Thursday, 8 December 2011

… and another one opens

At the end of my post on 27 January I was describing the difficulty of finding a person about whom to write for my thesis, following my final realisation of the futility of trying to write about a sixth century Welsh princess. I had devised a splendid title for this study of Gwenfrewi (a.k.a. Winefred in England), "The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr"[1], and I had even established to my complete satisfaction that she was directly responsible – a millennium and a half later – for the fall of the House of Stuart[2], but another twenty or so thousand words about her would, I considered, have been as boring for me to write as for the examiners to read.

"Just a moment," says one of my friends, a retired professor, "You're still putting the emphasis upon a journey rather a person. I don't think they'll accept this proposal either: it's not biographical enough. Why not write about someone entirely different? Tell me, who's the most interesting person you've ever met in your life? Whoever it is, write about him!"

I spin my mental Rolodex: hundreds, nay thousands, of images flash past in a nanosecond: the device stops at the card with the picture of the monocled and moustachio'd warrior I had met half a century before.

"Colonel Wintle", I say, and I tell them the stories that I had heard in that pub and that house in Kent.

This same friend came to my rescue again. He is an avid bibliophile: he regularly receives book auction catalogues from every corner of the realm: he knows that I am an enthusiastic cook and am continuing to learn Italian. He shows me the description of a lot in the latest Bonhams catalogue which he has ringed and written Tony! against.

What this description says and what then happens opens another door for me, but this post on this blog is not the place to say what lies beyond the door: click here to find out.

[1] Gwenfrewi was decapitated by a thwarted suitor outside a church in which she was seeking refuge. Where her head fell and came to rest, a spring miraculously sprung. Her uncle, Saint Beuno, rushed out of the church, placed the head on her neck, covered the body with a cloak and went back in to finish the mass. Afterwards they lifted the cloak and behold! she lived! She went to Gwytherin, deep in the Welsh mountains, where she became an abbess and where eventually she was buried and sanctified.

The spring is at Holywell, in north east Wales: from her days to our days people have gone to seek healing. Monks from Shrewsbury went in the twelfth century to take the bones from Gwytherin to give their abbey a focal point of pilgrimage, which it became and remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Her shrine was destroyed and her bones scattered and lost, save one finger bone that can still be venerated at Holywell.

Thus the double life, ending first at Holywell and then at Gwytherin: thus the double afterlife, at Holywell and at Shrewsbury. It can scarcely be coincidence that this title is resonant of that of the splendid biography of the nineteenth century forerunner of the lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, “The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton”.

[2] The Catholic James II went with his queen to Holywell in 1687 to pray for the miracle of a son, the last of their five children having died in infancy five years earlier. A son was duly borne, but this was the flashpoint for the Glorious Revolution, when Protestant magnates encouraged a Protestant prince from Holland to seize the throne and be co-crowned as William III along with Mary, his wife and daughter of the deposed James.

The deposed king fled to France and the protection of his co-religionist, Louis XIV “the Sun King”. On his death in 1701 his son James proclaimed himself king of England and Scotland and was recognised as such by Louis. His supporters in Britain, the Jacobites, knew him as “the King across the Waters” and his son, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, in 1745 led the insurrection in Scotland in a failed attempt to enforce these claims.

Chaos Theory posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Himalayas can cause a tornado in Kansas. This theory of mine posits that the rejection of a suitor’s advances by a simple Welsh girl led many centuries later to the downfall of a mighty dynasty.

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