Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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Hypocrisy, class and faith in Britten’s Borough

Whether or not one enjoys Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, its significance is hard to dispute. Premiered in London just a month after the declaration of victory in Europe in 1945, on June 7th, it represented a rebirth. The opening night, thought the Picture Post, ‘may well be remembered as the date of the reinstatement of opera in the musical life of this country’, and to Britten and his collaborators it confirmed both the need and the appetite for contemporary English opera. Some slept on the pavement outside the Sadlers Wells theatre to be sure of their place in the auditorium on the opening night; others came back for all eight of the first performances.

Sadlers Well Opera Books, No.3 (1945), issued for the London premiere. It contains essays by Britten, Montagu Slater, Edward Sackville-West and E. M. Forster.

But its importance was not merely musical. In less than a month the British people would reject Winston Churchill, despite his record as war leader, and elect a Labour government on the promise of a different kind of rebirth: a new society; a rejection of the memory of the inter-war years and of the Conservative governments that dominated them. For a moment, which in fact continued for several years, the social and moral settlement of the 1930s was at a discount, and newness, progress at a premium.

Though the opera is ostensibly set around 1830, the invitation to read it in contemporary terms is irresistible. Most readings have centered on the person of Peter Grimes, as an individual driven to self-destruction by the Borough, the society in which he was trapped, unable to realise himself. Britten and Pears themselves in later life tried to connect the sensitive, conflicted Grimes to their own status as creative artists, and as conscientious objectors to the war; later critics have come to focus more on a queer Grimes as a reflection of Britten’s own status as a gay man in a society which criminalised homosexuality. However configured, though, this opposition of individual and society in readings of the opera has obscured some of the complexity within the Borough itself.

Had the opera developed differently, this might not have been so. The libretto, by the socialist poet and activist Montagu Slater, was derived from verse by the eighteenth century clergyman poet George Crabbe. Both Crabbe and Slater were rather less concerned with Grimes’ interior life than the completed opera is, and more with the social conflict within the Borough. Here I want to look at two of the characters in Slater’s Borough, to reveal some of the religious and social complexities in play in the opera: nuances of class and faith that have become obscure to modern listeners. If the reception of Grimes was indeed part of an appetite for a new society, what, in fact, was to be discarded? The two characters are the Methodist lay preacher Bob Boles, and the Rector, Mr Horace Adams

Bob Boles, written by Britten as a volatile, frenetic tenor, is one of Slater’s fishermen, the ordinary working men oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the Borough. And his voice is a moralistic, censorious one, a stereotype of a certain kind of English nonconformity. Slater here was surely influenced by his own background in Cumbria, where his father was a Methodist lay preacher. (Slater’s wife Enid remembered her father-in-law as ‘one of those awful Methodists – on Sunday he pulled all the blinds downs [and] you weren’t allowed to read anything but the Bible.’ It was ‘ghastly’, and Slater left it for Oxford ‘very thankfully’, she thought.) Boles denounces Auntie, the landlady of the Boar, the local pub, whose ‘vats flow with poisoned gin’; the Boar is also a house of ill repute, as Auntie’s ‘nieces’ comfort the Borough’s menfolk: ‘God’s storm will drown your hot desires!’, Boles warns. And Boles is central to the hostility to Grimes that eventually boils over in Act III, as he goes with the mob to hunt Grimes down: ‘This lost soul of a fisherman must be shunned by respectable society!’ Grimes has sold his soul, and fears the flaming sword of judgment.

Later, in Act 2 scene 1 inside the Boar, we are invited to see Boles as a hypocrite, as he fails to hold his drink and drunkenly demands the ministrations of the nieces for himself. But Boles is also conscious of his class and of social ill, in ways that must have resonated in post-war London. The doctor, Crabbe, we never hear speak, but Boles tells us the regard in which he is held: ‘he drinks “Good health” to all diseases!’. (The inequality of access to healthcare was vital in securing support for the National Health Service in 1948.) At the heart of the opera is the brutality of the conditions in which men and apprentices had to work, and the absence of the kind of social safety net that the reforming Labour government was to create. At the prospect of workhouse boys being bought and sold, Boles exclaims ‘Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved, their bodies go for cash?’ He will speak his mind, as the system concerns everyone: ‘this prentice system’s uncivilised and unchristian!’ The coming storm is the judgement of God on an iniquitous society: ‘God has his ways which are not ours: His high tide swallows up the shores. Repent!’ Few in the Borough accepts Boles’ understanding of providence, but they recognise the injustice; we are to read him as the voice of a genuine class interest, alive and well in Slater’s conception of contemporary England.

