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Saturday, September 21, 2013

"The Flame of Autumn"......

is another poem hearkening back to St. John of Cross and St. Theresa of Avila's meditations. Autumn, for many, is a season of cold, loneliness, and a realization of human frailty. I myself have been experiencing these feelings, dealing with allergies, arthritis, teeth extractions, and various personal concerns. Through times of darkness, though, I believe we may also come into a closer relationship with the Light of the World. For John and Theresa, the hardest trials could reveal a mystical love story between humanity and the Divine.

The Flame of Autumn

The dawn chill of autumn
Causing fog at the mouth when we speak
The pale sun
Turning the spider webs to crystal dream-catchers
The corn drying crisp and crunchy on the stalks
Forming a maze for children
The amber hay bales
Surrounded by a haze of particles
The old barns, chipped and decrepit
Like haunted houses on the hill
The heavy mist in the valley
Hiding the trees that turn from gay green to elegant orange
The goldenrod
Holding their blonde heads high in the fields

There is so much life, and yet beneath the surface
The sting of death threatens
The bite in the air suggests it
Piercing clothing to make one shiver
There is a stillness settling over the earth
Like the first or last day in history
The birds’ songs are softer
Like Elfin lays lamenting a fading glory
The color of the leaves is bursting bright
But will soon turn to blood, wither, and fall
The moments seem to crawl by
Like the spread of frost across a window pane
The nights come suddenly, like a thief
Without the summer sun to ward them off
They are heavier now
Like the winter blankets taken from attic chests

My soul is burdened
By an awareness of aloneness
As empty as a jack-o-lantern
With a nightmarish expression of despair
As hollow as the eye-sockets
Of a moldering skull 
As meaningless as the echo
Of cawing crows flying over the pumpkin clusters
I long for fire instead of ice
For understanding instead of confusion
For the embrace of loved ones long gone
Instead of my own arms braced against the cold
But most of all, I long for God

To ask to feel the presence of Him
Is a thing that is known to wound
Agony comes with ecstasy
Even for the saints, who I am certainly not among
Brilliance is blinding and searing
When it pierces of the dark of night
But I would take it, nonetheless
Sink me into fire, plunge me into ice
But do not let me wander alone in shadows
Let us have a place all to ourselves
Where I can lay my head on Your breast
Where I may hear your voice whispering
Out of the gentle breeze, no longer chilling

Let us be lover and beloved in the depth of the night
And let not my own self separate us
For You are the love of loves
The delight of all things, the breath of life
Let me at least tend the wounds
That I caused to receive, as a servant
Let me feel the peace that comes with wholeness
For an instant, to light the winter’s dark
Be the flame of autumn in this changing, chilling world
And in my trembling heart
It is all I need 

"There is so much life, and yet......the sting of death threatens....."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The English Civil War and the Restoration.......

are replete with fascinating tales of intrigue, valor, and unusual happenings. The below are some (but by no means all!) of my personal favorites collected over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

   The British Isles were in a state of turmoil as they tore themselves apart trying to find a balance between king and parliament, mace and majesty, without creating a state of anarchy in the process. Wherever the Parliamentarian troops under Oliver Cromwell troops went, they left destruction in their path. At Glastonbury, one of the Puritan soldiers hacked down the hallowed Glastonbury Thorn, only to have its splinters fly in his face and blind him. Faithful Catholics in the vicinity collected the scattered pieces (which, according to legend, were said to be so fertile, they sprang up from the ground) and grafted new plants to carry on the tradition. St. Paul’s Cathedral was also desecrated during the war, when the building was used as a horse stable, the tombstones were turned into gaming tables, and the aisles transformed into nine-pin courts.
    Despite making many enemies, there were also those willing to help Cromwell when he got into a scrape, out of sheer compassion if nothing else. After being wounded at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, he sought refuge at Ripley Castle, 4 miles north of Harrogate. Since the owner of the castle, Sir William Ingilby was out at the time, his staunchly royalist wife begrudgingly granted shelter to the “traitor” because of his pathetic condition. However, she sat up all night with a pair of pistols trained on Cromwell as he slept to make herself feel more secure.

