Sunday, 4 December 2016

Presumed Dead - the Vita Haroldi of Waltham Abbey, Essex

Waltham Holy Cross in its 
heyday with two towers
Recently I visited Waltham Abbey in Essex. The newly refurbished museum was my destination, to listen to a talk by Helen Hollick on Harold Godwinson, King of England. Whilst there I discovered a new manuscript, the Vita Haroldi, on loan from the British Library. It is a thirteenth century narrative that survives solely in one fourteenth century copy. It is entirely pro-Harold and traces his life and achievements from before he became king to his death. That death, however, is not on the battlefield of Hastings, but a hermitage in Chester some years later.

I had never heard of this before and, during a day devoted to Harold, I was intrigued. Being a lover of all things Edward III, I was beguiled to learn that the surviving version of the manuscript dates from the reign of this king. 

Now there's a thought, I said to myself. Why should such a bizarre and extraordinary story be resurrected during the reign of Edward III of all people, and presumably, never visited again? What was going on in Waltham Holy Cross, the medieval name for that abbey, during this particular period that meant a story about the survival of a king who everyone accepted was dead saw the light of day to the extent that an illuminated copy was made?

For me there was an irresistible parallel - the death or survival of Edward II and the death or survival of King Harold II. Dismiss this if you will, but do first accept that there are more pieces of independent evidence to support the survival of Edward II than there are to support the death of Edward II. But this is a topic for another post. For now, all we have to know is that doubt was cast on the accepted story of his death within months. The only person who knows the truth cannot now tell it. Or can he?

The Vita Haroldi. I love the doodle at the bottom of the king

Presumed Dead

The abbey church of Waltham Holy Cross, Essex, the year of our Lord 1342

The day began like any other and Richard de Hertford, abbot of Waltham Holy Cross, wished it otherwise. It had rained during the night, lightly, but enough to water the herbal garden and the vegetable patches, and also enough to drip through the hole in the roof of his chamber and leave his blankets wet and himself damp beneath.
          His clothes chests were placed away from the danger so there was dry attire within, but the bed was too big to move clear of the leak and he had to put up with it. On nights he knew it would rain he would sleep in a bed in the dorter and leave a bucket on his mattress.
          Dressed awkwardly in a clean, dry, but stiff, habit and robe, his aching joints were thankful for the fresh warmth. He made his way through the corridors to the night steps to the abbey church. He had a prie dieu in his chamber but what was the point when he had this magnificent church all to himself? It was before prime and the brothers would not wake for a little while.
          He eased his creaking body down onto the stone steps in front of the high altar.  It was the only sound in the entire echoing building. Not even mice scurried among the corners of this hallowed place. But unlike in his chamber, it was not an oppressive silence. It was welcoming, it was liberating, and it allowed his mind to explore.
          Today all there was to explore was the precarious position the abbey was in financially. The money given to the abbey six years ago to make good certain deficiencies had been spent within a shorter space than they had anticipated and there was nothing left to repair the dorter. There were still repairs needed in the abbey church, and they were his priority. Up here in the presbytery all was well, but the roof leaked near the font in the old part of the church, the parish part that was built by Henry, son of the Conqueror. A window had broken in a late spring storm and that had eaten up the last of their saved funds leaving nothing spare for lesser needs.
          He prayed to the Holy Father for a miracle. He had been abbot for thirty-four years and he cared for this place, the family he had given up, the child he had never had.
          The shuffling of sandaled feet brought him back from his thoughts and he rose slowly to join his brothers in the quire to celebrate the new day.

