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One Church, Two Church

The past week has been a tumult! I felt as though we were juggling plates with all that we were managing.

We are once more in transition… We had to clean the house, pack up the car, walk Moose for the final time, and welcome back the returning homeowners. If you want to join Moose and me on our last walk in a green field for 4:29, you may do so here: https://youtu.be/qN_FcRolTvk

It was really hard to leave him behind—he was a fantastic dog to take care of, and who wouldn’t adore a dog who thinks you are the bountiful Carrot Queen who provides him with the orange veggie he loves so much?

We felt truly blessed to care for him, and I shall really miss our slumber parties together.

Part of our transitioning includes shoehorning in all of the sightseeing we didn’t manage during the time we were in residence. In this case, it meant visiting two big churches! On our last day in Beverley we squeezed in a guided tour of Beverley Minster, and it was soo worth it! Beverley minster fueled the thrill of sitting in this location.

We've learned facts about the town of Beverley we hadn’t known before: For one thing, it inspired the naming of the city of Beverly, Massachusetts, which in turn was the impetus for naming Beverly Hills, California. So there’s a little link to home for me!

Beverley was once the tenth largest town in England, as well as one of the richest. And in the years between 938 and 1540, Beverley was what they call a “sanctuary city.” Apparently Alfred the Great drew up a code of laws granting the Church “rith” or right of sanctuary, and Beverley Minster became known throughout the land in historic times as a place where those seeking a safe haven from mob justice or family vengeance for alleged crimes such as horse theft, coining, and cullying (the present-day equivalents of car stealing, forging, and debt) could seek sanctuary and plead their innocence.

Sanctuary* was an important component of medieval law and life. Many churches offered sanctuary to people if they could get to the church building and grasp hold of the “sanctuary ring” that was supposed to give them protection. However, as one of the premier churches in the north of England, fugitives were able to claim sanctuary starting from a two-mile radius around the Minster. Hefty fines were incurred if those in pursuit persisted past the boundary marker, and the fines increased the nearer a pursuer came to the Minster. Because of this protection, felons from all over were drawn to Beverley.

Alongside the altar inside the Minster sits the oldest object in the church—a strange stone chair known as "The Frith Stool" (sometimes also called the Fridd Stool, Peace Chair, or Sanctuary Chair), and it is reputed to be over 1000 years old, dating to Saxon times. The word frith comes from the Old English fiðu, meaning peace, protection, and safety. This was said to be the target of the outlaw; if they could reach that stool and sit in it, they were safe from the wrath of anyone chasing them.

Identities of fugitives seeking sanctuary and their crimes were recorded in a “Sanctuary Book” between 1478 and 1539 and provides a fascinating account of the names and misdemeanors of 493 people (3 women amongst them).

Asylum seekers could confess and hand over their weapons in exchange for a temporary stay of punishment and thereby gain the possibility of intervention on their behalf by clergy or others needing time to mount a defense. This period of sanctuary usually lasted 40 days.

At the end of the sanctuary period, the asylum seeker had two options: face trial by authorities; or confess to the church and become a literal outlaw, exiled from the country via the nearest port. Outlaw fugitives in these cases had their heads shaved, were given a special outfit to wear and a staff to carry, and told to make for a specific port within a limited amount of time. Many outlaws of the era, once they were safely out of view, simply opted to change clothes, put on a hat, and returned to their life of crime. But if they were caught, their punishment was severe.

Some fugitives might choose to live out their lives inside the town’s boundaries in return for immunity from prosecution (leading our tour guide to joke that Beverley was largely populated by miscreants). To gain this permanent reprieve, the accused must surrender all of their worldly possessions and swear an oath to the church. They could live anywhere in town under immunity and sanctuary rights, but could not become a freeman of the city nor own land; neither could they leave the town—ever.

The Beverley Minster building itself is regarded as a gothic masterpiece and is one of the largest parish churches in the UK. In fact, it is larger than one-third of all English cathedrals! We can chalk some of this up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries prior to the Reformation when everything was downsized.

A Christian community has existed on the site of Beverley Minster for over 1300 years. It’s called a “Minster” because the canons who resided there were expected to go out and administer (“minster”) their religious teachings in the community and surrounding area. Here is a brief video I shot from the very center of the nave: https://youtube.com/shorts/ukVDEDHZcKM

The most exciting feature for me (as usual) was the choir stalls in the quire, which were built in 1520. Beverley Minster contains 68 misericord seats, the largest number of any church in the country. I finally got to see them! Subjects include scenes from the Bestiary, medieval life, animals as musicians, emancipated women and their feeble husbands, dancing fools in the tradition of the Feast of Fools (a tradition still practiced in 16th century Beverley), and a man muzzling a bear. Scattered amongst the misericords are other carvings—and the elephant shown below is of particular interest (as it is in several other churches) since it seems to have been carved by someone who had likely never seen an elephant.

