I follow a princess into Yorkshire – visit the scene of a royal conversion and discover the Peace of Beverley. Of the majesty of York Minster, and of the Horror which drove a bishop from the north.
The girl was smartly dressed and had dark, auburn hair. I met at a `bus stop outside Manchester. A lorry, carrying liquid oxygen to a hospital, had brought me from Mold, through Frodsham, with its queer, cliff-like mountain crowned on the top by a slender memorial, and past Lymm, where two majestic swans floated with supercilious ease upon an old-world pond below the Parish Church, and the pavements were full of trim, pink-faced children going merrily to Sunday School. The lorry left me where the road branches off to Bolton, and as I had not the least idea how near I was to Manchester I walked across the road and asked the girl.
She laughed. “Oh, you`re there, really, though it takes about twenty minutes to get into the centre. I suppose you`re strange?”
“I live here; I think it`s lousy place – everything`s so behind. We argue about it at the office no end. D`you know, I hardly ever go out on Sundays – I suppose that`s because I haven`t got a boyfriend. But there`s a girl I work with and she`s asked me to tea. Are you easily shocked?”
I said, “I don`t think so.”
“Well, d`you know, I`ve only just got up. Awful, isn`t it? Half-past two! Of course, mother was mad at me, but you know how you feel on Sundays. As a matter of fact, my brother`s home – he`s in the RAF, you know – and I`ve been sitting on his bed, talking, in my pyjamas. Oh, here`s the `bus. Now you stay with me and I`ll put you right. On top?”
“As you like.”
“Men always like the top best. I suppose you smoke? I don`t myself – don`t like to see girls smoking out-of-doors – funny, but I never feel it`s quite right. What part d`you want?”
“I said, “I`m looking for a meal.”
“Oh well, there are lots of places. I always go to the Odeon myself – the cafe`s downstairs, and they are open on Sundays. You get off at the Cenetaph. I get off there, too.”
I paid the fares.
“I have to take another `bus to get to my friend`s. mind you, I didn`t say I was going for certain, so she`s only sort of half expecting me.”
We talked, inevitably, about the war.
“Nothing`s the same, it is, during the war?” she said; “I mean, the black-out sort of spoils the evenings, doesn`t it? Of course, if you`re the sort that hangs about street corners and skittle-alleys – well! But I`m not. I stay at home mostly. I had a boy friend once, but it didn`t last. It doesn`t always, does it? He was quite nice – quiet, you know.”
“Jolly good thing when the war`s over,” I said conventionally.
“Well, yes, I`ll be glad. But some girls won`t – losing their American friends. I don`t go yanking myself – don`t like it – looks awfully common, I think.”
There was a pause.
“There`s an awfully good picture on at the Odeon. I don`t know if you feel like a picture?”
“I`m afraid ,” I said, “that I`m only stopping for food, then I`m going on to Leeds.”
“Oh.” Another pause.
We said good-bye at the Cenotaph.
She said, “Funny how people meet, isn`t it?” She had a very attractive smile.
I liked Manchester. Everybody was so pleasant and agreeable, from the girl in the cashier`s desk at the Odeon cafe to the little man in the shiny blue suit who insisted on walking with me to the station to show me the direction. And there was the rosy-cheeked, motherly woman and her small, protesting Herbert. She pushed against me as I walked through the station entrance.
“Oh, I am sorry,” she said; then; shaking the boy, “Now, `Erbert, do look where you`re going- nearly knocked the gentleman down, you did;” and she added, turning to me, “It`s his shoes, you know.”
“They don`t `alf pinch, blast `em,” said the unfortunate Herbert, pouting.
“Oh, go on, `Erbert. And language, if you please. There now! I`ve got one penny and me wanting two platform tickets.”
I said, “Can I help?”
“Isn`t that nice of you? There now, `Erbert, it`s alright – the gentleman can change my halfpennies. Better let me have two pennies, if it`s all same to you. Do stand still, `Erbert.”
“My feet`s aching summit cruel,” whined the child.
“Oh, go on with you. You`re a man, you are.”
She plunged into the crowd at the barrier, and Herbert followed, executing a sort of elephantine toe-dance.
The train was very full, and I sat opposite a gentleman who looked exactly like Mr. Pickwick. A minute before the guard`s whistle sounded, a lady seated in the corner became very excited and leaned across to prod her husband who was sitting on the other side.
“Oh. Alfred, do look – here`s a fellow with a beaver.”
“Christmas!” exclaimed Alfred, gazing out of the window with his mouth open.
