Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel
(12 July 1869 - 2 July 1942),
On the second of June 1921 in the house of commons Sir W. Joynson-Hicks (Conservative member for North Manchester) asked Mr Shortt, the Home Secretary, whether he has had any report upon the proceedings and actions of the Reverend Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted, in Essex; and whether he proposes to take steps in regard to the open preaching of sedition in Thaxted church? Mr. Shortt replied to both questions in the negative.
Conrad Noel, known as the "Red Vicar" of Thaxted, certainly created controversy in his life. He was born in Kew, ordained in the Church of England and officiated in various parishes until 1910. In 1910 the local landowner Lady Warwick, also an outspoken left-winger, appointed Conrad Noel, a Christian Socialist, to the living of Thaxted. He was a man of enormous energy and talent and transformed Thaxted into a maelstrom of political and cultural activity. He joined the Independent Labour Party and in 1911 became a founding member of the British Socialist Party. He remained vicar in Thaxted until his death in 1942.
Conrad Noel’s most notable action was when he hung the red flag and the flag of Sinn Féin alongside the flag of St George in the Church. This led to "the Battle of the Flags". Flags can arouse passionate feelings, as was demonstrated by this long-running "Battle of the Flags" which disrupted Thaxted for several years. Generations of Cambridge undergraduates journeyed here to remove the flags. They led attacks on the church and ceremoniously pulled the flags down, sparking off fist-fights and other disturbances. Eventually a consistory court ruled against his displaying the flags and Noel obeyed the ruling. He founded the Catholic Crusade to propagate his views, which had some impact in the origins of Trotskyism in Britain. Conrad was inevitably dubbed "The Red Vicar" by the popular press as a result of his actions and beliefs.
But Noel's insistence that Christianity was about beauty and ritual, too, attracted many well-known artists and musicians to Thaxted. For several years the composer Gustav Holst and Conrad collaborated on musical events.
Nearby the Church are the almshouses, built in the early 18th century to house the poor. Opposite is a thatched building, known as “The Chantry” which was once a medieval priest's house. Conrad Noel was concerned by the dilapidated condition into which it had fallen and consequentaly he bought it on behalf of the church. His Christian socialism did not always go down well with some of his more wealthy parishioners but no one ever doubted his sincerity and charisma.
As time went on Thaxted was a place where folk traditions were encouraged by Conrad and his wife Miriam. Musical festivals, folkloric gatherings, maypole and Morris dancing were all part of their life. The Noels were experts in these traditions and encouraged everyone to be part of these activities.
In 1925 Jack Putterill, also a turbulent priest and rebel, was appointed curate in Thaxted and married Barbara, Conrad Noel’s daughter. Father Jack often had differing views to Noel. While the battle of the flags had drawn the town together other world events such as the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s subsequent declaration of war were viewed differently by Noel and Putterill.
When Noel died in July 1942, he was buried in the churchyard close to the High Altar. Inside the church, he is remembered by a bronze head in the crossing, facing the high altar.
His tombstone carries the words "He loved justice and hated oppression."
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