Slater’s libretto, then, captures the tone of a certain kind of popular Christian moral conscience, which had waned considerably by 1945. But it also pinpoints an antagonism between ‘Methody’ Boles and the established religion that the Reverend Horace Adams represents. It is an antagonism that is borne both of class resentment and specifically religious feeling; powerful enough to influence elections a century ago, it is hard now to spot with an untrained eye. On Sunday morning, the Methodist Boles is not at prayer in the parish church, but watching as Grimes and his love Ellen Orford realise that their bid for respectability has failed. As the whispers against Grimes grow (in the video excerpt below), Boles calls bitterly for the parson: ‘where’s the pastor of this flock? Where’s the guardian shepherd’s hook?’ While the parson and his flock ‘worshipped idols there / The Devil had his Sabbath here’. It is clear where Boles thinks the moral centre of the Borough lies, and it is not with those in the ‘church parade’ after prayers end. The rector is far too ready to ‘ignore, growing at your door, evils, like your fancy flowers.’ (The image of the country parson in delicate repose in his garden was a common one indeed, and comes direct from Crabbe.)

As the mood sours and the chorus cry out for the parson, fired by Boles, Adams asks ‘is it my business?’ Hitherto we have seen little of him, save for a cheery greeting in the opening scene. Now he is forced to hold an impromptu inquest into Grimes’ supposed mistreatment of his apprentice, interrogating Ellen as the crowd continues its hostile commentary. ‘You planned to be worldly-wise’ he tells Ellen as she speaks of her hope of redemption with Grimes, ‘but your souls were dark’. Reluctantly Adams leads a party of inquiry to Grimes’ hut (followed by the crowd), which they find empty yet ‘reasonably kept / Here’s order. Here’s skill’. Another of the well-to-do draws the moral: ‘Here we come pell-mell / Expecting to find out – we know not what. / But all we find is a neat and empty hut / Gentlemen, take this to your wives / Less interference in our private lives.’ Nothing to be done, Adams supposes; it would not do to egg people on too much.

Britten was first alerted to Crabbe by an essay by his friend E.M. Forster, published in The Listener in 1941, which Britten thought sufficiently important to have it reprinted in the booklet accompanying the premiere (illustrated above). It is not often remarked, given the relatively minor place given by Britten and Slater to the character of the rector, that he looms rather large in Forster’s essay. That said, Forster and Slater are agreed on his fault, which is weakness. He is a man ‘whose constant care was no man to offend’ (the line is Crabbe’s); who ‘valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it’. Crabbe’s epitaph for him is damning: ‘They who knew him best, proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest.’ At play in his garden, ‘no trifles failed his yielding mind to please’.

And it is in his pusillanimity, his readiness to hope that the emotions stirred in the Borough will simply regulate themselves, that we’re invited to see Adams in the worst light.

In Act III, a few days later, he, Crabbe and the group of burgesses excuse themselves from the dance at the Moot Hall, though the whispers have returned, not least from Mrs Sedley, one of his own flock. ‘I looked in a moment’ he sings, and ‘the company’s gay / With pretty young women and youths on the spree.’ Whether oblivious to or afraid of what the night holds, he retires to his house, to light, trivial music (a hornpipe, in fact) that jars, and is meant to; it is grotesquely carefree when framed by the rest of the score. Good night, he bids them all, ‘don’t let the ladies keep company too late! / My love to the maidens, wish luck to the men! I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.’

Now without any of the better sort to moderate the atmosphere as it darkens, a mob soon assembles to hunt Grimes down, among which is Boles. Adams has refused the chance to try to restrain the mob, to act as peacemaker to the whole parish. And in the morning he walks to church for morning prayer (according to the directions in the published libretto), as on any other day, while the waters close over Grimes’ boat in the distance. What is that in the distance, people ask, a sinking boat? ‘Nothing I can see’ says Boles; Grimes is gone.

Where Boles’ religion is hot, vital (if hysterical), Adams’ is formal, complacent, and in the last instance unable to act. In the religious life of the Borough, the Rector is the Ego to Boles’ Id. In the end, it is the Id that is overwhelming, but both are complicit in Grimes’s destruction. As Peter Garvie observed in 1972, the Christianity in the opera is ‘uninfluential for good’. Neither provides a path to peace for the community or to repentance and redemption for Grimes. In 1945, on the cusp of a new start, neither variety of English religion seems to merit its place in the new Jerusalem.

[The essays by Peter Garvie and E. M. Forster are both reprinted in the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Peter Grimes. The production shown above is a 1969 television film, with Pears in the title role, Gregory Dempsey as Boles, and Robert Tear as Horace Adams.]

