Sunday, 23 November 2014

St Clement's, Sandwich

St Clement (Westhall, Suffolk)

23 November is the feast of St Clement, the first-century pope and martyr who was, rather incongruously, a favourite saint with Vikings. (He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea, therefore he is often shown with an anchor, therefore he is the patron of seafarers, and therefore of Vikings. Impeccable logic!) This is only tangentially related to the subject of today's post, but it is one of my favourite Viking facts. Churches dedicated to St Clement often correlate with areas of Scandinavian settlement and, especially, with Danish military garrisons dating to the reign of Cnut; this probably accounts for the dedication of St Clement Danes in London, St Clement's here in Oxford, and many churches dedicated to St Clement in the former Danelaw.

Today's post is also only vaguely related to St Clement himself, because it's not really about him but about something which happened in the eleventh century in a church dedicated to him. It occurs in a curiosity of Anglo-Saxon literature known as 'The Vision of Leofric', a short Old English prose text which recounts several visions experienced by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, probably in the 1040s or 1050s (Leofric died in 1057). This text tells of four visions attributed to Leofric. The first is a dream in which he sees St Paul saying Mass before a crowd of people, in a beautiful field. The second and third episodes take place inside the church at Christ Church, Canterbury: in one Leofric, seeking to pray in the church at night, finds the locked door miraculously opened for him (even though the sacristan is too drunk to let him in), and in the other he goes to pray close to the tomb of St Dunstan and experiences miraculous noises and lights. And this is the last:

Not long afterwards the king was at Sandwich with his ships. It was [Leofric's] custom that every day he would hear two masses (unless it was more) and all the office too, before he went out. He was going about some necessary business, and Mass was being said before the king in St. Clement’s church. He said to his companions that it would be better if they went to Mass. He went in, and someone called to him at once; he went straightaway inside the sanctuary on the north side, and the king was standing on the south side.

There was a triple-threaded wall-hanging there, very thickly woven, which hung behind the altar, and a moderate-sized cross standing on the floor in the north-east corner; there was as much as a good hand's breadth of the cross visible below the hanging, and the rest was between the hanging and the wall. The priest was saying Mass beside the cross. Then [Leofric] saw above the cross a hand, as if it were blessing. At first he thought that it was someone blessing him, because the church was very full of people, but it was not so. Then he looked at it more carefully, and he saw the whole cross as clearly as if there were nothing in front of it, and the blessing hand was moving and going upwards. Then he was afraid, and doubted whether it could really be as it seemed to him. Then as his mind doubted, the hand became visible to him as clearly as he could see his own: its beautiful fingers were slender and long, and the nails distinct, and the large part below the thumb was all visible, and from the little finger to the arm and part of the sleeve. Then he dared not look at it any longer, but hung down his head, and then it ceased from blessing. That was near the time when the Gospel was being read.

What Leofric sees above the cross seems to be a living embodiment of the 'hand of God' motif which is often a part of Anglo-Saxon crucifix scenes - as, for instance, in the Romsey crucifix, made about twenty years before Leofric had his vision. Leofric's vision in Sandwich was later connected with the hagiography of Edward the Confessor and taken to be related to the saintliness of the king, but there's no sign of that here (the king isn't even named); this is all about Leofric.

It's hard to know quite what to make of this text; without it we would not think of Earl Leofric as anything other than an ordinary eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon nobleman, perhaps a little more pious than the average, but not a visionary. The specificity of the details of the setting is unusual - in the two visions which take place within Christ Church, too - and produces an incredibly vivid impression. (Although you might like to compare these roughly contemporary visions which also took place within Christ Church.) For this reason, among others, I find the text very interesting, but it also intrigues me because it takes place in a location I know well - Sandwich in Kent. This vision is the first reference to a church in Sandwich dedicated to St Clement, a church which today looks like this:

Sandwich, on the easternmost point of the Kent coast, was an important port in the medieval period, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that King Edward was regularly there with his fleet in the troubled years of the 1040s and 1050s - so this is probably when Leofric's vision took place in St Clement's. Of Sandwich's several medieval churches, this is the one closest to the harbour, an appropriate place for a church dedicated to the seafarers' saint.

The fact that the church is first mentioned in Leofric's vision, plus the dedication to St Clement, suggests it was founded in the early eleventh century - probably during the reign of Cnut, as I discussed here. St Clement's today is not the building Leofric would have known, but it's still a lovely church, so let me show you some pictures of it. (You can read a detailed description of the church fabric here, should you be so inclined.) The church's most distinctive feature is its massive central Norman tower, built in the twelfth century:

Just look at that thing! It's more like a castle keep than a church bell-tower.

(This is the only picture I have of St Clement's in the sunshine - but this golden light is what I associate most with Sandwich.)

Inside the church, the tower completely dominates the space:

It's a big church for a little bit of the town (especially since, as I said, there are several medieval churches in Sandwich), but once they'd built that massive tower I suppose they couldn't keep things on a small scale. Also the nave was rebuilt and extended in the fifteenth century, after it was destroyed when the French attacked the town. Because that's the kind of thing that happens in Sandwich.

It's a strange feeling to stand within the huge tower and look up; it's really not like being in a church at all.

But the best bit is around the corner behind the tower, above a little door which leads up to the belfry:

This is Norman carving of the loveliest kind - dated to the mid-twelfth century, I believe.

This is recognisably akin to the decoration on the Norman font now in St Martin's, Canterbury, which originally came from the cathedral.

And best of all:

Isn't that wonderful? It's a deer and a duck, I think - maybe a hunting scene of some kind. So lovely, and so tiny, and just hidden away around a corner.

The cathedral priory of Christ Church was given the port of Sandwich in the eleventh century, by grant of Cnut (or so they said), and they measured their control in a particularly memorable and vaguely Scandinavian way:

I, Cnut, by the grace of God king of England and of all the adjacent islands, lay the royal crown from my head with my own hands upon the altar of Christ in Canterbury for the benefit of the said monastery, and I grant to the said monastery for the sustenance of the monks the harbour at Sandwich with all the landings and dues on either side of the river from Pepperness to Marfleet, extending as far as a small axe can be thrown from a ship onto the land, when the ship is afloat and the river is in full flood.

And if there is anything in the great sea beyond the harbour, their rights shall extend as far as the sea at the utmost recedes, and [as far as] the length of a man holding a pole in his hand, and stretching himself as far as he can reach into the sea."

(Full text here).

I wonder what St Clement, the sailors' saint, would think of this kind of watery dominion.

The eastern end of the church has been rebuilt, and we can only imagine the cross and the triple-threaded wall-hanging of Leofric's vision - but it's not hard to imagine them. The Saxon church may have looked different, but it was on this spot that Leofric saw whatever it was he saw.

So that's St Clement's. For more on the Vision of Leofric, see the following articles:

Peter A. Stokes, 'The Vision of Leofric: Manuscript, Text and Context', Review of English Studies 63 (2012), 529-550.
A. S. Napier, 'An Old English Vision of Leofric, Earl of Mercia', Transactions of the Philological Society 26:2 (1908), 180-188.
Milton McC. Gatch, 'Miracles in architectural settings: Christ Church, Canterbury and St Clement's, Sandwich in the Old English Vision of Leofric', Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), 227-252.


Anonymous said...

Next time I have to estimate a distance I will find myself thinking of vikings in ships with small axes, I know I will!

Clerk of Oxford said...

I do find it funny to think about the man whose job it was to lean out from a ship, holding a pole, stretching as far as he could - I wonder how many fell in!