    In April of that same year, Queen Henrietta Maria gave birth to a healthy baby girl in Exeter Cathedral. While she was still bedridden with childbed fever and rheumatism from campaigning with her husband, Cromwell’s troops marched on Exeter to besiege the city. Leaving her newborn baby in the care of her governess, the queen, her confessor, and two servants fled several miles outside the city and took refuge in a common hut. They remained hidden there for two days, listening to the sounds of Cromwell’s soldiers tromping about outside, cursing the Catholic Queen, and commenting that her head would fetch a good price in London if they could find her. 

    At long last, the soldiers left and the royal party was able to escape to Falmouth in Cornwall where they were given shelter at Pendennis Castle under the command of the 80-year-old royalist, Sir John Arundel. Soon after, they took a ship to the Scilly Islands and from there to the queen’s native France. After Charles beloved wife left for France, he found himself more disconsolate then ever. Disappointments and defeats mounted, and he was forced to watch from Phoenix Tower in the city walls of Chester as his army was defeated by Cromwell at the mossy Rowton Moor just 3 miles away in 1645

     Two years after the queen's escape, Parliamentarians under Sir Thomas Fairfax marched on Pendennis Castle. Not surprisingly, when the besiegers ordered the defenders to capitulate, the plucky Arundel replied that he would rather bury himself than hand over royal property to the enemies of the king. The siege dragged on for a month, and Arundel was again asked to surrender. He again refused. The blockade around the castle was tightened, but the old man still held out until his men were almost starving and he felt oblige to save their lives by surrendering. His courage and tenacity had been such that the Cromwellians could not help but honor him by allowing him and the other defenders still strong enough to march out in a dignified parade, with colors flying and trumpets blaring.
     Meanwhile, Cromwell's secretary, James Thurloe, kept rooms in Lincoln’s Inn on Chancery Lane in London from 1646 to 1659. One evening, the two men met at the inn and discussed a plot to kidnap the king’s children and use them to manipulate their father. While they were talking, Cromwell suddenly noticed Thurloe’s clerk asleep in the corner. His suspicions were aroused, and he wondered if the clerk was perhaps pretending to sleep while overhearing to the secret plans. Thurloe assured him that the clerk was indeed asleep. Unconvinced, Cromwell drew a dagger and insisted with blunt brutality that the clerk should be killed. 

    The secretary, desperate to save his friend’s life, seized the dagger Cromwell was holding and drew it back and forth under the clerk’s nose to prove he was not awake. When the man did not stir, Cromwell was satisfied and put away the knife.  As it turned out, the secretly royalist clerk had been awake, and he immediately sent word to the king that his children were in danger. As a result, Cromwell’s kidnapping plot failed miserably. Nevertheless, sorry times visited the royal family, and Charles I and two of his children were eventually captured. Thanks to his own sneaky negotiations behind the back of parliament and contrary promises that were exposed during his captivity, his chances for surviving the war quickly plummeted. 

