Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The Man In The Cloth Mask

Diogenes lived outside polite society out of a dislike of civilised hypocrisy and hubris, but others have adopted a similar lifestyle for quite different reasons, often as fugitives. It’s said such people are either running from something, or running to something. One man who was both running from and to something was ‘the man in the cloth mask’, the hermit whose life-story is preserved in a little-known mediaeval manuscript akin to a hagiography or saint’s life. As with Diogenes, his strange, self-denying life awakened people’s curiosity both at the time, and since.
In the turbulent era of the Norman Conquest, he travelled England and Europe in simple pilgrim's garb, including staff and hat. Yet his face was always kept covered by a cloth veil or mask, so that he depended on a servant or guide to lead him by the hand. Questioned about this wherever he went, he would only say his name was simply 'Christian' - as if he were a character out of the sort of mediaeval allegory plays John Bunyan later drew on for his Pilgrim's Progress. He returned from pilgrimages to Rome and other shrines to live in a cave near Dover. He then went up to North Wales, where he persevered for a number of years despite rough treatment from the locals. He spent his declining years at Chester, living in a churchyard hermitage outside the city walls.
So far, we have a conventional pious ‘saint’s life’ type of story. But when dying and making his last confession, ‘Christian’ gave his real name as ‘Harold Godwinesson’ and his ‘station in life’ as “formerly the king of England.” In other words, he was the Saxon King Harold II, once the wealthiest man in England. The biography of ‘Christian’ the hermit, compiled at Waltham Abbey around 1205, is thus titled the Vita Haroldi or Life Of Harold.
Of course, as every schoolboy knows, Harold was slain at Hastings in 1066, transfixed with an arrow through his eye - which would have made his corpse easy to recognise even if he was stripped of his gear, as happened after the battle. Yet contemporary accounts of the battle don't mention an arrow in the eye - this comes from the misleading way the Bayeux Tapestry images are crammed together. The Vita Haroldi says in the piles of stripped corpses at Hastings, another body was misidentified as Harold’s, “hacked about as it was, covered with blood, already becoming black and decomposed.” It says the real Harold was found, 'half dead' by several women come to minister to the wounded, and taken to a local hut, and from there in secret to Winchester, where he was nursed for two years. This suggests serious injuries, and if he remained distinctively disfigured, that would explain the need for the mask or veil.
When he recovered, he travelled to Europe to raise support for a comeback, but had no success. After a while he decided his downfall was God's will. The Pope had authorised the 1066 Conquest as a crusade as Harold was charged with breaking an oath, made over a box of holy relics, that he would accept William as the next king. Harold always said he had been tricked, the box of relics being hidden under a cloth. His father Godwin of Wessex had evidently dropped dead from Divine retribution: immediately after making one of those may-God-strike-me-dead-if-I'm-lying remarks, he choked on a crust of bread. Chroniclers also depicted the defeat at Hastings as God's punishment for the sins of the English nation.
So Harold decided to dedicate his life to religious devotions, wandering Lear-like around the countryside after a lengthy European pilgrimage to Rome and elsewhere to recover relics, which he donated to Waltham Abbey, whose royal patron had been Harold. He seems to have forsaken all contact with his wife, former mistress, and family, or joining in the many revolts of the time. He returned from Europe to live in a cave near Dover for ten years, before going up to Cheswardine in Shropshire, where it is implied he deliberately exposed himself to local ruffian behaviour for self-mortification. (In his earlier life, Harold had 'subdued' Wales, campaigning in this area as King Edward Confessor's field commander.) His cloth mask and patently pious symbolic name obviously stirred up local curiosity, and probably hostility, wherever he went. He was repeatedly set upon, beaten, robbed and stripped of his clothing. Presumably the locals thereby got a look at his face, which must have not too much of a giveaway – unlike the legendary Man In The Iron Mask, whose mask – in reality a velvet one – was thought to conceal some recognisable, perhaps royal, visage. In those days, what a king looked like was only known to a few.
Finally he settled at Chester, where the local hermit's hut just outside the old Roman city walls had just become vacant. Some reports have him still alive in the reign of Henry I, i.e. after 1100. Historians say a rumour Harold had survived became current in the following century, and anecdotal evidence suggests some came to suspect his identity. When questioned about Harold and Hastings, 'Christian' would give cryptic replies full of hints, such as saying that he had been at the battle, and 'there was no one more dear to Harold than myself.' The Vita says a younger brother of Harold's, who had been a boy in 1066, was questioned in his old age by Henry about whose body they had. He replied “You may have some countryman, but you have not Harold.” The Vita was written by an aged cleric who as a young priest had known Harold’s servant Sebricht, in later life a hermit. It concludes with an account by his successor at the Chester hermitage, who inherited his attendant there, Moses. He described the eyeless cloth mask his master constantly wore over “his gashed face,” saying he did not know why he wore it - whether it was vanity, to shun worldly sights, or from fear of being recognised by his fellow Saxons and perhaps being subjected to a veneration he felt he did not deserve.
Despite the lack of proof and its cold-shouldering by scholars, the tale has an enduring appeal - Christian message balanced by historical irony. At the same time there is the tragedy of the man who must cast himself away in the wilderness as atonement, in possession of a great secret he must never speak. It also has elements of the Classical idea of tragedy - "how are the mighty fallen," punished by the gods, with great wealth and power replaced by the most spartan life imaginable.

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