To the glory of God – the ruminations of an awestruck visitor
Once upon a time, this particular corner of the earth was all forest. The odd call of a bird of prey, the occasional glimpse of a fox, a deer. Now and then, a biped wandered by. Over time, these very ancient ancestors of ours dropped by regularly. A river offered water and fish, the forest was rich in game and other edibles. Our nomadic forebears stayed for some days, but the women complained about lying down on the marshy and wet ground. I imagine they solved that problem by moving up the impressive hill that stood to the north of the pool. And so, dear people, Lincoln was born.
Well, okay, okay: it’s a long way from a nomadic rest-stop to present day Lincoln, but the site as such has seen humans come and go for thousands of years. Some hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, there were huts along the river, coracles on the water. The land had been settled, had even acquired a name: Lindon.
And then came the Romans. What they liked was not only the waterways, the natural harbour, and the forest. They also really, really liked the steep hill, a perfect defensive position for an invading army. Seeing as the Romans were no slouches, soon enough they’d constructed a fortress on top of the hill. Over time, this was replaced with stone, the walls extending downhill to the waterfront.
Straight through the Roman town – now named Lindum Colonia – ran the Ermine Street, one of those Roman roads that bisected the British isle. To this day, the Ermine Street is still there, albeit these days the part that runs up the hill is called Steep Hill – for the obvious reason that it is very steep. I imagine the legionaries must have cursed under their breath as they tramped up the long incline, but being Roman I bet they didn’t stop for a breather as I had to do. (It was somewhat frustrating to see the locals hurrying upwards, for all the world as if this near on vertical hill was nothing but a slight bump in the road. I imagine the residents of Lincoln have good hearts and strong lungs.)
Anyway: if you were a non-legionary Roman, you didn’t have to tramp up the steep street. No, instead you could stroll up the over-sized elegant terraces the Romans built, bordered by shops and taverns and other necessities in life such as bath houses. Like one huge staircase, climbing the hill towards the forum and the administrative centre of the Roman city.
The Romans left the Britain some centuries later. Their stone walls, their houses, were left behind to succumb to nature. Except that when Romans built stuff, they built it to last, which is why to this day the remnants of the old city gates still stand – and it is a surreal experience to duck under an arch that has been around for two thousand years, give or take.
The Roman walls at the top of the hill also survived – I guess those that came after saw the benefit in maintaining them – at least some of them. So when William the Conqueror came riding up the hill in the late 1th century, he found nice thick walls just waiting to encircle his future castle. He also found a number of Anglo-Saxons residing within those walls, but such details did not concern our Will. He ousted the inhabitants from their homes and set them to further strengthening his defences by digging a dry ditch round the old walls. He also demolished and burnt down their houses before having them throw up a motte inside what was now William’s impressive bailey. In this case, the bailey was big enough for two mottes, although the second one would not be constructed until a century or so later – William was content with one.
Now, the top of the hill was nice and flat and large. Will turned his head this way and that, took in the impressive views, and probably muttered something along the lines of “location, location” before deciding that here, in Lincoln, he would order the building of a magnificent cathedral – conveniently at a walking distance from the castle.
William envisioned two sets of walls, one round his castle, the other round the cathedral close, a symbolic union of the temporal and spiritual powers. Or maybe he just wanted to hedge his bets re the afterlife by sponsoring a glorious building dedicated to God. Whatever the case, in deciding to place a minster on top of the hill, William gifted the world a marvellous creation. Having recently stood before the sheer splendour of the cathedral, I must admit to having fallen in love – with a soaring construction of carved, golden stone, stretching its towers towards the heavens.
Obviously, William didn’t do the building himself – he was more a blood & gore kind of guy than a stone and mortar dude. Instead, he ordered Remigius, bishop of Lincolnshire, to move his episcopal seat to Lincoln and get cracking on building an adequately splendid cathedral. Remigius did as ordered, and soon enough a huge church began to take shape. Unfortunately for Remigius, he died before the cathedral was consecrated in 1192.
Unfortunately for the cathedral, it took fire in 1141. The roof came crashing down, and the new bishop immediately set about repairing the church. Some forty years later, the church “was split from top to bottom” by an earthquake. Only the western front remained standing…A huge disaster, and of course the general assumption was that God had a finger in the pie. Likely, it was more a question of faulty designs in the vaulting that led to the destruction. Whatever the case, Lincoln’s new bishop, the future St Hugh, was not about to allow such a minor thing as a collapsed church to stop him. Instead, this energetic and determined bishop oversaw the reconstruction of the cathedral, ensuring the old western front was lovingly integrated with the new design.
This St Hugh is quite the colourful character. Among other things, he purportedly bit of a piece of St Mary of Magdalen’s arm while gawking at her relics in France. Takes a man of determination to sink his teeth into the desiccated remains of a long-dead woman, be she a saint or not… Why he chose to attack the saint’s arm? Well, he wanted a piece of the relic to take home to his precious cathedral.
