Wedded friendshipsAlan Bray
- 8 August 2001
Spiritual same-sex friendships have been celebrated in the history of the Church with rites that gave them a standing akin to marriage. That is the belief of an ecclesiastical historian and honorary research fellow of Birkbeck College in the University of London, who here prsents some of the evidence for his view.
Shortly after I finished my book Homosexuality in Renaissance England nearly 20 years ago, I was invited to the chapel of Christ?s College in Cambridge. There I was shown a monument from 1684 marking the burial, in the same tomb, of John Finch and Thomas Baines. The two halves of the monument are each surmounted by a portrait of one of the two friends, linked by the representation of a knotted cloth set between the two tables of the inscription, in a visual pun on the love knot or marriage knot. From archives I later discovered that Finch had described his friendship with Baines as a connubium: a marriage.
That chance encounter began the work that was to occupy me over the years that followed. In the chapel of Merton College in Oxford, I gazed at the great monumental brass above the tomb of John Bloxham and John Whytton, who were buried together at the end of the fourteenth century. It shows two figures standing side by side under canopies with their hands joined together in prayer and looking straight on to the viewer. This is the familiar iconography employed in the fourteenth century for the common tomb of a husband and wife.
To a modern viewer it is inexplicable. Not only is the imagery one of marriage, but the iconography is one of sainthood. At the base of the monument, the design turns on the three-fold coincidence of the name Johannes (John) for the two men shown in the scroll and for the lamb with cross and banner depicted above the scroll - the sign of St John the Baptist. In the fourteenth century it was common to take one?s first name from a godparent. But this design seems to present St John not as their patron, their patronus, but as their patrinus, their spiritual godfather, which makes Bloxham and Whytton spiritual brothers, the analogy being here not one of marriage but of fraternity.
Equally perplexing to the modern eye is the monument above the tomb of two English knights, Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, buried together in 1391 in the same tomb in the church of the Dominican friars in Galata near Constantinople. An English man or woman at the time of Richard II could read an heraldic arrangement more easily than a letter. Here the two shields are impaled like those of a married couple, inclined towards each other. The arrangement of their two helms cor-responds to a kiss.
In the British Library there is a manuscript work of heraldry from the 1450s that attributes an impalement of arms of this kind to two knights on the grounds that they were sworn brothyrn - sworn brothers. But that does not explain why a device that would normally represent a marital relation should be thought appropriate for a fra- ternal relation. This is an era where different kinds of kinship overlap, shade into one other and are not clearly distinguished from friendship.
Shared tombs persisted too among traditionally-minded Reformed Christians. In the chapel of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge is a monument to his friend Thomas Legge placed by John Gostlin in 1619. The depiction of Legge is conventional, but beneath it Gostlin placed a heart in flames uplifted by two hands with the Latin inscription Ivnxit amor vivos sic ivngat terra sepvltos. Gostlini reliqvvm cor tibi Leggvs habes; that is: Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial. O Legge, Gostlin?s heart you have still with you.
At this point - early in the seventeenth century - women step into the picture. The earliest example I know of two women being buried side by side in this way is the monument to Ann Chitting and her friend Mary Barber (from 1606) in the church of St James in Bury in Suffolk. From now on, the grave of two women buried together became as common as that of two men. A late example is a 1710 monument to Mary Kendall in the chapel of St John the Baptist in Westminster Abbey. It records that close Union & Friendship, In which She liv?d, with The Lady CATHARINE IONES; And, in testimony of which, She desir?d, That even their Ashes, after Death, Might not be divided. Another from the end of the century is the lovely monument to Catherine Jennis and her friend Anne Fleming, who are buried together in their vault in Wiveton parish church in Norfolk, at the foot of the steps to the communion table.
There is a fine joint monument to Granville Piper and Richard Wise (who died in 1717 and 1726) erected in the church of St Mary Magdalen in Launceston marking their burial together, with an inscription recording their friendship - Fidissimum Amicorum Par: the most faithful of friends. Their portraits are set between a single flaming funerary urn, as in the tomb monument of John Finch and Thomas Baines in Cambridge. Bishop Herbert Croft and Dean George Benson (who appears to have died within a year of his friend in 1691) were buried together within the communion rails of Hereford cathedral, with a Latin inscription that runs from one ledger-stone to the other. It is inscribed In Vita conjuncti on one, In Morte non divisi on the other, in a phrase similar to that left by John Gostlin to his friend Thomas Legge: In life united. In death not divided. The two ledger-stones were laid side by side and are united by a pair of hands stretching from the one to the other exchanging the handfast.
