The Whitby Chronicles
Updated: May 16, 2022
Don’t laugh: I bought an electric blanket/pad. It’s single-sized because Robin hates electric blankets. But I got really spoiled by the electric blanket I enjoyed in Montolieu, and for a small price on Amazon I got something pretty close. I find it wonderfully soothing (ala The Great Mother) to crawl into a warm and cozy bed and to feel it radiating heat onto me. Especially at times when it is cold and wet in the UK (is that an oxymoron?!), it is a great comfort. So I splurged!
We’ve been out sightseeing again. Two churches and an abbey were conquered this week.
The alchemists said, “the greater part of the soul is outside the body,” and I’ve thought about that aphorism a lot recently. Given our psychological type preferences, I think Robin and I have spent a large portion of our lives inside our minds—in our imagination. But on the other side of midlife, we are enjoying our encounters with reality by way of travel… and I think it’s true that—at least for us anyway—the greater part of our soul is outside the body, and we encounter ours by this means, through this odd wayfaring manner of life, actively seeking soul in the outer world rather than in the inner world, where we sought it (happily!) for decades in our younger years.
The inner world holds less charm than the outer world during this current phase of life, so here we are—traveling nomads experiencing the world and its magic firsthand. We wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Robin identified two churches in the neighborhood that were closed due to Covid the last time we were here. But now they were open! So away we went.
The story of St. Peter's Church in Hackness begins in the year 680 AD when St. Hilda of Whitby founded a nunnery here. It isn't clear when the nunnery disappeared, but it may have been in 867 AD when Danish raiders ransacked the coast.
Around 1086 monks from the abbey at Whitby (some 13 miles away) sought refuge in Hackness to evade the constant dangers of piracy and violence which plagued their coastal settlement. A monastic church was built, and it lasted until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.
The highlight of the church is a historic, wonderfully carved cross dating to the late 8th or early 9th century that stands 5 feet 9 inches tall.
The cross bears fragmentary carvings around the side of two gryphons and a prayer addressed to St. Oedelburga (or Aethelburh) inscribed in Latin, then repeated in Danish runic script, and also in Celtic ogham script (this latter sometimes referred to as “scratch writing”). It seems like a Rosetta stone!
Robin shot a short video while circumambulating the cross, which you may view at: https://youtu.be/N4OGc-yH2MU
Upon entering the church, nearly the first thing one sees is a 15th-century wooden font cover. The carving is simply marvelous and ornate, with little figures that seem nearly alive.
In the chancel may be found several late medieval misericords with a variety of designs depicting grotesque faces, foliage, grapes, vines, a mask, an angel bearing a shield, a scallop shell, and the local noble’s coat of arms. The faces were my favorite.
You probably know how much I love misericords, and it was a treat to be intimately alone with them in the sacred silence.
After soaking in the hallowed peace, we hightailed it out of there and made for our next destination. We couldn’t help but be dazzled by the many glorious neon fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed (which Bru tells me I can call “canola” instead, so canola it shall be!).
Our objective was another ancient church that reopened post-Covid. This was the timeworn St. Peter & St. Paul parish church in the village of Pickering.
My one regret is that we didn’t arrive there sooner.
It is a jaw-dropping sight to enter this church and be bowled over by the enormous frescoes spanning the upper walls said to be among the best surviving medieval murals in the country, somewhat reminiscent of the Byzantine churches we visited in Cyprus only a few months ago.
My progress was slowed by the presence of other visitors who likewise came to gawk and enjoy the medieval artwork. In and of themselves they were fine, but once in a great while Robin turns into a Chatty Cathy doll and can’t resist boasting about “his wife-the-doctor’s research.” I suddenly feel called upon to impress strangers and justify my entire existence—a challenging persona activity indeed!
Well this was one of those times. I tried to duck and bob and avoid being interrogated, but wasn’t entirely successful. Robin caught an earful from me later, believe me! But somehow in these situations there’s always some little datapoint or two that prevent me from being justifiably self-righteous in my annoyance; this time it was the encounter with a woman holding a professional camera who we learned was 1) writing a book about the church; and 2) has a PhD in church archeology and lectures on the topic at York University. That was a fortuitous connection, and curtailed my admonishments to Robin later.
The spectacular medieval wall paintings were likely commissioned around 1450 and finished by 1460. During the religious turmoil of the Reformation they were covered over with plaster, only to re-emerge during restoration work in 1852. The vicar at that time declared they distracted his flock from his sermons, and he had them covered back over with whitewash (now there’s some ego inflation!).
This whitewash was removed in 1876 and the paintings gradually restored to their former glory. The woman we spoke with (the one with the camera, above) reported that because of this restoration work, these paintings are not considered truly medieval any longer; they have been tampered with!
One fresco is a glorious picture of a mounted St. George slaying a dragon (partially visible below) alongside St. Christopher carrying a Christ child (who I have taken as our personal guide and psychopomp ever since first encountering him in Aachen, Germany, learning his legend, and understanding his affiliation with religious pilgrims—a category we might fall under).
Unfortunately, the rector arrived and booted us out promptly at 5PM—grrr! It’s possible I will have to drag my Chatty Cathy back there again sometime so I can fully take in the murals in tranquil peace and quiet.
A few days later we fulfilled another Covid promise—we visited the famous ruins of Whitby abbey, high above the British coastline alongside Whitby harbor.
It is a wonderfully romantic ruin to behold, though Robin and I would have preferred to see it intact during its heyday instead; it must have been magnificent.
