Monday, 26 May 2008

Those feet in ancient time

Cornwall has some very lush and fanciful legends from this era. One of the most curious says that “Christ came in a ship and anchored in St. Just Creek” arriving in the district of St Just-in-Roseland, near Place Manor. Across the estuary, so the tale goes, Joseph of Arimathea and the young Jesus, landed at the Strand (now Falmouth town quay), crossed the stream and went up Smithick Hill....In the far west of Cornwall, there are, or supposedly were, two rich lodes of tin. One was named Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) and the other Wheal Jesus. Wheal is the old Cornish word for mine.

In Catholic accounts this “fabulous legend” shows that a Phoenician trader was not unusual in Cornwall at the time, and equally that they chose to land at one of the counties main oyster beds in the Fal. There is a further twist. The coat of arms of the town of East Looe, a few miles east, purports to portray a ship bringing Joseph and the young Jesus to Cornwall, or at least two men who might be them. Certainly the legendary Joseph was said to have been a rich trader and may have made many trips to England and may even have owned mines, which if any of that were true just supports the importance of the west countries at the time.

Theologians use the story to support the idea that perhaps England, or the west of England, was converted to Christianity before the Romans arrived, and if that was the case then such a trade route would have been the logical medium. The Joseph in this interpretation could have been an uncle to Mary. It was therefore he who asked Pilate if he could bury Jesus’s body. Then he was cast off without oars and sails as an exile and washed up mercifully at Marseilles with 12 disciples. He travelled north and eventually sailed for Somerset. It is said he was known already as a trader also in lead. And he was welcomed at Glastonbury, which would have made England the home of the first church in Europe. Some hold this would have been AD37, others say AD63, by which point he would have been quite an old man to undertake such adventures. He is supposed to have lain the holy grail – the cup from which Christ drank at he last supper – at the fecund Chalice Well in Glastonbury. This history contradicts the conventional St Augustine version that has England converting in 597 AD and whether true or not the legends held much credence so much so that in the middle ages at four church councils of Pisa 1409, Constance 1417, Sienna 1424 and Basle 1434, mention that “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.” Glastonbury was called Roma Secunda. On all of which is predicated William Blake’s inspiration for the hymn Jersusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green
And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

In these accounts conversion, as probably happened in Ireland, seems to have been extremely swift. Christianity was persecuted in other countries en route at the time so remoteness could have encouraged an evangelical pilgrimage or religious refugees. The ships may have been a community apart and such vessels could have fostered evangelism whether on board or simply as the carriers of a persecuted faithful. Later, around the 5th century AD there is much written about Irish saints coming to Cornwall and then returning to convert that country. The Scilly Isles were known as a place of pilgrimage, although it is unclear precisely why because so many legends entwine. But more concrete are the burial sites on the islands, which date back to the Neolithic era, circa 2,500 BC, which would also coincide with the early might of the Pheonician empire.

Sensitive issues of faith interlock with legend here but at heart we are dealing with more evidence of the recognition of some form of community being active and being known across Europe from well before the Roman and Greek eras.