hands; his leaden coffin (in hope of a prey) taken up, the ashes scattered about, and his bones thrown, I know not where.” Izacke was writing of an event that had occurred at least 90years in the past, and more probably something closer to 140. His insistence that the opening of the tomb was a “late” event led later writers to suppose that the desecration occurred in the Civil War. Thus, in the eighteenth century, John Jones, followed by Richard Polwhele, reports that Grandisson’s “tomb was broken open and ransacked by the myrmidons of Oliver Cromwell, the coffin taken up, and his remains scattered and lost.”

The fact that Izacke could describe the ransacking of the tomb as a “late” event does not prove that it happened in the Civil War era (though if we did not have Hooker and Westcote as prior witnesses, we might assume so). By the same token, the fact that Hooker uses the word “late” should not lead us to conclude that Grandisson’s tomb was opened in the 1590s. The most interesting question is not when the tomb was actually dismantled, but why writers should persist in describing events that were increasingly distant in time as if they had happened only the other day.

Poem of the Week: ‘Periwinks, Periwinkle!’

Lately I’ve been browsing among dusty books of epitaphs…. An appropriate kind of reading for a project on “Speaking with the Dead,” you might well say, but in fact not half as melancholy as it sounds. Collections of epitaphs and old inscriptions were published, pirated and republished regularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These collections tend to juxtapose actual inscriptions for the great and good in churches and cathedrals with highly dubious (and disparaging) epitaphs for drunkards and ne’er-do-wells. Their attraction clearly has much to do with the mingling of high and low, ornate and plain, true and fictive, “serious and facetious” (to quote the subtitle of Churchyard Gleanings, 1826).

You can’t get a feel for the contents of these collections from a single extract, but this one from A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions (1806) gives a taste of what drew readers to these compilations.


     This stone was erected, by her fellow-citizens, to the memory of


     An industrious woman. She died Jan. the 1st, 1786, aged 77 years.

PERIWINKS, periwinkle,
Was ever her cry;
She labour’d to live,
Poor and honest to die.
At the last day again,
How her old eyes will twinkle;
For no more will she cry,
Periwinks, periwinkle!

Ye rich, to virtuous want rejoicing give;
Ye poor, by her example learn to live.


[This epitaph seems to have been inscribed on a stone in the cathedral churchyard, rather than within the walls. It does not survive.]

Poem of the Week: Gibson’s “Yeavering Bell”

Following up on Howard’s observations about the visibility or invisibility of the sun behind Yeavering Bell from the vantage point of Ad Gefrin, a short poem by the Northumberland poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (from his collection Whin, published 1918):

Just to see the rain
Sweeping over Yeavering Bell
Once again!
Just to see again,
Light break over Yeavering Bell
After rain.

Short and sweet — six lines, twenty-two words — but laden with memory, nostalgia, loss.


The Alban Pilgrimage

On Saturday 21 June, some of us were in St Albans for the Alban Pilgrimage. In its contemporary manifestation, this involves a festive procession through the city centre accompanied by troops of children dressed as Romans and roses. As the pilgrims process, the drama of Alban’s martyrdom is enacted by a host of giant puppets. Characters in the pageant include the renegade priest Amphibalus, his self-sacrificing convert Alban, a merciless judge, a pair of Roman soldiers, and some historically dodgy lions. In other years, the appearance of a miraculous spring to quench the Saint’s thirst at the place of execution has been re-enacted with the help of the Fire Department; this year, though, the FBU were on strike.

The pilgrimage seems to grow in scale and popularity from year to year. But how old is the tradition? When were the puppets introduced? When did it become an event for tourists and the St Alban’s populace, as well as self-designated pilgrims? What explicit and implicit negotiations between cathedral and city lie behind the current event, which serves as a celebration of both? And who thought up the bit with the eyeballs?

alban and romans

At the start of the procession, Alban is arrested by two Roman soldiers.

alban lions

Lions were scarce in third-century Verulamium, but they are a beloved feature of the modern pilgrimage.

alban gates

At the Cathedral entrance, Alban prepares to meet a fate worse than Grimthorpe

alban eyeballs

As the Saint falls, the eyeballs of the executioner plunge into view….

Poem of the Week (Cornish edition): Ursula Le Guin’s “Castle an Dinas and Chysauster Village”

Ursula Le Guin’s novels, most notably the Earthsea Trilogy, have millions of admirers. Less well-known is her slim volume of verses, Walking in Cornwall (1976). There are just three fairly short poems in the pamphlet, including one on Chûn hill fort and another on “Castle an Dinas and Chysauster Village”. Here’s an excerpt from the latter.

