Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)
In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:
A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.
He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:
Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,
Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hand like a chain the world round,
If you will that your hopes be requited.
When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,
Shall build, in the new coming years,
A fair house of life – not for others,
For the earth and its fulness is theirs.
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)
Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes. In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree. Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.
While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…
All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.
Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England. He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.
However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.
With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’ once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’ A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the most powerful telescope in the world.
However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:
Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers
That your little ones shall see
Brighter Days – O men and brothers –
When Life and Labour ye set free!
Sound upon the pipe and tabor!
Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!
Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!
Come a-maying, toilers, come!
However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of ‘class war’:
March they not in shining warfare,
No sword they bear, or flashing blade;
But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,
But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.
‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’
This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations. Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.
The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.
When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.
The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:
Though rich and great our cause may bare,
We care not for their frown,
The strongest are not strong enough,
To keep the labourer down.
NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.
The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.
No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.
Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent madrigal ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:
Remember us poor Mayers all!
And thus do we begin – a
To lead our lives in righteousness
Or else we die in sin – a.
Documents and Debates, with extracts from;
The Fateful Year, 1944: II: June-December
A. On the Plans of MFM (The Hungarian Independence Movement), June 1944:
The general political and military situation as reviewed by MFM in March-April 1944 was as follows:
– The War was as good as won by the Allies…..
– By “arresting” the Head of State, a great number of Cabinet Ministers, including the Premier… members of both Houses of Parliament.. generals and many other people… the Germans themselves had absolved Hungary from all her moral and legal obligations to Germany.
– Constitutionally, the Regent was authorised to conclude an armistice without the previous agreement of the Cabinet… Thus full confidentiality could be safeguarded and not even Premier Lakatos (who became PM at the end of August) had any idea about the armistice preparations until the very last moment, when General Faragho informed him about what was going on.
– The Regent was alive and was active, although much restricted. His person was absolutely necessary for the success of… Attempt Three.
– The second main prerequisite… consisted in keeping the Hungarian armed forces under the influence of the MFM. This aim was fully achieved by August when the 1st Army, the 2nd Army, the united Gendarmerie and Police Forces, the Transylvanian Division, etc. All had come under the control of MFM members… or Transylvanians.
– The final aim of MFM consisted in securing Hungary’s independence and sovereignty and in breaking away from the Germans. It was also planned to dissolve MFM as soon as these objectives had been reached.
… MFM had started, as early as January 1944, to prepare General Faragho as the Regent’s candidate to conduct armistice negotiations with Soviet Russia… given his command of Slavic languages and his contacts in Moscow… Armed resistance to the Germans would be futile. The proximity of the Allied forces to Hungary therefore became a very important factor in the planning of the MFM… the allied forces needed to be close enough to ensure military success.
B. International Political and Military Events, July-October:
20 July – Attempt on Hitler’s life (Stauffenberg)
18 August – Landing of Allied troops in the South of France
21 August – 7 October – Dumbarton Oaks Conference (USSR, USA, Great Britain, China)
23 August – Fall of Antonescu’s regime. Romania asks for armistice
29 August – Lakatos Cabinet formed
2 September Finland sues for peace
7 September – Crown Council, Budapest
8 September – Council of Ministers, Budapest
10 September – Council of Privy Councillors, Budapest
11 September – Council of Ministers; Russian units cross the Carpathians
12 September – Romanian armistice registered with United Nations
18 September – Hitler-Vörös entrevue
23 September – Red Army crosses the Hungarian frontier
28 September – Hungarian Armistice Delegation leaves for Moscow
11 October – Preliminary Armistice Treaty signed by Hungary, Moscow
15 October – Nicky Horthy kidnapped by Skorzeny. Crown Council and Council of Ministers, Budapest. Mission of Veesenmayer and Rahn. Ultimatum of General Guderian. German military intervention. Abdication of Regent Horthy.
28 October – Armistice Treaty signed by Bulgaria, Moscow; Leyte Sea Battle, Japanese sea-power destroyed.
C. On the Formation of the Lakatos Government, June-August:
… In June the Regent had finally arrived at the conclusion that without… a Lakatos Cabinet… a breakaway from the Germans would be impossible. He therefore ordered Lakatos to come to Budapest to report… Lakatos had had plenty of time to think things over since he had relinquished his post as Commander of the First Army as early as 27 May… Horthy immediately informed Lakatos at their meeting in June that he was his candidate for the post of Premier. On 10 July, Horthy bluntly informed Lakatos that his first duty would be to take steps to leave the Axis. This, however, Lakatos considered impossible, and as there was strong German opposition to any plan replacing Sztójay with someone less docile and less pro-German… Lakatos’ appointment was, for the time being, dropped. In the meantime, however, the Jewish question became once more one of the most burning issues… and Horthy again concentrated on the problem of replacing Sztójay, who proved insufficiently resistant to German demands. The final decision then came when the news of Romania’s defection from the Axis became known in Budapest on 23 August. The Regent found himself in a rather difficult position.
… the First Army was still outside the frontiers and the German troops inside the country still numerically stronger than the Hungarian. Moreover, the civilian Government was still of Sztójay, and he could hardly hope to carry through a surrender policy until he had a Prime Minister who would obey his orders…
… on the 24th, he told Veesenmayer… that he proposed to continue the ’defensive struggle against the Soviets’… in the afternoon he sent… Bárczy to Sztójay… to present the surprised general with a typed letter of resignation… Then he sent again for Lakatos and told him that this time he really must take on the Premiership, with the following programme: firstly, to restore Hungary’s sovereignty, as far as possible, in the face of German occupation; secondly, to put an immediate stop to the persecution of the Jews;… thirdly, to prepare Hungary’s exit from the war and carry through the operation at the appropriate moment…”
But once Lakatos had been accepted… by the Germans, they were not prepared to accept all the candidates of Horthy and Lakatos… it took three days before the Lakatos Cabinet could be sworn in… made public on 29 August…
… As to the foreign contacts with the Western Democracies… after the Romanian ’vote-face compléte’ all Hungarian informants… reported to Budapest that, according to the attitude of the Allies, Hungary could not possibly negotiate with the the Western Allies alone… that Hungary should enter into direct negotiations with the Soviet Union and that the conditions for an armistice were unconditional surrender.
D. On General Guderian in Budapest, 30 August – 1 September:
Of course, the changes occurring in Hungarian public opinion as well as the creation of the Lakatos Cabinet in spite of German opposition alarmed the German leaders. As the military question overshadowed the political problems at this moment, the new chief of the German General Staff, General Guderian was dispatched to Budapest… Guderian… promised everything that the Germans thought necessary to keep back the Regent and his Cabinet from any inconsiderate and thoughtless action, i.e. from taking steps in the direction of a complete breakaway… The… result of Guderian’s talks in Budapest consisted of the Hungarians postponing their planned break from the Axis… After Guderian’s visit, I had a long conversation with Bárczy who… informed me about the events and declared that the conduct of State leadership was proving inadequate in the present extremely grave situation; the policy of wishful thinking and hoping for a miracle dragged on.
E. On the Effect of the Russian Armies entering Transylvania, 31 August – 7 Sept:
“To the Left the position seemed quite clear… he (Horthy) should immediately follow King Michael’s example… this view was not altogether confined to the Left. General Náday, whom Horthy saw on the morning of the 24th, gave him similar advice. And several of the ’dissident diplomats’ who were in touch with the Western Allies telegraphed to the same effect through the Hungarian Legations in the countries in which they were living, where the Ministers allowed them the use of their codes (these included Apor and Barcza). Even the non-dissident Vörnle chimed in, transmitting a message from the British Ambassador in Ankara.
… The Romanians in publishing the terms of their surrender, skilfully avoided the small saving reservation which the Western Allies inserted, under which, although the Second Vienna Award had indeed been cancelled, Romania had been promised the restoration only of ’the whole of the greater part’ of Transylvania, and represented the Transylvanian issue as definitely settled in their favour. The Germans and their partisans in Hungary could, and did, argue from this that if there had ever been a time when it was worth while competing with Romania for the Allies’ favour, that time was past now; whereas if if Hungary remained faithful to Germany, she would receive her reward when Germany won (as… she could still do). Furthermore, the German Press launched a story that Roumania’s instrument of surrender contained a clause obliging her to send 150,000 men to Siberia or Russia for forced labour. Hungary, they said, had simply no choice but to fight on, if she would escape the same fate.
