ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “faith”

The whole world in His hands

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The Holy family, Murillo

Lately, I’ve been pondering the word “Christian”. Not Christian as in “yes, I belong to the Christian faith”, more Christian in “I am a Christian” (with a lot of emphasis on the italicised word) , which, as far as I can tell, means the person in question goes to church regularly and studied his/her bible frequently. This in difference to those who are of the Christian denomination by rote, eg they were baptized as Christians but don’t have their lives revolving around their faith. Now, before I go any further, there are a lot of active Christians out there (some of which I count as dear friends) who are very good people – which is fortunate, seeing as anyone defining themselves as “Christian first” have a lot to live up to.

You see, if a person presents themselves as “Christian”, my expectations on that person are that they will live up to the most basic of Christian tenets, namely charity. These last few days, I see a lot of stuff being presented as being part of “Christian” values, but I see little indication of this being done out of an encompassing, altruistic endeavor. Stopping refugees at the borders has little to do with altruism, far more to do with promoting a “we” and “them” take on the world, as does pushing your own “moral” agenda down the throat of people with fundamentally different beliefs. As does pointing fingers at those among us who refuse to be defined by their gender in everything from who they have sex with to how they dress.

I don’t go to church regularly, nor do I read my bible all that often. I do, however, struggle daily with being a good person, even if at times that means sharing when I don’t want to, helping when I don’t have time. I try. Often, I fail. But I try—hard—to live as per the most important message in the New Testament, namely “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

ehfa-westminster-retablePlease note that others in the above sentence isn’t qualified. It doesn’t say “Do unto other Christians as you would have others do unto you.” Nor does it say “Do unto others who are like you as you would have others do unto you.” It just says “others”, which reasonably must be interpreted as meaning the entire human race. All of us, no matter race, gender or creed. It would seem Jesus really did believe in having the whole world in His hands.

So, now that we’ve established that “others” means others as in stepping-out-of-our-comfort-zone others, maybe we should analyse the rest of the sentence.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you slip on a patch of ice and fall, you’d like someone to help you up, right? So it follows that if you see someone slipping, you should hasten forward to pull them back up on their feet. Life is not always a walk in the park. There is plenty of ice out there, metaphorically speaking. One very nasty patch of ice is called war, and at present the world has I don’t know how many millions of people fleeing their homelands and the life they’ve known—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’ve slipped pretty badly, one could say, and as good human beings, and definitely as a Christian, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand. After all, it could be us out there, stuck in a patched tent with UN rations the only thing keeping starvation at bay.

slide1When people are in need, it shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or walk about dyed blue, or wear nothing but a loin cloth. It shouldn’t matter if they’re young or old, if they’re male or female. They need help. It is part of basic decency to offer it.

When some among us choose to live in same-sex relationships, this is not ground for condemnation, no matter what Leviticus might have to say on the matter. By the time Jesus came round, Leviticus was OLD stuff, probably severely outdated even back then. Besides, how on earth can anyone purporting to believe in Jesus condemn someone for loving? A good Christian should, IMO, show toleration and respect. A good Christian should, once again IMO, defend every person’s right to find happiness where they can find it – as long as they do not cause anyone else harm. A good Christian should remember “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and reflect on the fact that there could come a time when they’re in minority. Surely, they’d want to be respected and tolerated by the surrounding majority who chose to live/believe differently from them, right?

Had He not been resurrected, I think Jesus would have been spinning like a top in the grave, groaning out loud at all the people who take His name in vain. Because that’s what you do if you loudly proclaim yourself a Christian but lack in charity and compassion. Once in heaven, Jesus won’t be all that impressed by hearing about bible-reading and church-going. It’s the actions that count, and He’ll want to know about what you did, how you contributed to alleviate the suffering of those who have little – or nothing at all.

So if you’re going to present yourself as “Christian”, please do some loving. And caring. Be tolerant and supportive. Extend that hand of yours and help, no matter who it is that has slipped on the ice.

hand-20170205_142546Actually, all of this is valid no matter what you might believe in. So let me rephrase: be a GOOD person, okay? Or try to be. The world needs good people—now more than ever. It needs us to care, to defend those who are weaker, to stand up for everyone’s right to be treated with respect. It needs us to show some basic decency and remember that the human condition is a global condition. It needs those of us who’ve attended Sunday school in those distant days of our childhood to hum “black and yellow, red and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and remember that the similarities that bind us are far, far greater than the differences.
You are my brother/sister. Here’s my hand if you need it!

St Lucia: the saint who lost her eyes and found the light

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Note the eyes on a stalk!

This is a post I wrote some years ago, but seeing as St Lucia’s day is an annually recurring event, I’ve decided to review, rewrite somewhat and republish ….taa-daa….today, seeing as it is December 13. Again.

For most Swedish people, Christmas sort of starts on December 13.  Today we celebrate St Lucia’s day, and I would argue that for very many Swedes, this day comes in top three under the category “traditional feast days”. Why? Because of the light. St Lucia is celebrated when winter is at its darkest. Eight days to go until the midwinter solstice, until the year finally turns. Prior to switching to the Gregorian calendar December 13 WAS in actual fact the shortest day of the year.

Anyway: this time of the year, we rise in darkness, we prepare breakfast in darkness, we drop our children off at school in darkness, we arrive at work in darkness. There is a glimmer of daylight from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, but by four (at the latest) we are back in darkness. Christmas comes as a necessary break in all this black, allowing us to light candles and huddle round the gasping little flames.

And then there’s St Lucia. luciaThis is the day when Swedish children don long white nightshirts, the girls use red ribbons or lengths of tinsel to belt the shapeless garments, the boys don’t. Instead, the boys wear white conical hats, decorated with golden stars, and in their hands they carry rods to which a big golden star has been affixed. These are the “star boys”. Most of the girls carry a lit candle in their hand, and one lucky girl carries a crown of lit candles on her head – she is the Lucia. From personal experience, I can tell you it hurts when the hot candlewax drips onto your scalp, and still most Swedish girls desire to carry that flaming headgear at least once in their lives.

So, dressed in white, carrying candles and stars, the children form into processions and start to sing. Songs about how Lucia will drive away the dark, how in the darkest hour of midwinter a Holy Child was born. Songs about believing that one day, soon, the light will return to earth. Most apt, let me tell you.

img_0214In general, the Lucia festivities take place around seven o’clock in the morning. Proud parents, younger siblings and other relatives sit in the darkened rooms, whispering to each other. There is a smell of newly brewed coffee, of gingerbread biscuits and the traditional Luciabuns, bright yellow with saffron and studded with raisins.

