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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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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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.

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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/

The politics of memory, local and national: the Battle of Bosham Clock

Nestling on one of the reaches of Chichester harbour, the life of the village of Bosham is peculiarly dominated by the changing tide. At high tide the road around the narrow channel becomes impassable; sometimes the cars of unsuspecting visitors are engulfed by the water that changes the appearance and even the sound of the village. Legend has it that it was in Bosham that Canute ordered the tides to cease, yet still they continue to rise and fall.

Although the visitor does not see it when arriving from the main road between Chichester and Portsmouth, the village is dominated by the parish church. Overlooking the meadow that separates it from the quay from which sailing boats are launched each weekend, the church of the Holy Trinity can be seen from north, south and west. Also on the green is the village war memorial, one of the great many made after 1918 which had to be modified, not always comfortably, to accommodate the dead of the second generation; some of those lost in both conflicts were lost to the sea. And despite the apparent givenness of the scene, Bosham was the scene of a remarkable controversy lasting from 1945 until 1947 over how the village dead should be remembered.

Quay Meadow, Bosham.
Image by ianpudsey [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The dispute centred over a proposed memorial, a new clock face on the church tower. It ended in a hearing in the consistory court of the diocese, in which disputes over alterations to churches were settled, after which the clock was in fact approved, made and installed. The papers of that hearing illustrate the full range of local opinion on how a small community should remember its dead, when grief remained raw.

But this was not merely a local dispute, as the idea provoked a national campaign in opposition that engaged the English establishment at the highest level. Letters to the Times were written; representations were made to the diocesan chancellor (to whom it fell to settle the case). Which should win out: the national guardians of the architectural heritage of the nation, or a local community? And with whom in that community did authority rest?

******

The names of the Bosham dead of both world wars are recorded both on two brass plates in the church, and on the memorial on the meadow: thirty names from the first conflict, forty-two more from the second. Some names appear in both lists; others more than once, such as the three Stubbington brothers, all killed in the second conflict. Among them were the names of sons of both the two opponents in the controversy: the vicar, and the lord of the manor.

The Bosham war memorial on Quay Meadow.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

The general idea of a memorial clock had been in the mind of the vicar, A.L. Chatfield, very soon after the end of the war, if not before. Chatfield had himself won a Military Cross, and his son, John Anthony Cecil Chatfield had been killed by shellfire near Caen in northern France in July 1944. As well as on the plate in the church, his loss was recorded amongst the dozens of others from his school, Lancing College, a short train ride away from Bosham. He had been mentioned in despatches.

George Bell, bishop of Chichester, was by this time already known as an encourager of the contemporary arts in his diocese. Emboldened by a conversation with Bell during a visit, Chatfield put the idea to the church’s Parochial Church Council in November 1945, and announced his intentions in the parish magazine in January 1946. A public meeting was held in the village hall in early February, at and after which objections were raised; already the key issues were in view.

The local artist Helen Reid objected on the grounds that it would spoil the appearance of the tower (although the design was not yet finalised). Others, she thought, favoured an alternative idea that had begun to circulate, that of a social centre in the village for returning servicemen: ‘wouldn’t that be a practical tribute, for it would be for those who came back to enjoy.’ (This predisposition towards ‘useful’ memorials was widespread in England at this point.) However, she stressed that it would be ‘such a pity to have any strong divergence of ideas over anything as sacred as a War Memorial’ and invited Chatfield and his wife to take tea.

Despite these early signs of trouble, Chatfield was undeterred. In March, on Bell’s advice, the idea went before the Sussex Churches Arts Council, a body unique to the diocese and set up by Bell to advise churches on new works of art. The Council approved the idea in principle, but suggested modifications to the design, sketched by F.C. Eeles, a member of the Council, but also secretary of the national Central Council for the Care of Churches. A revised design then went in October to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the body with the legal responsibility for regulating alterations to churches, which recommended that it be approved.

