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Thrice to Rome: Canonist’s courtroom drama hits London stage

08 March 2024

Simon Walsh sees a judicial performance in the Temple Church

Norman Doe

Sir Robert Buckland KC MP opens proceedings from the pulpit

Sir Robert Buckland KC MP opens proceedings from the pulpit

GILBERT and Sullivan managed only one Lord Chancellor as a character in Iolanthe. A former Lord Chancellor and a former Lord Chief Justice gathered with a number of eminent judges and canon lawyers on Tuesday evening to perform the London première of Professor Norman Doe’s community play Thrice to Rome.

Depicting the three visits of Gerald of Wales during 1200-03, to contest the status of the see of St Davids and his election to it, the staged reading brought to light a largely unknown moment in the life of the Welsh Church.

A significant audience had made their way to the Temple Church in the heart of London’s legal district for this unusual — even niche — event. Among them, more canon lawyers, academics, and at least one archdeacon could be spotted. After all, the work does deal with real historical figures and actual laws: on episcopal elections, metropolitical status, papal court procedures, and excommunication. All very useful stuff.

The dressing-up box had been politely raided when Sir Robert Buckland KC MP (Lord Chancellor 2019-21) ascended the pulpit stairs in a purple cope to open proceedings as William Lyndwood, a later Bishop of St Davids but with a keen interest in canon law (who knew?).

Norman Doe (centre)

Soon, the main men were on their feet: Rhodri Price Lewis KC (Deputy High Court Judge 2013-22) as Gerald in gown and green stole, and Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (Lord Chief Justice 2013-17) as Pope Innocent III, cassock-alb and stole. Noble adversaries, they matched one another in roseate tones, clearly enjoying the drama in Professor Doe’s script, and exchanging the courtroom for a stage.

They were not alone in this. Morag Ellis KC (Dean of the Arches and Auditor) and Jacqueline Humphreys (Chancellor of the diocese of Worcester) were Novella and Bettina, medieval canon-law professors; Philip Petchey (Chancellor of the diocese of Southwark) was Buongiovanni, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Clerk. Joining them were members of the Temple team: Gregory Dorey (Sub-Treasurer, Inner Temple) as Cardinal Hugolinus; the Revd Mark Hatcher (Reader of the Temple) as Canon Reginald Foliot; and the Revd Robin Griffith-Jones (Master of the Temple), as Canterbury’s Advocate, John of Tynemouth.

Interspersed throughout, authentic liturgical music brought added interest and atmosphere. The medieval Penpont Antiphonal, with its setting for the feast of St David, which Gerald would have known, by rights should have been defaced during the Reformation as an outlawed Roman Catholic service book. The Penpont manuscript survives, however, and its performance by members of the Campanile Consort, directed by Francis Bushell, balanced the action with this rare music.

It was Gerald’s view that “the Church’s law trumped the King’s law in matters spiritual”, and he sought to provide “firm, canonical evidence” both for his episcopal election and for the claim of St Davids to be its own metropolitical see. The Archbishop of Canterbury was an offstage character, and much maligned for his absence, along with his “terrible Latin” — and there were plenty of in-jokes for lawyers and linguists alike.

Gerald never did get to become Bishop (spoiler alert), even though the Pope acknowledged “obviously being Welsh is not a bar to episcopacy”. This was a drama of detail with momentum and intrigue. There was plenty of Welsh nationalism, and not a wig in sight.

Thrice to Rome was first performed at St Davids Cathedral last October; it is being repeated there on 23 March, and given subsequently in churches in Canterbury, in July, and Rome, in September.

Professor Doe is Professor of Law at Cardiff University, a Master of the Bench at the Inner Temple, and Chancellor of the diocese of Bangor. He said: “I hope the play will have an impact in terms of cultural awareness of the Welsh struggle for independence against ecclesiastical colonialism using law as the means.”

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