The Mysterious Cloisters of Worcester Cathedral
With Christmas approaching I thoroughly enjoyed the Carol service broadcast from Worcester Cathedral last night, prompting another visit to this incredible medieval edifice this morning. Worcester Cathedral has more mysteries, tales and strange history about it's precincts than I could ever fit in one post, but one part of in particular has always intrigued me the most. The Cloisters, a quadrangular corridor where the monks would have spent most of their time outside of the Cathedral when it was a functioning monastery. It has been renovated and had various additions over the centuries but it still maintains an air of peace and detachment, seemingly existing in it's own space between the intense sanctity of the Cathedral and the noise of the outside world.
The shallow vaulted ceilings of the Cloisters feature a fine collection of examples of the “Green Man”, that intriguing medieval conundrum that is still hotly debated today. A depiction of Adam sprouting the Burning Bush from the seeds placed in his mouth by Seth? A pagan hangover, entwined with English Christianity? A symbol of resistance against the Normans? Or simply a popular decorative motif? All these ideas have been put forward to explain the Green Man and his variations but to this day there is no common consensus as to what he was and is. It's fair to say that some of the “foliate heads” in the Cloister ceiling are wearing crowns and clerical headgear so these examples could not be counted in the “pagan symbolism” group, but debate on this subject in the comments is very much encouraged!
Set into the floor of one corner of the Cloisters, next to the entrance to the Cathedral gift shop, is a plain dark slab that stands out in the tiled floor. It is inscribed with one simple word – “Miserrimus”. It translates from Latin literally as “the most miserable” and today would mean “heartbroken”. As a boy I was told that it was terrible luck to step on the slab and “misery” would be my lot for life, while it was also said that a ghost was often seen standing over it. It is in fact a grave marker, and underneath it lies the remains of the Reverend Thomas Morris. He was one of the Minor Canons of Worcester Cathedral, the group of priests under the Dean that were installed as part of the hierarchy for their standing and distinction in their parishes but did not sit as part of the Chapter.
Rev Morris was a big character, known across the city of Worcester for his cheerfulness and generosity, and during the reign of the Catholic King James II his star was rising. Morris believed fervently in the “Divine Right of Kings” so he was distraught when the Protestant William took the throne during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. His pious conscience forbade him swearing an oath of allegiance to the new king and queen and he resolutely refused to acknowledge them as his rulers. He was therefore expelled from the church completely, losing his tithe funded home and income and being stripped of all clerical title and rights. For the next fifty years Morris existed as a non person, living off the support of those who still harboured Jacobite sympathies. He was actually tolerated in the Cathedral and quietly attended all services regularly, even working odd maintenance jobs, anything to stay within the precincts of the place he loved.
His decades of bitter pride earned him respect and his previous standing in the community ensured he had allies within the Cathedral, but when the Act of Settlement ensured no Catholic monarch would be returning he doubled down on his hubris until finally the end of the War of Succession blew out the flame of a possible restoration and Morris died in 1748. He was regarded so fondly that no expense was spared in the planning of his funeral and the carrying out of his final wishes, this involved him being carried by six maidens clad head to toe in white to his resting place along with the officiating Canon holding up a standard of the old Jacobite cause. But where would they bury him? He was persona non grata, he could not be buried inside the Cathedral building nor in it's official graveyards. The Cloisters was the answer, it exists outside the Cathedral yet is still a part of it and so Thomas Morris became the only person to be interred in it's flagstones.
The poet William Wordsworth was so fascinated by this simple and seemingly tragic memorial that with no knowledge of who lay there he wrote his unsympathetic “A Gravestone Upon The Floor In The Cloisters Of Worcester Cathedral”, calling Morris “...most wretched one...” and proclaiming “...he marked also for his own, Close to these cloistral steps a burial-place, That every foot might fall with heavier tread, Trampling upon his vileness...”. I doubt the resolutely bitter ex Reverend would have cared what Wordsworth wrote.
Attached to the Cloisters is the Chapter House, where the monks would assemble to hear readings and attend meetings, then later where the Chapter would convene to settle Cathedral business. It is round and actually the very first round Chapter House built in the world, dating from the early 1100s. As you'd imagine the acoustics are amazing, hushed words sounding effortlessly amplified – and it with it's vaulted architecture it looks quite beautiful.
Worcester Cathedral deserves a couple more pieces on it's strange history, odd people and spooky legends so that's exactly what I'll do over Christmas, but if you're resident in the area this season do visit – it is very much still open to the public.
The final resting place of the ex Reverend Morris
The magnificent Chapter House
A Green Man in the Cloisters ceiling
A "Green Man", but more likely a leafy likeness of a king
Another Green Man in the Cloisters