Ross Wilkinson, a member of the Learning and Access Team of Durham University Library, spoke on this subject which is of immense importance in our area, and the large audience proved to be extremely appreciative. Mr Wilkinson, who brought a facsimile of the gospels, displayed an enthusiastic and profound knowledge of the book, which delighted everyone.
He began by explaining that his team, since September 2012, had delivered workshops to over 25,000 learners of all ages. Whilst the gospels were on display at Durham last year, an engagement programme of workshops, family activities and lectures involved a further 13,500 people.
The gospels, kept in The British Museum, are constantly giving up more of their secrets about their creation to researchers. A lot is known; more is being revealed all the time.
What we know is that they were written between 650 and 715 AD, by one monk called Eadfrith. He would have taken 10–20 years to carry out the task. Although he was the only scribe, several other monks undertook the illustrated folios. At that time, Northumbria was the hub of all Christendom for the writing of books. Written on vellum, it is estimated that 300–400 calves would have been required for the vellum. Although 129 folios make up the book, the remaining skins would have been used and discarded, or else made up into less important books, as those in ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels’ had to be perfect.
We were taken through slides of key pages, beginning with the carpet page of Jerome – like a prayer mat of Islam, but with a Coptic cross, and the words, ‘You are humble before God.’
We were shown the carpet, the portrait, and the incipit pages for each of the four evangelists. Writing on these pages was in a mixture of Greek and Hebrew, and illumination incorporated symbols of the Celtic church and the Roman church as well as elements of Judaism and Islam. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all portrayed with their own symbols, such as the eagle of St John (a link to heaven) and the lion of Mark.
It is to Aldred that the attribution of the gospels being written for Cuthbert is due. However, the only reference to Cuthbert, written 300 years after the saint’s death, is in Aldred’s ‘Collophon’ at the back of the book, stating ‘Eadfrith wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert.’ He attributes the binding to Ethilvald, and the cover to Billfrith, a jewel smith. The original cover is missing. We know it was elaborately decorated with gold, silver and gems, but it was taken by Henry VIII’s men at the dissolution. The cover had an all-important part to play with illiterate pilgrims to Durham, since it represented ‘God’s Word’ when on display before Cuthbert’s tomb.
The gospels disappeared at this time, only to re-appear as part of the ‘Opening Collection’ at the British Museum in c1750. It was last checked out in 1908. Now it is rarely handled, save when a page is turned each year.
The audience was invited to examine the facsimile themselves, the use of local pigments was discussed, pencil designs on the back of pages noted and illumination wondered at.
A deeply appreciative audience acknowledged a very successful evening and a vote of thanks was offered to Ross Wilkinson.
There follows a trip to Lindisfarne for a limited number of people on Saturday 29th November at 11a.m. where at St Mary’s Church Canon Rev. Kate Tristram will make a presentation.
On a cold December evening, GLHS members and visitors were treated to a lively account of horseracing history by one of our own members, Charlie Brown. The talk ranged over the origins of key events in the British racing calendar, key figures who had shaped the rules of racing, the genealogy of some of the greatest racing horses, and the background to famous jockeys. In presenting the story, richly illustrated with slides and anecdotes, we learned the origin of famous terms, like ‘steeplechase’ and ‘Derby Day’.
At the start, Charlie introduced the talk by presenting a famous painting of a day at the races. This underlined that ‘all human life was there’, with all classes mingling as they enjoyed the racing, the betting and the various entertainments that could be found. We then heard about the racecourse that used to be at Belford, one of the most important in our area. It was active from the early 19th century, and perhaps from before. It ceased to operate towards the end of the century for reasons which are not quite clear, although people were coming from Newcastle by rail during the middle of the 19th century.
Nationally, the Jockey Club was founded in 1753, prompted by the need for some form of regulation as, by this time, horseracing and betting were closely linked. In Charlie’s view, three key figures shaped how racing rules evolved. The first was Charles Bunbury who, with Lord Derby, introduced the racing of 3-year old horses and modified the system of heats prior to the main race, which had often exhausted the horses. Racing 3-year olds helped to test the abilities of young racers. Bunbury and Derby were particularly active at the Epsom Downs racecourse, which is now the premier event in Britain, and The Derby is of course named after Lord Derby. The second was Lord George Cavendish Bentinck, in the mid-19th century, who was particularly concerned to eliminate fraud. Until then there had been all sorts of tricks – substituting numbers and colours between horses, jockeys and the programme, to confuse the outcome of bets, presumably a form of ‘insider trading’. The third was Admiral Rous, who was a stickler for enforcement, upbraiding any jockey who had flouted the rules.
Then as now, the quality of the horses was a central preoccupation. A famous racer often had a genealogy of winning ancestors and sired new generations of winners. All the racing stock is descended from one of three racehorses brought from Arabia in the late 17th/early 18th Century. We were introduced to the genealogy of ‘Dr Syntax’, a very successful horse owned by the Felton Park family. His ancestors included winners, and one of the original ‘foundation sires’. His descendents included Beeswing, born in 1833, who was even more successful than Dr Syntax, and whose descendents continued to breed winners. One of these was Hermit, who in 1867 unexpectedly won a race on which the Marquis of Hastings had placed a large bet. The Marquis lost millions and died soon after. Hermit’s descendents are still winning on the turf today.
