Friday, December 25, 2009

The Legend Of Christ’s Church Revisited

Last time, I said we’d take a look at an officially-endorsed instance of the so-called Holy Visit legend for what it was worth. By its worth I mean looking at it as a case study which demonstrates the difficulty of exploring the legend of Jesus visiting Britain. Variant rival instances of the legend exist around the southwest coast; mostly these are set when he was a boy, brought by his uncle Joseph of Arimatheia, but not all versions claim this.
This instance of the legend is an officially-endorsed one where you can see an official relic of his visit on display in the church, a beam cut to length by a mysterious visiting carpenter. The church is Christchurch Priory, which we’ve mentioned before in our coverage of the mystery of a Knight Templar kept a prisoner there for decades [see Here Lies England’s Last Templar?]. It stands on the western edge of the New Forest, on the coast where the rivers Avon and Stour meet, forming Christchurch Harbour. The town’s earlier name was in fact Thuinam or Twynham, from tweoxnam, meaning “the ‘tween-the-waters-place.” It supposedly changed its name in honour of the legend, that is after the new Priory was founded in 1094.
Wait a minute, I hear the sceptics out there saying – 1094? How could Jesus, who died around AD 30, be visiting then? Stuff and nonsense! Well, the sceptics can stop reading right now, but for those of us willing to look beyond conventional explanations and rationales, the matter may not be as simple as it would appear to a sceptic.
There is another claim an early church was built in England by some of Jesus’s original disciples, apostles who fled the Roman Empire after the trial and death of Jesus. This was the old wattle-and-daub church at Glastonbury that the massive mediaeval abbey was built over. In fact, in old manuscript accounts by church historians, it was claimed the old church was built by ‘no human hands.’ This is never explained in the codex sources I’ve seen, but as it cannot refer to the disciples (always regarded as human), it must refer to Jesus, i.e. as someone who in early church doctrine was not human but divine, merely appearing in human form, as a carpenter. (I’ve read that the original Aramaic word actually has a broader meaning, like worker in wood, or perhaps builder.) Here we have the nub of the Holy Visit legend, and of the problem.
The modern interest in Jesus in our more secular age is as a historical person. The idea he could reappear after his crucifixion to help build churches in England does not fit this framework, and it creates difficulties even for the Church of England in that a physical reappearance after his death means a Second Coming, and no one has been officially willing to claim this honour. (Not surprisingly, as the orthodox view is that we are still waiting for this event, since it marks the End Of Days.) In this instance, the legend has it that a mysterious carpenter showed up as one of a party of workers, but would himself take no pay. Then when a key beam was cut too short, he somehow lengthened while the other workmen went home for the night, before he vanished again. This blackened relic, or a part of it, is now on display near the altar as The Miraculous Beam. (An 18C reference, by antiquarian Richard Warne, in his Companion of 1789 says the relic was then called Our Saviour's Beam.) There's also a pair of brass plaques illustrating the legend, and as the Beam's situation makes it difficult to photograph, I've included a photo of one of these, below.
Thus, what we appear to have is not a claim of an actual historical visit or a Second Coming, but more a miracle of the sort the Saints were said to perform. Yet if it was acceptable in early British church doctrine to claim local miracles performed by Jesus after his death, there should be other instances built around mysterious interventions during church building, yet I can’t recall seeing any. There are plenty of other “Christ Church” dedications around England without such a legend attached.
The modern ’sceptical’ explanation isn’t much of a help either. This is that during the building of the Priory, workmen [plural] appeared and vanished again because the head monk had brought in outside workers who hid out at night. As this probably makes no sense on first reading, here’s the explanation reproduced in an old travel guide (you won’t see it in modern ones), part of the Ward Lock Red Guide series: “In the story entitled The Origin of Christchurch Priory it is alleged that Bishop Flambard, the builder, found that in order to erect the Priory upon the site he had chosen for it and also to induce the canons to give up their revenues, it would be necessary to invoke the supernatural. He accordingly imported from Normandy a band of skilled workmen, who by day were concealed in a cave and at night did the work which was attributed to the special agency of Heaven.”