From the corridor comes the sound of shuffling feet, of suppressed giggles, and then, at last, young voices break out in song. The Lucia enters – slowly, given her candles – and her handmaidens follow while the star boys come in last. The gloom of the room is lit by this procession of light, and in their benches people smile and nod (mothers wipe their eyes. Mothers do that a lot when their kids perform), most of them mouthing along with the songs. Saint_Lucy_by_Domenico_di_Pace_Beccafumi

So why St Lucia? Why is a Sicilian saint so revered in  country she definitely never visited or even had heard about? It’s all about the eyes, people. For those that don’t know, St Lucia was a young, very pious woman, a firm adherent to the newfangled Christian church. It might strike us as odd to reflect on the fact that there was a time when Christianity was considered nothing but a weird sect – very weird, what with this propensity to meekly accept the tribulations of life on earth while aspiring to come to heaven after death.

I dare say St Lucia’s widowed mother tore at her hair and moaned in desperation when her adolescent and impressionable daughter wanted to consecrate her virginity to the Christian church, deciding to give away her dowry to the poor. Not at all what St Lucia’s ailing mother wanted for her pretty daughter, and so she arranged a marriage with a young man from a wealthy – but pagan – family.

Contracts were signed, and the prospective bridegroom rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of increasing his considerable fortune with Lucia’s sizeable dowry. Lucia was less than thrilled, and managed to convince her mother to go to the nearby shrine of St Agatha and pray. While there, Lucia prayed for her mother’s recovery, and miraculously the chronic illness was cured (well, that is what normally happens at the shrines of saints, right?) Lucia was happy, her mother was happy, and Lucia succeeded in convincing her mother it was best to give away her dowry to the poor – a gesture of gratitude for the mother’s miraculous cure. The poor were obviously VERY happy at being the benefactors of so much largesse. Lucia’s intended bridegroom was very unhappy – pissed off, if we’re going to be brutally honest. After all, he had a signed contract that more or less made him the owner of all those jewels now being handed out to all sort of riff-raff. 478px-Lotto,_pala_di_santa_lucia_00

The bridegroom protested to the pagan authorities, who were most upset at discovering a subversive Christian in their midst. Lucia was dragged before the court and ordered to sacrifice to the emperor. She refused, setting that pretty mouth of hers in a stubborn line. (I’m guessing here. For a story to make it down close to 17 centuries, I bet you Lucia was quite the looker. Had she been ugly, no one would have bothered to record this story of woe – after all, some things never change…)

The pagan governor, Paschasius, waved his arms about and screamed a bit. Lucia lifted her shoulders in a resigned shrug. No matter what he threatened her with, she had no intention of sacrificing to a false god.
“False?” squeaked Paschasius, his voice floating into falsetto. “How false?”
“The emperor is a man, as fallible as you or I. There is but one God, and his son is Jesus Christ,” Lucia replied, her features acquiring a dreamy look.
This is when Paschasius pulled out all the stops, ordering his soldiers to take the young girl to a nearby brothel and there defile her. Nice guy, this Paschasius.

“You can try.” Lucia sat down on the ground. The guards heaved. The guards pushed.  The guards pulled. Little Lucia could not be budged, making one think of  “and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,couldn’t get Humpty up again“, except, of course, that Lucia was a slender girl – a very pretty, slender girl. (Once again, I’m guessing. Maybe Lucia was a very pretty, very plump girl, nice and round, like. But generally, the heroines of these ancient stories aren’t – plump, I mean.)

The guards gave up. Paschasius grumbled a bit about having to skip the defilement part, but had his soldiers stack fire wood around the sitting girl.
“I’ll burn you alive if you don’t sacrifice to the emperor,” he said.
“Do your best,” Lucia said calmly, adjusting her hair. Tapers were brought and held to the wood. Nothing happened. Oil was poured on the wood, more tapers were brought. Nothing happened. By now, Paschasius was jumping up and down in frustration. Lucia just smiled. st lucia_sword

So far, the story is more or less the same throughout the ages, but sometime in the medieval times, someone decided the story needed some further spice, which is when the rather gory detail of putting Lucia’s eyes out were added. Paschasius, as per this version, seemed to think her eyes were adequate compensation for the sacrifice she refused to perform on behalf of the emperor. He was probably motivated by spite, what with not having been able to defile her OR get a nice, bright blaze burning around her. This uncooperative bonfire is also the reason why eventually Lucia was killed with a sword, blood staining her white linen dress – in both versions of the story. (And yes, this is a bit illogical: they couldn’t defile her or burn her, but kill her with a sword worked fine. As was poking her eyes out first…)

In the “let’s poke her eyes out” version, her eyes were miraculously restored to her body when her family set off to bury her – a gift from God, giving her the light of her eyesight back. The more cynical amongst us may consider this a belated gesture, what with Lucia already being dead and all that, but at least she was now buried with her beautiful eyes (blue, I think. No wait; she was Sicilian, right? A brilliant light brown, the colour of well-aged whisky). Anyway, because of this eye thing, Lucia became the patron saint of the blind, and what is more blind than man, stumbling through the eternal darkness of midwinter? Ergo, St Lucia was venerated on the day that traditionally was the darkest of the year, the midwinter solstice that as per the Julian calendar fell on December 13. Today.

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I began this dark December day huddling before the TV, surrounded by lit candles as I watched the televised Lucia procession. Voices raised in song, a light that grew brighter as the Lucia approached, her handmaidens in tow. All the songs I know by heart – most Swedish people do – and once I was the Lucia, striding down a darkened church with candles like a fiery crown upon my head. Today we sing of the returning sun, of darkness that recedes as dawn grows brighter. No wonder us people of the north love our St Lucia, this harbinger of light in the pitch-black of a winter night.

As an addendum, I’d like to remind all those Swedes who walk about thinking that Lucia has to be blond and blue-eyes, that the original Lucia was neither blond nor blue-eyed. Chances are she had dark hair, dark eyes and a delicious olive tint to her skin. Just sayin’…

To the glory of God – the ruminations of an awestruck visitor

img_0126Once 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.

20160906_111508The 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.

20160904_181532Now, 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.

20160904_181941By 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.

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Eleanor’s tomb – the effigy is from the 19th century

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.

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Katherine’s tomb – and the smaller one is that of her daughter

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.

20160905_103731What 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.

20160904_183106Obviously, 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.

20160905_162112Side 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.