“Now, don`t laff, Alfred – wait till he`s passed. Oh lor`, ain`t he a scream! Tickles his wife to death, I shouldn`t wonder. Move your head, Alfred, so as the yound lady can see him. Here he is – now! Shall I ask him in `ere? Oh, Alfred, don`t laff – don`t laff till he`s passed, Alfred.”
An old gentleman with a generous growth of beard peered anxiously through the window, looking for a seat. The entire carriage was leaning forward, craning their necks, their varied countenances set ready for laughter, and, led by Alfred, they now burst forth uncontrollably, much to Mrs. Alfred`s consternation. The effect upon the bearded gentleman was marked. He flung himself back from the window, as though blown before the gust of mirth, stood for a moment blinking in owlish astonishment, then, with a swooping movement, fled down the platform, dismayed, leaving the carriage to its hilarity. In this Mrs Alfred now joined, giving her husband so hearty a slap on the knee that he shot into a standing position, his features twisted in pain.
And so we came to Leeds, though pale, green hills dusted with smoke and grime, and a forest of black chimneys. Leeds is a city wrapped up in itself, dour and brusque, impatient of strangers, its streets a huddle of bad architecture and its people so different to those of Manchester they might be an alien race.
Yorkshire formed the greater part of the kingdom of Deira conquered by the Saxon Aella. Westwards lay great forests so thick that a squirrel might hop half across England from tree to tree and never touch the ground, and a man might walk as far on a summer`s day without ever seeing the sun. When Aella died he left a young son, Edwin, and Ethelfrid the Fierce, who now inherited from his father the throne of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, comprising Durham and Northumberland, drove the lad into exile and reigned supreme over the two kingdoms.
Edwin fled to Wales where he found a temporary refuge with the monks whom later Ethelfrid slew in vengeance at the Battle of Chester. From Wales the prince fled to the midland kingdom of Mercia, but here treachery threatened to betray him and he hastened to East Anglia and the protection of King Redwald`s court. But Redwald was a weak king, easily persuaded. On a visit to Kent he had received Baptism, but a Saxon king was the servant of the witan and might no more act alone in so important a matter as a change of religion than may the present King/Queen of Great Britain. To conciliate his nobles he agreed to erect a heathen altar beside his Christian one. His son who succeeded him, Eopwald, was later persuaded by Edwin to accept conversion, and he, as his father had done, found that he could not perform so independent an action; he was murdered by his thegns in 627. But Sigebert, his half-brother, returning from Gaul with a monk named Felix and aided presently by Fursey, a monk of Ireland, succeeded in prevailing upon the tribe to adopt Christianity as their national religion. No doubt the drastic measure used to punish Eopwald prepared the way for a more favourable reception of the new king`s Faith, and, as often before, the Church was sown in a martyr`s blood. Felix established himself in Dunwich – lost now beneath an encroaching sea – and he is still commemorated in the name Felixstowe. Fursey built a monastery at Burgh Castle.
But Sigebert, too, was destined for a violent end. In 634 his kingdom was attacked by Penda, King of Mercia. Sigebert, meantime, had abdicated his throne to take the vows of a monk, but with disaster threatening the people dragged him on to the battle-field, hoping to encourage the army with his presence; the monk-king refused to bear arms and carried only a wand. He was cut down and slain, and his army was defeated.
The conversion of the tribes of Britain was, without exception, the work of monks, and in the succeeding centuries the country was increasingly indebted to the monasteries. They were the only homes of culture, art and education. Their schools taught Greek, Latin, the philosophy of Aristotle, poetry and astrology, in addition to Holy Scripture and theology; also, they replaced the clumsy runic alphabet with our present one without which no literary achievement had been possible. Their inmates reclaimed thousands of acres of English soil from marsh and swamp, taught agriculture, cared for the sick, protected the oppressed, dispensed a lavish bounty to the aged and poor, gave sanctuary to travellers and to criminals, also, in the interval of their waiting trial, and did much to encourage foreign travel through pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.
But their influence was not an unmixed blessing, for they tended increasingly to disparage the marriage state in favour of celibacy. On more than one occasion they destroyed Christian homes by persuading one partner to take vows of chastity when already vows of wedlock bound them. They prepared, too, unwittingly for the ravages of the Danes by diverting the best of the nation`s manhood form the armed forces and enrolling them in the heathen Penda was a foreshadowing of what was to result on a wider scale from this disproportionate reverence for the life of a cloister. Men could not believe that Christ could be as thoroughly served by those who remained in the world. Yet, in a brutal and savage age, when wars were frequent and human life often cheaply valued, the monastery was a haven of charity and an abiding influence for peace, justice and brotherhood.