Brass plaque showing Miraculous Beam
So, presumably, the idea is that [1] one of these workmen fixed a routine problem of a beam being cut too short. [2] the other workers then promoted the idea this must have been a miracle, and the mysterious carpenter who made the ‘fix’ none other than Jesus, on a miraculous return-to-earth visit in corporeal form for this purpose. The other craftsmen are specifically ‘fingered’ as the source of this undateable story – as if builders would be impressed by this routine type of mix-up. (Normally, you just get another beam, and reuse the short one for something else.)
Pilgrims came to see and touch The Miraculous Beam, which had to be relocated higher up as it was being steadily whittled down by souvenir hunters. (How you can shift a beam in a finished building where's it's holding up the walls is not explained, but you can see the Beam today, sticking out from the wall near the altar - obviously too long now!) But the attempt to rationalise the legend by saying a group of French 'black-leg' labourers were used, but kept hidden, doesn't give any sources, explain anything or even make much sense. There’s no old source traceable for it either. (The official compendium of records, the 14-C Christchurch Cartulary, sticks to official matters – such as disputes between clerics over powers and privileges – and has nothing to say about the Beam legend.)
However, there’s more to the legend itself: the final part is that the town of Thuinham or Twynham then renamed itself Christchurch. As this was the beginning of the town’s civic history under its present name, there should be a record of this name change as a matter of civic heritage, but local historians I’ve asked to help can’t locate anything definitive, cf in the Cartulary, only later second-hand references.
The explanation for this name change that occurs to me is this. The town was not renamed after the legendary ‘miracle’ itself, but after a new dedication for the church. The oldest-known manuscript reference [by Canon Herman de Laon in De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudensis,1113] gives it as ‘Christi kercha’ – Christ’s Church. The joint name of Christchurch-Twynham also appears elsewhere [as Crischarche de Twenham], and the Norman castle built nearby was known as Twynham Castle. Thus it seems more likely the church was dedicated as Christ’s Church, and the town renamed Christechurche after its biggest and most prestigious building, which would be the attraction for the then all-important pilgrimage tourist trade. The church continued to be built through the Middle Ages, which would have required regular promotion as a pilgrimage destination. Though the town had a population of only c250, the church is huge, still today England’s longest parish church. Its enormous size is puzzling: it is simply many times larger than most other Norman churches, and is said to be larger than some English cathedrals.
The church’s size is an oddity which may be a clue. For some years now, a local architect named Eric Cockaign has been writing illustrated booklets with titles like The Miraculous Beam, The Saxon Face Of Christchurch Priory, and eventually one he co-wrote with the Priory’s own archivist, Ken Tullett, The Saxon Church Of The Holy Trinity Thuinam. These discussed the argument that Christchurch Priory was not so much built in the Norman Era as rebuilt, spanning the foundations of several earlier church buildings dating back to the Saxon era. Of course, as the Saxons did not take over until at least the mid-5th century, a Saxon church of course could not have been built in the 1st Century – as a strictly historical interpretation of any Holy Visit legend would require. Local historian W.A. Hoodless has suggested that the rather fanciful description of a town fire in the 1113 Canon de Laon account already mentioned above (as first to name the town not Thuinam but ‘Christi kercha’), was a holdover from an earlier era, representing "a mythological explanation of the destruction of the original thatched Saxon church." Could the Miraculous Beam legend similarly derive from the building of an earlier church? This would have to be a 1st-century “Celtic” church for the legend to at least pass itself off as a historical record of an actual visit, during that trip to southwest Britain.
One of the problematic aspects of the Holy Legend is finding references to it that predates Blake’s famous questioning reference to it c1804 asking if it can possibly be true, in his poem beginning “And did these feet in ancient times?” This implies pre-1804 references to the legend, but these have not been found. However here we do have pre-1800 references to the local ‘miracle’ version. A 1777 Supplement to the 8-volume Antiquities Of England And Wales ‘Collected from the best authorities’ by fellow of the Society of Antiquaries Francis Grose (c1730–91) refers to it. Grose travelled around Britain collecting local information for his massive series of illustrated volumes. (Incidentally this account differentiates “ChristChurch” the town and “Christ's Church” the Priory.) The Saxon church however wasn’t officially called Christ’s Church: as late as 1086 (only 8 years before the Norman church was founded) it was dedicated to The Holy Trinity, which includes Jesus’s divine aspect. (In the vast landholdings-register codex known as the Domesday Book, it’s The Monastery Of The Holy Trinity Of Thuinam.)
