Ending the U.K. Trip in Christchurch

My last day in England was spent in and around Oxford’s magnificent Christchurch College and Cathedral.

To whet my appetite, we started the day at the Ashmolean museum. The airy, multi-story building has a bit of everything, from a full-size Egyptian royal mummy and burial chamber almost 3,000 years old; to the ceremonial robe of Powhatan (father of Pocahontas), the powerful Virginia Indian chief who greeted the English when they first settled Jamestown in 1607; to the robes and sandals of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”); to a case with gloves actually worn by, from left to right, Henry VIII, Queen Anne, and Queen Elizabeth I.

When I exclaimed that surely this case must be among the most treasured objects in the world, my guide unself-consciously replied “Oh, we have much cooler stuff than that in here.”

And so it was on to Christchurch, where the entire trip came together.

Notable Christchurch College alumni include William Penn; John Locke; John Wesley; King Edward VII; 13 British prime ministers, including William Gladstone, Robert Peel and Anthony Eden; Lewis Carroll; and the Winklevoss twins (co-founders of Facebook). But let’s start at the beginning.

Named after the Saxon patron saint of Oxford, St. Frideswide was established as a priory of Augustinians in 1122 under England’s Henry I.

Remember King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and other vast church holdings)? In 1525 Henry’s ultimate fixer Cardinal Wolsey grabbed St. Frideswide’s and adjacent religious lands so that he could found a new Oxford college, modestly called Cardinal College. He even had Henry’s personal carpenter construct the ornate roof.

After Wolsey fell from power in 1530, King Henry VIII took over the new college, renaming it (again, modestly) King Henry’s College. The surviving portion of the old church became the chapel for the new college; after Henry broke from Rome and organized the Church of England, he renamed the college Christ Church, and grew the chapel into the area’s cathedral, also called Christ Church.

Its nave, choir, main tower and transepts are late Norman. It’s one of England’s smaller cathedrals, and if a huge stone building can be called cozy, this one is, especially when compared to the stupendous Canterbury Cathedral.

But the story doesn’t end there.

King Charles I made Oxford his military headquarters during English Civil War, and convened his Parliament in the Cathedral in 1645. Still later, when the Puritans stormed through southern England, they smashed as many of Christchurch Cathedral’s stained glass windows as they could reach. I saw the clear windows that replaced the vandalized ones—with the original small colored ones way on top, where Puritan rage couldn’t reach.

And in between Henry and Charles?

Back out on Broad Street, a yellow-brick X marks the place where Thomas Cranmer (legal architect of the Church of England) and other Reformation leaders were executed by the Catholic government of Queen Mary in 1556. A hundred yards away is a memorial to the martyrs erected by the post-Mary Protestant government.

The thing about history is that they’re always making
more of it.

Especially in England. Here’s graffiti near the Christchurch College dining hall–“only” 1.5 centuries old. It was a protest against Prime Minister Peel’s proposal to accept Catholics as full citizens.

Posted in architecture, English history, medieval history | Tagged , , ,

A Thousand Years of Oxford

Canterbury to London to Oxford by westbound trains, and here I am in another ancient English city.

The Saxons settled it due to its strategic location on the Thames (oxford=a place where oxen could ford the river). A century later those pesky Vikings burned Oxford, and kept raiding other parts of England, so in 1002 English King Aethelred ordered the killing of all Viking men in Oxford. The back-and-forth destruction continued until the Norman invasion of 1066.

I’m staying in an apartment about 3 minutes from the Thames, steps away from Folly Bridge. It’s named after the 13th-century philosopher-theologian-linguist Roger Bacon, who had a workshop nearby. Locals thought the genius scientist (and philosopher and statesman and jurist) a kook, and so called the bridge nearby “folly.”

I spent the day touring Oxford University, which involves touring the individual colleges. These semi-autonomous colleges were founded at various times starting in 1096; business really picked up when English students were banned from the University of Paris in 1167.


Each college includes a chapel, dining hall, student residence quads, and an enormous green area. Apparently each college spends a fortune keeping up their English gardens and lawns, and are quite competitive about it. In fact, it seems these colleges are competitive in every way possible—croquet, rowing, and of course drinking.

