An informal speech by Jeremy Tomlinson, Chairman of the Friends of Steyning Parish Church
23 October 2022
As Chairman of the Friends of Steyning Parish Church, and on behalf of the Vicar, I am very pleased to welcome you to this beautiful, ancient building. Today’s harp concert with readings is a very special event. Its purpose is to raise support (and, of course, funds) for the development and improvement of the church as a flexible venue for all the people of Steyning. There is much to be done. Before we start, I want to express gratitude to all those who have worked so hard behind the scenes to make this concert happen, including our Ukrainian friends, and to all of you for being here this afternoon.
Drinks will be served at the west end and north aisle of the Church in the interval. There is a toilet in the south porch or in Penfold Hall across the road. Future improvements to those facilities are high on the Friends’ agenda. Outdoor lights are being installed this week.
You are in a good position to admire this magnificent Norman nave with its rich carving recently enhanced by the new lighting installation. But do not leave without having a look at one of Steyning’s greatest treasures: the Tudor panelling in the chapel in the north aisle which is the inspiration for today’s concert. This so-called ‘Steyning Screen’ is a collection of elaborately carved oak panels dating from the early sixteenth century. They were part of the domestic furnishing of Fulham Palace, residence of the Bishops of London, when Richard Fitzjames (a former Bishop of Chichester) held that office between 1506 and 1522. He was a man of great learning with a long record of service to the Crown. He rebuilt and furnished Fulham Palace during the years when Henry 8th was (happily) married to Katherine of Aragon and the panels are richly adorned with heraldic symbols and iconography which seem to celebrate their union: roses for the Tudors; grapes for Spain; pomegranates for Katherine; fleurs de lis for France; portcullises for the Beauforts; Royal arms; oaks; grapevines; ivy; greyhounds; dragons; eagles; lions; dolphins; crosiers and swords; mitres and crowns and the Bishop’s own cypher, not to mention saints, angels and putti, all exquisitely carved and, perhaps, once brightly painted. We are celebrating this artefact this year because it has the date 1522 spelt out in full in Latin words on a border scroll. 500 years.
The panels may in fact be older than that because Henry married Katherine in 1509, and 1522 was the year Bishop Fitzjames died. How the panels came to Steyning is another fascinating story recently told here by Alexis Haslam, archaeologist at Fulham Palace. It is amazing they were not destroyed as they would very soon become an embarrassing liability. Even their survival has involved some ruthless adaptations and cleaning. But just imagine who those panels may have seen and heard and who may have admired them.
Now they tell a very different story. Because 1522, just two years after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, was also the year in which 15 year old Anne Boleyn came home from France and soon won Henry 8th away from her sister Mary. Over the next decade their story and Henry’s painful, protracted divorce from Katherine became synonymous with the Reformation and led to the split with Rome and the dissolution of the Monasteries, which makes Henry at least partly responsible for the collapse of the original transepts, chancel and central tower of this church.
Tonight we give a very warm welcome to the harp ensemble Glissando, led by Alex Rider. Alex performed for us brilliantly last year and on that occasion was inspired by the screen to compose the Catalina Suite in homage to Katherine (Catalina herself) which is the central piece in this concert. Alex will introduce his music.
The harp pieces will be interspersed with readings which relate to the early Tudor period. It is a great pleasure to welcome back John Tolputt and Wendy Francis to read for us.
After the first musical item of the second half, we will hear a personal reminiscence about the screen. I will then introduce the final readings. For part one we start with the lyrics of the song ‘Pastime with Good Company’ which, unlike Greensleeves, is known to have been written by Henry 8th. The King was an accomplished musician who actually played the harp himself (being Welsh of course). In Shakespeare’s 1609 play Henry VIII, the song ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ is sung for Queen Katherine: the lute being another complex plucked stringed instrument. Probably the nearest you can get to hearing the English language of 1522 is William Tyndale’s New Testament, published in 1526. It is hard to imagine how shocking and brave that was at the time – listen for the irony in this almost familiar passage. Queen Katherine’s opening speech in the great trial scene, as written by Shakespeare, is a touching reminder of the personal cruelty to which she was subjected.
How lucky we have been to hear the first performance of the Catalina Suite! Congratulations and thanks to Alex.
The Steyning Screen was probably rescued by the seventeenth century Bishop of London William Juxon, also formerly of Chichester, who was related to an incumbent of Steyning. Thus it came to be in the Vicarage for about 300 years until 1983 when it became a kind of reredos in the chancel; perhaps when the altar was moved forwards for westward celebration. Much more recently it has been placed in the north aisle chapel, illuminated, appreciated and carefully studied by Linda Denyer. The Revd Canon Margaret Dean is the daughter of Maurice Garner who was Vicar of Steyning between 1971 and 1978. Margaret has very kindly agreed to give us her memories of living with the screen in a domestic setting.
After that, it seemed appropriate to include a passage from Wolf Hall by the late Dame Hilary Mantel whose style is almost as dense and allegorical as Tudor carvings to which she often refers. Sir Thomas Wyatt, one of the earliest poets in modern English who introduced the sonnet form to England, was also one of Anne Boleyn’s former lovers – a pastime almost as dangerous as translating the Bible. And we think we are living in troubled times!
A final thought: As you light your winter fires, spare a thought for William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer, whose beautiful words, echoing centuries of tradition, are still heard here every Sunday, and for John Launder and all victims of tyranny and heartless cruelty.
On a more cheerful note, next Thursday the Church is hosting ‘Fun with the Tudors’ for children, with John as Henry 8th, and please be here on 15 December to hear the Hanover band perform Handel’s Messiah
May I on behalf of the Friends and everyone here this afternoon, offer warmest thanks to our readers, to Margaret Dean and to Alex Rider and the fabulous Glissando for this excellent concert?
Get home safely and thank you for your support.