Monday, 25 July 2011

Hethersett - Saint Remigius

Saint Remigius ("Saint Rémy") is an unusual saint for the UK. He is likely to be a 5th Century French saint and with the traditional antipathy between England and France over the years it is something of a surprise to find such a saint at the heart of a Norfolk commuter village close to Norwich.  The people at Wikipedia have a potted biography  of Remigius on this link which illuminates the reasons why a dedication to this saint is unusual in Norfolk, specifically, and in the UK generally. Remigius is a rather grand saint in a county and country where we have less spectacular saints. There is some debate asking if the four Churches in Norfolk  (out of a total of six in the UK as a whole) are dedicated to Remegius of Rheims or whether or not they may relate to Remigius of Fécamp.  The identity of 'Remigius' is somewhat academic in nature and either would mean that the Church is at least a thousand years old (and perhaps older) which is pretty much the usual age for a parish Church in England  even if the Church was ‘restored within an inch of its life’ in the Victorian period.

Despite the French connections offered to the 21st Century by either Remigius; England has a continuing love of the older, Saxon, saints and even the newly built Roman Catholic Churches in the 19th Century were sometimes dedicated to Saint Wulstan  or similar in an attempt to link the newly legalised Catholic Church with an antiquarian sense of Englishness. Compared to Saxon saints; Saint Remigius is instinctively ‘un-English’ in nature and the name speaks of a purposeful dedication by a Frenchman/Norman who wished to plant a hint of Gallicism in the heart of this garden county.

I passed this Church for many years and it was only in 2008 that I stopped and had a walk around the cemetery to see what was there. My childhood 'cemetery addiction' has  stayed with me although I now indulge this addiction with care and prudence;  only stopping when I think there is something to see. This assiduous selection is fine but it does apparently mean that I miss out on some of the more spectacular monuments. When I was younger, I would run around like a Labrador with a scent in its nose. Now, I have a cooler head.

Hethersett - Saint Remigius
© Godric Godricson

Despite my reservation, Saint Remigius did surprise me and I attach a picture of a monument that sits in a far corner of the green and pleasant space. One web site that I normally admire referred to this monument as being “pompous” although I think of the monument as being totally marvellous in inspiration and delivery.  However, rather than the monument in isolation I like a number of factors that are perhaps not obvious. I like the siting of this fabulous monument on the edge of the cemetery and away from others. We have the notion of inclusion of the monument in the cemetery. There is a wholeness of the monument with the community and at the same time the finery of the sculpture sets  the monument apart from all the others. A statement is being made and a statement that is for all to see.

The monument sits in a space that still has a rural aspect and this is a very English thing to achieve. English people all know what it is to have just the right spot. We, instinctively, have that special place where we are not too crowded and not too far away from the centre. Not too snooty and not too close to the common crowd. Neither do we wish to be haughty or a tyrant or a fawning sycophant. Englishness calls for a sort of inherent balance being sought and this monument is a way of demonstrating just that inherent knowledge of place and situation. The monument is in sight of the countryside and the rural idyll that is Norfolk and yet it is set within the consecrated ground of the Church. This monument is clearly placed and constructed by English people with an English sensibility. I understand  the English and their ways. So, whilst the monument is included in the cemetery it is also ‘exclusive’ in nature. This is a strange blend of ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ in the same monument and something that speaks of the people and the land unified in the cemetery.

Saint Remigius, as a cemetery, is geographically large and this single monument is the most spectacular monument in this large space. However, when I walked around  the cemetery, I was conscious that the antiquity of the dedication to either Saint Remigius  ensured that I was walking in a holy place, sanctified by use and by the faith of the departed in their ultimate Resurrection.

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