THE POPE'S recent recommendation that church treasures should be sold to help the poorer nations has naturally become a widespread talking point.
Some have said that the Vatican should lead the way, but it is difficult to know where they could start.
Certainly not with the Library which I mention in particular because of its having been erected just 400 years ago by Pope Sixtus V. It contains over a million volumes and about 60,000 manuscripts of unique value.
Sixtus V, though a great internal reformer and ruthless exterminator of the bands of outlaws who were then terrorising the Papal states, was no great friend of our own country. He comes to mind particularly in this year which sees the anniversary of the Spanish Armada.
He had started life as a relatively humble friar but his power as a preacher caused him to be one of those rather oversevere types of reformers with whom we are all familiar. When elected in 1585 he found the state of the church in a terrible condition owing to the neglect of his predecessor Gregory XIII. With little less than ferocious severity he brought thousands of brigands to justice and did not hesitate to proceed with equal vigour against their supporters among the nobility.
Paradoxically he personally admired Queen Elizabeth of England, obstinate heretic though she was in his eyes, while distrusting the ultra-Catholic Philip II of Spain. But he reluctantly felt bound to enter into an alliance with the latter to conquer England (for the faith). The result was the defeat of the great Armada.
He was one of the founders of the counter-reformation despite his unhappy attempt to take over the work of a commission he had himself appointed to revise the Vulgate. He spent 18 months on the job but it was fortunately scrapped on his death in 1590 which also saved from official condemnation Robert Bellarmine's major work on doctrinal controversies.
TALKING of the Spanish Armada, there is, of course, much activity this year in connection with its quatercentenary. The Spaniards themselves are magnanimously joining in.
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is mounting its largest ever exhibition in the refurbished East Wing, generously sponsored by the Pearson Company. The Armada Exhibiton will be opened by the Prince of Wales and will run from April 20.
Spanish interest in the event has been present from the start of its preparations. As well as many priceless treasures in the form of jewellery and art coming on loan from Spain for the period of the exhibition, there has been strong Spanish support by members of the Committee of Honour formed by the Trustees of the National Maritime Museum for "Armada 1588 1988".
Committee members include the extremely popular Spanish Ambassador to Great Britain, His Excellency Don Jose J Puig de la Bella Casa. Also represented is the Chairman of the Anglo-Spanish Society in this country, the Duke of Wellington.
As pointed out in the latest issue of the Anglo-Spanish Society's Quarterly Review, the Committee is also distinguished by the membership of revered historians of the calibre of Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton. The exhibition will thus be presented as something more than an English naval victory that gave rise to many myths. It was, of course, a major turning point in European history.
DR STEPHEN Deuchar of the National Maritime Museum has meanwhile been working hard to bring out new facts about the Armada saga and, in particular, about Drake's supposedly heroic role in the proceedings.
Whilst Plymouth has remained faithful to the reputation of one of its most famous sons, the Armada Exhibition has been developed around a broader theme, depicting the courts of Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England. It will also examine Anglo-Spanish relations before 1588 and life at sea for both Spanish and English sailors of the 16th century.
One section of the exhibiton, I understand, will survey the propaganda campaign launched by England in the wake of the Armada's return. It will also examine the renewed naval conflicts which preceded the eventual Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604.
It will thus be a very unusual exhibiton set in an international context investigating the background and effects of the whole conflict on two great naval countries of that time.
It comes at a moment when relations between Spain have seldom, if ever, been better, despite the question of Gibraltar. Surely some formula will soon be found to settle this long-standing problem so that the Queen can make a state visit to Spain. Such an event is eagerly awaited on all sides.
EXCAVATION work is about to recommence on the ruins of what has been described as England's most "exposed" Roman "villa." Its site is at Chedworth in Gloucestershire.
In the Roman world the term villa denoted a farm and its
outbuildings. It is now used to describe Roman houses built in the country. Even more important, in most ways, than Caesar's invasions of Britain was that of Claudius in AD 43. It was this Emperor who created the Roman province of Britannia.
One of the earliest territories to be incorporated was what is now Gloucestershire, then inhabited by a tribe named Dobunni.
Much though the Romans did for Britain, the only Roman institution which the British welcomed was the country villa, though they invested it with characteristics of their own. The Roman upper class and its Continental imitators saw the villa as a place of rest from the cultural ardours of city life, especially in the summer.
The British upper class reversed the system. They spent most of the year on their estates, living in villas which were working manor houses. Typical of such villas, of which about 600 are known about for certain in Roman times, Chedworth has been one of the most successfully and excitingly excavated, ie "exposed".
Here and there, Christian symbols have been etched into inner walls, as well shown up by recent work on the ruined site. But, tantalisingly, it is not known when they were made. So the exact date at which Christianity was first practised in Britain is still not totally certain. It is generally thought that Britons first became aware of Christ in the latter part of the second century.
British paganism was slow to disappear. Pagan temples were still being erected in the fourth century. But Chedworth may have been one of the earliest Roman villas to have been inhabited by Christians. It has a fascinating, originally pagan shrine, (called a nymphaeum) which the owners or possibly workers, began to invest with Christian symbols.
Thanks to the National Trust the work, which may yet reveal even more sensational results, goes steadily on.
AN INTERESTING letter to The Times recently pointed out that the sadly burned out London church of St Peter's, Eaton Square, is within a mile or so of about half a dozen other prominent Anglican churches. Is it therefore necessary to rebuild this particular church?
Yes, definitely! This was the emphatic reply of the vicar and many parishioners, and the £1 m appeal is already reported to be progressing favourably.
Lost for ever, unfortunately, are John Hayward's excellent stained glass depictions of the life of St Peter. But the will to rebuild this famous church appears to be unbreakable.
The church was used, as may be remembered, as the background of one of Somerset Maugham's short stories. In it, Maugham depicted the verger as getting the sack because he could not read or write. He thereafter started a very profitable business and became extremely rich. When asked what he might have been had he been able to read and write he replied, "still the verger of St Peter's, Eaton Square."
The day the fire started a class was going on in the crypt which housed an infant school. The teacher and pupils, being completely cut off from the main building, were quite unaware of the blaze which had started. Their quick escape was providential as was the absence of any loss of life during a catastrophic fire, thought to have been started by an arsonist.
Parishioners, with many choices at their disposal, have, in some cases, opted for attending services at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, saved, in the last few years, from being torn down and redeveloped. It would be my choice as a temporary alternative to St Peter's, though the impressive St Michael's, Chester Square, and the (AngloCatholic) St Mary's, Bourne Street are nearer.
Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, however, has one uniquely fine feature, namely its lovely east window designed by BurneJones and executed by William Morris. It regularly draws a large congregation, many of whom come from far beyond the actual parish boundaries.