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A few days ago, when the weather was more like summer than it is at the moment, I was fortunate enough to have a couple of hours to wander around Worcester Cathedral. There’s been a religious house on the site since 680, and the present Cathedral was begun by Bishop Wulfstan in 1084.

In 1216, King John (of Magna Carta fame) was buried at Worcester.

Prince Arthur, the elder brother of Henry VIII was also buried in the Cathedral, and a magnificent Chantry Chapel was built, housing his tomb, so that priests could offer Mass for the repose of Arthur’s soul.

Thirty eight years later, Henry would dissolve the monastery at Worcester and several of the figures above the altar were defaced when Commissioners visited the Cathedral during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547-1553).

Wandering around the day before I was due to be running workshops on reading medieval manuscripts, it was wonderful to be able to consider the symbolism of the Chantry Chapel and how the emblems provide us with the information to create a narrative of what is being commemorated.

Right there in front of me (and the thousands of other visitors) was the white rose of York, signifying Arthur’s mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV, surmounted by two ostrich feathers, the emblem of the heir, aligned with the Tudor portcullis.

The Tudor rose surrounded by the Garter surmounted by two ostrich feathers, showing Arthur as a Knight of the Garter, next to the pomegranate symbolising Catherine of Aragon, whom Arthur had married only a few months prior to his death.

 

The arms of France and England supported by the Welsh dragon and the greyhound, the shield of Henry VII and, later, Elizabeth I.

The Chapel narrative, therefore, does not just commemorate Arthur, but provides us with a memorial of a broader Tudor history and its connections with Spain and its continued claim to France.

 

The architecture becomes a way of seeing, and this is reflected in the later memorials that I saw in other parts of the Cathedral, such as the serene depiction of Charlotte Digby, who died in 1820.

Her statue seems to romanticise the ‘rapid consumption’ that killed her as well as the woman herself. This monument remembers in a very different way.This monument remembers in a very different way.

I think the inscription that affected me the most, however, was the plaque commemorating Margaret Rae, mother of five children, who died in June 1770, aged 29. I like the image of this woman as a traveller, but can’t put my finger on what I find so disturbing about the description of the vanity of hope that begins the memorial. It’s an idea that crops up in a letter from Shelley to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, where he imagines himself at one time ‘dead to everything but the unenviable capacity of indulging in the vanity of hope’. And in ‘Stanzas on a Gipsy Child by the Sea-shore’ (1849), Matthew Arnold sees that the child ‘hast foreknown the vanity of hope / Foreseen thy harvest’ (lines 39-40). I’m not quite sure I can fully comprehend or explain what has continued to make me think about this particular inscription more than the others. My initial response was sadness (perhaps not surprising), but there’s something oddly unnerving about the way in which Margaret is being remembered here, and it’s played on my mind for the past week or so.

 From the political and international pageantry of the medieval and early modern tombs to the more personal and perhaps more intimate serenity of the memorials of the eighteenth century, Worcester Cathedral provides a wonderful narrative of changing attitudes to death and commemoration, as well as the interconnectedness of seeing and remembering, being seen and being remembered.

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