In New College (14th century), one side of the enormous lawn is bounded by what’s left of the original city wall. In Merton College, the chapel is an astonishing achievement of at least six different carved woods.


I also went to some of Oxford’s more famous buildings—the Bodleian library, the Ashmolean museum, the Museum of the History of Science. In the latter I saw astrolabes, Chinese perfume clocks (different incenses burn at different rates–it’s jasmine o’clock!), Einstein’s calculation of the size of the universe (on a chalkboard stolen by students when he was here in 1931), and a then-newfangled camera used by Lawrence of Arabia.


The streets and alleyways here are just a riot of medieval and Renaissance buildings, all Gothic arches, yellow sandstone and gargoyles with not-so-hidden meanings–all seasoned with the occasional 300-year-old pub.

Today students at Oxford are expected to work harder than their aristocratic ancestors, who mostly sat around and even had servants carry their books. They dress in modern- day clothes—except when taking their annual exams, when they’re expected to wear their robes. There are even periodic oral exams when mentors grill students in front of their peers. There are, blessedly, no recorded instances of complaints of micro-aggressions or lack of safe spaces. These are, after all, descendants of the people who kicked Viking butt.

Posted in architecture, English history, medieval history | Tagged , ,

Magna Carta, Sandwich, & the Puritans

The town of Sandwich was already 300 years old when Richard The Lionheart came through on his way back from the Third Crusade in 1194.  

A half-hour east of Canterbury, it was one of southeastern England’s Cinque (Five) Ports designated by King Edward I in 1155. In exchange for annually providing ships and sailors for the country’s defense (there wasn’t yet a Royal Navy), the five ports were given their own powers of taxation, law enforcement, and other commercial privileges.

I walked through the town with two volunteers from the very active local historical society.  The town had recently received a grant to renovate the local museum, so it was closed amid an uproar of construction noise when i arrived. By prior arrangement, however, they opened it for my guides so I could see their crown jewels, as it were: their copy (one of 6 in the world) of the Magna Carta and the contemporaneous (and equally important) Charter of the Forest.

 The two documents were in temporary bullet-proof cases askew in a corner of the room. Amid electrical cords, knee pads, and drafting tools, I gawked. 1215. A king blackmailed into sharing power with non-royal nobles. A king binding future kings to his commitments. Habeas Corpus and trial by jury.

Surrounded by workmen intent on finishing the building in time for the gala opening just a week away.

Before I left, I was shown the town’s gilt mace and scepter, in use since the 15th century.  The museum director even let me hold them. I let her lift them out of the box just laying on the floor that she had opened.

The symbols of royal authority, granted to very important locals, now used in ceremony one day a year. Except for today, when they were tenderly handed to a foreign visitor who was appropriately blown away.

They really wanted us out from underfoot, so we hustled out of the almost-finished museum without–oh wait, you just HAVE to see this, the museum director said. Lying on the floor on a pillow under a chair was a life-size stone head sculpted in Roman times. It had been found in the local river twenty years ago by two boys. Upon bringing it home they were promptly scolded for taking something that wasn’t theirs, and told to put it back. It found its way into private hands, where it stayed until the Museum re-opening was announced. The owner then unexpectedly stepped forth and donated it, where it will be displayed.

How important was Sandwich? Back in the day, even Queen Elizabeth I visited. In the old town hall, I saw the large stained glass window commemorating her visit, her face clearly recognizable. In fact, the Mayor kneeling at her feet is holding the same gilt rods I had held earlier that day.

The old town hall had also been used as a courtroom. The 16th-century furniture was still in place, just as shown in a large contemporary painting that hung opposite the window.

Walking through town, we visited several churches. The recurring theme here was the battle between sate-sponsored Catholicism and Protestantism, as monarchs such as Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth whipsawed the country between Roman and Reformation demands. It wasn’t hard to remember seeing Tyndale’s illicit Bible just 48 hours ago in Canterbury Cathedral’s library.