    On January 20, 1649, the trial of King Charles I began. John Bradshaw, the Puritan judge in charge of the proceedings, took the liberty of wearing a bullet-proof hat, just in case any royalist assassins happened to be lurking in the vicinity. Nevertheless, this did not prevent royalist hecklers from having a field day. As Bradshaw recited the charges against Charles, and announced that he was know being tried by the people of England, Lady Anna de Lille, the Scottish wife of a French nobleman who had served King Charles, piped up: “It is not the people who are condemning their monarch, but traitors!”  In response, the court gave orders for her to be branded on the head and the shoulders with hot irons.
    But the jabbing remarks were far from over. Only 68 of the 135 men summoned to serve on the most unorthodox jury appeared. When the judge inquired if Lord Fairfax, the commander of the Parliamentary army, was present, his wife, Lady Anne Fairfax, replied “He is not, nor never will be. He has too much wit to appear.” As the trial progressed, and in was again announced that Charles was being tried by “the people”, she exploded: “It is a lie! Not a half or a quarter of them!” No one seemed to have the courage to brand her.
     In spite of the interruptions, the trial proceeded with King Charles seated in a crimson velvet chair, refusing to remove his tall black hat in front of the court, which he continued to maintain was an unlawful body that had no right to try the lawful sovereign of the land. All the same and in spite of his refusal to plead, he was condemned as a “traitor, tyrant, murderer, and public enemy” and sentenced to death on January 27. The king’s guards contemptuously blew tobacco smoke into his face and shouted, “Execution! Execution!”
     “For sixpence they would say the same of their own commanders,” Charles remarked. Outside in the streets, the people moaned when the news of the verdict was announced. Such things had never been before; the world was turning upside down far too fast for their liking. But for all the unpopularity of it, Charles faced the axeman bravely on January 30, 1649, going to his death wearing an extra shirt so that he would not shiver from the cold and be accused of fearing his fate. His last words were: "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown." 
    In Paris, upon hearing the news that King Charles I had been executed, Queen Henrietta Maria could neither weep nor speak nor move from her chair from many hours. The 18 year old Prince Charles burst into tears when first addressed as “Your Majesty.” The Earle of Montrose, exiled in The Hague, fainted and then refused to leave his chamber for two days. As a symbol of his black mood, he had himself painted in black armor and wrote commemorative verses for the slain sovereign he had once fought against and fought wholeheartedly for. For the rest of his days, he acted as if he were caught between two worlds.

    In 1652, Oliver Cromwell’s troops besieged Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven in Scotland, knowing that Scottish crown, scepter, and sword of state were kept inside. Nevertheless, Margaret Ogilvy, the constable of the castle’s wife, was allowed certain liberties, such as receiving visits from her old school friend, Mary Grainger, the wife of a local minister at Kinneff Church. During one such visit, Mrs. Grainger and her maid came to the castle carrying two bundles of flax to give Mrs. Ogilvy so she could spin away the tedious hours of siege warfare. After sticking their pikes through the flax to make sure there were no weapons or food, the Parliamentarians agreed to let her pass.

    Several days later, she and her maid were back, asking for Mrs. Ogilvy to give her back any excess flax she had not already spun. Although this may have sounded slightly odd, the guards didn’t make a fuss, especially since they were now fairly smitten by the two pretty young women. Even the commander of the besieging army behaved with gallantry, assisting Mrs. Grainger to mount her horse when the time came to leave. As it turned out, the scepter and sword of Scotland were actually buried in the flax, and the crown was stuffed inside the lady’s skirts. After making good her escape, Mrs. Grainger had the regalia hidden beneath the pulpit at Kinneff Church where it remained for the next eight years until the Restoration of the monarchy.

   Young Charles Stuart made a bid for the thrones of British Isles when he was in his 20’s, but the restoration attempt was thoroughly defeated at the Battle of Worcester, after which he became a refugee in the English countryside, finding shelter with loyal subjects of all persuasions. He was especially impressed by the kindness shown to him by the suppressed English Catholic Recusants who risked their lives to give him shelter. Once, he even hid in a priest-hole at the home of the Catholic Whitgreave family alongside Fr. John Huddleston, the family chaplain, who humbly washed the prince’s bleeding feet while Cromwell’s troops searched the house for their hiding place.

   In 1660, due to an unexpectedly sudden change of fortune, was offered the throne of his father and invited to return to England. In addition to having Cromwell’s corpse dug up and his skull stuck on a pike, Charles II also had his hated old mentor from the restoration attempt, Archibald Campbell, Marquis and 8th Earl of Argyll, accused of high treason and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. When he heard that he had been sentenced to death, Argyll reflected on how he had first placed the crown on the King’s head at Scone and concluded, “Now he hastens me to a better crown than his own.”
   But Lady Argyll determined to rescue her husband. Carried into his cell in her sedan chair, she insisted that he could escape in the very same chair if he would put on her gown and wear her veil over his face. She got so far as dressing him accordingly when he backed out, fearing the repercussions she would face when she was implicated in the escape. Hence, he gallantly went to his execution, in spite of his wife’s devastation.
     21 years later, Argyll’s son was imprisoned in the same dungeon awaiting execution for his outspoken support of Presbyterianism. This time, it was his daughter-in-law, Lady Sophia Lindsay, who came to the rescue. Accompanied by her page, she came to bid him farewell the night before his scheduled beheading. Later she emerged with her father-in-law, disguised as the page, carrying her skirts and being sure to keep his head low. No one suspected anything until they reached the last gate. Overcome with nervousness, the “page” dropped his lady’s train.
    “Thou loon!” Lady Sophia shrieked, flinging her muddied skirts into the page’s face so it would be splattered beyond recognition. The guards approved of the rebuke and let them both pass unhindered. Argyll then took off his page costume and eventually fled to Holland. 