… he could not make up his mind to proclaim Hungary’s immediate surrender. He could not regard it as consistent with Hungary’s honour… to desert an ally – even a hated one – without warning. Secondly, the practical difficulties… to proclaim immediate surrender would be (not so much) a leap in the dark, but… much more likely, a jump down a visible precipice…
But the overwhelming consideration was, no doubt, his still unconquered repugnance to the idea of throwing Hungary’s frontiers open to the Russian Army alone. His belief was unshaken that Hungary’s true salvation lay in Kállay’s policy of holding out defensively in the east and opening the frontiers the west; and he had not yet abandoned hope that this might be achieved…”
By this time the Regent was ready to take decisive steps. As to the forming of his decision, I am quoting Bárczy:
“The Regent received me in audience on 31 August 1944 which lasted over ninety minutes. He told me how difficult his position was in connection with forming the Lakatos Cabinet due to the attitude of Veesenmayer… The Regent informed me of his plans for leaving the Axis Camp. He asked my opinion as to how he should carry out the action. I decidedly asked him to send immediately a general and a diplomat to both the Anglo-Saxons in Rome and the Russians in Moscow. ’How would the Russians receive my asking for an armistice?’ asked the Regent. ’I am sure that Stalin will receive this step well’ was my answer… The Regent then took the decision to send a personal letter in English to the Generalissimo of the Soviet Union, greeting him as ’Dear Marshal Stalin’:
“In the name and for the sake of my people in their extreme danger I address myself to you… For a thousand years and particularly during this last decade, the fate of our people has been influenced by the neighbouring German Colossus – It was again under this influence that we were carried into this unfortunate war with the Soviet Union… I have now come to the knowledge that after the air-attack upon Kassa and Munkács, Foreign Minister Molotov – during a conversation with the Hungarian Minister – emphasised the peaceful aims of the Soviet Union towards Hungary. If this was really so, it is fatal, for it did not reach me at the time.
When sending with full authorisation my delegates to the negotiations of armistice, I beg you to spare this unfortunate country which has its own historic merits… Kindly exercise your great influence upon your allies that you may make conditions compatible with our people’s interests and honour who would really deserve… a safe future. Horthy.”
The letter bore no date, but it was signed on 26 September… The appearance of Soviet armoured divisions inside Transylvania, i.e. inside the Carpatho-Danubian Basin, however, (had) forced Horthy to give up his plan based on the former policy of Premier Kállay. Urgent dispositions were needed and the Regent, accordingly, convened a conference composed of generals Lakatos, Csatay, Henyey, Vörös and Vattay, as well as the Head of his Cabinet, Ambrózy.
F. On The Third Attempt (Secret Negotiations for an Armistice):
In August and September the preparations of MFM reached their final stage, everybody feverishly working in order to be ready when the moment for the „Third Attempt” would arrive. Our main efforts were concentrated as follows:
… trying to establish contact with the Anglo-Saxon Powers; this work had been started and continued through the Summer… to September by Assistant Bishop of the Unitarian Church, Sándor Szent-Iványi, through Col. Howie and Price Sapieha… in particular by means of… the small radio transmitter set… The Regent, around 18 September… decided to send a mission to Itlay since Howie, as a British-South African military officer, had links with Field Marshals Smuts and Wilson, the latter commanding in Italy. The mission was composed of Howie and General Náday… The airplane which took the two military men to Foggia… was piloted by Flying Officer János Majoros… (22 September).
At the conference, held in the Palace on 7 September, the Regent informed the persons attending that he had taken the decision to sue for an armistice. As to the conditions, under the given circumstances all those present concurred in accepting the principle of unconditional surrender… The decision of the Regent and of the Conference seemed final and irrevocable and, accordingly, Foreign Minister Henyey sent a wire to Bakách-Bessenyey with the following text:
“… Most urgent. We are about to take steps tomorrow, the 8th, to conclude an armistice…”
In the evening, however, at another Conference in the Palace, with the same individuals in attendance, the Regent accepted the idea of Csatay’s to send an unacceptable ultimatum to the Germans… to ask them immediately to send five armoured divisions to Hungary to stop the Soviet advance. If these forces did not arrive within 24 hours, Hungary should be obliged to sue for an armistice.
To the surprise of the members of the Conference, however, the next day, the 8th, the Lakatos Government was informed by the Germans that four divisions were already on their way towards Hungary and that further forces were going to follow shortly.
Under the changed circumstances, Henyey informed Bessenyey that the Hungarian Government had postponed its break-away action. At the same time Bakách-Bessenyey’s last report arrived stating once more that the request of the Hungarian Government that the country be occupied by Western troops was quite unacceptable, not to say impossible, to the Allies.
It was under such circumstances that the fateful Conference of the Privy Councillors took place on 10 September at 6 p.m. The Conference was attended by three ex-Premiers,… Móric Eszterházy, Gyula Károlyi, István Bethlen… in hiding, by ex-Foreign Minister Kálmán Kánya…three retired Generals… as well as by Dániel Bánffy and Béla Teleki, representing… all political parties and denominations in Transylvania. As to the Government, it was represented by three Generals, Premier Lakatos, Foreign Minister Henyey and Minister for National Defence, Csatay. The chiefof Staff, Gen. Vörös also attended.
In the name of Transylvania, Bánffy and Teleki stated in broad lines… that … Hungary must ask immediately for an armistice with the Allies; Transylvania was not to be defended and not to be made a place of armed hostilities; in consequence, it should be allowed to be occupied by forces of the Red Army without any resistance; an amiable settlement with the Romanians; no reprisals against or arrest of democratic elements taking part in the action…. The Regent … declared his decision to sue for an immediate armistice with the Allied Powers, including the Soviet Union, and insisted that, ethically, he was no longer bound by his “agreement” with Hitler in consequence of the Germans repeatedly breaking their promises; thus there was practically no opposition to the standpoint of the Regent, of Bethlen, Kánya and the others to sue for an immediate unconditional surrender…
Lakatos was instructed to convene a Council of Ministers for the next day, the eleventh, to discuss the matter on a constitutional basis… The old story repeated itself once more: before the question of leaving the Axis the Cabinet was unable to gather the necessary strength for such a decisive step… the Minister of Supply, Béla Jurcsek… opened the debate with a strongly pro-German speech which, according to Bárczy, “carried the day.” … Csatay came forward with… the view that if the proposed action was to be taken, another Cabinet, not one that was morally bound by having a few days previously presented an ultimatum and having seen it accepted, should take it… Premier Lakatos informed the Regent about the position taken up by the Cabinet which greatly surprised Horthy. Yet, he complied with the Cabinet’s decision and declared his willingness to postpone the action of leaving the war. Lakatos tendered the resignation of the Cabinet which was, however, not accepted by the Regent.
So the tug-of-war went on… While the Government and Horthy were continuing their vacillating and irresolute policy, wavering between hope and fear, the Left and Right were busy redoubling their activities… Under such circumstances confidentiality could not be maintained, and even secret… discussions, like those in the Crown Councils and councils of the Privy Councillors… became subject to close examination by the Germans and the Russians not soon after they had taken place. Thus, right after the Crown Council on 10 September and the Council of Ministers of 11 September, Hitler commented on the behaviour of the Cabinet members and the participants of the Crown Council. The latter individuals were called by Hitler on this occasion “the Old Gentlemen” in a very contemptuous way.
“On 12th September, an American paper from London gave an accurate account, with names and details, of Hungary’s negotiations in Switzerland. For that matter, the London ’Obsever’ of 15 October, some hours before Horthy’s proclamation, carried the armistice terms given to Hungary as ’approved by the Allied leaders in Moscow’. The ’Economist’ of the previous day had forecast them accurately enough.”
At this point, something unexpected occurred: Hitler sent a message to Budapest to the effect that he wanted to have a talk with the Hungarian Chief of the General Staff… Vörös left on the 12th for the Führer’s HQ in a special plane sent by Hitler. The general took with him another letter from the Regent… As to the Vörös-Hitler entrevue, I am herewith quoting Macartney:
“… Vörös, according to his own account, had a very rough passage. Hitler, who knew exactly what had happened at the Privy Council, and also at the Ministerial Council of the 11th, ranted at him for two hours, while Himmler, Keitel and Guderian listened in silence. Germany, said Hitler, would be defended to the last drop of blood. ’He who jumps overboard – man or nation – will assuredly drown’. Bárczy’s account of Vörös’ subsequent report concludes with the the charming epitome: ’Vörös deduced from Hitler’s words that he was mistrustful of the whole leadership of the Hungarian State.’ …”
Under such circumstances,… it helped me a great deal… to be able to have a long and detailed talk with ex-Premier Bethlen… As to the negotiations with the Russians, I brought up the name of General Faragho, whom he did not know very well. I then hinted at a very important mission, i.e…. England and the USA, and I added that, as far as England was concerned, he himself should go. He did not say a word.
