18 November 2023

From Geoffrey Chaucer to
Graham Greene, finding
the literary and cultural
legacy of Berkhamsted

From Geoffrey Chaucer to Graham Greene, Berkhamsted has a rich literary and cultural heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

There was so much to see in Berkhamsted during my visit earlier this month that I returned again this week. Apart from the castle and Saint Peter’s Church, which I described in a blog posting earlier this week, I was interested to learn more about the town’s many literary and cultural associations, from Geoffrey Chaucer and the ‘Physician’s Tale’ to Maria Edgeworth, William Cowper and Peter Pan, and to Graham Greene, Claud Cockburn and the early days of the BBC.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, is said to have visited Berkhamsted in 1389 to oversee renovations at the castle after he was appointed the clerk of the king’s works. During his time in office, Chaucer organised most of the king's building projects, including repairs to Westminster Palace and Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, and work on the wharf at the Tower of London.

It is not known whether Chaucer spent much time working at Berkhamsted Castle. It is claimed by some sourves that while Chaucer was at Berkhamsted he got to know – or least know of – John of Gaddesden, who lived nearby in Little Gaddesden and who became the model for the Doctor of Phisick in the Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400.

Berkhamsted Castle … did Geoffrey Chaucer ever spend any time working there? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

However, Chaucer could never have met John of Gaddesden (1280-1361), who died almost a generation before Chaucer is said to have visited Berkhamsted. Indeed, the ‘Physician’s Tale’ is usually seen as an early work by Chaucer, probably written before much of the rest of the Canterbury Tales. The long digression possibly alludes to an historical event that may date it to 1386, three years before Chaucer is said to have visited Berkhamsted.

John of Gaddesden was a writer in his own right too. He was born near Berkhamsted, but spent most of his academic life in Oxford. He was the author of Rosa Medicinae (‘The Rose of Medicine’), or Rosa Anglica (‘The English Rose’). It was written between 1304 and 1317, and regarded as the first English textbook of medicine.

John of Gaddesden was a theologian, a fellow at Merton College, Oxford, a physician to kings and princes, and the most celebrated medical authorities of his day. It is said his medical works, alongside those of Gilbertus Anglicus, formed part of the core curriculum that underpinned the practice of medicine for the next 400 years.

The hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800) was born in Berkhamsted Rectory, where his father, the Revd John Cowper, was the Rector, and was baptised in Saint Peter’s Church.

Although William Cowper moved from Berkhamsted when was still a boy, there are frequent references to the town in his poems and letters, and two windows in Saint Peter’s Church commemorate his life and writing. His popular hymns include ‘Oh! for a closer walk with God,’ and he give the English language the phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way.’

Cowper was an active abolitionist in the anti-slavery movement. In the Victorian era, Cowper became a cult figure and Berkhamsted was a place of pilgrimage. He was quoted by the Revd Martin Luther King in his protest speeches in the 1960s.

Dean Thomas Charles Fry was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School for almost quarter of a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), a prolific writer of adults’ and children’s literature, was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe. She lived in Berkhamsted as a child in the 18th century. She spent her early years with her mother’s family, living at The Limes, now known as Edgeworth House, in Northchurch, Berkhamsted.

Her mother died in 1773 when Maria was five. Later that year, her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) from Lichfield, married his second wife Honora Sneyd, and Maria went with them to live on his Irish estate af Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Between 1904 and 1907, the five Llewelyn Davies boys were the inspiration for the author and playwright JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Their grandfather, the Revd John Llewelyn Davies, was outspoken on social issues like poverty and inequality, and active in Christian socialist groups.

Their parents, Sylvia (1866-1910) and Arthur Llewelyn Davies (1863-1907), moved out of London and went to live in Egerton House, an Elizabethan mansion in Berkhamsted, in 1904, the year when Barrie’s play had its debut. The brothers were first cousins of the writer Daphne du Maurier.

The Revd Dr Thomas Charles Fry (1846-1930), was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in 1887-1910. He was one of the pioneers in the work of the Christian Social Union, and was the author of Old Testament History for Schools, Social Policy for the Church and Sermons on Social Subjects. Later, as the Dean of Lincoln (1910-1930), Fry worked devotedly to raise funds for the restoration of the cathedral.

Saint John’s House, Berkhamsted … the birthplace of Graham Greene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

While Fry was headmaster of Berkhamsted, his wife’s cousin, Charles Henry Greene (1865-1942), was second master and the housemaster at Saint John’s House. When Fry became Dean of Lincoln in 1910, Greene succeeded him as headmaster of Berkhamsted.

Greene’s brother, Edward Greene, once a highly successful coffee merchant in Brazil, also moved to Berkhamsted, and lived in some splendour at the Hall or Berkhamsted Hall, near the Rectory. Edward Greene bought the house in 1917 and was the last private resident there. The Hall was used by Berkhamsted School as a prep school from 1928, while the former gardens were sold off for housing development. By then, however, the house was suffering from dry rot, and finally it was demolished in 1937.

