4 March 2011

THE OXFORD MARTYRS

Once a term (on the Saturday, I believe, in Seventh Week), and this term it is tomorrow, the authorities of S John's College in this University open their gates to those who wish to look at their unique collection of late Medieval vestments. These vestments date from the foundation of the college in the reign of Good Queen Mary as part of the reform movement which she, Cardinal Pole, and their bishops were sponsoring. After the dark days of Henry VIII and Edward VI, it must have seemed to right-thinking Christians that all was back to rights again; but Mary's reign was not just a restoration of the old. New standards of clerical professionalism were part of its nascent policy, together with schemes for instructing the laity in their Catholic Faith (Mary's collaborators were not afraid to use some of those precise methods which were used in the previous reign to disseminate heresy). This is England's aborted but briefly glorious Counter-Reformation. Duffy, of course ...

I wonder if there will ever be an exhibition of what remains of this period - one of the most sparkling quinquennia in our history. If there were, S John's could provide some spectacular exhibits; and in my view the two banners which they possess would have the greatest interest. One is of their Patron, S John Baptist, and shows him in a distinctly baroque style. The other is of our Lady Assumpta; an idiosyncrasy is that the crescent moon on which she stands has, on top of it, a face - the Man-in-the-Moon (does he appear anywhere else? - another of the vestments on display also shows our Lady upon the crescent Moon; I wonder how early this Baroque commonplace is found in late Medieval English iconography? I have seen it circa 1450 ... can anyone push it earlier?).

But the most remarkable thing about this banner is the name, at the top, of its donor: Thomas Campion. This tells us that Thomas, the father of the future Jesuit martyr S Edmund Campion (martyred 1581), was a supporter of Sir Thomas White, the wealthy Founder of S John's (he had been Warden of the Merchant Taylours). We know, moreover, that S Edmund entered S John's upon its foundation and, being an able Latinist, very soon became a Fellow. In those brief, happy years before the Queen's death, S Edmund must have worshipped in Chapel and looked at the banner of our Lady which his father had given. At the bottom of it among other shields is a shield of the Five Wounds of our Redeemer (the other banner also bears this device). It is difficult not to feel the significance of this: the Tudor rebellions in defence of the old Faith had marched behind this banner; it represened the devotional heart of Catholic England. Even Cranmer knew the popular votive of the Five Wounds so well that in his 1549 Prayer Book he incorporated the text of most of its Collect into his Prayer for the Church and used it twice in his Burial Service. Less than a decade before S Edmund entered S John's, there had been executions in Oxford and throughout Oxfordshire at the conclusion of the 1549 Rising against Protestantism. The device of the Five Wounds was a mark of identity, of commitment to the historic Faith, and S Edmund must have felt this as he saw it carried.

Those banners, surely, represent the tipping point between a Catholicism that looked back to the old, and the Catholicism of the seminary priests; between the culture of Marian priests surreptitiously saying the old Sarum Rite and that of the young men who brought the Missal of S Pius V back with them to England (at Douay, the students were taught the Missal of S Pius V between December 1576 and April 1577; presumably the Protomartyr of the seminaries, S Cuthbert Mayne, another S John's College man, ordained in 1575, had used the Sarum Rite).

Campion and Mayne were not S John's only martyrs. If you penetrate to the back quadrangle, you will find baroque architecture as fine as any in England: even the dreadful Nikolaus 'Bauhaus' Pevsner saw it as of European significance and quality. The two entrances are framed by statues of blessed Charles Stuart, King and Martyr, and his Queen Henrietta Maria. This building was done in the 1630s, the decade in which England and Rome were most nearly reunited; and the builder was our martyred archbishop William Laud ... he and his King both parts of the glorious baggage of the Anglican Patrimony.

4 comments:

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

I hate to point out typos, but St Edmund Campion was martyred in 1581, not 1577 - the year St Cuthbert Mayne suffered.

Any reader who has the opportunity should certainly visit the vestment display at St John's either this wekend or on another occasion. Amongst other pieces on show is Archbishop Laud's scull cap, which he wore to the scaffold in 1645.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Thanks. Corrected.

Sir Watkin said...

Laud's scull cap

Whilst on the subject of typos ....

I hadn't realised that the martyred Archbishop was an oarsman!

Little Black Sambo said...

It is a general rule that messages pointing out mistakes themselves contain mistakes.