ENGLISH intellectuals have an occasionally tiresome habit of rabbiting on about Chartres Cathedral. Of course they are right, but I would contend that as architecture we have its equal in Canterbury. I went there this week. And I was once again astonished.
Its setting is secretive in the English urban manner. It is true you can see its marvellous tower. Bell Harry, for miles away — the "queenliest tower in Christendom".
But within the city, there is a small irregular square witha great gate on one side and you go through and — bang! — there a4 an angle, is perfection, delicate, comprehensible, infinitely subtle.
I know nothing finer in the world. Except perhaps its interior. This does an almost baroque, or at least theatrical, thing.
Its nave is brave and bare and very, very vertical. (I once, when I was a tiny boy, shook Joseph Conrad's hand in the right hand aisle. At least I believe I remember I did. You will recall the veteran of the Battle of Borodino who said, Yes, he could remember seeing Napoleon, and that he was a huge tall man with a long white beard.) Anyway, there is a great flight of steps from the nave up into the choir and another from the choir up to the High Altar and the great empty space where the shrine of Thomas Becket (the "a" bit was only added by Romantic Victorians) once blazed.
The names of the architects are known. Henry Yevele did the nave. He also did Westminster Hall. William of Sens did the very French choir, but he fell off the scaffolding and went back to France to die. William the Englishman did the enormous extension made to contain the shrine.
I know no Gothic cathedral where you go up and up and up through a gathering richness of carving and colour and marble pavement until you come to the huge emptiness of the place where the "Holy Blissful Martyr" once lay. It really was a very odd martyrdom which he could easily have avoided.
There is a story that a gravestone in the pavement outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem marks the resting place of one of the four knights who killed him and wounded his Saxon cross-bearer, Grim.
That was in 1170. Alas, it is not true. All of them, de Tracy, Fitzuse, le Breton and de Morville (who struck no blow) returned to the royal favour and did quite well in ‘life.
I never quite understood why Becket so captured the imagination of the Western world. Of course it was a fearful thing to kill a prelate in his own cathedral. but such a death was not unique. The monks hid when he was killed and he called them cowards and used strong language towards his attackers.
However, when he was stripped of his robes, he was found to be wearing a hair shirt that was infested with vermin. This was considered a sign of sanctity. King James I once said: "The greatest pleasure in life is to scratch where it itches," St Thomas' temptations in public must have been fearful.
After Rome and Jerusalem, this was the greatest shrine in Christendom. The first King of France ever to visit England come to pray all night in 1179 at the tomb for the recovery of his son. This was Louis VII, and he presented the most splendid jewel the shrine ever had — the Regale of France.
When the shrine was sacked and the treasures taken by the cart-load to London. the Regale appeared on King Henry VIII's fat thumb. Then it appeared in a collar worn by Queen Mary Tudor and then( it disappeared.
However, medieval jewels tended to be a poor and ill-cut lot. The great ruby in the Royal Crown looks more like a pebble than a gem.
A miracle of conservation
ONE of the splendours of the Ecclesia Anglicana is the care and taste it lavishes on the monuments in its care.
This has now become a work far more than it can afford, but in the years of its affluence it chose to opt out of any government control and therefore government subsidy over its monuments. This is something that will have to be phanged. But Canterbury is a miracle of conservation and exquisite care. The only ugly thing in all the place is a Catholic gift.
This is a painting of the utmost vulgarity of the Arms of Reginald Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury — a great counter Reformation figure, one of the leaders of the Council of Trent.
He tried to moderate Queen Mary's zeal for burning even the humblest heretics, and he had the good fortune to doe one day before her. He was vaguely pupabile in his time.
His tomb is in the furthest chapel of the Cathedral. I seem to remember that it used to bear the perfectly adequate inscription, "Polus" and no more. But it has now his titles in gilded Latin.
Perhaps I made it up, or perhaps someone has gone and done something foolish behind my back. But, goodness, Cardinal Vaughan's jeu d'esprit ought to come down.
When I was in Canterbury it was a grey and deliciously dank day. The Cathedral was almost empty. The slight melancholy suited its splendours. And, unlike baroque, Gothic looks better empty.
They have done marvels with stained glass, which ought to be too old to survive. They have a school of young carvers to replace the finials and stones destroyed by our contemporary sort of sulphuric air.
