The Church of St. Mary Ovaries in London

A few years ago, when the approaches to the new London Bridge were in preparation, an agreement was proposed, and all but concluded, that a space of some sixty feet should be granted for the better display of an old church on the Southwark side, and that a certain chapel belonging to the latter should be at the same time swept away. The church in question, in short, was to be made as neat and snug as possible, as a fitting preliminary to the new display that it was to be permitted to make. There were persons, however, who by no means approved of the scheme. They said that the Chapel of our Ladye (Fig. 547), which was sought to be destroyed, was one of the most beautiful and antique structures of the kind in England. There were some, even, who held that the fact, that the honoured ashes of good Bishop Andrews lay in it (Bishop Andrews, whose death drew from Milton, no bishop-lover generally, a most passionate elegy), ought to make the place sacred. All this no doubt seemed very nonsensical to the framers of the plan in question, who quietly appealed to the parishioners of St. Saviour’s, and obtained the sanction of a large majority to the destruction of the Ladye Chapel. But the persons before mentioned were exceedingly obstinate. They would not be quiet. The Press then took up the matter, and strove might and main to forward the views of these malcontents. At another meeting of the parishioners, the “destructives,” to borrow a political phrase, found their majority had dwindled down to three; and what was infinitely worse, on a poll being demanded, they were left in a minority of between two and three hundred—the beautiful Ladye Chapel and Bishop Andrews’s grave were safe. The workmen not long after entered, but it was to restore, not to destroy. Many, no doubt, owe their first personal acquaintance with, if not their first knowledge of, the Church of St. Mary Overies to the circumstances here narrated, and have been at once surprised and delighted to find so noble and interesting a structure (as beautiful and almost as large as a cathedral) in such a place—the Borough. And when they have been thus led to inquire into the history of the building, their pleasure has been as unexpectedly enhanced. The story of its origin is a tale of romance; poetical associations of no ordinary character attach to its subsequent annals; holy martyrs have passed from the dread tribunal sitting within its walls to the fiery agony of the stake at Smithfield. Stow’s account of the origin of St. Mary Overies, derived from Linsted, its last Prior, is as follows:—“This church, or some other in place thereof, was of old time, long before the Conquest, a House of Sisters, founded by a maiden named Mary. Unto the which house and sisters she left (as was left her by her parents) the oversight and profits of a cross tain amount of admiration and sympathy on the man, notwithstanding the undoubted violence and ambition of the prelate, when we see him performing all the last and most questionable acts of ecclesiastical power, excommunication of personal enemies, with the clearest anticipation of what might be the personal consequences. On that day, he told the congregation that one of the archbishops had been a martyr, and that they would probably soon see another; and forthwith blazed out the indomitable spirit as fiercely and as brilliantly as ever. “Before I depart home, I will avenge some of the wrongs my church has suffered during the last seven years;” and immediately he fulminated sentence of excommunication against Ranulf and Robert de Broc, and Nigellus, rector of Harrow. Three days after, the knights met at the castle of that very Ranulf de Broc; and finally determined upon their plans. The next morning they entered Canterbury with a large body of troops, whom they stationed at different quarters in order to quell any attempt of the inhabitants to defend the doomed man. They then proceeded to the monastery of St. Augustine (Fig. 570) with twelve attendants, and from thence to the palace, where they found the archbishop. It was then about two o’clock. They seated themselves on the floor, in silence, and gazed upon him. There was awful meaning in that glance; a no less awful apprehension of it, in the look with which it was returned. For the murderers to do what they had determined upon, against such a man, and at such a period, was, if possible, more terrible than for the victim to suffer at their hands. At last Reginald Fitzurse spoke: “We come,” said he, “that you may absolve the bishops whom you have excommunicated; re-establish the bishops whom you have suspended; and answer for your own offences against the king.” Becket, understanding they came from Henry, answered boldly and warmly, yet not without symptoms of a desire to give reasonable satisfaction. He said he could not absolve the archbishop of York, whose heinous case must be reserved for the Pope’s judgment, but that, he would withdraw the censures from the two other bishops, if they would swear to submit to the Papal decision. They then questioned him upon the grand point—supremacy; “Do you hold your archbishopric of the King or the Pope?” “I owe the spiritual rights to God and the Pope, and the temporal rights to the King.” After some altercation, in the course of which Becket reminded three of them of the time when they were his liege men, and haughtily said, that it was not for