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  • FREE ENTRY

Flexible, adapting, moving: ALIVE!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:

Some people may be tempted to think that church buildings, beautiful as they might be, are in the end a pile of well-crafted stones. I respectfully beg to differ. For me the Cathedral is not simply a majestic historical container, rather it is (well almost) a living organism. Every stone has its own story to tell, every window and memorial gives testimony to someone or some event that has helped make us who we are today. Whispers of our forebears’ whistle around its aisles, its bells add music to our lives, just as its tower catches our view to tell us we are home. She (the Cathedral) is most alive when she buzzes with the songs of her people, when she shares their joys and sorrows, their celebrations and their laments. From generation to generation, even moment to moment the Cathedral changes, adapts, moves on, breathes. Don’t tell me St Nicholas’ is not alive, ‘cos I won’t believe you! And amid all this, like humans, churches carry their essence, their own personality or character, they mature through good times and bad and they simply… just are!

Our present refurbishment programme takes its place as one major season in this great church’s life. Add to it the strange times of COVID-19 and again this old lady, of which we are just custodians, will live to tell another Geordie tale. Crucial to her endurance and to the value of this project will be ensuring that the refurbished Cathedral enjoys maximum flexibility so that its ability to dodge and dive well into the future is secured.

One really good place to ponder the Cathedral’s agility to change is the little area just off the south aisle that is known today as St Margaret’s Chapel. Its story begins really in 1394 when it was decided to add a new porch to the south side of the Cathedral. Originally, we think it was a chantry chapel dedicated to St Margaret. St Nicholas church was endowed with quite a few ‘chantries’ – some historians estimate more than 10 and they were a source of daily activity and a lucrative income. A chantry was a discrete prayer space with an altar and a priest, paid for by a rich benefactor. I guess it was a great example of ‘paying forward’. The benefactor would leave, in a legacy, the money for the chapel and the priest to be paid. A mass would be said every day in the chapel at which the benefactor and their family would be remembered. Many of St Nicholas’ chantries were simple altars placed around the south transept but there were others and porches like St Margaret’s made good chapels.

It is no surprise that someone (who knows who?) chose to dedicate the porch to St Margaret of Scotland, she had an intimate connection to St Nicholas Church. In 1503 Margaret, daughter of Henry VII and fiancé of James IV of Scotland, complete with a splendid retinue visited Newcastle on the way to Scotland and her marriage.

‘She was met on the Tyne Bryge by the mayr of the Towne, accompanied by the scheriffe and alderman, well appointed on foot.’

It was a grand affair with crowds and music sung by ‘surpliced’ children, a ‘motley, jangling and picturesque throng’. On St James Day she attended mass at the church. But times cruelly change and in 1513 the body of her husband James IV of Scotland was sent from Flodden via Berwick and rested in St Nicholas as the cortege passed on to the south.

Just over a hundred years later the very same chapel takes a new name that of the ‘The Bewicke Porch’ – and becomes the sepulchral chapel of the local noble family. Robert Bewicke (1573-1641) was a merchant adventurer who was sheriff of the city and twice mayor. The family lived in Close House and held the estate there for over 300 years. The existence of Bewicke family grave slabs of 1636 and 1859 are still today rather randomly set into the floor. So, another generation left its mark on the porch.

In 1834 the walls of the chapel were rebuilt by local architects John and Benjamin
Green and again in 1929 the interior was restored. The local architect W. H. Wood designed the alterations and the reordered ‘Bewicke Porch’ took again its former name as St Margaret’s Chapel. At that point the monument to Calverley Bewicke (1755-1815) was moved to St George’s Chapel, the blocked east window was opened up and an altar placed below but not the concrete altar that stands there at the moment that was added much later.

For a while (though it’s hard to ascertain actual dates) the memorial to the unknown knight lay in the porch, though that was moved after its restoration by the Revd John Smith to an arched niche in the south transept in the early 1800’s. The memorial to John Collingwood Bruce (now at the east end of the south aisle) was for some time also to be found in St Margaret’s, which perhaps explains why in 1896 the window on the west (by the famous Kemp studio) was presented in memory of Bruce’s wife, Charlotte Gainford Bruce. It is a fine window depicting three women saints, Hilda Abbess of Whitby, Helena mother of Constantine, Ethelburgha the Saxon Royal princess who married Edwin King of Northumbria. All saints with northern connections – well almost! Hilda (with the famous ammonites?), Abbess of the great monastery at Whitby which hosted the famous Synod (664 CE) at which the English church agreed to adopt the Roman calendar and tonsure. Ethelburgha, the Kentish princess who came north to marry Edwin and brought with her a passionate commitment to the Christian faith. Helena, mother of Constantine, pilgrim to the Holy Land who, ancient legend says, found the True Cross. She was probably Greek but Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry Huntingdon suggested she was the daughter of ‘Old King Cole’ – the unknown playboy of nursery rhyme fame. Her north English connection is tenuous: It was in York that her son was declared Augustus of the Roman Empire in 306 CE.

