Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Golden Age That Never Quite Was

The Anglo-Saxon era in English history is usually taken to run from the departure of the Roman legions in 410 AD to King Harold's defeat at Hastings in 1066. That seems like a very long time, yet there is a sense, I feel, in which Anglo-Saxon civilisation, despite its longevity, never really got going. It failed to fully blossom. It was cut short, in other words, not once, nor twice, but three times.

To begin with, it took the Angles, Saxons and Jutes almost two hundred years to quell the British resistance and pen the natives back into Wales and Cornwall. There then followed what we might call the first Anglo-Saxon golden age, the epoch of the 'heptarchy', the seven kingdoms (illustrated below) of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, and East Anglia. 

From the mid-seventh-century to the mid-ninth century power shifted progressively southwards from Northumbria to Mercia to Wessex. Stable leadership, allied to the saintly witness of holy men and women such as Wilfrid of York, Hilda of Whitby, and the Venerable Bede, transformed seventh-century Northumbria into a standard-bearer and standard-setter for Christian and European civilisation. Mercia took up the mantle in the eighth-century. Offa's reign (757-796) saw strong links forged with Charlemagne, the great Frankish king and first Holy Roman Emperor, and the first suggestion or 'showing forth' of what would, in time, become a unified English realm.

It was the pressures of war and the existential threat of conquest which made such unity a necessity. In the 870s, under Alfred the Great, Wessex alone proved durable enough to withstand and repel the waves of Viking incursions which had brought such a brutal and bloody end to the first Anglo-Saxon golden age. After Alfred (871-899), his son Edward (899-924), and his grandson Athelstan (924-939) extended English rule further north and east until by the time of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975), the Anglo-Saxon king - sitting in Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex - was regarded by all, albeit grudgingly in some quarters, as sovereign and overlord of the whole island of Britain.

Military success was only part of Alfred's gift to his country, however. Once peace had been established, he switched his focus towards scholarship and church-building, and we see this trend continuing right up to the time of Edgar and the wide-ranging monastic reforms carried out on his behalf by St. Dunstan. This whole era, from Alfred to Edgar, can be seen as the second Anglo-Saxon golden age.

Edgar's England, in the year 975, seemed set fair for greatness, but the King died suddenly, aged just 32, and his realm descended into internecine strife and foreign occupation all too swiftly. Edgar had two sons - Edward, who was possibly illegitimate, and Ethelred, the child of his queen, Elfrida. Edward, as the elder son, acceeded to the throne, aged about 13, and was murdered three years later at Corfe Castle in Dorset, either by supporters of Ethelred or on the orders of the Queen. As the picture above indicates, he was very soon held up as a saint and a martyr in the popular imagination.

Ethelred replaced him as king, as his mother had intended, but was soon exposed as wholly unfit for the role. Viking attacks resumed and grew in intensity year upon year. The net result was a succession of four Danish kings and a chronic dynastic instability which was only resolved with the death of Harold and the annihilation of the Anglo-Saxon state in a single day at Hastings.

We see in 1066, therefore, the same pattern repeating itself of collapse and surrender
after a strong king's death. This was typical of the times in many ways. Monarchs died young, often before they were forty, with their sons still in boyhood and the land at the mercy of squabbling, vindictive nobles. The other misfortune to beset Anglo-Saxon England was the constant threat of piracy and invasion from the coasts of Scandinavia. Harold himself, just nineteen days before his demise, had successfully fought off a colossal Viking army at Stamford Bridge in North Yorkshire.

We do not know what would have happened if Harold had prevailed against the Normans. His battlefield triumphs might have given him the kudos and the breathing space required to establish a dynasty of his own and inaugurate the enduring golden age which up to that point Anglo-Saxon England had never quite had. Or, given that his claim to the throne was far from ironclad, he may have had to deal with a string of rival claimants and could  thereby have been deprived of the time needed to turn his mind towards long-term civilisational tasks à la Alfred.

