Lots of “repeats” on tv in the UK over Christmas from Death On The Nile to Willie Wonka and lots of “celebrity” specials where regular quiz shows have gormless celebs attempting to answer questions that most kids of my generation could answer whilst still at school! But, a little gem of a repeat stood out for me, Henry VIII, Mind of a Tyrant, a 4 part series presented by the no nonsense brilliant historian Dr David Starkey.
“But as Henry grew older, more ill and more dangerous to all around him, he was busy forging a fiercely independent England, where coastal fortifications and an expanding Tudor navy gave tangible expression to a new sense of national destiny.”
Episodes 3 & 4 focused on the small matter of Henry divorcing Catherine of Aragon, then into the much BIGGER issues of divorcing the Catholic Church and the Pope “ruling” England from Rome, followed by the dissolution of the monasteries. Removing papal rule may have begun with Henry’s lust for Ann Boleyn but it developed into something of much greater importance. Dr Starkey painstakingly guided us through many documents from that time, several written by the monarch himself, showing Henry’s meticulous dismantling of the right of the Pope to rule physically and spiritually over every Englishman.
Having achieved the separation, Henry then attacked the power still held by the monasteries and the Abbots, initially banning and removing the infamous religious relics …. a nail or splinter of wood from the true cross, a bone fragment from Saint whoever, and …. a phial of Holy Blood ……. supposedly! He was exposing and removing the fabric of beliefs from peasants and pilgrims who journeyed and paid to see or touch the relic. Of course he subsequently looted the monasteries for their extraordinary wealth and destroyed them physically in the process, but these icons of papal power had to go.
One such monastery is Hailes Abbey just outside Cheltenham and only a few miles from our home. It was built in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall who was the brother of Henry III. Currently owned by The National Trust but financed and managed by English Heritage, the Abbey became a site of pilgrimage after Richard’s son, Edmund, donated to the Cistercian community a phial of the Holy Blood, purchased in Germany, in 1270. Such a relic of the Crucifixion was a considerable magnet for pilgrimage and from the proceeds, the monks of Hailes were able to rebuild the Abbey on a magnificent scale. Medieval marketing in action, but the whole thing was a con as Dr Starkey pointed out in the tv programme, with Henry’s commissioners declaring the famous relic to be nothing but the blood of a duck, regularly renewed, which the Abbot Stephen Sagar admitted.
We visited Hailes Abbey about a month ago on a beautiful sunny Autumn day, it’s about a 40 min drive from our home ….. usually, but the site is difficult to find even with a satnav which became more and more confused as it attempted to guide us along narrow lanes through ancient woods and between rolling hills. I could have done better with an OS map and my old mountaineering compass as 40 mins became 90 before we rolled into a gravelled car park alongside the English Heritage museum.
A quick word here about English Heritage, a magnificent organisation who are the guardians of much of our ancient culture and heritage, especially artefacts from the Neolithic, the Roman, Saxon and Medieval periods. Stone circles, castles, abbeys, hill forts, battle sites are all within their scope for a decent annual membership fee. Dr C and I pay £74 annually for our joint membership giving us free access to over 400 sites and properties, a bargain when you consider that the entry fee to Stonehenge alone is around £18 each, so a single visit to Stonehenge and say Dover Castle gets you your “money back”. It’s even worth it for tourists on a short holiday taking out membership and visiting 3-4 sites around England.
Anyway, we saved £12 entry fees to the abbey, but often spend this anyway on a glossy guidebook or a better still …… a bottle of local mead! The site is in three parts; a recently developed museum full of mosaics, stonework from the original building, seals of the Holy Blood signifying that a pilgrim had visited and seen the relic, and information boards taking you through the various stages of life at the Abbey from building to destruction; second, a covered walkway with more artefacts and stonework replicating the cloisters; and finally of course the surviving bits of the exterior walls.
We wandered briefly around the interior museum first, reading the boards and chatting to the receptionist with a few general questions. Then we went outside and explored the ruined walls, making a comparison with the artists impression of what it looked like 500 years ago, before taking a walk around the covered walkway admiring the mosaics and sculpted stonework of pillars and columns.
We always end up returning to the museum part in these places, often because we’ve seen something we don’t understand or needing further explanation. And so it was today, I’d seen a metal plaque embedded in one of the walls with an inscription in Latin attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the founders of the Cistercian order (according to French history anyway). I asked the receptionist what it meant and rather surprisingly for an English Heritage site ……. she had no idea! However, much to all our surprise there was another small group of folks just about to leave and one of them said, “would you like me to translate it for you?”. So he did ….. it sounded impressive but I didn’t write it down. Mea culpa!