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Martyrs, memorials and meaning in Protestant England

Sitting in what William Morris described as ‘a great amphitheatre of chalk hills’, the market town of Lewes is one of Sussex’s particular delights. For all its quiet charm, the town is perhaps best known for its elaborate celebrations of Bonfire Night, during which the several bonfire societies in and around the town converge ina grand procession. It is an anarchic mixture of revelry and symbol, pipes and drums, in which effigies of contemporary political bogeymen are burned. In 2019 it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but every year Pope Paul V (who was pope in 1605) is also committed to the flames. There is also an act of remembrance for the dead of the two world wars at the memorial in the town centre, and seventeen burning crosses are borne in procession, representing the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake outside the Star Inn under the Catholic Mary I (1555-7). A more eclectic mixture of religious and secular memory and political commentary would be difficult to find in England.

The path from the topmost road of the estate to the memorial field. Image: Peter Webster

But there is another memorial of that Reformation past in Lewes, although one must now work hard to find it. Though it is difficult to see from most of the town, from the vantage point of the castle keep one can pick out, across the Ouse valley on Cliffe Hill to the east, an austere obelisk, described on the tourist viewfinder as a memorial to the Lewes martyrs. Intrigued by this during a visit to Lewes last August, my unplanned pilgrimage to it began.

It was harder than I expected to find my way. There were no signposts that I could see (though I later found it marked on a town guide), and it was invisible from the valley floor due to the trees on the hill. I asked a couple of people – one passer-by, the waitress in the cafe – if they knew it, but no. Eventually, just by a church, I found a road that seemed to snake up the steep hill. But the keepers of the Cuilfail residential estate (which I suppose dates from the 1970s) provide no signposts. Indeed, such signage as there is leaves the visitor in no doubt that the road is private, with no parking allowed. But eventually, up a narrow path (which did have a sign), I found it, on a flat patch of grass sandwiched between the back fences of the gardens of the houses of the estate and a golf course. On a pleasant Sunday in summer, I saw not another soul in the hour or so I spent on Cliffe Hill, while the castle did a healthy trade in visitors, and the town bustled gently; no-one passes by this place. If a memorial must be visible to operate, then this one can have little effect.

As I write, the politics of public memorials are being discussed with a fervency we rarely see, in the wake of the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol. There is much talk of ‘erasing history’. But – in and of themselves – such monuments tell us almost nothing at all about those they commemorate – about the history that is supposedly being erased. What they do reveal, much more naively, is the intentions of those who created them, acts just as political (in the broadest sense) as toppling Colston and symbolically drowning him in the waters in which so many of his slaves met their deaths. These objects are indeed historical artefacts, but not of what is commonly supposed. In the case of Lewes, the obelisk and the burning crosses represent two distinct ideas of memory and martyrdom – one largely secular and the other strictly doctrinal – that for a time converged but now are as separate as ever.

John Wolffe has recently shown that the Protestant recovery of the Marian martyrs is relatively recent, a twentieth-century reaction to increased Roman Catholic assertiveness of their own recusant martyrs. The Lewes memorial was erected in 1901; elsewhere, in the 1920s, the Protestant Alliance renovated memorials in Brentwood and at Smithfield in London, and set up new ones in Amersham and in Norwich (both 1931). Wolffe points out the particular conflation in Lewes of religious and secular remembrance in the placing of the new memorial to the First World War on the site of the burnings in the town centre. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council, formed in 1925, provided for the illumination of the memorial on every November 5th, further cementing the connection between the events.

But the years after 1945 saw a remarkably swift waning of this Protestant-Catholic antagonism, so much so that the planned canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 jarred with the ecumenical advances being made at the same time between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, regretted the move, both privately and publicly, and appealed for a new shared Christian martyrology. And in time the ecumenical spirit further pushed this kind of polemical Protestant self-consciousness to the margins, though it continued to thrive in the particular conditions of Northern Ireland.

Yet the annual commemoration service at the Lewes memorial continued, and continues still under the auspices of the Commemoration Council – in June, on a date more congruent with the burnings in the 1550s, not November 5th. (The Council also continued to fund new memorials elsewhere in the county to sixteen more Marian martyrs, the most recent in 1997). The church at the foot of the hill that I passed on my pilgrimage was formerly the Jireh chapel, a Calvinistic Independent chapel built in 1805 and now Grade One listed. As the congregation dwindled, the building was taken over by Lewes Free Presbyterian Church, one of only a handful of English outposts of Ian Paisley’s new church in Northern Ireland. And there appears still to be a close connection between the church and the Council, which retains a postal address in Lewes. The church’s minister, Pastor Philip Knowles, an Ulsterman himself, was the preacher at the 2019 service.

