The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

An Anglo-Ethiopian Cross

Author - Christopher Collier-Wright

The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, constructed in the perpendicular style

On a recent visit to the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) in the Tower of London, I discovered two links to Ethiopia which would be of interest to members of our Society.

The chapel was erected for Henry VIII within the Tower of London between 1512 and 1520. Its name soon proved itself to be apt indeed, for it served as the burial place of many of those beheaded on Tower Green, including three queens: Ann Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey.

The first link with Ethiopia is found among the memorial tablets for Constables of the Tower which are ranged around the walls. On the west wall of the nave is one to Robert Cornelis Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala, who was Constable of the Tower of London from 1886 to 1890.

The Altar and Processional Cross

The second, and more significant, link is to be found at the opposite end of the chapel. Looking eastward from the nave, it is readily apparent that the altar cross is of a design and shape not normally seen in English churches. It is in fact a processional cross with worked and patterned silver, familiar to those who have lived in Ethiopia. On closer inspection, a simple wooden cross may be seen within the silver.

The archives of the chapel contain a letter written on 20 January 1967 by Ato Afewerk Tekle, the well-known artist and designer of stamps. This reveals that he designed the cross and that he was inspired by “the harmonious unity of the two elements” (wood and silver). He adds “the silver around the wooden cross is inspired by the ancient motifs of the Ethiopian crosses.”

Closer View of the Cross

Further delving into the archives brings to light the ‘Anglo’ aspect of the cross. A press release issued at the time of the dedication of the cross in September 1967 states: “It was made from silver from the mines of the time of the Queen of Sheba …superimposed upon a wooden cross carved from one of the original roof timbers of the White Tower dating from the time of William the Conqueror.”

It appears from the archives that some of the oak beams of the original chapel of St John in the basement of the White Tower were being removed due to substantial rot. A portion of one of these was ‘rescued’ by Winthrop Brainerd, then a Canadian student in London. He conceived the idea of creating a memorial to all forces who served under the British crown in Ethiopia in the Second World War. Having obtained the approval of the then Constable of the Tower, Sir Gerald Templer, and of Generals Cunningham and Platt, the commanders of the expeditionary forces in 1940-1, he travelled to Ethiopia where the Emperor Haile Selassie gave his agreement to the project and composed an inscription in Amharic for the cross.

Detail of the Anglo side of the Cross

This inscription in its English translation reads “This Cross is a memorial to all soldiers who, in the battlefields, fought to defend the two kingdoms, the Imperial Ethiopian Crown and the Ethiopian St George, the Patron of Ethiopia”. Winthrop Brainerd, who subsequently became a priest in Washington D.C., raised the funds required and commissioned Afewerk Tekle to design the cross, which was then made by Teklu Desta, Imperial Crown Jeweller.

The cross was dedicated in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula by the Bishop of London on 27 September 1967. The lessons, read by General Sir Geoffrey Baker and General Sir William Platt, were 1 Kings Chapter 10 verses 1-13 (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) and Acts Chapter 8 verses 26-39 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

Detail of the Ethiopian side of the Cross

The service register kept at the chapel records that on 10 December 1995 a service of prayers and thanksgivings was held on the occasion of the visit of the daughter and grand-daughters of the late Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. The signatures of Princesses Tenagne Worq, Ruth Desta and Aida Desta follow.

The Queen of Sheba, the shared Patron Saint St George, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII and the Queens, Haile Selassie and the Princesses, the common cause against Fascism: this beautiful cross has a wealth of Anglo-Ethiopian associations.

Access: The chapel may be visited as part of a Yeoman Warder tour of the Tower. Furthermore, entrance is free to all services at the chapel. Matins is sung by a fine professional choir on Sundays at 11 a.m.

Acknowledgement: I would like to record my gratitude to Rev. Paul Abram, Resident Chaplain at the Tower of London, for his help in the preparation of this article.

All photographs © Christopher Collier-Wright

Link to St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London on the official Tower of London website.

First Published in News File Winter 2006

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