Sunday 8 October 2017

Why St Pancras?

St Pancras Station, Gothic Revival fantasy
St Pancras New Church
Say "St Pancras" to an Eglishman and this is probably what springs to mind - the great  Railway Station on the Euston Road and George Gilbert Scott's Midland Hotel. If he thinks a bit harder he might even come up with and idea of the church a little way along the same road. That Church has a ridiculous Greek Revival version (in Coade Stone) of the Caryatids on the Acropolis in Athens. Those fearsome women have nothing to do with the boy-martyr St Pancras though perhaps they predict something about the Church of England.. Then again, if the person you asked is local to Somers Town, he might direct you to the Old Church to the north of Euston Road; a church which looks as though it really belongs in a country churchyard - and which gives the district, and the station,its name.

St Pancras Old Church
But why St Pancras? The boy martyr, who stood up to the Roman Emperor, became hugely popular throughout Europe, and it is even possible that Old St Pancras in Somers Town is on the site of one of the first churches ever built in England. That does not explain why, just fifteen years after the Norman Conquest, the first ever Cluniac monastery in England was also dedicated to St Pancras.

William de Warenne was charged by the Norman Conquerer, William, to subjugate a great part of Southern England. He established his power base in Lewes, which guarded the approach from the South, the cleft in the South Downs giving access from the coast towards London. On the hill he built a great Fortress.

Lewes Casstle Keep
In the valley, he established a monastery, the Priory of St Pancras.  It was the first Cluniac house in England; following the reformed Benedictine rule established a century before at Cluny in Aquitaine. French, of course. But again, WHY ST PANCRAS? The steadfastness of the teenage Christian boy Pancras against the Emperor Domitian had resulted in his becoming the patron saint of oath-takers. William the Conqueror based his claim to the English throne on his insistence that Harold had sworn an oath that he would support William as King of England on the death of King Edward. In that great propaganda publication, the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown taking his oath on a sacred reliquary - containing, it is said, the bones of St Pancras. So the Priory, like the Castle, is establishing the claims of the Conqueror to the English throne.

Harold swears to support William's claim - on the bones of St Pancras the oath-keeper

Five centuries later another king with a tenuous claim to the English throne, the Welshman Henry Tudor, also set about dominating the kingdom by force. The Priory of St Pancras in Lewes, one of the wealthiest religious houses in England, was demolished by Thomas Cromwell, employing an Italian skilled in attacking cstles. He undermined the walls, set fire beneath them, and brought the entire building to the ground. Cromwell sold off the building materials at great profit. Less survives than of almost any other monastery. There is a corner of the Monks' dormitory and a fragment of the Reredorter, the lavatories - that's all that stands above ground. The Priory was so huge that you  might gain an impression of how immense the other buildings must have been if this was just the loos.. Henry VIII also enlisted a Saint's aid - by removing him from the Kalendar. That was Saint Thomas Becket, named by Henry 'Thomas Traitor' - but that's another story.

Remnants of  Lewes Priory

Lewes Town chooses not to remember its monks, who ran schools and hospitals and cared for the poor. Instead they hold Bonfire parades, burn the Pope in effigy, and make much of the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake in Mary Tudor's reign. That is rather how history has been taught in England since the Reformation - it is written by the winners.  Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs' supplanted all memory of what was lost through the suppression of the Monasteries and the breach with Rome. Mary is called 'bloody', while the blood on the hands of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth is conveniently forgotten and the Catholic martyrs expunged from the record. If you want to start to get the record straight read Eamon Duffy* Diarmaid MacCulloch* and other modern historians. They throw a rather diffent light on "Merrie England".

* Eamon  Duffy: Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition; Voices of Morebath;Reformation Divided; The Stripping of the Altars &c.
* Diarmaid MacCulloch: All things made new; The Reformation - a History. The Later Reformation in England &c