When Redwald returned to East Anglia as a Christian he brought with him, or was closely followed by, Paulinus, the companion of Augustine, who was soon to convey the Princess Ethelburga to her wedding in Northumbria. In 617 her future husband was an unhappy refugee at Redwald`s court and Ethelfrid, the usurper of his throne, was attempting by bribes and threats to persuade the king to betray or kill the fugitive. One night a friend warned Edwin that Redwald had weakened before the demands of Ethelfrid, and once more he must fly for his life, but Edwin was weary of seeking refuge after refuge; for thirty years he had known only exile and treachery. He shrugged his shoulders and refused to run further; let Redwald do as it pleased him.
But meantime, the queen and, perhaps, Paulinus rebuked the king for contemplating treachery and persuaded him rather to call his men to arms and answer Ethelfrid boldly with the sword. And when Redwald at length consented to the more manly course Paulinus immediately sought out Edwin, who may not personally have known the monk, discovered him sitting, despondent and oppressed, in the palace gardens and told him the news of the altered decision. Then he foretold how Edwin should find good fortune and prosperity and regain his rightful throne, wielding greater power than any had possessed before him.
“What reward will you give to the man who will deliver you out of your present anguish?” asked Paulinus.
“I will award him singular favour,” replied Edwin, “and in all things follow his directions.”
Then Paulinus laid his hand upon Edwin`s head and said, “When this sign is given you, remember this present discourse.”
That, reading between the lines, seems to be the actual incident which, in years to come, was to have a far-reaching climax.
Redwald met Ethelfrid near the River Idle and inflicted upon him so great a defeat that the waters of the river ran red with the blood of the slain, and Edwin returned to rule over the vast area of Deira and Bernicia, the three sons of Ethelfrid, Eanfrid, Oswald and Oswy, flying for their lives to Scotland and the sanctuary of Iona.
One of Edwin`s first acts was to avenge the poisoning of his nephew, Hereric, father of Hilda, future Abbess of Whitby, and to add the district of Leeds, whose king, a British chieftain named Certu, had been guilty of the crime, to his extensive domains.
Thenceforth, he was to reign as a just and peaceful king so that, the `Chronicle` says, `a woman with her child might walk unmolested from coast to coast` of his kingdom. Brass drinking-cups were fixed near springs on lonely roads and none were ever stolen, a small indication of the reverence in which men held his rule; and this he further enhanced by reviving some of the ancient ceremonial of Rome, ordering that his bodyguard should carry the Tufa before him, a bnch of feathers fixed to a spear, the insignia of authority. York, his earliest royal seat, he glorified with new buildings of stone, but later he moved to the Scottish capital which still bears his name, for Edinburgh was originally Edwin`s Burgh.
It was late when I reached Leeds. I took the tram to Halton and walked out along what a gentleman assured me was the Tadcaster road, for I was aiming for York. There was no traffic and I began to feel a trifle uncertain of reaching my destination. After some time I asked a man about omnibuses.
“York?” he said, “but you`re on the Selby road. There are no more `buses tonight.”
I decided to try to hitch to Selby and make York from there, but when dusk began to fall and the road was still hopelessly deserted, I changed my plans and took the turning to Garforth. At Garforth the policeman said he thought I might possibly get a bed at one of the public houses. I tried them both in vain; they were very full, with pianos loudly playing. I left the village, and now it was growing dark. Three or four miles farther on I came to a large farm; perhaps they would let me sleep in the barn. A lean, black collie, with three puppies, lay near the gate and wagged its tail at me without rising. I went up the drive and knocked at the farmhouse door. It was opened by a fat, red-faced woman.
“Aye, lad,” she said, when I had made my request, “coom in`t kitchen. Farmer`s out, but he`ll be back soon.”
It was a huge kitchen, its low, raftered ceiling studded with hooks for hams and sides of bacon, and there was an enormous fire in an old-fashioned range grate. An oil lamp stood on the table, and in one corner two small boys were playing `conkers`; they took no notice of me, as though a stranger arriving out of the night was a regular occurrence. The woman disappeared into the shadows of the larder, taking the lamp, leaving me for a moment in a vast dimness, with flickering shadows and the orange of leaping flames. When she came back it was with a mug of steaming coffee, a buttered tea-cake and a wonderful jam tart.