And the collected sermons and addresses from these events that the Council publish are of a kind familiar to students of this continuing Protestant remnant. They speak of a self-conscious, defensive community, dwindling with age, at odds with the mainline Christian denominations, continuing to contend for a pure gospel as the martyrs did. The Council is also connected through personnel and joint activities with Christian Watch, formed in 2001 and devoted to ‘informing Christians about the possible loss of their religious liberties from current and proposed developments within the UK and European Union.’ And so the language of persecution persists, but not at the hands of Rome but of an aggressive secularising state. While the secularised commemoration of Bonfire Night burgeons, a smaller, more specifically religious memory still attaches to the gaunt obelisk on the hill. The object remains, but its history is still being made.

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A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

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Perfectibility and grace in the New Town

The novel next in line in my series on fictional clergy, and the churches they work in, is a relative rarity. ‘Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches … built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full.’ My words, from a piece for the Church Times a couple of years ago, and these fictional churches are few indeed, but there are at least some. One such church appears in Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel Late Call.

Wilson’s novel is one of the tension between old and new, ‘progressive’ and traditional, dramatised through the mutual incomprehension of three generations of the same family. And the setting is important: Carshall, a fictional post-war New Town somewhere in England. The two churches in the novel, and the two clergymen found in them, are not at all central to the plot. But the two pairings, of oldness and newness in their different ways, are part of the framing of the novel’s central theme.

Take the two churches, one in the New Town centre, and the other in the historic old town. The church in Old Carshall sits serenely by the village green and the stone cross, the timbered houses and the preserved ducking stool. The only concession to the twentieth century is a window, showing the tommies and nurses of the First World War. It is in these village churches that one of the characters finds ‘such a real sense of order and tradition’ in their worship (chapter 5). Wilson tells us little more of it, and does not need to.

With time on her hands, the novel’s main character Sylvia shops and wanders in the New Town, taking in the self-conscious gestures of its architecture (chapter 4). The public library is well set out, clean, lit by large glass windows. And the church of St Saviour too, like the library and the bowling alley too, is light and simple inside, lit with a ‘lovely sky-blue light’ by its windows of thin slotted glass. In fact, apart from the long thin silver crucifix ‘you’d hardly know it for a church’ so much as a lecture hall, with wooden chairs with tie-on cushions in a jade green cloth. In the atrium there are racks of pamphlets with clever, eye-catching photographs on their covers.

Bush Fair shopping centre in Harlow. From the J. R. James Archive (Flickr), CC BY-NC 2.0

Outside in the town centure the gestures are more explicit. There is a fountain with mechanical metal arms; a twisted bronze sculpture called the ‘Watcher’, ‘difficult and modern’; a mural in pink and lilac, of the naked young in bucolic freedom, by some ‘name’ artist the Corporation had sought out. And St Saviour’s is quite a famous ‘modern’ church, she understands, with its ‘odd metal steeple more like a piece of children’s Meccano and the funny slots in the side of the building’; it is its strangeness that draws her inside into its simplicity and quiet.

We never meet the Reverend Mr Marchant, rector of St Saviour’s, though he is the kind of man that the pragmatic and progressive folk of the New Town appreciate (chapter 5). He is controversial, we are to understand, a preacher from whom one never hears ‘any of this dry-as-dust theological stuff’. His piety is much more this-worldly, upsetting the grammar school people with his sermon on the eleven-plus. And to the church on Easter Sunday come ‘women in smart hats and men in their best lounge suits… everyone was dressed up to the nines’; it looks even more like a meeting room than when empty.

But Mr Marchant has slipped a disc, and the parish must accept whoever the archdeacon can supply to preach at short notice. And the substitute, Mr Carpenter, is far from what the neat and ostentatious congregation expect. Very old, with a long red nose and a dirty-looking beard, he seems like ‘some bedraggled, mangy old goat’. And his voice is one that reduces the flighty young to fits of stifled giggles: first strange, trembling and drawn out, then ‘the refined squeak of an Edinburgh Judy in a Punch and Judy show’. But grotesque though he appears, it is his words that provoke consternation; no gospel of good works from this holy fool. To be a ‘bustling, hustling busybody – that’s not life, or no more life than the frugal ant or the hoppitty flea…. Good works’ll not save your soul alive… This Grace, Lord, impart!’

But this is no Calvinistic straitjacket; there is much one can do to meet God. ‘Go out to mind who you are. Go out, not into the busy clamour of getting and spending, not even into the soothing clamour of good works. No, go out into the dreadful silence, the dark nothingness… then indeed may the Lord send the light of his face to shine upon you, then indeed may you be visited by that Grace which will save your soul alive.’

While the busy headmaster is apoplectic at such ‘vicious nonsense’ – this ‘barbaric doctrine’ of grace – and resolves to inform the church authorities, it is his mother Sylvia who alone troubles to thank the old man: ‘I shan’t forget what you said.’ ‘Ah’ he replies; ‘it’s all old stuff, I’m afraid.’ Into the sleek project of human perfectibility that the New Town represents, Wilson intrudes an older, more troublesome, more exacting faith.

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