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The Church Jester

The Church Jester - origins

Where and what is Smithfield?

Smithfield Market in 19th century
  • Smithfield market in 19th century
  • Smithfield is an area in the northwest part of the City of London. It contains some very important buildings such as the London Charterhouse, the Haberdashers’ Hall, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and, of course, the Priory Church. It also contains a world famous, 800 year old meat market.
    However, it has a very varied and rather bloody history. It was a popular place for gatherings, and splendid tournaments were held by kings, including Edward III and Richard II; the latter’s huge, international event was organised by the king’s clerk - Geoffrey Chaucer!

    But Smithfield was also used, as one of the two places in London, for public executions of heretics and dissidents. William Wallace, (Braveheart) one of the leaders in the Wars of Scottish Independence, was hanged, drawn and quartered here, for treason, in 1305. Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was killed at Smithfield during negotiations with king Richard II, and his head was put on a pole and carried round London City to London Bridge for display.

    During the changes in the religious beliefs of the various Tudor kings and queens, huge numbers of Catholics and Protestants were publicly put to death by being burnt at the stake as heretics, because their views differed from the ones prevailing at the time.
    As an example, Anne Askew, a Protestant young woman of 25, was tortured on the rack so that she could no longer walk, to provide names of other ‘heretics’ (particularly the Henry VIII’s Queen, Katherine Parr). She refused to name anyone. So she was condemned as a heretic, carried on a chair to Smithfield, tied to a seat on the pyre, and she was burnt alive.(see History’s Heroes: Anne Askew).

    During the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary I, about 50 Protestants were put to death in Smithfield. However, on November 17, 1558, several protestant ‘heretics’ were saved just as the fires were about to be lit, by a royal messenger announcing Queen Mary’s death.

    Smithfield was also used, during 16th century, to execute poisoners, and people who committed the crime of ‘coining’ (defrauding by snipping off bits of coins or colouring them or forging them), by boiling them to death in oil.
    It is believed by some that the sounds of screaming and the smell of burning still lingers at times in Smithfield, as do the ghosts of those who were cruelly executed here.

    Why are there so many stories about ghosts?

    Ghostly Black Dog
  • Ghostly black dog
  • Myths and Legends containing ghosts abound throughout the world; every age and nearly every culture has them.
    Traditionally, a ghost is the soul or spirit of someone who has died, sometimes even of an animal. It often haunts the area where it lived or died. In many cases, the place haunted is the scene of tragedy, injustice or violence.
    Throughout history, one of the purposes of funeral rites is to lay the spirit of the person to rest. Many ancient and modern cultures respect their ancestors, some to the point of worship. The inability to perform the appropriate rituals on someone’s death can lead to the worry that the spirit will not rest quietly in their afterlife, but wander in the world as a ghost, looking for spiritual peace.

    What do ghosts want?
    Throughout legends and literature, ghosts are often attributed with the desire to atone for their own sins, or to warn others against endangering themselves or their souls. Such a ghost is Jacob Marley, in Dicken’s famous novel ‘A Christmas Carol”.
    Other ghosts are looking for vengeance, or justice, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father or the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, both by Shakespeare.

    How do ghosts manifest themselves?
    In some spectral encounters, ghosts are not seen, just felt as a sudden coldness, or a cool breeze inside a dwelling, as it passes by. Others are a little more substantial, being seen as shadowy figures gliding along and even through walls. In most cases, ghosts are insubstantial and can do little harm.
    However, one form of ghostly manifestation can cause mayhem … a poltergeist. These are ghosts that move things around, maybe throw objects, potentially causing damage to people and property.

    Are ghosts real?
    Well, are they? How many times has someone asked you: “Do you believe in ghosts?” And what have you replied? There are many people the world over who believe in ghosts, believe that they have experienced ghostly happenings of one sort or another; happenings that do not seem to have any other explanation than a ghost. Over the last 150 years, there have been many attempts to capture ghostly images on camera. Many have been published as proof. However, there are just as many people who do not believe in ghosts, who have had no experiences of their own, and who think that the accounts by others of happenings have different, more rational explanations. They also believe that the photo images are faked or caused by tricks of light or reflection. You must make up your own mind.

    What is a Pilgrimage?

    Pilgrim's Way
  • A Pilgrims' Way
  • A pilgrimage is a journey made for religious reasons, to a place sacred to that religion. Over the millennia, people have undertaken pilgrimages for a variety of reasons: they may wish to fulfill a vow, as Rahere does, to atone for a crime, to hope for a miracle cure, or simply because such a journey is important to the faith and makes the pilgrim feel closer to his/her god(s).

    In Medieval times, Christian pilgrimages were very common. They were undertaken by people from all parts of society and Rome was one of the major destinations. It was believed that relics of the saints held great power and, in Rome, were relics of the saints Peter and Paul. A relic is something left of the saint (it could be a part of the body, clothing or something he/she used).

    However, as Rahere found out, a pilgrimage to a far away place could be dangerous for many reasons. In Rahere’s case,as with many others, it was a dangerous illness, but pilgrims also proved fair game for robbers and brigands if they travelled overland. Or they could find themselves going through disputed territory and end up as prisoners of war, or worse. Nature could also provide many difficulties and obstacles, heavy rain flooding poor roads, causing landslides etc. Going by sea also carried problems, some with weather, which could, in the extreme, cause a shiprwreck. Pirates also abounded, waiting to prey on unwary boats.

    So, to complete a successful pilgrimage and return home, was no mean feat in Rahere’s day and looked upon as a blessing from god, which made it necessary to fulfil god’s purpose for you, which Rahere did by founding the hospital and the church.

    What were Jesters?

    Court Jester in Motley
  • A Court Jester in motley
  • Rahere was a man of many skills and interests during his life. Earlier on, he was a jester in King Henry I’s court. A jester or fool in a royal or noble household, held great status in those days, and he led a privileged life. He would entertain the family and their guests, sing, dance, tell stories, juggle and perform tricks for them and make them laugh. He needed to be quick witted and his humour was often contemporary, about events or people well known to the audience, even about the audience / guests themselves, without causing too much offence, of course.

    However, these ‘licensed fools’ often were able to take great liberties with their employers, and act as a critic and sometimes conscience to their noble lord. There are stories of Queen Elizabeth I chiding her jester for not being sufficiently critical of her. Because of this, a fool was also sometimes able to bring bad news to the king or noble, which others might not dare to do, for fear of retribution.

    Not all jesters worked at the courts of nobility or kings. Many were itinerant, and moved from fair to fair, from market to market, using all their skills to earn their money. They often wore brightly coloured clothes called motley which marked out their profession and has been associated with them right up to the modern day – the joker (jester) in a pack of cards is dressed in motley. In England, court jesters continued to be in favour throughout the Middle Ages and Tudor times. The tradition died out with the overthrow of Charles I.

    Jesters have figured large in literature throughout the ages. They very often speak the common sense in chaotic situations. Shakespeare has a wide array of ‘fools’ in his plays. Among the most famous are Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’, Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’ and the fool in King Lear.

    However, jesters can also be shown as tragic clowns .. having to laugh through adversity. Among the most famous of these fictional jesters is Rigoletto, in Verdi’s opera of the same name. He is the Duke of Mantua’s jester, hunchbacked and hated by the courtiers whom he mocks mercilessly, but who has a beautiful daughter who comes to the notice of the womanising Duke, with tragic consequences.

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