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 studycentre@stalbanscathedral.org 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.

Reading Together: The Cathedral Library Book Groups

On the second Tuesday of each month, Book Groups meet at 2.30 and 6pm in the Cathedral Library.  Open to all, their aim is to discuss novels which may have particular resonance for a Christian audience.  On the blog, Anne Stockley, one of the regulars from the 6pm group presents her thoughts on the group and on the book we read for Lent, a recommendation from the Canon Chancellor, the Revd Dr Kevin Walton.

Anne writes:

I joined the Cathedral Library Book Group in July when a new job in St Albans meant I could get to the 6pm meeting.  I had seen on a service sheet that the book for July was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald which I had read at Easter and loved, so this seemed a good omen.  Through the reading group, I have discovered Barbara Pym and read several authors I would not have come across otherwise including Gerd Theissen who wrote The Shadow of the Galilean, the book choice for March.


Gerd Theissen is a German theologian and academic but The Shadow of the Galilean takes the form of a novel.  It is narrated by Andreas, a Jewish trader in fruit and grain, who is ‘obliged’ (after being caught up in a demonstration against Pilate) to report to the Romans on the Essene movement, John the Baptist, and subsequently on Jesus.

Andreas never meets Jesus although he comes into contact with characters who know of him such as the toll collector who replaced Levi.  Through these reports, Andreas acquires his knowledge of Jesus and the reader learns about the social and political background of the time.  We learn for example of young men leaving home because they are dissatisfied with land owners and with unemployment.

The narrative of Andreas’s search for these characters is interrupted by letters from the author to a Dr Kratzinger which deal with such issues as narrative framework, whether it is appropriate to invent conversations between historical figures and whether readers will take Theissen’s work as fact not fiction.  The members of the reading group as a whole disliked the letters and found them irritating.  They felt forced, as if Theissen was trying to preempt criticism of his novel, and I must admit to skimming them in places.

The Shadow of the Galilean

I very much liked the character of Metilius, the Roman officer who Andreas reports to.  As the novel progresses, Metilius learns about Judaism and discusses his questions with Andreas.  This could feel a little forced at times but enables the reader to learn something of the Jewish faith as at the time of Jesus.  At the end of the novel, Metilius himself has started to attend the temple and is attracted to the Jewish belief in one God.

The language of the prayers that Andreas recites is quite beautiful in places and several members of the reading group found the final chapter ‘The man: A Dream’ extremely moving.  Andreas dreams of Jesus and wakes with a sense of peace.  Theissen says:  “The rule of the beasts could not last forever.  Some time the man had to appear, the true man.  And everyone would recognise in him the features of Jesus”.

For me, the novel was a brave attempt at fictionalising not so much the life of Jesus but the backdrop to his life – the social, political and religious situation and the details of people’s daily lives.  Like other books we have read for the group, it was not liked by the whole group but that makes for a good discussion.  I would recommend the reading group to anybody interested in reading a range of books and discussing them in a friendly environment.

Studying Theology and Exploring Vocation

Our Certificate Programme at St Albans Cathedral is often attended by people who are exploring vocation, whether as Christians in general, or to particular ministries, whether lay or ordained, from various denominations.  Studying theology is not only a required part of investigating particular vocations, it is a brilliant way for anyone to think in a rational and informed way about their faith and what God is calling them to do.

Among our students on the Introduction to the Old Testament module this term are two young people on different Roots internship programmes in the Diocese, who are giving a year to exploring possible calling to the priesthood.  In this post, Ben Scott and Vanessa Hadley-Spencer explain what they feel the Study Centre programme and studying theology are bringing to their year.

Vanessa writes…

Vanessa  I am currently a member of the newly formed Root group in Hatfield working part-time in the chaplaincy at the University of Hertfordshire and with the parish of St John Bishop’s Hatfield to further explore my vocation to ordained ministry.

I began studying at the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre as the theological study element of my internship year.  Studying whilst exploring vocation is exciting.  It brings a depth to the things you are experiencing whilst on placement and helps you to better understand the theology behind the way things are done.

It is a good idea to study if you are considering vocation as it allows you to explore whether you would be able to complete further theological study as part of training for ministry. The SACT courses have been the first form of theological study I have undertaken and they have provided an accessible basis to start from.  I have found the courses have introduced me to the topics and have left me keen to learn and explore more.

