The Poets of the First World War

At 11 am on the 11th day of November 2018, it will be the centenary of the armistice of World War 1, the ending of fighting on land, sea and air between the Allies and their opponent, Germany.

Roughly, 10 million military personnel lost their lives along with 7 million civilians. The horror of the war aftermath altered the world for decades.

It was a war more than any other war associated with the so-called ‘war poets’. The young soldier poets of World War 1 established war poetry as a literary genre. Their combined voice has become one of the defining texts of 20th century Europe.

Hundreds of young, uniformed men took to writing poetry as a way of expressing extreme emotion at the very edge of experience. The poems written by men such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, is as poignant today as it was both during the war and immediately after it.

The outbreak of war in 1914 was accompanied by an outpouring of patriotic enthusiasm that is difficult for modern readers to comprehend, knowing what we do of the subsequent course of the war and of the literature that has come to define it. Men enlisted in their thousands during those early months of the war and the fervent patriotism was clearly shared by a wide public. The most famous of these expressions is Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:

If I should die, think only this of me:

             That there’s some corner of a foreign field

          That is for ever England. There shall be

              In that rich earth a richer dust concealed….

The patriotism and sentimentality of ‘The Soldier’ proved astoundingly popular in Britain; it was even read from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915. However Brooke’s poem was soon given a new and tragic poignancy. On 26th April 1915 just three weeks after The Times published Brooke’s poem, the same newspaper now printed his obituary written by Winston Churchill. Brooke had died at sea three days earlier, after contracting septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite. He was aged 27.

Possibly the best-remembered poem of the war is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’, written in September 1914. The fourth stanza is recited annually at Remembrance Day ceremonies, as it honours the English war dead of that time, which had even by 1914 already high casualty rates on the developing Western Front.

  They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

          Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

          At the going down of the sun and in the morning

          We will remember them.

A lasting image of the First World War is the poppy. Adopted as a symbol of remembrance by the Royal British Legion in response to Canadian John McCrae’s poem

‘In Flanders Fields’, the poppy has come to signify the millions who lost their lives in the war.

John McCrae was a doctor who was transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

          Between the crosses, row on row

             That mark our place; and in the sky

             The larks, still bravely singing, fly

          Scarce heard amid the guns below.


          We are the Dead. Short days ago

          We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

              Loved and were loved, and now we lie

                  In Flanders fields.

The poem highlights several contrasts: the crosses on the fields, symbolizing human sacrifice, and the larks singing bravely in the sky; their singing versus the ‘guns below’; the men that are now dead and lie buried in the fields when a short while ago they were alive and loved. We tend to associate spring, singing larks and golden sunshine with beauty. But reality can be different. John McCrae uses simple language – very direct, very realistic.

The archetypal ‘war poet’ is perceived to be a young officer, educated at public school and Oxford or Cambridge – possibly postponing his university place whilst he defends his country. Many of the ‘young men’ fit this stereotype including Robert Graves, Charles Sorley and Siegfried Sassoon, but others had less privileged backgrounds, such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. Of these, Graves survived the war and lived to the age of 90, while Sorley was the youngest of the major war poets to die. The following sonnet was found in his kit after his death on the Western Front in October 1915. He was twenty years old.

   When you see millions of the mouthless dead

          Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

          Say not soft things as other men have said,

          That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

          Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know

          It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

          Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

          Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

          Say only this, ‘They are dead’. Then add thereto,

          ‘Yet many a better one has died before’….       

Siegfried Sassoon was on active service in Flanders throughout much of World War 1 and is generally recognised as the first poet to record the horrors and privations of life in the trenches. The 1st volume of his war poetry appeared in 1917, the year he threw away his Military Cross and published an open letter, denouncing the administration of the war. He was a romantic poet and gradually an element of anti-war feeling developed in his poems, the theme is of a longing for beauty and peace of nature. He was a friend of Owen’s, who was inspired by him. ‘Dreamers’:

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,

          Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows……


          ….Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin

          They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

Wilfred Owen was an English school teacher working in France and enlisted in the army in 1915. He was injured in 1917 and spent the next 18 months recuperating at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon who encouraged constructive criticism. He returned to combat in August 1918 and just one week before the war ended, was killed. He was just 25. Such was the speed of communication that his parents were sitting in their home in Shrewsbury at 11am on the 11th November 1918 happy that war was over and their son had survived when there was a knock on the door. It was a telegram informing them their son was dead.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or, to give the phrase in full, ‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’, is Latin for ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ (patria is where we get our word ‘patriotic’ from). The phrase originated in the Roman poet Horace, but ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen famously rejects this idea. Focusing in particular on one moment in the First World War, when Owen and his platoon are attacked with poison gas, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a studied analysis of suffering and perhaps the most famous anti-war poem ever written.

  Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

          Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

          Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

          And towards our distant rest began to trudge….


          Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! –An ecstasy of fumbling

          Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

          But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

          And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—–

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

          As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


          In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

          He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


           ….My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

           To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

           Pro patria mori.

The scope of First World War poetry is much wider than that of the trench lyric. There is a substantial and distinguished body of war poetry by civilian poets, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, D.H.Lawrence, Mary Borden, Vera Brittain – to name but a few. The poetry is often regarded as ‘English’, but many of the soldier poets came from elsewhere: Scotland, Wales, Ireland and across Europe and the British Empire. These should not be forgotten, nor should the speechless millions of whom and for whom they spoke:

   Battalions, and battalions, scarred from hell;

          The returning army that was youth;

          The legions who have suffered and are dust.

Siegfried Sassoon,  ‘Prelude: The Troops’.

Finally, before Wilfred Owen died he wrote in the preface of his volume:

‘The book is not about heroes. Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of it. The poetry is the Pity……All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful’.


Written by Michael Graham, Library Volunteer

We are marking the centenary of the Armistice with a series on Peace-making and War-waging. Click here to see more details.



The Trinity

Confused about the Trinity? Many people have struggled with this across centuries of theological thought, so library volunteer Peter Cox shares some of his thoughts and research with us.

The roles of the Logos and Spirit

The important point about the Logos or Son is not that He is the Word but what the words are actually saying. This must be the divine Plan for the universe and its parts. The core of this Plan is a gathering of all things1 and salvation for human persons2 which is, in patristic terms, union with God or deification.3 Gatherings by God must be to the fullest extent as God is infinite relative to us. The closest we can be gathered is union, but that union must preserve the distinction between God and the universe. However, ‘gathering’ includes not only the goal of union but movement towards that union. On the other hand, the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Power and Love.4 Without the attributes of the Spirit, our movement would be impossible.5 The role of the Spirit must be complimentary with that of the Logos so that they must be interdependent.

The unity of the Trinity

St Irenaeus of Lyons stated that ‘God did not stand in need of any other beings to accomplish what He had Himself determined … as if He did not possess His own hands … for with Him were always present the Logos and the Spirit.’6 If however, the Logos and Spirit were the ‘hands’ of God, the Father would be the source of their interdependent roles. Accordingly, St Athanasius stated that ‘the Father approves the work, the Son properly carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes.’7 As the Trinity act as One, we would expect them to be all divine. Scripture confirms that the Logos is God,8 in which case, we would expect the Spirit to be also divine. This was confirmed by the Council of Ephesus, 431, which stated that ‘the Spirit is no better than (the Son) nor above Him.’ All three members of the Trinity must therefore be the God of Otherness and Love. There is however the problem that, although God is divisible, He appears to be three from a point of view within time. St Maximus neatly solved the problem by stating that ‘the whole Father is entirely in the whole Son and Holy Spirit, and the whole Son is entirely in the Father and Holy Spirit, and the whole Holy Spirit is entirely in the whole Father and Son.’9

The divine energies

God must affect the universe as otherwise, He would not exist from a point of view from within time. Also, we cannot progress towards union with God without His help so it is reasonable to say He works with us. His work or energies must therefore be directed towards the universe. These energies must be divine as, if He acted in the world of time, He would lose His otherness and would not be God. As He is indivisible, He must be fully in both his essence and His energies. He therefore does not work directly within time lest He loses His otherness so that He works through the universe by means of the Spirit. Because the roles of the Logos and Spirit are interdependent in assisting us to move towards unity with us, their energies must be common. Furthermore, as the Father is the Source of both Logos and Spirit and their respective roles, His role is interdependent with those of His two ‘hands’. The work or energies of God are therefore Trinitarian. Accordingly, St Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil of Caesarea state that the members of the Trinity have an ‘identity of operations.’10 Because God is indivisible, His energies must also be indivisible. Accordingly, St Maximus stated that ‘there is only one sole energy … of God.’11 St Gregory of Nyssa summarised the situation as follows:

The Father never acts independently of the Son, nor the Son of the Spirit. Divine action … always begins from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Holy Spirit.12


1 Eph 1.10.

2 1 Tim 2.3-4.

3 St Maximus, Thal 61; PG 90; trans. BL-CM, p. 141: ‘salvation (is) the fullest grace of deification.’

4 2 Tim 1.7.

5 Lk 1.37.

6 St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Haer 4, 20, 1; PG 7/1, 1032; trans. ANF, Vol 1, p 487.

7 St Maximus, Thal 2; PG 90; trans. BL-CM, p. 100.

8 Jn 1.1.

9 St. Maximus, Gnost 2.1; PG 90, col. 1125A; trans. CWS-MC, p. 147-8.

10 St Gregory of Nyssa, Adv Eun 2.15; NPNF2, Vol 5, p. 132. St Basil of Caesarea, Ep 189.6; PG 32; trans. NPNF2, Vol 8, p. 231.

