Flights of fancy
Neil Pickford trips into whimsy.
This epic column marks a significant anniversary for it is, in truth, the 200th one written for the Beverley Advertiser and, previously, the ‘thisishull’ website. It was this pioneering internet thingy which first encouraged my timid steps towards world-acclaimed columnism (if there be such a word) and, in gratitude to the far-sighted individuals who pushed me into these uncharted waters (none of whom are still employed by the Hull Daily Mail, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence) I am about to indulge myself.
I have several fancies actually but, due to space restrictions, I shall share only one. This concerns the big stone chair near our high altar and involves a few ‘what-ifs’ and speculation but, if you’ve nothing better to do for the next few minutes, let’s hold hands and wander together through the Land of Maybe.
Firstly, the chair, which must weigh about a billion tons, is described as a ‘frithstool’ or sanctuary chair. We tell visitors that this was the very seat where, from about 930AD onwards, priests would sit and grant temporary or life-long protection to pleaders who had come to Beverley Minster in fear of their lives.
It’s the oldest object in the church (with the exception of the Saxon well on the other side of the altar) but I’ve started to wonder if it is not, in fact, a good 200 years older than we already know.
Let’s start with the known facts: in Hexham there is a very similar chair, and also another near Winchester, both of which belonged to the 7th century Bishop Wilfred. Now Wilfred was a controversial character who converted whole swathes of Saxon Britain to Christianity and then seems to have argued with every single convert shortly afterwards.
In those days he was roughly the equivalent to the Archbishop of York but with a lot more power and patronage – which was resented by many. There seemed to be a constant process of him being evicted from various positions in the north and then appealing to the Pope for reinstatement.
After one of his enforced trips abroad the Pope agreed that the irritating Wilfred should get at least some of his positions back, but in the meantime our own John of Beverley had been installed in the ‘cathedra’ or bishop’s chair at Hexham. Now, if you remember back to the beginning of this little history lesson, Wilfred’s bishop’s chair was the flipping heavy stone thing that can still be found in Hexham Abbey.
One of the various versions of the events over the next few years claims that humble John of Beverley stood aside in obedience to the Pope’s wishes and allowed Wilfred back in his place. Certainly we know that Wilfred ended his life as bishop of Hexham while John moved to York before ending up in Beverley – and here’s where the imagination kicks in.
What if John of Beverley knew Wilfred might return? Would he have sat comfortably in Wilfred’s old chair or might someone have made a new, similar one for him? Then, when he went to York, might he have taken it with him?
Alternatively, when in York, might he have had a copy of Wilfred’s stone cathedra made? If so, what happened to it when John retired from public life and settled in Beverley? Might a team of grateful priests have gifted this chair to him in lieu of a clock for his mantelpiece (neither of which had been invented in 700AD)?
And once it was in Beverley, what would the monks and priests have done with it after John died in 721AD?
I’m sure you can see where these speculations lead. Is our Saxon antique just a sanctuary stool from around 930AD or is it Bishop John’s actual seat from 200 years before? That would be, in the parlance of modern youth, truly ‘awesome’.
Whichever is the correct answer I can at least tell you one thing: it is surprisingly comfortable.
No wonder John didn’t want to leave it behind.
By the way, if you’d like to sample any of the previous 199 articles then you can find them here at www.vestryview.wordpress.com. Good luck and thanks for reading.