It will distress some readers to know that a violent warmonger, responsible for thousands of deaths in France , is lying in a position of honour in Canterbury Cathedral. Edward the Black Prince, whose magnificent tomb is one of the glories of the Mother Church of the Southern Province, was the victor of the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers in which half the French nobility were slain. He ravaged and laid waste the Auvergne, Narbonne, Limousin….
Presumably it was Edward the Black Prince that the present Archbishop of Canterbury had in mind when he said recently – reported in the Times, November 10th, “The Church, goodness me, you just go round Canterbury Cathedral and there are monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey. We are looking at all that, and some will have to come down”.
Who are “we” in this sentence? Perhaps we shall never know . The Archbish, as it happens, has no authority to pull down monuments in Canterbury Cathedral, which are in the care of the Dean and Chapter. Likewise, Westminster Abbey. If he had his pick of who to remove from the National Valhalla, he would probably be spoilt for choice. Geoffrey Chaucer, of course, would be driven out of Poet’s Corner for his (admittedly nauseating ) Prioress’s Tale, about Little St Hugh of Lincoln being supposedly murdered by the Jews. Some people wondered at the time why the strongly anti-Christian D.H.Lawrence was commemorated in Poet’s Corner, but if you were trying to fit Lawrence into a “woke”view of the world, you’d have the work cut out! He was an undoubted racist, sexist and , had he lived long enough would have been, like his namesake of Arabia, a fascist. As a Croydon schoolmaster in his twenties he was already dreaming of constructing gas ovens in which to destroy those he hated.
King Edward I, who signed the Edict of Expulsion, asking the Jews to leave England altogether in 1290, would lose his tomb if Justin Welby had anything to do with it. In fact, if you went round Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, you would find it difficult to find a monument pre-1960 to anyone who had not, in some way or another, had a scale of values markedly differing from our own.
One of the most magnificent tombs in the Abbey is that designed by Maximilian Holt for the person who could claim to be the greatest leader Britain ever had – Queen Elizabeth I : greatest in terms of intelligence, in terms of ability to inspire and unite the population, in terms of cultural achievements and changing and enhancing the position of her country among the nations. It was not just sycophancy which made her subjects see her as Gloriana.
Yet, there was a buccaneering side to this brilliant intellectual, and when Sir John Hawkins and Francis Drake offered her gold and jewels looted from the Spaniards, she was more than happy, not merely to take the swag but to be depicted, in portrait after portrait, dripping with what some would regard as stolen property. And, far worse – indeed utterly fatefully – by endorsing Hawkins, she also endorsed his having traded in fellow-human beings when he took them from Portuguese slaving ships and sold them on in the West Indies.
No doubt Justin Welby would feel very righteous if he went round with a hammer, like the old Puritans in Reformation times, and eliminated all monuments to these wicked people.
Christianity teaches us that we are all wicked, we have all gone astray. Putting the monument up to a king who expelled the Jews, or to those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who committed outrages against humanity – that was seen as a contentious thing to do. But pulling the monuments down, especially when the monuments are objects of beauty – that is surely a moral as well as an aesthetic mistake.
We do not necessarily endorse the past by cherishing its often beautiful but mysterious buildings and artifacts. You learn, over and over again, the lesson that the past really was a foreign country. The study of history requires the patience and subtlety to learn its complicated language. Edward the Confessor, the saint whose shrine lies at the heart of the Abbey, owned slaves, albeit white slaves. Slavery was part of Anglo-Saxon culture . Remember, four hundred years before Edward the Confessor, it was the sight of little English slave-boys in the market who inspired the Pope to exclaim they were “Angeli non Angli”, and to send St Augustine to evangelize our land.
Our churches and cathedrals are among the greatest art works, freely available to all. No art work can speak to us unless we listen to it, attend to it. Archbishop Welby does not want to look and listen. He wants, as so many people do now a days, to go round judging the past, and obliterating the bits which offend him. He thinks he could cut out the bits which he is afraid of, or thinks will upset people – such as monuments to empire builders and tyrants. He does not realize that the past and its messages cannot be edited, they can only be either heard, or destroyed.
Christianity itself is, for very many people alive today, troublingly, even offensive. (In its suggestion that salvation is through Christ only, in its patriarchal traditions, in its history of crusades and persecutions, in its distrust of the body and its hostility not only to homosexuality but to most sex…) That is not, surely, an argument in favour of pulling down Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, even though, if you followed Justin Welby’s rather silly argument, that is probably what you would expect a modern secular liberal society to do. ENDS