Friday, September 27, 2019

Of Castles, Kings, Churches and Wizards


I don’t go to church regularly. I am, after all, Jewish. But I find myself in churches, mostly Catholic ones built half a millennia or more ago, whenever I travel through Europe.  

Last week in Normandy, France, Gilda and I entered some remarkable spiritual edifices. Given their size and majesty, and the sheer engineering accomplishment of their construction, it is understandable how Medieval men and women were transfixed into believing miracles could indeed happen. A religion that started in a manger and matriculated into magnificent stone cathedrals could not be anything but authentic to illiterate serfs and even noblemen.

Consider the abbey atop Mount Saint Michel. Situated on an island with fewer than 50 current residents, the abbey took hundreds of years to build. It is not beautiful, as the Cathedral Notre Dame in nearby Bayeux is. Rather, it is an engineering marvel, rising as it does above a rocky fortress. The Bayeux Cathedral, as well, was a labor of hundreds of years, but it aligns more with the architecture and look of numerous Norman-Romanesque churches in towns and cities one can see throughout the countryside.

The Bayeux Cathedral would be worth a visit in its own right. But for years it garnered fame from a cherished historical artifact, the Bayeux Tapestry. In truth, the nearly 70 yard long creation is an embroidery, but let’s not quibble over semantics. The tapestry tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

Did you ever wonder why William the Conqueror invaded England? Was it merely to seize control of another country? Actually, according to the way the Normans tell it, it was to claim his rightful inheritance. You see, on his deathbed Edward the Confessor, king of England, having no sons, bequeathed his kingdom to a distant cousin, the Duke of Normandy, known then as William the Bastard for he truly was illegitimately born. William was a descendant of Rollo, a Viking warrior chief familiar, by name at least, to fans of the cable series Vikings. Rollo had become part of the French ruling class.

William believed he obtained agreement for his kingship from Harold, an English earl of Anglo-Saxon heritage. But upon Edward’s death Harold assumed the crown. To avenge the double-cross and take what he thought was rightfully his, William invaded England. Harold might well have beaten him at Hastings had he not just hurried down from killing off another invading pretender to the throne, Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, at Stamford Bridge, several hundred miles to the north of Hastings. The weary Harold and his forces were routed, Harold dying from ordinary wounds or, as legend has it, from an arrow piercing an eye as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Subsequently, William was known as the conqueror. His Norman descendants ruled for hundreds of years, much to the displeasure and misfortune of the Anglo-Saxon populace, we have been told for years (thus the Robin Hood myth. Indeed, King Richard the Lionheart, a great, great grandson of William the Conqueror, spent just a few weeks in England as king, preferring his French lands).

As churches go, the structure in the town square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise has nothing to distinguish it. Except for its dramatic part in the D-Day invasion. The Allies deemed it important to seal off the town as it was located on an important road the Nazis could have used to reinforce their defensive positions. Paratroopers descended on the town in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944.

One of them, John Steele, landed on a church spire. He could not free his parachute so he wound up observing the ensuring battle for several hours, all the while pretending to be dead. He eventually was captured by the Germans, from whom he later escaped and rejoined his division. For those who have seen the movie The Longest Day, Steele was portrayed by Red Buttons.

To convey his personal story, and commemorate what the town believes is its place in history as the first community liberated in France, a parachute with a dummy dressed as a soldier is suspended from a church spire facing the town square. It’s a kitschy touch. But it is historical fiction as Steele’s parachute got caught on a spire facing a side street. That would not have made for good cinema so The Longest Day, ahem, took liberties with reality. As do the good citizens of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.

The Longest Day was not the only Hollywood reference during Gilda’s and my trip. Before Normandy we spent a week in northern England and southern Scotland. Scone Palace near Perth, Scotland, is the historic location where 38 kings of Scotland were crowned sitting on a high-backed wooden chair atop the Stone of Scone (pronounced “Scoon”). It has also been used for centuries by British royalty, the last time being for Queen Elizabeth II’s investiture in 1953.

For more than 400 years Scone Palace has been the ancestral home of the Murray family, successive Earls of Mansfield since 1776. The first Earl of Mansfield, William Murray, was Lord Chief Justice of England who in 1783 issued a ruling that began the process that led to the end of slavery in Britain.

As important as that action was, Hollywood found the life of his niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, more appealing. It filmed her life story, with liberties, in Belle, released in 2013 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_(2013_film)#Plot). Dido was the daughter of an enslaved African woman in the West Indies and Captain Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy officer. Lindsay entrusts her to Murray and his wife to raise, as they were doing with another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray. When the two cousins matured they sat for an oil portrait by David Martin. The painting is displayed at Scone Palace. 

Finally (only because this posting is already long), we visited Hogwarts Castle. Or more precisely, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, where the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family live from November through April, after which tourists invade en masse for the castle, first built after the Norman conquest, is more than just the manifestation of what a castle should look like. Alnwick Castle’s alter ego is that of Hogwarts, the wizardry school attended by Harry Potter.

During our visit a group of enterprising and clearly Potter-struck fans were astride broomsticks attempting to fly into a game of quidditch. Tours of the interior and exterior of the castle were fascinating. I will leave you with one amusing tidbit: The kitchen in olden times was far removed from the main dining hall. They were connected by tunnel. Servants were required to whistle the whole time they transported the food. Guess why?

It had nothing to do with safety. Rather, it was to insure none of the duke’s food was lifted off the platters and eaten along the way. Try whistling with your mouth full. Can’t be done.

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