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Dr David Starkey on Peterborough Cathedral

A short address delivered by Dr David Starkey on the occasion of the opening of the Cathedral's Visitor and Learning Centre, 10th September 2016.

It is a very great pleasure to be here but slightly embarrassing to be explaining to those who are so immediately involved in the running of the Cathedral, to those of you who worship here and to those of you who are so familiar with it … it seems to me to be just short of an insult to be explaining to you why I think it’s important. It’s important in your lives, it’s visibly important to the city. But I’m going to take a different approach, and I think it’s particularly appropriate as I am going to open the Heritage and Learning Centre: I am going to look at the building in terms of its history. It’s history interacting with now.

Inevitably all history is also a commentary on the present. The great issue which is convulsing the country now, not that you would really know it, is called Brexit. It’s the whole debate about what we are, where we’re from, where we’re going.

Peterborough is, and always has been, at the centre of this debate. As you go round the Visitor and Learning Centre you will see that one of the key things that happened here (though you no longer have the text) is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Peterborough is the very origin of Englishness, of an idea of England which curiously enough existed first in the Church of England: there is a Church of England, an ecclesia anglicana, before there is an actual Kingdom of England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is partly mythic. It goes right back to Hengist and Horsa; it’s an exploration of origins. It’s an attempt of an immigrant, warring community to explain where it came from, where it’s gone to and what it’s becoming. That is what the Chronicle is about.

I think you should be pushing the Chronicle much, much more and there is an extremely solid case, now that you have the Centre here with proper display cases, to have at least one of the copies, or part of one of the copies, exhibited here. If we are talking about the return of the Book of Kells and so on and so on, Peterborough: that is where the it belongs, that is where it was written, that is where it kept on being written after that enormous challenge to that sense of identity, which was of course the Norman Conquest. The English became a colonised and conquered people in their own land and the Chronicle which was written here tells that story with bitterness, with regret, with a sense of punishment for sin, and with a hope for a better future, all here.

So that is a foundation of a story – the whole process, then, is of the reinvention of a sort of England to bridge the gap between the Norman conqueror and the Anglo-Saxon conquered, which had already begun when the younger son of the Conqueror, Henry I, deliberately marries an Anglo-Saxon princess so that the old royal line can be introduced into the new royal line. By the time you get to 50 years on, and the ceasing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1154 (and beyond to the time of Magna Carta, again associated with Peterborough), the Norman French barons are calling themselves English and claiming the rights of Englishmen.

This is a new fashioned identity, which is again a difficult and awkward story – earlier I was asked about the crusades, which was one way in which identity was fashioned and knit together – the other of course was fighting the French. The best way of identifying yourself as being English, still, is to go and fight the French. Which the Norman English did enthusiastically for the rest of the Middle Ages.

Peterborough was also at the centre of an even greater challenge, a religious one as well as a national one. I always say, if I’m being a tad more provocative than usual, that there is a direct line from Henry VIII to Nigel Farage. The Reformation is the first Brexit. This cathedral, with the tomb of Katharine of Aragon, is literally the crucible of that process. The reason the Reformation happens is, first of all, Katharine’s failure to produce a son. But above all, and what we’ve forgotten, is that this is not the final trigger. It is her refusal to give up on her marriage. As she lies dying at Buckden, so near to here, she has a long exchange with the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, and she says to him, I have sinned because it is my obstinacy that has led to the schism, the heresy of an entire country. Chapuys says, no no madam. But she was right.

So here again we have this extraordinary process of debate about identity and reinvention of identity. Ladies and gentlemen, the Reformation is the beginning of an idea of England separate from Continental Europe. The Norman Conquest turns England round. The England of the Anglo-Saxons, the England of Peterborough, the England of York looks across the north sea to Scandinavia. The Norman Conquest turns England round and it meant the Channel was merely a very convenient means of communication. Remember, there is a total myth that we were protected from conquest by the Channel. Because we had no powerful coastal fortifications, because we had no powerful navy, England was perpetually conquered in the middle ages. Every change of dynasty, including the Tudors, is a foreign conquest. Do we all realise, Henry VII at Bosworth: his money was French, his ships were French, his army was French, his tactics were French and the entire diplomacy was French and the only person to get a peerage out of it was a Frenchman. But what happens with Henry VIII and the Reformation is something wildly different. The break with Rome is literally fought over the same grounds of sovereignty that we have been debating in the last two or three months.

The moment becomes clear even before poor Katherine is dying. The moment is clear with the trial of Thomas More. Thomas More is on trial for his life for denying that Henry VIII could make himself, by an Act of Parliament, Supreme Head of the English Church. He is found guilty, of course by rigged evidence from Richard Rich – “For Wales Richard for Wales”. In the debate at Thomas More’s trial which follows his conviction, it is extraordinary how it touches the present. Invited to comment on his condemnation More says, my condemnation is illegal (and he is the greatest lawyer of his day). He said, my condemnation is illegal because the Act of Parliament on which it is based was ultra vires (beyond the power of parliament). He then goes on and says, the English Parliament is only a parish council. It is the part, not the whole. It is part of Christendom and the universal council of Christendom is the General Council of the Church, and the part cannot rebel against the whole.

And it’s settled by the chairman of the court, who asks the Lord Chief Justice to respond. He does so magnificently, with words that will gladden the heart of every sincere Brexiteer, it is an Act of Parliament: it is good enough.

It is exactly the debate we’ve been having. Katharine of Aragon is the trigger of the direct terms of that debate. What then follows of course is the transformation of a Benedictine monastery, brilliantly described and documented in the exhibition, as it becomes an Anglican Cathedral. But it also reminds me, if you look at Henry VIII’s Charter of Foundation displayed in the Visitor Centre, that what is conceived is a real cathedral, with a choir, with a school, with endowed offices within it. In other words, there ain’t a trace of Protestantism about it at all.

But then what happens in the centuries after that is that the nature of English Protestantism and the nature of the Church of England, and therefore the nature of Englishness, is fought over exactly that point. You have the famous description of the Cathedral being sacked by Cromwell – what is the first thing they destroy as they go into the Cathedral? The organs.

If you watch my TV series Music and Monarchy (and I’m sure you all will have done), or read my book, the civil war is a war about organs, it is a war about cathedral music. It’s a war about the idea that God can be worshipped with other things than words, and should be worshipped with other things than words, and that of course is another debate about identity. Are we simply the people of the book – the English Bible - or are we a people of a broad and European culture?

See what I mean? So that at every single point in the history of this building, in its great moments, in the great objects, the tombs and so on within it, there is a reflection, a kind of match struck in the dark that illuminates our present, illuminates our own debates and discussions. We were talking earlier about the possibility that a member of the choir could be a Muslim - a thought that still strikes me as almost incomprehensible - but is clearly part, not of multi-culturalism but a new kind of bi-culturalism in which you can be English and something else, and that both matter, just as they did of course to the Anglo-Saxons and to the Normans, to Henry VIII and everybody at that time. What we forget is that it was not only Shakespeare who was of Catholic background. Every English Protestant was a betrayed Catholic. They had all gone through a revolution in their own lives; history isn’t comfortable.

This building is beautiful, this building is noble, but finally this building tells a story of conflict and of debate, one that has absolutely no end.