Both Charles Greene and Edward Grene each had six children and this influential generation of cousins were key figures in literary and cultural life in 20th century.

Graham Greene (1904-1991), one of the ‘School House’ Greenes, is the best known of these cousins. He was a bestselling novelist by the age of 28 and he was often tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also known as a politically contrarian, anti-American, a Catholic convert, a sometime publisher, a spy and a friend of Kim Philby.

In The Human Factor (1978), Graham Greene describes a scene in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, when a sonic boom suddenly ‘shook the old glass of the west window and rattled the crusader’s helmet which hung on a pillar.’ The helmet is that of Sir Adolphus Carey – who lived 300 years after the crusades.

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (1910-1987), Graham Greene’s youngest brother, first made his name as a journalist in pre-war Nazi Germany. During World War II, he was in charge of BBC broadcasting to Germany. He later became the director general of the BBC from 1960 to 1969, modernising the BBC at a time of great social change.

After retiring from the BBC, Greene published several books, including a collaboration with his brother Graham Greene, and made television programmes both for the BBC and ITV.

Their oldest brother, Herbert Greene, is often seen as the ‘black sheep’ in the family, and he became the model for several of Graham Greene’s antiheroes, such as Anthony Farrant in England Made Me.

Another brother, Dr Raymond Greene (1901-1982), was a doctor and mountaineer who took part in two Everest expeditions. He chaired Heinemann Medical Books from 1960 to 1980, and his autobiography, Moments of Being, was published in 1974.

The ‘Hall’ Greene cousins included the journalist Felix Greene (1909-1985), a creative figure in the early history of the BBC who set up its American offices in the 1930s. He first visited China for the BBC in 1957, and he was one of the first Western reporters to visit North Vietnam when he travelled there for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960s. He published books on China, Vietnam in 1960s and 1970s.

His brother Ben Greene (1901-1978) was a fellow pacifist, a Quaker and a key figure in the pre-war Labour Party. But he moved to the far-right politically, and during World War II he was imprisoned without trial along with the fascist Oswald Mosley.

The literary contemporaries of the Greene cousins at Berkhamsted School included Claud Cockburn (1904-1981), who lived later at Myrtle Grove in Youghal, Co Cork, from 1947, and in Ardmore, Co Waterford, in 1980. For many years, Claud Cockburn was a columnist with The Irish Times while I worked there, and some of his sons, including Patrick Cockburn, also contributed to The Irish Times.

Other writers and literary figures in school with the Greenes at Berkhamsted include Sir Peter Quennell (1905-1993); the diplomat Humphrey Trevelyan (1905-1985), who wrote a number of books about his career, including The India We Left and The Middle East in Revolution; and the diplomat and writer Sir Cecil Parrott (1909-1984), known for his translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and The Red Commissar, his biography of Hašek, The Bad Bohemian, and his autobiographical books, The Tightrope and The Serpent and the Nightingale.

The children’s authors HE Todd, author of the Bobby Brewster books, and Hilda van Stockum have also lived in Berkhamsted.

Greene's Court … place names are reminders of the literary legacy of Berkhamsted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (14) 18 November 2023

The Basilica of Saint Francis in Bologna was founded in the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. Tomorrow is the Second Sunday before Advent (19 November 2023).

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship (18 November) celebrates the life and work of Elizabeth of Hungary (1231), Princess of Thuringia and Philanthropist.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

Throughout this week, I have continued the theme of Italian cathedrals and churches. My reflections this morning are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on some more churches in Bologna;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Great) was first built in 1267 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two basilicas and two churches in Bologna:

This morning, I conclude the theme of churches in Bologna, looking at two basilicas and two churches on Via Zamboni: the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Great), and the Church of Santissimo Salvatore and the Church of San Donato on the opposite sides of Via Zamboni.

The Basilica of Saint Francis (San Francesco) was founded in the 13th century, and has belonged to the Conventual Franciscan friars since then.

At first, the Franciscans had a modest house in Bologna, Santa Maria delle Pugliole, founded in 1211 by Bernard of Quintavalle, one of the first Franciscan friars. Saint Francis of Assisi visited Bologna in 1222, sparking interest in his new order.

At the request of Pope Gregory IX, the city authorities gave the property on which the basilica stands to the friars in 1236. This area was known as civitas antiqua rupta (‘the old city ruins’), and included the remains of the Roman city of Bononia.

The church was consecrated in 1251 by Pope Innocent IV, and the main structure was completed in 1263.

The architect of the church is unknown. When the vault of the apse collapsed in 1254, the restoration work was supervised by a friar, Andrea Maestro della Ghiexia, described as ‘of the twisted legs.’

Although the church has a Romanesque façade, it is one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture in Italy. The interior has a nave and two aisles, the apse has a corridor, and the high vaults are divided into six sections, like in Notre-Dame in Paris, with ogival arches.

The friary was known as a centre for musical performances and studies in the 18th century, with a girls’ choir singing at the services.

The church was desecrated by occupying French troops in 1796, the friary was used as a barracks, and the works of art in the church were seized and scattered. The church was restored to religious use in 1842, but was seized again during the Second Italian War of Independence and used as a storehouse. It was finally returned to the Franciscans in 1886. The restoration of the church, supervised by Alfonso Rubbiani, was completed in 1919.

The Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Great) was built as part of a monastery of Augustinian friars. It was built in 1267 and is known for the Bentivoglio Chapel and the Poggi Chapel, with their Renaissance works of art.

A community of hermits founded by the Blessed John the Good of Modena was living near the walls of Bologna, along the Savena river, as early as 1247. They founded a monastery a church dedicated to Saint James the Great.

The hermits merged in 1256 with other eremetical communities in the Bologna region to form the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, and one of their members was elected the first Prior General of the new order.

The new order needed a larger religious complex within the city walls, in 1267 work began on building a new church on the present site. The building was finished in 1315, and it was consecrated in 1344 following the completion of the apse. The church was built in sober Romanesque style, with some Gothic elements, and had a single nave, a polygonal apse-chapel and two square chapel.

The Bentivoglio family built their family chapel in the church in 1463-1468, and added a long portico on the Via San Donato (1477-1481). The bell tower was raised in 1471 and the interior was largely renovated in 1483-1498 with a new cover and a dome. New chapels were created in the side walls, and these were decorated with Renaissance and Baroque altars and paintings.

The Augustinian friars were expelled by the French in the early 19th century. They returned in 1824, although part of the monastery remained a music school, now the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini. The friars later gave up the monastery and kept only of the church.

In my Friday evening reflections last night, I was looking at the Church of Santissimo Salvatore and the Church of San Donato on the opposite sides of Via Zamboni, and their associations with the Jewish ghetto in Bologna and mediaeval expressions of antisemitism.

The Church of Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni is a Baroque-style church on the site of a 12th-century church of the Canons Regular of Santa Maria di Reno. The only surviving feature from the earlier church is the 16th-century bell tower.

The present church was built in 1605-1623 by the priest Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta and the architect Tommaso Martelli. It has eight chapels, four on each side. The façade has three copper statues by Orazio Provaglia, along with statues of the four evangelists attributed to Giovanni Tedeschi.

One of the four chapels has a large canvas by Jacopo Coppi or Jacopo del Meglio depicting ‘The Miracle of the Beirut Crucifix’ (1579), and a painting of the ‘Virgin at the Church of Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury (mid-1500s) by Girolamo da Treviso. Saint Thomas Becket had studied in Bologna.

The story of the ‘Crucifix of Beirut’ recalls an anti-Semitic story in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend telling of events Beirut. A stolen crucifix begins to bleed and causes the local Jewish population to convert to Christianity.

If the Church of Santissimo Salvatore has memories of an antisemitic story, then the Church of San Donato on the other side of Via Zamboni is a reminder of the former Jewish quarter in Bologna. This was near the famous Due Torri (Two Towers) in an area bounded by Strada San Donato (now Via Zamboni) and Via Cavaliera (now Via Oberdan).

The first reference to the Jewish presence in Bologna is a letter by Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, at the end of the fourth century. Later, the Jewish Quarter was a warren of small streets with names such as Via del Giudei or Via dell’Inferno.

Bologna’s ghetto was established in May 1556, just after that of Rome, with an edict issued by Pope Paul IV. The Jews of Bologna, like Jews in Rome and Venice, were forced to wear a distinguishing mark so they could be easily identified and shut inside in the ghetto at night. The papal edict allowed only one synagogue to open; this synagogue was probably located at No 16 on Via dell’Inferno.

Jews were first expelled from Bologna place in 1569. They returned in 1586, only to be banished again in 1593. There was no real Jewish presence in the city again until after Italian unification.

Four large gates or doors stood at the main entrances to the ghetto. The only access point that is still visible is a door under a large vaulted roof built in the early 1700s that connects the Manzoli-Malvasia building with the small Church of San Donato.

I have written about Bologna’s synagogue HERE.

The Church of Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 18: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming”.’ 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Inside the Church of Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 18 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has drawn on ‘A Prayer for Remembrance Sunday and International Day of Tolerance’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (18 November 2023) invites us to pray as we reflect on these words:

Lord, help us to resist peacefully every form of violence so that we can follow you in ways of gentleness and justice. Amen.

The Collect:

Lord God,
who taught Elizabeth of Hungary
to recognize and reverence Christ in the poor of this world:
by her example
strengthen us to love and serve the afflicted and the needy
and so to honour your Son, the servant king,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
who called Elizabeth of Hungary to serve you
and gave her joy in walking the path of holiness:
by this eucharist
in which you renew within us the vision of your glory,
strengthen us all to follow the way of perfection
until we come to see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Church of San Donato on Via Zamboni … a reminder of the gates into the former Jewish quarter in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org