Gaining a deeper understanding of scripture has been really useful whilst I have had to prepare talks for use in the university chaplaincy and in the parish. Having gained an overview of the context of the New Testament in the first term, I have a better foundation to draw upon in my preparations and now read scripture with a deeper understanding and background.

Managing time whilst on a busy placement is essential but I have found that I have been able to fully participate in the courses as they take place in the evening and don’t require a large amount of preparation.

Contact Vanessa at v.hadley-spencer@herts.ac.uk if you would like to find out more about her work with the Root group.

Ben writes…

BenI am currently undertaking a year placement on the long-established Root Scheme at St Albans Cathedral, while I explore my vocation to the priesthood.  As part of this scheme we are required to take certain SACT modules, which for me so far have been a term on the Introduction to the Old Testament and a term on the New Testament; next term I will be taking the Introduction to Christian Doctrine.  I have also attended various Study Days and Talks offered by the Study Centre, and I have been really grateful to be able to access these opportunities.

This is the first time I have studied theology and have found it really interesting.  I’ve found the modules to be offered at an accessible undergraduate level.  Studying has really helped in my various activities at the Abbey to provide a grounding and understanding for what I am communicating to others.  Theological education is the foundation of training for ministry and therefore a really crucial part of the Root scheme, as it begins to prepare you for the demands of this.  It has certainly left me excited by the prospect of studying topics in greater detail.  If one is accepted for training this will involve completing a degree in theology so that the candidate is prepared to engage with the church in a changing world and make the Church’s missional activities new and relevant.

Follow Ben on Twitter to find out more about his work at St Albans Cathedral.

If you are exploring vocation of any sort, the Study Centre may be able to advise which courses would be appropriate for you.  For more information about considering vocation within the Church of England in the Diocese of St Albans, see their website.

Ancient Languages in Retirement

As the Church Times reports that Latin learning is on the rise in cathedrals, Roy Baker, a regular student at our language courses, reflects on the opportunities St Albans Cathedral offers in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and considers why he dedicates so much of his retirement to working on ancient languages.  Roy writes:

There are many things you can do in retirement. Learning ancient languages is one of them.  If you have ever wanted to read what Saint Paul actually wrote then it’s time to learn New Testament Greek.  If you ever wanted to read Saint Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible or the words Cicero spoke in the Roman Senate you can learn Latin.  If you ever wanted to read Genesis in the original you should learn Biblical Hebrew.  You can do all of these languages at the Cathedral Study Centre in Saint Albans and have great fun meeting interesting people.

When I retired I started to learn New Testament Greek with Dr Brendan Devitt in Hitchin.  After one year Brendan encouraged us to form a student reading group – five years later this is still running.  We meet once a month in Hitchin and, at the moment, are reading and discussing The Acts of the Apostles.  We are on chapter 12 – so there’s still plenty to go – it is fascinating.  You can learn NT Greek with Brendan in Hitchin or do NT Greek for Beginners with Dr Clare Coombe in St Albans.  If you already read NT Greek you can join the reading group Clare runs in the Cathedral library, with Dr Kevin Walton.  There is also a course which runs for a whole fortnight in the summer.

I really enjoy going to Dr Coombe’s Latin classes.  I had forgotten the Latin I did as a child but it is slowly coming back to me. The other people in the group are interesting, amusing and supportive of one another.  It’s very stimulating and enjoyable – a good night out!! Clare runs Latin courses for all levels of ability.  Recently we read extracts from an ancient novel by Apuleius – we were reading a truly horrifying story about the witches of Thessaly. I think Clare intends to run a course to help us all read Apuleius next Autumn – it’ll be really good.

Grk Latin books

However, the thing I love most of all is Biblical Hebrew.  Ancient languages vary in degrees of difficulty.  Latin is relatively straightforward because lots of English words are are derived from it so vocabulary is easy to remember.  Ancient Greek is more difficult at first, because of the different alphabet, but, once you’ve got over that, vocabulary is quite easy – so many modern English words come from Greek.  At the beginning I found Hebrew very difficult.  The alphabet is more difficult to remember than the Greek alphabet and there are vowel signs and accent signs above and below the words.  This can be quite confusing – but, with patience and perseverance, you soon see how beautiful it looks and, when spoken, how mysteriously euphonious it is. It’s just lovely.