11 St Maximus, Amb 7.12; PG 91, col. 1076C; trans. NC-AMB1, p. 91.

12 G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952) p. 260.

The God who is Found in the Universe

Library volunteer Peter Cox shares some of his thoughts on finding God.

Awareness of God

Humankind’s first inkling of God may have been several millions of years ago. Judging from experiences of various people, this inkling may have begun from a simple awareness of God either personally or through the earth. The personal awareness was probably too primitive to be termed a full relationship with God and the apparent personal ‘God’ would not have been regarded as the God of anyone else. Nevertheless, a personal primitive God could appear to be constant and loving. However, the more that people became aware of the same loving God, the more certain that God would be and the greater chance that a quest for such a God would be successful. Moreover, the true God would be the God of all things and considerably more powerful than a god of one human person alone. It would therefore be a very significant step to find this powerful God. Such a step may be difficult because of a general support for different gods supported by organised religion. The awareness of God in the universe was probably initially not towards a universal God but to a multiplicity of spirits of various elements of the earth such the sun, moon, water, fertility, etc, which became a host of gods. As humankind began to realise that all elements of the earth were related, there became a tendency to believe in a chief god over the other gods. These gods often acted according to what human persons did or did not do. The exchange of gifts between the god and humankind were often quantitative and was therefore judicial in a material sense so that the relationships with the gods would not be based upon love. History is full of instances when sacrifices were made to a god or gods so that crops would not fail and enemies were overcome. Moreover, many states used religion as a device to protect their supremacy so that their gods were subject to invention.

Finding the God of Darkness by contemplation

A universal God cannot be a god who acts judicially and therefore materially so that He must be other than the universe. A person finding the true God therefore has to search beyond all earthly things such as images and words including those of religion. This is why the God found in this way can be termed the God of Darkness. Some will find only a false God because they have mixed the true God with earthly things. Others will not have the courage to enter a realm which is unknowable to them. However, if a person found the true God, His awesome power would be experienced and the God of certainty would be found. From the book of Genesis, it appears that at least Moses1 and Elijah2 found this God of Darkness and quite likely Abraham also. If Abraham had found the universal God, it would explain why he would do anything for God even if it meant sacrificing his own son.3 In patristic times, the God of Darkness was found by St Gregory of Nazianzus,4 St PseudoDionysius,5 and St Maximus the Confessor.6

Finding the God of Light

Another aspect of God is perceived through the universe as expressed by Isaiah.7 While this experience has less depth than that of the God of Otherness, it is just as important. Those who experience the God through the universe receive the impression of light and love. Such a light is ‘truly mysterious’8 and so is not the same as physical light. Furthermore, God desires that His love be returned as Hosea stated that God desires ‘steadfast love (but) not sacrifice.’9 The impression of the God of Love therefore appears to be more outgoing than the God of Otherness.

Reconciliation of the God of Otherness and Love

If God was only ‘other’, He would be entirely unknowable so He could not be found. If God was not ‘other’, He would be an element of the universe and not God. If however, God related to the universe without being limited by its attributes, He would maintain His distinction (διακρισις) from the universe and therefore still be ‘other’ as well as relating with love. This unrestricted God would be infinite relative to the universe so that His love would be infinite and directed towards all things without partiality.10 Also, as He would be unrestricted by number, He could be regarded as the One11 as He could not be divided.

The divine essence and energies

If we find the true God, we will realise that He is infinite relative to us but, because of this, He can never be completely knowable to us. If we also find that He loves the universe and its parts, we would never be able to understand the infinite quality of His love. We can express this by saying that we cannot know God as He is in Himself12 which St Maximus defined as the divine essence.13 The fact that we can find God at all must be because of His infinite love and because parts of the universe are able to respond to it. The resulting affect of the divine love and the response can be termed the divine energies in contrast to the unknowable divine essence. However, we cannot categorically state that only human persons can find God as, because the infinite quality of God’s love, even an almost infinitesimal response could enable some knowledge of God to be found.

1. Ex 3.2-6.

2. 1 Kings 19.11-13.

3. Gen 22.

4. St Gregory Nazianzus, Orat 37 on Mt 19; PG 36; trans. NPNF2, Vol 7, p. 339.

5. St Pseudo-Dionysius, Myst Theol 1.2; PG 3, Col. 1000A; trans. CWS-PD, p. 139.

6. St Maximus, Gnost 1.84-85; PG 90,; trans. CWS-MC, p. 144.

7. Isa 6.3.

8. St Pseudo-Dionysius, Myst Theol, 1.1/1.3/1.3; PG 3, cols 1000A/1000C/10001A; trans. CWS-PD.

9. Hosea 6.6.

10. Acts 10.34.

11. 1 Cor 8.6.