A Conquering Saint – meet Fernando

Okay, so some days ago, I gave you a post about Henry III and St Louis – two royal gents in head-to-head competition as to who was the most pious king around. St Louis, of course, would argue he was – and that the pope agreed – discreetly pointing at the ‘saint’ preceding his name. But there was another contemporary king who would scoff at both his cousins (what can I say? A lot of intermarriage going on among the European royals) and point out that while they were off building chapels and squabbling as to the merit of a sliver from the True Cross versus a vial of Holy Blood, he, Fernando, he was fighting for his faith. Constantly. More or less all the time. And, as a further plus point, he mostly won.

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Fernando

So today we’ll be spending time with Fernando. “Mejor asi,” he tells me in a barely comprehensible Spanish – sorry, Castillian. “Me merezco más interés que esos dos, sean o no sean mis primos.
Well yes, you’ve already made that clear, that you feel somehow left out. Truth be told, while most Spanish people have a grasp of who San Fernando was, he is somewhat eclipsed by his son, Alfonso X “el sabio” (the wise) and by his impressive mother, Queen Berenguela – of whom I’ve written in a previous post. Unfair, one might think, given just how much of Moorish Spain Fernando managed to reconquer.

Prior to digging into Fernando’s life, maybe we should start by a very, very brief overview of what the Spanish label “La Reconquista.” In the beginning of the 8th century, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, leaping over from North Africa to work themselves determinedly north. The Moors were on a holy mission – spreading the word of God as per Muhammed and the Koran – but I dare say there was a substantial amount of covetousness as well, the rich lands of southern Iberia offering a good life to whoever ruled it.

In 732, the Moorish expansion north came to an abrupt stop after their defeat by Charlemagne at the battle of Tours. By then, they’d subjugated large chunks of the Iberian Peninsula, and so they retired to construct their own little kingdoms or caliphates. Did not go down well with the remnant Catholic kingdoms in present day Spain. Rather the reverse, actually.

Already in 722, a gentleman by the name of Pelayo had roundly defeated the Moors attempting to conquer Asturias at the battle of Covadonga. In effect, the Reconquista – i.e. the reconquering of previously Christian land now held by the Muslim Moors – began at Covadonga, although for many, many years it was not exactly hugely successful, rather more a determined effort to ensure the survival of the few Christian strongholds left. Asturias, Navarra, Galicia, León and Castilla – small kingdoms that hung on, expanding slowly but safely.

Fernando 800px-Batalla_del_Puig_por_Marzal_de_Sas_(1410-20)And then, in the 11th century, along came Rodrigo Díaz, El Campeador – more commonly known as El Cid, the dude who had his dead body strapped to his horse so as to instil courage in his men at the Siege of Valencia. With their dead lord astride his horse, Babieca, the starving and desperate defenders of Valencia rode forth in one last desperate attempt to lift the siege. All very beautiful and tragic, with the Christians carrying the day but losing the siege… Prior to riding about as a corpse, Díaz had spent most of his life in battle. He was Castillian and started out serving king Sancho II as battle commander. Part of his duty involved defeating Sancho’s brothers (who both wanted a piece of the pie), so when Sancho died (some say murdered by orders of his brother Alfonso VI) Rodrigo had to flee Castilla and ended up fighting for the Moors – at least for a while. All very complicated and quite exciting, but the end result was that in El Cid, the Christians in Spain had found their national hero, someone to inspire them when hope failed.

The Reconquista went on. There were some set-backs, such as the disastrous Battle of Alarcos in 1195, where yet another Alfonso, this time nr VIII, saw his entire army more or less crushed by the Moors. Castile was in shock, but Alfonso was not about to give up, and in 1212, he decisively defeated the Moors at the Battle of Las Naves de Tolosa, thereby securing the borders of his Castile, no matter that most of southern Spain remained under Moorish control.

Alfonso VIII is a good starting point for Fernando, seeing as he’s Fernando’s grandfather. He married Eleanor of England in 1174, and this was a successful and happy marriage, except for one thing: there were to be no surviving sons. Daughters, however, there were aplenty.

One of them, Blanche of Castile, was married to the French king and became the mother of St Louis of France. The eldest, Berenguela, suffered an unhappy and very, very complicated marriage and became the mother of Fernando. Unfortunately for Fernando, his parents’ union was not approved by the pope, so our young prince was actually an illegitimate prince, and therefore not entirely sure of his place in the world.

Berenguela had no such qualms. When in 1217 her baby brother, Enrique, died after an unfortunate accident at the age of thirteen, she became queen of Castile by right. Yes, there had been other ruling queens in castile before Berenguela, but in general the Castilian noblemen preferred a real man at the helm. So Berenguela smiled sweetly, said “Si, mis estimados caballeros,” and abdicated – on behalf of her seventeen-year-old son, Fernando. And while Fernando might have been formally illegitimate this was considered mostly a technicality by his noblemen, a silly attempt by the pope to pull rank on them, the fiercest defenders of the faith around.

One person was very miffed by Berenguela’s speedy actions: Fernando’s father, Alfonso of León. Why? Because Alfonso had a legitimate claim on the Castilian throne (his father was Alfonso VIIIs uncle) Instead of congratulating his son, Alfonso therefore made war on him, but thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Berenguela, some sort of peace was quickly brokered.

Fernando MoorsinIberia Cantigas de Santa MariaBy 1224, Fernando III was safe on his throne in Burgos, twiddling his thumbs. Well, maybe not precisely, but undoubtedly he shone up like a sun when news reached him of the bloody infighting among the Almohad rulers of Moorish Spain. Here at last a chance to carve a name for himself, and seeing as daddy Alfonso was an experienced and extremely capable battle commander, son and father rode out together.

What followed was a twenty-year campaign. Fernando left the administrative duties to his capable mother, the raising of his children to his equally capable (and beloved) wife, Beatriz, strapped on armour, gripped his sword and rode forth to once and for all cleanse Spain of the infidel – hence his status as a saintly Christian king defending the faith. It helped that the infidel were caught up in bloody internal strife, but undoubtedly Fernando was a skilled general, leading his troops to one victory after the other.

In 1230 Alfonso of León died. To judge from his will, he’d not quite forgiven Berenguela and Fernando for cheating him out of Castile, which was why he willed his kingdom to his daughters by his first wife. Fernando was having none of it. He wanted León, desired to add it to Castile permanently. With the help of his formidable mother, an agreement was drawn up whereby Fernando became king and his half-sisters were compensated with money. The kingdoms of León and Castile were thereby united, never again to be split apart.

