A Special Place in Warwickshire to Reflect Upon Our Wills and Fates: St Peter’s Church Wootton Wawen – Saxon Sanctuary

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602

ST PETER'S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson
ST PETER’S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson

 Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.

It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of  Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs).  In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.

It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)

Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.

A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son,  Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.

English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.

Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.

How to get there

Stratford Road

Wootton Wawen

B95 6BE

 

Find out more

http://www.saxonsanctuary.org.uk/

Exciting Times for the People of Leicester, for Those Who Love English History, and for the Power of Story

In the last few years we’ve seen an astonishing and exciting thing here in our country: a relatively small, minority interest group dismissed by some as a gathering of eccentrics, has been triumphantly vindicated in the most extraordinary way. And the Ricardians‘ journey has drawn with them a city, a nation, the sweep of English history, and something powerful that has touched our spiritual roots.

The group is of course the Richard III Society – whose existence I first heard of 15 years ago whilst viewing an exhibition during my walk along the York City Walls – and the triumphant vindication is the discovery of the remains of Richard III, their authentication through a thrilling blend of science and history, and the captivation of millions by Richard’s story, and by the solemn and beautiful ceremonial with which his remains were received into Leicester Cathedral.

I’ve written about Richard III on this blog before, after visiting Bosworth Battlefield myself, and also after reading and reviewing John Ashdown-Hill’s excellent book The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA. Now I expect that this book, along with the tourist industry in Leicester and the economic fortunes of that city, will be given an enormous boost by the last few days’ events.

IN my former blog post about Richard III, I wrote this:|

“I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.

For the basic principles of life do not change.

Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.

But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.”

How many people must have watched Channel 4’s coverage of the events surrounding and including the reception of the body of Richard III into Leicester Cathedral, with a mix of emotions? Among us there would have been those who were amused, astonished, partly disbelieving, fascinated, excited, uplifted, moved. It was poignant, dramatic, dignified, graceful and solemn.

Certainly we are seeing “a fusion of everybody’s beliefs bound up in a very English moment which allows us to transcend the present moment and is big enough to accommodate all of us.”

Richard III represents and illustrates once again the “what ifs” with which British history is so liberally scattered.

As I watched the coverage of Richard’s remains travelling through the streets of Leicester, packed with onlookers, I saw many people throwing white roses onto the carriage. And I thought that with every white rose thrown, each person was somehow connecting with, claiming their place, inhabiting a story which expresses all the unaccountable mutations of life.

Faded Splendour, Unfinished Grand Schemes, Unfulfilled Dreams

I visited a National Trust property a few days ago – Lyveden New Bield near Oundle in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.

Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)
Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)

This is an unusual property in that it was build by an Elizabethan gentleman who left it unfinished. And it hasn’t fallen down, or been looted, or demolished, or built over, in the intervening centuries – but has just remained as it is.

There is something haunting and eerie about properties like this. The only similar one I can think of is Chastleton House near Moreton-in-Marsh, which has been left exactly as it was 400 years ago…..  It hasn’t been specially prepared or restored by the National Trust to look as it would when at the height of its glory. It has just been left, like Sleeping Beauty’s Palace. There is a faintly sinister air as you explore its rooms and passages. You get the feeling that those who lived there have just vanished and it has remained suspended in time. A curious melancholy hangs in the air.

In the case of Lieveden New Bield, the designer and developer of this grand garden lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham, a wealthy and ardent Catholic, died before it could be completed. And his son Francis, instead of completing it and fulfilling his father’s dream, made a fatal error: he became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, got arrested, confessed, and lost the entire family fortune.

Touring this unfinished, roofless property with all its elaborate Catholic symbolism, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Sir Thomas and all his hopes and dreams. As I walked around, and listened to the audio-tour, I wasn’t thinking of the massive differences between ourselves in our modern world, and those in the early seventeenth century, with all the passions and concerns of the beleagured Catholics. I was thinking of the things I shared – which many of us share – with Sir Thomas. A grand scheme, a big dream, starting to come into reality…

In Sir Thomas’s case it was cruelly cut short. Yet he died with all his ardent Catholic faith and hopes intact. And all the elements of his original design for his garden and lodge are now being rediscovered, and might even be realised in the future: who knows.

To me, this is the value of visiting historical properties – enabling us to enter imaginatively into the deeply personal stories of those who lived centuries ago, and feeling not the things that separate us but the things we may have in common.