Albion, Alchemy, Archaeology, Books, Photography, Stuart France and Sue Vincent, travel

A Thousand Miles of History: Toeing the Line

One of our main aims in taking the Cornwall trip, quite apart from the sheer beauty of the place and the fact that it is strewn with more ancient and sacred places than you could visit in a lifetime, had been to visit some of the sites on the Michael Line. The Line is a subject of much debate and is believed to be a ley… or an ancient trade-route, an earth energy current, a total fabrication, pure coincidence or a pilgrim route, depending upon your particular bias. About the only thing that can be said about it without argument is that it is a mystery.

The line runs from Carn Les Boel in the south westernmost part of Britain right across to Norfolk, on the east coast and is marked along its entire length by the presence of ancient sites. Some of these sites are archaeological treasures dating back to the earliest marks mankind made upon our landscape, others are relatively modern, and include medieval crosses, holy wells and churches a mere thousand years old. Such churches, though, were usually built on ancient sacred sites, so it is probably true to say that all the points thus marked were already held sacred by our early ancestors.

St Michael the Archangel, Skipton, Holy Trinity church, Yorkshire

The name ‘Michael Line’ comes from the fact that many of the churches on this line are dedicated to St Michael… the beatified dragon-slaying archangel of Christian myth. Leys are often referred to as ‘dragon lines’ and it is the energy of the red and white dragons of old Albion that flows through the veins of our land. The symbolism of St Michael with his dragon and blade is something we see in many old churches. Often, the dragon is not being skewered by the saint, but simply subdued and held at the point of the weapon. One interpretation of this is that Christianity triumphs over evil… another, often seen by the ecclesiastical establishment as being the self-same thing, it that it triumphs over pagan belief. It is equally possible to interpret the image symbolically, and have the rule of Man claiming ‘dominion’ over the natural order of the earth… or of Man’s spiritual nature in complete control of the ‘lower’ instincts.

St Michael holds the Balance, Brentor

The other symbol often seen in St Michael’s hands is that of the Scales. We had seen his image holding the Balance only days before at Brentor, just an hour’s drive from the village of St Cleer, where we now found ourselves. We had no real intention of visiting St Cleer, but I happened to know it had an old church, and as Trethevy Quoit falls within the parish boundaries, it would have felt rude not to pay our respects.

St Cleer, however, is not on the Michael Line, but, as we later found, along with many of the other sites we had not intended to visit, it is on the Mary Line. So, for that matter, were Trethevy Quoit, Boscawen-Un and a few places that we were to visit on our way home. The Mary Line, marked by places named for Mary, the Christian embodiment of the Mother, follows the same principles as the Michael Line, but weaves its way sinuously around its masculine partner. It was something of a wry surprise to realise that we had been unconsciously ‘balancing the scales’ by following the meanderings of the ‘feminine’ counterpart of our ‘dragon-line’.

The church at St Cleer would have been well worth a detour, though, even without the silent promptings of impulse. It stands on a mound in the centre of the village… always a good sign… and is dedicated to St Clarus, a fairly obscure saint who came to the area to preach Christianity, but was obliged to flee to France. The reason for his flight runs along a theme common to many of the lesser-known saints, many of whom were probably Christianised versions of older local deities. In this case, however… and quite appropriately given our own dance with the masculine and feminine leys… the polarities were reversed and it was the gentleman who was obliged to remove himself after angering a local noblewoman by refusing her advances. This ‘impious and lewd lady’, rebuffed by the saint, set two ruffians to track him down. Following him to his hermitage at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, they murdered him. As is usual in these particular tales, the saint was beheaded and later hailed as a martyr to chastity.

So, we had a church on a mound, a saint whose story conforms to one we hear over and over again, and it didn’t take us long to spot a carved Norman door on the north wall of the church. The north doors are often small and have frequently been blocked. These are the ‘devil’s doors’ where the evil banished by the rite of baptism could escape. We also found an ancient cross, typical of so many we had seen by the wayside throughout Cornwall. There was obviously a long history attached to this church.

There was a wooden church on the site twelve hundred years ago, but the first recorded mention of this building dates to 1212. In 1239, Ingebram de Bray, Lord of the manor of Roscraddock in St Cleer, gave the church to the Knights Hospitaller and it remained in their care until 1538. Much of the present building is original, although the tower was damaged and replaced five hundred years ago.

It is a big church… it looks like the kind of place the local gentry would have attended, with all the pomp and ceremony they expected of their position. This can be wonderful for churchaholics, leaving a rich legacy of art, craft and symbolism… especially in combination with the Knights’ involvement.

It can also be disastrous, for when ego holds the reins, heart and spirit can be drowned by a display of wealth and power. What would we find here? There was only one way to find out…