Fernando CastilliaIn between all this fighting and feuding, Fernando found the time to remarry when his first wife died in 1235 after having given him ten children. Actually, it was Berenguela who acted very quickly to ensure her virile son had new welcoming arms in the marital bed – the Castilian kings had a reputation for lechery, and she wasn’t about to have her Fernandito succumb to such vices. Much better he find relief for his carnal desires with a wife – which he did, his second wife giving him a further five children.

Now and then, he had his numerous family come and stay with him in his camps. Eleanor of Castile, future wife to Edward I, likely spent a lot of her childhood in one tent or the other, and was no stranger to strenuous travelling, to battle wounds, blood and gore. Eleanor’s eldest brother, the future Alfonso X, was often at his father’s side, a trusted commander in the victorious Castilian army that, bit by bit, ate its way into formerly Moorish lands.

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Pradilla – Boabdil surrendering Granada to Isabel and Fernando of Aragón (much later than the events in this post, but the painting is so gorgeous…)

One by one, the Moorish strongholds fell: Jaén, Córdoba, Murcia… Castile was growing at an impressive rate, and soon enough there were only two major Moorish strongholds left: Granada and Seville. With Granada, Fernando reached an agreement whereby the rulers of Granda would recognise him as their overlord and pay him a huge annual tribute. Thereby, the Moors of Granada bought themselves a further two centuries on Spanish land – the last Moorish king, Boabdil, was expelled by The Catholic Kings, Isabel and Fernando, in 1492 , formally concluding the Reconquista.

With Sevilla, things were a bit different. This huge sprawling city had support from their Muslim brethren in North Africa, and the Gudalquivir river which runs through Seville was deep enough to allow ships to sail all the way into it, bringing troops and food and weapons and whatnot. So Fernando decided he needed a little navy to stop the Moorish ships and ordered a certain Ramón de Bonifaz to get this navy thing going. Ramón found 13 ships of relevant size, and a naval battle ensued on the Guadalquivir. The Christians were victorious, and Fernando settled down to besiege Seville into submission, arranging his troops along the land side, seeing as his navy patrolled the entry to the Guadalquivir.

The Sevillanos were not yet beaten. Since centuries back, there was an old floating bridge (present day Puente de Triana) over the Guadalquivir, and while Boniface’s ships ensured no help came via the sea, the emir of a nearby city smuggled goods over the floating bridge, all the way to the water gate of the besieged city. Once Fernando found out, he ordered his navy to destroy the bridge, which involved breaking the massive chains that held the bridge and its various components in place. Seville was thereby lost, and in November of 1248 its emir prostrated himself before Fernando and presented him with the keys to the city.

I dare say it grieved Fernando that by then his mother was no longer around to rejoice with him. Berenguela had died in 1246, and as to Fernando, all those years of constant fighting had taken their toll, no matter that his efforts had essentially rid Spain of all Moors but those in Granada – and more than doubled the size of his kingdom. Far more importantly (at least from the perspective of these medieval knights), wherever Fernando and his men rode forth, they re-established the Holy Church, thereby reclaiming Spain to the Christian faith. God, they said, had given Fernando the gifts required to reconquer Spain – Fernando was but God’s instrument. He seems to have agreed, and so as to spread the word and bring his infidel subjects to the “right” faith, he founded friaries throughout the conquered territories – Fernando was a big fan of the mendicant orders.

To be fair to Fernando, he wasn’t all about war and religion. He was a fan of music and poetry, was more than happy to arrange and participate in tournaments and feasts. An eager proponent of learning (just like his father), he ensured his children were all excellently educated, and was more than happy to employ troubadors and painters, architects and masons. Just like his son, Fernando was quick to appreciate the beauty of Moorish culture, and it is said that during the siege of Seville, the inhabitants were warned that they would all have their throats cut should they damage as much as one tile on the magnificent mosque. Obviously, this was because he intended to convert the mosque to a church, but his interest in Moorish culture went beyond appropiation- he genuinely admired their technological advances in agriculture, enjoyed their lifestyle and their food.

In 1252, Fernando felt death approaching. It is said he immediately sent for his children and wife, wanting to speak to them one last time. His sons, his daughters, his weeping wife – they all assembled as requested, as did various monks and priests. It was time to divest himself of earthly goods and glory, prepare himself for his meeting with God, and Fernando asked for a crucifix and a rope.

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The prostration of San Fernando (Mattoni) I guess it’s his wife in the veil to the right

He placed the rope around his neck and repeatedly beat his chest with the crucifix. He took Holy Communion, divested himself of his clothes until he was only in shirt and rope – a humble penitent, no more, prostrate before the greatness of God. He was fading fast, shared some words of final advice with his son and heir, and then, after having expressed his gratitude to God who had given him so much, he died. He was not much more than fifty-two years old, had spent more than half his life on the battlefield, left behind a strengthened and united realm, and a bevy of children.

Fernando was buried in Seville, in the former mosque turned cathedral. He lies beneath the statue of the virgin he was supposedly given by his cousin St Louis, and despite expressing a wish for a simple memorial, Fernando’s tomb is a magnificent piece of work – Alfonso X believed in pomp and circumstance. In 1671, the Conquering King was canonised, but by then he was already San Fernando to many, many Spanish people, many of whom had set out to do their own Conquista – that of the New World.

Two kings and their ostentatious piety

EHFA HenryIIII’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.

So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

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Westminster abbey, photo Bede 735

Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?

Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of  Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.

By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

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Westminster Abbey as per the Bayeux Tapestry

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build  – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.

The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…

Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

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Sainte-Chapelle, photo Michael D Hill

Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

EHFA Westminster retableI, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

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St Louis and the pope, Bibliotheque Nacionale de France

It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.

 

Bringing God to the Vikings

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Female bellicose person

In those faraway times when the Scandinavian region spawned bellicose Vikings at a horrifying rate, most of Europe was already adequately christened. Not so Norway, Denmark or Sweden, where the ancient religion honouring Odin, Thor and Frey was alive and kicking well into the second millennium. Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, has left us with a detailed description of the heathen temples in Uppsala (just north of Stockholm, these days Uppsala is the home of the Swedish Archbishop), complete with dripping human sacrifices and the bloodied statues of the gods. Seeing as Adam never saw these temples, we may need to add a pinch of salt or two to his descriptions, but still…

While both the Norwegian and Danish kings converted to Christianity in the tenth century, the Swedish kings were far more obdurate, laughing at the idea of replacing their powerful, lusty gods with that milksop, The White Christ. Turning the other cheek was to a Viking with any sense of self-respect an idiotic concept, and the “do unto your neighbour” part was not at all aligned with the idea of raiding and ravaging – although, to be fair, Swedish Vikings did less of the raiding and ravaging than their Norwegian and Danish brethren, no matter how nominally Christian they were.

