DAVID ARNOLD - When King Solomon’s heir visited Southease Church

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (pictured in ceremonial uniform) once paid a visit to view medieval wall paintings in the lovely little church at Southease.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (pictured in ceremonial uniform) once paid a visit to view medieval wall paintings in the lovely little church at Southease.

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I have discovered that the ancient church of St Peter in the Ouse Valley village of Southease was once visited by the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, heir to a royal lineage claimed to go back to the time of King Solomon.

I don’t know the exact date of his visit but it certainly would have taken place sometime just before the Second World War when he was living in this country in exile after Ethiopia (or Abyssinia as it was then called) had been invaded and occupied by the Italian dictator Mussolini’s army in 1936.

What doubtless attracted Selassie to Southease were the medieval wall paintings dating back to the 13th century. They were first revealed in 1916 after being preserved under plaster for over 350 years. The plaster had been applied in response to reforms demanded by the Duke of Somerset who became Lord Protector of the Realm upon the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the King’s son Edward being too young to rule.

Somerset determined that “all superstitious images of the Church of Rome” should be destroyed. By good fortune in the case of Southease, the wall paintings were simply hidden from sight by the application of plaster. One would like to think that whoever ordered the deed had posterity in mind and a time when they might be revealed again.

In 1934-35 even more paintings were uncovered and considerable excitement was generated in medieval history circles. Haile Selassie often stayed at Warne’s Hotel in Worthing so it would have been an easy journey for him to make to Southease. Wall paintings and antique frescos of Biblical scenes abounded in monasteries and holy places in his native land so one can imagine his curiosity being much aroused.

In 1941 the British drove the Italian army out of Ethiopia and the Emperor made a triumphant return to the capital, Addis Ababa. He ruled until 1974 when he was deposed in a military coup and put under house arrest. He died in mysterious circumstances in August 1975. Ever since, many members of the Rastafarian movement who revered Haile Selassie as the Lion of Judea incarnate have refused to accept that he is dead.