The next chapter of the story, however, was very much alive here too: the Puritans. Exiled under (Catholic) Queen Mary, they burst back into English life with Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, becoming a potent political force in the 17th century. Among other things (like going to the Netherlands and thence to America), they went through churches they deemed insufficiently “reformed,” damaging the art, architecture, and religious objects they felt reminiscent of Catholicism. In church after church right here in Sandwich, I saw evidence of their zealous vandalism.

Here in Sandwich’s various churches I also saw the old Norman style arches–fluted and enormously high. One would even say the height was out of scale–except somehow, eight or nine centuries ago, they found a way to make them part of buildings of both gracefulness and power. Incredible.


Posted in architecture, English history, medieval history | Tagged , ,

For Anglicans, the Center of the Universe

Just months after William the Conqueror successfully invaded southeastern England from Normandy, he began to build a church in Canterbury. These Normans were planning to stay.  

Some ten centuries later, I spent the morning in the cathedral that grew from this beginning. “Magnificent” doesn’t begin to describe the soaring, gigantic, yet graceful structure. Hundreds of stained glass windows, miles of delicate vaulting, tombs of notables—all housed within a structure impossibly high and somehow, though built in a dozen different styles, balanced artistically.

Canterbury was in a perfect location—temperate by blustery English standards, and several miles upstream on a river that went to the sea. So successive generations of monarchs expanded it. Eventually royal colleges were opened here. When the weavers of Tours, France were expelled for refusing allegiance to Catholicism, they came here, establishing a neighborhood and transplanting an artistic tradition. To this day, the Cathedral offers weekly services en Francais.

Of course, Henry II’s murder (the “martyrdom”) of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170 was, ironically, what launched the Cathedral’s fame. Today I saw a chapel that listed every one of Canterbury’s Archbishops—and included, without asterisk or other fuss, Thomas Cranmer, architect of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Just another one of those incredibly powerful men who shaped the world’s history.

I saw the spot where Beckett was murdered. A flame now burns where his shrine was located for 300 years until it was destroyed by Henry VIII.

I saw the massive stone chair that has been used for investitures for a thousand years. I revisited the choir stalls where I’d been to Evensong the day before. I saw successive generations of stained glass—from medieval times, all the way to the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

My guide Liz had a special treat for me—access to the Cathedral’s library. It holds some 50,000 mostly handmade books collected over ten centuries. What had Hanna the librarian, selected to show me? A second folio of Shakespeare, complete with introductory poem by his rival Ben Johnson. And a 16th-century English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale—the first to work directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts (he spoke 7 languages). Executed for his dangerous idea that people should read the Bible for themselves rather than rely on priests, his last words were his hope that God would open the King’s eyes.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked through the ceremonial stone arch erected to commemorate the marriage between Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand & Isabella) and Arthur Tudor, eldest son of Henry VII. Only teens when they wed, Arthur died soon after, leaving his younger brother to marry his widow and become Henry VIII. Thus do worlds change.

Liz then drove us half an hour south, where we spent the afternoon in Dover Castle. I hadn’t planned to go to Dover at all, but when Liz told me several weeks ago that she had actually lived there for three years (when her high-ranking husband was assigned to be the Queen Mother’s representative in the area), it sounded like a unique opportunity. During the afternoon Liz told me of meeting Prince Philip (“charming but lecherous”), the Queen Mum (“delightful and still sharp”), and non-stop entertaining of dignitaries virtually every night (“you slept with a coat hanger in your mouth so you could smile the next day”).

Dover Castle stands on cliffs (they only look white from out at sea) at the shortest distance between England and the continent. On a site occupied since the Iron Age, Henry II began the enormous structure around 1180. I walked the same stone steps later walked by both Elizabeth and Victoria. I climbed into the main building, now furnished with replicas of medieval furniture, linen, and weapons. Even the massive kitchen is fitted with cauldrons, clotheslines, ovens, and a model side of beef.

Eventually we were back outside, walking a quarter-mile to another building in the castle complex.