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Thor (M E Winge) Not a milksop!

Clinging to old faiths when everyone else is embracing the new can become a liability. Trade can be affected, treaties tend to be difficult to push through, and quite often Sweden found itself defending its corner alone, against its (more or less) Christian neighbours. The king in Sweden during the first decades of the second millennium was Olof Skötkonung, step-son to Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) and, one would assume, under this particular king’s influence.

Sven had since some time back become Christian – his dad, Harald Bluetooth, embraced Christianity out of political reasons, hoping the Church would back his determined efforts to impose one religion (guess which) and one king (guess who) on the Danish. The contemporary Norwegian king, Olav, was not only Christian, he was also firmly on his way to his future sainthood although this didn’t stop him from dismembering people who refused to accept the new God, or from continuing his raiding expeditions when he felt the urge to fill his coffers, or to do some disembowelling on the side when people didn’t toe the line. Surrounded by these prime examples of Christian kings, Olof Skötkonung fell for peer pressure. He decided to convert, and sent to England for an adequate converter.

At the time, the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Nordic countries was huge. (Well, it still is; a bunch of enthusiastic Anglophiles the lot of us, if we’re going to be frank. I challenge you to meet a Swedish person who cannot quote extensively from Monthy Python) Yes, it was Sven Tveskägg who conquered England, not the other way around, but as a consequence, learned men and skilled craftsmen from England came in growing numbers to Scandinavia.

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Olof Skötkonung on a coin

Our early churches were staffed with English clerics, our budding administration was developed by intrepid Anglo-Saxons, even that new fad (new from a Nordic perspective) minting coins, was overseen by English immigrants. Actually, the organisation of the Scandinavian mints seems to have been a monopoly, with one Englishman by the name of Godwine popping up in Denmark, Norway and Sweden to set up new mints, each such mint producing coins very obviously modelled on Anglo-Saxon coins, complete with picture of English King Aethelred (I kid you not) on one side and a cross on the other. On top of all this cultural exchange, we have Gloucester-born Saint Sigfrid, the man responsible for bringing the word of God to the Swedish King.

Depending on what sources you read, Sigfrid was the Archbishop of York, or he wasn’t. Adam of Bremen describes him as an English Benedictine monk, no more, no less. Mostly it’s Swedish sources citing him as an archbishop – I guess it made Olof feel more comfortable about his conversion if someone high up the hierarchy did it – but personally I doubt such a distinguished prelate would have left all behind to set off across the North Sea. Seriously, Olof Skötkonung’s immortal soul wasn’t that important.

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Not Sigfrid – but deffo a monk

Let us therefore assume Sigfrid was a lowly Benedictine monk commanded to bring the word of God to this heathen king. I don’t think he did handstands at the thought of leaving comfy and civilised England for the barabaric north. But with a sigh and a rustle of his heavy woollen habit he bowed to the will of his superior and started packing. Among the things he brought with him were his three nephews, rather oddly named Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman.

Off Sigfrid went to Sweden and the eagerly awaiting king. In 1008, Olof Skötkonung was baptised a Christian, and in gratitude to Sigfrid, he named the Benedictine monk bishop of Växjö – or maybe he was being pragmatic, Sweden wasn’t exactly littered with men of God, and the little settlement of Växjö needed a bishop. Whatever the case, Sigfrid blessed the king and rode off into the dark forests that covered most of Sweden at the time, making for the non-descript hamlet of Växjö.

Olof Skötkonung now had a tricky situation on his hands; while the southern parts of his kingdom were mostly Christian, the northern parts of it weren’t – and not too keen on having a silly bugger who had become a Christian as a king. After all, real men had no time for a wimpy weakling like the Christ, they wanted gods that roared and drank and fornicated – as real men should. Olof wasn’t about to push the issue. Instead, he told his subjects that he had no business dictating what beliefs a person should hold, as long as the beliefs in question didn’t threaten his rule. A happy compromise for everyone, and Olof could spend the last decade of his life bringing modernity to his backwards country , like issuing the first coins with aforementioned Godwine’s help, and endowing a church or two, complete with a literate priest.

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Sigfrid doing his thing…

Meanwhile, Sigfrid was enjoying a sequence of successful conversions. Step by step, he worked his way through the forests, baptising as he went. At his heels trotted his faithful nephews, and pretty soon Sigfrid preached to a sizeable congregation come Sundays. His new followers were dazzled by this educated Englishman, and even more by the church silver he adorned his simple church with. They listened avidly as he told them stories from the Bible, with, I assume, a predilection for the somewhat bloodier stories in the old Testament – the one about Jezebel and the dogs would have gone down well.

One day, Sigfrid was called away on the king’s business. Reluctantly, he left his growing congregation, comforted by the fact that his three godly nephews would keep them on the straight and narrow. Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman did as well as they could, but they were not as revered as Sigfrid, and one dark night some of the more recent converts broke in to steal the church silver. The nephews protested, raised their arms up high and prayed and preached, telling the thieves to stop this stupid behaviour. The robbers, stressed by these talking Englishmen, chopped their heads off, mid-sentence, so to say.

Sigfrid returned to find his church ravaged and his nephews gone. Well, he found their bodies, hastily buried, but their heads had gone up in smoke, something that had Sigfrid very worried as how were his poor, faithful nephews to face Resurrection without their heads? (Valid question; one that must have worried all those poor blokes that were beheaded and quartered in the centuries to come) Sigfrid instigated a one man head-hunting team, looking under every bush, every rocky outcrop in the vicinity. But the forests were vast, three heads were ludicrously small – think grains of sand in a desert, although not as well camouflaged – and no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t put Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman together again. Until the night he went walking along the shores of a nearby lake, bemoaning the loss of his beloved nephews.

Suddenly, Sigfrid saw a light come dancing over the darkened water. Hang on; there were three lights moving towards him, and as Sigfrid was a devout man who did not fear death, he remained where he was as the lights approached him. Clearly, Sigfrid was an early upholder of that very English “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Me, I would have run screaming into the woods, which goes to show I lack Sigfrid’s fortitude – which is why he is a saint and I am not.

