"Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint John of Beverley!’ "
Neil Pickford comes over all saintly
I had to climb the northwest tower t’other day to fly the flag of St George. This was to honour St John of Beverley and, as I paused for breath at the 150th step I wondered why I was doing it. It took me a considerable period to recover, then complete the remaining 78 ascenders, and I was in contemplative mood by the time it was finished.
Oh, I knew the flag was to commemorate the translation of St John (a ‘translation’ is the date when a saint’s remains are physically moved from one location to another. In John’s case it was from the crypt in the middle of the nave where he had been buried back in 721AD, to a glorious new reliquary behind the high altar in 1307).
This formal movement of holy relics was an important event before Henry VIIIth came along and spoiled things for the old boys. The date of a saint’s installation (John’s was on 25th October) was as much a feast day as the saint’s own day (normally the date of his death – May 7th for St John).
So I was flying a flag for St John – but why St George’s?
After all, back in the 15th century the banner of our local saint had equal status with that of George – possibly even greater. The reason for this was the belief that, if you took our flag into battle, you were guaranteed victory. This may have come as a surprise to John who got his sainthood for the many miraculous healings he performed when alive, not for helping kings overwhelm their rivals’ troops after he was dead.
This belief in the war-winning power of John’s goodwill started around 930AD when King Athelstan united all England under Saxon rule following a tremendous battle against overwhelming odds. It is claimed that, after a night weeping and praying at John’s tomb the monks blessed him and gave him John’s banner to take into battle.
Athelstan trounced his many enemies and stated this victory was thanks to John’s divine intervention. In gratitude he gave wealth and privileges to those who guarded John’s tomb, including the charter that set up the Minster and guaranteed it a golden stream of income from then on. Beverley Minster became one of the richest bodies in all Yorkshire and, on its coat tails, Beverley was one of the very richest towns in England.
It helped that, from the 10th to the 16th centuries, whenever kings raised a levy from the peasants to form a royal army, all people in our parish were let off, provided the flag of St John was taken in their place. So this piece of fluttering cloth was regarded as more useful in a fight than any number of able-bodied Beverlonians. And, you know, I’m not sure that’s anything to be ashamed about.
Edward I took it into several battles, as did Teddy II, Teddy III and Henry IV – while Henry V (parts one and two) believed that John helped us win the Battle of Agincourt (where we stuffed the French 10-1 in an away fixture) because it was fought on 25th October (the date of John’s translation, if you remember) and his tomb oozed blood and oil which apparently, was his way of showing his support for the English.
On the strength of this belief John was made one of the patron saints of England alongside St George and, in 1420, the King and Queen made a royal visit to Beverley to pay homage at his reliquary.
With this kind of support at the highest levels of British society it’s hardly surprising that Beverley prospered on the back of the pilgrim trade and the social cachet that came from having such an important saint buried in your local church.
Now I have claimed, in some of my more excitable moments, that John of Beverley should really be the patron saint of England, partly because it’s never a bad idea to Big Up the home team. Bear in mind George was a foreigner (a Roman soldier, from Palestine) who never came within a thousand miles of dear old Blighty. And, frankly, can you honestly believe in the tales of a man killing a dragon? I mean, my dear, really!
Some 300 years ago the Catholic Church was dismissing many of the most-popular stories attached to him as fantasies but, despite that, concluded it was still sensible to count him as one of the ‘14 Holy Helpers’ – saints who, if you prayed to them, were especially good at delivering results. It concluded, somewhat unscientifically, that George was someone: “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”
So that’s all right then.
In fairness George was already well-established and tremendously popular by 1037 when John became St John so it was an uphill struggle to replace him – a bit like my struggle climbing those 208 flipping steps. And so he isn’t the patron saint of England and it’s George’s flag that flutters from our tower.
Somehow that made the climb feel even harder.
A CD with a selection of 13 of the best Views from the Vestry, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.