Tag Archives: William Morris

Is John Ball a dream?

It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?

I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.

And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?

Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.

It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.

But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.

 

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Chelmsford celebrating John Ball in this painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, in the County Hall.

And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.

 

But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.

 

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The skull of Simon of Sudbury at St Gregory’s, Sudbury.

The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.

 

And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.

Images:

  1. An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels  of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
  2. John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
  3. The skull of Simon of Sudbury, copyright Evelyn Simak
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Bloody Sunday – a reminder

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When Alfred Linnell set out to see what was going on at the protest in Trafalgar Square he can have had no idea what was going to happen. He might have expected some violence – after all, the previous Sunday had been pretty vicious, but the day was getting on and he was only going for a look. Once there, he saw that the mounted police were there before him, riding, it seemed, without a thought for the humans through whom they plunged. As they came closer to him, he added his voice to those shouting at them. The mounted police dove towards those shouting, while the police on foot started to drive the people away. People panicked and fled, Linnell among them. A charger knocked him down, and as he lay there looking up at the huge beast, it trampled him down, smashing his thigh. He was left there to lie in agony, even though there was a police ambulance nearby. Bystanders took him to the hospital at Charing Cross. Twelve days later he was dead.

The 20 November 1887 isn’t the more famous of the two Sundays in November when protesters took to the streets around Trafalgar Square. The previous Sunday, the 13th, 129 years ago to this day, has gone down in history as the first ‘Bloody Sunday’. Many were injured. Three died. But it was Linnell, a seemingly innocent bystander only lately arrived at the protest scene, who became the martyr for the cause. His death became a rallying point for the socialists and anarchists in London to join with the ordinary people and to mark a dark day in the way the police were allowed to treat people, how the law ran roughshod – literally – across the demands of those ordinary people. People who were still, in the main, disenfranchised and with few of the rights we take for granted today. Linnell’s death was a small stepping stone in raising public awareness to social injustice in the Victorian world.

Bloody Sunday came only two days after the execution of the four Chicago Anarchists. Their deaths acted as an impetus to galvanise the various groups of socialists and anarchists in London to protest – and there was a readymade protest group just sitting there in London waiting for them. The 1880s were the hard times in old England – the country was deep in the ‘long depression’, and there was mass employment. Many people came to London, but found the streets were not paved with gold. Only greater hardship awaited them – no benefits of any kind then, of course. Trafalgar Square had become a gathering place for the unemployed, giving speeches, organising themselves… But it wasn’t just them. There were supporters of Irish Home Rule protesting there as well, against the Coercion Acts. On 8 November protests were outlawed. This also galvanised the socialists, the anarchists, the radicals, who not only supported workers’ rights but also, critically, the right to free assembly and speech.

On Sunday 13 November more than 10,000 protestors marched towards Trafalgar Square. Estimates say that there were 30,000 people there that day. Waiting for them in the Square were up to 4000 police and troops – those latter armed. The protesters were marching into a trap. William Morris said afterwards ‘into the net we marched’[i]. Marching from Clerkenwell was the Socialist League, including Morris, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and others.  There were speeches, there was a band playing. But it didn’t last.800px-1887bloodysunday

Morris was walking in the middle of the crowd with Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw, and, through some sixth sense, guessed there was trouble ahead.  Pushing to the front he saw the police were there. Their banner was torn out of the hands of Mrs Taylor, despite her determination to keep it[ii], and the band’s instruments smashed.[iii] The police didn’t care if you were a man or a woman. They actually got hold of Eleanor Marx, but she managed to escape with only a whack from a truncheon and a blow to the head…[iv] Morris, in the thick of the action, said, ‘I shall never forget how quickly these unarmed crowds were dispersed into clouds of dust…’[v] Many of the protestors lost their nerve. Shaw says, ‘Running hardly expresses out collective action. We skedaddled … I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.’[vi] Morris didn’t run, but his words give a sense of his fear in that moment, ‘I found myself suddenly alone … and, deserted as I was, I had to use all my strength to get to safety.’[vii]

Morris pressed on, reaching the Square, where he found the police and troops in control. It was a rout. That night, the police sang Rule Britannia and shouted out ‘Hurrah’ all night. The Times reacted to the protest, saying, ‘It was … no serious conviction of any kind, and no honest purpose that animated these howling toughs. It was simple love of disorder’. It described the protestors as ‘howling roughs’ and ‘criminals’.[viii] Those who were there told a different story. Walter Crane said ‘I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life – only the attack was all on one side.’[ix]

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When Linnell died the following week Crane and Morris came together to create a pamphlet to help raise money for his orphaned children. They were already in the workhouse. Linnell was poor, copying law documents for a very bare living, and when his wife had died he couldn’t keep the family together. The girl was in Mitcham, the boy, Harwich. Nobody even told them that their father was sick. What happened to them afterwards isn’t known. Did the pamphlet help? It includes a cover image by Crane and a poem by Morris set to music by Malcolm Laswson, and an account of Linnell’s life and death.

