Today we commemorate Alfred the Great – our only ruler to have been given that epithet. His was no quick-fix campaign. He survived refuge in the dank Somerset levels to defeat his enemies, secure his territory, found burghs, encourage learning and support church reform.
Here is the collect for his day: look out for the phrase “inwardly love” which speaks of the inner faith and strength that kept him going:
God, our maker and redeemer, we pray you of your great mercy and by the power of your holy cross to guide us by your will and to shield us from our foes: that, after the example of your servant Alfred, we may inwardly love you above all things; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I also caught up with the latest British Library Blog which bewails the paucity of surviving West Country manuscripts and records the presence of many “fragments”, some legitimate recovered pieces used in later bindings, some I fear clipped out leaving the donor MS to die. Herefordshire presumably counts as West, and among the fragments is part of an MS containing texts by “Alfred the Englishman”. Not The Great though, but Shareshill, an important 13th century West Midland scientist, who helped develop the tradition of learning within which Grosseteste stood. The image from Harley MS 5414, f. 72 shows part of a treatise on plants which uses Aristotelian material.
We nearly didn’t visit – and what a miss that would have been. We were warmly welcomed with a personal preview of what to look out for, very helpful in this typically-for-Portland slightly weird museum created by Marie Stopes of all people (who was of course also an excellent scientist and amateur archaeologist).
We engaged in the usual spot-the-relative game and found this Beechey (father in law of J’s 3-greats aunt) portrait of John Penn (grandson of the founder of the colony who was given land on Portland and built Pennsylvania Castle there when the colony was lost).
Now for the matrimonial insights. In 1818, still a bachelor at 58, Penn founded the Matrimonial Society, soon renamed the Outinian Society to encourage young men and women to marry. He looks across the room at Marie Stopes, here pictured in a scene of family bliss as befits the author of the best-selling “Family Love”
but actually after divorcing her first husband for non-consummation and later to more or less abandon this one when she tired of him, or so the museum’s boards tell us.
And next to her are memorabilia of Thomas Hardy whose last novel “The Well-Beloved” is partly inspired by Avice’s cottage, one of those that make up the museum, and chronicles the affairs of its hero with a woman, her daughter and her grand-daughter (all called Avice) in turn.
I am pleased to report that J and I are still rubbing along well together and looking forward to a meal out tonight at “The Boat That Rocks”.
By the 1760’s Portland was in need of a new and larger parish church, so the unsurprisingly-dedicated St George’s rose as what Pevsner calls, “The most impressive eighteenth century church in Dorset,” even if cattily goes on to comment, “partly owing to its singular – and by no means faultless architecture.”
The interior, now in the care of the CCCC as time has rendered St George’s once again inadequate, is indeed a party piece of its era, marked by the twin castellations of pulpit and reading desk; and to leave no doubt as to which activity was paramount, they are set amidships with the for’ard pews facing backwards towards them.
Even more memorable for me, though, is the vast and packed graveyard, a cross between a quarry and henge, where islanders and Kimberlins* alike lie slowly turning into stone like the ancestors at Avebury.
* The Portland term for incomers. Etymology unknown but ? just comers-in with a bit of a burr?
Cordelia Boydell was born in 1787 to the famous painter-publisher Josiah. Her sister Mary Ann married Jean’s 3-greats grandfather so she was the aunt of the Sophia who was married in Weymouth. Cordelia had moved to live in the Royal Crescent there and Mary Ann came to live nearby in Gloucester Row as a widow (which explains Sophia’s wedding church).
Perhaps the sisters also enjoyed worshipping or at least visiting the picturesque country church at Preston cum Sutton Poyntz (which village is now even more picturesquely rebuilt after a devastating fire).
The church was warm and quiet (though a Messy Church display bespeaks livelier moments too), and its gems for me were its stained glass, a Kempe hiding in the bell-tower and two more modern pieces, one showing scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress, and the other commemorating the sad loss of Constance Conway aged 13 shown holding music from Mendelssohn’s E minor prelude which was about to play in a school function.
Certainly it was there that Cordelia chose to be buried, though the gravestones are badly eroded and we didn’t spot hers on this visit.
Sophia Jones and the Revd Francis Daubeny were wed here on October 14th 1843. She was Jean’s 3-greats aunt, and he went on to be Rector of Mepal near Woodhall at Hilgay where the Joneses had lived.
Melcombe was but a chapelry in the Middle Ages and the church we see now was a new build after royal patronage (George III had a pew there) rather increased the congregation… This also explains why the fine painting above the altar which would have been in Sophia’s sight as she married was by Thornhill who painted the dome at St Paul’s.
Or perhaps not, depending on when the massive central pulpit and organ case was moved (unless of course it was moveable anyway like the one at St Cuthbert Carlisle).
As you can see the church looks very different now with screened off aisles providing useful meeting and gallery space – and rather surprising light and sound effects, but all signs of life so three cheers for that.
Bishop’s Caundle is just outside Sherborne, a quiet hamlet whose church (no dedication) feels sleepily quiet too. So it makes a fine final resting place for one of Jean’s great-grandfathers the Revd Henry Edmund Legh who had his last incumbency here, dying in 1913.
He had a troubled life, and it is good to see his simple cross catching the light by the church and rectory that he held.
Lucky Karen Gorham to have, as a suffragan, an ancient diocesan see and a spectacular “see church” (though of course it would be dangerous to press that too far), Sherborne Abbey stands splendid in its golden stone, very much all of a piece with a late-fifteenth century fan-vaulted feel and space and proportions to rival King’s Cambridge. Such rivalry was also dangerous on the eve of the dissolution.
My favourite spots though were less in-your-face: St Aldhelm quietly looking at his heritage, and the Old Testament prophets shining out from the few remaining fragments of medieval stained glass nearby. What wouldn’t I give for a few minutes’ conversation with any of them?