Anyway, there was Sigfrid, staring as the wandering lights started to hover over the surface a short distance away. He took off his shoes and waded towards them, and “poof”, just like that, the lights were extinguished. Instead, Sigfrid came upon a huge barrel in the water.

In that barrel were the three missing heads, still talking thirteen to the dozen. On and on they went about God’s mercy and capacity to forgive. Sigfrid wept and swore vengeance, upon which one of the heads said “it is already done.”
“Yes,” added the second head, “the Lord has seen it done.”
“Upon the heads of their grandchildren shall vengeance be heaped,” said the third head. (Not entirely fair, in my opinion)

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St Sigrid, holding the barrel with his nephews’ heads

I will leave it up to each and every one of you to decide whether you believe in this story of decapitated talking heads. What is, however, undisputable, is the enormous impact of English people on the budding Nordic states. When excavating the ancient parts of Lund, at the time Scandinavia’s largest town, time and time again the archaeologists stumble over English names, English craftsmanship, English coins. The Scandinavian church was equally “Anglified”, the courts of the Scandinavian kings teemed with English advisors. And just so you know, Sigfrid isn’t the only Englishman sanctified for bringing the word of God to this remote corner of the world – but he’s the only one to come complete with his own personal ventriloquist act.

Obviously, a post about Vikings in the eleventh century has been inspired by my collaboration with several wonderful authors on the book 1066 Upside Down. My contribution will feature a young girl who hedges her bets when it comes to the gods – after all, both Thor and Jesus have their uses.

This post is a substantially modified version of a post originally written for the English Historical Fiction Author’s blog. 

In search of a saint

Saints The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_OfficeToday’s post is about a saint I’ve always believed never existed. In actual fact, I suspect quite a few saints never existed – or were particularly saintly – but when a country embraced Christianity it was sort of important to produce a nice paragon of virtues to hold up as an example to the previously pagan population and inspire conversion. Seeing as saints very often met grisly deaths, I’m not so certain this worked all that well, but still.

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St Birgitta

Anyway: us Swedes would say we only have one real saint, namely St Birgitta. We would like to claim St Lucia as ours, but she is Italian, no matter that, in our opinion, we do a far better job of celebrating St Lucia than any other nation in the world. Some Swedes would put forward that St George must be a Swedish saint – if nothing else because of the absolutely fabulous sculpture depicting St George in Stockholm’s Cathedral (A true work of art, commissioned in the 15th century). St George would probably object. The English might object as well, although St George was no more English than St Lucia is Swedish.

But we do have a longish list of home-grown saints – starting, of course with St Birgitta who scared everyone from her king to a sequence of popes silly. A tough lady, St Birgitta – but then what was a woman to do if she wanted to get ahead in the 14th century? Sit and spin? Other than St Birgitta, only two of the Swedish saints have been canonised by the pope: St Sigfrid (who was English) and St Helena of Skövde (never heard of her – must read up – but it seems the pope had his arm twisted to canonise her so as to inspire conversion…) So the rest of our saints were mostly canonised by local bishops, and one of these is the subject of today’s post, namely St Erik.

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St Erik as depicted on a church wall

St Erik is the patron saint of Stockholm, and died gruesomely – as saints do – in 1160. At the time, he was king Erik, although he wasn’t necessarily recognised as being king by all his subjects. In the 12th century, Sweden was not a cohesive kingdom. The southern part of present day Sweden was Danish, the middle part was divided into Götaland and Svealand, and as to the north, no one really cared: it was forested, wild and preferably avoided as God alone knew what lived up there beyond giant wolves and strange people who had tame reindeer. Note that the “north” corresponded to roughly half of present day Sweden…

What we truly know about St Erik can be summarised in like eight words, i.e. it’s not exactly much. We do know he had a son, who did his best to promote his dear, departed father’s saintliness. Seeing as this son murdered to become king of Sweden, maybe his opinion is neither here nor there. On the other hand, at the time kings were murdered regularly in Sweden.

Back to our Erik: he was one of those murdered kings. Yup. Very sad, but there you have it. The story goes like this: Erik Jedvardsson was a pious man, who took the celebration of mass very seriously. After becoming king (probably through violent means) in 1150, Erik had spent most of his time fighting off other claimants – and spreading the word about God in a country that still contained deep pockets of pagan beliefs (and in Finland: Erik led a crusade to Finland). By all accounts, Erik was a capable king, and under him the country flourished. Laws were implemented, trade grew and for some years there was peace.

saints The_battle_of_PoitiersOn the 18th of May 1160 – exactly 856 years ago today – Erik was attending a church service in Östra Aros (close to Stockholm) when word reached him that one of his enemies was approaching fast, accompanied by many, many armed men. Erik was urged to flee, but he refused, saying he had no intention of cutting short the service in honour of God. (That’s what saints do: they set God before life). By the time mass was concluded, the church was surrounded. Erik, however, was a brave man and a proven fighter, so he stepped outside to meet his enemies.

A battle ensued. Erik was swarmed and wounded repeatedly until at last he fell to the ground, too weak to remain on his feet. His enemies, led by Magnus, the Danish claimant to the Swedish throne, jeered at him, taunted him, hurt him some more, and in general had their fun before finally chopping off the prostrate Erik’s head.

Immediately, a spring welled forth where the decapitated king lay. Miracles were reported not only at the spring but also at the king’s grave. A king was dead, a saint was born. Not that it helped Erik – or his son, who fled for his life. God was clearly most displeased by all this, and within a year Danish Magnus was dead, the crown passing instead to Karl Sverkersson, the son of the man who was king before St Erik. (This King Sverker was murdered on his way to church, but not by Erik). Some years later, Knut Eriksson invited Karl Sverkersson to visit him and had him killed, thereby taking the Swedish crown as his own.

saints Pilgrims-In-Front-Of-The-Church-Of-The-Holy-Sepulchre-Of-JerusalemSome decades after his death, Erik’s remains ended up in a reliquary. People made pilgrimages to pray by his bones or the well, and he was one of those household saints people directed their daily prayers to. He was one of the most depicted saints in contemporary art, churches were built in his name. Over the centuries, the veneration grew. And then came the Reformation. Suddenly, saints were not the thing. Shrines were packed away, bones were thrown on the garbage heap. Well: not all bones. However cocky, the new Protestant bishops were hesitant to dump dear old St Erik on a midden – or, as we say, a “kökken-mödding” – so instead they put him in deep storage. Which is why his bones are still around…

Recently, these bones have been examined. Not for the first time, I might add, but back in the 1940s techniques were not all that advanced, so the conclusions were not exactly riveting. “His head has been chopped off.” Err…we already knew that.

