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Open Features: Dynastic Dilema

When a family Christening sends Mary Pilfold-Allan back to the exploration of her family tree she finds herself in the age of the first Tudor monarch.

Grandchild number ten was baptised recently wearing the full regalia of her great-grandfather. It is the only time that the gown has been used for the current generation, as most of them have been too big to squeeze into a garment that, whilst long, is definitely tiny in width. As it was, my grandchild had to be carefully position so as not to reveal a big gap down the back. Thankfully it was a warm day.

To add to the sense of occasion, at the appropriate moment in the service she was covered with the family shawl, now an antique cream rather than a snowy white. It is so fine that it may well pass through a wedding ring as betokens good fortune in this part of the country and was made by some ancestor with both time and patience to devote to the intricate needlecraft.

Whilst the other nine of my grandchildren have all been christened in our village church, eight of them in one go (which pleased the vicar no end), Auriela Elizabeth was baptised into the other faith. It is possible that she is the first baby to be so in our family since Henry VIII split with Rome.

As I stood there watching the elderly priest anoint her with the oil, I found myself wondering exactly what I felt about it? The worldly me thought, what did it really matter? The traditionalist within me that, having the hatch, match and despatch framework to a life is as it should be, but I have to admit, the dynastic me shed a tear for the reality of the situation.

Perhaps my awareness of the meaning of this baptism was made more acute by the fact that I had decided a few days before to finish looking into our family tree. What had previously seemed like a dead end at the beginning of the 1800s suddenly opened up and I was able to trace the line back to the birth of a Stephen in 1505. He married a young widow, Izbell (Isabel) in 1530 and produced a family of at least six children including a set of twin girls (so that’s where the gene for mine came from).

When Stephen was born, Henry VII, the first Tudor King, had brought an end to the War of the Roses and united the country by marrying Elizabeth of York. In an equally shrewd move he then married off his eldest son, Arthur, to a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon (1501), and on the death of her young husband within months, betrothed her again to his other son, Henry, in a determined effort to retain her dowry for England. The outcome of his manipulation has been the subject of many a screen drama, particularly in recent years with epics like the current Tudors series on television.

Henry VIII's eventual casting off of his catholic Queen Catherine for the charms of Ann Boelyn is the stuff of our early history lessons. I can still recite the lines I learnt parrot fashion all those years ago: “Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived.” The implications of the ‘Divorced’ bit were lost on me then despite the hours of learning about the Dissolution of the Monasteries etc. However, centuries later, there I was watching the full meaning brought well and truly home to me!

Of course it is possible that my ancestors refused to pledge for the King as head of the Church and opted to continue to support the old religion in secret. I will never know for sure. Certainly by the late 1700s, the only claim to true fame dangling on the family tree, a notorious romantic poet, made it plain that he embraced a very different view of both religion and society. His exploits began before he even left school and when his scandalous behaviour did not moderate at university, he was sent down without a moment’s hesitation. I wonder if he finally turned to God when the storm blew up and he met the death by drowning that he had always feared?

Religion has been such a divisive thing in the world; the cause of so many wars, bitter feuds and martyrdom. There is a lot to be said for those golden rules of dinner party conversation, never discuss politics or religion when dining. Either subject is bound to lead to indigestion and bad feelings! It was therefore both a pleasant and sobering thought on that Sunday afternoon to watch Auriela Elizabeth accepted into the old faith without any protest from those of the new – with the exception of my odd tear or two.

Mary Pilfold-Allan (formerly Basham)


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