Eight women have been commemorated in St Albans Cathedral through the creation of eight new Canons? stalls. In time, eight new honorary Canons will be installed in them.
?More than three hundred people gathered on Saturday evening (19th October) for the blessing of the stalls, including some of those who generous benefactions have made the new Canonries possible. The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, blessed the stalls and sprinkled them with water.
?He was forthright about the importance of naming eight stalls after these women in his sermon: ?We are becoming increasingly aware that most history has been written by men, about men. We view the past through spectacles fashioned by men, and it is not insignificant that only two of the present canons? stalls in our Cathedral are named after women. Not only is this unfair, but it is unrepresentative of the contribution that women have made down the centuries and continue to make to mission and ministry of the church.?
?He spoke of the women as real, ordinary people. In his sermon he said: ?These were not stained glass saints, removed from the daily reality of life, but rather women whose lives displayed a mixture of holiness and worldliness. They heard the good news of Jesus Christ and sought to follow him in their generation.?
?The eight women also feature in the bishop?s newly published book, ?Saints and Pilgrims?, published at the same time as the blessing of the stalls. The book is the opening shot in a volley of celebrations next year for the 100th anniversary of the Diocese of St Albans in its present form, largely covering Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.
?The book has 366 short chapters about people connected with the Church who have made a difference to others through their lives. He signed 100 copies on Saturday evening and will be signing copies again at Waterstones in St Albans on Thursday, 24th October from 7-9pm.
?Among the ranks of the famous within it, stand out Nicholas Breakspear, the only Englishborn Pope; Matthew Paris, the medieval chronicler; John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim?s Progress; Robert Runcie, Bishop of St Albans who became Archbishop of Canterbury; and Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife. ?But there are less-known people worthy of commemoration such as Juliana Berners, possibly the earliest woman author in the English language. She was Prioress of St Mary at Sopwell, here in St Albans sometime between 1430 and 1480.
?Speaking about her on Saturday, Bishop Alan said: ??It is probable that she was raised at Court and this may account for the fact that she was also a hunting and fishing nun ? indeed, she may well be the earliest female author in English as she wrote a book on the hunting and fishing which was printed here in St Albans in 1486. She sounds as if she was fun and feisty ? a sort of a 15th century Lindy Runcie.?
?Other notable individuals mentioned in the book include Alfred Smith, the former choirboy awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the First World War; Charles Fraser-Smith, the missionary on whom ?Q? was based in the James Bond novels; and Dr James Cantlie who invented First Aid.
?Their lives too bear eloquent testimony to their Christian faith.
?Each entry contains a short biography, followed by a poem or extract written by the person or which relates to his or her life, and concludes with a prayer.
?The bishop concludes: ?Some of the women have been largely forgotten in the mists of time. They deserve retelling, so that they might influence another generation.?
?The Church of England?s General Synod will vote on a fresh process to make women bishops next month. The Bishop of St Albans is a known supporter of women bishops.
???Stories of the eight women appear below with the Bishop?s comments about them
?1)?Alice de Claremont was born and died in Hertford, and founded the preceptory at Melchbourne in north Bedfordshire in the 12th century.
?2)?Nor do the records reveal much about Agnes, the first prioress of the Augustinian Community at Harrold in Bedfordshire who died in 1245.
?3)?Rohese de Vere (1110-67) who lived in the twelfth century and founded a priory at Chicksands, for canons and nuns which was a part of the Gilbertine Order. Rohese was also involved in the move of the secular canons from St Paul?s, Bedford to Newnham in Bedfordshire. She was buried at Chicksands Priory. ?Although much about these three women has been forgotten, they must have been pretty tenacious to have achieved what they did. They stand for all the women who give themselves unhesitatingly to contemplation and the Religious Life which we need so badly to renew in our day. It is significant that one of the three priorities of Justin, our new Archbishop, is the renewal of the Religious Life in the Church of England. If there is no contemplative heart to our activity there will be no transforming communities and no making new disciples.
?When we turn to the other five women we honour this evening, we find that they blow many of our preconceptions out of the water.
?4)?Juliana Berners was Prioress of St Mary at Sopwell, here in St Albans sometime between 1430 and 1480. It is probable that she was raised at Court and this may account for the fact that she was also a hunting and fishing nun ? indeed, she may well be the earliest female author in English as she wrote a book on the hunting and fishing which was printed here in St Albans in 1486. She sounds as if she was fun and feisty ? a sort of a 15th century Lindy Runcie.
?5)?Nor would you want to mess around with Judith of Lens or, as she was known later in her life, Judith of Huntingdon. A niece of William the Conqueror, she came to England and married Waltheof of Huntingdon, a Saxon. He was a revolting Earl ? or rather an Earl who was involved in a revolt against William the Conqueror. It must have been an agonising conflict of loyalties for Judith and it is thought that she betrayed her husband to William, who had him beheaded in 1076. She would have fitted well into any Shakespearian tragedy.
?Some eleven years later in 1087, Judith founded Elstow Abbey in Bedfordshire as a Benedictine foundation for nuns, dedicated to St Mary and St Helen. Perhaps it was an act of piety to assuage her troubled conscience. Who knows? Whatever her motives, we know that she also established churches at St Ippolyts and Kempston. Following the execution of her husband, William wanted her to marry the Earl of Northampton, but she refused and, as a consequence, was stripped of her titles and lands, and fled to Normandy. William may have conquered these islands, but even he couldn?t conquer his niece Judith!
?6)?Most famously, there is Christina of Markyate (c.1100-55). She felt called by God to become a nun and took a vow of chastity. Christina refused an arranged marriage and fled from her home in Huntingdon. She ended up at Markyate where she sought the protection of Roger the Hermit. It was whilst in hiding that she received visions of Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. ?When Roger the Hermit died in around the year 1121, he bequeathed his hermitage to Christina. Her reputation for holiness grew and a number of women came to live alongside her. A house was built which became known as Markyate Priory, dedicated to the Holy Trinity.?7)?But let?s leave the medieval world for a moment. If you go into the church of St Mary in Haynes, you will see a recumbent effigy of a Victorian lady, her hands clasped in prayer. Behind this innocuous looking memorial is the story of an extraordinary woman: Lady Anna Constantia Thynne. Anna was adopted by relatives who lived at Wrotham Park near Barnet. She married the Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, and for a time they lived at Haynes Park in Bedfordshire.
?Anna was fascinated by the natural world. Social convention prevented her from publishing her research, but it is now recognised that she was a distinguished amateur scientist. She is credited with inventing the modern aquariu
m after taking some corals and sponges from Torquay to her London home in 1846. The animals ? to the horror of her housemaids ? promptly bred. It was the first stable sustained marine aquarium of its kind.
?8)?Finally, we turn to someone who may have been known by some of those present this evening: Mother Jane (1927-95) who was Mother General of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, an Anglican community of nuns, rooted in the Carmelite tradition of contemplative prayer. For some years, Jane was Sister-in-Charge of one of the daughter houses here at Boxmoor, Hemel Hempstead. Jane was a generous person of wide sympathies: self-effacing, wise, approachable, down-to-earth, she brought the holy within the reach of the ordinary. Hundreds of people sought her counsel.
?Archbishop Robert Runcie said of her, ?There is a streak of natural scepticism in her character which makes her words of faith and fortitude still accessible to those who find it hard to believe?. Jane died in 1995 appropriately enough on the Feast of St Patrick, for she had indeed bound the strong might of the Holy Trinity to her all her life long.
??Read Bishop Alan’s sermon, preached at the blessing of the stalls.