… all efforts attempting to extract Hungary from the Second World War which were not led either by the Transylvanians or the MFM were, without one single exception, doomed from the beginning to failure… The failures of the “First Attempt” (1942-43, Ullein and the Conservatives), the “Second Attempt” (Kállay…1943), as well as… the refusal of the Regent to go to the Second Army in Transylvania can all be seen as symptomatic of these shortcomings. Also added to these disappointments could be the independent, hasty action of Nicky in connection with Tito which was to follow not only a failure, but a real catastrophe; by kidnapping Nicky the Germans were able to force the Regent to do things he otherwise would not have done.
G. Effects of the Allied Air Raids:
The constant air raids over Hungary in August and September had a considerable effect on lives, moods, public opinion, communication, etc. Blackouts and alarms occurred practically any time every day.
“It was the hinterland which suffered most severely during this period. Between 13th and 23rd September all three Allied Air Forces (the Russians joining in the operations almost for the first time) made heavy and repeated raids on the industrial centres and communications of the country. During a whole week the population of Budapest was reported to have spent an average of six hours daily in shelters. Munitions works, marshaling yards, etc., in several country towns were also heavily attacked. The bombing was reported to be on the whole accurate, being directed chiefly against genuine military objectives, and the civilian population suffered relatively little from it; but it produced great disorganisation in the country’s economic life.
“The bridges over the Danube in Budapest still stood, although one of them (the Horthy Miklós Bridge) was closed to traffic, but outside Budapest many of the bridges over the Danube and the Tisza were reported out of action, and many railway stations and yards rendered unserviceable…”
H. On the Negotiations with the Allies in Moscow, 1-11 October 1944.
“Britain and the US did their best not to lose Russian military support which meant saving the lives of many thousands of Americans and Englishmen and, consequently, the Hungarian attitude, presented by Kállay, etc. to fight the Soviets could not be accepted by Washington and London. The attitude of the Hungarian Press was just as childish, trying to persuade the West that Hungary was an essentially pro-Western country. The result was that… Germany and Russia, were constantly irritated by the foolish media policy of Ullein… and others.
And what was worse, it was exactly because of that foolish foreign policy of the Hungarian Government from the summer of 1942 to March 1944 (and even after) that the anti-Hungarian propaganda in the Western Democracies as well as in the Soviet Union was able to gain, once more, considerable influence on the question of settling the affairs of East Central Europe. Maybe even after 1938 it was still possible to retain an anti-Soviet stance, but after Stalingrad, Tehran and Yalta, the only logical way to follow was that of Russia.
After this starting point my problem was how to tackle the problem of establishing a foundation for closer cooperation with Moscow, and here past events bolstered my argument; the case of returning the Hungarian Army flags of 1849, Teleki’s tragic death and the latter’s strong bond with Russia… Such were my ideas on the basis of which I then delivered my first long and opening speech, on 1 October… I started with a summary of the historical background of the Hungarian-Russian relationship (Andrew I, King of Hungary and his relationship with Kiev – Anastasia and the Crown of Constantinos Monomachos, 1046…)
My second goal was to try and bring the two other Allied Powers, Britain and the USA, into the negotiations somehow. To this effect some longer notes were composed in English and given to the Soviet Government with the request to send copies… to the Allied Powers… I felt sure that the Russians would not retain our notes since such an action might have caused difficulties with her allies. Such a situation would have been detrimental to Russian interests as she was forced by circumstances to lean heavily on the financial and material help that was constantly pouring into the Soviet Union from her Allies…
… Molotov… wanted to hurry the negotiations as much as possible. His reasons for this were simple: to occupy the whole territory of Hungary before the intervention of the Allies, thus creating a ’fait accomplit’… to speed up the advance of the Red Army in order to gain as much territory in Europe which would then greatly aid Moscow in obtaining concessions from the Western Allies come the final settlement.
In October 1944, it was clear to me that it would be the Soviet Union that would play the decisive role as far as the East Central European states were concerned. Sooner or later we would have to accept the conditions laid down by the Soviet Union and it seemed… better to arrive at a friendly settlement while we could still “negotiate” with a Moscow which was still dependent on Anglo-American financial and military aid.
At the fifth session of our negotiations, Molotov handed over to us the Preliminaries prepared by the three Great Allied Powers. The authentic text was in Russian and had attached to it a translation in French:
The governments Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States believe it necessary that Regent Horthy and the Hungarian Government accept the preliminary conditions as follows:
Hungary should withdraw from all the territories of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania occupied by her behind the frontiers that existed before 31 December 1937, including all Hungarian troops and functionaries. This withdrawal should start immediately, and should be finished on the tenth day after receipt by the Hungarian Government of this declaration. In order to observe and supervise this withdrawal the three Allied Governments will send to Hungary their representatives who will act there in their quality of Allied United Mission, under the chairmanship of the Soviet representative.
Hungary should terminate all her relations with Germany and immediately declare a war on Germany…
8 October 1944”.
While we were transmitting, by means of code, the preliminary conditions to Budapest we learned by reading ’Pravda’… the news of the arrival of Churchill and Eden, and as we walked around and along the Moskova River our attention was drawn by the sight of an enormously tall man walking in the street. It was, of course, “le Grand Charlie”, the French leader, whose presence in Moscow we had read of in the newspapers… we… asked the Soviet Government to transmit our note to her allies, the USA and Great Britain… to call the attention of the British and Americans to the controversies… whether or not the Russian attitude and statements were a premeditated trap… The Russians wanted a preliminary armistice treaty drawn up and signed but we needed but we needed authority from Budapest and so negotiations broke down. On the 10th, at 0.20 a.m. we received word from Budapest that Major Nemes was leaving Budapest for Moscow with the requested authority.
On 11 October, at around 03.00 we had our sixth conference with the Russians… Molotov rose and declared the conference suspended for about ten minutes. He went into the adjoining room, and while he was passing the door, we could glimpse the two people in that room… I could not make out the faces, but Fargho later insisted on his having seen Churchill and Eden there. Molotov returned after ten minutes or so and made the following declaration: ’We shall negotiate on the above basis and you will be advised tomorrow accordingly. Thus, Hungary will be out of the war’. Faragho replied, ’We consider ourselves as already out of it.’
We had practically no rest… on that memorable day… At 7.18 Molotov opened our seventh conference…
Molotov: ’… the three Allied Powers are ready to accept the demands of Hungary, the necessary demands can be carried out immediately. They also accept the demand to have the advance of Russian forces suspended for one or two days… since it is of great importance that the two, Russian and Hungarian, armies should arrive at cooperation in order to make the withdrawal of the Hungarian forces in the direction of Budapest possible… Is it possible that the Germans would attack the revels (i.e. the retreating troops)?’
Faragho: ’Certainly! Why, they have already deported over 400,000 Jews to Germany. The Germans wanted to deport the Budapest Jewry, too. But we intervened.’
… While a table was being prepared for signing the documents, Molotov came up to me and said: ’My congratulations, Mr Minister. This is the first time since 1526 that Hungary has won a great war.’
I was particularly satisfied with the success of our delaying tactics, thus making possible an Anglo-Saxon participation in the negotiations, which had contributed to ultimately accelerating the entire process as well as gaining some advantages, like stopping the Allied aerial bombing of Hungary for a while and the cessation of fighting in order to make the retreat of the Hungarian forces possible. It was on 11 October, at 7.58 p.m. that we three Delegates signed the Armistice Treaty in the Kremlin.
I. On the Events in Budapest – German Military Intervention and the Szálasi Putsch, 12-17 October:
We were informed by Major Nemes that General Baky, the Commander of the Royal Forces in and around Budapest, had been kidnapped by the Germans on 12 October. That was another heavy blow to our efforts and the success of “Attempt Three”. While we were still in Kuznietzov’s office we received the Regent’s radiogram no. 16; its text was short and dramatic:
“Regent’s son captured this morning by Arrow/Cross and Germans. Building in which he… stayed destroyed by gunfire; we have no further news. City surrounded by strong forces of ’Reichswehr’. We have received German ultimatum.”
On the basis of the last radiograms we sent two notes… to ’the three allied powers’ informing them about the events in Budapest and suggesting steps to be taken in the new situation.
Regent Horthy and his family left Hungary on 17 October in a special German escorted train for Germany. When discussing the new situation with the Russians, I declared that even the Regent’s disappearance should not stop our cooperation since the Regent had appointed General Veress, the Commandant of the 2nd Army, to replace him should he be killed or arrested by the Germans. Unfortunately, General Veress was also arrested by the Germans and so all our plans were frustrated.
