Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Ignominous Tyburn Tree- Still the Shame?

I have been busy- so busy, in fact, I forget to post! Months later I tell myself "better late than never." So here I continue...

In May I embarked upon another European expedition. While in London my travel companion and I met a friend who was also in town. We were on our way home via Heathrow and she was on her way to the continent. So, for a couple days we wandered around London and did nerdy musical things like hop from one Choral Evensong to another, buy hymnals, and see the Handel House.

Among the more interesting and obscure things we did was explore the history of Tyburn. Located roughly at the corner of Hyde Park near Marble Arch tube stop, Tyburn was, at one time, a village in Middlesex. London long ago engulfed it. Tyburn is most famous/infamous for being an execution site for Londoners from 1196 to 1783.

In 1571 authorities erected the "Tyburn Tree"- a strange gallows with a horizontal triangle on three legs. (It resembled a three-legged stool). In addition to the many thieves, murderers, and conventional political criminals executed at the "Triple Tree" were 105 Roman Catholic priests or people who assisted them, notably Sts. Edmund Campion SJ, and Oliver Plunkett.

Many of these religious offenders weren't merely hung- they were "hung, drawn, and quartered," that is, hung until nearly dead, cut down, sliced open, and entrails torn out. Absolutely gruesome.

Nearby, today, stands Tyburn Convent.
Benedictine nuns from Montmartre fleeing the French secularization of 1901 established this house and to this day it dedicates itself to spreading the memory of the English Martyrs who died at Tyburn just meters away.

In the basement of the convent (rebuilt after destruction in the Blitz) we explored a fascinating museum about this period of English history. Displays included many relics and a smaller scale replica of the "Tyburn Tree."

We had a wonderful guide, Sister N-, who provided us with a number of interesting facts. Particularly, the Marble Arch tube stop was supposed to be a bit further west than it is today. Crews had to stop digging in the first location because the area was thick with human bones- no doubt the countless bodies of those cut down from the "deadly never green Tyburn Tree." (One never thinks what's all around whilst riding about the Tube!)

Sister also told us where we might find a small plaque in the middle of a pedestrian traffic island which marks the location of the gallows. Understandably, she thought it was a scandal that so little and obscure a memorial commemorates this place. She chalked it up to shame, even today.

Which got me thinking...
Why would the government make a point of marking this? Many English people today (and hardly practicing, nominally Anglican ones!) can tell as a point of cultural pride about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the temporal meddling and corruption in the Reformation era, foreign, Roman Church. Sadly, much of this is absolutely true- but it hardly justifies the deaths of those many priests. These were not miserly corrupt abbots but missionaries who wanted nothing but to be both good Englishmen and good Catholics, living the Gospel. Many were charged with incredulous plots of treason and convicted by kangaroo courts on false evidence.

To this end, I would be embarrassed. Indeed, the laws have long ago changed, the Roman dioceses reestablished, and Roman Catholics are now the practicing majority in England. And yet, the C of E is still the state religion, however meaningless this may be. Thus, I don't think this tiny plaque comes from "shame" but, at worst, some wildly stretched and stubborn desire to stick to ones' guns- which I don't suggest is any more noble in this case. (If anything this is a battle lost. Remember, this is the Church which now venerates St. Thomas More!)

On the other hand, perhaps the 21st century post-industrial, post-modern, post-everything UK, with as much historical myopia as any other Western country, simply forgot this place. To me, this seems far more likely an explanation than "shame," though depressingly benign.

T.S. Eliot wrote regarding the martyrdom of Thomas Becket: "Wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for Christ, there is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it." With Becket this is easy to see- there was a church, then and now. Tyburn is different. Standing in the grey drizzle on a traffic island at the confluence of Edgeware Rd, and Oxford Street, surrounded by a swarm of traffic, it's undeniably a strange kind of shrine.

Yet, I thought the plaque worked well- It seems so appropriate and like in kind to the humility of those who died there. As with so most places, this crosswalk seems an odd place for sanctity!

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