No matter how often he added the figures, nothing changed. There was not enough to spare to fix the roof. His or the nave’s. Usual running costs, yes, but not enough to afford wood to make repairs. It was depressing. Rents from around one hundred and fifty households seemed plenty, but this was a larger church even than Winchester and it ate money. He absently rubbed the bald tonsure on top of his head, crowned by ever-thinning grey hair. He controlled his body, retaining his manly figure when many others in his position over-indulged and were fat, but he could not control his lack of hair. Any more than he could control the abbey expenses. He had yet to break his fast that day and was beginning to feel peckish which was not helping his mood. He was unlikely to find time to eat until later when he would join his brothers in the frater for the late afternoon meal.
          He was deep in his administrative work when a knock sounded at his door and he barked impatiently. The door opened and the brother stood back to let someone else enter. Richard stood abruptly, a smile spreading, his work and hunger forgotten.
          ‘My lord, what a pleasant surprise. You were not expected.’
          ‘I travelled quietly,’ the visitor said. ‘My retainers are in your guest hall keeping out of the way. They number just ten. I hope it is not an inconvenience.’
          Richard thought briefly on his dire finances but the smile did not fade. ‘Of course not, my lord.’ The king was a frequent visitor but he had not been here for a couple of years.
          The elder man held the younger in an embrace born of genuine fondness before he let go and directed him to a seat. King Edward lowered himself with unconscious grace and settled without fidgeting. Richard shuffled around to his side of the large wooden desk. He pushed the sheets of rolling parchment to one side. He would deal with them later.
          ‘Have you been to pay your respects to Harold?’
          ‘Of course. I always go there as soon as I arrive.’
          ‘He is none of yours, of course,’ Richard began but the king cut him off.
          ‘His heart belonged to England, as does mine. I like to think I have more in common with him than with William the Bastard, for all he is my ancestor.’
          Richard had not stopped smiling. It was sometimes difficult to remember that this personable young man had been king for nearly sixteen years. He was so youthful, so vibrant. And yet the eyes were disconcerting. They reflected a soul that was old. Older than his own he often felt. And then, when the light forsook them, he saw the pain and struggle that lay there, hidden in those purple depths by the affable nature of their owner. Such eyes, in such a face! What a joy to call him ‘friend’.
          ‘What brings you here this time? What can I do for you?’ Richard said.
          ‘I have not visited for some time and I felt in need of spiritual succour.’
          ‘Can you not get that at Westminster, St Paul’s?’
          Edward’s gaze drifted to the window. It was not a particularly good view, through the cloister but mostly of wall and a just a thin line of green grass and a sliver of blue sky. He was not looking at the view in any case.
          ‘I find something here that I cannot find elsewhere.’  He drew back from wherever he had been and bestowed a soft grin on the abbot. ‘You are here.’
          ‘I have rarely received such a compliment. I am flattered.’
          ‘My father trusted you. Sometimes he could be astute. Mostly not, but in you he was correct.’
          ‘We have always welcomed your family.’
          ‘You have,’ the king agreed, ‘and we are most grateful for your kindnesses.’
          ‘And how is your boy?’
          Edward did not need to know which of his four sons Richard referred to. ‘Ned surpasses my expectations,’ he said. ‘He challenges his tutor at arms every day.’
          ‘Then England will be in good hands with its next Edward.’ A pity, thought Richard, that this particular Edward would be lost to the country before the next could ascend his throne.
 Edward rose unexpectedly, but in a single smooth motion that made Richard yearn to return to his own youth. ‘May I peruse your library? I wish to find something that amuses me and I have exhausted much of London. Something fresh.’
          ‘Of course, my lord, you do not even have to ask. Borrow, if you wish, those that are not chained, and there are many that are still loose and rolled. The books must remain here, I am their guardian, not their owner and they belong at the abbey.’

