Churches, Images, Visits

Aachen Cathedral (and associated thoughts)

Two weeks ago I moved to Berlin with my husband. We are planning to be here until August, while I work on a project part-funded by the DAAD, during which time I will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Großbritannien-Zentrum, part of the Humboldt University. We decided to drive from Oxford to Berlin, stopping in Aachen, and ticking off a medievalist bucket list item: Aachen Cathedral. Not all of the photographs in this post are mine, but their attributions should be clear.

Our hotel was over a mile from the town centre and we decided to take advantage of a relatively warm (for April in northern Europe) evening by walking in. This had the added advantage of not having to take our bike rack off the car, or get the car out of the hotel’s Tiefgarage. About halfway there, as we stopped at a traffic light, we realised that a Santiago ‘Pilgerweg’ scallop shell had been stuck onto the lamp-post. Clearly a sign.

Camino scallop shell (photo: Mary Boyle)

After walking all the way around the cathedral in an attempt to locate the door, we managed to get inside with only five minutes to spare before closing. Five minutes to drink in one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.

Time and space come together in the Aachener Dom. Charlemagne began to build the Palatine Chapel in the 790s, but the intervening 12+ centuries have more than had their say. The church was targeted by Vikings in the ninth century and restored in the tenth. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw Gothic additions, most spectacularly the quire. The Hungarian chapel was added in the eighteenth century, and in 1802, with the foundation of the Diocese of Aachen, the ancient church became a cathedral. This first Diocese of Aachen lasted a mere nineteen years, but was re-founded in 1930, when the church became a cathedral once more. The twentieth century also saw the Domwache: volunteers who, rather than seeking shelter during air raids, instead stayed in the cathedral, putting out fires as they started. And in 1978, Aachen Cathedral became Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The twenty-first century has already made a contribution, as the cathedral has recently undergone intensive restoration work.

Outside you can see the melding of different architectural styles – most obviously in the form of the nineteenth-century tower perched on top. My mind immediately jumped back to the year I spent living in Trier, where successive generations, from the Romans onwards, made their mark on its cathedral on top of – or next to – those who had come before. The thirteenth-century Gothic Liebfrauenkirche was built adjoining the cathedral, on Roman foundations, but was closed for refurbishment for my entire time in the town.

Charlemagne is thought to have modelled the eight-sided Palatine Chapel (all that remains of his palace) on San Vitale in Ravenna, which he had visited several times, but he was consciously drawing on an architectural tradition of which San Vitale was itself a part: Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was thought to have been octagonal in shape. Templar churches were often built on this pattern and medieval pilgrims, following the example of the Templars, referred to the octagonal Dome of the Rock as the Temple of Solomon. Pilgrims provided various reports as to what was supposed to be inside, although on the whole they did not attempt to gain entry, as Christians and Jews were barred. A notable exception (or so he claims) was the fifteenth-century German pilgrim Arnold von Harff, who gleefully recounted a night-time excursion to the ‘templum Salomonis’ disguised as a Mamluk. [1]

Aachen Cathedral (all photos mine):

San Vitale (all photos mine):

Templar churches: Temple Church, London (top) and Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal (bottom). All photos mine (apologies for the quality; they were taken on a Nokia in 2007):

Five minutes in Aachen Cathedral was, of course, only enough to whet my appetite, and I don’t think that I can really tick it off my bucket list as yet. So, an excuse to go back to Aachen – and I’d better get back to Trier as well, and finally see the inside of the Liebfrauenkirche.

There’s plenty of information available online about Aachen Cathedral, but the German and English Wikipedia articles are a good starting place, and the Route Charlemagne has various flyers full of information, including one on the cathedral, which I’ve used here, to which I’m linking in German and English. The website is also available in French and Dutch.

[1] Die Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff, ed. by E. von Groote (Cologne: Heberle (Lempertz), 1860), p.178.

Churches, Visits

A Wintry Pylgrymage

I am currently working on a DPhil thesis which looks at pilgrimage writings produced by two Germans and two Englishmen towards the end of the long fifteenth century. I am reading these texts as literature, and considering what they have to tell us about identity and experience. The German writers are Bernhard von Breydenbach and Arnold von Harff; the English writers are William Wey and the anonymous chaplain of Sir Richard Guylforde.

At the beginning of this year, my husband and I decided to make a winter pilgrimage to some of Kent’s medieval heritage which we hadn’t seen before, and we began with New Romney. New Romney was once on the coast – in fact it is one of the original Cinque Ports. These days it’s a mile from the sea, although apparently there is still a mooring ring to be seen in front of the church (we couldn’t find it ourselves). One of the more obvious markers of the town’s past is that the church is several feet below the current level of the pavement thanks to the silt left behind by the storms in 1287.