Canon Kevin Walton teaches Hebrew – he is very patient and has a good sense of humour which really helps – Hebrew can be a bit exasperating at first!!  Kevin runs courses in Biblical Hebrew and is going to run a reading group for those of us who are a bit more advanced.  We are going to read Ruth, because it’s one of the shortest books in the Bible and we have a good chance of finishing it before death or dementia or both!!


Learning ancient languages is fun – you don’t have to be particularly intelligent but you need to be highly organised.  I looked at my daily routine and altered it to make sure I do a minimum of ten minutes’ Latin, ten minutes’ Greek, and ten minutes’ Hebrew every day – no matter what is happening in my life. Then I do one hour of each language every week – I find I have to actually write this in my diary otherwise it just doesn’t get done.

If you want to learn ancient languages the best thing to do is join a class or study group. On the other hand – if you have mobility problems (or are severely antisocial and hate other people) – you can study on your own.  I think Get Started in Latin by G.D.A. Sharpley in the Teach Yourself series is absolutely excellent for solo beginners.  It’s clearly written and jargon-free which is helpful if your grasp of grammatical terms is weak or non-existent. It comes with a CD which tells a love story involving monks, Vikings and a very interesting mule.  If you want to do New Testament Greek then The Elements of New Testament Greek by Jeremy Duff is really good – it is very clearly written and quite amusing in places which has to be a first for a grammar book!  There is an accompanying CD, which I liked, but some people find irritating because the speaker has an American accent – a very pleasant American accent!  Doing Hebrew on your own could be very, very daunting – you could try Learn Biblical Hebrew by John H. Dobson which comes with a CD – just don’t believe what it says on the cover.

20160222_094835 (2)

I think you have to have some kind of long-term target in mind – otherwise why bother with all this clever stuff? – just go down the pub, watch Sky Sports and moan about immigration or Europe or both.  I live in a village which is a forty minute drive from both Hitchin and St Albans.  I’m 68 this year and my aim is to start a Latin study and reading group in my village – then later start NT Greek and Hebrew groups.  I have not told my unsuspecting fellow villagers yet – but I’m sure they’ll be delighted when I do!!  I reckon that in 5 years’ time I won’t enjoy driving in the dark to Hitchin or St Albans so it’ll be easier if I form groups in the village I can walk to – then go to the pub afterwards and…..

It’s very enjoyable studying in retirement but you have to have a target – my target is to start the  FINAL post-modern Renaissance in rural Bedfordshire.  Watch this space.

Christianity and Inner Life

On Saturday 6 February, Mark Vernon, writer, teacher, broadcaster, and psychotherapist, will be leading a Study Day at St Albans Cathedral exploring the relationship between Christianity and psychotherapy, a topic about which he has written and spoken on the radio.  Here he shares some thoughts about mindfulness, meditation, and psychotherapy, which relate to the areas he will explore on Saturday, when he will integrate considerations about psychotherapy with discussion of the sayings of Jesus as practical wisdom and the psychology developed by the desert fathers:

Mindfulness is rarely out of the news right now, and one theme that is doing the rounds is whether it can be dangerous. Projects such as The Dark Night are investigating the adverse effects of practice. Alternatively, the research upon which the efficacy of mindfulness rests is being questioned: does the research conceal as much as what it illuminates about the impact of meditation?

As a committed practitioner myself, I suspect there’s something important to understand in this examination. And I think insights from psychotherapy greatly assist. To summarize what I think’s going on: there’s a growing realization that mindfulness is a powerful tool but what is harder is to accept that this very power can mean things go wrong. Psychotherapy helps because it offers a complementary set of tools for finding a way through what meditation brings up.

Consider one common experience when individuals start meditating, one with which they can then struggle for a long time. It’s the basic business of sustaining a practice. Often, I suspect, there’s an initial buzz when beginning that, at first, keeps an individual returning to the cushion. There’s a “quick win” of peacefulness that comes with even a few minutes of silence in the midst of a life that is, otherwise, mostly distracted. That sense of calmness discovered is likely to last throughout an introductory course: research shows that attrition rates at this stage are low. But after the 8 weeks, the going gets tough. So what’s going on?

Psychodynamic thinking suggests that the practice might be putting an individual in touch with what’s known as their “secure base”. And it may be beginning to highlight the possibility that this is not quite so resilient as an individual had taken it to be. Developmental psychology assists here.

