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.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing, and unlimited access to the archive.

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.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon?

Walter Hussey, Henry Moore and the Northampton ‘Madonna and Child’

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
To view this content, you must be a member of Peter's Patreon at £2 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.

Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
To view this content, you must be a member of Peter's Patreon at £2 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.

On memory, migration and the idea of Europe

Newcastle cathedral from Mosley Street.
Image: JimmyGuano, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

In a part of Newcastle that once was central but is now on the edges of the real business of the city is the cathedral of St Nicholas. It is an unassuming building, dark and quiet inside, and attracts relatively few tourists. But it remains part of my own pilgrimage trail when visiting my native city, the venue of what as a schoolboy seemed to be interminable carol and Founder’s Day services.

On a recent visit, on a grey day just before Christmas – a break from the swirl of Christmas shoppers in Northumberland Street and the glaring palace of light that is the Eldon Square shopping arcade – I found a remarkable war memorial, tucked away in the far corner of the north choir aisle. In this cathedral of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and of merchants, is a memorial to a particular group of sailors with a largely unknown connection to the north east: the Danish merchant navy. Behind it lies a story of migration and memory, of people, things and places, and of what it is to be European.

When in April 1940 Denmark was occupied by the German navy, there were many Danish ships in British ports, and more again still at sea. Those already in port came under British protection, and many of those at sea also put into British ports. Newcastle became the temporary home of the Danish merchant fleet, based at the so-called ‘Danish pool’ in St Nicholas’ Buildings, opposite the cathedral, outside which flew the Danish flag. There the sailors were received after the short climb up the Castle Stairs from the quayside, and from there they were sent out. In the meantime they could spend time in their social club, in the same building. The club’s kitchen turned out hundreds of smørrebrød at a time; a photograph survives of a visiting British government minister playing billiards. In all, somewhere between three and four thousand Danish seamen sailed from Newcastle in those five years.

In 2005 the Danish frigate HDMS Triton arrived on the Tyne before the VE Day Commemorations, its crew disembarking and walking up the hill to the cathedral to attend a special service; the Danish consul in Newcastle thought the Newcastle events were the largest outside Denmark itself. On the banks of the river to greet the Triton was Paul Jorgensen, then 80 years of age. Jorgensen had sailed with the Danish fleet, met and married a Newcastle woman and lived still in Wallsend, a short walk from the river. Bruno Jensen Hansen, aged 89 and one of the very last surviving veterans, travelled from Canada to Newcastle to attend a similar service in 2015. At sea when Denmark was invaded, his ship put into Newcastle. Placed in lodgings in the city, he met Phyllis, another local girl, and the two married. Hansen served in the Atlantic convoys bringing essential supplies from the USA, and in 1942 spent ten days in a lifeboat after his ship was torpedoed.

After the war, minds turned to the business of memory. There had been a Danish congregation in Newcastle since the nineteenth century, meeting for a while in the Sailors’ Bethel, built in red brick in Horatio Street on the north bank of the river in 1877. (Now hemmed in by new apartment blocks on the regenerated Quayside, it houses a consultancy firm, part of the new Tyneside of the knowledge economy.) In recognition of the number of Danes now living in the city, a new mission church was built by the Danish Seamen’s Church in Foreign Ports, and consecrated in 1949. (Further down the coast in Hull, the seamen’s church had been destroyed by German bombing. Rebuilt in 1954, like the cathedral it was dedicated to St Nicholas.)

The new building in Newcastle contained a memorial wall to those seamen who had died, along with a book of remembrance, one name on each page. One page was apparently turned each day. It seems that several of the widows and other relatives travelled to Newcastle for the consecration of the church, and the sight of them walking around the city moved one local woman to set up what became the Newcastle Anglo-Scandinavian Society.

By 1968, seamen were spending less time in port before sailing again, and the decision was taken to close the church, leaving the resident Danish population without church services. At this point began a peregrination of the memorial itself that parallels that of the men it commemorates. The memorial wall was shipped to Copenhagen to the Frihedsmuseet, itself little more than a decade old, created to bring together the traces of Danish resistance both in Denmark and at sea. At some point it moved again, this time to the Frøslev museum near the German border, a former prisoner of war camp which after 1945 became an internment camp under Danish control.