J. On the Negotiations in the Carpathians, with General Miklós, 18 –23 October:
At the conference on 17 October, at 1.30 a.m. General Kuznietzkov informed us that General Miklós was at the HQ of General Petrov, who was Commander of the Russian Army Group on this section of the Front. Miklós had told the Russians that he was instructed by the Regent to report to the Hungarian Delegation in Moscow and to ask instructions regarding cooperation between the Hungarian and Russian armed forces… I told my two colleagues and Kuznietzov that the best thing to do was to get in contact with Miklós, and… one of the delegates should fly at once to the Front… it was the decision of Marshal Stalin that I should fly to Lesko, the HQ of General Petrov, where General Miklós had already arrived… I told Kuznietzkov that I wanted to be escorted by Major Nemes and Major Skriagin on my trip and the General consented. On 18 October we took off… at 5.30 a.m. in Marshal Stalin’s own private plane… The Russians wanted swift, decisive action from the Hungarian military. They wanted to build up a force from the Hungarian POWs they held and attack the Szálasi forces with Hungarian troops under the command of Miklós. In order to give a political foundation to such a military action the Russians wanted to quickly create some kind of a temporary Government-in-exile…
K. Reflections on the Western Powers and Hungary:
As to my main principles and basic ideas I want to say the following: Hungary had been sacrificed by the West: during her role defending Western Civilisation as well as in both world wars. The dismemberment of Central, and in particular, East Central Europe, made possible the extension of Nazi and later of Soviet domination in Europe… While the Russians seemingly understood and accepted my attitude and views, a great many Hungarians could not understand what I was doing. Such people began looking at me as a failure,. As most people are prone to judge people by appearances, the fact that I was the only person of the five Hungarian negotiators in the Kremlin (the three members of the Hungarian Delegation and generals Miklós and Vörös) who returned to Hungary ’empty-handed’ was considered as sufficient proof of my failure… and when I arrived in Debrecen in January 1945, I soon got the feeling that… I was a very dangerous man, looked at with suspicion by the Russians and that it was better for everybody to avoid my company as much as possible.
But the Russians had quite different views… They saw that I did not want a high position or job, that I was not the usual opportunist politician with whom they met continuously, and, as a result, arrived at the conclusion that I was a true friend of the Russian people. So it came that in April 1945 it was the Russians themselves who came forward with my name… for the post of Foreign Minister and later for that of Premier… And so it came that one day I was taken to General Kuznietzov who informed me that both Governments i.e. the Russian and the Provisional Hungarian government in Debrecen, had come to the conclusion that my presence was needed in Debrecen and therefore I should return at once to Hungary. I left Moscow on the 13th and arrived in Debrecen on 18 January.
Epilogue – A Review of Szent-Iványi’s book by John Lukács, in ‘The Hungarian Review’, March 2014:
The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio
John 20 vv 24-29:
One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the twin), was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look a my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”
(Good News for Modern Man)
Who was Thomas the Apostle?
In the gospels, Thomas is also named as ‘the twin’, Didymus, in Latin to reinforce his Aramaic name, Tau’ma, from the word t’oma, which also means ‘twin’. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (v 13) his name is coupled with that of Philip, which suggests he might have been, with Andrew, the other unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who followed ‘the lamb of God‘ from a village called ‘Bethany’ (not the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha) where John had baptised Jesus the previous day, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. In the story in John’s gospel (chapter 1 vv 35-42), the two spend the day with Jesus until twilight, and are close enough to the town of Bethsaida, on the northern shore of Lake Gaililee, for Andrew to fetch his brother Peter to meet ‘the Messiah’. The next day Jesus leaves Bethsaida early to walk the twenty miles to join his mother at Nazareth before going on with her for a wedding in Cana two days later. He arrives at the feast with his growing band of disciples, including Philip and, no doubt, Thomas, Andrew and Peter, plus Nathanael (known later as Thaddeus), who is from Cana himself. After their thirsty walk from Nazareth, they find plenty of water, but no wine with which to toast the bride and bridegroom.
Therefore, it’s more than possible that Thomas was one of Jesus’ first pairs, or ‘twins’ of disciples, his partner being Philip, whom he introduced to Jesus, just as Andrew had introduced Peter the previous night. By the end of that third day, following Jesus’ first miracle, John tells us that all five had put their faith in him, two in their home town of Bethsaida and two in Cana. Despite Nathanael’s rather rude joke about Nazareth, Jesus describes him as ‘a true Israelite’, sitting under a fig tree early on a hot day. Although Israel had ceased to exist since Maccabean rule had been ended by the Roman conquest of 63 AD, when it had become part of the Province of Syria, Nathanael identifies Jesus not only as ‘the son of God’, but also ‘the King of Israel.’ This would have been heard as a direct challenge to Roman authority in northern Palestine, identifying Jesus with the local freedom-fighters, the nationalistic Zealots who wanted to free the whole country from Roman rule and reunite with Judea, as had happened briefly from 142-63 AD. If Thomas was one of these first disciples, although he himself is silent in the gospels at this stage, he was surrounded by certainty and infectious enthusiasm about who Jesus was among his relatives and friends, and there was little doubting the miraculous signs in which the Galilean himself ‘revealed his glory’ (v 11).
Some have seen in the Acts of Thomas (written in east Syria in the early 3rd century, or perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century) an identification of Saint Thomas with the apostle Judas brother of James, better known in English as Jude. However, the first verse of the Acts follows the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by distinguishing the apostle Thomas and the apostle Judas son of James. The Nag Hammadi copy of the Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Of course, Judas was a popular name in first century Palestine, so it’s entirely possible that, as a Galilean, he would have been known by his Aramaic name to distinguish him from the other two disciples by the name of Judas. Syrian tradition also states that the apostle’s name was Thomas. Few texts identify Thomas’ other twin, though in the Book of Thomas the Contender, part of the Nag Hammadi library, it is said to be Jesus himself, who himself is recorded as telling Thomas: “Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself…” Again, it’s possible that Thomas, or ‘Twin’ was the nickname given to the disciple to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of James, because he bore a physical resemblance to Jesus, and/or, as the quote above shows, kept very close to him.
How can we know The Way?
To have been so close to Jesus, Thomas must at least have been among the very first disciples. Jesus later comments on the questioning of the ‘Way’ by both Thomas and Philip in a way which must have stung the pair of them, since he points out that, despite being with him from the first, neither shows a very deep understanding of who he is in relation to ‘the Father’. In John’s gospel, the fact that this criticism comes immediately after Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial during the Last Supper, underlines its significance. Thomas is sceptical, but unlike Peter, he does not make grand gestures or promises he knows he cannot live up to, nor, like Philip, does he ask for further proofs. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray his master by this stage, so Thomas’ incomprehension seems an insignificant sin by comparison with the other three. But Jesus expects better of his earliest converts. Where is the certainty which Andrew and Nathanael revealed in Bethsaida, and in the miracles which they testified to, beginning in Cana? (John 14 vv 5-12).
A Reluctant Martyr?
In John Chapter 11 Thomas is the disciple who suggests to the rest of the disciples that they should all return to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that they could all be martyred with him. There are two ways of reading this. We can regard it as a somewhat cynical remark, fitting in with Thomas’ sceptical character, as revealed in connection with the Resurrection appearances, or we can take it at face value, as a declaration of loyalty from one close enough to Jesus to be called his twin. Of course, even then, the line could have been delivered with an air of resigned stoicism, rather than with the enthusiasm of a disciple looking for martyrdom.
Thomas’ name is also linked to Thaddeus’ early mission to Syria, but more importantly to the mission to the Jewish diaspora in India, which he undertook himself in 52 AD. From there he is recorded, in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, to have returned to Jerusalem in time to be the only witness the Assumption of Mary, which, in a strange inversion of the resurrection stories, was disbelieved by the other apostles until they themselves saw Mary’s tomb.
The Value of Scepticism to Faith
Perhaps most significantly, however, in the early church Thomas was not stigmatised as a ‘doubter’ so much as being the apostle who, having seen Jesus’ wounds at close quarters, was able to proclaim the two natures of Christ, that he was both fully human and fully divine. The vivid drama of his very personal testimony would have been difficult to dispute by the Greek Gnostics in the early church who argued that Christ was, throughout his time on earth, an ethereal presence, a vision of the Divine, rather than real flesh and blood. That’s why, although his feast day is celebrated on different days in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars, his ‘doubting’ is commemorated on the second Sunday, a week after the first appearances of Jesus to his disciples. By itself, the empty tomb proved nothing, and even the sudden appearances to Mary and the disciples, in the open air and through locked doors, might have given support to the Gnostic view of an ethereal body. It is the graphic detail of Thomas’ account, a man who knew Jesus well enough to have been his twin, that remain the most difficult to disbelieve, reinforced by the way in which Thomas’ scepticism is immediately transformed in his proclamation “My Lord and My God”. Jesus immediately responds with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are they…’ which remains as a promise to his followers down the centuries that follow. Thomas is not excluded from his Lord’s blessing by his original disbelief or scepticism, call it what you will. His Resurrection experience is total – he believes with all his senses and emotions, transcended by the Lord in that by believing he, and we, may have life in his name (John 20 vv 30-31). The ‘Drama of Thomas’ is well re-told in the following extract from a book used in schools:
From ‘The Drama of Jesus’, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:
‘Heavy cloud made the night even darker. Shadowy figures cautiously climbed the outside stairs to the large room on the roof. When the door opened to admit them the merest glow of light showed and the door was immediately shut. Finally it was barred with a huge wooden beam.