Linnell was given a grand funeral. A huge procession walked from the West End of London to the East, swelling to tens of thousands. On that drizzly December 18, it was dusk by the time they reached Bow Cemetery. Speeches were read by lamplight. Morris gave an emotional eulogy, including the words, ‘let us feel he is our brother’, and his Death Song was sung.[x] The verse at the top is from Morris’s poem.

This bald account of those three dramatic days may serve as a reminder of how hard the fight was to gain what we have today. The Chicago Anarchists, perhaps, went into the fight with their eyes open as to the danger. But Alfred Linnell? His two children, orphaned that day? We’re seeing the first queasy suggestions that these rights may be eroded away when we leave the EU. Maybe they won’t be. But I fear that it will be only if we fight for them once more. So, here is this, another memory that shows that once we did fight through, and having done it once, we know we can do it again.

Notes:

[i] Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994), p. 568

[ii] EP Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Spectre, 2011), p. 490

[iii] MacCarthy, p. 568

[iv] Rachel Holmes Eleanor Marx (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 299

[v] Taylor, p. 490

[vi] Holmes, p. 299

[vii] Taylor, p. 490

[viii] Ibid p. 491

[ix] http://spartacus-educational.com/Jcrane.htm, retrieved 8 November 2016

[x] MacCarthy, p. 573

Images:

  1. Illustration from the Illustrated London News, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1887BloodySunday.jpg retrieved 8 November 1887
  2. http://www.andrewwhitehead.net/political-pamphlets.html, retrieved 8 November 1887

Citizen of Nowhere, or, the Ranty One.

Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find yourself somewhere else? To discover that the cares of the past have all dissolved into a glorious new future where, if you don’t feel at home, you can at least know that all you were fighting for back in your day finally came to pass? That’s what happened to a certain Mr Guest back in 1890 … and at the moment I can’t help wishing it would happen to me.

Yes, it’s a utopian idea. Utopia – good place? Or no place? Certainly no place like home at the moment. My jaw dropped when I saw Teresa May’s comments about those claiming to be a citizen the world – indeed, the whole Tory Party Conference has seen my jaw on the floor. But it’s that comment “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” that really got me. What would William Morris say? I think he’d be laughing. Nowhere? Has she never read anything? Doesn’t she know what Nowhere is? Nowhere? Yep, I’ll take that – I’ve read about Nowhere and it sounds like a great place to be.

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News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest being some chapters from an Utopian Romance by William Morris, first published 1890, this Kelmscott Press edition 1892, with an illustration by Charles March Gere of ‘the old house by the Thames’ in the story – actually Kelmscott Manor, which Morris rented.

Nowhere is a place of poetry, of song, of storytelling and of friends gathering together to share laughter and talk over good food and drink in beautiful places. Well, so far so good – I’m very lucky, I live in Nowhere if that’s the case, for my life is filled with creativity and creative friends. Lucky me – others here in today’s Non-Nowhereland don’t have that. In Nowhere, everyone has that chance to express themselves and be supported in their creative self-expression.

Nowhere is a place where everyone has a job, a place in the world. But it’s not a Non-Nowhereland day job, wage-slavey, tied to the mortgage, to the rent, to your parents’ house, to poverty kind of job. And it’s not a big business, doing deals to add to your 3 million a year kind of job either. Its community working together, slotting people into the right jobs at the right time. Everybody who can helps in the harvest, and people take themselves off onto working parties to work on the land, to mend roads, to maintain Nowhere and its workings. Because they want to. Because they are fit and healthy and want the exertion of physical work. Because they feel in their hearts that this is useful work that needs doing. There’s plenty of time to create craft and art – and, why not, the scientific discoveries that were rather off Morris’s radar.