The new examination has revealed more. First of all, our Erik ate a lot of fish – which was in line with the teachings of the Church. He was roughly forty years old at the time of his death and was all of 1.67 metres tall (5 ft 6 inches). Preliminary isotope analysis shows he spent most of his life south of present-day Stockholm, and healed injuries to his cranium match stories from his exploits as a crusader in Finland. Dating is consistent with a death in the 12th century. The skeleton also shows signs of several unhealed wounds, received just before death,  none of which are on the torso. This, the experts say, indicate that Erik was wearing a hauberk.

Cuts to his shin bones show he’s been wounded while lying on the ground, consistent with the legend’s version. And then there’s the damage to the neck vertebrae, which indicates that someone actually relieved the king of his hauberk before delivering the fatal blow – with the poor man flat on the ground. Maybe he was unconscious by then, because all those blows to his legs must have bled a lot. Whatever the case, someone said “off with his head” and Erik was no more – just like in the legend.

In conclusion, the bones confirm that once upon a time there was a man who was attacked, badly wounded, thrown to the ground and decapitated. We must take it on trust that the bones belong to Erik Jedvardsson – his bones don’t exactly come with an engraved name. Likewise, we cannot assess his character: all we know about Erik comes from the legend constructed by his son who had a vested interest in painting poor dad in the brightest of lights. But whether Erik deserved the sobriquet of saint yes or no, at least he did exist. Always a good start, I’d say.

On the road to Salt Lake City

SLC Gilbert Davis Munger - Great Salt Lake Utah and the Wasatch Mountains 1880

G D Munger – Great Salt Lake & the Wasatch Mountains

One of the benefits of working for a multinational company is that one gets to see a lot of places one might never have visited otherwise. Like Salt Lake City. Had it not been because of work, chances are I’d never have gone there – it sort of didn’t make my bucket list, no matter that I knew it was a city founded by Mormons back in the 19th century when everyone was persecuting Mormons. The tenacious forefathers of today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) decided to go really, really far west, which is how they ended up in Godforsaken desert by a huge body of salt water.

wi23 George Martin SLC Ottinger (American artist, 1833-1917) The Great Salt Lake From The Foot of Ensign Peak 1864

G M Ottinger – The Great Salt lake

Not so Godforsaken, it would turn out. Once Brigham Young et al decided to settle in this arid wasteland they performed irrigational miracles, and soon enough the desert flowered. It still does, come to think of it, and Salt Lake City is not only a nicely green city, it is also one of those cities that is readily accessible to those that walk – assuming, of course, you can handle the heat. Hot enough to fry that proverbial egg – or so it feels when you’ve committed the mistake of going out for a walk around noon in July.

These days, Salt Lake City is a city pushing the million or so, and approximately 50 – 60% are practising members of LDS. Once upon a time, it was nothing but a plain of shimmering heat – and flies, because the Great Salt Lake attracts them in droves. When those first intrepid settlers crossed the daunting Wasatch mountains, they found a harsh land, the Ute Indian eeking out a sad hand-to-mouth existence.

But let’s take a step back, and try to understand just what it was that drove these men – and women – to undertake an arduous journey over unchartered terrain to start a colony in the back of beyond. The obvious starting point would be Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon church, but I actually think we need to look even further back, to the social tensions and unrest caused by the combination of the industrialisation and the end of the Napoleonic wars.

As a consequence of the industrialisation, people moved from the country to the cities, thereby severing their ties to the communities and customs that had regulated human life and interaction for centuries. Promises were made, a bright new world was there for the taking, and labourers came in their thousands to work in the factories – only to realise this new world of theirs was mostly dirty and harsh, endless hours spent working one machine or another. The wars at the turn of the 18th to 19th century created an increasing demand for more weapons, more cloth, and factories popped up like mushrooms.

And then, to quote Abba “at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender”. The wars that had consumed such a huge share of the industrial output were over. Some factories had to close down, and when the men returned from the front it was to a world where there were no jobs to be found. Social unrest followed – in England, the Peterloo Massacre was a result of all this, the powers that were refusing to recognise the needs of the downtrodden.

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Hieronymus Bosch – one vision of Utopia

When societies go through difficult times, spiritual movements thrive. Desperate people who cannot find what they need here, on Earth, turn more and more to God, hoping to find in Heaven what was denied them while alive. Others decide to take matters into their own hands, attempting to recreate perfect, egalitarian societies that emulate Utopia. And voilà, here – albeit in a very simplified form – you have the background for the Utopian movement that swept the world – and in particular America – in the 19th century.

Utopian movements were generally the brainchild of one very convinced – and convincing – person, who succeeded in attracting a number of lost and restless souls by promising them a new start in life. Some of these prophets were not interested in starting a new religion, they just wanted to create a community that lived by its own rules – like the New Harmony commune in Indiana, founded by a Welsh industrialist named Robert Owens. Others had religious overtones, such as the Amana Colony, led by the charismatic German Herr Metz, who brought his Christian flock with him from Germany to escape religious persecution and start anew, first in Buffalo, NY, and subsequently in Iowa.

And then we have the most successful of the utopian movements, namely the Mormon Church – the present day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – which rather neatly brings us back to Joseph Smith, born in 1805. When he was about eleven, his family moved to Palmyra, NY. At the time, the American nation was in the grips of the global religious fervour sweeping the Western world – the so called Second Awakening – and various branches of the Christian church were proselyting somewhat aggressively. Joseph is described as being a seeker in his youth, but he was purportedly more than confused by all these preachers representing various denominations.

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A revival meeting, H T Peters

Smith came from a devout family, and both his father and grandfather had experienced visions, so I’m guessing the fifteen-year-old Joseph took it in stride when God appeared to him in the woods, telling the adolescent to eschew all religious teaching but that contained in the Holy Book. The gospel, God said, contained the truth – the only truth. Not a controversial statement for a confirmed Christian, but it did give Joseph some spiritual guidance in the years to come.

Some years later, Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni – a new acquaintance for those only familiar with the angels of the Bible – and directed to a spot near his home where the angel said he’d find a book of golden plates containing the history of a lost American people. Initially, the angel did not allow Joseph to dig up the plates – and it was not until Joseph was twenty-two and married that he was finally able to unearth the buried treasure. The Book of Mormon had seen the light of day.