I hasten to add at this point that I would not want to over-romanticise the Anglo-Saxons. They could be as barbaric as anyone when they put their minds to it. Yet it is clear that rule by Harold, or someone like him, would have been infinitely preferable to the ordinary man and woman than the rod of iron thrown down by William the Conqueror. It would have maintained the close bond between the king and his people that was sundered by the Conquest and steered the body politic away from from the needless expansionism and mercantilism which was so often the Norman hallmark. A third Anglo-Saxon golden age would, I believe, have concentrated on the things that truly matter - religion, learning and art - after the example of King Alfred and his understanding that temporal exigencies, while they have their place, are in reality just steps on the way towards an appreciation and understanding of the eternal verities.

Maybe one day it will happen. Perhaps the golden age that never quite was is stored up somewhere in the the national collective psyche - a 'memory of the future', as the theologian John Zizioulas writes of the Eucharist - a potent archetype which will manifest on the physical plane at the time and point of history of God's own choosing. If we ever see turbulence again on the level of those Viking invasions, let us pray in that day for a second Alfred to emerge from the destruction and lay once more the foundations of a peaceful and unified 'Isle of the Blessed', which will enjoy better luck than its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, and shine out to a world in sore need of political and social models which take the City of God as a template to build up and bring the best out of the City of Man.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thursday's Child

The first two chapters of Alan Ganer's Elidor, retold for the storytelling night at Yr Glas Loch (The Blue Bell), Conwy - Wednesday January 15th 2020.


This story is about four children, whose surname was Watson, aged between fourteen and eleven. Nicholas was the eldest, then Helen, then David, then Roland. The year is 1965, and the city Manchester.

On the day the adventure began, Mr. and Mrs. Watson were packing boxes and crates at home. The family were due to move house shortly, from the South Manchester suburb of Didsbury, further south again to Alderley Edge in Cheshire, not far from the airport. The children had gone into town for the afternoon to get out of the way. But the day was cold and hostile and they had long ago ran out of things to do. Nicholas, Helen and David sat on a bench in Piccadilly Gardens, arguing about whether to have another mooch around the shops or get the train back home. Roland stood a couple of yards away, twirling the handle of something we don't see in city centres any more - a revolving street map like a glass drum - an A-Z of central Manchester in short, with a street index in a separate panel on the right-hand side.

'Hey,' said Roland. 'Have a look at this. It's brilliant. You can find any street in town.'

The others gathered around. 'Nice piece of machinery,' said David. 'Some pretty smooth gears in there, I'll bet.'

'Let's walk over to the street it stops on,' said Roland. 'I'll let go the handle and point my finger here on the index.'

The street map whirred around, gradually started to slow down, and came to a halt with a click. Roland lifted his finger off the glass and jabbed it down again. 'Thursday Street,' he said.

'It's titchy,' said Nicholas. 'Can't be anything worth seeing there.'

Thursday Street was certainly very small, jammed in the midst of a rabbit warren of streets and alleys at the top end of Oldham Street - so small, in fact, that there was only room on the map for the letters 'Th. St.' But Helen didn't seem to mind. 'Let's get across there,' she said. 'It'll keep us from scrapping anyway.'

So off they went, out of the gardens, across Piccadilly and along Oldham Street. Remembering the map as best they could, they turned left about half-way up, into the shabby realm behind the shopfronts, a world of loading bays and warehouse spaces lit by unshaded light bulbs. After a while, this gave way to the maze of back to back streets they had seen on the map. Old men and women in carpet slippers sat on front doorsteps chattering. A group of teenage boys stood on a street corner talking to a girl with curlers in her bright yellow hair.

'Maybe we should go back,'  said Roland.

'No,' said Nicholas. 'They'll think we're scared. Act like we know where we're going, taking a short cut or something.'

They expected a similar scene on the next street, but everything was so quiet there that it didn't take them long to work out that the houses were empty. Some were even boarded up. 'Leave post at Number Four' said a message in chalk on one front door. 'Number Four's empty too,' said Helen, peering through the window.

