Gaye Mack’s Blog

A RARE FACE TO FACE MEETING WITH 12TH CENTURY ECCLESIASTICAL TRAPPINGS

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 6 Comments

As I write this post, I’m currently ensconced in one of my favorite English cities, Oxford, where tomorrow I’ll be tramping around what remains of Godstow Nunnery just outside of the city and the setting for book #3 in my ‘Flight Through Time’ historical mystery series.  While I’m looking forward to this, two days ago I had an extraordinary experience at Winchester Cathedral.

 Through connections to the Cathedral, an old friend of mine was able to arrange an opportunity for me to spend some time with one of the Cathedral’s curators who allowed me to privately view the 12th century ‘Sparsholt Chalice and Paten’, on loan to the Cathedral, but not on display.  

We tend to fantasize that such ecclesiastical trappings were always very ornate, made from the most valuable of metals such gold or silver, decorated with priceless gems.  The reality is that in fact, often they were not. 

During a Victorian renovation of Sparsholt’s church which is located about three miles from Winchester and believed to be a site of worship since Saxon times, the chalk grave of a 12th century priest was discovered near the pulpit;  buried with him were a ceremonial pewter chalice and paten.

What surprised me the most was not only its lack of ornamentation and utter simplicity, but the size!  A visual guess puts the chalice at roughly four inches tall with the bowl perhaps six inches in diameter.  The paten is perhaps four inches in diameter.  With the exception of the medieval Christian cross embossed in the center of the paten, both pieces are totally devoid of decoration and although Pewter was considered a valuable metal, it certainly wasn’t in the category of gold and silver.  During a recent conservation restoration, the decision was made not to attempt to repair the crack in the bowl.  Nevertheless, to contemplate something so old in front of you, wondering who might have used it 900 years ago, staggers the mind.

We also forget that the average height of the medieval body was much shorter than modern physical characteristics, so one wonders; even though the pieces were ceremonial, were they proportionally fashioned?

Unfortunately, but understandably, I wasn’t allowed to hold them, but nevertheless it was an extraordinary experience, knowing that characters in my books have been taking the sacraments from items such as these.

 

 

Photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.


THE MYSTERIES OF OXFORD’S MEDIEVAL GODSTOW NUNNERY-AN IDEAL SETTING FOR “A WATCH OF NIGHTINGALES”

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 2 Comments

A little over two miles northwest of Oxford, the tiny hamlet of Godstow  lies alongside the River Thames.  Bucolic in its landscape, Godstow remains noteworthy for two of its area landmarks, a medieval nunnery and The Trout (Inn, Pub) which 850 years ago(give or take), served as the nunnery’s 12th century hospice.   Sadly the years have not been kind to what was once an extremely wealthy nunnery, as the ruins are now scant.  Nevertheless, Godstow has held a fascination for me since the first time I walked its grounds nearly 35 years ago and why I’ve chosen it for the setting of my next historical mystery which is in the works, “A Watch of Nightingales.”

 One of the better known reasons for the nunnery’s high profile is that Godstow is where Henry II’s famous mistress, the fair Rosamund Clifford was buried upon her death in 1175(1174 or 1176 depending on which ‘authority’ one reads).  While some sources claim the fair Rosamund died of natural causes, there are myths pointing to Henry’s artfully scheming queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as Rosamund’s murderess…a charge which Eleanor consistently denied…vehemently.

 Leaving Henry, Eleanor and Rosamund aside for the moment, the remaining stones of Godstow surely protect many other secrets, sending the imagination into the realms of ‘what if’?  Scholars cite the existence of ‘outrageous lascivious and licentious behavior’ between the nuns, clerks and scholars of Oxford.  Given that Godstow was built on a marsh island across the river from the Trout, how did they get into town, as it were?  And what sort of intrigues were behind these nocturnal assignations, not to mention that Godstow’s meadow and ditches were and still are, abundant with Birthwort, an herb used in childbirth and…as an abortive.

 In 2006, The Oxford Times ran an article reporting that in 1944, children playing by the Godstow river bank discovered a stone coffin lodged under the tow path, its lid resting about six inches above water level.  Further inspection revealed bones of an adult female.  This coffin was the first of several that have ‘appeared’ over the years, which then disappear into the riverbed, divers unable to locate further evidence of their existence.

Several years ago I discovered a fascinating symbol carved in the remaining stones of Godstow.    Eerily similar to symbolism used by ancient and modern Druids, research efforts to discover its meaning and source over the years remain elusive. Disappointingly, it could very well be the work of 21st century graffiti artists or ritualists.  Nevertheless, I prefer to remain mystified…it makes for good plotting in an historical mystery

Photography©2012 Gaye F. Mack, Inc.