English kings and St John the Evangelist

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On the right, past the Crown inn, stands the Jacobean brick-built church of St John. It is one of the most charmingly preserved 17th-century ensembles in the county.

Today is the feast of St John's church, for it is dedicated to St John the Evangelist (although Frances Arnold-Forster, in her learned volumes on English church dedications, curiously claims that it is dedicated to both St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist).

The little church, from 1623 but still in Gothic style, of mellow red brick and iron-stained sandstone, was built by John Packer, a backbone of the establishment, who had recently bought the manor of Groombridge.

He had connections at King James's Court, and the tablet he put up above the church porch explains, in Latin, his motive for building the church – "because of the most happy return of Prince Charles from Spain". The Prince, soon to be King Charles I, had gone to woo the Infanta, but Packer was glad that he had come back without a match, for she was a Catholic, of course, and Packer was decidedly not.

Poor John Packer ended up on the Roundheads' side in the Civil War, and died a month after King Charles was beheaded. The saint to whom his church was dedicated had long association with the English monarchy.

The wonderful painting in the National Gallery known as the Wilton Diptych (Sacred Mysteries, January 5, 2007) shows King Richard II being presented to the Child Jesus (in the arms of the Virgin Mary). By the kneeling king stands St John the Baptist, but behind him, against a golden background that represents heaven, is King Edward the Confessor, a royal saint. St Edward holds in his fingers a large ring, to which was attached a story, found in a 14th-century chronicle.

King Edward, it says, had a great devotion to St John the Evangelist. One day, on his way from hearing Mass on St John's day, December 27, he met a pilgrim who asked him for alms, for the love of St John. The king took the ring from his finger and gave it to the man.

Some time later, two English pilgrims to Jerusalem met an old man with white hair who asked them to carry back to their king a ring that he had given him. The king, said the old man, would in six months come to live with him. And who are you, the pilgrim asked? "I am St John the Evangelist," came the reply.

A frieze along the medieval stone screen before the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey shows scenes from this legend: the gift of the ring, the pilgrims' meeting with St John, and their return of the ring to the astonished king at table.

These lively scenes in stone are invisible to the tourists who press into the Abbey; the ring held by the king in the Wilton Diptych means nothing to most visitors to the National Gallery. We have lost the legends that explain the work of ancient craftsmen...

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