. . .

There on top of things is Roger’s Tower.

Who on earth was Roger? Bishop, prince?
Landgrave of Ludgvan? Emperor of St. Erth?
Why did he build his Tower? No one knows.
It looms up here for miles, a great keep,
a mighty ruin on the vaulting hill;
you get there, and it’s all of twelve feet high.
Never was higher. Four fat little turrets
complete its whole ambition.
Two men might fit inside it,
if they had not been eating Cornish cream.
Around behind it, ruinous,
and breaking into yellow gorse-flame everywhere,
the rings, Chun’s sister, Castle An Dinas.
So here’s the Bronze Age, and in front of it
the Middle Ages. Here’s the granite walls
(boulders for base, small stones set vertical)
And here’s the granite walls (cut square, set true).
And who were they? and who was Roger? who?
the wind says to the heather.
Elegant, the arch above the door.
And no one knows what Roger’s Tower’s for.

Place is three fourths of Time.


Roger's Tower

It doesn’t seem to me to defeat the point or the poignancy of the poem to note that Roger’s Tower, pictured above, is not in fact a vestige of the “Middle Ages,” but a late-eighteenth-century folly.



Poem of the Week: Ann Radcliffe, “St Albans Abbey: A Metrical Tale”

Ann Radcliffe  (1764-1823) is best known for her Gothic novels, including The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Her poetry is less familiar, and little attention seems ever to have been paid to the “Metrical Tale” published after her death, St Albans Abbey (1826). The poem deals mainly with the War of the Roses and the Battle of St Albans; but the impressive first Canto is devoted to the Abbey itself, its history and its present state. Among other things, it sheds an intriguing light on the nineteenth-century Abbey before it achieved cathedral status, and before the restorations of Grimthorpe. Here are some extended excerpts.



Know ye that pale and ancient choir,
Whose Norman tower lifts its pinnacled spire?
Where the long Abbey-aisle extends
And battled roof o’er roof ascends;
Cornered with buttresses, shapely and small,
That sheltered the Saint in canopied stall;
And, lightened with hanging turrets fair,
That so proudly their dental coronals wear,
They blend with a holy, a warlike air;
While they guard the Martyr’s tomb beneath,
And patient warriors, laid in death?

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Poem of the Week(ish): Spenser’s Ruines of Time

This one might best be left to the specialists and the masochists. Edmund Spenser’s The Ruines of Time (1591) is no light read (even by Spenser’s standards), but at points it achieves an almost sublime weirdness. Here we find the poet walking in pensive mood along the Thames when he encounters the wailing ghost of old Verulamium (“Verlame”). She recounts her long and painful history — from Roman foundation to Boudicca’s onslaught and the depredations of the Saxons, to the present day when nothing remains to be seen but “weeds and wasteful grass”. Not a whisper about St Alban or his shrine here (unless in that ill-fated “Image, all of massie Gold”), but much about the Earl of Leicester, and an interesting nod to William Camden. Enjoy.

It chaunced me one day beside the Shore
Of silver streaming Thamesis to be,
Nigh where the goodly Verlame stood of yore,
Of which there now remains no Memory,
Nor any little Monument to see;
By which the Traveller, that fares that way,
This once was she, may warned be to say.

There, on the other side, I did behold
A Woman sitting sorrowfully wailing,
Rending her yellow Locks, like wiry Gold,
About her Shoulders carelesly down trailing,
And Streams of Tears from her fair Eyes forth railing:
In her right Hand a broken Rod she held,
Which towards Haven she seem’d on high to weld.

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Poem of the Week: Anna Seward’s “Llangollen Vale”

Inaugurating a new tradition on the “Past in its Place” blog: Poem of the Week. Check back each week for a piece of immortal (or, sometimes, all too mortal) verse treating one of our Sites of Memory.

To begin with, here’s the Romantic poet Anna Seward’s “Llangollen Vale,” composed in 1795 following the Romantic poet’s visit to the celebrated Ladies of Plas Newydd,  Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler. The Ladies and their “Fairy Palace” make their appearance a little more than midway through this 168-line poem, following a stirring if oddly inconclusive account of Glyndwr’s rebellion. The weepy, superstitious monks of Valle Crucis get a look-in toward the end. But, Seward wonders, did any young monastic lip ever wear “gay Eleanora’s smile”?


Luxuriant Vale, thy country’s early boast,
What time great GLENDOUR gave thy scenes to Fame;
Taught the proud numbers of the English Host,
How vain their vaunted force, when Freedom’s flame
Fir’d him to brave the Myriads he abhorr’d,
Wing’d his unerring shaft, and edg’d his victor sword.

