The Feast of Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.

 

Herod the Great

Herod (73-04 B.C.) was  king of Judaea at the time of the birth of Christ and rebuilder of the Temple in Jerusalem. His murderousness was legendary: he killed many of his children and wives — the Romans joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a family member.  The Massacre of the Innocents which the Bible ascribes to him is very much in keeping with what we know of personality. He is the subject of a number of Christmas carols and ballads, such as the Coventry Carol, The Carnel and the Crane, and St. Stephen and Herod, and appears in seasonal drama as a raging tyrant. In Christmas art, he was portrayed as a rather big, old man, crowned and sitting on a throne.  He is always bearded with long dark hair and wearing royal garments.

The twelfth-century abbey of Fleury in France staged a dramatic presentation that has come to be known as The Play of Herod. It describes the Nativity with its attendant angels, midwives and shepherds, the encounter between King Herod and the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents which the king orders. Of the surviving medieval plays with these themes the Fleury Herod is considered to be the most artistically satisfying.

August 11

1755

Death of a noble bigamist

Kitty Cannon was a pretty girl from the village of Thorpe in Essex. Her beauty led her to be courted by a number of young nobles but, none of these titled individuals condescended to breathe in her ear a single word about matrimony; so, when she was just twenty, she gave her hand, and (it is to be presumed) her heart also, to the rector of Thorpe, a Reverend Mr. Dough.
A quiet and remote parsonage, however, was not exactly suited to the taste of a young lady who had once sipped the cup of flattery from gentlemen who belonged to the clubs about St. James’s, and who moved in courtly circles. Accordingly, one evening when she was staying in London, being present at a ball in the neighborhood of the then fashionable district of Covent Garden, she managed to slip out, unobserved by her husband, and to run away with John, Lord Dalmeny, heir to vast estates and the title of the Earl of Rosbery, who was only a few years older than herself. She had no children, and doubtless his lordship was led to believe that she was a widow, and quite at her own disposal.
     The pair went abroad, and remained for two or three years traveling in the sunny south ; but in the early summer of 1752 Kitty Cannon, or Kitty Gough, was taken seriously ill at Florence. Her illness turned into a galloping consumption, and in the May or June of that year she died. A few hours only before her death, she wrote upon a scrap of paper, ‘I am really the wife, of the Reverend Mr. Gough, vicar of Thorpe, near Colchester, Essex ; my maiden name was Kitty Cannon, and my family belong to the same parish.  Bury me there.’
Lord Dalmeny’s young wife, as he always thought her to be, was gone before he was able to realize the full meaning of the lines which she had written. At first he was disposed to reject them, as a creation of her sick brain ; it was impossible for him to believe that the dear companion of his last few years was guilty of bigamy. But, whether true or false, he at once resolved, as she lay in her coffin at Florence, to give effect to her last wish, and he instantly prepared to carry her remains over to England.
The body of this lovely woman was embalmed, and secured in ‘a very fine oaken coffin, decorated with six large silver plates, and it was then put into a strong outer case of common deal, which concealed the ominous shape of its contents. The jewelry and wardrobe of the lady were packed in other chests, and with this cumbersome baggage Lord Dalmeny set out upon his melancholy journey by land to the south of France. At Marseilles he was able to engage a vessel to carry him and his packages by sea round to Dover, under the assumed name of Mr. Williams, a merchant of Hamburg; and on landing at Dover he transferred his belongings to a small coaster, which he hired to carry him to Harwich, then a busy and bustling port, only a few miles distant from Thorpe. The vessel, however, was forced by contrary winds to make for Colchester instead, where the Custom House officers came down to the ‘Hythe’ to examine the freight before they would allow it to be landed. They could not recognize in the elegant and polished gentleman, whom they saw dressed in the deepest of black and bowed down by grief, a common business man from Hamburg; and they very naturally thought, as only seven years had passed since the rebellion of 1745, that he was some emissary of ‘the Pretender.’ So their loyalty took the alarm. It certainly was the plain duty of Custom House officials to see that no French tobacco, gloves, lace, or brocade was brought over in these large boxes without paying duty to King George. Accordingly, without giving any attention to the remonstrance’s of Mr. Williams, they were about to plunge their knives into the larger case, when the Hamburg merchant drew his sword and told them to desist. He at once made a clean breast of the affair, telling them that he was an Englishman, and, what was more, an English nobleman, and that the chest upon the wharf contained the body of his dead wife. But this explanation did not satisfy the officers, who were not sure that there was not a murder at the bottom of the transaction. They therefore at once broke the outer chest, tore open the coffin lid, and lifted the cere-cloths from the face of the embalmed corpse. Lord Dalmeny was taken, along with the coffin, to a church near at hand, where he was detained until he could prove the truth of his story.
The news soon spread about, and crowds of the neighboring villagers came to see the fair lady’s face as she lay in her coffin. Many of these identified her features as those of the Kitty Cannon who had spent her childhood at Thorpe, and who had disappeared soon after her marriage with the vicar of that parish.
But here was a further difficulty for his lordship; for, though the rest of his story was transparently true, it was clear that the lady was not really his lawful wife. A communication was at once forwarded to the vicar, who lost no time in coming over to the Hythe and recognizing the corpse as that of his vanished partner. But what a mystery the whole affair was to him as well as to Lord Dalmeny, to whom at first, as may be supposed, he entertained and expressed no very friendly feelings. But he was soon pacified. Possibly he had preached but lately a sermon enforcing forgiveness of even intended wrongs, and here was a wrong which clearly was not intended. Accordingly as soon as he was able to contemplate the matter in all its bearings—the deception which had been practiced on the poor young nobleman, and the passionate constancy which had borne him up through his toilsome journey by land and voyage by sea in order to gratify his supposed wife’s last prayer, and the faithfulness with which, like a dog, he watched beside her coffin in the church—he felt that he could not refuse to forgive the wrong, and he consented to meet Lord Dalmeny on a friendly footing.
The interview between the two rival husbands is said in a family record to have been very moving,’ and no doubt must have been touching in the extreme; the only wonder is that it has not been taken by play-writers to work out as a plot for the stage. Lord Dalmeny assured the husband of his entire innocence of fraud, and of the honest intentions with which he had acted throughout. Even the discovery of his long-lost Kitty’s deceit and guilt did not put his love to shame, or shake his determination to follow her to her last resting-place. And the same was the feeling of his lordship. The next day, as soon as the magistrates were satisfied that the law had not been broken, both husbands accompanied the loved remains to Thorpe Church, where the poor frail lady was buried with all the pomp and show which could have been accorded to a real peeress. Which of the two paid the undertaker’s bill is not stated; but I have every reason to believe that the cost was paid by Lord Dalmeny, or amicably settled between them. It is said that the funeral cortege was stopped for a few minutes at the gates of the vicarage, and that the young nobleman walked into the house, from which he presently came forth arm-in-arm with Mr. Gough, who was clothed in mourning as deep as his own, and with scarf and headband to match. This happened on July 9, 1752 and seems to be the first time an Englishwoman had two husbands attend her funeral at the same time.