“Must give thee summit,” she said, and sat watching me eat, her face set in calm satisfaction. We talked a little – of the harvest and how good crops had been ruined at the last moment, and a black kitten pounced suddenly onto the table, pursuing a moth, and went scampering out into the dark passage.
“Thou might get a bed at Aberford,” she said presently; “there`s place where they lodge lorry-men. Better than barn, though thou`s welcome to barn if thou`s nowt else.”
I thanked her and said that I would try Aberford, but if I failed I should return. She would not hear of me paying for the food. Outside, it was almost dark now, and as I turned to wave good-night she was standing, arms akimbo, framed in the warm doorway. The sun was setting over Leeds in a red glory of smouldering fire, tall chimneys silhouetted against the glowing curtain a deafening orchestra of rooks. And soon I came to the Great North Road, and a mile farther on the many turrets of Aberford almhouses broke the fading sky-line.
I tried the public-house, and a very regal lady, with flounces of lace on her breast and a velvet band about her throat, regretted that no bed was vacant; I felt that she did not approve of me. A group of girls were talking outside and as I crossed the road one of them shouted, “Is it lad thou`rt looking for?”
I said, “Actually I`m looking for a bed”
“In that case,” I said, “it`s too late for me to try.”
“Thou could share,” she said. “I`ll show thee where it is, `cause door`s up snicket.” She seized my arm, led me determinedly up the road, dived into an alley black as pitch and thumped on a door which I should never have noticed. “There now,” she said, with an air of duty done; “ask her when she cooms.” She turned away and left me.
A chain rattled, two bolts were withdrawn and a key turned rustily, but the opening of the door was indicated only by the wafted smell of cooking cheese and a high, complaining voice which said, “What`s oop to-neet with ye – pubs closed early, eh?”
“I`m looking for a bed.”
“Oh! Thought it were my man. Nowt here, I`m sorry.”
The door closed again and once more I heard the jangle of chain, bolts and key. At the alley entrance the girl was waiting for me.
“Try Mrs Baldwin`s then; down street, an` house wi` bay window. She takes lorry-men. Maybe thou`ll get in there.”
I thanked her and followed the direction which she indicated. As I reached the bay window another girl came forward out of the shadows and said, “What`s thou want?”
“A bed,” I replied.
“I`ll ask Mum.” She opened the door and went inside. The room within was unit but for the glow of a fire, and someone was playing `Pistol-Popping Momma` on the piano. There was a whispered conversation. Evidently the girl was pleading my cause, while the mother protested that it was too late to accept a new lodger tonight. Presently the girl came back and nodded. “Coom in,” she said.
They lit the gas. There were five of us in the little sitting-room which was over-crowded with furniture and very hot. Bert was smoking in the armchair; Marg at the piano; Edie, who had met me outside, tall, rather pretty, with a great mass of golden hair, and her mother, a little, careworn woman, with friendly eyes. I washed at the sink in the kitchen, where Dick was having supper, and afterwards she produced a meal of eggs, and coffee and hot scones. All the time people kept arriving – a soldier, with Ted who shouted for aspirins and complained of his head – “Drinkin` ower much,” explained Edie. And later, Edie`s kid-sister, Violet- “Bin out wi` lads an` all.” “Shut oop,” said Violet, pleased to centre attention on herself; “what`s oop wi` thee-jealous?” two other men arrived, and when Ted went to bolt the door, Mum said, “Nay, lad, thou`s locking out Dad.”
“He`s late to-neet,” said Violet.
“Aye,” said Edie, “he`s oop ginnel, lakin` wi George, I shouldn`t wonder.”
This mysterious sally was greeted with general laughter. Dad arrived a few minutes later, unshaven and hobbling on a stick, and went, muttering, into the kitchen, leaving behind him an aroma of beer. No one took any notice of him, and I did not see him again, for next morning he lay late in bed; evidently he had no work, but lived on Mm`s earnings from the lodging-house.
No one asked me my business, and there was an easy, homely atmosphere, the air blue with cigarette smoke, and good-natured chaff bandied from one to another, centring chiefly round the three girls. I discovered that, with the exception of Bert and the soldier, all the men had arrived that evening and were moving on next day. One a lorry driver, offered to take me to Edinburgh, but it did not suit my plans. Past eleven o`clock the soldier moved over to the piano and played Tchaikowsky very beautifully. Everyone immediately fell silent, frozen into immobility, the only movements the raising of cigarettes and the shifting of coals upon the fire, I remembered that I was in Yorkshire, where men appreciate good music.