The bell was due anytime for Vespers when Edward wandered back across the cloister garth, climbed the stone steps, the leather on the soles of his boots sliding a little, and he knocked on the study door.
 Richard had finished his work for the day, tallying the tithes from the farmland they owned nearby and assessing incomes. He had to eke out something to pay for wood to repair the parish nave roof. The longer it went unrepaired the worse it would get, and the more it would cost. Not to mention his chamber and the amount of bed linen ruined by rainwater filtered through the dirty roof. His woollen blankets did not like the excretion. He had had to purchase a new blanket last market day, an unexpected replacement for a mildewed, ruined article and no time to wait for his own looms to create one, and that was damp now from the previous night. The return of the king was a welcome distraction.
          ‘I thought you had completed the works here. And yet there is a bucket by the font. A bucket filled with dirty water. Are times so hard that you baptise the parish children in God’s own bounteous rain?’
          Richard flushed. ‘If it displeases your grace, I shall have it removed before Vespers-’
          ‘What displeases me is that it is required. What happened?’
          Richard shrugged. ‘The forty pounds you kindly granted is gone, it was not sufficient for all that we needed it for.’ He pulled a sheet of parchment to him and dipped a pen in his inkwell. ‘Maybe we should have been more careful and queried the costs more closely-’
          ‘Richard,’ the king stopped him gently.  ‘What can I do?’
          Richard opened his mouth and then closed it again. He hated to beg but what was there left to do? ‘We need wood,’ he heard himself say. ‘We need wood for the roof in the nave. And my own chamber leaks.’
          ‘Wood.’ Edward rubbed his chin, lightly shadowed this late in the day. His hair flopped across his right eye and he shook it back revealing his amethyst eyes, now gleaming. ‘Waltham Forest is nearby, is it not, and it is royal demesne?’ The abbot nodded in agreement. ‘Take two hundred pounds of wood from there, your choice of timber. I’ll have my agent deal with it but you can start felling straight away.’
          It was the miracle that Richard had been looking for. Two hundred pounds of wood. That was more than enough to fix everything, to repair the roofs and strengthen others, and to start building the pigsty he wanted. Tears of relief moistened the old man’s eyes.
          ‘Thank you, my lord, thank you. You are more than generous, I am left speechless.’
          Edward was a father and that shone through the curve of his lips and the warmth that enveloped the older man leaving him feeling far more like a child than a Father. ‘You only had to ask.’
          ‘We should be wealthy, we have rents from land here in Waltham, and the manors around, but the harvests are not good, and we find we struggle-’
          ‘Richard,’ Edward said softly, leaning forward in his chair. ‘Just ask.’ He drew back and relaxed back into his seat. ‘It is done now. Two hundred pounds of timber. That should see you right.’
          ‘More than right, your grace,’ the abbot said humbly.
          The king smiled at the formality.
          ‘Did you find what you were looking for, in the library?’ Richard asked to deflect the king’s attention from his pathetic gratitude.
          The smile grew and Edward drew out a bundle of sheets of vellum from inside his tunic. It was a rather extraordinary sight, to see a king tug a handful of documents from inside his gold embroidered green velvet tunic.
          ‘I found this,’ he replied and laid the sheets on the desk with a flourish.
 Richard pulled them towards him with a gnarled hand. ‘The Vita Haroldi?’ he asked in surprise. ‘What on earth for? You know it is not true.’
 Edward drew the sheets back to him and sifted through them. ‘So, this is not true?’ he asked, his finger tracing a line under some text. ‘”He also, with splendid liberality, endowed them with estates and possessions that they might have sufficient for their necessities.” That is true, is it not?’
  ‘I am not saying it is all incorrect, but Harold did not survive the Battle of Hastings. He is buried just a few steps away.’
  The look bestowed by Edward made Richard cringe.
  ‘His beloved heart is here, I will grant you that. His body is at the church at Bosham on the south coast.’ He laughed at his friend’s discomfiture. ‘It is hardly a secret, but it is a truth that few accept. It matters not, but you must keep in mind that not everything is as it seems.’
          Richard had no idea to what the king could possibly be alluding to, but he was sure it went beyond a random and rather odd document found in the depths of Heaven-knew-where about a long dead king.
          He raised his eyes from the vellum sheets that the king had laid back down on the desk but let them fall. Long dead king. Dead king. Christ. His father.
 There had been rumours. Of course there had been. And then that dreadful episode with Edmund of Woodstock, the Earl of Kent. Nothing the young king could have done to Roger Mortimer, the man who had had the earl executed for treason - for trying to release a dead man from prison - would bring back the king’s uncle. But what if the earl had been correct in his belief that his brother, the old king Edward, had still been alive, just as the scribe of this Vita Haroldi claimed for King Harold?
          It was a struggle to raise his eyes once more to meet those of his king. He had accepted the official version of the old king’s death at Berkeley castle because that was what had been required of him. And now here was the present king, the young man who knew everything and rarely spoke of anything, suggesting that this hundred year old manuscript was some kind of parallel?
          ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ Richard ventured, not sure he actually wanted an answer.
          Never was a single word more imbued with meaning than that one. He was saying a great deal - the writer of the Vita Haroldi was saying it all for him.
          ‘I was hoping you could make a copy of this, illuminate it maybe. Keep it here, at Holy Cross, but I would like to see it when it is finished.’
          ‘Do you mind if I ask why?’
          The king said nothing for long enough to make Richard more uncomfortable, but he did, before Vespers, sigh heavily and shrug. ‘There are too many things that cannot be said, even by me. But this can say what it chooses.’ He ran his hand over the spidery black ink, stroking it with emotion akin to melancholy. ‘I want to know why this was written, what made the scribe go beyond what was known, what was accepted. And from my own experience I cannot dismiss this as easily as everyone else. Oh, I know it is not true, of course I do. I have seen the site of his true grave, in Bosham, and I pay homage to his heart and his body as often as I can. But there is a part of me that wonders, that wants this to be true.’ He ran his fingers over the words of Latin on the page. ‘It would make it all easier to accept, if someone else understood, as I must.’
          ‘My lord?’ Richard was concerned and he reached for Edward.
          ‘Fear not for me, I am well. A little dispirited, but well.’
          Richard patted the smooth hand as it lay on the manuscript. ‘I will see it is done.’ He hesitated and then added, ‘And I will not disseminate what we have said beyond these walls.’
          ‘I thank you,’ Edward said, ‘but I never thought I needed to ask.’
The woodcutters had gone, their tools slung over their shoulders, heading to the forest to begin selecting trees for felling. Richard lingered long after they had turned along the road and were beyond sight.
 Two hundred pounds of timber. It was the saving of the abbey, a gift from a generous king. A gift, or payment? Payment for copying a bizarre manuscript, payment to assuage his guilt over a father who had not perished, who had lived on, leaving Edward himself feeling too similar to his usurping ancestor William of Normandy. There was no similarity to the dour, vicious duke who had taken a throne that he had no right to. What Edward envisaged for France was quite, quite different. He had God and Right on his side, as well as blood. He was the rightful heir and the whole of France knew it. That was why they were so afraid of him.
          Well, two hundred pounds to soothe a conscience was little enough for a king, but it meant a great deal to Holy Cross. The abbey may live on to see another hundred years, and maybe that manuscript would be unearthed by another king, and maybe he would wonder at its survival at all, and in particular its survival from an era when another king had gone missing, presumed dead.

