THE PURPLE MUSTARD

Our family home was a timbered manor house, built on land near the township of Calne, in Witshire. The estate had been gifted to my ancestors by King Alfred as a reward for military assistance and bravery, repelling viking invaders, at the battle of Edington, in 878. More recent generations were sheep farmers, including my father, a kind and peace loving man.

My mother’s parents owned the local inn. They were well known and respected, but could contribute nothing tangible to the proposed alliance between their daughter and my father. It seems the successful outcome, owed as much to a perception that the prospective daughter in law’s commercial acumen, would be of more value to the management of the family finances, than a few worldly treasures of which we had no real need.

In character and way of thinking, I took after my mother. At an early age, I realised that I was temperamentally suited to commerce, at least, more so than the church vocation for which I was destined. However, as the youngest of three male siblings, my future had been marked out for me, and it was not a matter for debate. The seminary was where I was to be educated.

From the seminary, I moved to London, where I became understudy priest at the Church of Saint Edmund the King and Martyr, now known as St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, on Holborn Viaduct. It was here that I was introduced to Stephen Harding. He was acting as Latin tutor to a group of young seminarists, some of whom were part of my congregation. We became good friends, and after a while agreed to share lodgings close to St Pauls. The year was 1086.

Stephen’s family were also West Country landowners, and he too had been educated in a seminary, and expected to pursue a career in the church.

Here however, the similarities between us ceased. Stephen was devoid of ambition, devoted to his faith, and had the mental strength of a Spartan. For him, the established church had lost its way, corrupted by association with the nobility and their financial largesse. And he was right. Jealousy, greed and hypocrisy, had taken the place of charitable thoughts and deeds. It was not a good place for Stephen.

Developing his skills as a linguist, he became a travelling scholar, which earned him just enough to pay for his food and lodgings. As well as English and Latin, he was fluent in Latin and Norman. I, on the other hand, began to find my feet in my new vocation. I started to see that ambition and a political train of thought had a place in the hierarchy of the Church, and as these attributes came quite naturally to me, I had a distinct advantage in terms of vocational advancement. It was not that I was not attached to my religion, it was more that my attachment was not strong enough to overcome my ambition, and the two made poor bedfellows in the practice of an honest faith. The half hearted excuse I always made to myself, was that these conflicts were not of my own making. However I would also have to admit to a strong attachment to my creature comforts, and eating venison from the King’s estates, rather than wild berries in the wilderness, was not an issue that would occasion loss of sleep!

The wool from our farms went to market in Norwich, and from there it was purchased by merchants from Flanders, to be made up into garments and textiles. Although my elder brothers had assumed responsibility for farming our land, my discussions with them, and the knowledge I gained from my mother, had provided a good understanding of how the market in wool worked, and in particular, how important it was to the King. Over half the King’s revenues derived from the taxes on wool, and as Norwich was the main market for wool in England, the town had become a centre of commerce second in importance only to London. Consequently the See of Norwich, was one of the most lucrative and coveted prebends in England.

An industrious and skilled workforce had made Flanders the undisputed leader of textile production in the lands known as Europe. When Flanders independence was threatened by France, many weavers would leave and come to England to carry on their activity. Welcome as they were, it was in England’s interests for the State of Flanders to remain independent, or at least, in friendly hands. It was also in the King’s interests to have a Bishop of Norwich upon whom he could rely, and who understood the market in wool. The See had became vacant upon the death of the founder of Norwich cathedral, Herbert de Losinga, in 1119, and after a lengthy period of political manoeuvring with my fellow Bishops, and my allies actively promoting my suitability to the King and his supporters, in 1121, I was elected Bishop of Norwich. Part of my unofficial duties for the King, which had enabled me to gain his support, included monitoring political developments which might impact the wool trade, both at home and abroad.

At the other end of the spectrum, my friend Stephen Harding, while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome, had come upon a small Benedictine monastery at Molesmes, to the north of Dijon. The monks were living a life of poverty and deprivation, without any of the material trappings or financial interests that I coveted. They followed the Rule of St Benedict to the letter, foregoing the many and varied ‘dispensations’ which had been introduced at the Abbey of Cluny to make life more comfortable, and which Stephen deprecated with a vengeance. When ‘dispensations’ started to appear at Molesmes, Stephen and a number of his like minded brethren sought permission to establish their own Abbey, and in 1098 they founded the Cistercian Order at Citeaux, 23 km to the south of Dijon.

Stephen’s rigorous minimalist approach, somewhat surprisingly to me, attracted many followers. After a number of difficult early years, when by reason of self imposed hardship the Order almost ceased to exist, it started to flourish. When Bernard, a young nobleman from Dijon, blessed with an infectious enthusiasm, together with 30 of his followers, joined Citeaux in 1108, it provided the impetus for expansion across the whole of Europe. The mother Abbeys at Citeaux and Cluny became the apotheosis of two different strands of religious practice in the western world. Citeaux, started by my friend and former room share, Stephen Harding, were minimalist followers of the Rule of Saint Benedict in all its stringency. At Cluny, the Benedictines were masters of ornate decoration, self aggrandisement, and multiple dispensations. An inevitable tension developed between them, and, by reason of my friendship with Stephen, on the occasion of my visits, I was often drawn in to act as mediator.

With the spread of the monasteries from Burgundy into England, came greater opportunities for commerce. Burgundy was a source of salt from the Jura mountains, had been famous for its wines for centuries, and was renown for the production of mustard. On my return trips to England, I would bring back products from Dijon that could fit into the sacks of my travelling entourage. Dijon wine and mustard in particular were popular in the Royal Court. Over the course of time, in my Bishop’s purple apparel, with flagons of red wine and pots of mustard in my saddle bags, the King started referring to me affectionately as, ‘The Purple Mustard’.

Stephen resigned his position as Abbott of Citeaux at the age of 73 due to physical infirmity. I was with him towards the end of that year, in 1133. He was worrying as always that the Order of which he was a founding father, would itself be corrupted by growth and associated noble financing. Stephen was right, the practice of a true faith can only be conducted if its practitioners are separated from the acquisitive and protective human instincts that tend to attach to financial fortune. I knew it, but had never been able to accept the consequences.

However, I also was approaching the end of my mortal days, and I wished to close my final chapter at peace with a conscience that had troubled me from my first days in the seminary. I believe Stephen appreciated this, and saw an opportunity. Through the entirety of our relationship, he had never once asked a favour, or for support of any kind. Before I left him for the last time, he took my hand, and told me that I was to be the custodian of the power of goodness and truth that had been reborn in the Cistercian Order in Burgundy. I thought about what he said for some time after my departure, and decided to accept the mission conferred on me. Over the succeeding years, I transferred all of my accumulated wealth to the benefit of Citeaux. In 1145 I resigned my position as Bishop of Norwich, and departed England for the last time for the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay, a place of spiritual peace, 70km to the west of Dijon. My life came to an end shortly after in 1146, and I was buried at Fontenay. However, my spirit, freed from conflict, decided to continue the work I had started. The stories I write, are dedicated to Stephen and his honest faith.