Research such as that based upon John Bowlby’s attachment theory shows that we form a sense of security within ourselves that arises from the experience we had in our earliest months and years. Feeling grounded is feeling that our bodily sense of things can basically be trusted. Feeling restless, detached, agitated when trying to sit still is perhaps an echo of our early experience. It has left us with a barely conscious feeling that, in our vulnerability then, we did not feel so well held. It’s the kind of fundamental, somatic insight into our experience of life that mindfulness unveils. It’s a dimension that, I suspect, most people will encounter when they try to practice.

A mindfulness teacher will, of course, encourage you to sit with it, perhaps stressing that shorter periods of practice time are better than attempting unsustainable marathons. But psychotherapy can offer complementary help. In a way, to be in therapy is to meet with someone who can hold things for you whilst you, first, become more aware of the deep insecurities and, second, learn to relate to them differently. Sitting, in time, becomes more possible too. It’s one area in which mindfulness and psychotherapy can work together.

A second area concerns another key issue in mindfulness practice, that of being kind to yourself. The cultivation of compassion is so crucial because, again, mindfulness is so powerful. It can highlight not only your restlessness but also your inner judge – the voice that relentlessly criticizes and picks holes in others. A mindfulness teacher will stress that compassion directed at yourself and others is crucial if this dynamic is to be negotiated. They are right.

But psychotherapy offers possibly invaluable assistance here too. In psychodynamic terms what is being encountered is the human tendency to project difficult feelings into oneself and onto others. It’s a pervasive tendency that goes on all day everyday, such as when we spontaneously and instantly make judgments about others. The stillness of mindfulness brings up the fact that these projections are so widespread in one’s life. That can be deeply disturbing to observe.

Psychodynamic therapy helps because it is an approach that works directly with projections, in the form of transference. Therapists are trained at not getting sucked into them, but rather staying with, thinking about, and working through them. It’s compassion by another name. Therapy can, therefore, greatly facilitate nurturing your own compassion too.

A third critical issue in mindfulness practice has to do with integration. One of the risks with discovering the potential peace offered by meditation is that you attempt to cultivate that calmness as an escape from everyday life. This is very different from cultivating it as a place to which you can bring the hassles of everyday life. Once more, it’s a tricky business to get right, particularly because many of the conceptual ideas in the mindfulness lexicon – such as emptiness, stillness, allowing – can seem straightforward enough when, in actuality, they are tremendously subtle.

Psychotherapy refers to this third tendency as splitting, the inadvertent bid to keep a good experience of peace away from nastier feelings of discontent. It’s something everyone does to some degree: sometimes it’s necessary. The danger in mindfulness is that a practice beds down as “the moment in the day when I can relax”, or as a kind of peace-battery that’s charged up in the morning in the hope that its effect will last the day.

Think of it like this. There’s a difference between safety and safeness. Safety is when you feel protected from the world, under the duvet, as it were. Safeness is when you feel resourced to be able to face the world – to be open to it without being overwhelmed by it. Psychotherapy can help to discern the difference, with the result that mindfulness becomes a support that enables you to enter the darkness, rather than using it to retreat into an ultimately false source of imagined perpetual light.

So mindfulness is powerful. That’s why it’s been a core practice in spiritual and therapeutic paths for millennia. But I suspect that many, perhaps most, modern day practitioners need modern day help too. My suggestion is that psychodynamic psychotherapy can assist.

Saxa Loquuntur: The Stones Are Talking

On January 16th, Peter Kruschwitz, Professor of Classics at the University of Reading, visited us to lead a study day on the topic of the Latin inscriptions of St Albans Cathedral.  Here is his report:

Wouldn’t it be exciting if a building as old and magnificent as the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban could share with us some of the people and events that it has encountered during its history of almost one thousand years?

If it could tell us something about its worshippers, its visitors, and the events that took place in it?

Would we be prepared to listen?  What would we want to know?  What would we want to hear from a building so full of memories?

There are many ways in which one can approach an organic, ever-changing place of human activity and worship such as St Albans, of course.

A particularly exciting way, to my mind, however, is to approach the Cathedral and its history via its wide range of Latin inscriptions.

From the splendid painted memorials on the Cathedral walls to the Latin labels on stained glass windows, from the monumental inscriptions surrounding the windows in the Cathedral’s transepts to the graffiti on the nave’s columns:  past generations have left their traces in unique ways, and they invite us to engage with them across time and language barriers.

An even more exciting way, of course, is to be joined on my discovery tour by a group of hugely engaging and lively students of the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre, who had come to hear more about Latin inscriptions, their uses, the way in which professional epigraphists study them – and to get an idea of the ways in which our past reaches out to us through their monuments and scribblings.