New Romney Church
New Romney Church

The Norman church is well worth a visit, and while we were there, we met a very friendly church warden who told us some of the church’s history. This, though, is all by way of introduction. Our plan had been to go on from New Romney to the isolated church of St Thomas Becket at Fairfield:

Fairfield Church, Romney Marsh, December 2003. Photo taken by Stephen Nunney
Fairfield Church, Romney Marsh, December 2003. Photo taken by Stephen Nunney

But we didn’t make it to Fairfield. While reading the leaflet in New Romney church about the medieval churches of Romney Marsh, something else caught my eye: the Church of St Mary, East Guldeford. According to the leaflet, it had been built by Sir Richard de Guldeford and consecrated in 1505. Now, it’s not much exaggeration to say that, in the past, words could be spelt in almost any way that suited the writer’s mood. Since that’s no longer the case, I have to be careful to spell ‘pilgrimage’ with ‘i’ and not ‘y’. But as much as that’s clearly a superior spelling, it’s also beside the point. The point is that this church was founded by Sir Richard Guylforde, the account of whose pilgrimage had been written by his unnamed priest. So then we had to decide what to do with the remaining light: Fairfield or East Guldeford. East Guldeford won.

Sir Richard Guylforde/ Guildford/ de Guldeford (all pronounced ‘Guildford) was fascinating long before he went to the Holy Land. He was attainted following the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483, and joined the future King Henry VII in exile. It proved to be an excellent career move. Guylforde was knighted at Milford Haven, and received various advantages over the next few decades, amongst them a seat on the King’s Privy Council. He was also given the right to the coastal marshland upon which East Guldeford was built. Unfortunately, despite Guylforde’s land-holdings and important positions, he frequently found himself in debt, most disastrously in the early years of the sixteenth century. His debt, combined with a feud with Lord Bergavenny, led Henry to agree to remove him from office, and it is likely that he avoided prosecution by going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He never returned. As his chaplain writes:

bothe my mayster and mayster Pryor of Gysborne were sore seke, therefore with grete dyffyculte and outragyous coste we purueyed camellys for them and certayne Mamolukes to conducte theym in safty to Jherusalem, whiche intreated vs very euyll, and toke moche more for theyr payne thenne theyr couenaunt was

(Ellis, p. 17)

Both Guylforde and the Prior died shortly afterwards.

And this same Sonday at nyght, aboute .j. or .ij. of the cloke at after mydnyght, my M. syr Ric. Guylford, whom God assoyle, disceased, and was had ye same mornynge to Mounte Syon afore daye.

And the same Monday, our Ladyes euen, ye Natiuite, all the pylgrymes come to Mounte Syon, to the buryenge of my sayde Master Guylford, where was done by the freres as moche solempne seruyce as myght be done for hym

(Ellis, p. 40).

East Guldeforde St Mary
East Guldeford St Mary

Guylforde’s pilgrimage ended in September 1506, but his church is still there. It’s tiny. It’s in the middle of a field, and we drove past it three times before we could work out where to turn off. Guylforde received faculty to build it in 1499, and it was consecrated in September 1505 by Richard FitzJames, Bishop of Chichester and Warden of Merton College – which felt like a nice coincidence. The consecration took place several months before Guylforde left on his pilgrimage, and presumably in the midst of his legal woes. When we arrived, there was no one around. The door of the church wouldn’t open, so we settled for walking around the outside, and peering through the keyhole. Then I made one last attempt, and the door opened. Much of the church has been altered since the beginning of the sixteenth century, but it repays a visit. It was particularly atmospheric at the turn of the year, when we had it to ourselves. The anonymous account of his short pilgrimage and this remote church, far from Jerusalem where he was buried, are what remains of Sir Richard Guylforde.

East Guldeforde St Mary Interior
East Guldeford St Mary Interior
The coat of arms is thought to be sixteenth century
The coat of arms is thought to be sixteenth century
Bell clapper from the bell donated to East Guldeford in the 1800s.
The information on the wall explains that this is the clapper from the church bell, which was taken down in 1912 after developing cracks. It had previously hung in Playden Church and was donated to East Guldeford in the 19th century.
A display board showing various stages in the church's history
A display board showing various stages in the church’s history
East Guldeford St Mary Exterior
East Guldeford St Mary Exterior

For further information on Sir Richard Guylforde and his church, see:

The Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde to the Holy Land, A.D. 1506, ed. by Henry Ellis (London: Camden Society, 1851) (available online)
Richard Guildford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Sussex Parish Churches: East Guldeford St Mary