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Discovering Albion – day 10: Selby Abbey – Royalty and the American Flag

Window in the south transept c.1914 (Click to view larger image)
Window in the south transept c.1914 (Click to view larger image)

Another huge window fills the end wall of the south transept, showing scenes from the early history of the Abbey at Selby. On both walls, the stained glass depicts members of the Royal House; on one side Victoria, Queen and Empress, with Albert, the Prince Consort, and on the other Edward VII and his queen, Alexandra.

Victoria, Queen Empress and Albert, Prince Consort
Victoria, Queen Empress and Albert, Prince Consort

For me, however, this little corner holds memories far more personal. I remember standing here with my Grandma Annie as she told me about the tradition of Maundy Money. There is a little display case with the purses and coins that Queen Elizabeth handed out to parishioners here in 1969, at the time the nine hundredth year of the Abbey, the only time the Royal Maundy Service had been held in a Parish Church rather than a cathedral.

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King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

The Royal Maundy Service is an ancient tradition that has evolved over the centuries from the instruction of Jesus… the mandatum given to His followers at the Last Supper. He told them to love one another. In medieval England, the monarchs would, on Maundy Thursday and on other Maundy days throughout the year, wash the feet of the poor in the rite known as pedilavium. The poor would be given food and clothing as alms. King John is the first monarch in recorded history to have performed this act in 1210 AD, though the bishops and other personages had done so for centuries.

Maundy purses and coins
Maundy purses and coins

Today the Maundy Service is one in which Queen Elizabeth, known for a deep and real faith, participates every year. Specially minted coins are given out these days, instead of goods, to a number of pensioners from the parish; one for every year of the monarch’s life and while the coinage is a nominal sum and legal tender, their value to collectors is much higher.

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Portrait bust no larger than a baby’s fist

There are other allusions to royalty within the church… one a very curios sculpture that you would miss if it were not pointed out and a torch provided! Within one of the small, pierced bundles of carved stone foliage, you are directed to shine the beam of the torch… and there you find a tiny white portrait bust of King Edward VII. It is not the only such surprise, though the others you have to look for… Tiny portraits and creatures are hidden in other carvings too.

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Stuart spotted this one… obviously older. How many more lie hidden?

Then there is another very curious detail; one of the clerestory windows above the main altar is part of the American Heritage Trail. The American flag flies there, marking an unexpected connection. I remembered my grandmother telling me about this too, so I had been looking for it. It would be easy to miss if you did not know, though a corner of the church celebrates this snippet of history.

Transcript of the inscription from the tomb of Lawrence Washington (click to enlarge image)
Transcript of the inscription from the tomb of Lawrence Washington (click to enlarge image)

The window bears the coat of arms of one of George Washington’s ancestors, John Wessington, who was… oddly for us, given where we had been the day before, the Prior of Durham. The fourteenth-century stained glass shows a shield which bears his coat of arms; three red stars and two red bars on a white ground. Another representation of the crest is in Northamptonshire, at a church associated with the Spencer family… coincidentally my grandmother’s surname. That one is dated a couple of hundred years later and can be found on the tomb of Lawrence Washington, a direct ancestor of George. This is the same crest that was found inside a book and on two seals belonging to George Washington himself. The story says that this is where the Stars and Stripes had their origin. Odd to think that the earliest known version of the Stars and Stripes may be on the window of a Yorkshire parish church.

The origin of the Stars and Stripes… (click image to enlarge)
The origin of the Stars and Stripes… (click image to enlarge)

6 thoughts on “Discovering Albion – day 10: Selby Abbey – Royalty and the American Flag”

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