Over three interactive sessions, we not only managed to access and study the wide-ranging material of Latin inscriptions in St Albans first-hand, but also to discuss questions of memory (and forgetting) in inscriptions, modes of self-representation (as well as the representation of others) through monumental writing, context and typology, and, of course, issues of documentation and preservation.



Latin being a timeless language of learning, social prestige, and the Christian Church, our focus on the otherwise perhaps rather elusive Latin inscriptions allowed us to access and indulge in some of the most extraordinary and talkative texts preserved in St Albans Cathedral.

Here is just a small selection of the truly astounding pieces that we got to see, to study, and to discuss:

  1. Late medieval graffito, inscribed on a column in a carefully executed book hand:


Samson ludificatus sit.

‘May Samson be mocked.’

It is an appealing thought that this neat little piece refers to the 1323 collapse of parts of the south side of the nave.

The biblical Samson famously died when he grasped two pillars of the temple of Dagon and then wrecked it by pulling them down.

Considering the colossal dimensions and diameter of the columns in the main nave, the writer seems to have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet for Samson to pick up.

  1. Bilingual funerary inscription for Alice Ramridge (d. 1710)


Condita quae iacet hoc | Mulier sub marmore, uixit | Uxor, Amica, parens | Candida, Iusta, ­pia, | Hei mihi, quod Vivo, quo | Non licet Ire Marito. | Mors sibi Vita Fuit, Vivere Morsq(ue) Mihi.

‘The woman who lies buried under this stone, in her life was a wife, friend, and parent, honest, just, and pious.  Woe is me that I now live where my husband cannot go.  Her death meant life for her, and still to be alive means death for me.’

A poem in two elegiac couplets, each metrical line of which has been laid out over two inscribed lines.  The poem draws heavily on the language and ideology of ancient Latin verse inscriptions, yet translates them into a Christian sphere.

The inscription continues in English (and was presumably written in several instalments), with a first line inscribed in a field that once contained a brass:

Here Lyes | Alice the wife of Thomas | Ramridge who departed | this life Feb(ruary) ye 18th 1710 | in the 51st year of her | age | and also James her | first born who dyed | Feb(ruary) ye 14th 1703 in the | 20th year of his age. | She left 4 children | viz. Eliz(abeth), Alice, Will, | and Ann as also M(ayor) | Alderman Ramridge: died | in 1717/8 in ye 55th year | of his age.

The unusual indication of the date 1717/8 reflects the use of both the Julian and the Gregorian calendar.

  1. Funerary inscription for John Jones: Welshman, teacher, and poet with an attitude (d. 1686)


H(ic) s(itus) e(st) | Iohannes Iones Wallus | Scholae S(ancti) Albanensis Hypodidascalus liberalissimus | Qui | Dum Eccl(es)ia haec A(nn)o 1684 publicis impensis | Instauraretur | Exsculpsit sibi quoq(ue)  Monumentum | Quod inscripsit | Fanum S(ancti) Albani, | Poema Carmine Heroico | Hoc Lapide, hac etiam Aede, Aevoq(ue) perennius omni.| Obiit A(nno) 1686.

 ‘Here lies John Jones, a Welshman, highly educated assistant master of St. Albans School, who, while this church was restored at public expense in the year 1684, carved out a monument to himself as well, which he gave the title ‘The Shrine of St. Albans: A Poem in Dactylic Hexametres’, which will outlast this stone, even this church, and all age. He died in the year 1686.’

A remarkably confident piece, referring to a (little-read) poem produced by John Johnes and drawing on an idea expressed by the Roman poet Horace, who also thought of his poetry as aere perennius, ‘more lasting than bronze’.

  1. Commemorative inscription on the parapet above the west entrance


Propter vicinii (!) situm et amplum hujus templi spatium ad magnam confluentium | multitudinem excipiendam opportunum temporibus R(egis) Henrici VIII, et denuo | R(eginae) Elizabethae, peste Londini saeviente, conventus juridicus hic agebatur.

‘Due to its neighbouring location as well as the ample space of this house of God, suitable to receive a great number of people gathering, the judicial assizes were held here in the times of King Henry VIII, and then again in the times of Queen Elizabeth when the plague was raging in London.’

