Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:27 am
I will never weary of wandering round medieval cathedrals. The motivation and faith behind these places, as well as the financial and temporal power, is astonishing. I gaze in awe up at soaring arches, bathed in coloured sunlight, filtered through exquisite stained glass and dappling across old stones, absorb myself in the memorials and lap up the stories. So, Lincoln Cathedral ticks a lot of boxes by simply being what it is. Indeed, perched atop Castle Hill from which, alongside the neighbouring fortress, it dominates the ancient city, Lincoln Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St Mary, beguilingly beckons you through its ancient doors. But I have to admit that I particularly wanted to pop in and see Eleanor.
Eleanor of Castile
Eleanor of Castile was the first wife of one of England’s most formidable medieval monarchs, Edward I. She was born in about 1241, a Spanish princess, daughter of Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon and Joanna, Countess of Ponthieu. Eleanor and Edward met when she was 10 years old and married when she was about 13 and he around 15. By all accounts it was a love match. They travelled all over the place together, had fifteen or sixteen children (though most did not survive into adulthood) and were married for 36 years until her death, aged 49, in 1290. She died, with Edward by her side, in the small Nottinghamshire village of Harby, just a few miles west of Lincoln. The king was heartbroken and it was this profound grief, so ‘tis said, that inspired the erection of 12 memorial crosses from Lincoln to London, one for each of the places where the body of his beloved wife rested on its way for burial at Westminster Abbey. Apart from Lincoln, crosses were set up at Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap, with the final cross at Charing, on the edge of where Trafalgar Square is today. Eleanor’s viscera, her internal organs, were removed and, with the exception of her heart, were interred in Lincoln Cathedral. Her heart was buried at Blackfriars Monastery in London. The removal of organs helped with body preservation; and, the more places of burial, the greater number of prayers could be said to ease the soul’s progress through purgatory. In any event, that is why Eleanor was given a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral, though the original was destroyed by Cromwell’s supporters in the 17th Century and what we have now is a handsome Victorian version, complete with elegant effigy.
There is something compelling about Eleanor and Edward’s story. Partly, it is because few of us can resist a good romance. But it is also because of Edward’s reputation as such a ruthless tough guy. Without knowing all the facts, I like to think that Eleanor had to be quite remarkable as well as – of course – effortlessly beautiful. We obviously don’t have a clue what she was really like. But, for whatever reason, I was keen to pay my respects and loitered round the tomb, trying not to appear too morbidly creepy, as though some kind of revelatory comprehension would seep through stone from the dust of a long-dead queen’s sad and wretched remains.
Lincoln Cathedral’s authorities could point out that other tombs are available. Several, in fact. A little to the north-west of Eleanor is a fussy-looking memorial with a worn effigy of a man, an angel at his head. This is Richard Fleming (c 1385-1431), Bishop of Lincoln and founder of Lincoln College, Oxford. Underneath his recumbent form, inside a sort of viewing-box, is another figure. Look more closely and you will see that this is the macabre representation of a decaying corpse, wrapped in a shroud. It is Richard Fleming’s cadaver tomb, a memento mori, reminder of death – or the transience of life. We must all die. Cadaver tombs became popular in the 14th century, in the wake of the Black Death and provided a powerful contrast with the stylised images of the deceased in life. There is an astonishing example in Ewelme, featuring Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice de la Pole. Robert Fleming’s tomb in Lincoln is one of the oldest in England – though was badly damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers.
Not far from the High Altar is the tomb of another illustrious lady, Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (c1350-1403). Katherine was the mistress, then third wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a son of King Edward III. Katherine and John’s relationship seems to have been another love-match, but the descendants of their children, the Beauforts, are significant. Their oldest son, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was Henry VII’s great-grandfather; the Tudor claim to the throne was based on Henry’s mother’s, Margaret Beaufort’s, descent from John of Gaunt. John Beaufort’s daughter, Joan, married James I of Scotland; our present Queen is their direct descendant through the Royal Stuart line. John Beaufort’s son Edmund, was the 2nd Duke of Somerset, whose Lancastrian rivalry with Richard, Duke of York, was instrumental in the terrible dynastic struggles we call the Wars of the Roses. Edmund was killed at the First Battle of St Albans, which marked the beginning of that long and bloody conflict, which none of his three sons survived. Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt’s daughter, Joan Beaufort (c1379- 1440), married Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland. Their son Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, was an ally of the Duke of York (both Duke and Earl died in the Wars of the Roses too) and Richard’s son, another Richard, was 16th Earl of Warwick, the ‘Kingmaker’ – and yet another casualty of the same wars. Joan and Ralph’s daughter Cecily, ‘the Rose of Raby’, married the aforementioned Duke of York and was mother to two kings, Edward IV and Richard III. Another of Joan and Ralph’s daughters, Eleanor, married Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland. The Percys were great rivals of the Nevilles; Henry also succumbed at St Albans and three of his and Eleanor’s sons went on to die in the subsequent fighting.
So, Katherine Swynford, ancestor of monarchs, can certainly claim her very own chapter in Britain’s history and was, apparently, a pretty remarkable woman to boot. Her daughter, Joan (the one who married Ralph), is buried next to her.