such as they to threaten him in his own house, the knights departed, significantly observing they would do more than threaten. Whether the hesitation, here apparent, arose from a desire to try to avoid extremities, or from want of mental courage to perform the terrible act meditated, may be questioned; both influences probably weighed upon their minds. By and bye they returned to the palace, and, finding the gates shut, endeavoured to force an entrance. Presently Robert de Broc showed them an easier path through a window. The persons around Becket had been previously urging him to take refuge in the church, thinking his assailants would be deterred from violating a place so doubly sacred—by express privileges, and by its intimate connection with the growth of Christianity in the country; but he resisted until the voices of the monks, as they sang the vespers in the choir, struck upon his ears, when he said he would go, as duty then called him. Calmly he set forth, his cross-bearer preceding him with the crucifix raised on high, not the slightest trepidation visible in his features or his movements; and when the servants would have closed the doors of the Cathedral, he forbade them; the house of God was not to be barricadoed like a castle. He was just entering the choir when Reginald Fitzurse and his companions appeared at the other end of the church, the former waving his sword and crying aloud, “Follow me, loyal servants of the King.” The assassins were armed from head to foot. Even then Becket might have escaped, in the gloom of evening, to the intricate underground parts of the Cathedral; but he was deaf to all persuasions of the kind, and advanced to meet the knights. All his company then fled, except one, the faithful cross-bearer, Edward Gryme. “Where is the traitor?” was then called out; but as Becket in his unshaken presence of mind was silent to such an appeal, Reginald Fitzurse added, “Where is the archbishop?” “Here am I,” was the reply; “an archbishop, but no traitor, ready to suffer in my Saviour’s name.” Tracy then pulled him by the sleeve, exclaiming, “Come hither; thou art a prisoner!” but Becket perceiving their object, which was to get him without the church, resisted so violently as to make Tracy stagger forward. Even then hesitating and uncertain, hardly knowing what they said, and unable to determine what they would do, they advised Becket to flee in one breath, to accompany them in another. It is probable, indeed, that Becket might have successfully and safely resisted all their demands, had he condescended to put on for one hour the garb he ought never to have put off—gentleness; but his bearing and language could hardly have been more haughty and contemptuous than now, when he saw himself utterly defenceless and encompassed by deadly enemies. Speaking to Fitzurse, he reminded him he had done him many pleasures, and asked him why he came with armed men into his church. The answer was a demand to absolve the bishops; to which Becket not only gave a decided refusal, but insulted Fitzurse by the use of a foul term that one would hardly have looked for in the vocabulary of an archbishop. “Then die,” exclaimed Fitzurse, striking at his head with his weapon; but the devoted cross-bearer interfered; when his arm was nearly cut through, and Becket slightly injured. Still anxious to avoid the consummation of a deed that necessarily appeared so tremendous in their eyes, one of them was heard even then to utter the warning voice, “Fly, or thou diest.” The archbishop, however, clasped his hands, bowed his head, and, with the blood running down his face, exclaimed, “To God, to St. Mary, to the holy patrons of this church, and to St. Denis, I commend my soul, and the church’s cause.” He was then struck down by a second blow, and a third completed the tragedy. One of the murderers placed his foot on the dead prelate’s neck, and cried “Thus perishes a traitor.” The party then retired, and after dwelling for a time at Knaresborough, and finding they were shunned by persons of all classes and conditions, spent their last days in penitence in Jerusalem: when they died, this inscription was written upon their tomb—“Here lie the wretches who murdered St. Thomas of Canterbury.” The spot where this bloody act was performed is still pointed out in the northern wing of the western transept, and that part of the Cathedral is in consequence emphatically called Martyrdom; the martyr being the designation by which Becket was immediately and universally spoken of. The excitement caused by the event has had few parallels in English history. For a twelvemonth divine service was suspended; the unnatural silence reigning throughout the vast pile during that time, making the scene of bloodshed all the more impressive to the eyes of the devout, who began to pour thither from all parts of the world in a constantly increasing stream. Canterbury then became a kind of second Holy City, where the guilty sought remission of their sins—the diseased, health—pilgrims, the blessings that awaited the performance of duly fulfilled vows. Henry himself, moved by a death so sudden and so dreadful, and so directly following upon his own hasty words, did penance in the most abject manner before Becket’s tomb; and two years later gave up all that he had so long struggled for by repealing the famous constitutions of Clarendon, which had subjected both church and clergy to the civil authority.

