Whitby Weekend: The church at Lastingham

It was only a few miles to the final destination of the Silent Eye’s weekend in North Yorkshire. We were heading for St Mary’s church at Lastingham, the final resting place, or so it is believed, of St Cedd, who had played his part in the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Roman form of Christianity was adopted in place of the old Celtic Rite in which he had been raised.

In the October of that year, St Cedd died of the plague at the monastery of Lastingham and was, according to tradition, buried there in a grave. When a stone church was later built, becoming the chapel of the monastery, his remains were enshrined within its walls and are now said to be in the crypt of the church, to the right of the altar.

In fact, Cedd’s brother, St Chad, who became bishop of Lichfield, took over at the monastery after his brother’s death and Cedd’s remains were eventually moved to be with those of his brother in Lichfield. Some of their bones were later taken to the Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, so the best that can be said, according to Wikipedia, is that ‘Cedd is believed to be mostly buried at Lastingham.’

While it may seem odd to modern minds that bones and relics are scattered, it must be remembered that the reverence of saintly relics is still very much a part of Roman religious culture. It is also worth considering that in ancient times, the bones of the ancestors were revered and cared for, keeping those who had passed as more than faded memories and making them very much part of the living community. Even in Victorian times, relics such as locks of hair were taken from the deceased for love and memory. It is only in very recent times that the remains of the dead have been so definitively disposed of.

But, although the crypt was the object of our visit, the church itself was not to be ignored. It is a beautiful old building, St Cedd had founded the monastery in the seventh century and built a wooden church. Cedd’s monastery is thought to have been razed in a raid around 870, but in 1078, Stephen, the abbot of Whitby, restored the monastery and began the building of a stone church. The work under Stephen was never completed, but the main body of the interior is a place of beautiful, pure proportions in the Romanesque style.

The church continued to function, adding aisles and developing over the centuries, until a final restoration and completion took place in the late 19th century, in memory of a child who had died in her seventh year.

The exterior is simple, until you look closely at the carved stone corbels that seem to echo, albeit in a more restrained style, those of Kilpeck and here, as at Kilpeck, there is the curved apse and an association with holy wells and springs. At Kilpeck, a stream flows beneath the central line of the church and dowsers have reported four streams flowing in to that point. In Lastingham, there are four holy wells, that we would later see, and we had to wonder at the coincidence and its significance in the siting of the two ancient churches.

In spite of the inevitable changes and additions that have been made to the church over the centuries, it retains the sense of being a simple and sacred space. Traces of its history can be seen in faded carvings around the base of its pillars, the rounded arches and the repurposed Roman altars, which may once have served a vision of divinity different in name, but perhaps not in essence. Humankind’s search for divinity has worn many faces, but the heart of the quest is the same and all places that have been held sacred to that Light, regardless of our own beliefs, may evoke a sense of reverence.

We arrived just after the Sunday service had ended and the congregation was still gathered in the aisles, sharing refreshments in an echo of something more ancient and timeless than any organised religion. We were made welcome by the community, and while some talked, the rest of us wandered off to explore.

We have long since learned that, when visiting a sacred site of any age, if there is something in particular that you are there to see, it is best to explore the rest first… for the likelihood is that you will otherwise be so caught up in the moment that everything else will be missed. And Lastingham crypt was to be no exception…

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