31 January 2020
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by’
I do not particularly want to sit in this evening, watching the countdown to Brexit. Instead, two of us are going to dinner, although there is little to celebrate this evening, and I hope all the television commentaries and discussions are over by the time I get back to Askeaton.
Many recent cartoons compared Brexit to a man sawing off the branch of the tree he is sitting on, or sawing off his own arm in order to stop shaking the arm of an old friend.
I am not a royalist, by any means. But I cannot fail to notice the coincidence that Brexit is ‘being done’ the day after the Church of England recalls the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649.
I was invited last year to take part in the commemorations in Tamworth marking the 400th anniversary of the visit to the town of James I and his son the future Charles I. My talk in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, on the Comberford Family and the Moat House in Tamworth [9 May 2019], was organised by Tamworth and District Civic Society.
During that visit in 1619, the King stayed with the Ferrers family at Tamworth Castle while the Prince of Wales was a guest of the Comberford family at their town house, the Moat House on Lichfield Street.
On that occasion, the Comberford family had the long hall or gallery in the Moat House redecorated with heraldic illustrations of the family tree, showing how the family and the future king shared a common ancestry, albeit a very distant one.
Perhaps, in some ways, Charles I personalised the new unity that was being embodied in a new kingdom: he was seen in England as the next king, yet he had been born in Dumferline in Scotland. In another way, he also embodied the new, outward-looking vision of a new country claiming its place in Europe: his mother was from Denmark, he would marry a French princess, his sons would marry Portuguese and Italian princesses, his daughters would marry French and Dutch princes, his sister became Queen of Bohemia, a miniscule European Union brought together in one family.
There is no doubt that Charles I was a bumbling and incompetent monarch. However, his political genealogy links him more to the ‘one nation’ Tories who are Europhiles, while Johnson and Farage, who although appearing cavalier in their approach to politics are in truth more like the Roundheads, willing to slash and burn anything in the name of a parliament and people they truly despise.
Indeed, who could not fail to compare Dominic Cummings with Oliver Cromwell?
I have always been comfortable with the English part of my identity. In her novel Hannie Bennet’s Winter Marriage (2000), Kerry Hardie includes a number of key characters who are members of a Comerford family in West Waterford and the south-east, including John Comerford who has given recognisably Irish names to his daughters. ‘Bloody stupid name,’ says one of the figures in the book. ‘Don’t know what's come over people. Bloody stupid fashion for Impossible Blood Irish Names. Surprised at the man. Nothing Irish about Comerford. Good Norman name, papist or no.’
In an Irish context, Comerford is unmistakably English in its origins. I was always comfortable with that part of the family story, and was merely following in my great-grandfather’s footsteps when I went in search of my family roots and found myself in Lichfield and Tamworth in my teens.
My Christian faith and my Anglican spirituality as I now understand them and express them were shaped as a teenager in Lichfield, in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital and in Lichfield Cathedral. I still remember the yearning I had for a full-time staff position with the Lichfield Mercury or the Tamworth Herald. Instead, I went to the Wexford People.
I am in England every month or second month. Although I only ever travel on an Irish passport, I have never been a foreigner in England. I feel at home in Lichfield in the way I feel at home in Wexford; I am spiritually at home in Lichfield Cathedral; in moments of insomnia, I can imagine being able to walk through the streets of Lichfield, or Cambridge for that matter, with my eyes blindfolded.
There have been many times over half a century or more that I have wondered like Robert Frost, had I taken the other road where would I be today:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
At times the variations in the calendars of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland catch me by surprise, and I recall how I was not prepared recently during a residential conference for the commemoration at the Eucharist of ‘Charles King and Martyr, 1649.’
Charles, King and Martyr, or Charles I, was king from 1625 until his execution on 30 January 1649, and his feast day in Anglican calendars falls on 30 January, the anniversary of his execution.
This observance was one of several ‘state services’ removed from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland in 1859. But there are churches and parishes dedicated to Charles the Martyr in England, and the former chapel in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, was also dedicated to him.
King Charles is still named in the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship and is commemorated at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, Pusey House in Oxford, and by some Anglo-Catholic societies, including the Society of King Charles the Martyr founded in 1894.
King Charles is regarded by many as a martyr because, it is said, he was offered his life if he would abandon the historic episcopacy in the Church of England. It is said he refused, however, believing that the Church of England was truly Catholic and should maintain the Catholic episcopate.
Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, wrote, ‘Had Charles been willing to abandon the Church and give up episcopacy, he might have saved his throne and his life. But on this point Charles stood firm: for this he died, and by dying saved it for the future.’
The political reality, though, is that Charles had already made an Engagement with the Scots to introduce Presbyterianism in England for three years in return for the aid of Scots forces in the Second English Civil War.
However, High Church Anglicans and royalists fashioned an image of martyrdom, and after the Restoration he was added to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar by a decision at the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1660.
The red letter days or state commemorations in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer included the Gunpowder Plot, the birth and restoration of Charles II, and the execution of Charles I. These were marked with special services and special sermons.
The State Services were omitted from the Book of Common Prayer by royal and parliamentary authority in 1859, but without the consent of Convocation. Later, the Anglican writer and liturgist Vernon Staley, Provost of Inverness Cathedral, would describe the deletion as ultra vires and ‘a distinct violation of the compact between Church and Realm, as set forth in the Act of Uniformity which imposed the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.’
Of the three commemorations, only that of King Charles I was restored in the calendar in the Alternative Service Book in 1980, although not as a Red Letter Day. A new collect was composed for Common Worship in 2000.
King of kings and Lord of lords,
whose faithful servant Charles
prayed for those who persecuted him
and died in the living hope of your eternal kingdom:
grant us by your grace so to follow his example
that we may love and bless our enemies,
through the intercession of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
This evening, however, I am reminded of the lines of John Donne, poet, priest and Caroline divine, that are worth re-reading of ‘Brexit’:
No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee. — John Donne, Meditation XVII
Like me, perhaps many people tonight are also thinking of Robert Frost’s poem. What might have been had the vote been 48-52 rather than 52-48?
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.