© copyright 2016

Sunday, 20 November 2016

And the fake headlines at 10 o’clock…

Due to the sheer weight of fake news headlines and stories that were floating around about the recent US election, there have been a lot of articles written on this subject in the last few days.

These articles ranged from listing websites to avoid and outraged demands to shut all fake news websites down because they are dangerous.

Of course, spreading false rumour is never a good thing. False stories can make people alter the way they think and that will lead to an alteration in the way they act, and if that leads to them voting for someone they wouldn’t have done otherwise, then these fake stories start to become something other than innocent.

Such was the wide-spread nature of these stories due to them being shared more than the genuine news, posterity may well lead to them being read and believed because they overwhelm the truth.

Where does the fake story stop being a bit of a laugh and start to be propaganda, a force for ill and not for fun, a deliberate attempt to mislead and smear someone’s good name?

We’ve seen the devastation wrought when a false account causes an official body to act, just ask Cliff Richard and Sir Leon Brittan’s widow.

Whenever someone casts malicious doubt on the reputation of an individual, it is wrong. When you read stories that are just not true, that are intended to be taken as gospel, it is wrong. We have more access to news than any generation before us, everything is instant, but in that respect it is also far more transient and the falsehoods will be forgotten when something else comes along, but they’ll always be there, a short search and click away.

Imagine, however, that such falsehoods do last, that your reputation has been besmirched, not just for a few days, or a few years, but a few hundred years. How would that feel?

