There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city -
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and England.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Today, January 30th, is the anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1649. The painting above by Augustus Egg (1816-63), Charles I Raising His Standard in Nottingham, hangs in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. What I find striking in this picture is its absence of triumphalism, expectation, or even hope. The ragged, storm-laden sky says it all. The musicians go through the motions, but the atmosphere is tense and sombre, as if the outcome of the English Civil War, which hasn't started yet, is already known in hearts and minds.
The King's body language is far from Churchillian, yet there is little sign of fear on his face. Resigned to his fate he may be, but he is clearly determined to take a stand, defend his crown, his country and his people, and go down fighting if need be. The painting, I think, sums Charles up well. He succeeded his father, James I, in 1625, and at his execution the ancient principle of the Divine Right of Kings was buried with him, seemingly forever. The Monarchy was restored in 1660 in the person of his son, Charles II, but the great days of English kingship - when the monarch led and Parliament followed - were over. The Royalist defeat set the nation's course for centuries to come - an agenda dictated by mercantile, bourgeois interests to the detriment, in my view, of both the aristocracy and those on the margins of society. The reward was wealth and empire, but the price, as William Blake (himself no monarchist) understood, has been the diminution and fading of a higher, national vision. England's spiritual identity has been compromised, and it may well be that we have only started to feel the reality of this loss and blurring in very recent years.
Charles I had his flaws like all of us. He was prone to bouts of vanity and conceitedness, but he was clear and firm in his principles and had a rock solid sense of who he was and what he stood for. He retained the affection of his people throughout, seeing himself as their servant as much as their ruler. He curbed the iconoclastic excesses of the Reformation and inspired a widespread renewal of the spiritual life, a prime example being the contemplative community set up at the church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, by Nicholas Ferrar in 1626.
This is the church made famous by T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding. 'You are here to kneel,' he writes, 'where prayer has been valid.' Charles paid the last of his three visits to St. John's in 1646, in an attempt to elude the victorious Parliamentarians. 'If you came at night like a broken king', remarks Eliot in memoriam. Charles' subsequent capture, imprisonment, trial and execution are events which hang heavy over England still, I feel, like the clouds in Egg's painting. They seem somehow unresolved, at least to me, and sometimes it appears inevitable to my mind that the nation is due an almighty chastisement for allowing it all to happen. I take comfort, however, in the thought that Charles, by the example of his life and death, has found a home now in the great Arthurian lineage of returning kings - those 'once and future' sovereigns who will spring forth from the national imagination to lead their repentant people and thrust back the powers of evil at their country's hour of need.
I had something of an epiphany last week a propos of this. In Didsbury, the Manchester suburb where I live, there's a lamp-lit bookshop on a little cobbled street behind the tram line. I was leafing through a book last Saturday afternoon (the 21st) called simply, A History of Didsbury. The frontispiece was a two page map dating from 1929. The book itself was published in 1978. I noticed some handwriting in blue ink on the right of the map, over to the East, between Didsbury Cricket Club and Fletcher Moss Park. The ink had faded a bit but the script was neat and elegant - an X accompanied by the words, Shrine of King Charles the Martyr.
I've lived in or around Didsbury for most of my life and had never heard of such a place. Didsbury Library has two blue plaques commemorating the Royalist army's brief stay here in 1644 en route to the Battle of Marston Moor. But I had never heard of a shrine or anything like it. It was an intriguing discovery, nonetheless - though odds-on a joke or a spot of wishful thinking - and I set off at once to explore, intending to come back to the shop later to buy the book.
The area between the park and the cricket club is occupied by a business park now. It's a nice, tree-lined part of town, but I had never visited the business park and never seen any reason why I should. I walked around for a good half-hour in the mist and drizzle. I thought I'd hate it but I actually found it quite a peaceful, almost Zen-like, place. Apart from the security guards sat listlessly at their desks and a few men in suits strolling about, I saw no-one at all. The squat glass buildings seemed to have fallen asleep, lulled by the soft rain and the rising fog.
The business park is bisected by a wide driveway, which branches off into a network of paths and lawns. I saw nothing anywhere to suggest the existence of a shrine. The only old-looking thing I found was a small, chapel-like structure on a grassy roundabout with a triangular roof and an arch-shaped door of dark and heavy wood. I tugged the round, iron handle. The door didn't budge. I walked around to the other side and peered through the window. Nothing to see though - just flip charts, whiteboards, and so forth - the usual business paraphernalia. I found neither plaque nor inscription on the lime-washed walls, so shrugging my shoulders I went on my way, feeling more let down than I'd expected, given that I hadn't really, deep down, expected to come across a shrine at all. 'Maybe it's hidden' I mused, 'Maybe it's always been hidden. Maybe you can only see it with the eye of faith and imagination.' I was disappointed, I recall, that I didn't appear to have much of either.
I bumped into an old friend in Didsbury Village on my way back and by the time I got to the shop it was closed. I decided to leave the matter there, and that was how things stood until three days later - Tuesday evening to be precise. I had arranged to meet my friend for a pint in the Dog and Partridge after work, so I got off the train at East Didsbury, one stop earlier than usual. I walked to the bus stop by the cricket club. It's only three stops from there to the Village. It was almost fully dark and the lights were on everywhere. The sky was clear and the air mild.
The bus was busier than I'd anticipated. I had to sit on one of the sideways-facing seats next to the space for wheelchairs and prams. I tried to remember if there was football on, but I hadn't got very far when the bus stopped at the traffic lights next to the business park. Then, where the squat glass buildings should have been, I was blessed (and wounded) instead by the most extraordinary sight - a colossal edifice - a Cathedral or Abbey of some kind - with tall high windows all ablaze in golden light. The roof was a giant triangle, with the thick silhouette of a cross standing out on top against the Western sky. I glimpsed a lawn, a bonfire, a ring of people and a flash of red. Then the lights changed and the bus rolled forward. Someone was playing a violin. I stood up on tiptoe and saw a girl with a fiddle in front the fire. She had dark hair and a red bandana, and the music I heard through the open window will sustain and inspire me, I swear, through this world and the next - mournful and fierce, exultant and yearning - a funeral dirge and a triumphal march at one and the same time. It was cut from a different cloth - that's all I can say - music from a higher level - a sphere of beauty and intensity that was all too soon behind me as the gears whirred and the bus gathered speed, powering on into the night.
I looked around but could tell straightaway that none of my fellow passengers had seen or heard a thing. They were all too ensconced in their papers and phones. One or two had even fallen asleep, worn out, like myself, after a hard day's work.
And that's where I left it. I toyed with telling my friend in the pub but decided against in the end. Maybe I will one day. Perhaps he'll read this blog. He said he might. I've not been back to the business park or bookshop either. I'll go to the bookshop again, of course, but probably not the business park.
Some things, I reckon now, are hidden because they're meant to be. They rest in the invisible realm - accessible only to the eye of imagination and faith - until the time for their appearance (or reappearance) in this world is ripe. We're graced with glimpses from time to time and these give us strength, but the King will return when he's ready - when Heaven and Earth are ready - and when we're ready to return to the Truth, take off our shoes and socks, and let our feet be bathed by Christ the High King, in whose Name he rules and serves.