In Nowhere there’d be no fracking. No way. The people of Nowhere would stare at you with jaws dropped as low as mine has been all the time, it seems, since the 23 June. There’d be no extensive logging. No waste in the sea. No open caste mining. (Although in Nowhere, I fear, they’ll still be clearing up what Non-Nowhereland did.) So how do they power Nowhere? Well, there’s plenty of dung in the Houses of Parliament, they can use that, perhaps? But in Nowhere they’ve sloughed off our Non-Nowhereland need for excessive consumption and they need less energy than we believe we do. In Nowhere they care for the land, and they care for the buildings in it. Morris spent some considerable time trying to preserve some trees near his home on the river in Hammersmith … in Nowhere that care encompasses everywhere.

Yes, I know – it’s a utopia. It won’t happen. Not like this. Nowhere wouldn’t be ideal for me, I know. But it would find a place for me, it wouldn’t turn me away. In Nowhere there is tolerance. Criminals are cared for – in the end the punishment they get is that that they inflict on themselves. But crimes are rare, because the community supports people, and because, perhaps, people have freedom. They don’t feel trapped in relationships, in jobs, in places – in lives that they can’t bear. And there is little private property (Nowhere is a Socialist dream, of course – albeit one tending towards anarchy). The historian Guest spends (a lot of) time talking to says this on Guest’s question about punishment:

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since theyi.e., the rulers of society – were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”

We did think so, didn’t we? But now I see a culture that is becoming more cowardly again. In Non-Nowhereland we don’t love ourselves or take responsibility for ourselves and we don’t love our neighbours. We are now being encouraged to hate them. How long before we go back to 1890 and start ‘solemnly and legally’ committing crimes against humanity? I am afraid. As Morris was afraid. And Morris didn’t see what the people of Non-Nowhereland in the 20th and 21st centuries have done to each other in fear.

Nowhere isn’t perfect. Parents today would boggle at Morris’s Lord of Flies type children bringing up the children in the summer ideas. I suspect he was writing with hindsight of having brought up two boisterous young girls who had the good fortune to escape the ‘hideous town’ and play in the gardens and around the Old House on the Thames that Morris rented alongside his friend/romantic rival Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But in Samoa (I think!) it was the older children who brought up the younger because the women had better things to do with their time – making craft, as it happens. For me, Nowhere is a bit anti-intellectual, but Morris hints that those who want to spend their time investigating the past can – it’s up to them, even if it’s a bit odd. Then there is the woman thing. Morris actually changed his text in the wake of cross comments from his feminist friends and readers and included more active female characters when the serial was published as a book – although he still believed women were more likely to want to do domestic stuff. Well, as a man of his time he still had a ways to go in imagining what women could do and be – but he saw further than most and he allows choice. And then there’s his almost-silence on the rest of the world – it is a very English utopia, after all. As I say, not perfect.

Morris’s Nowhere doesn’t need to be ours. Morris’s Nowhere was written in part as a response to another Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward – a machine-led society imagined in 1887. More than 100 years on we need new Nowheres. Each age produces its own: from Plato’s Republic through to Utopia (Thomas More, riffing on the delights of the Greek language in which the ‘u’ or ‘eu’, which sound the same in English, could mean something negative – that ‘Noplace’ – or something positive, that ‘Goodplace’ – or both at the same time…) and to the Erewhons and Nowheres of the 19th century. We need Nowhere. If you are a citizen of Nowhere, you might have your head in the clouds, but your feet are on the ground. You are dreaming a better world, but perhaps, like Morris, you are also prepared to go out there and help make it.

I’m proud to be a citizen of Nowhere. And somewhere, Morris is still laughing. It’s the only way to stop himself crying about how we never, ever seem to learn from the mistakes of the past.

 

William Morris is dead, long live William Morris

hdr-william-morris-updated-415-detailWilliam Morris died #OTD exactly 120 years ago. The 3 October 1896 was a bleak day for his friends and family. The Great Man was only 62, but had been failing for some time before. Nonetheless, that July Morris had travelled to Norway with a friend – his doctor knowing that this would be his last voyage. Apparently on the boat Morris asked to seated so his could see ‘the younger and prettier women…’ but the trip didn’t raise his usual enthusiasms for the wild landscapes of the north. His dear friends Sydney Cockerell and Emery Walker met him from the boat, and were informed that congestion of the lungs had now set in. He was still working – his last novel, The Sundering Flood, was finished through dictation to Cockerell that August, but things were ending. Walker and Cockerell knew they couldn’t fill Morris’s shoes and decided not to continue Morris’s Kelmscott Press after he was gone – though both continued to advance and enhance the world of both private and commercial printing throughout their lives. His friends visited – Georgie and Edward Burne Jones, Philip Webb, F S Ellis – old friends. His wife, daughter May (his elder daughter, Jenny, was sick herself, and couldn’t come), Georgie and a couple of other friends were with him at the end, with Walker, Cockerell, Webb and Edward Burne Jones all there the day before, and immediately after. Georgie said he died ‘as gently, as quietly as a babe who is satisfied drops from its mother’s breast.’