12. St Maximus, Char 4.7; PG 90; trans. CWS-MC, p. 76.

13. St Maximus, Amb 34.2; PG 91, col. 1288B; NC-AMB2, p. 67.


Book Club review: The Warden

The Book Club began 2018 with what was for most of us a return to a classic: The Warden, by Anthony Trollope. The first and (at least in length) slightest of the Barchester novels, it’s the story of quiet lives buffeted and overturned by the forces of reform, greed, power, conscience and love. The income of a charitable trust has grown in size over the years so that after the modest needs of the beneficiaries are met, their warden enjoys an extremely prosperous lifestyle. But should he? Is it legal? Even if it’s legal, is it right?

Out of the murky motives of the national newspaper editor, the self-righteousness of the reforming young councillor, the legalistic defensiveness of the church authorities, the manipulated anger of the almsmen and the conscience-stricken doubts of Mr Harding, the warden, himself, Trollope builds a structure of clashing ideas of right and rights which is more complex than it looks, and never less than charitable, except maybe to the campaigning editor of the newspaper who holds the warden up to national public scorn. And that is the strength of this novel: no-one’s motives are pure, no-one’s position is impregnable. Even John Bold, who kicks the whole thing off in a fit of what he thinks of as self-sacrificing zeal, can’t quite bring himself to sacrifice his love for Mr Harding’s daughter, and backs off. The ending, in which no-one gets what they want, is impressive in its quiet anger.

In case you’re wondering where the comedy’s gone, there was a lot to smile at here too, especially the warden’s desperate attempts to circumvent his son-in-law, the terrifying archdeacon. For the group, this arcane dispute over a very old will had many contemporary echoes, aided by Trollope’s accessible style.

Next month it’s Unless by Carol Shields: come and join in the discussion!

Living with gods

One of our Library Volunteers, Michael, writes of his recent experience at the British Museum’s ‘Living with gods’ exhibition and reflects on the different forms of religious symbolism.

‘Living with gods’ is the title of an exhibition at the British Museum looking at how people believe through everyday objects of faith. Beliefs in religious beings and worlds beyond nature are distinctive to all human societies and provide a perspective on what makes believing a vital part of human behaviour.

The exhibition begins with an incredible 40,000-year-old ivory sculpture made from a mammoth tusk, known as the Lion Man. Depicting a human body with a lion’s head, it is the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world and must have had some ritual purpose due to its torso being worn smooth by handling – possibly by many generations.

Discovered in a cave in Ulm, Germany in 1939, it is a being which cannot exist in nature. While we shall never know what the Lion Man meant to the community which created it, it is estimated that it took approximately 400 hours to carve, which suggests that it was an object of great importance.

You can learn more about the Lion Man, and see images, on the British Museum’s blog post here: British Museum: The Lion Man

Following on, key themes of belief are shown relating to our senses- light, water and fire. Light is essential to life and represents divine presence. This takes many forms around the world: Amaterasu, a powerful Japanese deity, seen as the goddess of sun; Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, spiritually signifying the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair.

Water, through baptism, is the door through which every Christian enters the faith and becomes part of the Christian community. In Hinduism, the river Ganges is considered sacred and is personified as the goddess Ganga. She is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and the water is considered very pure.

Fire, a fascination and fear to our ancestors. It kept wild animals at bay, but allowed us to cook, keep warm and safe – the hearth is the home. In classical mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. For the Jews, God spoke to Moses from the flames of the burning bush. In ancient Rome, the goddess of fire was Vesta and in her temple, the hearth was home and was Rome itself – and if the flames ever went out, that was the end of Rome.

Objects on display reflect all these senses and show how people connect to worlds beyond nature through the natural environment or in specially built spaces.

Other objects show the power of prayer, the importance of song, festivals and pilgrimage and the key life experiences – birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Christian pilgrimage, for example, is represented by a souvenir model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to be built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century after a visit by his mother, Helena, to the site of Christ’s death and burial.

Pilgrimage is also represented by Christian pilgrim badges, collected as souvenir: for example, a lead scallop shell, symbol of St. James of Compostela, and a lead figure from Canterbury representing St. Thomas. Newly-born babies and their mothers are represented by a ceramic figure of St. Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and becoming an adult in the Pacific island nation of Vanuata by a lock of brown hair.