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Moroni, Joseph and the golden tablets

Very many people – 20 million, give or take – believe in the Book of Mormon. They genuinely believe that Joseph Smith found several golden plates engraved in a language akin to ancient Egyptian. They also believe that Joseph, guided by heavenly inspiration, translated these plates into English and published them. While the plates themselves disappeared once Joseph had finished the translation – Moroni took them back – as many as eleven witnesses have attested to seeing them. Personally, I remain somewhat doubtful as to the whole gold plate thing – nor do I find the Book of Mormon an easy read, the language cumbersome and repetitive – but undoubtedly many, many people find guidance in Joseph Smith’s publication.

The Book of Mormon is the story of one Lehi, who with his sons sets out on a journey across the ocean, guided by God. He arrives in present day Mexico, where the new arrivals establish a colony. Over the years, the previously so godly people divide into Nephites and Lamanites, fall into sin and war constantly with each other, and despite a visitation by Jesus after his resurrection, ultimately the descendants of Lehi destroy themselves, the whole story committed to the golden plates by Mormon, last scion of this ancient race. Well, second to last, as Mormon entrusts the plates to his son, Moroni – who, after his death, becomes an angel – and he adds a few final bits and pieces before burying them in northern USA.

Obviously, the above carried quite some resonance with the people of America, most of whom were descendants of colonists. Here was a religion rooted ON the American continent, and people were intrigued. Not everyone, seeing as Mr Smith did not have an unblemished record – he had supported himself as a treasure seeker and had even been hauled before the court for fraudulence – and many therefore saw this as yet another money-making scheme. Besides, the notion that the Bible was not the only God-given text did not always go down well, and so Smith and his acolytes saw no other option but to establish their settlements elsewhere.

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Joseph Smith

Mr Smith was a charismatic man – and a handsome man, who attracted more than his fair share of female interest. He was also driven by the need to build a good society, a world in which those that had would gladly share with their less fortunate brethren. All in all, a commendable ambition, and it is no wonder so many people joined this fledgling church, even when it meant striking out into unknown lands to build a community centred round the teachings of God and Joseph.

The Mormons spent the first few years in a somewhat nomadic existence. Several years in Ohio (the first Temple was built in Kirtland) ended under something of a cloud in connection with a Mormon-run bank endeavour that went bust and after a detour through Missouri that ended rather violently in the so called Mormon War (and with Smith kicking his heels in prison for several months), Smith and his followers came to Nauvoo, Illinois, where an impressive town soon began to take shape – by 1844, it boasted 12 000 inhabitants, making it one of the more sizeable towns in the U.S.

No matter their community-building skills, the Mormons were often viewed with suspicion by other settlers who were wary of these people with their high ideals of setting the well-being of the group before that of the individual. Plus they were doubtful to this so called religion: was it not some sort of heresy to declare there were other holy texts than the Bible? And then there was the issue of polygamy.

To this day, you say the word “Mormon”, and people will say “aha, the polygamists.” This is wrong. Modern day Mormons do not hold with polygamy, have not done so since back in the 19th century. But is undoubtedly one of those things that stick in your mind, the notion of one man surrounded by a harem of wives.

As early as 1835, Smith reputedly denied charges of adultery by saying the woman in question was his wife – albeit another wife than his original wife, Emma. Over the years, there were incidents where other men accused Joseph of having designs on their wives, and in 1843 Mr Smith put in writing the revelations that made polygamy the norm for the members of his church.

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Emma Smith in 1844

Not everyone agreed. In fact, many of the members of the church were shocked to their core by the notion – both men and women. ( One of those very upset by this was Emma Smith – rather understandably, IMO) Besides, polygamy came with the major, major drawback of being socially unacceptable. The majority of the people living in the United States of America were horrified by a practice so att odds with what the established Christian churches preached, and soon enough forces were on the move to make it illegal to take multiple wives.

In one fell swoop, Joseph Smith had handed his detractors the moral weapon with which to persecute and hound his following, and hound they did, to the point that the Mormons felt obliged to fight back. (Just to clarify: Mormons were not meek and turn-the-other-cheek types. They were more than willing to take up arms in defence of their beliefs as would be proved in the Utah War in the 1850s)

In some cases it was a matter of internal strife, former close colleagues to Smith protesting volubly (and in print) against his various doctrines – including polygamy. Smith brutally squashed the protesters, and in the following aftermath Joseph Smith was arrested and locked up. Come dark, an angry mob broke into the jail and murdered Smith. The Mormon Church had lost its founding prophet – and acquired its first martyr.

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Mr Young

It was because of all this unrest, coupled with a determination to live their lives according to what they perceived as God’s will, that the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young (and yes, he had many, many wives) decided to go west – into Mexican territory. The so called Mormon Trail starts in Nauvoo and snakes its way across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing everything from wide open plains to craggy mountains. Not exactly a Sunday jaunt, this was an endless toiling months on end – for many of the faithful a journey undertaken on foot with their belongings in a handcart. And at the end, as they finally crested the peaks of the Wasatch mountains, there was the promised land: Salt Lake City, shimmering in the heat and, as of 1892, with the golden statue of Angel Moroni atop the temple. For those who had travelled for months on end, fuelled by their faith, I suppose it must have been one of the more beautiful sights in the world.

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The Salt Lake Temple with Moroni atop the capstone

Thousands upon thousands of believers made the hard trek to Salt Lake City in the latter half of the nineteenth century. People from all over the world pulled up their roots and sold everything they had to move to the desert heat of Utah, there to participate in building a better place for themselves, their children and the future generations. They came with the word of God ringing in their head, they came with the Book of Mormon clutched to their heart. They came because they believed, because they hoped.

It was a harsh life. The desert flowered only due to perseverance and hard work. The heat was an issue, some years the crops failed, and on one occasion the entire Salt Lake Valley was infested by locusts – but from somewhere swooped huge flocks of gulls and ate them all. Over the last few decades of the 19th century there were also mounting tensions between the pioneering Mormons and the Federal government of the United States, which had annected Utah from Mexico.

Eventually, some sort of accord was reached – this is when the Church of Latter Day Saints abandoned polygamy and Utah became a member state of the United States – and today, the Temple Square of Salt Lake City is a tranquil oasis of white buildings, a lot of water and magnificent flowerbeds. If you are given to pondering the greater issues of life and the hereafter, this is an excellent place to do so, no matter your beliefs. And it is my very own personal opinion that no matter what denomination God holds to – and I dare say He has a pluralistic approach – He is on occasion to be found in the brightness of the Utah sky!

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