Richard III - the
face of a monster?
I read something else this week - The Daughter of Time  by Josephine Tey. For those who do not know it, it is a novel about a detective flat on his back in hospital in great need of diversion, and is given a selection of portraits to amuse him, one of which intrigues him, for its goodness, and its sadness. He firmly decides that if he were to appear in a court room, his natural place would be on the bench, rather than the dock, and being a detective, he feels he can read faces. So he is pretty shocked to be told that the face belongs to a criminal, a nephew-murdering monster, called Richard Plantagenet - better known as Richard III.

Alan Grant, no, not the one from Jurassic Park, spends the next few weeks of his hospital confinement researching the story of Richard III, approaching the material in the only way he knows how – as a detective. He looks rather at the material that was not intended to be history, not the chronicles, but the administrative records that are far less likely to be influenced by opinion in its need to record fact, such as wardrobes records, proceedings of parliament and the like.

I don’t know that everything that is contained in this volume is 100% true. I suspect no one now does. But what CAN be proven is rather compelling. To cut a long story short, the Tudors, so long revered by everyone, re-wrote history to make a man who was determined to settle peace, an excellent administrator, a great warrior, a diplomat, a fair-minded, NICE, man who cared for his family, into a cardboard-cut-out monster who murdered his nephews. And we’ve all bought it.

OK, specifics. I can’t continue without qualifying this. Let’s start with The Act of Attainder, supplied here by Matt Lewis with my gratitude, sets out the case by Henry VII against Richard, to cause him to be reviled and deposed as ever a rightful king:

Henry VII from the V&A,
he looks haunted to me

Every king, prince and liege lord is bound, in proportion to the loftiness of his estate and pre-eminence, to advance and make available impartial justice [p. vi-276][col. a] in promoting and rewarding virtue and oppressing and punishing vice. Therefore, our sovereign lord, calling to his blessed remembrance this high and great charge enjoined on his royal majesty and estate, not oblivious or unmindful of the unnatural, wicked and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders, in shedding infants' blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations against God and man, and in particular against our said sovereign lord, committed and done by Richard, late duke of Gloucester, calling and naming himself, by usurpation, King Richard III.’ 

The Act mentions ‘shedding infants’ blood’ but does not mention anything specific. If you KNEW that someone who you wanted the world to believe was the worst person ever born had murdered CHILDREN, you’d mention it, right? You’d do more than ‘mention’ it, you’d shout it from the rooftops because it would be the smoking gun, the conflagration that caused the smoke. It would be your entire raison d’etre. And yet you don’t mention it. You waffle, you add in a throw-away line, probably aware of a rumour, but you don’t back it up.


Because the two ‘infants’ in question are alive and carrying on as they always have. Because Edward V and his brother were still continuing their lessons in the Tower happily enough.  They are not dead. And why is this not explicitly said? Well, when is the last time you saw a headline that stated, ‘Elizabeth II is still alive’ following a period when she’s been hidden away in Scotland or Norfolk? You haven’t. We assume that the status quo exists until otherwise informed.

Elizabeth Woodville, her
beauty ensnared a king, and
ruined a kingdom
More specifics. Elizabeth Woodville, the woman who, according to Titulus Regius - the document that declared in Parliament that the princes were illegitimate - had bigamously married Edward IV, fled to sanctuary in Westminster on the death of her husband. And then left it again, and made friends with Richard, accepted the allowance he chose to pay her, allowed her daughters to take their place at court. Had she felt vulnerable, she could have gone to France, Flanders as her husband had done in 1470. But no. She stayed in England, the England of Richard.

The same Richard who she, it is claimed, KNEW had murdered her sons. What kind of woman would befriend the man who killed her children and not flee with as many of those that were left as she could lay her hands on? Unless she knew they were safe and Richard meant her and her family no harm. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

She remained at large until February 1487 when she was sent to a nunnery. By Henry VII. Under Richard she was free, under Henry she was not.

The repealing of the Titulus Regius by Henry was to legitimise his wife, Elizabeth of York. It was not read, and every known copy was destroyed. No one was to know the contents. Odd. If you want to refute something you argue against it long and hard. Or not.

