On a recent solo trip to Jerusalem my wonderful hosts asked if I would like to visit Nabi Samwil, the tomb of the prophet Samuel. Sacred to both Jews and Muslims and sited atop a rocky outcrop, this place offers a panoramic view which takes in the city and circles around to the territories of the West Bank. It was from Nabi Samwil that Margery Kempe, one of England’s most notable Medieval pilgrims is thought to have got her first glimpse of Jerusalem during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the early 15th century. Kempe’s notability derives from the detailed record she made of her journey from King’s Lynn in Norfolk to the Holy Land and thanks to her account we are able to learn something of the freedom and joy that pilgrimage offered to middle-class women at that time.
Kempe married young and with no access to family planning, brought at least a baker’s dozen into the world before leaving her husband to follow her religious vocation. In Kempe’s autobiographical ‘Book’ of her travels, we learn of the trials and tribulations that she faced, not least from other religious pilgrims and from the church authorities. Women were not allowed to preach, a rule her outpourings of religious sentiment was deemed to break, and even the act of wearing white in public, as she was wont to do, was seen as a challenge to the church. Only the church fathers could decide who was pure and it certainly didn’t include married women with thirteen kids. Especially not those like Margery Kempe who was given to almost constant wailing as an expression of her devotion. At several points, Kempe’s insistence on practising religion in her own eccentric way saw her incarcerated or facing the threat of severe punishment.
More or less 500 years after Margery Kempe set sail, another young woman, herself the 8th of 11 children, left behind a failed marriage in New York and embarked on a voyage of discovery. Perhaps the most significant thing that Nancy Witcher Langhorne discovered upon crossing the Atlantic, was that she loved England. She decided to start a new life here and like Kempe before her, Nancy’s independence of spirit was viewed with suspicion by many. When one high-class woman asked her ‘Have you come to get our husbands?’ she replied, ‘If only you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine..’ But Nancy did marry again and this time being a wife did not quell either her spirit or her ambition. When her second husband Waldorf Astor was elevated to the house of Lords she succeeded in winning his old parliamentary seat in Plymouth, becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons. (Adrian Fort’s excellent biography, Nancy: the Story of Lady Astor is available as a BBC podcast and well worth listening to. Not least to gain an insight into the resilience required to survive and thrive as a woman MP, then as now.)
Nancy Astor served as an MP from the end of WWI until the end of WWII and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of her political career. To celebrate the centenary, a statue was unveiled in Plymouth this week by our ex-PM, Theresa May, and as is often the case with historical figures it comes with a health warning. Nancy might have represented the poor working men and women of Plymouth and promoted female equality and other fine social causes including public health and education, but she was both deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic and accused of being a Nazi sympathiser.
What are we to think? Tenacity and resilience are qualities we admire in our politicians, and without the trail-blazers who take real personal risks, there would be no social change, no advancement towards greater equality, no tackling the big issues of climate change. But often the same qualities that light the fires of passionate commitment to an ideal come packaged alongside deep intolerance of those we do not understand, or who we feel do not share our values. Political parties can take their pick from a long menu of contentious issues as they set about stirring up hope, fear and distrust in equal measure. But nature loves symmetry and as a recent survey indicates, it seems that we despise and distrust politicians almost as much as they despise and distrust most of us.
In the last few weeks of the UK election campaign this ethos has truly got out of hand and we’ve seen accusations of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism being used as weapons in the bid to secure votes and power. This is the tortuous logic of hatred and alienation “love us because our opponents hate you.” If you want to create some space to contemplate the potential consequences of intolerance and distrust, why not make a pilgrimage to Nabi Samwil, a tranquil place of shared faith which offers a panoramic view of the landscape.