Peter Milward

Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008



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Preface:  English Humour in Pictures


Part I.  Ancient Eccentricities

1.       The Whale Stone

2.       Mysticism in Cows

3.       The Stone Dance

4.       A Dark Lighthouse


Part II.  Monuments of Madness

5.       Craziness from the Cradle

6.       The Ruins of Time

7.       Poetry amid Penury

8.       Play amid Ruins


Part III.  Castles in the Air

9.       Another Ruthless King

10.    Aftermath of a Masque

11.    Sheep at a Banquet

12.    Soldiers on Guard


Part IV.  Mad Mansions

13.    Disney in Cheshire

14.    The Haunted Hall

15.    The Shambles

16.    The Crooked Hall


Part V.  Holy Follies

17.    Converging Lines

18.    People on Pinnacles

19.    An Inclining Chancel

20.    The Spire and the Window


Part VI.  Queer Carvings

21.    Jacob’s Ladder

22.    Mediaeval Sumo

23.    An Indian Boy

24.    A Strange Saint


Part VII.  Comic Graves

25.  A Grave Figure-Head

26.  An Acrostic Epitaph

27.  The Church Cat

28.  Dead as Donkeys


Part VIII.  Unique Universities

29.  Funny Faces

30.  Spikes for Students

31.  Pig with Wings

32.  Fire!


Part IX.  Inspiration in Inns

33.  The Flying Horse

34.  The Fighting Cocks

35.  First and Last

36.  The End of the World


Part X.  Peculiar Publicity

37.  Touting for Tooth-Paste

38.  Bend or Bump!

39.  Upon My Sole!

40.  Private Property


Part XI.  Floral Folly

41.  The Anchor in Flower

42.  Sesame Street

43.  Floral Time

44.  British Bonsai


Part XII.  Animal Antics

45.  Cowardice of Cows

46.  Crossing the Road

47.  A Dog in the Water

48.  A Circus Cat
















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Part II.  Monuments of Madness


5.      Craziness from the Cradle

The once great abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset is not inappropriately regarded as “the cradle of British Christianity”.  I say “British”, not “English”, since Christianity came to these islands long before the English arrived in the fifth century AD, and longer  still before St.Augustine with his monks came and made Canterbury “the cradle of Christianity” in England.


It was in earlier, British times, when Britain was a province of the Roman Empire, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was brought to our shores.  Then, according to one old legend, it was St.Joseph of Arimathea, a noble Jewish follower of Jesus, who came to Glastonbury, bringing with him the precious cup of the Last Supper, known to later times as “the Holy Grail”.  It is a romantic story, such as may well have been invented by a mediaeval poet, especially if he happened to be Welsh and a monk of Glastonbury.  But it is based on an older tradition, going back to British times, that there was a wattle hut serving as a chapel, to which came both St.Patrick of Ireland and St.David of Wales in the fifth century.


Anyhow, everything in Glastonbury breathes the rich air of romance.  Even before Christian times the hill behind the abbey ruins was a pagan burial ground and rose out of the surrounding marshes as an ideal “land of the blessed”.  In Christian times, too, it was associated not only with St.Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail, but also with King Arthur and his knights, who went forth on the quest of the Holy Grail, as we read in Malory’s classic Morte Darthur.  Then in more historical times we find the English King Alfred retreating as far as this marshland before going on to launch his successful counter-attack against the Danes in the ninth century.


It wasn’t long before the abbey, founded under such auspicious circumstances, became the most famous of all the abbeys in mediaeval England.  The monks indeed had every reason to be proud of themselves and their abbey.  But alas, theirs was the pride that proverbially comes before a fall.  That fall was, however, brought about by the pride not of the monks themselves but of King Henry VIII, who decreed their dissolution and the death of their saintly abbot in the sixteenth century.


So we come not to comedy but to tragedy, the tragedy that befell not only this abbey but all religious houses in England, thanks to the pride, the greed, and the wantonness of one man, Henry VIII.  And it was all, as one might well guess, because of one woman, Anne Boleyn.  As the French say of such a situation, “Cherchez la femme” – Look for the woman.  And in this case one doesn’t have to look far.


In histories of England we read of “the dissolution of the monasteries” as part of the religious reformation initiated by Henry VIII, continued by his son Edward VI, and brought to completion by his daughter Elizabeth I.  It was, however, no religious motive that prompted Henry to take such a drastic step against the old abbeys.  His original motive was his desire of a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to be free to marry another woman, Anne Boleyn.  Then, once he had achieved his freedom and established himself as Supreme Head of the Church in England, he cast eyes of greed on the extensive property of the abbeys.