The streets carried on like this for a while, before they came to an area where the houses had been partially knocked down so that they could see past the broken brickwork into what had once been living rooms and bedrooms. Then the houses stopped altogether and there was nothing at all except pavements and lamp-posts almost as far as the eye could see.

Nicholas put his hands on his hips. 'Where's your Thursday Street now?' he said to Roland.

'Here,' said David, picking up a street sign that had been left on top of a pile of discarded household goods. 'Thursday Street,' read the sign.

'Well, well,' said Helen. Then she pointed. 'Look! There's a church.'

They turned and saw and wondered why they hadn't noticed it before - just a hundred yards away - a black, Victorian edifice with buttresses and a high roof but no steeple. There was a mechanical digger parked alongside it.

'They'll be knocking it down,' said David. 'Let's ask the gang if we can watch.' But when they reached the digger no-one was there.

'The engine's still warm,' said Roland. 'They must be on a break. Here's a football though. Let's have a kickabout.' He pulled out a white plastic ball from behind the digger's front wheel. As he did so, he became aware, out of the corner of his eye, of a fiddler standing on the next street but one underneath a lamp-post. He wore a battered hat and overcoat and looked very shabby. But the tune he played cut Roland to the quick - brooding and dreamy yet wild and fierce too. He knew he hadn't heard it before but at the same time felt like he had always known it and that the music was calling him somehow.

'Here y'are Roland,' yelled Nick. 'What are you waiting for? Kick us the ball.'

Roland punted it over to where they were standing. He meant it to get there on the first bounce but it soared higher and higher instead, right over their heads, until it smashed through the round window at the top of the church.

'Bulls-eye Roland!' shouted David. 'How'd you do that?'

'I ... I didn't. I just kicked it normally.'

'I'll go and fetch it,' said David, and he ran over to the church, tried the big front door, which appeared to be locked, then disappeared around the back.

Roland was shocked by how fast and far the ball had travelled. He looked around. The fiddler had gone. 'Where's the fiddler?' he asked.

Nicholas shrugged. 'Dunno,' he said. 'Maybe he got bored playing to no-one.'

'He looked blind to me,' said Helen. 'Perhaps he didn't know.'

'But didn't you hear?' When I kicked the ball the fiddle got stuck on a note and got higher and higher while the ball went up and up till the window smashed and it stopped.'

'Oh give over, Roland,' grunted Nicholas. 'You're always imagining things.'

Helen smiled. 'David's been a while,' she said. 'I'll go and see what he's up to.'

Nicholas and Roland talked for a bit about the slum clearance going on around them. Then Nicholas looked at his watch. 'They're having us on those two,' he said. 'Hiding. I'll go and surprise 'em.' And off he went in his turn, leaving Roland alone in the wasteland.

Rolan felt isolated and uncomfortable, like invisible eyes were watching him. Then the music started again - a whirling jig this time. But the fiddler was nowhere to be seen. Then it stopped and in the sudden silence Roland felt not only alone but afraid. He ran to the church and found the way in through the back, stepping over a couple of wooden slats, which were all that remained of the back door. 'Nick, Helen, David,' he called, but no answer came save for the echo of his own voice.

The church had been gutted. Stripped of its wood. Above him, at the far end, Roland saw the smashed window but there was no sign of the ball. To his left was a flight of stone steps leading up in a spiral. 'Nick, Helen, David,' he shouted as he climbed. 'Come out. I don't like it.' But no-one came. At the top was a corridor, but Roland hadn't gone very far along it when he heard footsteps on the stairs. He froze. He knew it wasn't the others. 'Who are you? What do you want?' The steps were louder now  - ponderous and heavy - then around the turn of the last spiral a figure appeared. The fiddler. He held out his bow for Roland to touch.

'Guide me,' he said. 'The stairs are steep and I am blind.'

Roland reached out and touched the tip of the bow and felt a shock surging through him, from finger to hand to arm to shoulder to neck to head. Lightning flashed in his brain and images flared before him and were gone again instantly.

'What did you see?' said the fiddler.

'See? I ... I don't know ... falling towers ... a golden altar ... a prince singing ...'