One piece of fascinating evidence that there were polytheistic societies (those who worshipped many gods) in Britain is a roman earthenware jug, dated about 250 AD, which was found in Norfolk in the 1840s. It contains small bronze figures depicting the different gods, including Jupiter, chief of the roman deities and god of sky and thunder, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom wearing a helmet.

In contrast, monotheistic societies (those who believe that there is only one deity), is represented by the Marduk tablet from Babylon and the limestone fragmentary stela showing ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton.

Divine authority for rule is another aspect covered. A bronze vessel from China, whose inscription suggests that dynastic leaders enjoyed a mandate from heaven. We in Britain experienced this in 1953 with the Coronation of our Queen – ‘anointed of the Lord’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The story of life is represented by a tanka or Buddhist Wheel of Life from Tibet. Made of blue dyed cotton and highly painted with a rod through the top to enable it to be hung, probably in a temple, it tells a story which connects our individual lives to the community and the world to which we are briefly a part.

The beginning of the exhibition shows the 40,000-year-old Lion Man which played a central part in what might be described as a religious ceremony. The last item on display is another small sculpture which was also designed to be held in the hand. It is a small cross made of two pieces of wood nailed together. An Italian carpenter in Lampedusa took wood from African migrant boats that had been shipwrecked on 11 October 2013 off the coast of the island, and turned the wood of destruction into a cross; something that came from his own tradition but spoke of hope for everybody. It’s very powerful. The cross, an emblem of death, becomes in itself a sign that there is hope; a different life, a better life.

‘Living with gods: people, places and worlds beyond’ is at the British Museum until 8 April 2018.

Images of some objects referred to in this post can be seen here: British Museum: highlight artefacts

Michael Graham, Library Volunteer

Who is Duke Humphrey of Gloucester?

duke humphreyAs Guides, we introduce him as ‘the only royal burial in St Albans Cathedral’, however he was much more than that. He was a warrior who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, a lover who picked up several unsuitable wives, and an intellectual who was a great patron of literature and art. His life ended with accusations of treason and as a possible murder…

Let’s find out more.

Born in 1391, he was the youngest son of Henry IV and Mary Bohun. During his younger years, he attended Oxford University and thrived – studying subjects such as medicine, classics and astronomy. It was there that he found a lifelong friend in John Bostock, who went on to become John of Wheathampstead, Abbot of St Albans Abbey (1420-1440; 1452-1465). Here began Humphrey’s connection and loyalty to St Albans Abbey, which he visited many times throughout his life and became the place of his burial.

Duke Humphrey’s brother became King Henry V in 1413 and, with Humphrey’s help, fought to keep control of England’s territory in France. In 1415, at the Battle of Agincourt, Humphrey fought on the front line, helping England to victory. In a dramatic turn of events, Humphrey was seriously wounded and was saved from some attacking Frenchmen by the king himself. Humphrey was a successful commander throughout the war and an outspoken proponent for continued fighting in France, causing trouble within the pro-peace council. War was an expensive business. At one point, Humphrey was tasked with going to London to obtain more funding and yet somehow charmed his way through town, earning the nickname ‘The Good Duke Humphrey’.

Despite his popularity, Humphrey was unlucky in love. His first wife Jacqueline was married to her first husband when they courted and their families were unimpressed. In spite of this, in 1423 they spent Christmas at St Albans Abbey and on the Feast of the Epiphany were honoured with induction into the Fraternity of St Alban. Sadly, the marriage was not to last. When faced with difficulties, Humphrey abandoned his wife, never to see her again.

As soon as the Pope gave permission, Humphrey tried again, this time marrying one of Jacqueline’s ladies in waiting, Eleanor Cobham. She developed a soft spot for the Abbey after praying at the shrine of St Alban during a particularly bad instance of toothache. She was miraculously cured and, in thanks, she sent a golden tooth to be hung at the shrine.

After Henry V died in 1422, his infant son succeeded him as King of England and France. Humphrey became Lord Protector of England. Despite the glamourous title, the position left him with no real power or voice on the council. The decision to exclude Humphrey was, in part, due to his constant struggles with his uncle, Henry Beaufort who claimed Humphrey was too unstable to be regent. It was only after his older brother John died in 1435 that Humphrey finally gained the title of regent and became heir apparent.

The forces at court were unhappy with Humphrey being so close to power, and in 1441 his wife Eleanor and several members of their household were accused of witchcraft and heresy. Eleanor escaped execution for a plot to poison the King, but was made to endure a Game of Thrones-esque punishment. After performing several walks of penance, barefoot and wearing only a thin simple dress, she spent the rest of her life in prison.

Due to his wife’s public downfall, Humphrey was forced into an early retirement, which he spent surrounded by his beloved books at his home in Greenwich. It was during this time that he built his chantry chapel at St Albans Abbey. This could not have been further from the golden years Humphrey imagined when he returned in glory from Agincourt all those years before.

