Teaching the Faith through English history

Catholics in Britain are taught about our heroic martyrs, but not the everyday things that echo our Catholic faith in place-names, pub signs, even nursery rhymes.

“This bus only goes as far as Millbank,” the driver announced, to groans of annoyance from the passengers. I needed to be at Westminster Cathedral and had only 15 minutes in which to get there…

But as the purpose of my journey was to lead people on a Catholic history walk, I found myself pondering the names. Millbank is the street that runs alongside Parliament at Westminster, fronting on to the Thames. Its name tells you that there was a watermill here. Westminster is not in London, of course, but is a separate city—centered on the minster built here, to the West of the city of London, by our last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. It’s a Saxon name—there’s a city in Germany called Munster, same word…

You cannot really understand London’s history—or the history of any city in England, or in most of Europe—unless you understand something of the Catholic faith. A minster is a place where monks live. “Ooh,” said someone, suddenly awake to the fact that place-names have meanings. “What about Upminster at the end of the Tube line?” Yes, indeed, there was a minster there. And the great Minster at York still stands—famously damaged by fire when it was struck by lightning in the 1980s. (I was living at Catterick in Yorkshire at the time and remember waking in the night with the ferocity of the storm. Popular opinion attributed the damage to the anger of the Almighty at the recent consecration of an Anglican bishop who had denied the veracity of Christ’s Resurrection.)

People often get muddled today between Westminster Abbey—that’s the minster established by St. Edward in the 11th century—and Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, in Byzantine style and red brick, that stands at the other end of Victoria Street. Westminster Abbey was of course destroyed by Henry VIII, the monks dispersed, their fields and orchard left to rot. But at least he kept the magnificent church, and it is central to our national story, the place where our kings and queens are crowned, and where our Unknown Warrior lies buried in honour. Westminster Cathedral, on the other hand, was built in the 1900s in that flourishing of a revived Catholicism which began after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. It is a fine building, and when it marked its centenary, HM Queen Elizabeth II came to Vespers, a magnificent evening of joy and unity: singing the National Anthem was an emotional moment.

Westminster Cathedral recently established a Guild of St. John Southworth whose members, in red gowns, act as guides and helpers for visitors. I have a number of friends among them, and all tell me that the most frequently asked question is: “Is this where Prince William got married?” In explaining that no, he got married in Westminster Abbey, the guides are, in a sense, opening up 400 years of history.

Between the Abbey and the Cathedral is Horseferry Road, because it led to the old horse ferry across the river, owned by the archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. Today’s archbishop of Canterbury still lives at Lambeth but the ferry ceased in the 18th century with the building of Westminster Bridge. The Church has a long association with bridges and river crossings: often these were maintained by religious orders and included a chapel where travelers could pray. While Westminster had the ferry, the City of London had a bridge, built in the 12th century by the Brethren of London Bridge, established for that purpose by a priest. Today’s City Bridge Trust, funding various projects across London, dates back to that time.

When we teach the Catholic faith we too often do not link it with place-names and songs and traditions. People sometimes feel there is a gulf between us and the faithful of long ago—they can relate to specific martyrs or mystics but somehow can’t grasp the full continuity at the heart of the Church passing on the Faith from one generation to the next. Of course the evidence of centuries of Christianity is clearer in a city like London, where the Faith first arrived in Roman times—that same Roman Empire into which Christ our Savior was born two millennia ago. But names and words and songs and traditions that echo Christianity are to be found everywhere.

Catholic teachers—and parents, and priests, and catechists—should train themselves to look for Catholic links that bring history alive.

Some are obvious—places in London such as Marylebone, or Ave Maria Lane and Paternoster Row by St. Paul’s Cathedral. But there are many others that merit exploration. Where we fail to teach history, others, often with bogus material, will fill the gap. This is especially the case where anti-Catholic prejudice has tainted things. For over a century The Monument—built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666—carried an inscription stating that Catholics had started the fire (it was finally removed in 1830). But I have heard silly nonsense about places where the Catholic link is obvious but has been pushed aside simply for want of a proper explanation. Blackfriars doesn’t refer to buildings blackened by fire but to the black robes worn by Dominicans who had a friary along by the Thames where the tube station now stands. And the lady in a long gown in the middle of the coat-of-arms of Westminster City Council doesn’t represent a mother-and-child clinic, but is the Blessed Virgin Mary, long venerated as Our Lady of Westminster.

We should not assume anti-Catholic prejudice where there is none. Today, Mother Teresa’s nuns are a familiar sight on the streets of London: people stop to greet them, ask for prayers, or even give them money. When Pope Benedict came to Britain attempts to stir up hatred against him melted away and huge crowds cheered him all along the Mall and into Hyde Park, where he led us in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, televised worldwide. We now have an annual Blessed Sacrament procession from Westminster Cathedral across Lambeth Bridge to St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark in thanksgiving for that papal visit; no one shouts or heckles us, a few cross themselves, some bow, many ignore us as just another of the sights in this teeming city of eight million people.

Pupils at Catholic schools in Britain are taught about our heroic martyrs—Saints John Fisher and Thomas More and those who came after. But they are not taught the everyday things that echo our Catholic faith in place-names, pub signs, even nursery rhymes. In leading Catholic history walks through London I seek to play some small part in changing that. But there is more that could be done, and not in London alone. Let’s give the Faith its due place in our everyday history. 

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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.