Here's my new weekly blog, the Bastle Blog which features stories and features mainly on military history:
Apostle of the North
Nobody wanted a parish on the Border Marches; it was the equivalent to a diplomatic posting to the Khyber Pass. There were clergy though, probably quite a few those they generally get a bad press, going ‘native’ to the extent they participated, perhaps even eagerly, in the crimes of their parishioners and so needed strong towers for added security, ‘Vicar’s Peles’.
Good examples still survive, Longhorsley, Elsdon and Corbridge in Northumberland. Many churches like Edlingham and Ancroft all had highly defensible towers. Border clergy remain mostly in the shadows and possibly for the best. They are also largely invisible from the written record. There was however, at least one powerful exception to the rule and that was the truly remarkable Bernard Gilpin.
Born of Westmorland stock so ranks as a Marcher, Gilpin was from the Kentmere Valley, of gentry stock with an uncle who rose to be Bishop of London and one of the executors of Henry VIII will. An Oxford student and a gifted one, who took a dangerous path in opposing Bloody Mary’s penchant for mass-production of Protestant martyrs, though he was no ardent reformer and spoke out for transubstantiation. Late in 1552, he gained the living at Norton in Durham. His preaching became so renowned William Cecil, (later Lord Burghley), granted him a general licence to speak from pulpits nationwide, (a signal honour – John Knox was another upon whom it was conferred).
During Mary’s reign, he judiciously spent some time studying abroad though he did come back before the Queen died and acquired the archdeaconry of Durham, (his uncle at that time was Prince Bishop which clearly helped). Uncompromising and bold in his eloquent and sustained attacks on the abuses of the clergy, it was as well he had such a powerful benefactor. His enemies didn’t give up and he might well have ended up at the stake if he hadn’t broken a leg and if Mary hadn’t, for once showing excellent timing, died when she did.
He became comfortable in his well endowed living at Houghton-le-Spring in Durham even refusing the Bishop’s job at Carlisle. He entertained well, endowed a grammar school, (which survives today as Kepier School) and became well-respected. From there, he developed the mission for which he’d become famous, to take the gospels to the benighted borders, something of a Sisyphean task which no one else had thought of attempting. Gilpin was fearless, refused to be cowed or intimidated – when one contentious parishioner left a glove fixed to the door of one of the near abandoned churches he rescued, he thundered out a furious sermon against the custom of duelling.
His legend grew – the Apostle of the North, first clergyman to preach the reformed Church on the borders. In one he found another glove, this time a mailed gauntlet hanging impudently and threateningly above the altar. This was apparently the property of a local swashbuckler who left it handily around in case anyone dared take it down – thus triggering a challenge. He ripped it down and let everyone know he’d accept any and all comers. There were no takers.
In doctrinal terms, he’d probably be described now as an Anglo-Catholic, owing allegiance to the new faith but clinging to much of the old. Gladstone writing in 1888 describes Gilpin (and his contemporary Colet) … ‘as Roman in their sympathies; indeed, it would be truer to say of both that their tone of mind, as ecclesiastics and as educationists, was more what would now be reckoned as Anglican’. Born in 1514 and living until 1602, his span like John Forster’s (which is where the similarity ends), covers almost the whole of the sixteenth century and if in that bloody cycle there was one man who always strove to do good it was Bernard Gilpin – God knows what Sir John made of him, I can’t imagine they had much to talk about.
Knights of the Air
As I write, I’m looking at a photo of my wife’s grandfather Stanley Smith (1900 – 1978). I knew him as a mild-mannered, impeccably polite retired shopkeeper from Wallsend. But the photo I have of him is from 1918, proud in the distinctive ‘maternity’ tunic of the Royal Flying Corps, (I’ve still got the shoulder tabs from that). He looks impossibly young – lied about his age to join up. In April 1918 the RFC disappeared as an army corps and was reborn as a distinct service, the Royal Air Force. Obviously, it’s their centenary this year.
One of the finest memoirs to emerge from the Second World War and particularly the Battle of Britain was my particular hero, Richard Hilary whose account, The Last Enemy is one of the war’s great classics. The author brilliantly evokes not just the spirit of the times but gets under his own and others’ skins. He was a fighter pilot, fought the Luftwaffe in those sunlit skies during that summer, was shot down and badly injured. He was one of those who benefitted from the pioneering surgical treatments being carried out by Sir Archibald McIndoe (1900 – 1960), who was a New Zealand born plastic surgeon, famous for his ‘Guinea-Pig Club’ of badly burnt fliers, he achieved miracles in terms of facial and bodily reconstruction.
As a member of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’ he underwent numerous operations on his badly burnt face and hands. He returned to flying duties and was killed in a second crash. He was 23… At this time the Germans were sending over comparatively few bombers. They were making a determined attempt to wipe out our entire Fighter Force, and from dawn till dusk the sky was filled with Messerschmitt 109’s and 110’s.
He brilliantly evokes the drama and tension of the air battle, arguably the deciding round of the war. He also explains why he and his fellow fliers fought and this has very little to do with chivalry: I would say that I was fighting to rid the world of fear – of the fear of fear is perhaps what I mean. If the Germans win this war, nobody except the little Hitler’s’ will dare do anything. England will be run as if it were a concentration camp, or at best a factory. All courage will die out of the world – the courage to love, to create, to take risks whether physical, intellectual or moral. Men will hesitate to carry out the promptings of the heart or the brain, because, having acted, they will live in fear that their action may be discovered and themselves cruelly punished.
The Hurricane and Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain were knightly heroes in every sense, of the pure noble breed Lloyd George or Auden had so lauded in the previous war. Theirs was the good fight. For bomber pilots and crew, it was more ambiguous. They did not fight against equal adversaries in the air; they strove to avoid the fighters on their tails and their war was often waged against civilians. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was unequivocal in his advocacy of strategic bombing which including pounding the enemy’s cities and their inhabitants into dust. Even at the time, the morality of hammering German urban targets was questioned. The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 is still regarded by some as an atrocity.
For me and for most boys of my generation brought upon a solid diet of war films and still thrilling to Churchill’s wartime speeches, the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ were the epitome of both heroism and glamour. We all made Airfix and Revell models of Spits and Hurries and, of course, ME109s, 110s, Focke-Wolf 90s, even the outmoded Fairey Swordfish – ‘String-bags’, Boulton-Paul Defiants and tank busting Hawker Typhoons. We pretty much knew war wasn’t really fun at all but the lure of the skies was compelling, completely spiffing!
Happy Birthday RAF!