‘On one side of the room two men were arguing. “I tell you Peter, I don’t want to listen.”
‘ “But, Thomas, you must. The Lord is not dead. He’s alive. It’s a fact and you have to realise it.”
‘Aggressively, Thomas burst out, “If Jesus is alive why are we all coming here furtively and hiding behind locked doors? Are we scared that the Jewish leaders are going to arrest us for body-snatching? If He’s alive why doesn’t he show himself to the world” Even in the feeble light of the small lamp they could see his face going red. “Why doesn’t he show himself to the authorities before they break that door down and throw us all into prison? If he’s alive why doesn’t he go and see Caiaphas and the Council? That would prove his claims.”
“So far, he’s only appeared to people who love him,” said John quietly.
“I loved him and he hasn’t appeared to me…” Thomas turned away. There was a break in his voice. John moved across the room towards him. “It wasn’t Jesus’ fault you weren’t here last week when he first came among us.”
‘Thomas broke in, “But..”
“Surely, man, you remember He told us what was going to happen that day on the road from Caesarea Philippi. Not only then but on two occasions He made it clear. He said He would be handed over to the Gentiles and mocked, insulted, flogged and crucified.” John spoke with deliberation, “He said, ‘Three days later I will rise to life.’ “
‘Impulsively, Peter broke in, “John’s right. He said it again and again; we all heard him.”
“Heard him, maybe, growled Thomas, “but did you believe him?”
“Believe him?” Peter put his hands to his head. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about! That’s why I said, ‘God forbid, it must never happen to you, Lord.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said to me, ‘Out of my way, Satan. You stand right in my path, Peter, when you look at things from man’s point of view and not from God’s.’ To me he was the Lord of life. I saw him heal sick people and bring the dead back to life; it was incredible to me that he should die, let alone come back to life as he promised. But he did. And Thomas, you must believe it. He has come back from death.” Peter’s voice shook with emotion.
‘Thomas started to walk away. Peter gripped his friend by the shoulder and swung him round and said tensely, “Don’t turn away from me when I speak to you. Do you think we’re all imagining this? Do you think we’re lying?”
‘Andrew stepped between them. “Simon, let him be. Were you in a hurry to believe when you first heard the news but hadn’t seen the Lord?”
“Anyway,” said Peter gruffly, “when Mary broke the news that his body was gone John and I ran all the way to the tomb. Right, John?”
“Right,” said John, smiling, “but I arrived there quite some distance ahead of you.”
‘Peter was beginning to relax. There was a hint of a smile in his voice, “But you weren’t game enough to go into the tomb till I arrived.”
‘John almost shouted, “Up to that moment I didn’t realise that I was seeing, before my own eyes, what the scriptures foretold. Now Thomas, get this straight. We’re not saying that He’s alive merely because the tomb was empty. We’ve seen him outside the tomb. We’ve heard him and touched him; we’ve seen him eat food here in this room.”
“But not me.” There was a hard note in Thomas’ voice.
‘ Thomas stepped back and lifted his voice so that everyone in the room could hear, “Think what you like. But unless I see the scars the nails made in His hands and unless I put my fingers where those nails were and my hand into his side I will never believe.”
‘Peter groaned, “I give up.”
‘Andrew spoke again, “Simon, be fair. We all found it hard to believe at first.”
‘Peter ran his fingers through his hair. “But it’s not the same with square-chinned, stubborn character here. I’ve told him, John’s told him, Mary’s told him, Cleopas told him – we’ve all told him.”
‘Andrew spoke urgently, “Simon, keep your voice down. You’ll have the whole Sanhedrin here in a moment. Let Thomas alone. Isn’t it hard enough for him when he sees our joy, and his doubts fill us with misery? At least try to see his problem, brother.”
‘Peter gazed at Andrew. He saw a look he had often seen on Jesus’ face. Impulsively he put his arm round Thomas’ shoulder. “If you’d seen him, you’d understand how I feel. Forgive me.”
‘Thomas shrugged himself free of Peter’s arm and muttered, “Forget it.”
‘An embarrassed hush settled on the whole room. A deep silence.
“Peace be unto you.” The voice startled them.
‘They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing. No one spoke. Instinctively they turned towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes. He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”
Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong, “Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”
Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord…and my God.”
“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”
‘And as suddenly as He had appeared, he vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.
‘John spoke with infectious enthusiasm, “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.” ‘
‘Our Lord and God, forgive the doubting heart in each of us, which questions your resurrection. We are men of our age and want to see and touch before we believe. And yet we thank you for that blessing, reserved for those who do not see and yet believe. Grant us that faith which looks to Jesus, risen from the dead, our Saviour and our living Lord. Amen.’
(Ian D. Bunting)
- Blessed Are You Who Believe! (brentkuhlman.wordpress.com)
- Spy Wednesday: The treachery of our unfaithful hearts. (chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com)
- The Upper Room (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- Thomas the apostle (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
- The Skeptics, Doubters, and Believers (keithmcnamar.typepad.com)
- Thomas: Finding Faith (chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com)
Lindisfarne (Photo credit: Noodlefish)
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Henry V, Part One.
England hasn’t really got a national anthem….The Irish, the Scots and the Welsh all have anthems, the Americans have the cheek to sing ‘My Country ’tis of thee’ to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen‘, but what do the English have? ‘There’ll always be an England’…well that’s not saying much….there’ll always be a North Pole, if some dangerous clown doesn’t go and melt it!…no, I ask you, what have we got to stir the sinews of our local patriotism with? ‘Jerusalem’!!
Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s introduction to their ‘Song of Patriotic Prejudice’ aka ‘The English, the English, the English are Best!’
The last verse of which is:
The English are honest, the English are good,
And clever, and modest and misunderstood!
English: Stained glass window in Oban. This is the Christian saint Columba in stained glass form. He was born in Ireland and helped spread Christianity in Great Britain, especially in the Kingdom of the Picts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Labours of the Saints and Bards
Not only do the English not have a national anthem, but they don’t really have a patron saint to call their own. Not only is St George not English (Patrick was British, not Irish!), but he doesn’t even belong to these islands, and we share him with the Georgians and the Portuguese, with whom we have very little in common. It’s also the reason why the Scots are lukewarm about St Andrew’s Day, although as a fisherman, he at least had something in common with many Scots, and his bones are said to be buried in the city bearing his name. The Scots still prefer to celebrate Burns’ Night as their national ‘fling’, second only to Hogmanay, or New Year, and the English could do well to take a leaf out of the book of their northern neighbours, by celebrating 23rd April as the birthday of their national bard, that ‘sweet swan of Avon’. After all, there is a tradition of ‘radical patriotism’ in England which places English national identity unashamedly within the island story of ‘Britannia’ as a whole and links to the radical literary and artistic traditions going back through Morris and Ruskin, to Shelley and Blake, to Bunyan and Milton.
These, in turn, are strongly linked to both Saxon and Celtic forms of social and religious organisation, including the pre-Augustinian Church and its saints such as Alban, David and Patrick, Columba and Aidan, Cedd and Ceadda (Chad). The conversion of pagan England to Christianity was accomplished not only by the mission which landed in Kent in 597, led by St Augustine, but also by that which brought Celtic Christianity to Northumbria in 636. This second mission had Aidan as its leader, a member of a monastery established at Iona some twenty years earlier. St Columba (‘Colum Cille‘) had arrived on the small island off the west coast of modern-day Scotland as early as 563, having crossed the Irish Sea, intending to establish a monastery. His initial buildings were made of wood, wattle and turf, and it wasn’t until the eighth century that stone was imported from Mull to make the Celtic crosses and begin the building of a permanent Abbey in 1200.