The following day we drove a few miles south to the city of Hull where we enjoyed another tour—this time of Hull Cathedral. I’ve had Hull Cathedral in my sights ever since I laid eyes on it when we briefly stayed in Hull just prior to the 2020 pandemic lockdown.

Like Beverley Minster, it is one of the largest parish churches in England, although it is a mere 700 years old. It too suffered the ravages of the Reformation. It survived bombing raids, zeppelin attacks, and a loss of parishioners when the center of commerce relocated. The church nave has been transformed into a large, open community space, allowing for a broader use of the facilities than for worship alone. They have hosted fashion shows, a festival, concerts, banquets—and are trying to build up an events venue, besides operating a café and shop.

The most astonishing thing in the cathedral were the poppyhead carvings on the pew ends and elbows. (The church is too recent to have misericords.) It was astonishing to learn about George Peck, the artisan and carver of these magnificent works. He was born a couple hundred yards away from the church where his father had a workshop in Queen Street, and it was probably there that he learned to carve. He was baptized in this church in 1810, and in 1833 (aged 23), he emigrated to Tasmania. He is credited with organizing Australia's first Art Exhibition in 1837.

During the 1840s he returned to Hull and created these carved oak figures when the nave was refurbished and the pews installed—and every poppyhead he carved is different! The medieval-style sculptures contain myriad weird and wonderful florals and creatures, including animals, faces, green men, and even a carved imp.

One of his carvings is considered to be a “selfie” because it features himself carved on the arm of a seat that has the best vantage point in the church. In the carving, Peck is playing a violin—one of his other talents. It was said he played like Paganini!

After finishing this carving project, Peck headed back Down Under again, this time to Melbourne and later to Sydney, Australia, where he became quite famous as a musician, artist, and musical teacher. This link between Hull, Australia, and Robin was a thrilling encounter.

The woodwork throughout the church is incredible, including elaborate medieval pew ends that are found in the chancel.

Elsewhere in the church is woodwork by Robert “Mousey” Thompson (who I featured last week), including 7 of his famous mice. And there are two glorious Arts & Crafts stained glass windows by Walter Crane.

We had the good fortune (or was it?) of touring the church tower, which required climbing up 180 narrow stone steps in a tight and dimly lit spiral staircase, which is harder than it sounds. We stopped halfway up in the bell-ringing room to learn all about the bells (of which there are 15), and then we climbed up the rest of the way to get onto the roof, which gave us a magnificent view of the city, including the harbor and prominent city features. Rising to over 150 feet, this tower is the highest point in the city with public access.

On our way back down, we took a pause in the clock room where we were given a privileged view of the clock mechanism as it struck two o’clock. Here’s a video to see it in action: https://youtu.be/535ENt50QUA

Our guide was kind enough to take a photo of us outside with the clock directly overhead.

He showed us this bit of leather that looked like something out of an S&M collection. In fact, it’s a muffler for the bell clapper. He explained how the clapper is fitted with these when they ring the bells for important deaths… so—for instance—when Queen Elizabeth dies, the church bells will not “ring,” they will “thud,” broadcasting news of the tragedy with a dour sound.

This is different from a “peal,” which can go for literally 3 hours at a time, with no break for the bell ringers.

Whilst leaving the church and heading back to our car, we paused to snap a picture of this golden statue of William II situated in the middle of the street. Our church guide assured us—and he said he was told this story by his father, and his father would never have lied to him—that every night at the stroke of midnight, William climbs off his golden horse and ducks into the Kings pub standing alongside for a pint (shown right). And every father in Hull passes this information along to their sons, and surely all of them cannot be lying.

So… where are we now? We are in a liminal space between sits! We are nearly two-thirds of the way along the route to our next sit, staying in a rural AirBnB with cows and sheep a few short yards from our door.

After much debate about how to spend our free time between these two sits, we are burrowing in and enjoying a long, solitary writing retreat. I am hoping to move the needle on some of my longstanding projects, so we’ll see how it goes.

I’ll see you on the flipside.

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

*If you would like to read more about “sanctuary,” an extensive and interesting treatment is at this link: https://beverleyminster.org.uk/sanctuary/sanctuary-book-chapter-1/

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