On This Day: Bones Of Contention

April the 19th is the day of Alphege, who was an Anglo-Saxon monk of Deerhurst near Gloucester. Old Alfie, as I rather irreverently refer to him purely because it’s easier, was made the bishop of Winchester in 984 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1005. 

When he took the post of Archbishop he took with him the head of St.Swithin, like you do. I would normally just take a book.

When the Danes invaded in 1011 he refused to leave his people, and when held to ransom he refused to let the money of the poor be used to buy his freedom.

A 13th Century stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral, depicting Alfie’s abduction. Note the Viking stood behind him giving him a Karate chop.


The following year, his captors, not exactly renown for their patience, finally lost it during a drunken feast at Greenwich and pelted him with bones and the heads of cattle. They then killed him with an axe-a noteworthy example of a martyr witnessing to justice rather than faith.

What’s it all about, Alfie? 

He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death. 

Alfie is shown here being asked advice. I would imagine his reply could be: “Don’t bother taking a Saint’s head with you for luck. It’s not worth the effort-and you could instead pack more socks.”

Welsh Odyssey #3

Descending once again the conical hill of Mwnt, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small church below me. Bone-White, sun-bleached, it contrasted sharply with the green field it was situated in. I made a bee line for it.

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Unable to resist old churches, and also old cemeteries, the Holy Cross Church ticked all the boxes: the building dated back to the 13th-14th Century, and traditionally a church had stood on this site since the age of the Celtic Saints in the 5th-7th Century. And it was an open, cool oasis in the heat of the day.

I had the church to myself, the only sound was the buzzing of a bluebottle trying to find its way back out into the light. Dust motes span in cobwebbed windows.

The dedication of the church to the Holy Cross is a sign of its antiquity, and just inside was a font from the 14th Century, verdigris-tinged, in need of a scrub. How many babies had been baptised here? From those first, blessed ripples, where did the tide of life take them? Did any of them lie in the cemetery outside these walls?

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Also of interest to history buffs like myself was a the remains of a 15th Century timber Rood-screen. The carved heads of what are probably the twelve apostles can still be made out, though the one that I studied looked more like a boxer with a flattened nose and cauliflower ear.

St.Rocky, perhaps?

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I sat for a little while, soaking up the atmosphere, thinking of time and wishing for whispers, when the wooden door behind me suddenly opened and my friend entered.

“I just knew that this is where you would be!”

My wife and kids were in the car, and it was time to head back to our caravan. And so I did, but pushed things by having a quick walk around the small, enclosed churchyard first. Luckily, (for my overheating family in the car), there were many graves but few headstones, and of course the old ones were written in Welsh. It seems the graves of the newly dead had conceded their epitaphs to the English tongue.

History; Natural history; this place was a wonder.

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On This Day:England’s First Historian And The Fleeting Sparrow

In 686, plague broke out at a monastery in Jarrow, north-east England. There were only two survivors, one being a young boy who we now know as the Venerable Bede. He went on to write many books, and the one for which he is most famous, The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People gained him the title of ‘The Father Of English History’.

He died on this day in 735, and a few years ago I visited Durham Cathedral where he is buried, along with St.Cuthbert and the head of King and Saint Oswald.

I’m one for deep and hypothetical conversations, especially in the wee small hours, and whenever the subject of our existence comes up, where we came from and where we are going to either end of this short life, the following passage of Bede’s always comes to mind. It reflects on the Christian faith when it was being presented for the first time to the people of early England:

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Today, in an older and more rooted England, if we call ourselves Christian or not, I love the image of that one, fleeting sparrow, passing through between storms.

In The Deep Night, An Extinguishing Flame

Our local church, on the night of Maundy Thursday, turns its chapel into the Garden Of Gethsemane, decking it out in many candles, surrounding a cross placed upon the chapel floor in front of the altar.

There is much emphasis on a night of waiting. Of watching.

I enjoy the meditative, reflective time spent in the softly illuminated darkness. I was there last night, thinking of family and friends who have passed before me.

There was another cross standing at the end of the candle-lit channel. For my previous generations, my most closest ancestors, the cross was the symbol of hope and strength as their inevitable end drew near.  They would have approached the great unknown holding on to that image. I pictured those once dear to me drawing near to it, reaching out to grasp its arms, before passing on beyond the marker. Imaginatively speaking.