By the time Hugh died, Lincoln’s skyline was yet again dominated by the triple towers of the Lincoln minster. And in 1237, the main tower came crashing down. Again. One could have thought all these disasters would have mitigated the enthusiasm for rebuilding. Not so. Nope, not at all. Eager masons and builders swarmed all over the place, adjusted the general design of the vaulting, and voilá, up the tower went. Again. Early in the 14th century, Lincoln Cathedral not only displayed its three towers, it could also proudly claim the title of the tallest building in the world. Umm…the known world, may be a relevant qualifier.
While all this rebuilding and repairing went on, the inside of the cathedral was a beehive of activity. Chapels lined the nave, pilgrims met to chat about their travels, from the choir screen came the voice of whoever was reading the gospels for the day. The choir screen was a marvel in itself, a vividly decorated structure that had as its purpose to separate the stillness of the eastern part of the church from the everyday bustle of the nave. By the late 13th century, the cathedral also had a famous shrine – that of St Hugh – and pilgrims were allowed to enter beyond the screen to pray at the saint’s shrine. From 1290, St Hugh had company in the easternmost part of the church. In a stately tomb nearby lay Eleanor of Castile – well, her intestines.
To us, the notion of building a huge tomb to house a person’s viscera is a bit odd to say the least. To the medieval mind, spreading the bodily parts of the deceased was nothing new. I mean, look at all those poor saints, chopped up in bits and pieces! I suppose the dean of Lincoln Cathedral was deeply honoured to be made custodian of the dead queen’s stomach. Edward, by all accounts heartbroken, then had the rest of his wife’s remains transported south, erecting a cross in her memory wherever her coffin rested for the night. But before she was laid to rest in Westminster, her heart was removed and buried with her beloved son Alphonso, which means the poor lady has three locations to visit before she can recover all her bodily parts prior to the Resurrection.
Having a queen – or at least some parts of her – buried within, was quite the coup for the cathedral. A century or so later, the “famous ladies” gallery was expanded by the interment of Katherine Swynford’s bodily remains, neatly buried several feet below her stone tomb.
Katherine is one of those rags-to-riches stories, a young girl of noble birth and no wealth made good by her illicit relationship with John of Gaunt, Edward III’s son. Okay, so it was somewhat more convoluted than that, what with Katherine first being married elsewhere. Upon her husband’s death, she was given a position in John of Gaunt’s household, and soon enough the attraction between them grew into a passionate blaze, the heat of their emotions strong enough to survive John’s second marriage (for dynastic reasons). Not so sure it was all that much fun being John’s second wife: not only was Constance Spanish and thereby a foreigner, she was also expected to accept the fact that her husband’s true affections lay with his mistress, not with her. Well over twenty years after they initiated their relationship, John of Gaunt was finally free to marry Katherine – and did so in Lincoln Cathedral, on a cold January day in 1396. Three years later, John was dead. As per his wishes, he was buried with his first wife, thereby relegating Katherine to the position of second-best – and to lie without her man beneath the stone canopy that adorns her tomb.
What was once a richly decorated interior, blazing with colour and gold, fared badly during the Reformation. The choir screen was scrubbed clean of colour, St Hugh’s shrine was destroyed, and the huge statue of the crucified Christ that gazed down the nave from its position atop the choir screen was dismantled and thrown away. Gone was the pomp, the exuberant wall paintings, the statues of saints and madonnas. But the structure itself remained, its richly carved stone testament to the generations of stone masons who spent their entire lives decorating this house dedicated to God.
By now, my dear discerning readers, I guess you’ve understood that I was somewhat knocked off my feet by the Lincoln Cathedral. Once seen, everything else around it paled, and while I dutifully trotted this way and that through the town to take in one sight or the other, my eyes were continuously drawn back to the church, to its flying buttresses and decorated pinnacles. One of those pinnacles is topped by a statue of St Hugh. The other by a swineherd, who upon hearing that the cathedral had collapsed in the aftermath of the earthquake (we’re back in the 12th century) graciously donated all his earthly belongings to the repairs. All of sixteen silver pennies, and I suspect other, far richer, benefactors, snickered. Not so St Hugh, who recognised in the lowly swineherd a man willing to sacrifice everything he had for the glory of God.
Obviously, I spent time at the castle. I even took the guided tour, but I dare say my friends and I were somewhat intimidating to the poor guide, who quickly realised he was in the company of three ladies who knew far more about medieval times than he did. Wise man that he was, he therefore concentrated his tour on the Georgian prison – which none of us had all that much interest in. But we did see the Magna Carta, and we did clamber up to the wall walk.
Once there, my gaze yet again stuck on the nearby Cathedral. I turned to study the bailey and squinted, mentally replacing the 18th and 19th century buildings with the hustle and bustle of a medieval ward. Atop its mound, the keep (in this case integrated with the curtain wall) stood round and fat, pennons snapping in the wind. To the east of the keep, yet another mound, topped by elegant rooms designed as luxurious living quarters. Yes, it must have been impressive, the thick walls making it almost impregnable.
Side by side, the castle and the cathedral have stood on top of the hill for close to a thousand years. To the west, the castle is a symbol of power, looming over the town that spilled down the steep slope, that grew round the base of the walls. But to the east soars the cathedral, a glorious testament to the fact that man may be great, but God is always greater. No wonder I keep on humming Handel under my breath: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed.“