20150912_163145He is buried in a quiet corner of Kelmscott churchyard, where Janey, Jenny and May later joined him. It is an unassuming gravestone by an unassuming church. Morris loved Kelmscott church, a quiet 12th century building with little spectacle. Webb designed the gravestone, based on a piece of stonework that Webb found in the churchyard, making Morris’s tomb utterly of the place. Webb understood his old friend very well – their enthusiasms matching each others in art, architecture and socialism along the way – and I think Morris would have been pleased with the simplicity of it.

549px-kelmscott_manor_news_from_nowhereWhat would William Morris say to his legacy? The obituaries of the day heralded him as a poet. Today his verse is little read. We know him as a designer, mostly, someone who created nice wallpapers and fabrics – and maybe we know he was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement. We know him, perhaps, as someone who’s love life was tangled. We might know the ‘useful and beautiful’ quote – but maybe not what prompted him to need to write that and all the other essays on living through and in art. We may know that he was a socialist and a ‘dreamer of dreams’. We know his prose better than his poetry, and maybe we might have read News from Nowhere. We know, some of us, the Icelandic sagas he helped bring to the British public. We’ve been in, perhaps, some of the buildings the organisation he founded, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, saved in their original state for the nation. We may also have seen the stained glass his firm placed in many  ancient – and new – buildings. We might not know all of him, but we do know him.

What would William Morris say to #OTD on twitter? I dread to think! But I so think he might sneakily pleased that all aspects of his life are still being brought to the world, even if he might abominate some of the media that dies it!

And as for what happened next … Although he left the church behind many, many years before to search for many and various earthly paradises, he did apparently say to a friend shortly before he died that he could ‘not believe that I shall be annihilated.’

Note:

To find out more about Morris’s death (and life!) read Fiona MacCarthy’s biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994)

Images:

Image 2: Kelmscott churchyard copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis.

Abbeville, or, a musing on war

This is the next in the series of blogs about my trip to France last year, following in William Morris’s footsteps.

Morris started in Abbeville, and so our tour of churches started there, too. It was July when they set out – and for us too. If it was as hot for them as it was for us I pity them in their hot Victorian clothes … and Morris in his new boots! But the Abbeville they saw was not the one that we, in 2015, visited. The church was there, rising up over the rooftops of the town just as it does in this drawing by John Ruskin from 1868. And there was a fountain in the square. But nothing else was the same.

This is what Morris says about their arrival, ‘the town itself is very and full of exceedingly good houses; we were all three in ecstasies thereat’[i]. I wish I could have said the same. Morris was in ecstasies many times in his trip, and blessedly, most of things he exclaimed about still exist, but a 160 years can bring many, many changes.

98496154That 160 years brought two wars to European soil. Abbeville is on the River Somme… The town was hit twice, both in the First and Second World Wars. Poor St Wulfran’s suffered a hit in the Second World War. Accordingly to my ancient French Rough Guide (1997! So long ago!) it was then ‘under scaffolding since the war’ and ‘still closed to the public’[ii], but by the time we arrived in 2015 they had reopened the church. Ish. French churches, we were to discover, are not as open as their English counterparts, even in large towns. But we got in after the desperate expedient of having a pleasant coffee and read in the same square that we see in Ruskin’s image.This is what the Place des Jacobins looks like now. Actually, it is very pleasant. But… Not quite the same.

But I understand that St Wulfran’s is all about war. I’ve read somewhere that current building was built to celebrate the return of Abbeville into French hands in 1477. Can’t find the reference now, naturally, so it may not be true! But – Abbeville has long been on the border of a battlefield – throughout the Hundred Years War it passed back and forth between the English and the French. Crécy is just up the road. This war haunted our trip in the commemoration we saw of Joan of Arc … who we, the English, killed. In those days, we wanted to be part of Europe! In the sense of owning as much of it as possible, of course, but still, we understood ourselves to be inextricably part of Europe, and had done long before the Normans arrived…

p1030796St Wulfran’s as we see it now dates from a building campaign that began in 1488 and ended in 1539. The building dragged on past the end of the Gothic, and there was a hiatus, with the chancel being an unassuming 17th century take on Gothic, quiet and low compared to the soaring flamboyance of the architecture of the rest. Outside, the difference between the two parts is striking (though not as striking as Beauvais!) – this photograph taken from the chancel looking up at would I assume would have formed the crossing.

p1030795Its glory is the west front, of course. Compared to some we would see, it is restrained, but has an elegance, a simplicity in the way the plain spaces intermix with the coiling whirls of the rose window and the sculpture.

p1030799I love this sculpture of St Eustace crossing the river in the tympanum over this door on the north side.