'Guide me.'


Roland took the bow and guided the fiddler down the stairs. 'This way,' said the fiddler, and Roland tooked him from one end of the nave to the other, towards the great Western door, which David had found to be locked. 'Open the door,' the fiddler commanded.

'I can't,' said Roland. 'It's locked.'

'You must try.'


'There is not much time.'



'But ....'


And he played the jig again. Lightning flashed through Roland's mind as before. He grabbed the handle and twisted it this way and that but it wouldn't budge. Then he flung himself at the wood with his shoulder and the door broke into two and he was outside again, running on the cobbles and holding his head in his hands because the music was stuck on a note again. Then he saw that the cobbles had turned into pebbles, seagulls were squawking above, the air was keen and fresh, and there was a great expanse of water before him. He had no idea how it had happened, but he was standing on a shoreline. He looked behind and saw a black castle with three half-collapsed towers on top of a rocky cliff face. He felt the water lapping at his feet. The tide was coming in. No choice but to climb the cliff and try his luck in the castle.

Five minutes later Roland was walking through the courtyard, picking his way between masses of fallen black stone. He saw that the fourth tower had come down completely. Before long he came to the keep. Nothing much to see. Just a big empty space. But there were steps leading up to his left. Roland ascended. The first room, which occupied the whole length and breadth of the keep, was a well-stocked armoury, packed to the gills with swords, shields, pikes, halberds, and all kinds of weapons. He pulled out a sword, quickly and easily, from a jewelled green scabbard. No rust, no cobwebs. The ruin which had come upon this castle had clearly been both sudden and recent.

The next room up had nothing in it except a few scorched tapestries. But the third floor was much more interesting. Roland saw a marble table built into the wall, like the altar he served Mass at in Didsbury, with a fine covering of cloth of gold hanging half on, half off. He pulled it back into place, looked up and saw the broken window above him, then the football in front of him, squashed between the wall and an empty candle-holder.

Roland picked up the ball and held it tight. It felt like an old friend. Then he heard someone singing outside, a male voice, young and full of life, and the tune was the same as what he had first heard the fiddler play - that high and noble air that stirred so many deep things inside him. The language moved him tremendously, though it was one he had never heard before. His heart quivered at the sound of it - great syllables of words that resounded like castles, like they were singing of their own volition with the singer as their chosen vessel, flowing through him from some strong point at a distance. Or maybe that there were no words at all, and that what Roland heard was the music of the sun and the stars as they wheel around the Earth day and night far, far above.

He ran to the window and saw the fiddler walking across a drawbridge towards a ring of stones on a green hill. 'Stay!' he cried. 'Wait for me.' And he dropped the ball - bounce, bounce, bounce it went, towards the foot of the altar - and ran out of the room and down the stairs, chasing after the fiddler and following that great yearning and longing for he knew not what which the music and the fiddler - by the presence and quality of his being - had called forth in his soul.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Sacred City

The New Jerusalem by Aidan Hart


Then, when the moment had come, the doors opened of their own accord, and in a beam of clear and crystal light the Grail procession entered the hall for the last time. The same white-clad women led the way, bearing the silver dish, the bleeding spear and the seven-branched candlestick. Behind them came the Grail Maiden herself, holding aloft the sacred vessel so that the faces of all those present were transfigured and made holy in its paradisal light.

The procession passed beneath the royal dais, where Galahad, Percivale and Bors were sitting with Pelles, the wounded king, and Nasciens, the Grail hermit. 'In the name of God, stay a moment,' cried Galahad, springing to his feet and jumping down the steps. He stood in front of the woman with the dish and held up his sword by the scabbard. The hilt, reflected in the light of the Grail, formed a cross of blazing, golden light. He began to walk forward. Nasciens, seeing this, signalled to Percivale and Bors, and they picked up the litter which bore the wounded king, one at each end, and followed the procession behind the Grail Maiden and the salvific light shining between her hands.