The final straw came when his nephew Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Humphrey was outspoken in his opposition to the marriage and loudly critical of the one of the king’s chief advisers, the Earl of Suffolk. These actions resulted in his exclusion from the Privy Council and earned him a deadly enemy.

Humphrey’s death was sudden and mysterious. We know that in 1447 he was summoned to a parliament at Bury St Edmunds. Before entering the town he was separated from his entourage and went to dinner with his servants. He was then arrested on charges of treason, after which, he became ill and died several days later. His body was put on display (to show that there had been no foul play) and was then escorted to St Albans, where he was laid to rest in his burial chamber on 22 March 1447.

So, was Duke Humphrey murdered by his enemies at court? Contemporary sources do not seem to think so. His friend, Abbot John, claimed he died of a sickness caused by his sudden arrest. However, it is not hard to imagine the motivation behind eliminating Humphrey as heir to throne. There is no hard evidence pointing to foul play in Humphrey’s death, only speculation – and of course Shakespeare. According to Shakespeare (in his plays Henry IV, I, VI) Humphrey was quite clearly poisoned by the Earl of Suffolk and this became fact for many years after.

The location of Duke Humphrey’s tomb was eventually forgotten and it was not discovered again until 1703 when ex-mayor of St Albans and tanner John Gape died. It was whilst the floor of the Shrine Chapel was being excavated to accommodate his grave that the trap door to Humphrey’s burial chamber was discovered. When the lead coffin was opened, they discovered a body that was extraordinarily well preserved in a mysterious liquid. The parish clerks took advantage of the interest in Duke Humphrey and allowed the public down to have a look and take away a small vial of the liquid (for a small fee) for many years.

As time went on, the mysterious liquid slowly disappeared through evaporation and consumption, causing Humphrey’s body to fully decay (despite the rumour that the landlord of the White Hart pub across the road secretly came in at night to top it up as he was getting such good trade from the tourists). Eventually his bones began to be taken, and by the 1870s his tomb was shut to visitors. What does remain are the 114 signature graffiti on the walls of the tomb, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today he is remembered as the loyal (if not politically savvy) son, brother and uncle to three English kings, one of the first promoters of humanist thinking in England and a huge patron of the arts. He was a lifelong benefactor of Oxford University and left the institution his extensive library when he died. The donation was used to found the Bodleian Library, and you can sit in the Duke Humphrey reading room today.

If you want to learn more about Humphrey and his connections to St Albans, make sure you visit the Cathedral and join one of our free Guided Tours!

LML Bloom
Cathedral Guide

The Benedictines  

Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in the sixteenth century, the Benedictines flourished, with many monastic establishments throughout the country and a premier site at St. Albans. But who were the Benedictines, what are their origins and how did they come to be established in England? Here are brief answers to these questions.

The Benedictines, also known as the Black Monks in reference to the colour of the monks’ habits, were monks who took their name from St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in Italy around 480 and died in the mid-sixth century.

Benedict was a devout Italian Christian who became a monk at the age of 20, wishing to withdraw from the world after he visited Rome and was shocked by how immoral life in the Holy City had become. He founded his own monastery in 529 at Monte Cassino in Campania.

Benedict is attributed to the founding of Western Monasticism and composed the ‘Rule of Benedict’, the blueprint for monastic life in the medieval world, covering all that the author deemed necessary for regulation of life within a monastic community, as well as its good government. Thus, in addition to the articulation of the spiritual goals of the monk and the means by which he should strive for them, Benedict carefully planned the occupations of the monks around the core of their existence, the Opus dei, that is, the communal worship which took place at regular intervals of the day (and night).

Around this backbone of the monastic day were structural periods of manual work and lectio divina (sacred reading, or contemplation), careful provision was also made for the regulation of food and drink, clothing and bedding, and the conduct of monks outside the monastery. Every aspect of monastic life was covered and the community was ruled by the abbot, who combined the rolls of father (abba), pastor, and disciplinarian. Benedict’s monastery was a community in itself and, except in unusual circumstances, capable of ruling its own affairs without outside intervention, but was not totally isolated from the outside world.       

Benedict created the rule at a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed in the West, and Europe was being overrun by barbarian tribes, most of them pagans. It looked like Christianity in Europe was finished. Benedictine monasteries, more than anything else, kept the faith alive. Benedict required monks to spend time in reading, thus, they kept theology and culture alive through centuries when almost the entire continent was illiterate.

By the ninth century, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting Scotland, Wales and Ireland, where the Celtic observance prevailed.

