Monday, July 07, 2008
At Whitchurch Canonicorum
Two objects that, in terms of theological history, ought not to have co-existed so harmoniously as they have done over the centuries. At the right, a beautifully preserved octagonal Jacobean pulpit, where an angled door admits the preacher to read the word of God, and then deliver a sermon on a Bible text. It looks like something from a cruet set, and, from it, the divine word was judiciously sprinkled down on the congregation.
In the background, against the wall of the north transept, the almost unique English survivor of a former way of faith: it is the tomb of St Wita (St White, later latinised as St Candida). The oval apertures allowed those in need of the saint's intervention to insert affected limbs - or maybe their heads - and leave their votive offerings. The saint's coffin is above, and inside that, a leaden reliquary box containing bones of a woman that were old when the shrine was built. She might have been a Breton 'Saint Blanche' martyred by Vikings.
These two objects should not co-exist, but this deeply enfolded part of the Dorset landscape must have harboured sufficient Catholic sympathy for the relics not be be cast out. Edward the Confessor is still in Westminster Abbey, and Becket must be under Canterbury Cathedral somewhere, but St Wita is the only saint who remains in the parish church founded for her. There must once have been hundreds of shrines like this.
Whitchurch Canonicorum concentrates history: Sir George Somers is buried (at least, most of him) somewhere under the chancel. He had died in Bermuda on 9 November 1610, ‘of a surfeit of eating of a pig’ and "his nephew Matthew Somers decided to go against Somers's wishes that he return to Jamestown with supplies, and, burying his uncle's heart and entrails in Bermuda, carried his body back to England, where it was buried at Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset, with pomp and ceremony in 1611" (ODNB) There's an early 20th century plaque to the man whose first shipwreck and miraculous preservation on the 'still-vexed Bermudas' was written up by William Strachey, read by Shakespeare, and went into The Tempest.