Because of its strategic location, the British had built underground tunnels and fortifications here to battle Napoleon. The tunnels were used in subsequent wars, and in the run-up to WWII, the British renovated them yet again. The idea was both a defense of the Channel and a central command for both the military and government should they need to leave London.

In May of 1940, the same location that prompted the castle’s construction so long ago made it the perfect place to receive the desperate evacuation of 340,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The tunnels were the command center for the nearly-impossible operation that prevented an Allied surrender.

We took a one-hour underground tour that was heavy on audio-visuals, which made the era come alive. Talking holograms projected onto the tunnel walls, the urgent voices of Army commanders, newsreels, and contemporary maps all gave the tour an eerie immediacy. Dioramas and real equipment filled the rooms off the long corridors, and inevitably we each imagined ourselves down here for the 12-hour sun-less shifts that directed the defense of England and the rescue of 340,000 trapped soldiers.

When we finally emerged above ground after an hour, no one complained about the light drizzle or chilly sea breeze.

Posted in architecture, castles, medieval history, Uncategorized

The Vikings Were Here—Along With Everyone Else

My flight left SFO 2 hours late. Late in first class is better than late in coach, but it’s still late. Better food, wine in glass glasses, but we were as late as the people in the very last row.

So I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the morning rush hour. Fortunately, they speak pretty good English here, so I found the Piccadilly Line of the fabled underground (subway). I took it for an hour to the huge downtown station of St. Pancras, and switched to a regular train for the shorter trip eastward to Canterbury. After a 10-minute cab ride I finally arrived at my charming little cottage.

“Charming” turned out to mean a lack of right angles, and encouragement to see “patina” instead of wear, inadequate maintenance, and the well-known British sense of wry acceptance. Some 10 hours after today’s noontime arrival, I continue to do my best.

The world-famous Cathedral is down the street. But wait, let’s slow down a bit and give successive waves of people and events their due. And consider yourself introduced to Liz, my guide for today and tomorrow. She’s 69, far more spry than I, and she’s travelled the world with her military attache husband, finally settling here.

Today’s hit parade started with Queen Bertha of Tours (France), who married Ethelbert, the local King of Kent in the 7th century. Her wedding contract specified that she’d be allowed to bring her Christian faith with her, and so of course she built a church here after unpacking and getting
organized. I visited that 7th century St. Martin’s Church, the oldest continuously-used church in Britain. Its front door was fitted into a large Roman-built wall–300 years old when she found it.

The Vikings eventually came, camped on the river, and did some raiding–leaving evidence all over town. They were eventually supplanted by the Normans, led by William the Conqueror–who began the earliest version of what became the Cathedral. Fast-forward through the Plantagenets and War of the Roses, and soon we have King Henry VIII not just establishing a new Church of England, but dissolving the monastery system and grabbing Church land and wealth across the country.

Here in Canterbury he turned one monastery into his own local pied-a-terre. He wanted it used for his wedding to wife number 4, Ann of Cleves; records show he hired 300 plasterers (and hundreds of other workmen) to clean up the place in time for a December wedding; apparently they moved heaven and earth trying to get the stuff to dry in the middle of a very wet winter. The complex eventually became a school and was redone almost two centuries ago by the Victorians. The school is gorgeous; a single, enormous wall is all that’s left from Henry’s time.

I ran into Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries many times during last year’s trip to Ireland, and it already figures prominently here. More on that as the week unfolds.

We had hoped to stroll through the town after afternoon tea, but rain and wind arrived with a vengeance. We hustled past the church where Christopher Marlowe was baptized, an inn Charles Dickens wrote about, an inn mentioned in the Canterbury Tales, and then I ducked into the magnificent cathedral to catch the Evensong service.

No, it wasn’t a fit of sudden devotion, but a great musical opportunity. The organ was gorgeous, the cathedral choir was crisp and haunting, and there was even a reading from Genesis on the wandering Israelites eating manna. I lingered a bit to look at some of the cathedral’s endless vaulting, but I hadn’t eaten since my in-flight arrival breakfast, and I needed sustenance of my own.

Authentic Thai food—in the midst of English “cooking,” like manna from heaven!

