Magazine article The Spectator

Up among the Yorkshire Monks Who Pray for Their Enemies

Magazine article The Spectator

Up among the Yorkshire Monks Who Pray for Their Enemies

Article excerpt

It is a tempting thought to retire to a monastery, and shut a heavy oaken door in the face of the corrupt world outside. I though of this the other day when I went up to Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire to give a talk to the senior boys at the school there. When I got off the train at York, the incessant October rain had stopped for a spell, and pale sunlight slanted across the grave and bulky towers of the Minster. I had half an hour to spare so I did a quick watercolour of this majestic structure, the largest of all our mediaeval cathedrals, which still dominates its town as once they all did.

I tried to imagine how it must have seemed to a 15th-century peasant who came to York for the first, perhaps the only, time in his life, to gawp and wonder at its immensity. The Catholic Church, in its last century of glory before the Reformation destroyed all and the thieving upstarts of the Henrician court moved in to plunder, was ubiquitous and all-pervasive. It was much closer than the Crown, with more power at the local level, especially in remote provinces like Yorkshire. My Lord Abbot was a grand personage, who attended Parliament by writ of personal summons, in a mounted company of jolly monks and armoured soldiers, the bells on their harness tinkling, the banner of St Benedict carried in front. The poor were in awe of the monks, but loved them too. They were always there when needed, with food, a bit of shelter, warm old clothes, no form-filling, no questions asked. Now there is the welfare state. Not the same thing.

The monks were driven out by Henry's greedy commissioners. Most went quietly, glad to get a pension and save their skins. But Henry had to hang the Abbots of Glastonbury and Westminster, obstinate and holy men, who felt nothing but scorn for an anointed king who broke all his oaths and was being dragged to Hell by the demons of lust and avarice. The monks of Ampleforth, who returned to England in 1802, claim a historic community with the Benedictines of Westminster Abbey. Would they were back there now, as they ought to be, instead of the worldly canons under their dreadful dean bickering spitefully with his organist! Instead they are in the fastnesses of rural Yorkshire, little islands of sober sanctity in the gritty materialism of that bold, brassy shire.

They have their treasures still, as it happens. On my way to the Abbey I was shown Gilling Castle, Ampleforth's prep school. This is an amazing house, once a seat of the Catholic branch of the Fairfaxes, with a cavernous 14th-century basement, almost untouched, a 16th-century interior above, and an 18th-century facade, all in the grand, buttery stone of the locality. The little boys take their meals in a setting not even Eton or Winchester can match, a great, airy stone chamber from the middle of Elizabeth's reign, with spectacular painted and carved panelling, decorated in the Renaissance manner with ladies and gentlemen holding high revel, and the coat-of-arms of no fewer than 370 local families of note. I have never seen anything like it. Nor had Randolph Hearst. He bought it on the spot, and had it dismantled and packed up for future erection at his grim castle in Wales. But there it remained in its packing-cases while the magnate passed on to higher - or lower things. The story of how the monks took over the stripped and desecrated house, and eventually got the panelling back and reinstalled it exactly as before - no one would know it had ever left - is nothing short of a miracle, fit to rank among the countless marvels which have marked God's favour to the Benedictines since they were founded in the 6th century. …

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