Here first those orbs unclosing drank the light,
Cambria’s bright stars, the meteors of her Foes;
What dread and dubious omens mark’d the night,
That lour’d ere yet his natal morn arose!
The Steeds paternal, on their cavern’d floor,
Foaming, and horror-struck, “fret fetlock-deep in gore.”

PLAGUE, in her livid hand, o’er all the Isle,
Shook her dark flag, impure with fetid stains;
While “DEATH, on his pale Horse,” with baleful smile,
Smote with its blasting hoof the frighted plains.
Soon thro’ the grass-grown streets, in silence led,
Slow moves the midnight Cart, heapt with the naked Dead.

Yet in the festal dawn of Richard’s reign,
Thy gallant GLENDOUR’S sunny prime arose;
Virtuous, tho’ gay, in that Circean fane,
Bright Science twin’d her circlet round his brows;
Nor cou’d the youthful, rash, luxurious King
Dissolve the Hero’s worth on his Icarian wing.

Sudden it drops on its meridian flight!—
Ah! hapless Richard! never didst thou aim
To crush primeval Britons with thy might,
And their brave Glendour’s tears embalm thy name.
Back from thy victor-Rival’s vaunting Throng,
Sorrowing, and stern, he sinks LLANGOLLEN’S shades among.

Soon, in imperious Henry’s dazzled eyes,
The guardian bounds of just Dominion melt;
His scarce-hop’d crown imperfect bliss supplies,
Till Cambria’s vassalage be deeply felt.
Now up her craggy steeps, in long array,
Swarm his exulting Bands, impatient for the fray.

Lo! thro’ the gloomy night, with angry blaze,
Trails the fierce Comet, and alarms the Stars;
Each waning Orb withdraws its glancing rays,
Save the red Planet, that delights in wars.
Then, with broad eyes upturn’d, and starting hair,
Gaze the astonish’d Crowd upon its vengeful glare.

Gleams the wan Morn, and thro’ LLANGOLLEN’S Vale
Sees the proud Armies streaming o’er her meads.
Her frighted Echos warning sounds assail,
Loud, in the rattling cars, the neighing steeds;
The doubling drums, the trumpet’s piercing breath,
And all the ensigns dread of havoc, wounds, and death.

High on a hill as shrinking CAMBRIA stood,
And watch’d the onset of th’ unequal fray,
She saw her Deva, stain’d with warrior-blood,
Lave the pale rocks, and wind its fateful way
Thro’ meads, and glens, and wild woods, echoing far
The din of clashing arms, and furious shout of war.

From rock to rock, with loud acclaim, she sprung,
While from her CHIEF the routed Legions fled;
Saw Deva roll their slaughter’d heaps among,
The check’d waves eddying round the ghastly dead;
Saw, in that hour, her own LLANGOLLEN claim
Thermopylae’s bright wreath, and aye-enduring fame.

Thus, consecrate to GLORY. — Then arose
A milder lustre in its blooming maze;
Thro’ the green glens, where lucid Deva flows,
Rapt Cambria listens with enthusiast gaze,
While more enchanting sounds her ear assail,
Than thrill’d on Sorga’s bank, the Love-devoted Vale.

‘Mid the gay towers on steep Din’s Branna’s cone,
Her HOEL’S breast the fair MIFANWY fires.—
O! Harp of Cambria, never hast thou known
Notes more mellifluent floating o’er the wires,
Than when thy Bard this brighter Laura sung,
And with his ill-starr’d love LLANGOLLEN’S echoes rung.

Tho’ Genius, Love, and Truth inspire the strains,
Thro’ Hoel’s veins tho’ blood illustrious flows,
Hard as th’ Eglwyseg rocks her heart remains,
Her smile a sun-beam playing on their snows;
And nought avails the Poet’s warbled claim,
But, by his well-sung woes, to purchase deathless fame.

Thus consecrate to LOVE, in ages flown,—
Long ages fled Din’s-Branna’s ruins show,
Bleak as they stand upon their steepy cone,
The crown and contrast of the VALE below,
That, screen’d by mural rocks, with pride displays
Beauty’s romantic pomp in every sylvan maze.

Now with a vestal lustre glows the VALE,
Thine, sacred FRIENDSHIP, permanent as pure;
In vain the stern Authorities assail,
In vain Persuasion spreads her silken lure,
High-born, and high-endow’d, the peerless Twain,
Pant for coy Nature’s charms ‘mid silent dale, and plain.