I have found similar monuments in parish churches and chapels of England dating from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. As I have begun to talk publicly about my conclusions, more are being pointed out to me, these days almost by the month. But why is it only now that they are becoming visible? The documentary evidence is not lacking. There are medieval references to fratres iurati or sworn brothers. And there are glimpses of similar unions in documents recording agreements and property rights. Why have we not recognised and grasped what they represented before?
One of the reasons is that we have come a very long way from the world view of traditional English Christianity, a world where such blessed friendships corresponded to liturgical practice. The kiss depicted on the tomb of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, in this setting, points to a ritual act that would have been familiar in any fourteenth-century Latin church, including that of the Dominican friars in Galata: the exchange of the kiss of peace - the osculum pacis - which preceded Holy Communion or stood in its place and which for the majority of those present represented the climax of the ritual of the Mass.
The liturgical form used in England and France on the present evidence appears to have been for the two friends to receive Holy Communion together after they had exchanged their promises to each other outside the church: a careful distance which points to a reserve about the promises being exchanged. While they were awesome in their scope, lifelong and indissoluble, the vows exchanged were strictly personal, not intrinsically contractual or to do with property: that the two would live together and stand by each other, and if necessary die together. The vows did not - at least in the Latin West - create expectations of inheritance; nor did they preclude marriage. For this reason, the person taking them had a freedom of choice that would have been problematic in terms of other forms of ritual kinship. But the relation allowed one of the friends to stand in the other?s place in the event of a death, caring for children and family.
Why did people take such vows? Clearly - as for those friends who were buried to-gether in the same tomb - it represented a heartfelt commitment. But some historians have interpreted it as a means of social self-advancement (or a reconciliation). The truth lies somewhere in between. The fam-ily was a far more open entity than it is today. It referred not just to those tied by blood or marriage but included voluntary kinship, created not by blood but by a promise or by ritual. As the historian John Bossy has argued, the Eucharist celebrated by traditional Christians before and after the Reformation was recognised as restoring defective human relations in the society about it. The theology of the Eucharist was that the grace imparted could, with human co-operation, lead the promises towards the ideal to which they pointed.
One of the last sights of this eucharistic practice was on Easter Day 1834 when Anne Lister (the mistress of Shibden Hall in Yorkshire) and her friend Ann Walker solemnised their friendship - described in Anne Lister?s diary as a marriage - by receiving Holy Communion together in Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York. But the last of the known monuments is of far greater interest, because it is a simple stone cross in the burial ground of the fathers of the Oratory of St Philip Neri on the Lickey Hills south of Birmingham. In the upper part is the name, still clearly legible, of the first of the two friends who were laid there together: Ambrose St John, who died on 24 May 1875. The friend whose remains were laid in his grave in 1890 was none other than John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Their burial in the same tomb was Newman?s emphatic wish. In a note written on 23 July 1876, the year following the death of Ambrose St John, he declared: I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John?s grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will.
Newman seems to have first met Ambrose St John in the spring of 1841. From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable, Newman later wrote. As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last. After that first meeting in 1841, they would be received into the Catholic Church at almost the same time: St John on 2 October 1845, Newman only a week later on 9 October. Newman?s loss of countless Anglican friends as a result of his being received by Rome created an enduring bond between Newman and St John, which would never be broken. St John?s death devastated Newman; he called the loss the greatest affliction I have had in my life. I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband?s or a wife?s, he wrote, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one?s sorrow greater, than mine.
If evidence were needed that the bond between them was an entirely spiritual one, Newman provided it in the days following St John?s death, recounting a conversation between them before St John lost his speech in those final days. He expressed his hope, Newman wrote, that during his whole priestly life he had not committed one mortal sin. For men of their time and culture that statement is definitive: but they were not afraid to touch and draw close. Remembering their last moments together, Newman wrote: Then he put his arm tenderly round my neck, and drew me close to him, and so kept me a considerable time. I little dreamed, he later wrote, he meant to say that he was going. When I rose to go. . . it was our parting. Their love was no less intense for being spiritual; perhaps more so.
Newman?s burial with Ambrose St John cannot be detached from his understanding of the place of friendship in Christian belief or its long history. In a letter that Pope John Paul II sent to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham in January 2001 to mark the second centenary of Newman?s birth, Pope John Paul asked for prayers that the time could soon come when the Church can officially and publicly proclaim the exemplary holiness of Cardinal John Henry Newman. It is likely that his relics will then be brought into the Oratory Church in Birmingham to lie by the altar, and the inheritors of Newman?s faith should not separate them now from his final gesture. That gesture was Newman?s last, imperative command: his last wish as a man, but also something more. It was his last sermon. This article is an edited extract from the text of a presentation given by Alan Bray at Newman House, St Stephen?s Green, Dublin, on 21 July. His talk in Dublin introduced the research that will appear in his book The Friend, to be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.