Saturday, July 30, 2011

Holy Men, Holy Books

Minehead has three fine churches. St Peter, on the quay, was converted from a 17th century former salt store in 1910. St Andrew, in the lower town, is an elegant Victorian design by G.E. Street (left). St Michael, on the hillside (where else?), is 14th century with an elaborate 15th century tower and serves the thatched village that crawls up to meet it. One of its treasures is an oak hutch-chest, carved with heraldry and a quaint calvary, given to the church by one of its vicars, Richard Fitzjames (1440-1522). Another is the 14th century illuminated Sarum rite missal he owned. This, after many wanderings, was presented in 1949 to the church and is now displayed in an illuminable wall-safe, right next to the oak chest that still serves as a piece of furniture.

Richard Fytz Jamys – as the board of former incumbents on the wall spells it – was a remarkable churchman. His father was from Redlynch in Somerset, his mother from East Lulworth in Dorset. He and his brother founded the Free School at Bruton. He became Prebendary of Taunton, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, Rector of Aller and Vicar of Minehead, and then like other Wessex folk before him (Dunstan springs to mind) went east. He was successively bishop of Rochester, Chichester and finally London and was buried in Old St Paul’s. As Bishop of Rochester, he helped welcome Catherine of Aragon to England in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur.

The Fitzjames Missal was bequeathed to his successor at St Paul’s, Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559), whose handwriting is probably that to be found on the last page. Here was a man whose roots lay at the opposite end of the kingdom. Tunstall is a village in north Lancashire, Cuthbert the name of Northumbria’s greatest saint, whose shrine is nothing less than Durham Cathedral. (It is recorded that St Cuthbert appeared to King Alfred in a dream, a legend recalled at Wells, where the main parish church and a paper mill both take his name.) Cuthbert Tunstall was born in Yorkshire of a Lancashire family and travelled widely before taking up his London see. Not long afterwards, he exchanged it for the more important see of Durham, also becoming the first President of the revived Council of the North.

At Durham were preserved the treasures of St Cuthbert, a unique collection of items associated with the saint, who died in 687. It is difficult to think of any other figure from so early a date who can be understood through so many personal objects. Still to be seen at Durham are his portable altar and his pectoral cross, set with garnets, and an ivory comb that may also have been Cuddy’s own. His corporax, a linen cloth used in celebrating the Eucharist, was long cherished as the Holy Banner of St Cuthbert, carried into battle against the Scots and by those pilgrims of grace in 1536 who by querying the dissolution of the northern abbeys so incurred King Henry’s wrath. A framed account in St Cuthbert’s at Wells tells of the banner’s end when Dean Whittingham’s wife, the sister of Calvin, “did most despitefully burn the robe in the fire”.

One other item survives, not in Durham but in London. What may well be St Cuthbert’s own copy of the Gospel of St John. It is a small item, pocket-sized, and not to be confused with the great Lindisfarne Gospels, made after Cuthbert’s death and in his honour, which have also found their way to the wen. The book is still in its original 7th century decorated red goatskin binding, making it the oldest intact book of European origin. And now it’s for sale.

The sellers are the Jesuits, based at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, who have owned the book since 1769. Since 1979 it has been on loan to the British Library, who are now trying to find the £9 million asking price. To raise interest among the Northumbrians, they have even conceded that they will lend the book to Durham for six months in the year. Not an ideal solution. A 1,300-year-old book deserves some rest if it’s not to deteriorate. Rest in Durham, with the rest of the treasures.

Just what does it have to do with London? And how did it get separated in the first place? Legally, or illegally? Now that digital copies can be made of all the great manuscripts, the case for gathering them together in one place has gone. It’s time to think again about context, about where such things fit as historical objects that tell a stirring tale. And that way, we may hope, subject to the right conditions for conservation and security, many, many communities will get the chance to provide their greatest past with a greater future.

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