This is an image of the 802 of the historic Kingdom of Northumbria which is on the island of Great Britain. I created this image. Created under this guidance of this of historical source of a 802 map of Britain, which itself was developed by cartographer and historian William R. Shepherd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Aidan’s mission from Lindisfarne was successful in re-introducing the Faith in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, which produced a flowering of literature,manuscript illumination and sculpture, in which Iona also participated. The missions also extended to Mercia, where Wufhere became the first Christian King following the defeat of the pagan Penda by the Northumbrians. While Ceadda was the main missionary here, his brother Cedd led successful missions to the Middle and East Angles, as well at to the East Saxons, whom Augustine had failed to convert from his base in Canterbury. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, it was Cedd’s fluency in Early Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Northumbrian Saxon, Early English and Latin, which enabled the Roman and Celtic traditions to find compromise over their many differences. Bede records that Cedd’s linguistic abilities were taken as a sign of his being blessed by the Holy Spirit, as the first Apostles were at Pentecost, helping the participants to overcome the tendency to become a second tower of Babel. By the early part of the eighth century, the monastic communities and churches were observing the same calendar, rites and rituals.
However, this period of Christian concord came to an end abruptly with the Viking raids of the late eighth century and early 800’s, though many treasures survived these raids, including the recently purchased ancient gospel of St Cuthbert, from Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells, so-called because the Iona community relocated to the Irish settlement and took the gospels with them. These were masterpieces of Hiberno-Saxon art, and this cross-fertilisation of Hibernian and Northumbrian Christian cultures emphasises the continuity between Celtic and Saxon Britain. This was also true of the relationships between the Christian territories of Cambria, Mercia and Wessex, who together stood against pagan Saxon incursions as well as the Danish invasions and, by so doing, ultimately brought about the peaceful settlement of the kingdoms.
Celtic cross at dawn in Knock, Ireland (at the bus stop to Westport) 28/07/2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The early British Christians never used the Latin cross. Their cross combined the Druidic circle with the cross, embracing Christ’s suffering with the symbol of eternal life, the symbol of resurrection, of victory over the grave. It also symbolised the peaceful merging of the Druidic religion with Christianity. The Druids seemed to recognise that the old order was fulfilled according to their own astronomical prophecies in the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and that the arrival of Christianity from the East on their shores marked the beginning of a new dispensation which they embraced with little or no resistance. Unlike under the Romans, there was none of the Diocletian persecution and martyrdom (e.g. that of Alban of Caerleon), and neither was there any need to slay dragons to win converts.
Soldiers of the Cross
English: St. George before Diocletianus. A mural from the Ubisi Monastery, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, with Cuthbert seen as the patron saint of the of early Saxon kingdoms, how and why did the English come to pick as their patron saint an Armenian who gives his name and his flag to Georgia, and is also the patron saint of Portugal? The little that we know about him comes from a Byzantine named Metaphrates who tells us that George was born in Cappadocia, sometime in the third century, of noble parents who gave him a strict training in the Christian faith, that he rose to high military rank in the Roman Army in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. He organised a Christian community at Urmi in Persian Armenia and one report suggests that he visited Britain on an imperial expedition. The Emperor turned against the Christians, instituting a persecution of them. George sought an audience with him on their behalf, but was arrested, tortured and executed on 23rd April in A.D. 303. This was also a difficult period in the history of Christianity in Roman Britain.
George was canonised by the Church and became St George, but was not known in England until at least the time of the Crusades when his story became more widely known. In 1098, when English and Norman soldiers were under the walls of Antioch, there was a story that George appeared to lead them to victory in the siege. When Richard I was leading his troops into battle with the Saracens, George is said to have appeared to lead them to victory. These stories were brought back to England, but George was not adopted as England’s patron saint until 1222 when it was declared a public holiday. It was about this time that the upright red cross on the white background, which had first became the flag of the Italian city-state of Genoa, became the flag of England. It also became the flag of Georgia (see below).
The flag of Genoa
The National Flag of Georgia
However, the ‘Lamb and flag’ (right) is also a very old Christian symbol, appearing as it does in Medieval stained glass and on many old public houses and inns throughout Britain. This suggests an even earlier origin, which I refer to below. So, the upright red cross on a white background, became ‘the cross of St George‘ and was adopted as the national flag of England, later to be integrated with the crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick into the flag of the United Kingdom. The chivalric stories of George inspired the founding of the Order of the Garter by Edward III in 1348 and St George’s Chapel at Windsor. This is the noblest of the knightly orders in Europe. The members, limited in number, are chosen by the Queen without any reference to her ministers, or to Parliament. Thereafter, George became more popular during the Hundred Years’ Wars, inspiring English and Welsh troops at the Battle of Harfleur and Agincourt, as Shakespeare’s Henry V suggests. The red rose became the flower emblem of England sometime later, after the coming to power of the Tudor Dynasty, signalling victory in the ‘Wars of the Roses’ for the Lancastrian line over the Yorkists, whose symbol was the white rose. In fact, the Tudor emblem included both red and white, following the conciliatory marriage of Henry VII to Margaret of York. Seen by many, initially, as Welsh ‘usurpers’ on the English throne, the Tudors needed an English symbol to balance out their fearsome Red Dragon, which provided a link to Arthurian mythology, and Henry VII even named his son Arthur, perhaps to emphasise the importance of Celtic Christianity in England’s past, as well as that of his native land.
St. George and the dragon Русский: Чудо Георгия о змие Tempera on wood, 58.4×41.8×3.5, State Russian Museum, Sankt Petersburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many legends have grown up around the mythical figure of George, often involving conflicts with dragons. They probably also came to England in the 12th century, with the return of the crusader knights and the revival of Arthurian chivalry, but later became popular because of the rich dragon lore of the British Isles. The first Anglo-Saxons to land in Britain in the middle of the fifth century marched under a White Dragon banner. In the epic tales of the Welsh, The Mabinogion, written around this time, a story is told of a battle between the Red Dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, and an invading White Dragon for control of Britain. This got so out-of-hand that the dragons had to be imprisoned in the mountains of Snowdonia, while sleeping off the effects of the strong local mead left for them in a specially dug pit there! The story was continued by the ninth-century monk, Nennius, in his Historia Britonium, in which he records the earliest-known legends of Merlin and Arthur. The dragons had continued their fight underground, until released, when they rose up into the air, where the red dragon was seen to triumph. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) claims the victory as a prophecy that Arthur ‘Pendragon’ would return in victory to Britain. This was the prophecy which the Tudors made good use of in their propaganda. While the Welsh kings continued to use the Red Dragon after the time of Arthur, Alfred the Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the invading Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. It was subsequently flown by Athelstan at Brananburgh in 937 and Harold II at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Together with the personal flag of the king, the Dragon standard provided a rallying-point for his troops. In 1191, we know that Richard the Lionheart carried a dragon standard into the Third Crusade, rather than the ‘cross of St George’.
According to one story documented in The Golden Legend (1483) by Jacobus de Voragine, George found himself at Silene in Libya. The townspeople were in deep distress because the not-so-friendly neighbourhood dragon from the nearby lake was forcing them to donate two sheep a day for his lunch and supper. Running out of sheep, the dragon demanded two citizens instead. Not any tough old citizens, mind you; only the purest and tenderest virgins would do! These were chosen by drawing lots.
When George arrived, they had just about run out of ordinary maidens. The King, who had failed to bribe the citizens with half his kingdom and all his wealth if they would let him keep his own daughter, was just about to serve up his daughter, dressed as a bride. As George galloped to the rescue, the princess was approaching the dragon’s lake wearing a white wedding dress. Just as the dragon was about to carry the girl off, George charged the dragon and drove his lance down the dragon’s throat. He then persuaded her to throw him her white garter, which he placed around its neck. Thus tamed, the Dragon followed the princess like a leashed pet dog to the town square. The still-terrified townspeople offered George any reward he wanted if he would finish the job for them. He promised to kill the dragon, but only if the King and his subjects would become Christians. Apparently, 15,000 ‘converts’ were added for the faith on that day and four farm-carts were needed to carry the dragon’s body away. On the spot where the Dragon met its end, the King built a church and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and St George. From that church flowed a spring that cured all diseases.
Mummers’ Plays are still performed in some parts of England on St George’s Day, since many revolve around the saint, other more English heroes such as Robin Hood and Little John, and various enemies, such as ‘Turkish’ or ‘Moorish’ knights. They are also performed at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and All Souls. They also include a host of comic characters such as the Doctor, a soldier bold, Jack Finney and Tom the Tinker. The plot involves fights between St George and the Turk and St George and the Prussian, the other traditional ‘enemy’ of the English. Wounds are healed miraculously and dead characters are brought back to life. Of course, these days the plays are taken by all as just good fun, but in medieval times the fighting could get out-of-hand, which is why they were frowned upon by the Church. Elsewhere, and especially in the areas controlled by the Byzantine Churches, now Greek and Russian Orthodox, George became a much-venerated figure, as can be seen from this ikon from the Greek church in Kecskemét, Hungary (picture left). He still is, of course.