Meanwhile the book of remembrance was taken to another Danish seamen’s church, in London’s Docklands. This church was in Ming Street, formerly King Street but renamed in recognition of the Chinese community. Built in 1867, it was a short walk from the North Dock, now overlooked by the Museum of London’s Docklands base, in the shadow of the towers of Canary Wharf. It too had been bombed, and restored in 1948 by Caröe and Partners (W.D. Caröe was the son of the Danish consul in Liverpool).

When this building too was closed in 1980 and later demolished, there were other possible homes for the book in London, not least the Danish Church near Regent’s Park. However, the Newcastle congregation, by this point meeting in the German Lutheran church in the Shieldfield area in the east of the city, approached the Lord Mayor and the Provost of the cathedral.

As a result, the book found what will hopefully be its permanent home, and the present memorial was created with funding from the Danish shipowners’ association, and unveiled in 1982. Designed by the cathedral architect, Ronald Sims, its four pieces of Westmorland slate represent the Danish islands, surrounded by sea. In 2002 a new stained glass window was added above it, again at the initiative of the Danish church in Newcastle. Made of glass both from the north-east and from Denmark, it is based on the design of one of the vestments in Aarhus cathedral, and includes the arms of the three ports of Aarhus, Copenhagen and Marstal. Above it hangs the Dannebrog, the same Danish flag that marked the entrance of the ‘Danish pool’ during the war.

The Danish memorial in Newcastle cathedral.

Why tell this story, and why tell it now, this mixture of obscure local history and personal travelogue? I tell it because it is a story of Britain in Europe, at a time when recollection of such stories is at a discount.

In June 2016, the moment when it became clear to me that the Brexit referendum was lost was when the result for Newcastle was declared, a bare Remain majority of 50.7% in a university city. The results were less close elsewhere on the Tyne: in North Tyneside (53.4% to leave), South Tyneside (62%), and in Gateshead, Newcastle’s poor relation over the water, 56.8%. To grow up in Gateshead in the 1980s was to feel different, to feel very distant from London and its concerns. Insofar as the European project has been one made on the Eurostar between London and Brussels, for many in the north east it had, and continues to have, nothing to do with them. And on Boxing Day, after they had opened the Christmas presents bought in Eldon Square and Northumberland Street, European friends and neighbours in Newcastle as elsewhere were reminded of the need to apply to remain in the homes they had made in good faith, acting on promises already made by the UK and now broken, and to pay for the privilege.

This story is an ‘island story’, that mode in which so much English history is told. But it is not one of isolation, but of connection, of the migration of people and things, and the memories that attach to them. It is a story of the sea, and of the river as the symbolic centre of a certain idea of Tyneside, of ships and coal and the working man. But it is not a story of empire, but rather of the provision of safe harbour, of hospitality, of co-operation in the face of a common enemy. And it is part of the conjoined story of two nations which joined the EEC at the same time in 1973, entering into a new community with their former enemy, a community born in the rubble of conflict. The idea of Brexit was articulated – but did not have to be so framed – in terms of English isolation, of our exceptionalism, of how we did not ‘feel European’ in the way others might do. But that feeling, such as it is, is not a given, but a product of the stories we tell ourselves. Another idea of Europe and our place in it is possible, and this is just one of its many small stories.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon?

Sources
Mindersmærke og Mindevinduet for Danske Sømænd [Leaflet, Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne, c.2002]

Baird, C. (2017). “En broget skare” danske krigssejlere i Newcastle upon Tyne. M/S Museet for Søfarts årbog, 71, 33-58. https://tidsskrift.dk/mfs_aarbog/article/view/96612

Newcastle Anglo-Scandinavian Society, a history [Internet Archive]

Click to access How%20it%20all%20began%20(1).pdf

BBC News on the church of St Nicholas in Hull
http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/humberside/hi/people_and_places/religion_and_ethics/newsid_8207000/8207884.stm

On the history of the Danish church in London
http://www.stgitehistory.org.uk/danishchurch.html

The Survey of London, volumes 43-44 on Ming Street [British History Online]
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp113-117

Newcastle Evening Chronicle: 7 May 2005; 10 May 2015.

The Danish Church in Newcastle [Internet Archive]
https://web.archive.org/web/20110413075604/http://www.danskekirke-newcastle.co.uk:80/