THERE is patch of carpet in the chancel of Aldeburgh Parish Church on which, when I went up to communion during last year’s festival, I felt a strong temptation to tread rather heavily.
Underneath this particular area of carpet is a black ledger slab (emblazoned with a bend wavy between two toads rampant and sinister an impaled eagle) that commemorates the life and death of Captain Thomas Johnson. On 24 January 1644, he supervised the pulling down of “twenty cherubims” from the nave roof-beam ends, and the smashing of all the church’s medieval stained glass, not a single pane of which survives.
This, alas, was only the beginning of Captain Johnson’s purity campaign. Two years later, he was the prime mover in bringing two witchfinders to Aldeburgh. Matthew Hopkins and Mary Phillips were installed at the Lion Inn, where they proceeded both to run up a considerable bar bill and to identify seven witches — widow Wade, widow Gardner, and five unnamed others — who were duly convicted, sentenced, and hanged for the crime of “entertaining spirits”.
If the Church of England is to heed the call to remove, or at least to “put into context”, some of those whom it commemorates (News, 19 June), Captain Johnson’s toad-encrusted slab might seem an obvious candidate for this treatment.
Yet, how should this be done? Is defacing an ancient monument or indulging in a retrospective witch-hunt the best way to respond to the crimes of the past? Roger WagnerIn Aldeburgh Parish Church, a slab commemorates Captain Thomas Johnson, who brought witchfinders to the boroughShould we contextualise the misdeeds of Captain Johnson by following in his footsteps?
IN HIS poem “An Arundel Tomb”, Philip Larkin describes how “time has transfigured . . . into Untruth” the effigies of Richard Fitzalan and Eleanor of Lancaster in Chichester Cathedral. Their clasped hands, “The stone fidelity They hardly meant”, have come to be, he suggests, “Their final blazon”, which proves “Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.”
In fact, it is not only time, but Larkin’s own poem that has brought about this transfiguration. By transferring our attention from the “jointed armour” and the military prowess that it was intended to commemorate to the touching handclasp of husband and wife, he has changed and enlarged the context in which we see them.
Could this be a model of how the effigies and monuments in churches might be “put into context”? Not, that is, by hanging dismal notices alongside statues of the dead, cataloguing their crimes and misdemeanours, but by commissioning works of art that place them in a larger redemptive context.
A fine example of something like this is Tom Denny’s Redemption windows, which were commissioned to surround the new tomb of Richard III in Leicester cathedral (Features, 19 May 2017). The windows do not shy away from the tragedy and mayhem that surrounded this most controversial of monarchs, but, rather, place these events within the biblical story of redemption.
To place the events of our lives within the story of redemption is surely the purpose of the art and architecture of churches, and can be remarkably effective.
ON THE way up to communion in Aldeburgh, my instinct to stamp on Captain Johnson’s memorial was, I found, quenched by my journey towards the altar. “Who are you that judges another’s servant?” “Why do you behold the mote in your brother’s eye and not consider the beam in your own?” As these and similar texts came to mind, I found myself beginning to think of Johnson in a more rounded way.
He had returned to Aldeburgh in 1642, in the middle of a thunderstorm, and found a panic-stricken town expecting the apocalypse. A meteorite shower “discharging as if it were ordnance in a pitcht field” was believed to signify impending judgement, and, when economic hardship, plague, and smallpox all struck the town, it had seemed that something must be done. (Is it pure coincidence that iconoclasm and witch-hunts follow in the footsteps of plague?)
No doubt, the Captain, like contemporary iconoclasts and witch-hunters, was convinced of the rightness of his actions; and the townspeople for whom he was borough bailiff seven times, and who gave his memorial an honoured place in the church, might have agreed.
Today, we have a different view. But if, despite his terrible actions, the Captain was a man who trusted in Christ for his salvation, may we still not hope that widow Wade, widow Gardner, and the others have long since made up their quarrel with Johnson and are all rejoicing together with the cherubim while they await their resurrection?
Coming back from communion, I began to wonder whether a new window on the south side (the Victorian glass there was all blown out in the war) could put these sad events into a redemptive context. Or could we be more ambitious? Instead of campaigning for Captain Johnson to fall from his place in the chancel, why not campaign for the 20 cherubim to rise again and take their ancient places in the roof- beams of the nave?
Roger Wagner is an artist, painter, and poet.