It was a noticeable coincidence that only four years after the death of Becket the Cathedral was all but destroyed by fire; a calamity that at such a time would hardly appear like a calamity, from the opportunity it afforded of developing in a practical shape the passion that filled the universal heart of England to do something memorable in honour of the illustrious martyr. To say that funds poured in from all parts and in all shapes, gives but little notion of the enthusiasm of the contributors to the restoration of the edifice. The feelings evidenced by foreigners show forcibly what must have been those of our own countrymen. In 1179, says Mr. Batteley, in his additions to Somner’s ‘Antiquities of Canterbury,’ “Louis VII., King of France, landed at Dover, where our king expected his arrival. On the 23rd of August these two kings came to Canterbury, with a great train of nobility of both nations, and were received by the archbishop and his com-provincials, the prior, and convent, with great honour and unspeakable joy. The oblations of gold and silver made by the French were incredible. The king [Louis] came in manner and habit of a pilgrim, and was conducted to the tomb of St. Thomas in solemn procession, where he offered his cup of gold, and a royal precious stone, with a yearly rental of one hundred muids [hogsheads] of wine for ever to the convent.” The task of rebuilding even a Canterbury Cathedral would be found but comparatively light under such circumstances; so the good work proceeded rapidly towards completion, until the fabric appeared of which the chief parts remain to the present time.,. It is not, therefore, in its associations merely that the Cathedral reminds us at every step we take in it of the turbulent and ambitious, but able and brave priest,—it may really be almost esteemed his monument; for admiration of his self-sacrifice, veneration of his piety, and yearning to do him honour, were the moving powers that raised anew the lofty roof, and extended the long-drawn aisles and nave and choir. The direct testimonies of the people’s affections were still more remarkable. Among the earliest additions made after the fire to the former plan was the circular east end, including the chapel of the Holy Trinity, and another called Becket’s Crown (Fig. 567); the last so designated, according to some authorities, from the circumstance of the chapels having been erected during the prelacy of Becket, whilst others attribute it to the form of the roof: there may have been, however, a much more poetical origin; Becket’s crown was possibly intended to be significant of the crown of martyrdom here won by the slaughtered prelate. It was in that chapel of the Holy Trinity that the shrine, famous the wide world over, was erected, and which speedily became so rich as to be without rival, we should imagine, in Europe. It was “builded,” says Stow, “about a man’s height, all of stone, then upwards of timber plain, within which was a chest of iron, containing the bones of Thomas Becket, skull and all, with the wound of his death, and the piece cut out of his skull laid in the same wound. The timber-work of this shrine on the outside was covered with plates of gold, damasked with gold wire, which ground of gold was again covered with jewels of gold, as rings, ten or twelve cramped with gold wire into the said ground of gold, many of these rings having stones in them, brooches, images, angels, precious stones, and great pearls.” The contents of the shrine were in accordance with the outward display. Erasmus, who obtained a glimpse of the treasures a little before the Reformation, says that under a coffin of wood, inclosing another of gold, which was drawn up by ropes and pulleys, he beheld an amount of riches the value of which he could not estimate. Gold was the meanest thing visible; the whole place glittered with the rarest and most precious gems, which were generally of extraordinary size, and some larger than the egg of a goose. When Henry VIII. seized upon the whole, two great chests were filled, each requiring six or seven men to move it. In strict keeping with the character of the brutal despot was his war with the dead, as well as with the living, when he ordered the remains of Becket to be burned, and the ashes scattered to the winds. The shrine, then, has disappeared, with all its contents, but a more touching memorial than either remains behind—the hollowed pavement—worn away by countless knees of worshippers from every Christian land.


Figure 566
566,—Cathedral Precinct Gateway.
Figure 567
567.—Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.
Figure 569
569.—Staircase in the Conventual Buildings, Canterbury

As our ecclesiastical builders seem to have had not the smallest notion of “finality” in their labours—but when a building was even fairly finished, in the ordinary sense of the term, were sure to find some part requiring re-erection in a new style—we find Canterbury for centuries after Becket’s death still in progress: the Reformation found the workmen still busy. . There is something in all this truly grand, harmonizing with and explaining the mighty ends obtained; reason and feeling alike whisper—Thus alone are Cathedrals built. Yet how deep and pervading the influence of art must have been upon the minds of all who were connected with such structures. Centuries pass, architect after architect dies off, and is succeeded by others, yet still the work grows in beauty, and above all in the loftiest, but under the circumstances apparently the most difficult kind of beauty—expression; each man evidently understands his predecessor so thoroughly, that he can depart from his modes of working—his style, secure still of achieving his principles. Look at Canterbury. How many changes of architectural taste are not there visible; how many different periods of architectural history may not be there traced: yet is the effect anywhere discordant?—Oh, he were indeed presumptuous who should say so. Is it not rather in the highest degree grand and impressive, conveying at once to the mind that sense of sublime repose which belongs only to works of essential unity? We need not subjoin any detailed architectural descriptions. The Cathedral is pleasantly situated in an extensive court, surrounded by gardens, cemetery, the deanery and prebendal houses, and what remains of the archiepiscopal palace, and of other buildings connected with the Cathedral, among which may be mentioned the Staircase (Fig. 569). The Precinct Gate (Fig. 566) forms the principal entrance to this court. As to the Cathedral, the double transepts may be noticed as the most noticeable feature of the plan, which represents, as usual, a cross. The choir is of extraordinary length, nearly two hundred feet, and the great tower is generally esteemed one of the chastest and most beautiful specimens we possess of Pointed architecture. Its height is two hundred and thirtyfive feet. The entire length of the building measures five hundred and fourteen feet. One of the two western towers has been recently restored. The Cathedral is exceedingly rich in objects of general interest to the visitor, and may be readily conceived when we consider what a history must be that of Canterbury, how many eminent men have been buried within its walls, what splendid examples of monumental and other sculpture exist there even yet, faint tokens of the wealth art once lavished upon its walls and niches and windows. But among the crowd of interesting objects there are two which peculiarly attract notice: a sarcophagus of grey marble, richly adorned, and bearing the effigy of a warrior, in copper gilt—that is the monument of the Black Prince, wonderfully fresh and perfect; and an ancient chair in the chapel of the Holy Trinity, formed also of grey marble, in pieces, which is used for the enthronization of the Archbishops of the See, and which, sayeth tradition, was the ancient regal seat of the Saxon kings of Kent, who may have given it to the Cathedral as an emblem of their pious submission to Him who was then first declared unto them—the King of Kings (Fig. 567).