From Caedmon to Wordsworth with a Nod in the Direction of Evelyn Waugh



We intended to get an early start this morning, but, instead, got an exceptionally late one.  The owners of the Burswood Guest House are very friendly, and very talkative.


We drove, first, to Castle Howard, where the BBC version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was apparently filmed.  (That wasn’t our reason for going there, though I’m a fan of Evelyn Waugh.)  We knew that we didn’t have time today for a tour, so we contented ourselves with a photo of the main house from across the nearest point on the vast grounds that we peasants could reach without paying.  It’s interesting to see how the other tenth of a tenth of a thousandth of one percent used to live; it gives me ideas for how I want to design my heavenly mansion (should I actually happen to be offered one someday):



Then we drove to see the ruins of the early twelfth-century Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, which was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538; he divvied its wealth up among his cronies.



From Rieviaulx, we drove northward and toward the coast, through the famed Yorkshire moors.  As you can see, these moors, while they aren’t haunted by such creatures as the Hound of the Baskervilles (who lived near Dartmoor, in Devon, in England’s West Country), do contain cunning, fierce, and marauding beasts quite capable of seizing the heart of passing travelers with utter terror:




For me, though, the plain highlight of the day was the ruined Benedictine abbey of Whitby, overlooking the North Sea from the northern Yorkshire coast:



Whitby Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540, but, prior to that, it was a remarkable and important place.  Founded in AD 657, it was a Celtic double monastery, with both monks and nuns, first presided over by St. Hild (or St. Hilda) as its abbess.  Among those who lived in it during her time was Caedmon, a Northumbrian plowboy who became, so far as we know, the first poet in the English language.  It’s been interesting to realize what a center of learning and culture this general area was:  I failed to mention, yesterday, that one of the principal architects of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, the intellectual and cultural efflorescence under Charlemagne, was Alcuin of York (d. AD 804), who was at York Minster before Charlemagne brought him to Aachen.  And the Venerable Bede (d. 735), author of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” — our only source, incidentally, for the very interesting story of Caedmon —  was also a life-long resident of Northumbria.  He is the only English-born person to have been named a “Doctor of the Church” by the Vatican; St.Anselm of Canterbury, the other Briton so designated, was actually born in Italy.  And Lindisfarne is not all that far north, up the coast. (We simply ran out of time.)



Already in AD 664, the abbey was important enough (and, presumably, large enough) that it hosted the Synod of Whitby, in which Oswiu, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, agreed — contrary to his previous position — that monastic tonsure and, more importantly, the determination of the date of Easter would be carried out according to Roman rules.  These matters may seem trivial to us today, but they were burning issues that had split the Church in England, because many English Christians had been following Celtic rules rather than those of Rome.  By unifying practice on monastic dress and the liturgical calendar, Oswiu may have laid the foundation for a unified England and ensured that England became not an eccentric outlier of Christendom but an integral part of greater European Christian civilization.



Danish Vikings — my ancestors — laid waste to the abbey in successive raids between 867 and 870, and it remained a ruin for two centuries.  Then, during the time of William the Conqueror, the Normans revived it, and it flourished until the time of Henry VIII.  Since then, it has been a picturesque, even romantic, though rather melancholy ruin, even being linked to Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula. This is how one local website summarizes the connection:


In 1885 the Russian Schooner The Demeter was hit by a wild storm and ran aground in Whitby harbour on Tate Hill Sands. Mysteriously all the crew were dead, including the captain, who was lashed to the helm. The instant the Demeter ran around, a huge black dog was seen to leap ashore and run up the 199 steps towards Whitby Abbey. The dog was known to be one of the many forms into which a vampire could transform itself. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula had arrived in England . . .


But, now, I’m typing away in the English Lake District on the other side of the country —  beloved home of William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (altogether sunnier personalities than the Bram Stoker of Dracula), and frequented by other writers like Thomas De Quincey and Sir Walter Scott.


Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria, England






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  • Eric Stoddard

    Tonsure, an idea for the BYU religion department…