The clock in Bosham church tower.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

In the meantime, an alternative memorial scheme was being put in place, following a further public meeting in May. An appeal was instituted in July to fund (in this order): the addition of the names of the war dead to the existing village memorial (a very common practice); the reconditioning of a play area nearby, and to raise £2500 for a new village social club. The manifesto document of the fund still at this stage stressed its non-denominational character; there was no wish to cut across memorials that the churches in the village might wish to make themselves.

In February 1947, the statutory invitation for objections to the granting of the faculty seems to have been the trigger that turned a smouldering local dispute into a full-scale fire. The argument was made that the church was a Saxon one (which was correct, in part) and as such any addition to it would be too incongruous; one correspondent thought it a ‘desecration’. Chatfield responded that, although the church was indeed very old, the cladding on the tower in fact dated from the nineteenth century. Even if that had not been the case, ‘if your Norman and Early English Church builders had all declared Bosham Church unique and added nothing for us today – I’m afraid there would be very little for us to be proud of – do please try to see things ahead – it is only fair to the future generation.’

Others suggested that, whatever form it took, ‘a war memorial should have the general approval and support of the parish as a whole and not be a source of dissension thereto’. Several hundred names that had by now been added to a petition against the clock. Chatfield, however, believed them to be mostly those of day-trippers and of the growing number of temporary holiday residents in the village. Were the wardens and PCC to be overridden in parochial affairs, he asked, by outsiders who ‘merely indulge themselves in occasional residence at Bosham for any purpose other than that for which a church was built and continues to exist?’ Implicitly implicated in this was Rupert Guinness, the second earl Iveagh, lord of the manor, who was listed among the principal objectors. Iveagh’s father, the industrialist Edward Guinness, had been created the first earl in 1919 and bought the lordship at some point after that. The family seat was in Norfolk; the second earl himself was resident near Woking, some fifty miles away.

These particular arguments of principle were given a particular intensity by the presence on both sides of those who had been bereaved. Chatfield received several letters from the bereaved, both in favour and against. Chatfield wrote to Iveagh with a list of 33 names of the bereaved who were supporting the scheme, urging him to drop his ‘wholly inadequate, also extremely inconsiderate’ objections. ‘To proceed with any proposal’ Iveagh replied ‘in the face of strong opposition from so many, including those, like myself, are among the bereaved, introduces an element of discord, wholly at variance with what should be our feelings in regard to a memorial. While the present generation lasts, it would emphasize discord, when a memorial should be an expression of unity of purpose.’ The plaque in the church bears the name ‘Elveden’: Iveagh’s son Arthur, viscount Elveden, killed while part of an anti-tank regiment at Nijmegen in the Netherlands in February 1945.

The stone in the churchyard below the clock face. The text reads;
‘I ring for you the passing hours
Dweller and stranger on your way
I ring remembrance for the men
Who died to win your liberty
And though the warriors’ sun be set
Its radiance lingers with us yet
Turn here to prayer before you go

If this had been the extent of the dispute, it may well be regarded as merely an unusually bitter local disagreement; the issues of principle involved were repeated in other places. It was however further complicated by the intrusion of influential national opinion. Resident in the manor house next to the church was the architect Grey Wornum, and it was apparently at Wornum’s instigation that a letter was sent to the Times, objecting to an ‘incongruous addition’. The letter suggested that the various watchdog bodies had been caught napping, and that the last line of defence was to dissuade the diocesan Chancellor, Kenneth Mead McMorran, from granting the faculty. ‘Time is short, and if this last defence is to be effective it is desirable that public opinion should reinforce local opinion. To that end, Sir, we address you and your influential readers.’

Wornum had been assiduous in gathering signatories; as well as Iveagh, the list included the prominent architects A.E. Richardson, Charles Holden and W.H. Ansell (the latter a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects). Another signatory, the architect Lionel Pearson, had designed the memorial for the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner. Also on the list were Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy; the Slade professor of fine art at UCL, Randolph Schwabe, and the former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Sir Sydney Cockerell. The letter was followed by several others in support, expressing the hope that ‘the opposition to the scheme may be overwhelming, and that we shall hear no more of it.’