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And there is humour too, hidden in the arches around the doors!

The interior was cool and pleasing – and we discovered that the day before there had been an example of the entente cordiale with a wedding between a French woman and an Englishman – the ribbons were still on the chairs, orders of service still on the seats…

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But what really struck me was this:

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It’s a baroque intrusion into the Gothic of the church, and ordinarily I would pass it by as the baroque isn’t my favourite style, shall we say. I’m certain Morris, Burne Jones and Fulford barely noticed it. But this one is different. Unlike the rest if the interior, here the damage from the war has been left intact. I think it’s the Assumption of the Virgin – but I’m not sure as the figures are broken and stained in amid the swirling baroque clouds. It serves as a reminder that war came here and broke the world apart for the people who lived here. It reminds us that war is never far away, beneath the crumbling façade of tolerance and liberalism we built in the 20th century. Since our trip France has suffered at the hands of extremists of various sorts, Britain has cut itself off from the continent, the Far Right has risen higher than any of us who had that direct connection with WW2 in our parents and grandparents could have imagined could happen … war wages on and on in the Middle East – and over years and years of interference, part of the blame rests on western shoulders, and yet we continue to turn our backs… We need to see this sculpture with its charred clouds and dismembered women and see what war does to people … and not forget.

But what would Morris have said? I am sure he would have been horrified at the way war developed in the 20th century, and horrified too by the wanton destruction of heritage that has been brought by the use of aerial bombing and bombing on the ground. When he talks of violent revolution across the globe in his socialist writings he perhaps didn’t think through the suffering of the individuals involved nor the destruction to the physical world that would certainly have occurred. His first introduction to politics was an anti-war statement and a reaction against violence – in the Eastern Question, and the treatment of the Bulgarians by the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. But he was also a member of the Artists Rifles in its earliest days in the 1860s (though he had a tendency to turn left when instructed to go right, with copious apologies), and his poems and novels are full of heroic violence. He was brave when confronted with violence – such as at the Bloody Sunday ‘riots’ of 1887 – and could be led by his famous temper, famously getting into trouble for allegedly bopping a policeman at an earlier protest. But he lived his life through a time when England wasn’t threatened directly either by war or by the kind of large scale terrorism we are getting used to now in the early 20th century. If he had lived through a war, either a medieval one, or one of the 20th century world wars, would his opinions have been different? Would he have recognised war for the horror it is? His vision of utopia is non-martial in the extreme, after the revolution – I’d like to believe that’s what he really wanted.

Notes:

[i] Purkiss, J ‘Morris, Burne-Jones and French Gothic’ (1991), p. 8

[ii] Baillie, K and Salmon, T France: The Rough Guide (London, 1997), p. 197

Image credits:

  1. Image from mapio.net
  2. All the rest of the images are © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2015

The Nature of Gothic – travelling with William Morris

40Last year my husband, Anthony, and I went on holiday to France. Our aim – or at least mine – was to follow in the footsteps of William Morris and his friends Edward Burne Jones (EBJ) and William Fulford and their dash around the great gothic churches of Northern France in 1855. They were there for three weeks, we for two. They saw more than 14 churches from Abbeville to Avranches, and we saw 8 of their 14+ from Abbeville to Louviers, falling down before Rouen and scuttling to the coast for beachside R&R on our last few days. Over that time I took notes in each church, and Anthony wrote poems. Woven in among the blogs on this site will be a series that chart that journey and Morris’s parallel one 160 years before.

Why were they so keen to go? Morris was only 21, and full of all the uncertainties of that age.  He and EBJ and several of their other college friends had already thought to lock away the modern world by starting a religious community – a monastery. But it was on this trip that Morris and EBJ decided that they would put aside the church and dedicate their lives instead to a more fickle mistress, art. Neither man ever wavered from that new path. It must have been a powerful holiday.

