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Word from Wormingford

14 October 2016

The relic of a long-dead archbishop proved useful to a young Ronald Blythe

SO HULL proclaims itself a city of culture. But how could it not be? Every city is a city of culture; every town a town of culture; every village a village of culture. How could they not be? I do not know who started these self-appointed accolades. When I was a boy, every entrance to my town, Sudbury, Suffolk, had huge blue enamel signs which, besides much else, told the visitor that Gainsborough was born there, and that the head of an Archbishop of Canterbury could be seen by the fortunate traveller.

His name was Simon Theobald, and he had been decapitated by Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Archbishop Simon’s head was kept behind a glass window in St Gregory’s, and, as choirboys, we combed Brylcreem into our hair before it, as it made a nice mirror.

Archbishop Simon was rarely still, being what would now be called the Chancellor of the Exchequer, besides being a priest, and he was a great traveller. He went to Italy and met Boccaccio, of all people.

I knew all this when I tied my choirboy’s starched ruff in the mirror made by his skull. Someone had varnished it long ago, and given it a yellow shine, but had left a few hairs. It was all sockets, and I imagined pale Suffolk eyes and a priest’s bald patch — and rather fine features, perhaps, to be seen in palaces, but last seen in the
chapel of the Tower of London, and with a terrified look as he sat in his cell.

Who brought his head to Suffolk? Some relic establisher? Some member of an oratory he founded in his home town, hoping for pilgrims? And why, unlike St Thomas of Canterbury, did not a bejewelled shrine arise?

The enamelled sign on the entrance to the town, which went many years ago, did not tell the traveller anything about the Archbishop’s martyrdom. Why did it fail to attract pilgrims, as in Bury St Edmunds? Perhaps it did, although all that is left of his existence is his stall in the choir at St Gregory’s, and his skull.

The stall is on its original hinges, and comes up with a slam to reveal a perch for the Archbishop’s bottom during long prayers — and his carved dog. This dog is now transferred to the town flag, and flies above the town hall, whereas its owner’s countenance was visible only in my imagination. But this is the bone that carried the features to Paris and Rome, to courts and palaces. Somebody took the Archbishop’s dog as his emblem, and the carving of it can be seen under the miserere choirstall where he sat.

Coming downstairs, my two cats look rather as though they came from under a seat somewhere. One is named Alice, after the girl in Wonderland, and she sees life through golden eyes, and spends her nine lives perfectly idle, doing nothing as a way of perfection — not unlike that of the saints.

Dame Julian of Norwich lived with a cat, and was taught many important things by it, and I am my cats’ pupil, to a degree. They have taught me to be quiet and idle sometimes, not to be always busy; so I look out of the window at the early autumn, and a rainbow suddenly appears, although there is no rain, and a leaf floats down past the window. The seasons are about to change, but nothing happens. Everything is quiet, really.

We have a harvest festival, some­thing started by Parson Hawker, in Cornwall; and now our food is given — to my amazement, since I have not seen it myself — to people in towns near by who go to foodbanks. It seems extraordinary these days that such things appear. People have to pay enormous rents, which is possibly why they’re so poor and have to have our food.

I am given a vast home-made cake by the farmer’s wife, and put it in the deep freeze for Christmas.

And so country life continues in this strange mixture of the past and the present, and nothing much happens. Flowers — cyclamen and primroses — bloom in the garden, waiting for the spring.

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