I shared a bed with Bert, a pleasant, middle-aged Irish engineer. Where everyone slept in that small house I do not know, they disappeared gradually up the twisty stairs, their shadows, long and slender, thrown by the candles with which Mum armed them. I was travelling light, and changed into spare shirt and shorts for sleeping, having no pyjamas; Bert also slept in his shirt. He told me that he had a wife and four children in Eire, where they were rationed to half-an-ounce of tea a week; they mixed it with carrot, shredded and baked in the oven. A substitute coffee was made from baked parsnips.
“When first Oi saw white bread in England Oi thought it was Christmas, to be sure,” he said.
When I woke he was already up, kneeling at the foot of the bed, saying his prayers. There were eggs for breakfast. Apparently I should have fetched mine from the kitchen, but, instead, I went straight into the sitting-room, and Violet brought it to me. I heard her say, “Who`s he think he is – Lord Nuffield?”
Before nine I had hitched a lorry to Boroughbridge. It was market-day at Wetherby, and all along the road were groups of cattle, high-sided carts carrying calves and pigs and netted over, and a few flockes of sheep, with restless collies keeping them on the wide, grass verge.
Yorkshire is a generous, noble county, its rivers wide and clear, and its great, spacious farmhouses lying under splendid trees. There were far views of Wensleydale, green and golden in the morning sun, and the blue hills of Wharfedale peering out of haze.
Next day I drove with a farmer out to York, through Wilber force and Barmby where, on his advice, I lunched at a public house which catered for lorry drivers. Over the meal I got into conversation with a young driver who was very excited because he had drawn a horse in a sweepstake on the St. Leger and stood to win an hundred pounds. He was carrying vegetables to Hull, and I went with him as far as Market Weighton. A few days later I saw that his horse had come first; I forgot his name.
At Market Weighton I asked my way to Goodmanham, and an old villager, puffing a stub of a clay pipe, hobbled up the street to show me the turning. Another old man, sitting on the steps of the pubic house, greeted my companion, raising his pipe to his forlock with, “Na`, Tom.”
“Na`, lad,” replied Tom, returning the gesture of the pipe and then to me, “Thou goes ower level crossing, past Black Bull – that`s pub – an` turn reet.”
I walked two or three miles/1.2-3.2km along deserted roads, and then there was a white cottage and a grey, hay-scented farm, and a dog of uncertain ancestory yapped at me as though to herald my arrival. I had not known what to expect at Goodmanham, and I was delighted with the village and the tiny church dwarfed by its huge, squat tower, with a path of loose, white pebbles to the timber porch.
The children were coming out of school – friendly children who smiled and said, “Hullo!” – and there was a little girl, with incredibly blue eyes and flaxen hair, nursing a doll as big as herself, seated on the churchyard step. Within the church was a curious leaning pillar, an old leper`s squint and a worn, twelfth-century font. An atmosphere of cool repose shrouded the interior, so that it was impossible to leave without a prayer. I knelt and said a `Te Deum`, for set in the wall was a brass tablet which commemorated the incident which had brought me here.
`In the year of our Lord 1027 was celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter at York. On the 21s day of July in that year Cosmo Gordon, Lord Archbishop of York, and the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, accompanied by many others, made a pilgrimage to this Church of Goodmanham in order to commemorate with solemn thanksgiving the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria, and his nobles to the Christian Faith through the preaching of Bishop Paulius at this place in the year of our Lord 627`.
I was loathe to leave the peace of this pleasant, slumberous village. I sat on the churchyard step with the blue-eyed girl, and she told me about her doll, and how she was soon going to school, and this morning she had been with her mother to York for the shopping. And when I went away her kept shouting, “Good bye”; and waving, so that I must turn round to wave back until a twist in the road hid her from sight. A few cows ambled towards the village in the sunshine, driven by a tousle-headed boy; a black kitten leapt suddenly from a hedge and danced across my feet, chasing a crisp autumn leaf; and a lady on a bicycle nodded, smiled and said, “Good afternoon”.
It happened at Stamford. The village lies a few miles/km to the east of York, and in the year 626 Edwin the King resided there with his young queen, Ethelburga. They had been married a year, and Paulinus, who accompanied the queen from Kent and who had been consecrated Bishop of Northumbria before his departure, had made little impression upon the Engles of the north. The king refused to decide in favour of Christianity, although at times it seems that he at least contemplated the change. Then, at Stamford the circus was reached.