Thro’ ELEANORA, and her ZARA’S mind,
Early tho’genius, taste, and fancy flow’d,
Tho’ all the graceful Arts their powers combin’d,
And her last polish brilliant Life bestow’d,
The lavish Promiser, in Youth’s soft morn,
Pride, Pomp, and Love, her friends, the sweet Enthusiasts scorn.

Then rose the Fairy Palace of the Vale,
Then bloom’d around it the Arcadian bowers;
Screen’d from the storms of Winter, cold and pale,
Screen’d from the fervours of the sultry hours,
Circling the lawny crescent, soon they rose,
To letter’d ease devote, and Friendship’s blest repose.

Smiling they rose beneath the plastic hand
Of Energy, and Taste; — nor only they,
Obedient Science hears the mild command,
Brings every gift that speeds the tardy day,
Whate’er the pencil sheds in vivid hues,
Th’ historic tome reveals, or sings the raptured Muse.

How sweet to enter, at the twilight grey,
The dear, minute Lyceum of the Dome,
When, thro’ the colour’d crystal, glares the ray,
Sanguine and solemn ‘mid the gathering gloom,
While glow-worm lamps diffuse a pale, green light,
Such as in mossy lanes illume the starless night.

Then the coy Scene, by deep’ning veils o’erdrawn,
In shadowy elegance seems lovelier still;
Tall shrubs, that skirt the semi-lunar lawn,
Dark woods, that curtain the opposing hill;
While o’er their brows the bare cliff faintly gleams,
And, from its paly edge, the evening-diamond streams.

What strains Aeolian thrill the dusk expanse,
As rising gales with gentle murmurs play,
Wake the loud chords, or every sense intrance,
While in subsiding winds they sink away!
Like distant choirs, “when pealing organs blow,”
And melting voices blend, majestically slow.

“But ah! what hand can touch the strings so fine,
Who up the lofty diapason roll
Such sweet, such sad, such solemn airs divine,
Then let them down again into the soul!”
The prouder sex as soon, with virtue calm,
Might win from this bright Pair pure Friendship’s spotless palm.

What boasts Tradition, what th’ historic Theme,
Stands it in all their chronicles confest
Where the soul’s glory shines with clearer beam,
Than in our sea-zon’d bulwark of the West,
When, in this Cambrian Valley, Virtue shows
Where, in her own soft sex, its steadiest lustre glows?

Say, ivied VALLE CRUCIS, time-decay’d,
Dim on the brink of Deva’s wandering floods,
Your riv’d arch glimmering thro’ the tangled glade,
Your grey hills towering o’er your night of woods,
Deep in the Vale’s recesses as you stand,
And, desolately great, the rising sigh command,

Say, lonely, ruin’d Pile, when former years
Saw your pale Train at midnight altars bow;
Saw SUPERSTITION frown upon the tears
That mourn’d the rash irrevocable vow,
Wore one young lip gay ELEANORA’S smile?
Did ZARA’S look serene one tedious hour beguile?

For your sad Sons, nor Science wak’d her powers;
Nor e’er did Art her lively spells display;
But the grim IDOL vainly lash’d the hours
That dragg’d the mute, and melancholy day;
Dropt her dark cowl on each devoted head,
That o’er the breathing Corse a pall eternal spread.

This gentle Pair no glooms of thought infest,
Nor Bigotry, nor Envy’s sullen gleam
Shed withering influence on the effort blest,
Which most should win the other’s dear esteem,
By added knowledge, by endowment high,
By Charity’s warm boon, and Pity’s soothing sigh.

Then how should Summer-day or Winter-night,
Seem long to them who thus can wing their hours!
O! ne’er may Pain, or Sorrow’s cruel blight,
Breathe the dark mildew thro’ these lovely bowers,
But lengthen’d Life subside in soft decay,
Illum’d by rising Hope, and Faith’s pervading ray.

May one kind ice-bolt, from the mortal stores,
Arrest each vital current as it flows,
That no sad course of desolated hours
Here vainly nurse the unsubsiding woes!
While all who honour Virtue, gently mourn
LLANGOLLEN’S VANISHED PAIR, and wreath their sacred urn.

Speaking with the Dead: BBC Spotlight at Exeter Cathedral

All Souls Day_ BBC1SW_10-28-2013_18.43.49

We’re now looking ahead with excitement to the “Speaking with the Dead” symposium on 1-2 November at Exeter Cathedral and the Devon and Exeter Institution. On Monday, Naomi Howell and Philip Schwyzer from the Speaking with the Dead/ Past in its Place projects and Stuart MacWilliam from Exeter Cathedral Archives were featured in a BBC Spotlight segment on All Souls Day and the unique wax votives associated with the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacy. Click on the link above to watch the segment.