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East Anglia Outings

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Well, rat! ← No, I didn’t misspell it. There was only one rat. Ozzie got exceptionally generous with Robin and gifted him one dead rat.

You might think we deliberately softened the focus of the image to spare your sensibilities (and we would have!), but in fact Robin was so startled by the “gift” that he didn’t get the picture focused in time. You can certainly make out its size though. Robin's a lucky guy! (ha)

The weather here has been simply awful, and we’ve been using it as an excuse to hibernate and stay bundled up inside. But finally we forced ourselves to go out and see some of the world in this neck of the woods.

Our first outing was to a National Trust mansion called Oxburgh Hall. An example of a late medieval, inward-facing great house, Oxburgh sits inside a moat about 250 feet square.

The architectural historian Pevsner described it as "the most prominent of the English brick gatehouses of the 15th century." Red brick was an expensive and fashionable material at that time, and the home was intended to symbolize the family’s wealth and power.

This ancient fortified manor has been reworked and crafted over centuries. It was first conceived of and built in 1482 at the height of the Wars of the Roses. However, at least back to 1086 the Domesday Book records a settlement here named Oxenburch and a description of: “a fortified place where oxen are kept.”

The hall is notable for its Oxburgh Hangings, needlework that was done between 1569 and 1584 by Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bess of Hardwick. Mary worked on these during the time she was imprisoned in England on the orders of Elizabeth I.

Home to the Bedingfeld family for 500 years, Oxburgh reveals this one family’s unshakable Catholic faith during the English Wars of Religion (and the family still resides in the eastern front of the manor). Oxburgh Hall is famous for its priest hole. The Catholic owners constructed a closet, accessed through a lavatory, to enable the concealment of priests. But we didn’t see it.

Frankly, there were a lot of things we didn’t see. During the winter, the house is apparently open primarily on the weekends, and less so (even on a guided tour!) during the week.

We did enjoy seeing the library.

Victorians appreciated symmetry, so the door to enter the library was made to look like it is only more books and shelving.

Amusingly, the false books at eyesight level are titled La Porte, which is French for “the door,” offering an unmistakable clue about where the exit is.

A Catholic Chapel from 1836 that is still privately owned and used by the family stands nearby on the grounds, but it, too, was locked up tight and foiled our efforts to see inside. Within the Chapel is said to be a 16th-century Antwerp altarpiece of considerable significance as a work of Catholic devotional art in England. I found pictures of it online and it is glorious.

Robin and I will weigh whether to make a return visit sometime in January to see whether we can get a glimpse of the marvels we missed during this round.

Rebounding from this disappointment, our subsequent outing was somewhat less ambitious, and we returned to the town of Ely for the purpose of viewing Oliver Cromwell's old house.

This is his only residence still in existence other than Hampton Court.

So who is Oliver Cromwell? Some believe he was one of the greatest military leaders England ever had. Without him, Parliament would not have won the Civil War. However, from the viewpoint of a royalist, he is viewed as a traitor because he ordered King Charles I to be beheaded. On the other hand, a Puritan would surely describe him as a godly man who ruled England country justly. Such people believed he brought stability back after the war so that all could live in tolerance and peace.

This paneled room is where he reportedly spent most of his time.

During his twenties or thirties, Cromwell experienced a religious conversion—and for the remainder of his life was a zealous Protestant. He believed God chose him for a purpose which would at some point be revealed to him. During his early forties, King Charles I began making changes to the Church in England that were unacceptable to devout men like Cromwell.

Cromwell became convinced that God’s purpose for him was to prevent the changes the King was making to the Church. He criticized the King in Parliament, giving passionate and often angry speeches driven by religious zeal. When a war started between King and Parliament in 1642, Oliver Cromwell was one of the first to take up arms and fight.

