Saturday, 12 June 2010

Cuthbert Tunstall

Unlike other Castles, Durham is located directly across from Durham Cathedral, barely a stone's throw across the green. This is because it orginated as the dour fortress of the Prince Bishop of Durham, tasked not only with opiscopal duties, but also the defense of the border against the Scots after the Norman Conquest. William I thought a bishop, dependent on the king for both appointment and succession, would be a safer alternative to a baron to hold this strategic position.

Today, because Durham Castle has become "Castle" College, one of the several colleges of Durham University, you can't just wander about on your own. Instead, a student well-versed in Durhamiana escorts you through the impressive warren of 11th-to-19th century buildings. Our guide had loads of fascinating stories to impart about hidden Norman arches and the Tudor kitchens, but my favorite came at the very last as we rested our weary feet in the chapel.

Hanging descreetly on the wall beside the choir stalls, was a strange portrait of Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, who was appointed to office just four years before Henry VIII broke with the pope and made himself the head of the Church of England. In the painting, the bishop holds his hands up awkwardly in front of his chest, just slightly apart. That's because his portrait used to show him holding a rosary.

Turnstall succeeded Cardinal Wolsey as Bishop of Durham and undoubtedly did not wish to continue that pattern after Wolsey was arrested for treason. Wolsey died in prison before his trial, but there's little doubt that he would have followed Sir Thomas More--now Saint Thomas More--to the block if he hadn't acquiesced to Henry. The rosary was hastily painted out. Tunstall was long-lived and survived both Henry and his sickly son, Edward VI, into Mary's reign. When Mary returned England to the Catholic fold, Cuthbert Tunstall followed her lead and the rosary was painted back in his portrait.

An octogenarian, Tunstall was still in office when Elizabeth I came to the throne and the country was once more Protestant. His portrait was again adjusted to fit the prevailing mode.

It seemed a bit late for heroism after so much accommodation to the prevailing political winds, but Cuthbert at last made a stand. He refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and was imprisoned in Lambeth Palace. Like Wolsey a generation before him, Cuthbert died in captivity at the age of 85.

The interesting thing, however, is that although the rosary was painted in and out with changing fortunes, the hands maintained their stiff, unnatural pose. How easy would it have been to pose them in prayer or fold them diplomatically! Throughout his life, however, the bishop continued to hedge his bets.

It's a measure of how uncertain the times were and how of how hard it is to understand them when we have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight. After all, we know how the story turned out. It seems unthinkable to us that Elizabeth might have been overturned or that her successor, James I, would have followed Rome. It wasn't clear to Cuthbert Tunstall and many others. This painting with its strange history, made me feel that insecurity.

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