Eumer, a messenger from Cwichelm, son and under-king of Cynegils, King of Wessex, begged audience with Edwin, but those who admitted him to the royal presence did not know that he carried a dagger in his sleeve. He paused to bow before the throne, then suddenly sprang, striking for the king`s heart. But Lilla, a thegn, standing beside the throne, caught the quick flash of steel and flung himself across his master`s body, and the dagger meant for Edwin buried itself in him, piercing him through and wounding the king. All immediately became confusion. Edwin, pale, trembling and furious at such treachery, leapt up with a cry as the dead body of his faithful thegn crashed to the ground, and rough hands held and bound the assassin. The queen, frightened by the noise, was seized with the pangs of child-birth and delivered a daughter. Only one person remained calm. Paulinus saw his opportunity and grasped it. Stepping forward, he said quietly, “Do not think your heathen gods for this escape, but rather give credit to my God to Whom I had been praying for you. Do you not recognize this sign?” And he placed his hand on the king`s head.
In a flash Edwin remembered again and twilit garden of Redwald where, ten years age, he had sat despondent, an exile about to be betrayed; remembered, too, the tall dark figure of the stranger who came to him there with tidings of comfort and prophesies of future triumph. He fell on his knees and vowed that his new-born daughter should be given to the Christian God.
The following year Edwin called a meeting of the witan. It was held at Goodmanham where stood a heathen temple, and the merits of the rival Faiths were discussed. Coifi, the High Priest, in a bitter speech, stepped forward as an unexpected ally of Paulinus. “For,” he said, “none had applied himself more diligently to the worship of the gods than I, yet others receive greater honours from you. If the gods were good for anything surely they would favour me who them faithfully. But it is not so.”
And a thegn added a parable. “The life of man,” he said, “is as the flight of a sparrow which enters through the window from the storm and darkness of the night as you sit in your warm and lighted hall at supper, flies across the room and out again, back into the darkness. We do know from whence we come nor whither we go, and if this new religion can tell us surely we should welcome it.”
So it happened that the king at last gave his assent to the Faith of Christ, and Coifi, the High Priest, leapt on the king`s stallion, a great sword girt about his waist and a spear into the temple and to call on the people to destroy and burn the altars. The laws of their paganism forbade a priest to ride a stallion or to carry arms, and something of the consternation caused by this sudden onslaught can be imagines. Christ was Victor in Northumbria!
A lorry took me to Beverley, and a small boy opened the gate which barred our way, kept closed now because of the presence of Foot and Mouth Disease. The road cut across a broad green common where cows lay under a peaceful sun, and the twin towers of the Minster were reared majestically against a cloudless sky. I alighted near an old mounting-stone and walked under the timbered gate-house which has guarded the entrance to Beverley for more then three centuries; beyond there was a Tudor hostelry of mellow brick and blackened beams, and a wide, clean market square.
Immediately one felt and knew the peace of Beverely which has enfolded the quiet streets for many centuries, so that even nine hundred years ago the armies of William the Conqueror, returning from their cruel and bloody ravaging of the north, made a circuit to avoid this place lest they disturb its peace. The peace of Beverley is beyond description; it must be experienced to be understood. It is something indefinable, unique and scared, and quite unbroken by the traffic thundering by to Hull or the aeroplanes roaring ominously overhead. Such things belong to another world, like trams rattling past the city church during the hush of sacramental worship. The peace of Beverley is changeless and unaging; it will continue to the end of the world.
The great Minster stands a little apart from the town, as though the shops and houses were afraid of it with the holy fear which mortal things must ever feel for what belongs to God. The massive western doors of old, dark wood are flanked by figures of saints, apostles, kings, queens and knights, and, within, the light pours through high windows on to walls so immaculate that they might have been limewashed only yesterday. The heavy, dark wood screen of the choir is off-set by the lightness of the stone reredos, with its massive statues, and in the south transept there is an impressive window of dark glass and an eighth century stone frith-stool like the more famous one at Hexham.
This stool is the only relic of the second church which John of Beverley built here for his monastery in the early years of the eighth century and which replaced another which he had erected in 633. The present church is Gothic. In Saxon times the frith-stool was placed in the sanctuary to accommodate the bishop, and John himself would certainly have sat on the Beverley stool.
There is a hushed spaciousness about this Minster as though it were aware of the awful otherness of Christ. It is a building absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine, still echoing the soft foot-fall of the monk and the whispered prayers of those who meditated on the changelessness of God and the abiding assurance of the love of Christ. As you walk the silent aisles you have a strange feeling that you pass unnoticed.