A time of waiting. A time of preparing.

There were some family members whose passing was sudden and unheralded, but for the majority they knew that their time was approaching.

How do you prepare for that moment ?  How do you reach the point where the only control you have left is to let go?

I thought of my father. After his heart attack, he informed me that the doctor had told him he could have another one “like that” with a click of his fingers. How did he cope with the thought of that time bomb ticking away inside of him? He died from the detonation a few days later.

Some of my family have approached that cross with a calmness and strength that I can only hope to emulate when my time comes. There was one person who particurlarly came to mind, though.

His passing was quite recent. He returned home to die, his life ebbing away due to the cancer that ravaged him. As the moment inched closer, while his awareness of it remained, he muttered: “I’m frightened.”

His wife, Alice, said to him gently “You’ve no reason to be frightened. Say hello to your father and to Stephen” (his brother) “for me.”  With that he succumbed, sent over by those strong words of faith.

In the deep of the night, gazing silently upon those flickering flames, I thought to myself that, when the time comes, we could all do with an Alice standing alongside us, whispering into our ear.

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On This Day: My Mother The Cow

On this day is remembered the Irish saint Máedóc of Ferns, born around 558. According to Irish legends, when a boat could not be found to take the infant Aedan (Máedóc’s original name), across the lake where St.Kilian waited to baptise him, the boy was floated to shore on a slab of stone.

The font at St Mogue’s in Bawnboy is said to be made from part of the stone. Will come in handy if ever the churchyard floods.

He studied at Clonard Abbey, the famed school of St.Finnian. When many people came to seek him out, desiring to be his disciples, he fled to Wales to study under none other than St.David. These saints do seem rather clicky, don’t they?

Along with St.Cadoc (another name drop there) Máedóc was said to have exterminated an army of Saxons or Irishmen in a narrow valley by rolling stones upon them.

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The monastic site at Clonmore is in ruins. Here some cross fragments and carved stones have been collected together.

He was noted for his benevolence and hospitality (though perhaps not to Saxons or Irishmen). At one point, a man pushed him into a lake to see whether he would lose his temper, then, when he meekly got back out of the lake the tormentor confessed his guilt and apologised.

A humble, forgiving soul, eh? Don’t bet on it:

He was well known for his curses. Once, when he was grinding flour, a local man begged for some meal. After being given some, the man disguised himself as a blind man and returned to beg for more. Annoyed, Máedóc cursed him that the generations of his descendants would never lack for a blind member. Sins of the father and all that.

When a notable figure slew his own father-in-law, he attempted to accommodate the saint, only for him to curse that the man’s right hand would wither to a stump. When the man begged for a penance, Máedóc directed him to pray for forgiveness at the tomb of Brandubh in Ferns. The man did so, and a spectral voice from the crypt forgave him.

Miraculous. Marvellous. He still lost his hand though.

Many more stories abound concerning this seventh century figure. Once, fetching ale for his fellow monks, old butter fingers broke a jug. Making the sign of the cross over the broken shards, the jug repaired itself and he continued along the way. As a former teenage glass collector, I can tell you there is definitely a market for this kind of trick.

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Stained glass window of the Saint in Enniscorthy Cathedral.

I like the story about the time wolves devoured one of the calves at the monastery, the mother cow being inconsolable. Máedóc blessed the head of his cook and told him to offer it to the heifer. The cow licked him with its great, rough tongue, and from that moment ‘loved him like a calf’. Oh, how that cook must have leapt for joy whenever he heard it lowing mournfully in the barn. Think I’d have preferred a withered stump.

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One thing I love about the tales of these Celtic monks is their affinity with, and connection to, the natural world. Perhaps there is a moulding here of both the native pagan and early Christian faiths, back in the melting pot of these islands. There is a nice tale of  Máedóc reading one day in Connaught, and a hunted stag in desperation took refuge with him. By a miracle, the saint rendered the stag invisible, and so the pursuing hounds ran off.

In art the figure of a stag remains this saint’s emblem. A visible one, of course. An invisible emblem wouldn’t be much of an emblem, now, would it?

Aeddan, forever known as Máedóc, died on this day in 632, (or in an alternative account 626) and is buried on Lough Melvin’s shore in County Leitrim. Give him a thought before you turn out the light tonight.