First, it was the smaller abbeys and religious houses that were dissolved, with the enforced approval of Parliament in 1536.  Their dissolution in turn paved the way for the dissolution of the greater abbeys, culminating in that of Glastonbury.  One wonders how such widespread destruction could have been taken lying down by the English of that time, whether by the monks themselves, who were proverbially meek, or by the people who depended in so many ways on the monks.  The answer is that there were considerable protests, not least from the North of England, but they were ruthlessly suppressed by the king and his advisers.  One such protest was raised by the holy abbot of Glastonbury, and the king’s answer was to have him hanged before the front gate of his abbey.


What a tragedy it seems to us today, especially when we travel round the English countryside and come upon one ruin after another!  Yet time has a strange power to cover over the tragedies of the past and even to change the tragedy into comedy, or at least into romance.  For the passing of time is accompanied by the growth of nature from year to year, and the ruins left by Henry VIII have long since been covered over by kindly vegetation.  So they have come to seem like rocks surrounded by foliage, and all the more romantic in ruin.


In particular, amid the foliage at Glastonbury one comes across a peculiar kind of thorn bush called “the Glastonbury thorn”.  What makes it peculiar among other kinds of thorn is that it blossoms not in the spring but at Christmas-time.  The legendary reason for this peculiarity is that St.Joseph of Arimathea, on safely arriving at Glastonbury after a long voyage by sea, planted his staff in the ground and it blossomed at Christmas both then and thereafter.  As for the legend, I can only say, “Believe it or not!”  But in fact the thorn continues to blossom for all to see at Christmas-time.



6.      The Ruins of Time

Scarcely inferior in importance to the abbey of Glastonbury in the West of England was the other abbey of Bury St.Edmunds in the East.  In history it fails to go back to British times, but its fame is securely based on the tomb of the English king and martyr St.Edmund.  It not only grew into a great abbey, but it also became a fortified town, or “bury”, that grew up around the abbey, as so often happened in the Middle Ages.  So by mediaeval times it came to be one of the largest and richest abbeys of the land, with its holy shrine of St.Edmund.


Needless to say, this abbey suffered the same fate as its Western counterpart of Glastonbury.  It was destroyed with no less ruthlessness by the cruel and rapacious King Henry, and its ruins today are even more impressive in their nakedness than those of Glastonbury.  Here there is less foliage to mask the nakedness of the ruins from the eyes of visitors, though one suspects that much foliage from the past has been stripped by the well-meaning but ill-advised archaeologists of the present.  So here one finds less romance than at Glastonbury.


What now is left to be said of these ruins that remained unsaid of those other ruins at Glastonbury?  The ruins themselves may seem less romantic, exposing as they do to common gaze the undisguised cruelty and rapacity of the king who was immediately responsible for them.  Facing them, one is merely appalled at the extent of his greed, as Shakespeare himself was appalled when he uttered his lament over the “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” – meaning the monks chanting the divine office in choir.


All the same, these ruins now enjoy such a pleasant setting in public gardens maintained with seasonal vigilance by the municipality of Bury St.Edmunds.  The gardens themselves may not be so romantic, for the romantic spirit flourishes amid wild, luxuriant vegetation, whereas here they are neatly laid out with a variety of garden flowers.  Even the ruins set in their midst take on a certain air of neatness, as if they were specially made for the gardens.


It was in this setting that there took place a certain comedy, not tragedy, when I visited the ruins with yet another group of Japanese.  We hadn’t yet come as far as the ruins, but we were strolling through the gardens and admiring the flowers on either side of the path.  Needless to say, there were notices on the lawns spaced out between the beds of flowers, “Keep off the grass!”  But the notices didn’t apply to the ducks who enjoyed the freedom of wandering over the lawns and the flower-beds in blissful ignorance of the notices.


I was so charmed by this blissful ignorance of the ducks that I forgot all about the ruins in my desire to take a picture of the birds among the flowers.  They made such a lovely English scene of what is called in traditional Japanese paintings, kacho – flowers with birds.  But alas! the ducks weren’t so keen on making a lovely scene for my camera.  As I took aim at them from the safety of the path, they immediately waddled off, before I could press the shutter.


Then, as I could see no gardener or garden official to stop me, I disregarded the notices in my pursuit of the ducks.  But the more I pursued them, the more they waddled away, as if bent on frustrating me.  At last, I succeeded is taking a picture of one or two of them, with their backs to me – while I was myself taken in the act of defying the notices by the camera of one member of my group.


The picture I took was, I think, humorous enough, as ducks are innately humorous creatures, especially when out of water and waddling over a grass lawn.  One might even say that they must have been created by God to show us his divine sense of humour.  Their faces are so set in an eternal grin!  But the picture in which I was taken was even more humorous – all the more so, as I was unaware of being taken.  For a university professor of English to be caught in the act of chasing ducks across English lawns, it was most undignified!