    There's so much more to talk about regarding this fascinating period in British history. But for tonight, my sweeties, it's beddy-bye time...stay tuned for upcoming tales of Roundheads and Cavaliers in the future...

The Trial of King Charles I

Friday, September 13, 2013

As the buoyant warmth of summer...

gives way to solemn chill of autumn, I find myself contemplating the various facets of the Battle of Quebec (a.k.a. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham) which took place on September 13, 1759. The French and Indian War has always held a special interest for me as someone who is fascinated by the Anglo-American connection.
    While The English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution spawned the political notions that would give birth to the United States, The French and Indian War served more directly as a training ground for the fighting men who on both sides of the American Revolution. Aside from the way it affected my own country, it also determined the future of our northern neighbour, Canada, and assured that she would have a culturally rich and complex heritage.
    The legacy of the Battle of Quebec is a mixed one for Canadians as a whole. At the centre of the debate is the character of General James Wolfe, one of the most well-known and misunderstood British military commanders in history. He has been both canonized and demonised, transformed into a strategic genius on a dizzyingly high marble pillar, and “myth-busted” into an always priggish, innately brutal, military madman who could trace back his victory to a random stroke of luck. Disgruntled French Quebecois joined in the fray, defacing Wolfe-related monuments and trying to ridiculously rewrite history and call the Battle of Quebec a draw!
    This irrational attitude towards historical events on the part of the Quebecois is hauntingly similar to a wing of the Scottish Nationalists and their propaganda efforts. Elements in both groups advocate independence from mature, right-respecting governments based on flimsy arguments appealing to the emotions and a sense of supposed indignation over past wrongs. At the end of the day, it is questionable whether they have not duped themselves by their own excessive eagerness, since their post-independence plans sound highly suspect. Fortunately for the Canadian government, the Quebecois can safely be said to have ‘bottled it’ for the time being. Hopefully, the “mother country” will share the same good fortune.
    Getting back to Wolfe, no matter what good or bad characteristics he displayed, there is no doubt that his actions have affected innumerable aspects of the modern world. Perhaps this article would be written in French instead of English if not for his conquest. But besides that, it must be remembered that Wolfe was not some stick-figure in a text-book, but a real human being like the rest of us, who pondered and joked and flirted and dared to dream. Shedding light on both his humanity and his ability, one can reach a better understanding the old ballads about him that I sing so often for the entertainment of others.
    Judging from his letters, it is obvious that Wolfe was far from an eternal prude and was more than willing to crack jokes with family and friends, often about his own slight carcass, inability to dance, trouble with mathematics, etc. He was also quite a flirt when it came to ladies and fell passionately head-over-heels more than once, putting paid to the theory that Wolfe was a repressed homosexual.
    Of course, he did have an intense side, revealing a moody and brooding young man given to long contemplations on the nature of life and death and the future of his career. Although he was not known for being particularly religious, he clearly believed in Providence. “You know the One I am referring to,” he would say when explaining his belief that there was someone who controlled the destiny of men and of battles. But it seems that beyond any religious feeling, Wolfe was grounded in his military career.
    As for brutality, there is no doubt he could be degrading in his language and bloody-minded in his actions. “Canaille” was the word he used to describe the Highland Scots, the Colonial Americans, and the French Quebecois among others. He seemed to have no problem taking part in the brutal suppression of the Second Jacobite Rebellion and personally came up with a shockingly ruthless plan to annihilate the rebel Highland clan of McPherson of Cluny by putting some of his own troops in an indefensible position so they would be wiped out by the rebels, giving Wolfe the excuse to wipe out the rebels in response! Later, in the French and Indian War, he willingly waged civilian warfare, destroying French Canadian villages and ravaging the countryside. He also took and threatened to execute civilian hostages if the French high command wouldn’t “play ball” with him during negotiations.
