Thursday, 30 July 2009
I came upon the statue of Constantine from behind. He lounges back in his chair as arrogantly as any Bullingdon boy. I was taken aback. The image of Constantine that I learnt at school as of a good ruler, brought to Christianity and tolerance through the prayers of his good mother, St Helena. I should have mistrusted this - there was always something sick about turning the cross, a Roman implement of torture and execution, into a banner for battle.
But in York, Constantine is a local lad. There's a spot at the centre of the Minster where he's supposed to have stood when he heard of his accession to the imperial throne. Decrying Constantine in York might not be quite as bad as criticising Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon, but it's unwise to attack those who give importance to a town. Who wants to remember Constantine's judicial murder of his wife and son (at his Christian mother's behest) or his contempt for those he deemed barbarians?
York - that beautiful, ancient city - also records the history of power and its abuses. Clifford's Tower was originally built to control rebellious Saxons but in 1190 the keep served first as a sanctuary for the Jews of York and then, when the mob came to get them, the site of their mass suicide. Eventually the castle caught fire and the few Jews who survived and surrendered, believing the offers of clemency made by the townspeople, were executed.
The tale of that massacre is one of the few instances when the townspeople of York are mentioned. If you want history from below, you have to trawl stories for references to "masses" or "the mob." The daily lives that are remembered are, at best, those of prosperous tradesmen rich enough to be celebrated in a tomb or stained glass window.
The Minster is lovely with its tall, calm spaces. The voices of the choir echo in the chancel and below the great tower. But on the screen which divides people from priests the figures are not the usual saints who have made great sacrifices, been persecuted or offered wisdom to the people. Instead the screen shows figures of English kings bearing swords and sceptres, with Stephen in a short tunic as a sign that he never managed to subdue the kingdom.