The effect of this pressure was felt in Bosham. One of Chatfield’s most vocal correspondents despaired of the fact that the vicar would not accept the judgment of such a group of ‘eminent signatories’ as those of the Times letter. It wasn’t only Chatfield who was to feel the pressure; enquiries were made to the Diocesan Advisory Committee by Walter Godfrey, of the National Monuments Record. The secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings also made an enquiry to the chancellor’s office, but was warned that the matter was sub judice. Undeterred, the Society’s chairman, Viscount Esher wrote directly to Macmorran, strongly deprecating the proposal, and was instructed again that the matter could not be discussed.

So it was that George Bell’s chancellor was caught in a near-perfect storm. The village locally had been divided over the appropriate form of memorial, and of the proper relation of beauty and utility; in play was the issue of the right relation between a church, its parishioners and an historic building; all this was mixed with a liberal portion of local grief. As Macmorran made clear in his judgement, he had in addition been caught between a correctly administered process of deliberation by experts within the diocese on the one hand, and the precipitous intervention of national bodies on the other; a case in which different parts of the ‘establishment’ were in disagreement. He was to rule, in June 1947, in favour of the former, and against those, like Esher, who ‘ought to have known better’ than to try to pressurise him.

Bosham at low tide.
Image by ianpudsey (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Few in the village now know of the story of the ‘Battle of Bosham Clock’, and it seems that memories of the dispute faded relatively quickly. Only three years later, in 1950, Grey Wornum was also to lose a child: his daughter, Jenefer, who had lived at the manor, drowned in the sea off the Australian coast at the age of 23. It would seem that he made his peace with the church enough to design a set of gates in her memory, described in a nearby tablet as his last work before his death in 1957. And so the clock, weathered now as its designer had anticipated, still looks out at the tide as it rises and falls in Bosham Channel.

The papers relating to the consistory court case may be consulted at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. To learn more about the national involvement of the Church of England in war memorials after 1945, see this article from 2008 on war memorials, bombed churches and the Church of England, 1940-7.

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War memorials, bombed churches and ‘Christian civilisation’

I usually summarise my articles here, but this older one has not had such a summary before now as it predates this blog. As I’ve had cause to revisit it in the process of thinking about London’s blitzed churches in fiction, here’s a digest.

Title: Beauty, utility and “Christian civilisation”: war memorials and the Church of England, 1940-47
Published: Forum for Modern Language Studies 44:2 (2008) 199-211
Read the final version (proofs)

The years following the end of the First World War saw an effusion of memorials to that war, to the extent that scarcely a village, school or regiment was without one. The impression that might be gained from a journey through much of rural England is that the stone cross, placed by the village green, was the predominant form of memorial chosen by English communities after 1918. In contrast (it has been argued) the years after 1945 were characterised by indifference, and indeed hostility, towards the building of further monuments in stone. Nick Hewitt has suggested that this ‘sceptical generation’ desired ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ memorials, such as playing fields, community halls or educational scholarships. The ‘artistic establishment’ was by 1944 out of touch with a utilitarian public. This article considers just this establishment and the part played by the Church of England in its deliberations.

It examines the moment during the last years of the war and immediately after, during which the interlocking ecclesiastical, artistic and governmental establishments began to imagine the general shape of memorialisation, and the part the bombed churches of London and elsewhere might play. It shows that there had been a much more lively debate on memorials than the eventual inventory might imply. Debate centred in particular on whether or not a beautiful but “useless” memorial was an appropriate response and (if it was) in which style it ought to be executed. Clergy, artists and architects and the committees and bodies that facilitated their interaction were keenly interested in the relationship between beauty, utility and the reconstruction of “Christian civilisation”.