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Diary: Leonie Hicks

27 August 2021

This week’s guest diarist is Leonie Hicks


Change of perspective

I WORK in Canterbury, and one of the things I am looking forward to in the next academic year is getting back into my office with its lovely view of the east end of the cathedral, built for Thomas Becket’s shrine, and Bell Harry Tower.

I work on medieval representations and understanding of landscape, and regularly get distracted by how the appearance of the tower changes according to the time of day, weather, and season. When fog, for example, hides it from view, the experience is quite unsettling.

A few years ago, a heavy blizzard completely obscured the cathedral. Once the snow had settled, the sun came out on a glorious winter’s day, and the light, combined with the snow settled against the window tracery, brought into sharper relief details of the architecture that would normally not be visible without the aid of scaffolding and cranes.

The Before and After pictures make wonderful teaching aids, and remind the students (and me) not to take our knowledge of what we think we can see for granted.



CANTERBURY was, of course, Becket’s cathedral. A few weeks ago, I visited the delayed “Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint” exhibition at the British Museum, which marks the 800th anniversary of the translation of the saint’s relics (News, 4 June; Arts, 11 June; Press, 16 July).

One of the most affecting exhibits was a miniature of Becket’s burial from the Harley Psalter, with the monks’ faces showing visible sorrow and distress as they lay their archbishop in his tomb. The image is scored over, presumably in an attempt to deface it, speaking to the deep emotions and reactions Becket’s legacy inspired in later times.

Other highlights include one of the “miracle” windows from Canterbury Cathedral, with perhaps my favourite depiction of the sainted archbishop: Becket shooting out of his shrine to speak to — and reassure — a sleeping figure with a bandaged head. Normally, viewing the miracle windows involves a serious crick in one’s neck, possibly requiring saintly intervention to relieve.

Much to my disappointment (but also to my relief), I did not see anyone venerating any of the books or the fragment of Becket’s skull from Stonyhurst College, as widely reported in the press.


Clergy discipline

BISHOPS have a long history of acting as lightning rods for trouble, and relations between prelates and parishes or cathedral chapters have never been straightforward.

A couple of late 11th- and early-12th-century examples from Normandy illustrate this very well. They were recorded by my favourite medieval chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, who was a monk of the monastery of Saint-Evroult at a time when debates were raging about clergy sexuality. Archbishop John of Rouen was zealous in enforcing conciliar decrees that prohibited marriage for the clergy, and the prosecution of priests who fell foul of these canons. The priests responded robustly, and, in 1072, stoned John out of his own synod.

One of John’s successors, Geoffrey, managed to cause a full-blown riot in his cathedral in 1119. Normandy’s priests were not about to accept enforced celibacy without reasoned debate, and Orderic Vitalis noted that one, Albert, spoke very eloquently in support of the married clergy.

Geoffrey’s response was to throw Albert in prison, and call on his retainers to beat up the rest of the clergy. Some fled the cathedral in their albs, while others drove the archbishop’s men back, before his cooks, bakers, and other members of his household joined in.

Orderic — not himself a fan of married clergy — was appalled, and noted how the injured clergy returned to their parishes, their bruises an eloquent testimony to their defence of their lives and families.


Girl power

I GREW up in a clergy household in which my mother did her best to ensure that there was some family space and separation from parish life, but I also understood that the parish was a source a great support. I’m especially interested, therefore, when I find in the records glimpses of how priests’ families managed in the face of hostile senior clergy. The records are highly skewed in favour of the bishops, but occasionally we can see glimpses of families defending their interests.

In 1178/79, Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux, wrote to the Pope about a priest in his diocese, Hamon. Hamon had, to all intents and purposes, been married for more than 30 years, had many children, and had publicly celebrated the marriages of his daughters — which strongly suggests this union was accepted at a parochial level. Hamon was certainly not willing to repudiate his wife and children.

Arnulf sent priestly enforcers to break up the family, but had not reckoned with the redoubtable Mrs Hamon and her girls. They assaulted the bishop’s men and kept them locked up until they were rescued by some passers-by. When I read this letter, I cheered.


Spot on

I HAVE been accused of having an irreverent attitude to bishops. For a clergy child, that is, perhaps, inescapable. What can I say? It started early. At some time in the 1980s, the then diocesan bishop joined us for a salad lunch after a confirmation. As I attempted to spear a radish with my fork, the rogue vegetable flew off my plate and hit the bishop squarely on the nose. My parents were mortified, but the bishop, thankfully, found the whole episode hilarious.


Dr Leonie Hicks is Reader in Medieval Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Forthcoming Events

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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