Benedict’s Rule was brought to England in 597 by Augustine, a monk who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to preach to and convert the Anglo-Saxons. They arrived in Kent and were received by King Æthelbert who was sufficiently well disposed towards these Christians to allow them to stay: he himself had recently married a Christian, Bertha. Augustine and his forty monks established themselves at Canterbury. As the monks lived the monastic life of prayer and community, they made a good witness of Christianity to their neighbours. In time, King Æthelbert was baptized and Canterbury became the seat of the Church in England.

The Benedictine observance co-existed for some 50 years with other observances of Celtic origin, especially at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, but, in the end, prevailed at the Synod of Whitby in 664 thanks to St. Wilfred of York and Benedict Biscop.

The Venerable Bede (d. 735) of Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries shows through his written History that in the 7th and 8th centuries English monasticism was evolving under the influence of not only Augustine but also the Celts, and was close to maturity. Rather than being insular, monasteries were part of the English Church. The liturgy was the central work.  Community life was disciplined and based upon a moderate interpretation of the Rule of Benedict. Labour was generally of the intellectual or artistic nature. Education was an important and vital apostolate (leadership in reform). Priestly vocations were common among the monks as was missionary work. This form of English Benedictine monasticism is still expressed today.

In the 9th century the Vikings destroyed the monasteries. Monastic life all but ceased.

It was not until the middle of the 10th century that the Viking raids had ceased and monasticism could be resurrected. Remarkably, the rebirth originated entirely from within: the importance of monasticism persisted in the Anglo-Saxon memory. Under the inspiration and patronage of King Edgar, monastic life was restored. The work was led by three clerics: Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury), Æthelwold (Bishop of Winchester), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester). From their principal abbeys of Glastonbury, Abingdon and Ramsey, respectively sprang more than 50 daughter houses, including St. Albans.

The significance of the revival work by Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald cannot be underestimated. All the 10th century monasteries were founded upon the Rule of Benedict. Furthermore, the monastic observance was uniform, because of agreement at synod which was recorded in Æthelwold’s Regularis Concordia which supplemented the Rule of Benedict, detailing an interpretation that encompassed all aspects of monastic life, in particular the liturgy. From this point forward, monasticism in England flourished, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. All monasteries were dissolved and their lands confiscated by the Crown, forcing their Catholic members to flee into exile on the Continent.

Today, as a result of a revival in the 19th century, the Benedictines continue to group themselves in congregations of monasteries, but are much reduced in numbers. The followers of St. Benedict vary much in the way they carry out the thrust of Benedict’s Rule, but in general they retain essential features of their origins- local gatherings of monasteries who seek God in common life of prayer, reading and service.

Michael Graham                                                                                                                                    Library Volunteer

Why Forgiveness Matters

An American friend of mine tells me that when he was about ten, he chastised a minister who had just preached a sermon on the need for our sins to be forgiven. ‘I don’t need to be forgiven’, said my friend’s precocious young self. ‘I’ve never committed any sins; not really.’ The minister fixed my friend with a steely gaze. ‘Perhaps not’, he replied (sensibly avoiding the temptation to lecture my friend on the concept of original sin). ‘But you will.’ My friend reports that the minister turned out, of course, to be right.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We pray this – whether we are ‘sins’ people or ‘trespasses’ people – all the time. But what do we mean? What does it really mean to forgive, and what does it mean to be forgiven?

In May, I’ll be one of the speakers at a workshop in St Albans that aims to explore what forgiveness is, and why it matters. This is part of Why Philosophy Matters, a series of public events organised by the University of Hertfordshire Philosophy Department. ‘Why Forgiveness Matters’ is our second workshop to be co-organised with the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre.

We plan three talks and a discussion of forgiveness between a theologian (Professor Anthony Bash of Durham University), a psychologist (Dr Liz Gulliford of the University of Birmingham) and a philosopher (yours truly). There should be plenty of time for questions and discussion, and it’s all tailored for a general audience. Amongst the issues we hope to explore will be: What, precisely, is forgiveness? Is it ever right to forgive those who are not sorry or repentant, and if so, when? What does the New Testament actually say about forgiveness? How might its message have been changed – or even distorted – by ideas that have arisen since the Bible was written? Does forgiving a wrongdoer amount to condoning or excusing what they have done, and so somehow justifying a wrong? What are the roles of justice, mercy and love in forgiveness? And what should we do if we find that we just cannot forgive? Turning to the psychology of forgiveness, what psychological processes are involved in forgiving someone? Should forgiveness be promoted in psychotherapy, and if so, how? Who gains from it – the one forgiven, the one forgiving, or both? Finally, is it possible to forgive yourself? Does self-forgiveness always amount to letting yourself off the hook, or are there circumstances in which it is just what is needed?

John Lippitt


What is this thing called mindfulness?

As the summer term approaches, the teacher of our Mindfulness Course, Caroline Waterstone, reflects on what mindfulness is, and how you might benefit.