The ruins are featured as the site of Count Dracula's fictional landing in England and portrays him as a creature resembling a large dog which came ashore and ran up 199 steps to a graveyard that lies just below the monastery ruins.
Bram Stoker himself arrived in Whitby at the end of July 1890. He was working on a novel that featured a central character named Count Wampyr. One day Stoker strolled to the public library where he came across a book that mentioned a 15th-century prince called Vlad Tepes who was said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. He was known as Dracula—the “son of the dragon.” A footnote in the book stated:
Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. …[They] used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.
Stoker made a note of this name.
His vampire story had an unpromising start as a play called The Undead, in which Stoker hoped a leading actor, Henry Irving, would take the lead role. But after a test performance, Irving said he never wanted to see it again. Stoker redrafted the play as a novel told in the form of letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings, and entries in the ship’s log, which was then published in 1897… and the rest is history.
On May 26th, English Heritage is attempting to break a Guinness world record for the largest gathering of people dressed as vampires on the 125th anniversary of Stoker’s novel and entry to the abbey will be free for all in traditional vampire fancy dress. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), we will be long gone by then.
This area was occupied as early as the late Bronze Age, and Romans probably established a signal station here in the 3rd century AD as part of a network of such stations. The original site probably fell into the sea when the cliffs eroded away.
Sometime around 657 AD a woman named Hild (who became St. Hilda) founded a double monastery (a monastery that acted as home to both monks and nuns) on the cliffs. Hilda and her monastery were so highly respected that kings and princes sought her advice, and the abbey became one of the most important religious centers in the Anglo-Saxon world.
A lay brother at the monastery was Cædmon, the first recorded poet in the English language, considered by some to be the "father" of English poetry. Caedmon was originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century historian Bede, who said “By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven."
The story goes that one evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals (who he took care of) because “he knew no songs.” The impression is that he lacked any knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. Whilst asleep, he had a dream in which "someone" approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, "the beginning of created things." After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his boss about his dream and was immediately taken to meet with St. Hilda. The abbess and her counselors interrogated Cædmon about his vision and—satisfied this was a gift from God—gave him a commission (as a test) to compose a poem based on "a passage of sacred history or doctrine."
When Cædmon returned the next morning with the requested poem in hand, he was invited to take monastic vows. The abbess ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon sacred history and doctrine, which—after a night of thought—Cædmon would transform into beautiful verse. Eventually he produced a large number of splendid poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics, becoming an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet.
Annnnddddd…. all of that may be apocryphal! There are strong affinities between the Prophet Muhammad and Cædmon that have been widely remarked upon. Someone named Cædmon probably did exist, but "the elevation of an illiterate laborer Caedmon to divinely inspired poet (and almost saint) has acquired the quasi-mythological status of an originary narrative." His achievements and story function as religious and cultural myth, perhaps to increase the status of Whitby Abbey during Hilda's tenure as Abbess and elevate the status of English ecclesiastical life.
The monastery and settlement at Whitby were abandoned in the 9th century, probably as a result of Viking raids (the monks who built the church at Hackness pictured above fled from here). A new settlement was established alongside the harbor at the base of the cliffs, and this settlement became known as Whitby. The headland was then deserted until the Saxon monastery was re-founded as a Benedictine priory in 1078 under a monk known as Reinfrid. The pertinent historic text reads:
A certain Reinfrid, who had been a most valiant soldier of William the Conqueror, moved by sorrow at the wasted holy places at Whitby and elsewhere in the north, entered the monastery of Evesham with the intention of becoming a monk capable of repairing some of the mischief.
I was struck by the spontaneous “conversion” of this warrior, not unlike Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, who was struck blind and converted to Christianity, eventually becoming St. Paul the Apostle. (You may remember that we chased St. Paul around Cyprus a bit.) I’ve occasionally wondered whether that “conversion” was inspired by a flash of introverted intuition…
Anyway, Reinfrid had a similar experience when “his heart was greatly affected at beholding [the Whitby Abbey] ruin,” and in short order he became Christian, took monastic vows, and founded a new Benedictine monastic community at Whitby. Eventually they built a Gothic church there, and those are the remains still visible today.
Hey, were you one of the 40 people who registered for my session at BAAPT on “The Masks We Wear; The Masks We Hide?” If so, you will want to view the recording that was made. We had a lovely turnout, but maybe some people didn’t want to attend live and actually create their masks and do breakout rooms—or maybe they just had a Saturday sleep-in. If so, that was a missed learning opportunity!
We spent 3-½ hours together, and the feedback was that people really appreciated the depth of the experience and were surprised by the links between persona and typology. I consider this an important aspect of the field, because I often see the function of extraverted feeling reduced to persona, as if it were nothing but a false mask. It was nice to set that record straight! I hope to develop the material a bit more, but I’m generally happy with how the session went, and the feedback tells me the participants liked it too.
I have finally gotten Mackerel to come and sleep with me in the bed, and the other two cats have permitted me to pet them on occasion (usually when they are hungry).
I need more time to truly domesticate and bring them under my power!
But tomorrow heralds another big transition. We are leaving Whitby and heading south to Beverley. We made a flying visit to Beverley Minster a few years back and I’m looking forward to spending some quality time there. But I’m going to miss the view out the window here in Littlebeck, with its gorgeous scenery, moonlit evenings, and occasional horses parading past.
More adventures are no doubt forthcoming…
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo