12 March 2024

A Mulberry tree at
the Open University
recalls a Cambridge tree
that inspired Milton

The Mulberry tree, thought to be the oldest tree on the Walton Hall estate, gives the Mulberry Lawn at the Open University its name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I was back on the campus of the Open University in Milton Keynes late last week for lunch with an old friend, Dr Fidèle Mutwarasibo, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership and Lecturer in Work-Based Learning in the Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise.

We had lunch in the Hub, and later had coffee looking out onto the Mulberry Lawn, on the west side of Walton Hall. The Mulberry Lawn is named after the large Mulberry tree that is thought to be the oldest tree on the Walton Hall estate. It is believed to have been planted in 1908 to commemorate the birth of the painter Primrose Harley (1908-1978), a year after her father, Professor Vaughan Harley (1864-1923), bought Walton Hall.

The tree is over 100 years old. But there is also a 400-year tradition linking mulberry trees with universities and colleges. One of the best-known veteran mulberry trees in England is the ‘Milton Mulberry’ in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College in Cambridge.

The tree was planted in 1609 and I first saw it virtually 400 years later in 2008 when I was a student on a course at Sidney Sussex College on a course organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. A former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Christopher Woods, who was then the chaplain, invited me to dinner in the Fellows’ dining room at Christ’s College. That year, Christ’s College was marking the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth.

Christopher is now the Vicar of Saint Barnabas in Jericho, Oxford. He invited me back to Christ’s College in 2009, to preach at the Solemn Orchestral Mass for the Eve of Candlemas and as part of the Lent Term series, ‘The ears of the heart.’ That year, Christ’s College marked the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 400th anniversary of the planting of the ‘Milton Mulberry’ in the Fellows’ Garden in 1609.

I stayed in Christ’s College again in 2010 for a weekend and saw Milton’s Mulberry once again before moving into rooms in Sidney Sussex College, where I was taking part in the IOCS annual summer school. Throughout that year, Christ’s College Chapel celebrated the 500th anniversary of its consecration in 1510.

Milton’s Mulberry was planted at the same time as several other Cambridge colleges, including Emmanuel College, Jesus College and Corpus Christi College, planted mulberry trees as part of James I’s project to start an English silk industry, with mulberry groves feeding the silkworms.

The tree at Christ’s has long associations with the poet John Milton (1608-1674), who was a student at Christ’s from 1625 and graduated in 1629, receiving his master’s degree in 1632. The tree would have been at least 20 years old when the young poet knew it and already a decent size, but hardly impressive enough to inspire poetry.

It is said Milton spent hours creating many of his greatest works while writing in the shade of this mulberry tree, and that he composed Lycidas under the tree. But most of his major works, including Paradise Lost, are from a much later date.

John Milton was a student at Christ’s College Cambridge from 1625 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

James I’s silk project soon ran out of steam, but its legacy is found in a number of veteran mulberries throughout England that have survived from the 17th century and that produce copious quantities of jam.

The tree in Christ’s College is not the only mulberry associated with Milton. In the early 17th century, he was a regular guest of his former schoolboy tutor, the Revd Thomas Young, after Young became Vicar of Stowmarket in Suffolk in 1628. Young was part of a group of controversial Puritan clergy who were later defended by Milton in his pamphlets.

The garden of the Old Vicarage in Stowmarket, now known as Milton House, has a splendid black mulberry tree said to date back to Milton’s visits. The tree was blown over in 1939, but mulberries are great survivors and are able to grow again from flattened trunks and branches that touch the ground.

To escape the plague in London in 1665, Milton moved with his wife and daughter to a cottage in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. There he wrote his major works, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

The late 16th century cottage is now known as Milton’s Cottage. Until recently, the Grade II listed historic garden had an old mulberry tree, grown from a cutting from the tree in Christ’s College, Cambridge. The tree was felled some years ago, but a cutting was taken from it and planted nearby.

Another celebrated offspring of the Milton Mulberry is the ‘Queen’s Mulberry’ in Preacher’s Court at Charterhouse in London. The tree is thought to have been planted around 1840, and is one of seven mulberries at Charterhouse.

As part of celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth in 2008, a cutting from the mulberry in Christ’s College was given to the Woodland Trust for planting at Drovers Wood, in Upper Breinton, Hereford, as part of the Hay Literary Festival.

Walton Hall and the campus of the Open University in Milton Keynes (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Fidèle and I have known each other for almost 25 years, since I was a curate in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. He and I were also involved in the Discovery project in inner-city Dublin.

We had lunch in the Hub, first built in 1970 as the ‘Catering Building.’ Later it was called the Refectory, and was rebuilt and rebranded as ‘The Hub’ in 2010. The Hub complex also houses the Hub Theatre, the Mulberry Suite and the Medlar and Juniper Suites, frequent venues for functions and events.

After lunch, we sat over coffee for some time at a large window in the Hub, looking out at the old Mulberry Tree and enjoying the sunshine on the lawn beside Walton Hall.

There is no connection between John Milton and the name of Milton Keynes, yet it is interesting that the Mulberry Tree was planted in 1908, the year that marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Milton.

The old tree is now banked up and propped up. I wonder whether it still produces fruit. And I wonder – given the year it was planted – whether it is a ‘descendant’ of the Milton Mulberry in Christ’s College, Cambridge.

The Mulberry Tree was planted beside Walton Hall in 1908, the year that marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Milton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
28, 12 March 2024,
Saint Dunstan of Canterbury

Saint Dunstan depicted in a stained glass window above the High Altar in Saint Dunstan-in-the-West Church, Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

We are more than half-way through the Season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and this week began with the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lent IV), also known as Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day (10 March 2024).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship.

Later this afternoon, I am taking part by Zoom in an academic meeting in Cambridge, and in the evening I am attending a meeting of the Town Centre Working Group in Stony Stratford. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint Dunstan (second from left) with Archbishop Lanfranc, Saint Anselm and Archbishop Langton depicted in a window above the High Altar in Saint Dunstan-in-the-West Church, Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 28, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury

Saint Dunstan (988), Archbishop of Canterbury and Restorer of Monastic Life, is commemorated in Common Worship on 19 May. He was born near Glastonbury ca 910 into a noble family. He received a good education and spent time at the court of the King of Wessex.

A saintly uncle urged him to enter the monastic life; he delayed, but followed the advice in time, on recovering from an illness. Returning to Glastonbury, Dunstan lived as a monk, devoting his work time to creative pursuits: illuminating, music, and metalwork.

The new king made him abbot in 943, and this launched a great revival of monastic life in England. Starting with Glastonbury, Dunstan restored discipline to several monasteries and promoted study and teaching.

Under two later kings, he rose to political and ecclesiastical eminence, being chief minister, Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury under King Edgar. This enabled him and his followers to extend his reforms to the whole English Church.

As Bishop of London and lord of the manor of Stepney, Saint Dunstan, replaced an existing wooden structure with a stone church ca 952 and dedicated it to All the Saints.

Dunstan fell from political favour in 970, but he continued as Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching and teaching. He died in 988.

Saint Dunstan was canonised by acclamation in 1029, and the church in Stephney was rededicated to Saint Dunstan and All Saints, a dedication it retains to this day.

Saint Dunstan’s Church, Stepney … dates back to long before 952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 5: 1-3, 5-16 (NRSVA):

1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralysed.

5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7 The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8 Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ 11 But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk”.’ 12 They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.

The carvings of a ship (left) and the devil and Saint Dunstan’s tongs (right) above the west door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 12 March 2024):

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), is ‘Lent Reflection: JustMoney Movement.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Matt Ceaser, Movement Builder, JustMoney Movement.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (12 March 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

Help us Lord to be advocates for a fairer economy which prevents poverty and the lack of freedom that comes along with this.

The Collect:

Merciful Lord,
absolve your people from their offences,
that through your bountiful goodness
we may all be delivered from the chains of those sins
which by our frailty we have committed;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Merciful Lord,
you know our struggle to serve you:
when sin spoils our lives
and overshadows our hearts,
come to our aid
and turn us back to you again;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Alfred the Great

Tomorrow: Saint Alphege of Canterbury (1012), Martyr

The ruined Church of Saint Dunstan in the East is a tranquil oasis in the heart of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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

Saint Dunstan in the East is now a popular venue for parties, receptions and photoshoots (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)