Civil War broke out in August 1642. On one side stood King Charles I, supported by those who aligned with royal rule. On the other side were those who viewed him as a tyrant. These subjects took up arms against their King, and the conflict spread throughout Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, lasting nearly 9 years. Families and friends found themselves on opposite sides—and became prepared to fight each other to the death. Over differing religious beliefs.

Within a few short years, Oliver Cromwell rose from his position as a country gentleman and member of Parliament with no military experience to becoming one of the greatest soldiers of his age.

After King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Cromwell was offered the crown and he turned it down. Eventually, however, in 1657 he agreed to become “Lord Protector” and reigned as a “King in all but name.” He lived at Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace and was called “Your Highness.” A mere 20 years earlier he had been a struggling farmer—and now he was Head of State.

He died from a fever (which they now think was malaria) in 1658, just shy of his 60th birthday. He was given a royal funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

But that’s not all!

Two years later, when Charles II was restored to the throne, he sought revenge for his father’s execution. Those who signed Charles I’s death warrant were hunted down and executed. Cromwell—while already dead—did not escape. His corpse was dug up and then hanged and beheaded. His body was thrown into a pit and his head stuck on a pike for all to see.

It is said that one night during a storm Cromwell’s head was blown down and picked up by a soldier, and it later passed through many different hands.

In 1960, a skull said to be that of Oliver Cromwell was given to the college he attended, and it was buried in secret. Ironically, the staunch Puritan Oliver Cromwell ultimately ended up being a relic of sorts himself.

My fast take on Cromwell was that he likely had type preferences for ISTJ, demonstrated by his Puritanical views, his conservative dress and demeanor (which he was ridiculed for), and the “stabilizing” influence he had—not only on his family and the army he formed, but ultimately on the entire country. He declined to become King (although he accepted the role of Lord Protector). He did a great deal of “orchestrating,” and the “religious conversion” he experienced has echoes of the “religious attitude” that John Beebe affiliates with IS_J (and other) types.

One telling bit of Puritanism is that Cromwell was accused of “banning Christmas.”

The self-guided tour of the house goes to great pains to explain how Cromwell was out of town when that particular piece of legislation was passed in Parliament. They legally banned Christmas! But when Cromwell returned from his trip, he didn’t overturn the ban either, which implies he was in accord with it.

The grudge I personally have with Cromwell is his role in the vigorous elimination of religious imagery, since Cromwell's troops often engaged in random acts of destruction (and possibly Cromwell himself did too; the record is vague on this count—but we do know that at one point Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses inside Ely Cathedral, thereby providing us with insight into his stance on the matter).

In 1643, laws mandated the destruction of superstitious imagery, including crucifixes and pictures of the Virgin, the Holy Trinity, and the saints. William Dowsing left a journal of his vigorous breaking of windows and other forbidden items, such as the inscriptions of sepulchral monuments engraved with "pray for us"—remember how last week I described his deliberated iconoclasm in St. Mary’s Church at Burwell and the tragedy of all those gaping empty niches he left in his wake?

I find this destruction hard to overlook when judging whether Cromwell was ultimately a hero or villain.

By the end of the tour I needed the loo, and was shocked when this venue did not possess such facilities. They sent me out into the cold weather to find a public toilet in the shadow of Ely Cathedral, several minutes away.

This was the first time we had seen Ely Cathedral without all the stalls and booths clustered around it during its bustling Christmas Fair, and the Russian cannon was now alone and easily visible out front.

Seeking the silver lining in this chilly cloud, I dragged Robin inside the Cathedral itself. Amazingly, nobody was taking tickets, so I waltzed right in and used their public restroom, unimpeded.

Naturally, I then took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with some features I missed on our previous visits.

For instance, I am taken with the Cathedral’s emblem: this amazing logo showing a crooked path to the cross.

I like the symbolism of it, which can be interpreted in myriad ways.

As it happens, I also neglected previously to mention the Cathedral’s labyrinth, which is directly underneath.