Incidentally, the Beaufort’s heraldic badge was the portcullis, now the primary symbol of the UK’s Houses of Parliament.
A bit about Lincoln Cathedral
I haven’t mentioned anything much about Lincoln Cathedral, yet, which is really where we began. The Victorian hero of the chattering classes, John Ruskin, described Lincoln Cathedral as “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have”. So there you go; and don’t you just love the commitment behind ‘roughly speaking’?
Lincoln Cathedral was founded in the 11th century, but much of it dates from after an earthquake in 1185. It is said to be the fourth largest cathedral in area in Britain (after Liverpool, St Paul’s and York Minster) and, for almost 240 years, from 1311 to 1549, when its central spire collapsed in a storm, it was also apparently the tallest building in the world. A book could be written (and probably has) about Lincoln Cathedral. But I want to mention just four things before you go: – Magna Carta, rose windows, the Lincoln Imp and Little Saint Hugh.
The Cathedral owns one of the four surviving original 1215 copies of Magna Carta, now on display in a secure facility in Lincoln Castle. This is because Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, was a signatory to Magna Carta and his copy, along with three others, has survived. Hugh is buried in the Cathedral too, by the way. Interestingly, the Lincoln Magna Carta was sent to New York in 1939, where it was on display at the ‘Hall of Democracy’ at the World Fair. When war broke out, the priceless document became stranded and was eventually kept in Fort Knox until returning safely home after the war. In a moment of rashness, the Foreign Office did consider gifting the Lincoln Magna Carta to the USA; but the proposal was shelved. It was, however, lent to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, USA, in 2009.
Rose windows are features of some great European Gothic buildings. Lincoln Cathedral has two stunning examples, far beyond my ability or desire to meaningfully describe. “The two eyes of the church”, as they were described by a medieval writer, face one another across the north-south transepts, the north rose known as the Dean’s Eye and the south rose as the Bishop’s Eye. The south is said to represent the Holy Spirit, the north the Devil. The Dean’s Eye dates from 1220, the Bishop’s Eye from around 1330. There is a legend, similar to that of the Apprentice’s Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel, that the Bishop’s Eye was made by a master mason’s apprentice and that the master, seeing that that his pupil’s work was so much finer than his own, threw himself off the scaffolding in a rage.
Mythology brings us neatly to the Lincoln Imp, which visitors are led to believe is one of the Must-See attractions of the Cathedral. The Lincoln Imp is one of many fine and interesting pieces of medieval stone carving in the Cathedral. It is a grotesque, situated high up between two arches in the Angel Choir. The tale of how he came to be there varies, but the basic legend is that it all began when the Devil, feeling mischievous one day, released some ill-behaved young demons to cause a little gratuitous havoc. One apparently twisted the spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield, but a couple made their way to Lincoln Cathedral where they smashed windows, broke furniture and tripped up the dean. An angel appeared from an opened Bible and commanded they cease their naughtiness immediately. One of the imps sat on top of a column, hurling stones and abuse at the angel – who promptly turned him to stone. And there he sits today, still wicked enough to move my camera several times whilst I was trying to photograph him. The other imp escaped and now lives on Twitter. Lincoln’s Imp is used as a badge by Lincoln City Football Club, who are, I have learned, known as ‘the Imps’. He crops up at other places too, including Lincoln College, Oxford.
Tucked away in the Cathedral’s South Choir Aisle, you will come across the sorry and curious remains of the shrine of Little Saint Hugh. The story behind it is tragic, and horrific. In 1255, a small boy, Hugh, eight or nine years old, went missing for several weeks. His mother, Beatrice, was told he had been playing with some Jewish children and found him in the well, or cesspit, in the house of a local Jew, Copin. The story circulated that Hugh had been tortured, even ritually crucified, and that Copin confessed to the crime. Ninety-two innocent Jews were taken from Lincoln to the Tower of London. Eighteen were drawn (dragged through the streets) and hanged, their property confiscated. The remainder, after a ransom had been paid, were freed. Hugh became known as Little Saint Hugh, though he was never canonised. Viewed as a martyr, a shrine was built for him and the Cathedral benefitted handsomely from the pilgrims that came to pray at it.
We do not know what really happened to poor little Hugh, whether Copin killed him, there was a terrible accident, or what. The dreadful story is, of course, by no means the only example of extreme anti-Semitism to come down to us from the Middle Ages. Nor indeed is it the only example of absurd allegations of ritual child-murder. Jews were often the scapegoats of choice for ignorant, superstitious and greedy, medieval minds throughout Europe, just as Romans may have hated the deviant Christians in their day. Shamefully, in 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews from England and it took Cromwell to allow their return some three and a half centuries later.
Depressingly, the story of Little Saint Hugh strikes a chord in the 21st century where, even in a supposedly free and democratic society, irrational bigots still blame other tribes for their own and society’s ills: black, white, Muslim, Christian, East, West, North, South, Tory, Labour, Leave, Remain, Nationalist, Republican, Democrat. What or whoever your favourite scapegoat happens to be, they are surely up to no good.
Here is Lincoln Cathedral’s website.