Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Feast of the (Stubborn Anglo-Saxon) Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Cross, and so here's a story about a cross which I absolutely love, from the annals of Waltham Abbey. Waltham Abbey, in Essex, is the reputed burial site of Harold Godwinson, who was its patron; but before he came along, their patron was a certain Danish nobleman named Tovi 'the Proud'. Tovi was a wealthy and powerful member of the Danish aristocracy in Cnut's England, so this story must have taken place sometime between 1018 and 1035.

Waltham Abbey's own historian, writing in the 1170s, describes how a blacksmith at the village of Montacute (then called 'Ludgersbury') in Somerset had a dream in which an angel told him to climb a nearby hill and dig, and he would find a cross buried there. On his wife's advice, the smith ignored this dream (never a good idea), so the angel came a second and a third time, and the third time it roughed him about a bit, leaving finger-marks visible in his arm; this convinced him that he'd better start digging, and so he did. The rest of the village went up the hill to help him, and there they uncovered a remarkable treasure-trove: a life-size figure of Christ on the cross, carved in a kind of black marble, and with it a little bell and a Gospel-book.

They sent for Tovi, who owned the land thereabouts, and asked him what to do. He thought that these miraculous finds had to be taken to some appropriate place, but couldn't decide where would be best. This is how they worked it out:

He rose early and after the celebration of divine service, surrounded by a band of leading men he decided, with the consent of all these men, to leave the smaller cross there in the local church, and take the other relics around to places where they knew it would please God. They put them in a wagon to which they harnessed twelve red oxen… Finally the clergy and all the people prayed that God would give the spirit of wisdom to Lord Tovi that he might send these present relics to wherever God willed. Tovi then promised them to Canterbury, the seat of the archbishop at that time, to Winchester, Glastonbury, and London, as well as to other places in England where there were seats of bishops or abbots.

But it's not as simple as that:

The cart stood still as if rooted there, and it could not be moved either by the pulling of the oxen or the pushing of the men. Remembering at last an abode of his which he was very fond of at Reading, he prayed to Christ with many tears that He be pleased to grant the removal of the relics to that place… But the wagon stood still; it was pushed, it was pulled, yokes of oxen were added to the animals in front, but it did not move. Those who were there looked on in astonishment, convinced that this was not happening without the providence and will of God.
The high and noble Tovi continued with prayer after prayer. In naming places he moved from the more important churches to those of less importance, but he was not heard because God in His profound wisdom decreed those relics for another place which He deemed more worthy of the benefit of the gift. At last he remembered a lowly hut which he had begun to build in a woodland region which is now called Waltham, a pleasant place surrounded by luxuriant woods, provided with a river full of fish which is called the Lea; its picturesque, fertile meadows made it a delightful spot. It was quite close to London and near the River Thames of which the Lea is a tributary. His original estate which he had already begun he decided to extend within a wider boundary if God willed that the relics be transported to this place. Marvellous to say! more marvellous to believe! when he had mentioned the name of Waltham the wagon instantly moved, so that you would have thought that the cart was pushing the oxen rather than the oxen themselves pulling the cart. The hearts of the faithful were stirred with joy, and following the image of the crucified one behind their happy leaders, they rejoiced in the successful outcome which God had wrought and in the gift bestowed upon the weary.
The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall, Oxford Medieval Texts Series (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp.15-19.

I like the idea of Tovi listing place after place, getting more and more frustrated, until at last, finally! he hits on Waltham. The abbey of Waltham was established to look after the cross (so the story says; it probably already existed in some form) and thereafter the cross and figure of Christ remained at the abbey and were a pilgrimage destination. A later story said that figure miraculously bowed its head when Harold Godwinson prayed before it on the eve of Hastings, and that after his death its head remained ever bowed in grief (God was on the English side at Hastings, whatever the Normans said...). Of course, the cross disappeared at the dissolution of the monasteries, so this can't exactly be verified.

But a good story, a nice illustration of a Danish nobleman working for the English church, a great source of pride for Waltham - and all because of some stubborn oxen.

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