Posted in architecture, English history, medieval commerce, medieval history | Tagged , ,

Preview: Medieval England, 2017

You remember the Canterbury Tales, right?

In 1162 England’s King Henry II, tired of fighting with the Church, appointed his drinking buddy Thomas Beckett the country’s top religious figure–the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas, however, took the job way too seriously, and in 1170 King Henry had him murdered. Becket’s super-quick canonization in 1173 made Canterbury Cathedral a major pilgrimage site (which it remains to this day).

Two centuries later, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of a bunch of strangers travelling together on that very pilgrimage. The overland journey was long, hard, and hazardous. Chaucer had the journey-master suggest that each traveller tell a story–to entertain the group and bond it together. These stories–variously sad, bawdy, political, spiritual–he “collected” together as the Canterbury Tales.

Six centuries later, on April 25, I’m going to Canterbury. I’ll also be going to Sandwich, Dover, and Oxford. More after I arrive!

Posted in medieval history | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

June 10, Mycenae

Today we started the long drive north that would end at the Athens Airport Hotel.
After 90 minutes of twisting country roads up the mountains, we stopped at Mycenae, the ancient home of the House of Atreus, whose two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, launched the Trojan War. See, Helen of Troy was actually Helen of Sparta before she left her husband King Menelaus for Troy—either as an act of passion or as a victim of kidnapping. Either way, most of the Peloponnese got involved in 10 terrible years of war, as chronicled by Homer’s Iliad and climaxed by the Trojan Horse and sack of Troy.


Or was it all a fairy tale? Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes—fact or fable? Or both?

That’s what amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann was obsessed with discovering in the 19th century. And in 1874, digging right where I stood today, he changed our past by uncovering the ancient citadel, complete with royal chambers, storehouses, and giant tombs. To prepare for this moment, I’d read his biography last month. It includes his exultation at finding an unopened royal tomb, approaching the corpse, lifting the gold death mask and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of Agamemnon.”

Well, he was wrong about that, because the tombs he found were even older, dating back to about 1600 BCE. But oh, what tombs! Cyclopean blocks of stone perfectly edged and aligned. A 200-foot long paved walkway culminating in an entrance you could drive a bus through. An enormous beehive-shaped chamber for the body and grave goods. And when finished, skillfully covered with dirt so that it looked like just another little hill.


My guide walked me around the outdoor site, shivering in the 70-degree cloudy breeze (I kept my delight about the weather to myself). The Mycenaeans had traded with other local commercial centers like Argos and Epidaurus, and eventually made it to Crete where they conquered the more peaceful and sophisticated Minoans. My guide speculated about the social changes indicated by the change in god-legends that accompanied the conquest.

We eventually left Mycenae and went north to Corinth. We drove up even higher, to the acropolis that had overlooked the ancient city—and had also seen later military use by the usual suspects: Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Turks, etc.. It commanded an extraordinary view of the plain below, and the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland—only 4 miles wide at its narrowest.


I walked up the uneven stone entryway as lightning and thunder lit the gray afternoon sky. The enormous walls, fortified many times, were everywhere, and yet so skillfully set into the mountain they seemed to have simply grown up toward the open sky. I didn’t even try to climb up to see the old temple of Aphrodite—it was just too strenuous and I didn’t want to get stuck in the rain that threatened to slicken every stone in the place.


Back down below, the tiny old town was dwarfed by stone columns from the 6th century BCE—and, when my eyes adjusted to the various shades of gray, acres and acres of the excavated old city of Corinth—marketplace, homes, etc.. My guide was quick to point out rough Roman additions to the elegant Greek architecture. And when we saw an exhibit of how column capitals had evolved over time, she was quick to point out all the Greek innovations, sniffing that the Romans hadn’t added much of value or taste.


The day’s last stop, just a few minutes later, was on a small bridge over the Corinth Canal, imagined by Caesar and Nero but completed only in 1893. Just two miles to the west I could see the blue Gulf of Corinth. Turning to the east, I could see the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf. I didn’t want to leave ancient Greece. But I did in fact turn north, and headed for twenty-first century America.

Posted in Uncategorized