Why did I want to do this? I had long wanted to see the northern gothic cathedrals. I studied art history at university, and one of the courses I did was ‘Monastery and Cathedral’, which looked at the Romanesque and early Gothic churches of France and Britain. I loved that course. I suppose I was attuned to many of the same tastes as Morris and his friends, and probably came to that in part through my early love of the Pre-Raphaelites, discovered aged 13 when seeing a ‘hippy picture’ at my father’s house … he was shocked I didn’t know that the artist was Burne Jones, and bought me the Thames and Hudson The Pre-Raphaelites book. I read it so much it fell apart. So began my own lifelong passion for art and architecture. As part of the degree, we had a short trip to Paris, in which I saw two of the churches on Morris’s route, Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres. But no others. So I longed to see the other greats – but I also wanted to get under Morris’s skin a bit more, and give myself a purpose, all these years later, for seeing the churches.

Why Gothic? Britain – and France – were deep in the throes of a gothic revival. New gothic buildings – including our Houses of Parliament – were springing up everywhere, and Morris and EBJ were in love with the middle ages. They had studied medieval manuscripts, read medieval romances, steeped themselves in King Arthur – and, critically, they had read the works of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an art critic, had recently published a book called The Stones of Venice, about Venetian art and architecture. In this mammoth tome one chapter would come to be deemed by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ when he published it many years later. From this chapter, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Morris would take what might be said to be the central tenant of his life – that work should be meaningful and pleasurable. But at this young age, instead, Morris was drunk on the architecture itself. Gothic architecture – and especially that of the 13th century – was the apogee of art for him at that time. Three weeks in the presence of that art, and among the ancient towns and cities and the gentle rolling countryside of France, so like his own southern Britain, but less tainted, it seemed, by the march of progress.

Gothic’s not my personal favourite of the medieval architectural styles. I’ve long been a fan of the Romanesque, that monumental style that owes its genesis to the architecture of Rome, but has a solid, raw power all of its own, and even of the scrips and scraps that remain of the Saxon architecture that preceded it here in England. But in the 19th century, Gothic was the favoured style, representing home-grown mastery, a simpler, better time, its soaring stone pillars and ribs took you into a time of romance and chivalry, its organic carvings and brilliant glass took you into a pre-industrial, religious time – a time that was starting to seem a distant dream in Britain’s rapidly industrialising cities, filling up as they were with factories, slums, smog, pollution and people, people, people. Gothic was a gasp of fresh air, ad for Morris – taking his lead from Ruskin – it was the simple Gothic of the 13th century that caught his imagination, that point when the new style, with its pointed arches, complex vaulting, huge deep-dyed windows and realistic statuary was at its most austere. At its most pure?

For Morris, looking back on his life, this holiday often seemed to him to mark a moment of clarity. In his lecture 1880s lecture The Aims of Art, he says, ‘Less than forty years ago – about thirty – I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had.’[i] His greatest pleasure, looking at a building? Greater than the camaraderie of friends, the first flush of his marriage, greater than being a father, than all the work he had done? Perhaps. How to capture that rush of ecstasy he must have felt standing there? ‘Ecstatic’ is the word he uses most to describe his feelings on that holiday. The nature of gothic would haunt Morris throughout his life, playing over and over in his art, his writing, his politics, his very way of seeing the world.

But next words of the lecture bring us back down to earth and to the present: ‘and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.’ Morris was speaking about the march of progress of 30 years. How much more had 160 years wrought? For me, on that journey around France, a France twice wracked with war, was a very different place to that described then by Morris. The ecstasies of a 21 year old were not for me on this trip – indeed, I had a shock on the trip that reduced me to tears in one church, so great were the changes wrought in a place that had engendered the same pulsing uplift of ecstasy some 22 years before when I was 20 – instead, a more thoughtful approach had to be taken. I hope in these occasional blog posts I can try to bring together the buildings themselves, and the faceless men who built them, Morris and his friends with their aching feet, Anthony and I trundling about in our comfortable car (and our less comfortable campsites) and the modern world that we and those churches now inhabit.

[i] Taken from the excellent Marxists.org website, which has a pretty comprehensive set of Morris’s lectures: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1888/signs/chapters/chapter5.htm

Image:

Entrance to the South Transept, Rouen Cathedral by John Ruskin. Photograph from a watercolor. Source: Works, facing XXXV, 371. Photograph (2010) Scanned image and text by George P. Landow. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/ruskin/wc/40.html