There are two other stained-glass windows in the Chapel. The large window on the south wall (c. early 1900s) is regarded by glass buffs as uninteresting. So much so that I can find no reference to it in any guide books or studies – perhaps a task for the future, ‘cos I like the mystery of the ‘uninteresting’ stuff. The same could not be said about the small roundel clumsily set amid plain glass in the eastern wall. It is one of the few medieval jewels of the Cathedral and the only remnant of early pre-Reformation glass. The stunning roundel with its rich blue surround shows the Madonna breastfeeding the Christ child so some have called it ‘the window of the first supper’. Its size makes it easily portable and it has been quite a peripatetic gem. It is recorded as being in the south aisle window of the nave in 1880, and then in a window of the eastern aisle (the ‘King’s porch) off the north transept now called St George’s Chapel. It seems to have found its place in St Margaret’s Chapel in the 1929 refurbishment.

Attached to the west wall, and below the window, there are four medieval grave slabs. One of the two larger ones is of a rare kind, though they have sadly been painted over. Many will remember the chapel with oak Victorian screens marking its entrance and making it a rather smug place for quiet prayer. Sadly, in 2001 the screens were badly vandalised and the four little statuettes stolen. They turned up at a flea market in South Shields and we have them back in our care. In the 1960’s a rather ugly concrete altar was fixed to the eastern wall and a metal cross with crown of thorns placed above it.

So over generations the porch has had a variety of uses and has housed many different artefacts. Though it began life as a chantry, it has been a sepulchral area for the Bewicke family. In 1929, following the restoration it became a place for ‘missionary’ intercession. More recently it acted as a Mother’s Union Chapel and a place of quiet prayer and most recently as a place to encourage children’s spirituality. There was at one point recently a proposal for its redevelopment as an ‘intercessory’ chapel in 2014. This proposal included the replacement of the south wall window, a new altar, credence table and a glass screen but in the context of larger development proposals and the lack of funding this design was not pursued. Sadly, as we began the refurbishment work and then entered lockdown the chapel was in what might be described as a parlous state of disrepair. It was not part of the Lottery funded repairs but with the help of the Friends of the Cathedral we have been able to propose some simple improvements. The walls will be redecorated, the paint removed from the medieval grave slabs. The effigy of the unknown knight will be returned and a few of the medieval stones found in the basement will be displayed – a medieval corner if you will. The ugly concrete altar removed and the floor restored. So, there will be space to use flexibly for prayer, worship as well as to mediate upon the legacies of our forebears. Perhaps one day someone will be prepared to sponsor the Roundel being given a better window leading (any ideas who?). Most of all it will emerge again as a dignified porch and chapel.

This little excursion into the ever-changing history of one small chapel in the Cathedral is really helpful for me because it reminds me that this place lives. It adapts, changes, flexes itself. It finds new ways of both expressing itself and relating to the needs of those who come into its presence. This flexibility, adeptness to change is the quality that guarantees its survival, ensures it usefulness, makes it breathe. In its example is a lesson for us all, for the church and the Christian community that for now inhabits and cares for this place. We can see our tradition as fossilised, as a calling to guard, like fierce gatekeepers, the past. Or we can see the Faith which we share and want to pass on as alive, speaking afresh to every generation, not least our own, not least a post-COVID, many cultured world, here on our doorstep.

Some years ago, I spent some time working in the rehabilitation centre of a psychiatric hospital. The young dynamic psychiatrist from the Middle East was inspirational. At one point she placed before a patient two simple objects: a stick and a branch of the rubber plant taken from the lounge. ‘Watch’ she told him, as she took the stick into her hands. ‘It is hard, brittle and refuses to bend’ as it snapped between her fingers. So, she took the rubber plant branch. ‘See how it flexes and moves, how it is giving and pliable. Which are you?’ she asked him. ‘Which would be best for you?’ she pressed. ‘Which will help you survive?’ she questioned. So, for us as we approach a new normal, a refreshed future. The stones will continue to absorb and sing with us our song of praise to God. But if we are to survive – no thrive – then we will be wise to stay part of a living tradition. Like this little chapel we will cherish our legacy but we will not become fossilised, rather we will walk with open minds and hearts and songs, into the future that God is preparing with us.