What I would like to write about today falls a little outside our normal timeframe. The entry was prompted in part by a question from a reader about Oliver Cromwell. The house of Tudor ends with Elizabeth’s reign in 1603. Less than fifty years later England was declared a Republic under Oliver Cromwell.
The picture above, is a still from a film called ‘Stable’ which Kathleen Herbert produced out of an event in which horses were bought into Gloucester Cathedral one night, to wander through architecture of the space.
Stable was produced during Herbert’s residency at the Cathedral. The idea began with a comment made by one of the cathedral’s tour guides that horses were once kept in the Cathedral. Herbert discovered that during the English civil war in 1645 Lord Levan’s army kept their horses inside the cathedral as a defiant gesture against the Royalist cause. During the Puritan period iconoclasm was rife, and many churches and cathedrals were wantonly vandalised. Kathleen Herbert explains
“The citizens of Gloucester were influenced by the Parliamentarian/Puritan way of thinking, whilst the Cathedral remained sympathetic to the Royalist cause. In 1642 Thomas Pury, the MP for Gloucester proposed to parliament the abolition of The Dean and Chapter and this marked the end of the existing clerical authority and form of worship. So the act of stabling horses within the cloisters by Lord Levens’ army appears to be a clear statement of the new political and religious power of the Puritans.”
In contrast, during the medieval period knights would hold all night vigil in churches and cathedrals prior to battle. They would bring their horses, swords, armour and page to pray and be blessed. In this context, the intention of the horse being bought into the space is very different.
For Stable, Herbert brought horses back into the Cathedral and filmed them roaming around the ancient building. The film was not intended as an historical re-enactment; rather, by introducing something incongruous into the cathedral, Herbert wanted to encourage a contemporary questioning of the space. The film was made at night, in silence, in the absence of human visitors. There is silence followed by a snort, followed again by silence, and then the clatter of hooves. The first horse is joined by two others who sniff and lick at the hard stone floor, before clattering off again.
In interview Herbert says
“We experience the Cathedral as a powerfully religious building, which affects our mental and physical responses to the architecture. We each bring knowledge from a range of sources that has an impact on our behaviour. However the horses will be innocent to this, and I want to be quite free and open, allowing the horses to navigate and react to the space in their own way.”
Herbert was asked what the Cathedral authorities made of her desire to bring horses in to what is a sacred building. They were positive about the project. It is interesting to trace the history of ideas here. Medieval knights brought horses for a blessing before battle; Lord Levan’s forces brought them into the building to make a political and religious point – and the presence of horses would certainly have been a deliberately provocative, sacrilegious act. In 2007, when the film was made, we are interested to see how the horses react in a large, echoing and unfamiliar environment. It is perhaps a juxtaposing of nature and culture; or a way of making the familiar unfamiliar. We see the beauty of the horses in the shadows of the cathedral; and see the ancient building, which has been a presence there for 900 years experienced in a new way by the horses, and so experience it ourselves afresh.