A remarkable commemoration, not least considering how St Albans Abbey was affected by the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

  1. Inscription of the St Alban shrine table

H(ic) p(ositum) | Sancti Albani | Britan(niae) protomart(yro) | sub Dioclet(iano) passi | feretrum.

‘Here stood the shrine [or rather: reliquary] of Saint Alban, first martyr of Britain, who suffered under Diocletian.’

An inscription composed by H. J. B. Nicholson, rector of St Albans 1835–66, in 1854 or 1855, to replace an older Latin inscription that had become worn and was deemed factually incorrect (still preserved on the obverse of this slab).  It is inserted in what is now known as the ‘Altar of the Persecuted’ in the north transept of St Albans Cathedral.

The shrine table dates back to the 12th century, when the Purbeck marble slab stood elevated on pillars at the site of the shrine of St Alban.

My reflections on the day would be incomplete, however, without mention of the inscription that helped us to embark on our intellectual journey:


Quin Terram leviter premis: Sacra est, Amice. | Sub hoc marmore Componitur | Exemplar aevi fugacis non praetereundum | Martha Browne | Matthaei Crutchfield civis & salar(ii) Lond(inii) Ianaeq(ue) | obsequentissima filia, | Vxor autem Charissima | Iohannis Browne med(icinae) Doctoris de Lond(inio) | Hoc in oppido nati et hac in aede renati. | At qualis Faemina | Divinis Animi corporisq(ue) ditata bonis | Suavissimis moribus ingenio peracuto | Piam probam jucundam cogites Ipsissima est mea. | Uni placere studuit et Deo placuit et omnibus. | quae Marthae primogenitae Superstes | Heic juxta consepultae | Anno post nuptias altero fere exacto | Anno Salutis MDCLXVIII Aetat(is) XXIX inevnte | Tergeminis pariundis cum Incubuisset fortiter | Nono post die Februar(ii) VII (Proh dolor!) occubuit. | Ex quibus binos (faxit Deus!) vitales chara pignora | Desiderio sui leniendo post se reliquit. | Abi Lector vitae sic institutae si pennas praecideris: | Virtus tua celari ne possit vel Lapides Loquentur. | Chara fugis nec te lachrymae flexere Parentis | Nec dulces Nati nec pia Cura Viri. | Quippe vocat Christus. Proles Tibi bina praeivit | Nos sumus haud longe Turba futura comes. | Haec Justa defunctae persolvit Maritus maerens JB.

In the translation of Patrick O’Keeffe (whose booklet on the ‘Latin Inscriptions in St Albans Abbey’ I hope to be able to replace in due course):

‘Be sure thou tread lightly on the ground, friend, it is sacred.  Beneath this marble lies the unsurpassable example of a fleeting age, Martha Browne, the most obedient daughter of Matthew Crutchfield, citizen and salter of London, and of Jane.  She was also the dearest wife of John Browne, doctor of medicine of London, who was born in this town and reborn in this house.  But what a woman was she, endowed with divine qualities of mind and body, with a most agreeable personality and a very sharp intellect.  She would give you the impression of being pious, morally upright and sweet-natured, and her very self is mine.  She studied how to please one man and pleased God and all men. She survived her first born child, Martha, who is buried nearby with her.  Near the end of the second year after her marriage, as the year of salvation 1668 and the twenty-night year of her age were beginning, she gave birth to triplets, but after bravely enduring her lying in, nine days later on 8th February (Oh the sorrow) she died.  Of the children she left behind her two living (God shall do it), dear pledges to assuage our grief for herself.  Go away reader, if thou hast clipped the wings of a life lived on such principles.  Lest thy virtue could be concealed the very stones shall speak.  Dear one, thou flee’st away, nor have the tears of a parent turned thee back, nor thy sweet sons, nor the pious care of thy husband.  For Christ is calling and two of thy offspring have gone before.  We are not far behind, who shall be the throng of thy companions.  A grieving husband paid this just tribute to the dead.  JB’

Lapides Loquentur, ‘the very stones shall speak’ – of achievements, concerns, sorrows, hopes, ideals, and desires of past generations.

Granted, they may not necessarily represent the voice and frame of mind of the people who are commemorated in them, for inscriptions, even if they pretend to do otherwise, always speak on behalf of the living, not the dead – and they speak to the living (and those still to live).

But inscriptions are indicative of the voice of the people who took care of their production as well as the society in which they lived.

It is a privilege to be able to listen to them – with compassion, but also with sufficiently critical distance.