Wednesday, June 29, 2016
A funny thing happened to me as I sat down to write my contribution for the rapidly expanding Brexit Anthology of Sore Losers. His name is Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945). Bond was a prominent English architect of the Edwardian period. Among his collateral forebears was Captain Bligh of Bounty fame, whose amazing feat of seamanship had continued to thrill the youth of Britain long into the Victorian period; and he usually called himself simply Bligh Bond. I first encountered Blight Bond many years ago when I consulted his book on old English rood screens, written in collaboration with another notable character named Bede Camm. That was probably forty years ago, and I had forgotten all about him when—in connection with the book I have just completed—I consulted another of his collaborative works: Studies in the Apostolic Gnosis (1919). This is a quite brilliant and quite mad book; but it is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the number thirty-seven, which I happened to be at the time.
Glastonbury: the old...
Now you may be aware of the fact that the Brexit vote took place on the Thursday of the week of the Glastonbury Festival. Glastonbury is an ancient ecclesiastical site in the far west of England. The Festival is a sort of annual Woodstock, somewhat moderated and cultivated to meet appropriate British specs. Its origins go back a century. Its popular music dimension, now prominent, dates from about 1970. The Festival is a magnet for contemporary British youth. Pundits soon began noting that while Dionysian British youth were busy making music and love rather than money or war, they were not voting in the referendum in which their dour, uptight Apollonian elders were dooming them to a return of the Fifties and, possibly, the inconvenience of visas for the beaches of Ibiza. Hence the forced marriage of Glastonbury and Brexit in the tortured journalistic mind.
...and the new
Part of the hokum surrounding Glastonbury is its imaginary connection with ancient Druidical rites and prelapsarian ecological mysticism, now joyously revived between rock band sets. As I discovered, Mr. Bond bears some responsibility for this. As a medievalist I was quite aware of its less sexy but actual ancient Christian associations, and I was even vaguely aware that what had put the place back on the map were dramatic archaeological operations in the early part of the twentieth century. I was unaware, however, that the director of the excavations was Bligh Bond, and even less aware of the extraordinary scientific principles by which Bond was guided.
Bond was the son of the head of Marlborough School, by whom he was privately and no doubt strenuously educated. Throughout his early adult life he combined public professional success as an architect with a private quest for religious mysticism which, by the end of the century, led to his immersion in Spiritualism. This interests me, perhaps because one of my first publications, based on a graduate student seminar paper, concerned Browning’s dramatic monologue “Mr. Sludge the Medium,” for which I had to do considerable research into Victorian Spiritualism. Bond combined his eccentric version of Anglo-Catholic practice with table-rapping spiritualism in a way that could cause alarm among two groups. The particular mode of spiritual discourse through which he came to communicate with the Other World was “automatic writing”, a system by which the departed were supposed to hold converse with the living through the mediation of a specially gifted amanuensis.
At Glastonbury, which in legend had been the site of a pilgrimage made by Joseph of Arimathea, were the remains of an important Benedictine abbey that had been especially rich booty in Henry VIII’s campaign of ecclesiastic spoliation. The site had then been used as a quarry for centuries. The challenges to the archeologists, who in 1907 set out under Bond’s direction to study the site, were enormous. One great puzzle was the location of an important chapel (the “Edgar Chapel”) that was clearly referenced in ancient documents, but now utterly vanished. The chapel had been finished shortly before the Dissolution by Abbot Whiting, who had been martyred as well as dispossessed.
Where should they start to dig? Architectural parallels suggested the likely spot, but Bond was doubtful and turned to the Spirit World. Through the good services of a trusted medium-scribe, a former naval officer named John Allen, sixteenth-century monks began a vigorous correspondence with Bond in early Modern English and Church Latin. The spirit papers included an actual hand-drawn architectural plan, with the surprising location of the obliterated chapel clearly marked. This invaluable document was signed “Gulielmus Monachus” (roughly, Bill the Monk). Bond dug. He found the missing chapel. The rest is history: the discipline of Supernatural Archaeology was born.
from out of the blue, a blue print
Believers believed, skeptics were skeptical. The former included the great neo-Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram, creator of the Princeton University Chapel among other magnificent piles. The latter included the Anglican theological authorities in charge of the Glastonbury dig, who eventually fired Bond out of embarrassment.
It seems to have been the Great War, which seared the sensibilities of so many among the European elites, that pushed Bond over the top, if you will forgive the license. One of his books, The Hill of Vision, is a collection of automatic writing from members of the “Company of Avalon” and other sage otherworldlings with advice as how to avoid any repetition of the great catastrophe. In the late Twenties Bond went to America where he became for a time the educational director for the American Society for Psychical Research. He was ordained a priest, then in short order consecrated a bishop, in the Old Catholic Church. Mired in multiple controversies, he returned to Britain, retired into obscurity in North Wales, and left an unpublished dossier of spirit-communications from his ancestor Captain Bligh.