I had all of Saturday to travel from Swansea in the West to Cambridge in the East, so I decided to stop mid-way. A refuge from the fast lane which promised to peel back the centuries.
All the way to the sacred oaks of Awsty Wood, the marching feet of Roman legionnaires, and the group of Angles and Celts known as the Hwicce, who by about 800 A.D. had converted to Christianity. Their church at Wudu Tun (Estate in the Woods) survived the Viking age and, with its attached monastery, was the heart and soul of what became known as Wootton Wawen after its eleventh century lord, Wagen.
This is just the beginning of the The Saxon Sanctuary’s story. Which I read in a rush – there was a lot to see.
A fellow visitor brought me up to date with more recent history. She was a nice woman with absent eyebrows, a forty-something year old son, and a spiritual nature. In hushed tones she urged me to look at the section of the exhibition that told of how lightning struck the church tower at noon on the day that Princess Diana died (31 August 1997).
“How spooky is that?” the woman said.
The Saxon Sanctuary sits at the centre of St Peter’s Church, a jumble of history and architectural styles. The four arches that form the base of the tower are over 1000 years old. The rest of the church has been – bit by bit through the centuries – expanded around it. There are now four altars and the building feels something like a chaotic and well-loved home.
And yet, take Sir Francis Smith (1522-1605), a catholic who claimed he was not and attended the new Protestant services at Wootton Wawen. In accordance with his wishes he was buried where he sat during life. His effigy reclines on its side in the Lady Chapel. I’m not an expert in the attitudes of effigies but his position seems (to me) to be one that doesn’t speak of respect. Or is it that he was condemned to an eternity of discomfort for being ‘pragmatic’?
“Alathea had scarcely enough to maintain herself and her children, of whom she had fourteen. Besides this, she had a far greater cross when three of her children, one son and two daughters, were taken from her, in order to make them Protestants, and taken to a place where they were most cruelly used … they were kept bare-legged in sackcloth, and their food was flour and water sodden together; if sometimes a bone was cast them from their keeper’s table, it had scarce any meat upon it.”
My digression into the lives of members of the Smith family, and my fascination with the old and not-so-old graffiti on Sir Francis’ effigy, meant that even in this ancient place, today’s clock was still ticking and the fast lane was calling.
So I skimmed Sir John Harewell (1365-1428), whose feet rest on his spaniel.
I skimmed the 13th stained glass window and the 15th century oak pulpit and the 17th century chained library.
I grabbed a copy of the church guide on my way out, in order to fill in the gaps later, said goodbye to the nice woman with the absent eyebrows who was by now inspecting gravestones, and climbed back into the driver’s seat.
At home, I lodged the guide on a shelf devoted to slim books bought on older whims and never looked at again, but before I did so, I flicked through its pages. The first one I came to was the last, an Epilogue by Canon Lawrence Mortimer who refers to a brief inscription on a monument dedicated to a woman who died in 1718.
“Hodie mihi, cras tibi.”
Alathea Anderton was, in the end, forced to be as ‘pragmatic’ as her great-grandfather in 1650 when she took the Oath of Abjuration, 1643 and 1655, thereby renouncing papal supremacy, transubstantiation, purgatory, and other doctrines.
But her catholic faith held firm. In 1653, she was reunited with the three of her fourteen children who had been taken from her. The five year absence had succeeded in ‘persuading’ one of her daughters, also named Alathea, of the truth of Protestantism, and ‘she would not say the Ave Maria unles her Mother whipt her, & even then when she had said it thro’ Smart of the Rod, she would afterwards spit out again the words… Yet for all that, her Mother at last overcam her & she became a good Catholick’.
In 1658, at the age of eighteen, the younger Alathea Anderton became a nun at Louvain.