So perhaps the legend attribution was later, for the Norman church, or earlier, for a Celtic one. (I’m told the church has declined to have its Miraculous Beam carbon dated.) The fact none of the many other “Christ Church” dedications around England seem to have such a legend attached to their name may be a clue in itself, for these other instances (e.g. Christ Church college, Oxford) are of much later date. The unsatisfactory explanations behind the legend of ‘Our Saviour’s Beam’ and the name change from Twynham to Christchurch suggest there may have been another explanation. This is that the tale commemorated in the Church’s dedication is itself a 1st-century relic, which the Norman canons claimed as a relic of a ‘miracle’ (the likes of which do not occur elsewhere) in the building of their mediaeval priory.
I’m not suggesting Jesus made an actual historical visit, but that just as the church-building was given a ‘miracle’ gloss, so could the legend of his visit be relocated from the 1st C. AD to the Saxon and then the Norman eras as a ‘miracle’ reappearance. That is, the first above-ground churches in Christendom built by surviving Apostles had a ‘built by no human hands’ legend attached to them, perhaps in compensation for the lack of an established secular commissioning power behind them. (Rome didn’t become Christian for several centuries.) At Glastonbury, this motif is recorded unquestioningly by church historians in the 12th C. in regard to a 1st-C establishment. Sceptics always say these holy relics were just something to show the pilgrims on whose trade the church and town partly depended, and certainly many such claims seem incredible to us today. But this does not mean that every such relic is a fake.
The officially promoted legend about it remains so awkward that to me it suggests the tellers were stuck with an anachronistic scenario whereby this blackened old beam was to be promoted as part of the new Norman Priory. The idea that the older ‘native’ Apostolic churches were deliberately suppressed by the new Norman aristocracy will be no surprise to anyone who has read about the Normans. At Christchurch, the original Norman monks were replaced on the building’s initial completion in 1150 by an Augustinian order due to their drunkenness and lawlessness, and the head cleric in charge of building the Priory, Ranulf Flambard, was a notorious character who is said to have shortened his officials’ yardstick to force locals to pay more feudal taxes. (He also remains a suspect in the suspicious slaying of the king, William the Conqueror’s son William Rufus - to whom Flambard was chief minister - a few miles away in a ‘hunting accident’ in 1100 – one of a series of such incidents.) The codex account mentioned by the French monk Herman de Laon, who visited the town in 1112/1113, is scathing about the church’s uncharitable local monopoly that when he looked back and saw the whole town ablaze, he wrote this was the work of a fiery dragon sent by God to avenge the insult to mother church.
The Church authorities opposed the idea that churches like Christchurch Priory are physically built on Saxon monastic foundations (declining to sell Eric Cockaign’s booklets at the Priory bookstall), though it has admitted there are records of a monastery at Twynham going back to perhaps 700 AD. And Camden's 1586 encyclopaedia 'Britannia' describes the Priory as 'an antient church of prebendaries, built in the Saxon times, repaired in the reign of William Rufus by Ralph Flambard.' This indicates Camden knew of the Saxon priory being incorporated into the new walls, but not of any earlier foundation. Yet at Glastonbury, before the mediaeval Benedictine Abbey church was built, the ‘Ecclesia Primitiva’ or wattle-and-daub church had been first replaced by a Saxon church. Could the same 3-stage scenario apply to Christchurch – 1st C. Celtic Church of Britain chapel or church, Saxon monastery, and then mediaeval priory built atop this? Eric Cockaign’s books mention old references to nine other church buildings (chapels?) once standing on the site.

view of Christchurch Priory from St Catherine's Hill

Another possibility for the origin of the beam is hinted at by another legend about the Priory and its workmen. This was that the original plan was to build the Norman priory not between the mouths of the two rivers, but up on St Catherine’s Hill over a mile away [see photo], where a chapel once stood; however, the Norman workmen found their building materials were being mysteriously moved downhill every night. The Mysterious Carpenter part of the legend may have been a face-saving one after some sort of (literal) climbdown over the Priory location, as much as a contrivance calculated to attract pilgrims. (This is too complicated to go into further here, but anyone interested can view the illustrated webpage I put together a couple of years ago on this: The Mystery Of St Catherine's Hill.