Tag Archives Reformation

TREASON OF THE CLERKS

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I have lived most of my life in the suburbs

of the ancient city of Chester, with its

walled centre of Roman, Saxon, and Norman

ramparts of cut sandstone. Even though

the city, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged

during the English Civil War, the walls

remained more or less intact until

the road traffic demands of commerce.

 

I went to a school in the old city,

a coveted school with two entrance exams.

It was one of many such establishments

in market towns across England created

by Thomas Cromwell from the assets

of the monastic abbeys his master,

King Henry, had seized: schools to manufacture

Protestant clerks to collect the King’s taxes.

The building, as our head master – himself

an Anglican cleric – used often to say,

was ‘in the shadow of the cathedral’ once

an abbey church. Was that pulpit rhetoric,

or an unintentional irony?

 

The city’s four main streets follow the routes

of the thoroughfares of the Roman Camp,

each leading to one of the four main gates.

The meet at The Cross. Nearby, in Northgate Street,

there used to be a tobacconist who sold

small Cuban cigarettes in packets of five.

 

Armed with supplies we doughty band of smokers

would leave the school premises each break,

cross Abbey Square (past the Bishop’s House),

down Abbey Street (past the Dean’s and Archdeacon’s),

and onto the walls near the Kaleyard Gate –

a postern, originally for the monks

to daily access and tend their rows

of vegetables outside the city walls.

Come shine or rain, tourist crowd or none

we would walk quickly to Phoenix Tower,

which has a phoenix – then the  emblem

of the Painters’ Guild – carved above the door.

 

The tower is popularly known as

King Charles’ – for Charles I is said to have

stood on the roof and watched his cavalry

routed by the Roundheads on Rowton Moor.

More likely he had climbed the narrow, spiral

staircase in one of the cathedral’s towers

to get the best view. After the regicide,

the Dean and Chapter, no doubt, made up

the story about the Phoenix Tower

 

I am sure we spoke of little else but

the Reformation and its aftermath –

the doomed monarch, the brief Commonwealth,

the cynical Restoration, those

centuries of violent bigotry in these

Celtic Islands, and England becoming

a global trading power – as we stood there,

privileged white boys in striped ties and blazers,

hurriedly inhaling cheap tobacco

from the Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

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