My father was raised a Catholic, but when the church supported conscription in World War II and he was forced to become a soldier, he turned against it, and for the rest of his life railed against all forms of organised religion. As a result I grew up with little understanding of faith beyond singing songs in school assembly and of course the rituals of Christmas and Easter.
But travelling in Europe I fell in love with religious architecture. Even for non believers ancient places of worship inspire awe. I had friends in the Netherlands who were Catholics and they would light candles, and sometimes go off for some time alone. Far from the ignorant idolatry my father had told me about, they spoke of meditating on the qualities of the saints, of being able to step out of their normal lives to something beyond. Or just to find a few moments of peace and quiet. We all need that sometimes.
That’s the problem with organised religion: my father and my friends were both right. Faith is such a huge area of human behaviour, it attracts people for so many reasons, but at the core of my research into British history is my belief that the English practiced a very unusual form of Christianity to the rest of Europe. One that was grafted onto pagan routes, so belonged to them rather than to the church per se.
Most people lived in tiny communities, a cluster of perhaps 4 or 5 houses that were largely self organised, so they practiced what they agreed. They chose the saints, they paid for icons and statues and for the decoration of the walls and screens. The church belonged to them, so when Henry VIII closed the monasteries he stole their possessions, but also their contact with the world beyond. Something like half the saints depicted in churches were to help women in childbirth. So ending pilgrimage caused real harm to women, and weakened the support of the communities in their time of pain.
Saints were also seen as friends. We all need someone we can talk to about our deepest fears and problems. In tiny communities it was hard to find privacy, and harder still to find time to talk privately and deeply.
Saints were always there. They always had time to listen. They never judged, they never criticised. They were like the Samaritans, but there was no charge for the phone time.
I think this is why the British, the English in particular, have a reputation for quirky originality. The loss of their folk Christianity, turned many to seek solace in the wonderful countryside so many had access to before urbanisation took off.
My father was a passionate gardener. He won prizes for his roses that were lined up along the front fence so people could smell them as they passed. He never seemed to do much – I could never see any effect of his hours there, and mother constantly complained that he refused – or forgot – to change out of his good clothes before he started. He pottered round, humming tunelessly to himself, he seemed truly happy.
He would have denied it, but I think gardening was his substitute for belief – communing with the earth and nature on his little piece of suburbia. He had freesias along the driveway and the beautifully scented boronia at the gate, as well as a big welcoming daphne that even now stops me in my tracks when I smell it in the few gardens that have it. So his work was a gift to others.
Garden design is said to be England’s only true art form. But for many it is more a religion. Some have rituals that they perform to ensure success. And it’s only a small step from such rituals to beliefs in fairies at the bottom of their gardens, to superstitions about how and when to plant.
In the wake of the destruction of the monasteries the British were left without rituals, so they seem to have invented their own, and much of it involves nature, because it’s beautiful and constantly changing, and that was where they were beyond the prying eyes of authorities.
It was also a wonderful place to be.
It still is.
Faith can be organised, it can serve large groups.
But ultimately it is whatever you want it to be. If it works for you, and if it harms no one, then it’s a good thing.