However, the cultural association of St George with the ‘Christian’ crusaders fighting the ‘Muslim’ Ottomans for control of ‘the old Jerusalem’ has not endeared him to many modern English people, for whom pride in the multi-faith and multi-cultural Britain separates them from these ‘Crusader’, Islamophobic traditions, though they still feel a strong association with the ‘Saxon’ freedom-fighters of Robin Hood’s merry men. This is somewhat ironic, as George is venerated in Aleppo by both Christians and Muslims and, of course, the stories of ‘Robin of Locksley’ have Richard Coeur de Lion as the royal hero, returning from the crusades, and Prince John as ‘villain’. A more careful reading of the historical record might result in a more balanced view, especially given the time and resources, not to mention ransom money required by the absentee ‘Lionheart’ from his long-suffering people, whether Saxon or Norman.
Sweet Swan of Avon
However, a good reason for continuing to celebrate the 23rd April as England’s national day is that it was also the day on which William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the day on which he is said to have died. The festival held in the Midland town attracts visitors from all over the world and the flags of the nations fly from flagpoles set up in the street. Many countries have also dedicated lamp-posts in the bard’s honour. There is one for Hungary close to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Theatre. It’s therefore appropriate that one of England’s greatest should be celebrated on St George’s Day, his birthday, and shared in such an international manner. But this is simply a happy coincidence. If we look into the heritage of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’ more carefully, surely we can find more ancient causes for celebration of English national identity, just like the Welsh and the Irish. To do so we need to go back to the pre-Roman Celtic times in which two of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline and King Lear are set. Both were Silurian Kings before the successful Claudian invasion of 43 A.D., and the line of British monarchs is traced back to the former.
William Blake’s mystical poem, Jerusalem holds the key to the relevance of this period in British history and mythology. When sung to Hubert Parry’s wonderful tune it is more of an anthem than a hymn, almost a national anthem, most famously sung on the last night of the ‘Proms’ (‘Promenade’ Concerts held annually at the Royal Albert Hall). Blake (1757-1827) was born in London, the son of a hosier. Leaving school at the age of ten, he was apprenticed to an engraver. From an early age he ‘saw visions and dreamed dreams’. Most of his literary works, like Songs of Innocence and Experience, illustrated by his own engravings, had a highly mystical style. A constant theme is the exaltation of love and imagination against the restrictive codes of conventional morality. In his later works, he emphasises the revelation of redemption through Christ. As a young artist and poet he developed an unconventional and rebellious quality, acutely conscious of pretentiousness and pomposity, so that in 1784 he wrote a burlesque novel, An Island in the Moon, in which he ridiculed contemporary manners and conventions, not sparing himself. The manuscript part of this has survived and contains the several poems which afterwards became the Songs of Innocence.
In 1788 he began to assemble these into a small volume, for which he laboriously made twenty-seven copper-plates, dating the title-page 1789. This became the first of his famous ‘Illuminated Books’, reflecting his own state of mind in which the life of his imagination was more real to him than the material world. The books therefore identify ideas with symbols which then become translated into visual images, with word and symbol each reinforcing the other. His words, his poetry, became increasingly affected by his growing awareness of the social injustices of his time, from which his Songs of Experience developed. His feelings of indignation and pity for the sufferings he saw in the streets of London led to the publication of this second set of lyrical, antithetical poems in 1794. He then combined the two collections into one book which was made into a standardised illuminated edition in 1815.
The four verses of the poem which make up the hymn, Jerusalem, first appeared in one of Blake’s last poems, Milton, written in 1804. Underneath them he wrote, ‘would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’, quoting from Numbers 11. 29. In the poem the seventeenth-century poet is depicted as returning from eternity and entering into Blake to preach the message of Christ crucified and the doctrines of self-sacrifice and forgiveness:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The imagery of these verses is complex. Some of it is borrowed from the Bible, for instance, the chariots of fire, taken from 2 Kings 2.11, but much is of Blake’s own invention. In suggesting that Jesus may have set foot in England, Blake is resurrecting the old legend which told of Christ’s wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant owning mines in Cornwall and the west of Britain, who later removed Jesus’ body from the cross and provided a freshly cut tomb for it, his own tomb. A verse from his long poem, Jerusalem, also echoes this myth:
She walks upon our meadows green;
The Lamb of God walks by her side:
And every English child is seen,
Children of Jesus and his Bride.
From Bethany to Avalon?: The Glastonbury Legends
Tradition and some written testimony suggest that Jesus of Nazareth did live in Britain for some time during the ‘silent’ period of the gospels before he began his ministry at the age of roughly thirty, creating a Temple for his mother on the isle of Avalon, later to become Glastonbury in Saxon times. St Augustine, during his mission to Britain, beginning in 597, wrote a letter to Pope Gregory in which he referred to ‘a certain royal island’ in which there was to be found ‘a church..divinely constructed, or by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of His people. The Almighty has made it manifest…that he continues to watch over it as sacred to Himself and to Mary, the Mother of God.’ Fanciful though the legend may be that the feet of Jesus of Nazareth, together with Joseph of Arimathea, may have actually touched British soil, the symbolism of the myth is resonant in British culture, just as the Arthurian mythology crafted by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory, and the legends of Robin Hood, have also proved to be. Henry Tudor saw useful propaganda possibilities in the former, gathering support en route from Milford Haven to Bosworth Field, and naming his first son Arthur in order to mythologise his dynastic claim, and radical republicans in the English Civil War drew on the latter to liken the rule of the Stuart Kings to the ‘Norman Yolk’ imposed on free-born Englishmen by the feudal Norman Kings and Lords.
In his 1961 book, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, George F Jowett produced a compelling, if at times far-fetched narrative of the legends surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and ‘the Bethany Group’, drawing on sources in the Vatican Library, as well as the medieval chronicles of bishops and monks. Of course, chronicles are not histories, and neither is Jowett’s work to be regarded as mature historical narrative, but it does point to the enduring significance of these legends, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain deserves to be treated as romantic, imaginative literature, part of the Celtic tradition of Britain. After all, even historians need to use their powers of imagination to interpret the silences, as well as the vague traces left to them by the past.
What is certain is that, as Monmouth pointed out in his early chapters, Britain ‘aboundeth in metals of every kind’, and that, even before the Romans sought to exploit this mineral wealth, there was a great deal of trade by sea between Gaul and ‘the three noble rivers’, the Thames, the Severn and the Humber, with their great estuaries even wider than today. The Glastonbury Legend claims that ‘the Bethany group of missionaries’ navigated their way from Gaul up the Severn estuary to the Brue and the Parrot tributaries, until they came to Glastonbury Tor, or the Isle of Avalon, which gets its name from the Brythonic word ‘afal’, meaning an apple. Somerset (as we know it today) was, even then, full of apple orchards, and the fruit was the emblem of fertility to the Celtic Druids. The legend states that, following their disembarkation, the travellers made their way up the Tor, where Joseph stopped to rest, thrusting his staff into the ground. It then became part of the earth, taking root, and in time blossomed, out of season, becoming the ‘Holy Thorn’.
In Saxon times the land around Glastonbury was drained by the monks, making wetlands, now part of the Somerset ‘levels’. It is still believed by many that the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey house the remains of the church that was erected over the spot where Joseph of Arimathea and the group of disciples from Bethany built their altar of wattle, thatched with ‘withy’ reeds, the custom of the time. The ancient Britons used wattle in the construction of their homes. This wattle church survived, according to a former Bishop of Bristol, until after the Norman invasion when it was accidentally burnt down. Just over a mile from the town a large number of wattle structures were discovered, preserved in the peat, in the nineteenth century. They were set on mounds built in the wetlands, connected by causeways also built with wattles. In the last century, postholes and preserved timbers were also uncovered, and these can sill be seen today, along with stretches of the wattle, the remains of an early British settlement which was burnt down. The wattle church was sixty feet in length and twenty-six feet wide, following the pattern of the Tabernacle, built between 38 and 39 A.D. It was then encased in lead, a plentiful local material, and over that St. Paulinus erected the chapel of St. Mary in 630 A.D. Various documents suggest that St. Mary’s Chapel, erected by St. David in 546 A.D., was built over the remains of Jesus’ mother. It remained intact until destroyed by fire in 1184, when the great fire gutted the whole of the Abbey. It is said to be the oldest Christian Church in the British Isles, possibly the first above ground in Europe, built in the shape of the cross, the pattern followed in Britain into medieval and modern times. When the first books came off the printing press, Wynkyn De Worde printed a life story of St Joseph, and a further account of the Arimathean story was printed, copying from earlier documents, in which the following intriguing lines appeared:
Now here how Joseph came into Englande;
But at that tyme it was called Brytayne.
Then XV yere with our lady, as I understande.