    However, it must be said that Wolfe was not alone in using the scorched earth policy. It was an accepted mode of warfare in the 18th Century, and it was meant to deprive the enemy of resources and draw them into battle. In spite of the burning and plundering, Wolfe did not want his men to physically harm the civilians of French Canada. In fact, he was furious when one of his officers massacred the inhabitants of a village, an act which proved to be one of the worst war crimes committed during the campaign. Also, Wolfe offered the French Canadians of the burned-out villages the option to surrender themselves to the British as opposed to starving to death in the woods. It may not sound like much of a break, but it did offer the desperate refugees some access to resources.
    It must also be said that Wolfe’s low view of other races and the inhabitants of other places usually improved with time. For example, Wolfe started by saying that the Highland soldiers were “no great mischief if they fall” to saying that the officers’ corps was “the most manly and gallant” he had ever seen. Likewise, he started off by calling the Americans “dirty, contemptible dogs” and moved on to naming one of their regiments “Swift and Bold”! This held true for the civilian population of Scotland and the local recruits of small towns in England, as well.
    A final point that needs to be made about Wolfe’s legacy is his unique relationship with his soldiers. That relationship, as much as his audaciousness in strategy and courage on the battlefield, helped to immortalize him as folk hero. His letters clearly demonstrate that the bond between commander and men was very important to him, and that he viewed his army as “a band of brothers” where every man, no matter how high or low his rank, was bound to do his duty out of honour. He urged the officers to observe the characters of their soldiers so that they would better know which ones to encourage and which ones to discipline. He also urged them to be concerned about the physical well-being of their men, inquiring after their health and assuring they were given what was needed to improve their condition.
    Wolfe practised what he preached. He visited his soldiers often, inquiring after their health, taking a personal interest in them, and winning their undying respect and admiration. Ironically, it was the Highlanders who became particularly enamoured with him, affectionately nicknaming him “The Red-Headed Corporal”, because of his flaming hair and the worsted badge he wore. They loved his hands-on leadership style, not dissimilar to their clan chiefs of old, and it was said they would have “gone through fire and water to have served him.” According to legend, one Highlander named Duncan McPhee became Wolfe’s self-appointed body-guard, much to the general’s bemusement!
    Another story relates how, just before Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec, a British sergeant was shot through the lunges as the general passed along the lines decked out in his scarlet cape and silver walking cane. Wolfe paused, knelt beside the gasping man, and squeezed his hand. He then promised that if he survived the wound, he would be promoted, and passed on the message to another officer to assure that the promise would be carried out.
    Not long after, Wolfe was shot multiple times. “Don’t let my brave fellows see me fall,” he said to the soldiers who came to support and bare him off the field. As “The Red-Headed Corporal” lay bleeding to death, the Highlanders charged the French and the battle was won by the British. Thus it was also that at the height of victory, Wolfe’s soldiers wept for his passing.
    This victory would, in many ways, define Canada: a safe haven for the United Empire Loyalists after the Revolutionary War to the south; insulation from the turmoil of the French Revolution; and a close relationship with Britain that continues to this very day. It is not for nothing that the first and last verses of The Maple Leaf Forever, long Canada’s unofficial national anthem, read:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!
On merry England’s far famed land
May kind heaven sweetly smile,
God bless old Scotland evermore
and Ireland’s Em’rald Isle!
And swell the song both loud and long
Till rocks and forest quiver!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

(A version of this article appeared on Open Unionism:

General Wolfe, "The Red-headed Corporal"