Horses needed good jockeys. Jockeys often came from families working in the racing industry, and their future depended on their weight. We were introduced to Fred Archer, who was very successful in a short life which ended when he was only 29 in 1886. By this time, the railway network enabled him to travel across the country to participate in many races. But perhaps the stress of keeping a low weight and maintaining a winning record cost him his life. Jockeys could also be injured, often falling on the course. But they could be philosophical too. Captain Becher fell at the first Grand National held at Aintree in 1839, which then consisted of a fence and a brook. He fell at the brook and sheltered under the fence as all the other horses jumped over him, and this jump has ever since been referred to as Becher’s Brook. Phlegmatically, he is said to have commented that water is much better with whisky in it. The Grand National is of course a steeplechase, with fences and ditches to negotiate. It apparently originated in Ireland in a challenge to race between two church steeples!
For many of us this was a quite new field of history, and we expressed our warm thanks to our speaker, also thanking him for his work with the GLHS Committee from which he has recently retired.
Our next meeting will be on January 14th, when Jim Herbert will talk on aspects of Berwick History. Visitors are most welcome.
Bob Harrison gallantly stood in, from the audience, replacing the absent speaker at January’s Glendale Local History Society’s meeting. Without aide-memoire, he introduced us to some aspects of the era of Admiral Lord Nelson and Napoleon.
We learnt thatfollowing the French Revolution, the French became aggressive and Napoleon, a master tactician, aimed to spread French influence throughout Europe, including the invasion of Britain, and thus create a French empire. At length, Admiral Nelson’s victory over the larger Franco-Spanish fleet at the decisive Battle of Trafalgar put an end to his plans for a French invasion of Britain and thus hastened the end of the long-fought Napoleonic Wars. This British victory was due to its superior naval force: our sailors were healthier and better fed, especially as the Admiralty had a better understanding of scurvy than the French. The sailors were better trained, with greater nautical and weaponry skills. Also, the development of flintlocks ─ a new canon-firing mechanism ─ made for a faster, more accurate use of these weapons. The advanced construction of British ships also proved superior to their opponents’. So too did Admiral Nelson’s successful tactics ─ aiming to break the opposition’s line of ships, causing them to disperse so that individual ships could be targeted and destroyed. Many prisoners were taken. Naval journals, log books and other records depict life on board warships.
We heard several extraordinary ‘Anecdotes from the Napoleonic Wars’. One such tale recorded how four English officers had managed to escape from captivity in France. While making their way across country in France, tired and hungry, they implored a local woman to help them ─ trying at first to persuade her that they were Dutch. In fact she recognised them as English as she had worked here. After four months being cared for in her attic they finally escaped and managed to return home. Twenty years later, one of these grateful men, having gained promotion, was able to return to France to seek out his benefactor. He found the town but was told the woman had died. After further investigation he finally found her – appearing as a bundle of rags, in a squalid room, lit by one candle, in the poor quarter of the town. Although nearly blind she spoke clearly, and after a conversation to cross reference facts, she named the four officers she had protected. The officer was able to tell her “It is Boyes!” one of the four she had named as having helped those many years previously! He repaid his debt by providing clothes and a financial allowance, plus money in trust should he pre-decease her.
Some women lived aboard, mainly wives of non-commissioned officers, and babies were born – traditionally between two canons. One baby, Sally Trunion, was cared for by fellow crew members and reared as if their own after her father was killed and her mother had died. When old enough, she was set ashore with £50 sewn into the hem of her dress!
Live animals were carried on board for food whilst at sea, but when entering battle the order to ‘Clear the decks!’ involved all livestock being thrown over-board. To this end an officer’s dog was accidentally thrown out too, but miraculously survived by being caught up in bow-head netting and, being rescued, it became the ship’s mascot thereafter.
Our speaker suggested that the Napoleonic Wars could classify as the true First World War (a century prior to the Great War of 1914-18) since it involved the major powers of Europe, North Africa, Russia and Scandinavia.
Many thanks to Bob for standing in at such short notice, and depicting an era for which the end came with the Battle of Waterloo ─ its 200th anniversary is this year.
The members who took up the limited number of places available to visit to RAF Boulmer were not disappointed.
RAF Boulmer started its life in 1940 as a decoy airfield for RAF Acklington, evolving through the Cold War to its current role. Although the long standing air/sea rescue function at RAF Boulmer was widely understood, we learnt that this is a subsidiary function of the Station. Its main task is the protection of the airspace of the whole of the UK, as the hub of the UK Air Surveillance and Control Systems Force. All civil and military aircraft are tracked in the Control and Reporting Centre, and any unidentified aircraft are intercepted by military jets.
Two floors underground in the Operations Centre, staff work in shifts round the clock at screens depicting air lanes and flight movement, monitoring all movements from civilian microlights to jumbo jets. In a combat simulation, they also demonstrated directing flights over the North Sea, with real fighter planes and real flight crews!
We had recently seen press and TV reports of Russian incursions into UK airspace, and learned that it was from this centre that the monitoring was done, and the planes scrambled to intercept them and to escort them around and out of our air space.
RAF Boulmer is also home to the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management, which runs high level air battle management courses for the UK Armed Forces and personnel from NATO and other allies. Programmes involve operational training, augmented by flight simulators, to support war-fighting operations, peace-keeping duties and delivering humanitarian aid.
Station personnel are actively involved in many local community projects and support several local charities. The Station has been honoured by receiving the Freedom of Northumberland.
We felt privileged to have visited Boulmer, and went home in a more thoughtful mood.
John Hardy & Rosemary Bell