An Encounter in Lockdown

Added about 2 years ago by Paula Clifford

GUEST BLOG: Paula Clifford, author of our recent release Tuscany’s Noble Treasures, tells us about an unlocked for encounter she had while writing the book.

Author PhotoIn Spring 2020 the UK was still in the grip of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. With the country largely in lockdown, there wasn’t much scope for moving around, whether for research or amusement. With the university libraries closed and overseas travel out of the question, I’d resigned myself to making little progress with my book on medieval holy women.

However, one permitted activity for clergy was conducting a funeral, even though few mourners were allowed to attend. And so it was that I found myself at a crematorium near Heathrow Airport, in the London Borough of Hounslow, where I’d been asked to officiate at a service for a former parishioner, according to instructions left in her will.

Not too far away, there was also Syon Abbey, whose ruins lie within the grounds of Syon House, home to the Duke of Northumberland: an opportunity, I thought, to prolong my day away from the confines of my home office. The house was of course closed to the public, but the grounds had recently reopened, for those brave souls who were prepared to go through the now familiar process of online booking and socially distanced walking.

I knew nothing about the house or abbey but was captivated by the information, gleaned from its website, that it was here that, in 1547, the bloated body of Henry VIII had allegedly exploded en route from London to burial at Windsor, while its escorts were taking a break.

It was only after I’d returned home, after a pleasant, if damp, walk through the woods of the Syon estate, that I realized I’d unwittingly rubbed shoulders with a couple of characters from my book.

Syon Abbey (founded in 1415 by Henry V) was the English pre-Reformation home to Bridgettine nuns, the Order established by St Bridget of Sweden, who was a near contemporary of Tuscany’s best known holy woman, St Catherine of Siena. Although Bridget had spent more than 20 years of her life in Rome, before her death in 1373, it appears that she and Catherine never met. Yet Catherine certainly had some contact with Bridget’s daughter, also called Catherine, and St Bridget’s outspoken criticism of the Church and its leaders, and warnings of the danger of schism, meant that the two women shared a common agenda.

This was admittedly a very tenuous cross-Europe link-up of Siena and Sweden via west London, but it was strengthened by a further detail. Catherine’s best-known work is her Dialogo or Dialogue – an extended conversation between her soul and God. Forty years after Catherine’s death a Middle English translation of the Dialogo came into circulation, based on a Latin version of the original by one of her scribes. This would become known as the Orchard of Syon, a title created by a sixteenth-century Dutch publisher to reflect a certain English spirituality and to link it expressly to the Bridgettine foundation.

My story of Tuscany’s medieval holy women ends with St Catherine’s death in 1380, when the flowering of Italian mysticism was drawing to a close. Yet the English connection would continue, with the link between Bridget, Catherine and Syon being passed on by the English mystic Margery Kempe (1373–1440) who visited both the Syon Abbey community and the house of St Bridget in Rome.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaimed three new “patronesses” of Europe: St Edith Stein, St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena and he commended Bridget and Catherine for “working tirelessly for the Church, taking her fortunes to heart on a European scale”. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover fragile remnants of their shared past in a West London garden. But thanks perhaps to the strange days of lockdown and isolation, and with the words of the funeral service still ringing in my ears, it seems on reflection to have been just a bit weird.

Dr Paula Clifford is a priest in the Church of England. She has published widely on topics as diverse as medieval French and popular theology. You can get your copy of Tuscany’s Noble Treasures here.

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