“Ah,” said the verger, with a regretful shake of his head, “but you ought to see some of the tourists we get. They`ll walk in, glance around, and out again, as though that was all there was to it. Wonderful, it is, and I`ve been here fifty years never seen it cleaned, yet you`d think they`d done it only yesterday.” And when I told him of my pilgrimage, “Now, if it weren`t for my feet I`d come hitch-hiking with you,” he said.
Purposely, I came last to the most revered spot of all – the simple black stone set in the floor which is the reason and excuse for all this magnificence of stone – the grave of John of Beverley. The simplicity of this tomb is exactly right, so truly in keeping with the quiet saintliness of him who lies beneath in his eternal rest. Someone had placed roses round it, in long, shallow bowls, and in May the children of Harpham, where Bishop John was born in 640, gather primroses and send them on his feast to Beverley.
While Bishop of Hexham he ordained the Venerable Bede both to his diaconate and priesthood, and later, when Bishop of York, he built the second church and monastery of Beverley – so-called because of the many beavers which inhabited the woods and river banks. He retired here in 718, three year before his death.
Bede tells many tales of the wonders that God wrought by him: of the thegn`s wife cured with water blessed by the bishop so that she rose and ministered to table to them, like Peter`s mother-in-law; of a nun of Watton relieved by his prayers of a dreadful pain and swelling in her limbs; of a fierce bull which, breaking into his churchyard, became immediately tame and docile; of his healing of a priest who, in disobedience to his orders, galloped his horse and was thrown hitting his head against a stone and suffering internal injuries. But best of all is the little story of the poor dumb boy whom he adopted and for whom he built a cottage close to own abode. The child`s head was so scarred with filthy scabs that no hair would grow on it. How many people would have been repelled by the sight, for though all men love pretty children it is few who care for the ugly ones. But John took infinite pains with the lad, teaching him to pronounce the letters and to speak simple words, and employing a doctor to heal the diseased and neglected head, until, with the help of the bishop`s prayers, the hair grew again and `thus the youth obtained a good aspect, a ready utterance and a beautiful head of hair, whereas before he had been deformed, poor and dumb.
As I knelt by the square, black stone beneath the lofty roof of that silent church I thought that surely there is a happy road in Heaven, shaded by mighty trees and dappled with sunshine, where the birds sing and the squirrels chatter, down which, hand in hand, go quietly waling an old man and a little boy, quietly walking to the home of the peace of God.
I walked back through the leisurely market square, stained with its hideous cross, to the soft, grey beauty of old St. Mary`s church. The doorways were carved with masks and faces, and as I tried the doors one by one, each in vain, for they were locked, the faces leered at me mockingly and grimaced, crying, “Try again, Turn and twist the handle, but you won`t get in. We`re not having you in our church.” Of the innumerable churches which I visited on my pilgrimage only four were locked against me.
Beyond the Tudor gate-house a gentleman stopped his car and carried me back to York, across the high splendour of the wolds, past the slender spire of Pocklington, rising above the trees, and so through Dunnington, famous fifty years ago for Irishmen and chickery. He told me, with humble pride, that the Home Guard had on the previous evening presented him with a sliver teapot as a mark of their esteem on his retirement from their company.
“I guess this town`s so old it can hardly keep standin`,” said the Canadian airman whom I had met over tea at York. “Say , do we pay here to starve sittin` down?” The cafe was very crowded, and the waitress who served us looked tied and ill.
“mind you,” she said, “it`s good pay, but the hours are long, and the there`s the standing. And the customers – you`d ever think we were human the way some of them speak to us.”
I do not like York; it is all rush and bustle, a clutter of buildings, a hubbub of unseemly noise. After the peace of Beverley its jumble-tumble is offensive.
But in the Minster there was a vast and timeless solemnity housed in a wondrous sympathy of architecture, perfectly proportioned; many slender pillars rising in a severe majesty of form and line. As I sat in the hushed nave before the great blue altar backed by the curtained choir screen beyond which lay the High Altar clothed splendidly in green and, high up, many gaily coloured shields and the gold horn of Ulf, the organ reverberated, disciplined and controlled, rumbling forth the huge nobility of God, and an old, white-haired man went past me towards the sanctuary, his footsteps dwarfed and tiny, a parable of the littleness of man. Then the roof caught up the anthem from the choir and spoke of that divine Humanity which, even in the Heart of the Absolute, is never lost nor absent. “Abide with us,” prayed the choir, “for the hour of day doth vanish.”
