I was wandering around in the files of A Clerk of Oxford, which is likely the fairest site of all for general medieval information. Anyway I was struck by how as Mark Twain told us, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” And it struck me that can be true even over whole millennia as it is here.
We’re going to talk about church history today but, instead of doctrine, dogma, and all that we’re going to talk about one specific church, and yes, we may take a detour and even refer to J.R.R. Tolkien once or twice. Here is The Clerk to set the scene
The story of Siward.
But first just one or two facts, because Siward, hero of our tale, was a real historical figure. He was born in Denmark, probably a little before the year 1000, and probably came to England during the reign of Cnut, when England was the best place for a young Dane to make a career for himself. By 1042 he was earl of Northumbria, a huge, complicated earldom stretching from the River Humber up north to the borders of Scotland. During Edward the Confessor’s reign Siward also held a southern earldom in the area around Huntingdon/Cambridge/Northampton. He died in 1055 and was buried at York, in a church he had founded and dedicated to the brand-new Norwegian saint Olaf. This suggests he retained a sense of loyalty to his Scandinavian roots, and in English sources he was known as Siward digri, an Old Norse nickname which means ‘big, large’.
And this would be all we knew about Siward, were it not for the fact that his son Waltheof was executed in 1076 for rebellion against William the Conqueror, and was considered to be a martyr and saint by the monks of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, where he was buried.
Right there in the part that we know to be true, we have a pretty interesting story don’t we? But it gets better.
That story is the one we’re concerned with – it’s pure legend, and it’s awesome. It starts like this:
The stories of the ancients say that a certain nobleman, Ursus – whom the Lord permitted, contrary to the normal manner of human procreation, to be created from a white bear as father and a noblewoman as mother – begot Spratlingus; Spratlingus begot Ulsius; Ulsius begot Beorn, nicknamed Beresune, that is, ‘Bear’s Son’. This Beorn was a Dane by race, an excellent earl and famous soldier. However, as a sign of the difference of species between his parents, nature had given him the ears of his father, that is, of a bear. In everything else he was like his mother’s species. And after many deeds of courage and military experiences, he had a son, very brave and a noble imitator of his father’s military skill. His name was Siward.
She add a lot of detail here which is very interesting, and you should read it (link above) including how it parallels parts of The Hobbit, but not overly relevant to my story, anyway, continuing
To return to Siward, the bear’s grandson: filled with youthful ambition, he leaves his father’s house in search of adventure, with fifty companions and a well-stocked ship. He sails from Denmark to the Orkneys, where he lands on an island and is told that its inhabitants are being terrorised by a dragon. When Siward learns this he decides to fight the dragon, and put it to flight from the island. (In doing this he is following in the footsteps of his famous namesake, the most glorious dragon-fighter of Germanic legend, Sigurðr the Völsung). Triumphant, he sets sail again, south to Northumbria, where he has heard there’s another dragon to fight. But when he lands in Northumbria, instead of meeting a dragon, he meets an old man sitting on a mound. Siward asks the old man if he knows where to find the dragon. But the man greets him by name, and says, “Siward, I know well for what reason you have undertaken this journey, to test your strength against a dragon; but you labour in vain, for you will not find it. Go back to your companions, and I will tell you what your fate will be. When you set out on your journey you will have favourable winds, and they will bring you to a river which is called the Thames. There you will find a city called London, and the king there will take you into his favour, and grant you great lands.”
(It’s not quite ‘turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London’, but that’s the general idea!)
Siward says he doesn’t believe him, and that if he goes back to his companions and tells them this they will say it’s nonsense. But as a token of his trustworthiness the old man presents him with a banner, and says its name is ‘Ravenlandeye’ – a name which is interpreted as ‘Raven, terror of the land’. Siward takes the banner and goes back to his ship, and all the old man’s words come true: he is guided to London, and goes to find King Edward. The king has heard of his coming, and accepts Siward into his service. Siward stays with the king and distinguishes himself so much that King Edward promises that the first high honour which becomes available in the land will be given to him.
Okey-Dokey, no epic battles with dragons but poor boy makes good is not bad is it?