Such a picture might, of course, have been taken anywhere.  It had no special connection with the ruins of the nearby abbey.  Yet the fact that the ruins were nearby lent a certain poignancy to the humour of my situation.  There was I pursuing wandering ducks over neat lawns among the flower-beds of the abbey gardens, armed not with a gun but a camera.  How ridiculous!  Yet how well suited to the memory of the old monks, one of whose ideals was to be “perfect fools” for the love of Christ!


7.      Poetry amid Penury

“Where, before, there was so much wealth, now, there is so much penury!”  Such might have been the lament of a contemporary observer of the wholesale despoliation of the monasteries by order of that crazy king, Henry VIII.  The effect of his one action on the whole of English culture might well be compared to that of the proverbial bull in a china-ship.  It was all so mindless, so unnecessary, so ineffectual.  He pillaged the monasteries in his boundless greed, and yet in his boundless prodigality by the end of his reign he had spent all his ill-gotten gains, and the royal treasury was left empty for his son and successor, Edward VI.


“Confusion now hath wrought his masterpiece!”  Such is the comment of Macduff on witnessing the murder of his royal master Duncan, and such may well have been Shakespeare’s own comment on the royal despoliation of so many monasteries – especially as he goes on to describe it as a “most sacrilegious murder” that “hath broke ope the Lord’s anointed temple”.  The crazy path of the despoiler is still to be seen, even today, up and down the English countryside, not least in the Northern county of Yorkshire, where there were so many abbeys.  And among the ruins not the least impressive are those of Whitby.


Here the abbey ruin is all the more impressive for standing on a high cliff overlooking the North Sea.  From the sea it must look especially impressive, with the ruins standing out against the sky – as though appealing to high heaven for vengeance.  It isn’t only, however, the view, whether from the ruin on land, or of the ruin from sea, but also the memory it enshrines of an event that happened here some thirteen centuries ago, that I find most impressive.


For here English poetry was born, born of a dream granted as a gift from heaven to a simple cowherd named Caedmon.  Before he went to sleep on that historic occasion and dreamed his dream, he was no poet but a simple cowherd at the old Saxon monastery.  But as a result of his dream, he went on to compose the first English poem, in praise of the great Creator.  And from that brief poem he went on to compose other religious poems as well.  So he has come to be known as “the father of English poetry”.


The story of Caedmon is narrated by the Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede, who lived a generation later at the nearby monastery of Jarrow.  So it is more than a mere legend.  The cowherd, Bede tells us, was sitting at a feast, when the harp was being passed round for those at the table to take their successive turns in singing.  Only, as he felt no such talent in himself, Caedmon rose up from the table before the harp came to him and he retired to his cowshed for the night.  There he lay down and went to sleep, and in his sleep he dreamt a dream.  In his dream he heard an angel speaking to him and saying, “Caedmon, sing me something.”  “But I can’t sing,” he replied.  “You can sing,” said the voice.  “Then what shall I sing?” he asked.  “Sing of creation!” came the answer.  Then, opening his mouth, Caedmon sang the praises of God, and when he awoke he found he could remember the whole dream, including the words of his song.  As he was unable to write, he dictated the words of his song to one of the monks at the monastery.  And from then onwards he went on composing poems, turning into English verse whatever the monks read to him from the holy scriptures.


It is a charming story, the way it features a simple cowherd with his dream of angels.  It all happened, as Bede says, on this very spot, though the abbey to which Caedmon belonged was a wooden building soon to be destroyed by the invading Danes long before the time of Henry VIII.  In his days the abbey was the setting not only for the first English poem but also for a famous council of the English Church in 664 AD.  As that council is famous in the annals of Anglo-Saxon history, so Caedmon’s poem is famous in the annals of English literature.


What is more, in the nearby church with its churchyard one comes upon a recent memorial surmounted by a Celtic cross, in memory of the poem.  Here the poem is transcribed not in the original Anglo-Saxon, but in modern English, for the edification of passers-by, “Now must we praise/ The guardian of heaven’s realm/ The creator’s might/ And his mind’s thought/ The glorious works of the father/ How of every wonder/ He the lord eternal/ Laid the foundation.”  And so it goes on for several more lines.  It is at once simple and solemn, with its measured rhythm and echoing alliteration. It penetrates deeply into the mind and heart of the reader.


Needless to say, we look in vain for any trace of humour in the poem.  Yet from his high position as father of English poetry, we may imagine Caedmon – like Troilus in Chaucer’s poem – looking down both on the marauding Danes and even on the henchmen of Henry VIII and laughing at them.  For with all their destructive handiwork, they have been unable to destroy either his dream or his poem.  His memory, too, has come down to us today with a blessing, whereas those others have only brought down curses on themselves.