Afterwards I climbed the tower up 272 steps – 51 less than Durham – and looked over the mass of red-brick houses which is modern York, tall chimneys vying with pointed steeples, and the long, black road to Hull cutting the green of billowing wolds. Once, long ago, on an Easter morning down that broad from Goodmanham came a motley procession – king and queen and heathen priest, Christian bishop, thegn and serf – to witness the novelty of a royal Baptism. On this site where stands today a mightiness of hallowed stone there rang out the hammer-blows of workmen hastening to erect a wooden church in which Edwin might be washed with sacramental water, an humble structure round and over which Paulinus later built a worthier church of stone.
There are many things to fascinate at York. The tenth-century Saxon Gospels upon which the archbishops have for centuries taken the oath at their enthronement were absent for the war, but, high on the Chapter House wall, there is a quaint carving of a boat in which stands a bishop and three boys. The figure is intended for St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, who was Bishop of Myra in Greece, and who rescued a neighbour from debt by dropping three bags of gold through his window after nightfall, from which story come the three gold balls of the pawnbroker.
Once the bishop was asked by an anxious parent to care for his three sons who had to travel through the saint`s diocese, but a villainous innkeeper murdered the children, chopped up their bodies and placed them in a barrel of salt to sell as pickled pork. Nicholas, discovering the crime, blessed the cask, and out popped the three boys, whole and unharmed.
The scripture in York Chapter House has apparently confused the old legend with another which makes the bishop patron saint of fishermen. However legendary maybe the stories, Nicholas was evidently remembered for his charity and his love of little children, and a bishop may have less worthy claims to saintliness.
The wooden church built for Edwin and consecrated by Paulinus was the mother of our northern Christianity, and when, less than half a century later, Wulfhere, King of Mercia and son of heathen Penda, built the monastery at Peterborough on the morasses of the outskirt Fens, all England was nominally Christian except for Sussex, which was isolated by the dark jungle of the Andredsweald.
There is an old tale commemorated in the name of St. Ives, of a Persian bishop called Ivo who preached Christ in the Fens while Augustine still laboured in Kent. But that is only legend.
Next morning, before I left the city, I visited the abbey ruins and museum, but afterwards I wished I had not done so. I am never at home among ruins, and my knowledge of architecture is less than that of most ordinary people. Here were the shattered remnants of dead beauty warmed by no memories of human personalities, and there is no vitality in ruins which do not speak of the men and women who passed their lives among them in the heyday of their wholeness.
There was the shrunken form of a horrible Egyptian mummy, denouncing the vanity of life; a blackened carcase that was once a British boat pulsing and trembling as savage oarsmen bent and strained upon the oars; broken statues of Venus and Mercury, no longer hearing prayers of love-sick hearts nor praise for battles won by Roman arms; a tiny, delicate altar of a legionaire, carved in grey stone, and, close beside it, a Roman baby`s feeding-bottle. Near the door stood a mighty altar-piece from a sacred cave where once the soldiers of the imperial city bowed to bloody Mithras, reminding me of the mystery of York, the secret wrapped now in the obscurity of faraway centuries, how the Ninth Legion marched out towards the Scottish Lowlands and were never seen again, no straggler returning to tell how they had died, no corpse ever discovered to reveal the manner of their last defeat.
In the basement was the fireplace of the monastery which Henry VIII destroyed, its stones blackened with soot, but as cold and lifeless now as the broken abbey walls which then were lively with the devotions of the monks. And there were bosses, wonderfully carved, from the fallen vaulting of the choir, and dumb, neglected statues of the saints, protecting the sacrilege of their position, like number, in this dim, unfriendly cellar, to be gaped at by those who paid sixpence for the privilege and no more to excite the reverence of the faithful or to point men up to God. Outside, a thrush sang, perched upon a fragment of carved masonry protruding from the rockery beside the path, and through the mouldering doorway of the abbey a nineteenth-century tomb leered obscenely, death looking upon death, nodding sad agreement with the earthiness of men.
It is 633. The horizon is grim with darkening clouds; the beat of war drums rolls ominously across the Yorkshire moors; there is the bleak sound of swords being sharpened on the stones. Penda is marching.
Out from the midland plain comes the army of the heathen, rank upon rank, relentlessly advancing. Swords are unsheathed, spears ready, brands lighted for the burning of the conquered villages. Penda is marching.