"The marriage contract," said the lady of Canterbury wheeling around a traffic circle of the old cathedral town for the third time, trying to find St. Martin's Church, "you remember Bertha's marriage contract."
"Who could forget it," I said, since you learn not to stop conversation dead by confessing you haven't the least notion what is being discussed, "but I don't remember the terms."
"She was daughter of the king of Paris, there was no France then, and no England, of course, but when her marriage was arranged with Ethelbert it had one critical provision.
"She was a Christian and King Ethelbert, whose palace was where the Canterbury Cathedral is now, was a pagan. The contract provided Bertha was to be forever free to practice her faith, and the king was to provide her a priest so she could take Communion.
"This was all done, of course, and the amazing thing is that services have been conducted ever since at her church, ever since A.D. 562. Her church is still in existence, the oldest in all of England. It's right past the prison. Sorry we keep going round and round this blasted traffic circle. Sooner or later we'll hit the right route. Ha. We're in luck. Yonder's the jail. Bertha's ancient church is hard to find. Somehow, most people who come to Canterbury never get round to visting it.
"But you remember when Pope Gregory the Great saw the English being sold as slaves in Rome and asked who they were and somebody said they were Angles. He said no, not Angles but angels, and resolved on the spot to send a mission to convert the Anglican barbarians. Her sent St. Augustine. It was to Queen Bertha's church that he and his 40 companions came in the year 597."
The Canterbury woman was a bit harried, what with zooming around circles and down the wrong streets, and she was certainly correct that a casual vistor to Canterbury without such a guide as she, would never find it, and there are no cabs in Canterbury, unless they are displayed in the cathedral crypt or another hidden recess.
Her account of St. Martin's Church was soundly based on historical fact.
Gregory of Tours is the source for the year 562 as when Bertha came to Canterbury. The historian Bede, writing in 731, is the source for the assertion that Augustine came first to St. Martin's Church to start the endless task of debarbarizing the English, and is the source for the claim that St. Martin's had been a Christian church during the Roman occupation.
"Doesn't look like much, does it," the lady said. It was not actively ugly, as churches universally are, nowadays but then it was not very impressive either.
"Small, very small. It was a pagan temple of sorts at first. Then while the Romans still occupied England it was turned into a Christian church in the 300s. Some believe St. Martin himself founded it. By that time Christianity was the official church of the Roman Empire (Martin lived from 320 to 397). But when the Romans left, the church fell into ruin. It was only when Bertha married King Ethelbert and came to Canterbury that it was repaired for her.
"She came every day, walking right up this way from the palace.For 35 years she prayed England would become Christian but of course nothing happened. Then after all those years Augustine came and began preaching and baptizing at this very church. Bertha must have felt like the sower in the Bible, you know, who goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious see, and comes again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
"At the last the king, her husband, was converted. He had been impressed with the military success of Christian soldiers, not the soundest argument for a Christian faith, but I suppose he thought it could do no harm. It was tentative with him at first, but at last he came to believe there was some truth to Christanity.
"It is said -- nobody can document it precisely, though the existence of St. Martin's Church is flawlessly documented and is certain -- he was baptized in the Saxon front that is still in the church and still used for baptisms. The bottom part of the stone front is Saxon, the part with all the carved circles. The top stones, though, are later, and the whole thing is set on what is presumed to be a medieval millstone.
"But the lower part -- originally it must have been a bit like a foot bath -- is the ancient part of it.
"Look at the walls when you go in. You'll see they are made of whatever material they happened to have at the different times the pagan place was repaired and fitted up. There is a door with a flat lintel, now filled in, but you can see it clearly enough. That was built by the Romans. Near it is a door with an arch. The Saxons built that. You can see they just cut it through the Roman walls. The Roman brick, where they hacked out the Saxon door, is simply chopped through and is rough. It has been filled in, too.
"All through the centuries, you can see perfectly the hits of thin Roman brick still as visable as when the wall was new, maybe 2,000 years ago, and the flints and stone -- they built with whatever they had and didn't worry if part of the wall didn't match at all. You can see the old Roman windows, changed by the Saxons when it became Bertha's church. They wanted them higher. There's an odd window, too, called the leper's window. You can stand outside the church and peer through it and thus in a sense be present, even if people were afraid of you and wouldn't let you in. It probably was never used by lepers, but that's what it's called.
"It's just the center part, now the chancel, that was her church. The nave was added later, though it too is extremely old.
"People come here from all over the world -- nothing like the vast numbers that come to the cathedral, of course, but thousands all the same -- to see this little rough place from which Christianity was introduced into England for a second time, and this time it took."
The lady stayed in the car. I got out and entered the little porch of the church. It was all as she said. I went into the chancel, where the Saxon queen spent so much time. Outside, the ancient churchyard has old yews and of course old tombs and some not so old. There was a law in England, centuries ago, that every churchyard of the realm should be planted with yews. It was from wood of the yew that the English yeomen made their bows, and churchyards were a convenient place to grow them. This churchyard, like most burial grounds, has a sense of peace about it, partly because hamburger joints and gas stations do not abound in churchyards, and partly because one is aware of its ancient history and unique role in the spread of religion in England.
Next to Jerusalem, Canterbury is the most sacred ground in Christen-dom, as far as the English are concerned, and at Canterbury it is not the great cathedral but the rude church of St. Martin's that was first.
Life itself was regarded as a sort of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the holy city, to which your old-time Christian longed to go, and in which (as the Psalm puts it) he proposed some day to set his feet forever, amid the saints in light.
There's a tomb at St. Martin's with the inscription DEVERSRIUM VIATORIS and so on: The Inn of a Traveler Heading for Jerusalem.
Dandy for a short stay. Till morning when the towers of the city should gleam, and from David's gates the song of Zion heard