Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April showers bring . . . pilgrims?

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
(from the prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, modern translation)

Ah spring!  The time a young(ish) (wo)man's thoughts turn to . . . pilgrimage?  According to Chaucer, April showers bring not only May flowers but also an influx of pilgrims to Canterbury. 

I confess I haven't been to Canterbury . . . yet.  I've been to other English pilgrimage Cathedrals--Winchester (to see the shrines St. Swithun, and of course, Jane Austen); Salisbury and its neighboring pilgrimage attraction, Stonehenge; and most recently, Chester Cathedral. 

Chester, sitting on the northwest English border, is the place where I begin the northern Wales pilgrimages I lead, following in the footsteps of the many pilgrims of old who made their way along the northern pilgrim's path to Bardsey Island. Chester wasn't just a starting point for pilgrimages into Wales however.  The town  has its own saint who brought pilgrims to the area:  St. Werburgh, an Anglo-Saxon princess, became the patron of Chester after her remains were interred in the Benedictine abbey cum cathedral in the late eleventh century.  Her shrine  is still visited by pilgrim's today but it's to the chapel adjacent to her dimly lit stone monument to which I make a pilgrimage whenever I visit Chester Cathedral.  

The Martyrdom of Becket Boss at Chester Cathedral
For high up on the ceiling there's a remarkable carving that is overlooked by many visitors.  In 538 Henry VIII, who was engaged in a bit of a power struggle with the church, decided to try Britain's beloved saint, Thomas Becket, for treason. Unfortunately Thomas, who had been dead for nearly 500 years, was otherwise occupied and didn't appear at the trial.  The court found him guilty in absentia,  his relics and shrine at Canterbury were carted away, and Henry ordered the destruction of any and all iconography related to Becket throughout the rest of England.

Fortunately for Chester, by the time Henry's henchmen reached the north of England they must have had stiff necks for they neglected to look up and the image of the martyrdom of Becket was spared.  The abbot of Chester was also spared during the dissolution of the monasteries after choosing to renounce Rome rather than staying faithful to the Catholic church and losing his head in the process.  He was allowed to become a Protestant priest and was made the first dean of the abbey turned Cathedral at Chester.

Although I don't know anything else about Thomas Clarke, that former abbot/first dean, I like to imagine him walking to the rear of the cathedral and slipping into the chapel every now and again, glancing up at the ceiling with a sly smile and giving a brief nod to that image of Becket, one survivor acknowledging another.