‘What is this ‘thing’ called mindfulness?! The man who brought it into the mainstream, so that it is now widely practised, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes it thus: it is paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, moment to moment, and non-judgementally.

How often do we, you and I, live our lives on automatic pilot? It’s great for driving cars and making our usual meals, but not so helpful when that automatic pilot runs us: the tapes of our stories of past failures and fears about the future. I have noticed during years of practising mindfulness that the skill is learning to notice that the tape is about to start and then choosing to switch it off, before it runs away with itself and me! So when your boss, junior colleague, teenage child, spouse, mother or whoever it is that presses your buttons is about to start their tape, you can choose not to play yours and in that moment change is already made.

How do we learn this? By allowing objectivity, a wider perspective from which to meet all that occurs in our lives, people and situations, taking time to pause, reflect and then choose how to act in the best interests of the situation.

By practising tuning into our bodies and learning to acknowledge what’s really going on in our minds and hearts, moment to moment, we can choose to make skilful choices, without reacting out of our old tired stories. We can learn to re-write our scripts to allow us to respond more creatively in the many situations we find ourselves in day to day.

And if we can change how we react to others, how great would it be if we could treat ourselves with greater kindness and compassion, responding to our own needs with humour, patience and courage.’

If you are interested in joining a Mindfulness Course at St Albans Cathedral, email for an application form.

Faith and Science: our first forum

Earlier this month, the Revd Dr Tim Bull, Diocesan Director Ministry, who holds PhDs in both theology and computer science, led the first of our Open Forum on Faith and Science events.  In this post, he looks back over the evening.

Tim writes:  Canon Tim Bull 2014

Around a dozen of us gathered at the Cathedral Library one evening early in March for the Study Centre’s first science and faith discussion evening. We were quite a diverse bunch: from an A-Level student, to an Ordinand training for ministry in the Church of England, to a retired scientist. Some of us were lifelong Christian believers, while others were interested sceptics.


The focus of the evening was: What are scientists and theologians really saying when they claim something is true?

We began by looking at a picture from a bubble chamber. This remarkable piece of scientific equipment is used by physicists to look at subatomic particles — although of course it doesn’t “look” at these particles at all. It merely shows the presence of an electrically charged something moving through the superheated transparent liquid. The best we can do is find indirect evidence for the existence of a new particle such as the Higgs Boson. So why do the scientists believe they have found something new?

At a more elementary level, when school pupils investigate the extension of a spring loaded with weights and then plot the points on a graph, they find that these lie on a more-or-less straight line. This is Hooke’s Law. However, these points could equally well be connected by a wiggly line. So why should the pupils believe the line is straight?

Both these examples illustrated how scientific claims are at best good – albeit extraordinarily good – guesses at what nature is really like. There is always the possibility that they may be wrong. This was the thinking behind the philosophy of both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.

So if scientific theories are only approximations to the true nature of the world, what about the claims made by theologians? Do they fare better or worse?

Faith and Science forum

We then moved on to consider some claims made in the Bible. These were taken from a variety of places and were of different genres. First we considered the words from Proverbs:

Better a dry crust with peace and quiet

than a house full of feasting, with strife. (Proverbs 17:1)

We agreed that this was, in some sense, as true a scientific statement as Hooke’s Law. If an experiment was done, it would likely show that peace and quiet is more strongly correlated with personal wellbeing, than is the quantity of food on the table.

A second verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans proved more problematic.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

How would we know whether or not that statement is true? What would it even mean for it to be true? There were particular difficulties around the definition of some of these statements. What exactly do we mean by “God”, “sinners” and “Christ”? We agreed that it might be possible to conduct an experiment to ascertain to what degree people who believed this statement and endeavoured to live by it were happier than those who didn’t. But that wouldn’t prove anything about the validity of the statement, merely about its effect on believers. It might be false, but equally it might be true. There’s no obvious way of deciding one way or another.

Thus, if scientific statements are at best approximations to the truth, theological statements, by being difficult to pin down, also escape easy categorisation as “true” or “false”. In other words, statements in both fields are in principle undecidable but for very different reasons.

We finished our evening together by asking whether this meant that science and faith were at loggerheads, simply talking about different domains, or could be reconciled as describing different aspects of one common reality. Unsurprisingly, given our backgrounds, we differed on this point. However, as the lecturer, I had the last word. So I concluded by explaining how, for me, my faith was enhanced by an understanding of science, and my science was enriched by an appreciation of the Divine.

You can find out more about Tim’s work by following him on Twitter.  His next Faith and Science Forum on Thursday 23 June will look at farming and genetic technology, and is open to all.  Book online or just turn up.  Places are free for students.