SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Look who we have found!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
It’s not every day you find a knight hiding his light under a bushel, but we have. To be honest he’s been quietly sleeping here for some time – hundreds of years to be precise. He’s obviously reasonably comfortable but the breeze blocks don’t look like a ‘slumberdown’ mattress to me.
Sir, was more clearly revealed when we moved the 400 plastic chairs that have been stored in front of him, on and off, for the 20 years that I have been here at the Cathedral. We’ve been forced to do a lot of clearing out this last few weeks and you would not believe the junk we have found. When I was an archdeacon I had this idea that if I could bequeath anything to all the parish churches in my patch it would be an annual skip to encourage (or force) a yearly clear out. Detoxing is very trendy, no doubt a good discipline in buildings like ours but also worthwhile in quite a few other corners of our lives. So much rubbish to clear, and imagine the glorious things we might find!
But back to the jewel that we did find lurking under the arch. He lies on his side, with his legs crossed. It looks like he is wearing chain mail and surcoat (worn over the armour). The ancient guides suggest that the animal at his feet is a lion, which makes sense though it looks more like a sheep to me. On the side of the effigy the arm is expanded, the right hand being held up to the sword, and the left which is much mutilated, stretches towards a shield. My research suggests the effigy was moved into the south transept by the Rev’d John Smith who, at his own expense, had it cleaned and placed on a block of stone with ‘suitable devices’. It looks like there is another small figure attached towards the feet and our Conservator found the faintest of traces of medieval paint and gilt. He was probably a very colourful fellow in his day – hopefully he had a colourful life too!
There are many stories about the different position’s knights are carved to lie in, in this kind of effigy. Some used to argue that it was a particular honour if a knight lay to his left with his leg crossed and that it signified his participation in the Holy Crusades. Some went further with all kind of extra suggestions about bended knees referring to fighting in more than one crusade. Others suggesting that certain positions indicated more a willingness or intention to go on Crusade rather than an actuality. The seventh and last Crusade commenced in 1270, and the order of the Knights Templars was dissolved in 1313. Nowadays most scholars accept none of the theories!
Little figures attached to the sides of effigies are not that unusual too. It was a common custom to place ‘weepers’ around the tomb, and beasties biting at the shields, and often a little monk at the knights side praying for him during his time purgatory – and for most, I guess that would be deemed a long time, even if they had fought for Jerusalem. Thank God we have God’s good grace to rest our hopes on!
Now there is a question I hope that you have been asking, one that that I have yet to voice – who was he? See another ‘Cathedral mystery’ opens up before us. The earliest sources that I can find (Bourne) tell us that it was a person belonging to the Scroop family, but another source (Brand) thought that it was a representation of the founder of the chantry in which the effigy laid: ‘Peter de Mauley, a noble baron. As Warden of the East Marches, de Mauley would probably reside at Newcastle, where he might die and be buried in this church. ‘His coat of arms corresponds with those on the shield of the cross- legged figure in this porch’ quotes Mackenzie, in his famous historical record of Newcastle upon Tyne published in 1827. But it is not conclusive and we are still left asking who is right and how would we know?
The truth, as is so often the case, is impossible to find, so we do not have any conclusive evidence as to is who our medieval knight. What we do know is that this hidden stone figure is in fact an historical jewel lying for all to see in the now exposed south transept. Indeed, it may just be that this is the oldest artefact, and the most teasingly mystery, we have to share. Anyway, his days of hiding are ending and after being carefully restored he will have a pride of place in the refurbished Cathedral.
Finding (well he was new to me) the knight caused me to call to mind the evening before my ordination .. now many years ago:
As is the custom, with my colleagues, I was given an Ordination Charge by the Bishop. He told us a story, that I have never been able to verify, but it was a memorable story:
‘A distinguished Bishop died quite suddenly and his body was found in Hyde Park. When his family were finally traced they went to identify his body in the local mortuary. On arrival the attendant took them to the chapel of rest and a body was laid out covered in a white sheet. Eagle-eyed they spotted a tag tied to the body’s toe with the words clearly written, ‘Unknown Clergyman’
The Bishop implored us to be as ‘great’ as the Bishop but never to seek anything more than to know we have done our job. A point well made, for clergy (and laity alike) are often too keen to be honoured and remembered. The Cathedral is cluttered with carved memorials which are more often than not to the memory of the great and the rich who have used its walls and floors to record their passing presence. Perhaps the idea of leaving our mark is tantalising to us all whether teenager with pen knife or spray paint to president with bricks and mortar. So, focussed on our physical legacy we can be too easily distracted from the real task in hand – to build the kingdom of God [Note to self!].
Now as I reflect at the tomb of the unknown knight I stop to say a prayer for the thousands (or even millions) of unknown faithful who have lived, worked and prayed in and around this place. Countless people who in their daily lives have served others and yet never been lauded or recognised. Unable to leave their mark – certainly with grand effigies, monuments or slabs – yet remembered in through the good they have done. It may be an added benefit that the knight is unknown so that through him we can remember that there will be names of all these other unknowns written not in the Cathedral but certainly in the Book of Life.
The knight is not a lone sleeper in the Cathedral. Across in the north aisle lies Bishop Lloyd with scary angels at his feet, and to the east of the south aisle sleeps the great Dr J. Collingwood-Bruce of Roman Wall fame. Though both made good contributions to church and civic life neither are the source of mystery or of controversy. Sadly, the same can’t be said of more contemporary Cathedral snorers. (Of course Reader be sure, I’m not referring to the countless folk who gently nap during my sermons!) However, for all the 20 years of my Cathedral sojourn there have been (for want of a better term) ‘street folk’ who have found a bit of warmth on a cold day in this place and joined the Knight, Bishop and good Doctor in having forty winks – or more. Their presence can be disturbing to me because it brings me face to face with sadder, darker side of city life. They are like Lazarus at the gate of the house in the parable told by Jesus, and I fear that I (like Dives) take my comfortable riches too much for granted.
To be honest those who sleep are no problem – As the Priest said to the young man who confessed to sleeping with many partners, ‘It’s not the sleeping that’s a sin my child, it’s what you do when you are not asleep that causes the problems.’ But it would be foolish not to realise that some find their presence disturbing, just as others are moved by our willingness to allow them to sleep – who are we to stop them I say!
I wonder just how it will be when we re-open the full Cathedral with spanking new (and warm) floor. I am sure it will look stunning. But how will we cope with our visitors – visitors of all kinds with muddy shoes, spilling coffee, snuggling down ….. Will we become ‘sanitisers’ of God’s welcome? Not if I have anything to with it. Respect for floor, for beauty and craftmanship of course but never at the expense of our welcome of the vulnerable, for in them we welcome Christ.
So, we learn the cost and the joy of hospitality (more of that another day) and must live in our uncomfortableness (is that a word?) aware most of all that the disciple sees the Christ incognito in those around him/her and especially in the brother or sister in the greatest need. (unprepared to photograph the sleepers, I’ve attached a photo of a bronze sculpture called ‘The Homeless Christ’ by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz that depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench.)
I pray you will have the blessing of seeing Christ in those with whom we share the Cathedral and maybe, just maybe, they will catch an occasional glimpse of Him in us.