Visiting Lincoln (UK), I wanted an emotional bond with my 20th great grandmother. Foolish as it sounds, I wanted to get a feel for her life. I wanted to know her a little.
Unlike London, which has changed so much over the centuries, Lincoln felt like a place where my forbearers might materialize. As my son and I munched on sandwiches in Minster square, the echoes of centuries of footsteps were almost audible. I could imagine my 14th century relatives, walking through the gates and looking upon the Lincoln Cathedral’s already centuries-old beautiful façade.
A horse-drawn carriage pulled up, taking on a mother and son for a city tour. The boy was sporting a wooden shield and sword as well as an impish smile. I wondered how many times that scenario occurred in the 558 years between my 20th great grandmother’s death and my birth?
Can such basic human experiences roll the centuries away?
Approaching the cathedral, I looked closely at the restoration efforts, trying to photoshop my vision to see the façade the way my ancestors would have seen it. The stones would have been lighter, and in their time, the 271’ spire made the cathedral the tallest building in the world.
We joined a tour that was just starting as we entered. As we took in the stained glass windows, I asked the guide, which windows would have been in place at the turn of the 15th century.
There is one, the “Dean’s eye,” which dates back to the 1300’s. But relics of the cathedral’s early glass remain throughout its windows. It turns out that the stained glass in Lincoln Cathedral is much like our DNA. Throughout the last centuries, more than a few events led to the breaking of glass. Unbroken pieces were salvaged and re-arranged into new windows, over and over again. Although few look as they were originally conceived, pieces of the original glass remain, woven through more “modern” (Victorian) designs like strands of genetic code.
Unlike most instances when I’m confronted with the timelessness of human existence, the onrush of insignificance wasn’t disconcerting. It was comforting. Likewise, the Baptismal font sent chills up my arms.
Carved from marble in the 1150s, it remains intact. Imagination clicked. Perhaps I was standing in the exact place my ancestors had stood, watching drops of baptismal waters stream down their infants’ foreheads. What dreams did my 20th great grandmother have for each infant? What fears did she harbor? What faith did she put into the rite? Was it a formality for her, or did it provide confidence that come what may, on day she’d be reunited with them? How many of her descendants stood in the same place, literally and figuratively?
I eventually ducked away from the tour to inquire as to the location of Catherine’s tomb at the information desk. I got more and more excited as the docent directed me to her and her daughter’s (my 19th great grandmother) tombs in the south choir. The docent cautioned me, in a tactful British way, that my connection to this important and unusual woman—Katherine de Roet Swnford—in no way made me exceptional. “When you go back to the 14th century, there are tens of thousands of descendants,” he explained.
Which excited me even more. First, there’s less chance of a mistake in the research. Secondly, I wasn’t looking to be someone special. I was hoping to find that she was.
She was. In spades. Which will be the topic of a forthcoming post. But for the afternoon I spent in the cathedral, I didn’t absorb too much of that.
Instead, I reveled in a weird sense of belonging in a place across the ocean. Of rootedness, if that’s a word, that didn’t spring from my 20th great grandmother’s relation to the royal family, or her role in society. As my son and I, two of their more insignificant descendants, took in her and her daughter’s tombs, we felt connected—to each other, to our history, and to that timeless human experience of mothers and children.