They wound their way through Castle Corbenek's corridors, chambers and moonlit spiral staircases. At the top of the topmost tower was the plain wooden door which led to the chapel of the Grail. Someone was waiting for them there at the altar, a tall man with short dark hair, dressed as a priest in a chasuble of blue and gold and swinging a thurifer of incense in wide circles around the sanctuary. He seemed familiar to them somehow, yet neither Bors nor Galahad nor Percivale could recall when and where they had met him.

'I am Prester John,' he told them. 'I am the voice of the Grail, the touch and sight and scent of the Grail, and the Grail itself.' And it was Prester John who said the Mass of the Grail that night and unveiled the lesser mysteries to the three Companions of Arthur who drank from the chalice.

After Galahad had healed King Pelles with a touch of the bleeding spear, Prester John said to him, 'You must go now to the sacred city of Sarras and lay down the Grail in the tabernacle of the Cathedral where it belongs. Leave before dawn. The ship and the Grail and the table of the Grail will be waiting for you.'

Next morning, while it was still dark, Galahad, Percivale and Bors set off from Corbenek. At the moment when Pelles was made whole the night before, the Wasteland surrounding the castle was renewed as well. As they walked, they heard the sound of running water all around and could literally feel the grass growing beneath their feet. Galahad rejoiced at the great restoration taking place, but part of him was downcast too, for he knew that the redemption of the Wasteland meant the dissolution of Logres, the fall of Arthur's kingdom and the postponement of the Parousia.

They beheld a ship with five white sails awaiting them at the quayside. In a little room below deck they beheld the Grail again, standing on top of a small, silver table. The ship set sail of its own volition, westward for seven days and nights, around the coast of Ireland and over the trenched waters of Broceliande. Galahad, Percivale and Bors needed neither food nor drink all this time, not even sleep. Simply standing in front of the Grail gave them all the replenishment they required and more.

The sun was warm and the wind fresh. A raucous colony of gulls, numberless as the stars in the sky, followed the ship on its voyage from east to west. Galahad stood in the prow, with Percivale and Bors close behind him on either side. He prayed in a long, melodious chant for all those soon to die in the deep schismatic war to come. He implored the Most High to forgive Lancelot and Guinevere their illicit love and to have mercy on King Arthur for his vanity and self-conceit. He asked that the black heart of Mordred might be softened and lightened and turned back towards the Divine. He prayed especially for Dindrane, the sister of Percivale, who had raised Galahad as a boy in the convent at Almesbury. She had poured out her blood, earlier in the Quest, to save the life of another, a lady who now, in the last candles of Logres, danced in the fading light to bring joy to her family and friends. Above all else, Galahad prayed for Logres itself - soon to be subsumed into Britain - that the country might be given a second chance, that in the fullness of time the Grail might come again, and that Albion's sacred precinct might fulfill its high calling as the site and cradle of Our Lord and Saviour's second coming.

Just after sunrise on the morning of the eighth day the ship drew in to the holy city of Sarras. The buildings shone like sapphire and topaz. Percivale, Galahad and Bors lifted up the table of the Grail and carried it through the golden-paved streets which led up to the Cathedral of All the Angels, overlooking the city from on high.

As they ascended, they saw a ship with a blue sail enter the harbour below. On the deck lay the body of Dindrane, arrayed with summer flowers, just as they had left her when they had pushed the boat out to sea after her dying promise to meet them once more in Sarras.

'See,' said Galahad to Percivale, 'she has kept her vow.'

Percivale nodded but made no reply. He was out of breath and struggling with the weight of the table. It had four legs and there were only three of them and it seemed to be getting heavier all the time.

They came at length upon a man with a withered leg begging beneath an archway. 'Friend,' said Galahd. 'Lend us your strength, for as you can see we are a man short.'

'Sir,' the beggar replied. 'I have no strength, for I am lame and halt and have not walked these past twenty years.'

'Look now upon the Grail,' commanded Galahad, 'and be strong again at once.'

And the beggar lifted up his eyes and looked upon the Grail, and in that moment his leg was straightened and he felt himself able to walk again and even to run. He took the fourth corner and bore the table with them into the great nave of the Cathedral, up to the high altar and the tabernacle, where Galahad lay the Grail down with reverence and solemnity.

