Whitby Weekend: Inside the church at Lythe…

Stuart and I had been to Lythe before, some years ago, early in our travels, sent to the little church by a friend. The church is dedicated to St Oswald, a figure we have come upon again and again in recent years. Born around 604, he was king of Northumbria from 634, a reign of a mere eight years… or nine, according to some chroniclers of the time, who assign the one year reign of the previous incumbent to Oswald because he was not a Christian king, whereas Oswald was accounted a saint, even during his lifetime.

It was his kindliness and concern for the poor, as well as his devotion to his faith and his association with St Aidan that had earned him such veneration. Curiously, Steve had begun his Northumbrian workshop at Oswald’s stronghold at Bamburgh, where Stuart and I had also visited the shrine of St Aidan in the church beside the castle. Later, we had all gone on to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island Oswald had given to Aidan who had come to Northumbria to bring his faith to the land. And after Steve’s last workshop in Scotland, Stuart and I had been sidetracked by the wonderful holy well dedicated to the saint in Kirkoswald.

There is something about this saint and his story that keeps drawing us back. Perhaps it has to do with the raven who stole the dead king’s severed arm and dropped it, causing a healing well to spring up from the ground. Perhaps it has to do with the unified land he ruled and served… or the notion of holiness and rulership combined, as in the priest-kings of old. Doubtless, an explanation will come in good time.

For now, though, it was enough to be back in the peaceful little church on the cliffs, with time to spare to explore the building and its treasures. The church itself is a simple one… you get the impression of a ‘no-nonsense’ place, very much in keeping with the character of the local folk. But there is beauty in the solid forms of the structure and in the delicate stained glass of the windows. There has been a place of Christian worship on the site for at least eleven hundred years, and who knows how much longer? The current church is Norman, but so much altered and remodelled in Victorian times that little remains to tell of its age except the ‘feel’ of the place… that quiet but unmistakable aura of sanctity that infuses the very stones of these ancient places of prayer.

A screen, carved in 1910 and upon which perches the organ, separates the aisle from the chancel. Above the altar, which is flanked by four carved angels, wings outstretched, the arched ceiling is painted in brilliant shades… though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I did rather feel like repainting the roses in their proper colour, as the white rose, not the red, is my county’s symbol.

The first panel of the east window shows scenes from the extremes of Jesus’ life… the nativity and the crucifixion. The second panel shows the risen Christ and the promised second coming. In esoteric terms, it could be argued that the Teacher did not become the Christ until the rebirth symbolised by those final moments… in which case, the window ‘bookends’ the human life of the Man at the point where He becomes Divine.

In the central panel of the window in the Lady Chapel, Mary the Mother holds her Child. To the right is Oswald, king and saint, who was killed in battle and dismembered. On the left is St Cuthbert, a holy man, reluctantly made a bishop of Lindisfarne, upon whose tiny island retreat we had ended our Northumbrian weekend, serenaded by seals. In his hands, he holds the severed head of St Oswald that he is thought to have carried back to the north; Oswald’s relics were once held in the ruined chapel within the castle walls of Bamburgh.

Cuthbert was one of those who attended the Synod at Whitby Abbey and would probably have passed through Lythe on his journey. It is thought that Cuthbert himself may have dedicated an earlier church on the site to Oswald. Somehow, because of how many times we have ‘fallen over’ Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert, it all seems rather personal, as if we are missing something still…

Another window shows Richard I of England carrying the cross of St George to the Crusades and a red-gloved figure who is probably St Nicholas, because there are the three bags of money he secretly gave as dowries for the daughters of a  poor neighbour, to prevent them being unmarried and cast out. For a Christmas workshop, that would be appropriate. There was also a ‘Tobias and the Angel’ window, a rare subject for stained glass, which I duly photographed but which, somehow, completely failed to register… which is odd as his story plays a part in our latest book, which I had just been editing…

My favourite window, though, just for the colours alone, has to be the St Michael, with the blue dragon rearing at his feet, even though it looks as if the serene archangel has skewered the dragon, through the mouth to the throat.  It still doesn’t explain why an archangel should need beatification though… and the official line that all ‘good’ angels are saints, because ‘saint’ comes from sanctus, which means ‘holy’, does not explain why only Gabriel, Raphael and Michael commonly bear that title. But, much as there was to ponder in the church, it was the stones at the west end that had drawn us here…

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