Only, I can’t think that Caedmon himself either curses them or even derides them from his place in heaven.  Rather, I see him in my mind’s eye pitying them.  They were so short-sighted in their mindless savagery, whereas he takes in all things with his inspired song of praise.



8.      Play amid Ruins

Also in Yorkshire, not far from the city of Leeds, there stand the ruins of Bolton Abbey.  In the course of an excursion from York to Haworth, for a visit to the Bronte country, I have often stopped here for an additional place of interest.  The ruins are so conveniently situated near the main road, and in such a beautiful setting on the banks of the river Wharfe, or Wharfedale.  Coming here, I can’t help admiring the aesthetic taste of the monks in choosing such a spot for their hermitage, “the world forgetting, by the world forgot”.  “If only,” I sadly reflect, “Henry VIII could also have forgotten it!”


Invariably, when I come to these ruins, I am accompanied by my students on one of my literary and historical pilgrimages.  So while the ruins themselves fill me with romantic and tragic reminiscences, I can’t shake off a playful mood, recalling (with Shakespeare) that tragedy is not to be separated from comedy. 


First, we walk along a path from a “Hole in the Wall” above leading downwards to the river below, and there we come to a line of stepping stones across the river.  Without a moment’s delay I step across the stones and take up my place on the other side, with my camera at the ready.  “Come on, come across!” I call to my companions. “There’s nothing to be afraid of!”  But my hope is their fear – that they may lose their footing and fall into the river, and thus provide me with a perfect picture for my camera.  Alas, they are too wary, at once of the river below them and of my encouragement from the other bank.


The ruins themselves are, moreover, on their side of the river.  So they have no special reason for crossing to where I am standing – except that from my side one may obtain a somewhat better view of the ruins as a whole.  Then, for lack of a comic picture of someone falling off the stones into the river, I have to content myself with rejoining them and taking photos of the ruins from close up.


That isn’t all, however.  The same instinct that led the above-mentioned girl student to balance on one of the stones of the Stone Circle in the Lake District, now prompts one of the boys in my present group to do a similar balancing act on a stile over one of the stone hedges as we leave the ruins.  Or was it, I wonder, the same instinct?


At the Stone Circle the very arrangement of the stones in a circle had seemed like a mute invitation to come and join in their cosmic dance.  But here the stones of the ruins, insofar as they formed any pattern, were standing in a square round the abbey cloister, while the other traces of monastic buildings were all either square or rectangular.  Such a pattern hardly makes for a dance.


On the other hand, in the ruined abbey church, whose towering Gothic lines stood out so impressively against the blue sky, I could easily imagine the Gregorian chant of the old monks rising up to heaven like incense.  There in heaven I could also imagine them joining hands with the choirs of angels, as represented by Botticelli in his famous painting of the Nativity, moving round in cosmic dance.  Maybe that is what inspired my student in his subconscious mind, though his conscious motive was rather to strike a pose for my camera.


This all leads me to reflect on the vexed question of monastic humour.  According to the infamous Name of the Rose by the Italian Umberto Eco, those mediaeval monks didn’t have much of what we nowadays call a sense of humour, but they were all too serious in their hypocritical observances of prayer and penance.  So this grimness of theirs was duly wiped off their faces by the swift action of the king whose other name is “bluff King Hal”.  Such an interpretation, however, I cannot accept.


True, there may not be any record of monastic laughter before the days of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.  But then there is little record of any other kind of laughter.  In those days people seem to have been so serious, whether in the religious or the lay state.  Rather, we have to look behind the insufficient records to the human hearts of both the monks and the layfolk, while remembering how close laughter comes to the heart of man.  Even the Greek philosopher, whose thought came to dominate the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and who defined man as a “rational animal” – I mean Aristotle – laid emphasis on the ability to laugh in connection with the power of reason.


What, then, you may ask, is the connection between reason and laughter?  Well, I may answer, it is reason that enables a man to take an objective view of things and of himself.  It is reason that enables him to see the ideal of man and to contrast it with the pitiful or ridiculous reality.  Thereby it enables us to laugh.  It is indeed in this highest point of his reason that man is able to see the divine ideal, how all things are created by God.  And so, while everything is to be honoured as a creature, nothing is to be taken altogether seriously, except isofar as it leads man to the end of his creation in God. 


Thus, from the seriousness of the divine praises as sung in the abbey church, the monks may well have descended in their ordinary lives to human laughter – whether at someone falling off the stepping-stones into the river, or at someone else performing a balancing act on a stile. 



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