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North-easterly: Forgotten Stories

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Once more we found ourselves gravitating towards the tower of an ancient church. As we were meeting in Bamburgh, it seemed only right that we pay our respects here. It may seem a little odd that although we are not precisely Christian, we spend a lot of time in churches, but Britain has long been a nominally Christian country and for centuries the Church was at the heart of political power…and its churches at the heart of village life. There are few other places where so rich a history can be studied without fuss by anyone who cares to walk through the door.

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This area of the North was once a place of great sanctity and home to more saints than can be imagined. Many of them were ‘small’ local saints, possibly ‘adopted’ from pre-Christian mythologies, others are well-documented historical figures and were amongst the most beloved of their kind.

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This stretch of the northeastern coastline played a pivotal part in Christianity’s establishment in this country and there are still echoes here of the Celtic faith that was ousted at the Synod of Whitby in 664 in favour of the Roman version of Christianity. Prior to the Synod, it was the Ionian version of the faith that had taken precedence in these parts and two of the most important figures in bringing that faith to the area were King Oswald and St  Aidan.

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Oswald had been raised as a boy at the monastery of Iona, but when he came to the kingship and took up his throne at the royal seat of Bamburgh, local Christianity was being gradually ousted by an Anglo-Saxon form of paganism. Determined to bring what he saw as the true faith to his people, he sent to Iona for missionaries. They sent him Bishop Cormán, who managed to offend everyone and convert no-one and who accused the northerners of being ‘too stubborn’ to convert. He was soon sent packing. Aidan spoke out against Cormán’s methods and as a ‘reward’ was sent to King Oswald at Bamburgh in his place.

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Aidan established the monastery on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, in sight of the castle and set out to bring his faith to the people of the land. His methods were gentle, he spoke courteously to all, no matter how high or low their station. Like his Lord, he accepted all souls with kindness, while he himself practiced poverty and frugality. He and King Oswald became much loved and brought the people back to their shared faith.

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Both church and castle had worked together, building schools and religious houses, teaching quietly and taking an interest in the small doings of the villages and their people. The tireless work of these men converted by example, not coercion and that, to me, is the only true form of evangelism, no matter what path, faith or religion it seeks to promulgate. Faith is a spark that must be kindled from a greater flame, not imposed by will or blade.

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Oswald was slain in 642 and dismembered on the battlefield by King Penda of Mercia, the last pagan king before Christianity swept through the land. Aidan died at Bamburgh, on 31st of August, 651, leaning against a wooden beam of the old parish church at Bamburgh. That church was a wooden one, of which no trace now remains, save a single, ‘Y’ shaped beam in the roof of the baptistry… the same, it is said, against which the saint was resting when he died.

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So we had come to ay our respects, and wandered around the churchyard at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, in the shadow of the castle, looking at some of the old and highly unusual gravestones. It may seem odd that although we celebrate life, we spend a lot of time with the dead, especially when we are supposedly ‘off duty’. Whether it is in an ancient burial mound or village churchyard, though, the story is the same… here lie our ancestors.

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Since a recognisable homo sapiens came on the scene around fifty thousand years ago, it is estimated that there have been around a hundred and ten billion human beings born on this little planet of ours. Unlike Aidan and Oswald, most of their stories have never been recorded, their deeds are lost, their loves and laughter unknown to the pages of history, but their legacy is our own and, in some small way, lives within each of us.

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At least one other story is well-known from this little churchyard and that is the tale of Grace Darling, Bamburgh’s most famous daughter. Grace was born in 1815, a few months after Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.  Her father, William, was a lighthouse-keeper and when she was just a few weeks old, along with her mother, Thomasin, and six siblings, she was taken to live at a lighthouse on the Farne Islands where she was raised in the harsh island environment.

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At four in the morning, on the 7 th of September 1838, Grace looked out of her window at the raging storm and spotted the shipwrecked paddle steamer, Forfarshire. Its wreckage and a few survivors could be seen on the wave-battered outcrop known as Big Harcar. Knowing that the lifeboat at Seahouses could not be launched in such appalling conditions, Grace and her father took a rowing boat onto the sea to attempt a rescue.

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While her father rowed, Grace steadied the coble, a type of boat common to these parts, while her father helped survivors into the boat and together they saved the lives of Mrs Dawson, whose children were amongst those who drowned, and four men. Once these had been taken back to the lighthouse, Grace’s father and some of the survivors went back. The route they had to take in the shelter of the islands meant that each trip was a mile each way… and they rescued nine survivors of the sixty-two people who had been on board.

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Together they put forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar, and struggling on they go–
Rivals in effort; and, alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty’s will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman’s fortitude–so tried, so proved–
May brighten more and more!

From ‘Grace Darling’, William Wordsworth, 1843

Grace became a national heroine for her part in the rescue. Her courage and strength were much admired and she was an inspiration to many. Sadly, Grace died just four years later of tuberculosis. She is buried, with her parents, in St Aidan’s churchyard, in a simple grave.

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Her monument, though, is far from simple and cannot be missed amongst the headstones. paid for by public subscription, the original effigy was replaced when the weather took its toll and now rests within the church, in sight of St Aidan’s shrine.

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Within the church too there are other names known to history. One struck me most,  that of the Younghusband family, although its most prominent member is not interred here, but in Dorset where he died. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband KCSI KCIE, was the soldier, explorer and writer who commanded the British Expedition to Tibet in 1904. A strange character, he was responsible for the massacre at Guru in the Himalayas.

“Younghusband’s well-trained troops were armed with rifles and machine guns, confronting disorganized monks wielding hoes, swords, and flintlocks. Some accounts estimated that more than 5,000 Tibetans were killed during the campaign, while the total number of British casualties was about five.” Wikipedia

While Younghusband was rewarded for his service with honours, the invasion of Tibet under the guise of diplomacy led to rebellion, and ultimately to the annexation of the theocracy by China and the exile of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

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But nothing is as cut and dried as it seems. Younghusband, who appears at first glance to be a down-to-earth military type, with his gaze fixed firmly on British Imperialism, had a vision in the mountains as he left Tibet that changed his entire outlook on life and spirituality. It led him to become one of a wave of ‘New Age’ writers and a forerunner of the hippy movement that was to come into being half a century later. His vision filled him with “love for the whole world” and showed him the innate divinity at the heart of mankind… and took him down some very strange pathways on a quest for spiritual and social reform.

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Faith takes many forms… not all of them recognised by established religions… and this one little church furnished so many examples of how it can be expressed, and how its expression can impact the lives of others, both for good and for ill. How will history judge us… if it ever remembers our names… both as individuals and as societies? Only time and weathered words will tell…

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