Then one day it happens that Siward is travelling from Westminster to London when he encounters an enemy of the king, a Danish man named Tostig, earl of Huntingdon. The king hates Tostig because he’s married to the queen’s sister, a daughter of Earl Godwine. (This figure gets his name from the half-Danish Tostig Godwineson, who was in fact King Edward’s brother-in-law, but this really has no basis in history). Siward and Tostig meet at a bridge over the river, which is so narrow that as haughty Tostig passes he splashes Siward’s cloak with mud. (In those days, adds the monk of Crowland, men wore long animal-fur cloaks.) Siward takes Tostig’s behaviour as an insult, and decides to get revenge. He lies in wait for Tostig, and as the earl returns across the bridge, Siward draws his sword and cuts off his head. Concealing the head beneath his cloak, he goes to the court and asks the king to make him earl of Huntingdon, because that earldom is vacant. The king says he must be joking – the earldom isn’t vacant, the earl’s only just left him! But Siward produces Tostig’s head from beneath his cloak and throws it at the king’s feet. King Edward, remembering his promise, has no choice but to grant the vacant earldom to Siward.
Siward leaves the court and seeks out his companions, and finds them fighting against Tostig’s men. They kill them all and bury them near London, at a place which becomes known as the ‘Danes’ Church’ – ‘and so it is to this day’, says the Crowland monk in the thirteenth century (and so it is to this day).
Pretty neat story, all in all, and I enjoyed it, but I wondered what happened to that church, so I looked it up (link above)
William the Conqueror rebuilt it first and it was rebuilt again in the Middle Ages. By the end of the seventeenth century is was such bad repair that it was demolished and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, its organ was installed in 1690. And it continued on until on 10 May 1940 it was gutted by the German Luftwaffe, pretty much only the shell and the steeple survived.
As we all know, things were tough in the UK after World War II, and so the shell just sat there until in 1958, it was restored by, and was reconsecrated as the central church of the Royal Air Force, as it is today.
As part of the rebuilding, the following Latin inscription was added under the restored Royal coat of arms:
- AEDIFICAVIT CHR WREN
- AD MDCLXXII
- DIRUERUNT AERII BELLI
- FULMINA AD MCMXLI
- RESTITUIT REGINAE CLASSIS
- AERONAUTICA AD MCMLVIII
which translates as: “Built by Christopher Wren 1682. Destroyed by the thunderbolts of air warfare 1941. Restored by the Royal Air Force 1958 (from Wikipedia, as is the following)
The floor of the church, of Welsh slate, is inscribed with the badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. Near the entrance door is a ring of the badges of Commonwealth air forces, surrounding the badge of the RAF.
A memorial to the Polish airmen and squadrons who fought in the defence of the United Kingdom and the liberation of Europe in World War II is positioned on the floor of the north aisle.
Books of Remembrance listing the names of all the RAF personnel who have died in service, as well as those American airmen based in the United Kingdom who died during World War Two.
Near the altar are plaques listing the names of RAF, Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service personnel awarded the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.
Most of the furniture in the church are donations from various people and nations, including the organ donated (and installed in a replica of the 1690 case) by the US Air Force.
Altogether a fitting thing, I think, a church founded by warriors who started out on a quest to fight dragons, now is home to those few who clipped the wings of the Nazi Dragon and began the destruction of its lair.
But there is one more chapter to the story. For at the end of the Second World War there was one dragon left in Europe, and like Siward’s grandfather it was a were-bear, the Soviet Union. But eventually by that same triumvirate of Poles, British, and Americans destroyed it as well. And here at the church of the dragonslayers, the very last dragonslayer of the twentieth century would pause.
But this one would be different, not the son of a Danish nobleman out to make a career, but the smart and pretty daughter of a British grocer, but like those Danes long ago, she was not for turning.
And perhaps that is why Margaret, the Baroness Thatcher’s, funeral paused here, at St. Clement Danes, where Siward claimed the earldom of Huntingdon, long ago, and where modern men remember the dragonslayers of three nations, her casket was transfered to the gun carriage for the trip to St. Pauls.