Then Galahad, Percivale and Bors returned to the harbour and brought the body of Dindrane back up through the streets to the Cathedral and the Grail. By this time a large crowd of onlookers had gathered in the nave. There were bishops and priests there too, and they were happy to assist Galahad at the altar as he sung the funeral Mass for Dindrane, before committing her to burial in the crypt.

When the King of Sarras, Escorant, heard of these things, he was furious with the strangers for stealing the limelight and putting him in the shade. He accused them of spying and flung them into jail, where they remained for a year and a day, nourished once again by the Grail, which came to them every night in their cell, just as it had done for Joseph of Arimathea long ago when he was cast into prison after the Resurrection.

At the end of this time, Escorant began to feel his death draw near. His mind was opened and he saw clearly that these were three good men and that he had imprisoned them unjustly. So he released them and called them into his presence and begged their forgiveness, which Galahad, Percivale and Bors gladly gave.

Not long afterwards, Escorant died, and the people of Sarras asked Galahad to become king in his place. 'For Escorant was a usurper,' they said, 'and had no royal blood in him, while you are of the high lineage of Joseph of Arimathea.'

Galahad did not want to be king, but he accepted their offer as he was convinced that this was God's will for him. The morning after his coronation, in the small hours while men and women still slept, he made his way to the Cathedral as usual with Percivale and Bors for the offices of Vigils and Lauds. And Prester John was waiting for him there, standing at the high altar with the Holy Grail in his hands.

'Come, Galahad,' he said. 'At Carbonek you all three drank from the Grail but now, as King of Sarras and Priest of the Grail, the time has come for you to look into the sacred chalice and gaze upon the greater mysteries.'

Percivale and Bors knelt down at the foot of the altar, while Galahad walked up the steps to the tabernacle, where Prester John held out the Grail. Galahad genuflected, and Percivale and Bors saw him look inside the Grail. He turned to them then, and his face was like the sun, but in that instant he fell down headlong and tumbled down the steps.

Percivale cradled him in his arms and exchanged glances with Bors who shook his head sadly. He understood that no man, not even one so exalted as Galahad, could look into the white-hot core of living mystery and survive.

Galahad rested his eyes on Bors. 'Commend me to my father, Lancelot,' he said, 'when you return to the Island of the Mighty.' Then he laid back his head on Percivale's shoulder and closed his eyes. And at once the Cathedral was filled with a mighty rushing wind, and when Percivale and Bors looked up again, Prester John and the Grail had vanished and there was no-one there at all except themselves and the lifeless body of Galahad.

After these things, Percivale became a hermit and remained in Sarras for a year until he too met Prester John in the Cathedral one morning and accepted his invitation to look into the Grail. Out of friendship and loyalty, Bors had stayed with Percivale while he lived but he knew in his heart, as Galahad also had done, that the lines of his destiny would draw him eventually back to Britain. One afternoon he was walking along the quayside when he saw Prester John by the harbour wall. 'There is your ship,' he said. Bors turned to look and saw the same ship with five white sails which had brought them to Sarras two years previously. He wanted to ask Prester John if Logres had fallen yet but when he looked again he was gone.

So Bors boarded the ship, which carried him over Broceliande and around the coast of Ireland to Britain. And when he arrived at Portsmouth he met the king's poet, Taliessin, who told him of the death of King Arthur and the subsequent overthrow of Mordred. Constantine, Duke of Cornwall, ruled over Britain now, though there was little he could preserve of it from the marauding bands of Angles and Saxons pillaging the land at will.

So Bors and Taliessin took counsel in the upper room of an inn and talked of saving the things worth saving and sowing the seeds of a future national rebirth. Then they went to the church of Saint Martin and prayed, as Galahad had done before them, that the country might be given a second chance, that Logres might one day be restored, that the Grail might come again, and that those holy feet might walk once more on the rocks, cliff-faces and pilgrim pathways of Albion's sacred precinct.