11 June 2020
by Philip Throp
How many of you, dear readers, speak “Oxford” English? This language is surely dying out, but how about Oxford WELSH? That is, Oxford Welsh as spoken by a Flemish Town Mayor.
On the occasion of 800 years since Sint Niklaas received its Town Charter, I was very honoured to be asked by our Town Twinning Chairman to do a guided tour of Oxford for the Burgemeester of this our Flemish twin town (near Antwerp).
The Chairman and I had attended together a guided tour of Oxford to mark “Curiosity Weekend”, a tour given by a Russian research student at Oxford University which covered many of Oxford’s historic connections with Russian nationals. The tour included the exotic story of the undergraduate Count Felix Yusupov, one of the conspirators in the eventual assassination of Rasputin. (I say “eventual” because Yusupov later claimed that after he and his associates enticed Rasputin into the Yusupov Palace, they poisoned him (didn’t die), then shot him (didn’t die), before finally resorting to drowning him in the river Neva— I hope they used lots of weights……….or concrete?). Yusupov had special dispensation at University College to be attended in his rooms by a manservant, and also, notably, entertained one fellow-student to lunch in his rooms in the presence of his pet bear-cub.
This Russian tour gave our Chairman the idea that I should research a one-off tour for the Burgemeester that would include Oxford’s Flemish connections.
By cheating (more than a little, I suspect) and interpreting this as “Belgian” connections I was able to put together quite a full tour, but in researching the tour also learnt a lot about the coming to the fore and wider acceptance of the Flemish nation and language by the rest of Belgium.
This came to my attention when I was following up King Albert of Belgium, the Soldier King (with his Queen Nurse) who, in 1919, joined the honoured names who have received an honorary Oxford University degree in the Sheldonian Theatre. The award was in recognition of the single-handed resistance by the Belgians and Flemish to prevent an early German advance along the French coast in 1914, before the Allies were organised to resist the enemy advance into France. The Belgian and Flemish soldiers fought side by side but didn’t even understand each other’s language, and at an entertainment at the front, quoting the passionate “individual freedom” speech from Goethe’s 18th century play “Goetz von Berlichingen”, an actor-soldier gave the King an only slightly-veiled critique of the oppression endured by the Flemish people and long non-recognition of their language, a speech which after the war forced a wider recognition of the Flemish language and of the contribution of Flemish soldiers and people to the nation.
I also became aware of the character of the much-loved queen of our English king Edward III in the 14th century, Philippa of Hainault (a Belgian province). She was founder (under the guise of her chaplain) of Queen’s College Oxford. Apart from her humanitarian intervention to stop Edward III executing the town-council “martyrs” at the conquest of Calais, Queen Philippa deputised successfully for the king as a warrior in the Scottish Wars, and on her return from the North was the 14th century starter of the English coal-mining industry in north-east England, and the instigator of the English lace industry.
At this later point in the afternoon, having related these and other stories in front of their relevant locations, and with the tour close to its end, I happen to ask the Burgemeester (Lieven) about any previous visits to England. His reply was that he has visited London once, but he has been many time to Wales.
“Wales, Lieven? Wales? Why Wales?”
“Because at university in Belgium I became interested in a First World War poet who wrote in Welsh about his experiences in the 1914-18 trenches, and I taught myself Welsh so that I could understand the poems better. I am interested in Welsh national culture and I have visited the Eisteddfods regularly for many years.”
He tells me this at 4.58 in the afternoon.
Now I think of Jesus College, just around the corner, founded in 1555 by Hugh ap Price, mainly attended by students from Wales for 350 years and more thereafter (including one Welsh scholarship holder, born 1888 at Gorphwysfa, T.E. Shaw (Lawrence), the inspiration for the name Shawsheet). A college full of Welsh emblems and decorations. It closes to visitors at 5. The Burgemeester is expected in the Council Chamber in Abingdon for his speech at 7pm. I rush him and his wife to the college.
We arrive at the huge wooden medieval Jesus College gate. Large notice: “Closed to visitors from 5pm each day”, (only the students are there after 5pm.).
I say “Follow me” and we bend our necks to enter by by the small access door cut into the huge main “fortress” gate. I go into the Porters Lodge. The Porters are the keepers, the mastiffs, no-one messes with the Porters.
I explain that I’m from Abingdon and Lieven is the Burgemeester of our twin town in Flemish Belgium. “He’s speaking to our Town council this evening, sir, and returns home early tomorrow morning”
Amazingly, the mastiff gives us the nod.
I’ve got Lieven and wife in, out of hours. I feel pleased with myself. Apart from the students we are the only visitors. It’s not yet time for dining. We have the 16th century dining hall, one of the most evocative in Oxford, to ourselves.
I can show him undisturbed the fantastic carvings of Welsh dragons, Prince of Wales feathers etc. We venture into the back quad, normally out of bounds to visitors. Stone dragon carvings and the fantastic rowing success graffiti, the largest in Oxford, incorporating a huge red dragon.
And finally I know I still have the highlight, the chapel. We are alone in the chapel. I show Lieven the sets of 16th century stained glass windows on either side, depicting Welsh saints with (to Englishmen) quite unusual Welsh names. The regimental flags of heroic Welsh regiments, hanging from the old wooden rafters. By now, he is truly in Welsh heaven.
While he’s busy closely admiring the carved dragons on the seats, I sneak to the big brass lectern on its rostrum, with the huge old bible, open as an invitation to read. I just check it’s the same as I’ve seen it on a previous visit.
“Lieven, we’ll sit down here, would you like to read to us from the bible?” He eyes me, quizzically. Suspiciously.
“Just go up to the bible and start reading to us, Lieven”.
Up he goes onto the dais, he takes a look, his eyes are like saucers, they’re popping out of his head. The huge bible is a bible in Welsh! Just Welsh. No translation. He swallows.
And off he sails, easily, skilfully, confidently reading it aloud to his wife and me sitting in the pews, in (for all I know) perfect-sounding Welsh. With its lovely, lls and gwrchs and gwlls and so on. Unlikely as it may seem Lieven, the Burgemeester of a Flemish town near Antwerp, is in a (Welsh) world of his own. His wife is in tears of pride.
We have only time to admire the diminutive metal winged dragon and the tiny snail on Jesus’ gate before hurrying back to Abingdon (by bus).
Lieven arrives only just in time for a quick change of clothes and resumes his Burgemeester persona in time to address the Abingdon Town Council.
Such coincidences. Such chance coming-togethers. Memories of a lifetime. For which of us? Dear readers, I’ll let you decide.