Joseph wayted styll to serve hyr he was fayne.
The flag of the Christ’s cross, which became the flag of St George, is said to have flown above British churches from earliest times. Glastonbury Tor itself was said to be a ‘Gorsedd’ or ‘High Place of Worship’ for the Druids, a hand-built mound with a circle of stones on top, from which they observed the stars.
The Unbroken Line of Church and Monarchy
In 871, Alfred the Great, himself no stranger to Glastonbury and the wet-lands around it where he is reported to have burnt his oat-cakes while hiding out from the Danish invaders, commissioned monastic scholars to translate into the Saxon tongue the ancient British history from documentary evidence. His ‘Wessex’ therefore provides the link in southern Britain that connects the Celtic Christian kingdoms of the Silures with Saxon England. He was then given great credit for creating laws, institutions and reforms which restored and enforced the ancient British practices of law and order, as well as religion, rather than replacing them with Saxon ones. Perhaps for this contribution alone, Alfred deserves to be remembered as England’s true patron saint, let alone for his exploits as a military leader and founder of an identifiable Christian English nation. In this, he is similar to the Hungarian King István, or Stephen, who was canonised by the Pope as the founder of the Hungarian nation around the year 1,000, and also used the banner of the long red cross as his original symbol. The ‘Lamb and Flag’ is also in the coat of arms of the Hungarian Reformed Church, hanging on the walls of its school classrooms to this day. Recent evidence has shown that there was much continuity in the population of the Celtic and Romano-British territories of western Britain and the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Whilst the dynastic leaders and their retinue may have been pushed into modern-day Wales, Devon and Cornwall, many of the ordinary farming folk would have remained, mixed and married. The ‘genes’ as well as the ‘blood’ and languages of the Celts all inter-mingled with those of the Saxon settlers. The ‘English’ may be more Celtic than they think, and not so different from the Welsh in genetic make-up!
So, while school history textbooks still wrongly assert that the coming of Christianity to England occurred with the Augustinian Mission, sent by Pope Gregory, in 596 A.D., that date actually marks the introduction of the Roman Catholic Church, and Papal authority, into the English lands, not yet united under one king. The Papacy itself, and its historians, have never denied the story of St Joseph being the first Apostle to Britain, though they claim that the first official envoy of the Roman Church was St. Paul himself, some twenty years later. It was the Catholic countries who attempted to depose Elizabeth I with the Pope’s blessing, who tried to claim that the Church of England drew its authority from the Augustinian Mission, followed up by the successful conquest by the Normans under the Papal banner and blessing in 1066. Elizabeth herself, the last native-speaking Welsh monarch, and lineal descendant of the Silurian King Cymbeline (the subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays) was careful to point to the pre-existing Celtic orders as the source of her authority as Supreme Governor and ‘Defender of the Faith’, a Latin title which had been bestowed on her father by the Pope prior to the Reformation, but which she now (in 1570) claimed was hers by ancient right anyway. Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1953, took the oath as ‘Defender of the Faith’ and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, despite opposition from the Papacy, which petitioned to have it withdrawn from the ceremony. It was politely refused on the grounds that the sovereign of the United Kingdom was the Defender of the British Christian ’cause’, with Christ as its Head. Bishop Ussher wrote categorically in his Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Anquititates: ‘The British National Church was founded in A.D. 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity. ‘
Christianity spread rapidly throughout the British Isles at this time. It was recorded that in A.D. 48, Conor Macnessa, the King of Ulster, sent his priests to Avalon to commit the Christian law and its teachings into writing. However, it was not until A.D. 156 that Britain, by the edict of King Lucius, officially proclaimed the Christian Church as the ‘national’ religion of Britain, at Winchester, the then royal capital, where its kings were crowned until the Norman Conquest. Tertullian of Carthage, writing in 208, tells us that in his time the Christian Church extended to all the boundaries of Gaul, and parts of Britain the Romans could not reach, but which were ‘subject to Christ’. These were the woodlands, wetlands and islands on either side of the Severn sea. Thereafter, scholars from the third to the sixth century testify that Christianity, or ‘The Way’ as it was first known, was firmly established, certainly in the west of the island, from as early as 37 A.D. to the middle of the sixth century. An ancient English chronicler, in his account of the conversion of the Celtic King Arviragus, makes an interesting comment about the ‘cult of St George’:
Joseph converted this King Arviragus
By his prechying to know ye laws divine
And baptized him as write hath Nennius
The chronicler in Brytain tongue full fyne
And to Christian laws made hym inclyne
And gave him then a shield of silver white
A crosse and long, and overthwart full perfete
These armes were used throughout all Brytain
For common syne, each man to know his nacion
And thus his armes by Joseph Creacion
Full longafore Saint George was generate
Were worshipt here of mykell elder date.
Therefore, the ‘long cross’ on a white background became the symbol of Celtic Christian chieftains, traditionally emblazoned on their shields, long before St George was born, and even longer before he became the patron saint of England, in fact long before England came into existence as a unified country. Arviragus carried the cross on his shield into battle with the invading Romans, who did not officially become Christian until about 350, under the Emperor Constantine. Arviragus ruled over the area of south-western England, while Caradoc ruled Cambria, the area covered by Wales and the West Midlands of England today. Arviragus led the Celtic resistance to the Roman invasion of A.D. 43, following the death of his brother, Guiderius, in the second battle, then submitting to Caradoc as Pendragon, or ‘Head chieftain’. It was in these battles that the cross given to Arviragus, which later became the cross of St George, was first unfurled, and a nine-year-long war of resistance began.
The Truth against the World: The Long Fight for Social Justice
The Christian battle-cry, still used in the Druidic ceremonies at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, was ‘Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd’, ‘the truth against the world’. Caradoc was finally defeated at Clun (modern-day Shropshire) in 52 A.D. by the combined forces of five Roman legions led by Aulus Platius, Vespasian, Titus and Claudius himself, who had landed at Richborough (now Kent) to take personal command of the combined Imperial forces, with heavy reinforcements, including a squadron of elephants! Apparently, the offensive smell of the great beasts panicked the Celtic horses pulling the Silurian chariots, causing havoc in their own ranks as they scythed through the defensive lines of Caradoc’s men and women warriors. Caradoc, known to the Romans as Caractacus, was taken prisoner with his family and they were all shipped to Rome, later pardoned by Claudius, freed and eventually allowed to return to Britain, promising not to take up arms against Rome again.
‘And did those feet’ and the longer poem, ‘Milton’ from which it is drawn, are both a plea for ‘ancient’ intuition and imagination in the face of ‘modern’ scientific rationalism, for a return to ‘innocence’, and a call for a ‘crusade’ for the values of social justice, or ‘equity’, and liberty, with which Blake envisions a ‘new Jerusalem’ being built in Britain. The ‘dark, satanic mills’ are not simply the factories of the industrial revolution, but the cold, logical philosophies of Locke and Bacon that Blake deplored. However, it was more than a century after it was written that Robert Bridges rescued the poem from obscurity for his patriotic anthology, The Spirit of Man, and asked Sir Hubert Parry to set it to a simple tune so that it could be sung at rallies of a crusading movement set up to build a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return to Britain after the First World War, to Lloyd George’s ‘Land fit for heroes to live in’. It also became, at the end of the war, the anthem of the suffragists, the ‘Women Voters’ Hymn’. Shortly after this, it became a great favourite of King George V and on special occasions of national significance he would ask for it to be played and sung. More recently, Billy Bragg, the ‘protest’ singer-songwriter, has said that it asks the questions that Jesus would if he came to modern Britain and saw how far we have built the kind of society based on the principles of social justice that he championed. It has long been a favourite within the Labour movement.
In his 1980 book, To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life 1875-195, John Gorman concludes the introduction to the collection with the thought that ‘if the dream of a new and golden Jerusalem to be “builded here” faded from the hearts of those elected as master builders, the hope yet remains with the many.’ Perhaps, approaching the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation, we should both adopt and adapt Shakespeare’s words, and ‘Cry God for Bess, England and St Cuthbert!’ Perhaps we should also petition to have 20th March, St. Cuthbert’s Day, made the English national day. However, since the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria covered much of modern-day lowland Scotland, including Melrose where he was born and brought up, educated by Hibernian monks, and since he is still venerated in Edinburgh as well as Durham, we might need to redefine what it means to be British…and English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish.
- Whitby (senchus.wordpress.com)
- The Book of Kells: Details (michelinewalker.com)
- Christ in the Boat (everydayasceticism.com)
- Lindisfarne Gospels and Vikings (roedersrants.wordpress.com)
- Lindisfarne Gospels and Vikings (broeder10.wordpress.com)
- Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church (tenthmedieval.wordpress.com)