They have made marvellous side chapels as memorials for their archbishops. There is one appalling Royal Window in the transcept of the Martyrdom — but this can be forgiven them.
One of the marvels of the place is the undercroft or crypt. It is low and lowering. It feels older than the Roman waters in Bath. It's the only part of the Cathedral that Becket might have recognised.
It holds up the highest part of the church. It is a series of rounded arches, carefully and darkly lit. It is edged with pitchdark side chapels and in the centre of this Norman fear of the Lord there is a little lacey marvel of painted and light-hearted love. It is a chapel to Our Lady. Frescoed and almost frivolous, with a Portuguese ivory of the Virgin above its altar, it is like a beautiful woman on a military parade. It is the most delicate tribute to the Virgin Mother that I know.
I would have thought that so Catholic a thing cannot be quite ignored as simply a part of the history of British art. Once these multitudinous chapels were used for daily Masses. Now they are items in guide-books.
The Archbishop of Canterbury goes on a good deal about intercommunion, but all the giving seems to be expected by those who once consciously rejected their ancient allegience to Rome and now expect Rome to give and give.
We are expected to abdicate authority, dilute doctrines, recognise the validity of other orders, accept a married clergy, stay out of the Royal Succession and admit the equality of those who have made a religion, almost out of rejecting us. Why not one small, loving, generous gesture in return?
Why not the use of one chapel for the Catholics who come with full hearts to Canterbury? Why not an Ecumencial Gesture rather than a Demand from the Top of the Other Side? The trouble would be -the chapel would be packed day after day.
Charterhouse to Carmel
THE DEVOTED and discerning reader may have noticed that this week I spent time in the archdocese of Southwark, quitting for a time my cornfortable Portsmouth. So I went too to the Priory of Aylesford.
This has become one of the most popular shrines of England. It is not so hard to get ot as Walingham. It is beautiful. The friars have contrived to make it fun, without being vulgar, as well as holy. And it is uncommonly handsome, standing on a bank of the River Medway, which pongs a bit strong at low tide but never did an honest man any harm — not even the Dutch, who once sailed up it and beat the pants of us.
It is run by the Carmelites. The first date the books mention it is 1185. But they trace their origins back to Christian hermits who were found by Crusaders living on the sacred slopes of Mount Carmel.
And, piously but not seriously, they take Elias (or Elijah) as a putative founder who took refuge from the enemies of the prophets of the Lord on Mount Carmel.
Anyway, they had eventually to flee or die before the Muslims. These hermits got a cold reception — like the boat people — in
Europe. They were literally disorientated.
In 1245 an obviously sensible Kentish man was elected Prior General of the Order. Not much is known about him but he organised them and made them acceptable. Like Pole, he was one of our major contributions to Europe.
1 have a cheap but charming painting of Our Lady which I bought in Argentina. Under all her regalia she is wearing a brown scapula, a piece of unbecoming brown cloth hung fore and aft, with a hole for the neck, over her body.
This scapula is their especial sign. And if you recall that they provided Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, among others for the Church, they, like the Coldstrearv are Nulll Secundus.
But the odd thing is that for one or two summers my parents rented the place when there was only a ruin of the big houseleft.
There was a marvellous drawing room and a huge courtyard at the back where there were grooms and horses. I nearly killed myself by ringing a bell while riding — tolling a hanging bell — and frightening a horse which skidded on the cobbles.
My sister tells me that here I fired a shotgun which simultaneously hit her between the eyes and killed a swan. She is a more truthful person than I.
She tells me that I was furious with her for bleeding so ostentatiously and terrified that I had killed one of the King's swans which floated away down the river. I cannot recall the incident. The trauma may account for my never having even wanted to take to shooting. I remember the place as t perfection of childhood. The sun. always shone. Boredom was a non-existent conception (though clearly I had delinquent, tendencies). I can recognise almost nothing there except the stable yard where Charterhouse, the fool, nearly died.
But within the maze of chapels the friars have built, there is a sort of porcelain pagoda which contains the skull of St Simon Stock — "St Simon of England", it says on the front. Peering into its side, I could see little but a suggestion of bone in the dark.
An attendant said: "There's usually a light inside, but the battery's run down". There are times when I love this country of its moderation and sense of priorities so much that it hurts. Next time your parish runs a trip to the Priory at Aylesford, go. And say a prayer for my swant