Apparently, this is the only historic pavement labyrinth to be found in any English cathedral. Created in 1870 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, it measures 20 feet across and fits neatly within a decorative square frame. Its unusual design was inspired by a labyrinth that once existed in Reims Cathedral, France.

Walking a labyrinth is a spiritual exercise from ancient times—its turns and twists mirror the journey of life, with God always at its center. If you walk the length of this labyrinth in Ely, you will have walked the same distance as the height of the ceiling above.

Next I dragged Robin into the Lady Chapel to nab a picture of the Virgin Mary statue found there.

I admire this Virgin Mary statue: she looks like a fierce warrior woman in that pose, and not the demure, retiring stereotype cradling a baby we are usually confronted with. To my mind, she resembles Xena, Warrior Princess (if you recall that TV show).

The sculpture was crafted by David Wynne, and it was carved in Portland stone. It was unveiled on November 28, 2000, by the Prince of Wales. It instantly caused shock and generated cries of outrage.

Controversy may be found in a slew of conflicting comments from the Cathedral website here: https://ely.org.uk/cathedral/virginmarystatue.html

…and The Guardian ran an article bemoaning what it termed “bad art,” wishing the iconoclasts could iconoclize it (is that a word?). https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/artblog/2007/sep/10/thechurchisnostrangertob

It’s a tasteless suggestion, given how the Lady Chapel’s manifold statuary was formerly ravaged and destroyed by iconoclasts. Once alive and animated with carved statuary artfully portraying the story of Mary and celebrating her life, the largest Lady Chapel in Britain is merely a ruined shell of empty niches and decapitated stone figurines.

In 1643, William Dowsing was appointed the “Iconoclast General”—nicknamed "Smasher Dowsing" and “Basher Dowsing”—and he stripped the Lady Chapel of all its stained glass.

On this sour note, I sought out the memorial brass of Bishop Goodrich, who I had recently learned was responsible for all this destruction. He was in favor of the Reformation's condemnation of decoration, and he personally oversaw the destruction of much of Ely's heritage.

A zealous reformer, Goodrich published a notorious decree in 1541 that “all images, relics, table-monuments of miracles, shrines, etc., be so totally demolished and obliterated with all speed and diligence that no remains or memory of them might be found for the future.” We owe it to him that no trace of the shrine of St. Etheldreda remains, that the figures in the Lady Chapel niches were destroyed, and the 14th and 15th century stained glass windows were smashed.

You can’t miss the obvious irony here: After overseeing the destruction of so much of Ely's heritage, including statues, paintings, and stained glass, his own tomb in the south aisle of the choir is marked by this fetching brass effigy.

It was Goodrich who empowered people like William Dowsing to visit over 250 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, including several college chapels in the University of Cambridge, and to remove or deface items he thought fitted the requirements outlined in a legal ordinance that echoed Goodrich's edict and inscribed into law how "all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished."

These were specified as "fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images and pictures of any one of the persons of the Trinity and of the Virgin Mary, and pictures of saints or superstitious inscriptions." The scope of the ordinance was later widened to include representations of angels (a particular obsession of Dowsing’s), rood lofts, holy water stoups, and images in stone, wood, and glass, and on plate. (It has been proposed that instead of calling this destructive era the “Reformation,” it should be called the “De-formation.”)

With that sort of Puritan zeal as a backdrop, it is amusing to encounter that once-pagan symbol called a Christmas tree decorating the heart of the holy Cathedral and standing for merriness and good cheer, without any hint of ever “banning Christmas.” Its twinkling gold and white presence boldly belies and charmingly undermines Bishop Goodrich’s austere and cheerless outlook.

We had to stop and take a selfie with it—it wasn’t there during our previous visits.

The weather is supposed to be warmer during the coming week, but Robin is running a 4-day training course which will curtail our outings somewhat. But we will be in this area until the end of January, and we expect we'll catch up with more sightseeing then.

Only a few more sleeps remain until Christmas!

I hope Santa treats you well this year.

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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