Because in legitimising Elizabeth, Henry also, by default, legitimised Prince Edward, making him King Edward V of England, and his brother Richard his rightful heir.

So, who had most to fear from the boys? Richard? Parliament granted him the crown. He didn’t need to kill the boys, they were already neutralised. Or Henry, who by making his wife legitimate had also created a powerful rival for the crown? And if the boys were dead, murdered by Richard, where was the harm in reading the Titulus Regius and then arguing against every point of it? Except of course that also put your wife ahead of you as rightful heir.

Richard, visiting the British
Museum, pretending
not to notice the crowds
When Richard took the throne there were nine potential heirs to it, including his deceased elder brother George’s son who was barred from the throne by the attainder of his father. When Richard died there were still nine heirs. Henry systematically removed them, including Richard’s illegitimate son John, and those that he didn’t get around to, Henry VIII, his son, dealt with. The death of two little boys was abhorrent tragedy; the wholesale wiping out of a dynasty to apparently achieve the very same ends was shrewd politics…

The content in Tey might be put forward in too black and white a form, doesn’t allow for the nuances, maybe she didn’t know of the nuances we now place on the evidence, the novel was written in the 1950s, but the basics are pretty reliable. You can’t escape that there was no specific accusation against Richard before Henry came to the throne, even from the boys’ mother. You can’t escape that Henry had no claim to the throne, and Richard’s was always better, murdered nephews or not.

So, why does every history book state unequivocally that Richard killed his nephews and that Henry VII was just and good and was taking the crown that was his by right? How did we reach a situation where the entire accepted history is bunkum and we rely almost solely on the writings of an Elizabethan playwright for the gospel truth? Should we therefore take as fact that all spies act like James Bond? That there really is a small country in the Alps called Roma Nova? And have you actually tried to enter into a parallel world by pushing a trolley through the wall to reach platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross?

If we read and believe the Tudor version of Richard, are we not also continuing to endorse the place of fake news in the world, encouraging it even? Why is the story of Richard killing his nephews less outrageous than the Pope endorsing Trump?

Fake news stories use drama, hyperbole and outrage to attract readers, clicks on Facebook.

And if you saw a headline stating ‘Twisted celebrity slaughters innocents in quest for power’ you’d read it.

I am very grateful for the help of Matt Lewis, author of several books about Richard III and more recently Henry III. Find out more about him here.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Books of Power

I happened upon a blog post this week via Twitter, which I find to be an Aladdin's Cave of tidbits and gems that you would otherwise never know existed had someone else not re-tweeted them. And this post really got me thinking. You can find it here and do please have a look.

Library at Trinity, Dublin.
This is how I envisage the Library of Babel.
Borges' version has hexagonal galleries.

If you don't have time now, that's fine but do come back. The writer of this post, Chris Rose, chooses five books that have had the most influence on him.

For a reader that is an enticing thought - which, of all the books I have ever read, have had the most influence on me?

When I started to think about this, I wanted to qualify that phrase 'influence on me'. In what way? Influenced me to write? To read more? To research? Or just one that remains with me, a favourite?

If I were to choose my favourite books, they would probably include some of the same in this list, but there would be differences. I admit that at least one of the books on my own personal 'influence' list would not necessarily make it to my desert island with me. And there are those that I would have with me on the golden sands under the white heat of the sun that I wouldn't say influenced me.

So, what did I pick to be on my list? I have to warn you that you won't find any classics here, and probably only one of these would ever make it onto a list of required reading. But what influences us need not be high brow, literary and intellectual, but can be more humble and have no motive other than to entertain.

And so, here goes, and in no particular order:

The Wild Hunt by Elizabeth Chadwick

This novel more than any other showed me that it was possible for a medieval romance to be more than ripped bodices and hysteria. The melodrama in most historical romances that I had read up to finding this novel was overwhelming, and they were filled with over-the-top characters who could not decide if they wanted to be strong and in charge or happy to swoon in front of the handsome man. The characters in this novel behaved rationally and were somehow more serene and yet still vital and engaging. This first published novel by Chadwick was an eye-opener.

Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

This volume of short stories I read in Spanish and actually I never did get round to reading it in English. I have two volumes of his, but most of the stories I like are in this one.

'The Library of Babel' discusses the existence of an eternal and infinite library in which there is one volume each of every possible combination of letters, so it will include the works of Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and yet it will have a volume that is entirely devoid of print. And another with just one letter, and another with just one letter, but on a different page.

'Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote' is rather bizarre but I think it should be required reading. The story is a critique on two books - 'Don Quixote' by Cervantes and 'Don Quixote' by Pierre Menard, a modern writer who set out to write Don Quixote and wrote an identical book to that of Cervantes. But the critic reads the two volumes differently. He likes Cervantes' version, it is true to his time and he believes what he writes. However, the Menard version, a word-for-word reconstruction, is full of affectation and anachronism and yet its ambiguity renders it richer than Cervantes' version. 

The story's intention is to explain that you have to take into account the motive and mindset of the writer to understand and appreciate the writing. It explains why 'Carry On' films are still so funny and yet so very un-PC, and why the newest version, 'Carry On Columbus', didn't work although we still laugh uproariously at 'Carry On Up The Khyber' and 'Carry On Doctor'. 'Columbus' was inescapably a product of its time, and time had moved on.

The Fifth Quarter by Kim Chesher

I salute you if you have heard of this. I really do! I found this in my school library and I was addicted. I photocopied a version I asked the local library to find me some years later so I could keep it as it was many years out of print, and then I managed to obtain a copy through Amazon Marketplace. So I am now legal!

This book was written for teens but don't let that put you off, it is well written and sensitively written. There is only one glaring error, but I am happy to overlook it. I won't tell you what, find a copy and read it for yourself. It introduced me to smugglers on Romney Marsh and the 'what if' of history. Now we know what happened to the Dauphin during the French Revolution, remains have been found and DNA used to identify them. He was likely murdered, certainly he died. But when this novel was written that wasn't known, and it was quite possible to imagine that he turned up on Romney Marsh. The title of the novel comes from the belief that there were four quarters of the Earth, and then Romney Marsh, the fifth quarter.

Brother Cadfael's Penance by Ellis Peters

All the Brother Cadfael books are brilliant. So to choose just one should be tricky. But it isn't. This particular volume is a little different from the others. Cadfael leaves the enclave of Shrewsbury, where most of the other books take place, to seek out his son who has fallen into the hands of an enemy, Philip FitzRobert, one who had been his friend. It isn't the story as such, although it is an absolute delight and is a sequel to my other favourite, The 'Virgin In The Ice', but it is the stunning narrative, the descriptive passages, particularly how she portrays this enemy of Cadfael's son Olivier. They are mostly single sentences that are so carefully structured that they illuminate his character more perfectly than another author could do with a whole page. Whenever I am at a loss I turn to this novel and I always find inspiration. If I could write like anyone who has ever put pen to paper, it would be Ellis Peters.

And finally....

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

This was not the first of her novels that I read, that honour goes to 'The Sunne in Splendour', the longest novel I have ever read and the only one I have ever fetched from the library in hardback whilst owning the softback because of the sheer size of it had to be seen to be believed.

No, this was not vast in size, but it was vast in its effect on me. For this one single book was the sole reason for my choice of university.

This is the story of Llywelyn Fawr, a Welsh Prince who is one of those wonderful characters who lived a life less ordinary. For me, Penman's portrayal will always be the real Llywelyn. Even after having studied him under the two most eminent Welsh history professors of their (and my) time. I knew nothing of the history of Wales before this and studying at the only Welsh History department in the UK merely filled in the gaps, so thorough was Penman's research and writing. Strangely enough 'The Reckoning', the novel she wrote about Llywelyn the Last, Llywelyn Fawr's grandson, didn't have such a lasting impression, although the man himself did.

As I said earlier, these may not necessarily count as my favourite books (Cadfael has been read too many times to be counted, as has The Fifth Quarter) but however much I like 'Pride and Prejudice' or the character of Anne Elliott in 'Persuasion', they haven't changed me. I suppose my soul is richer for having read them, but they didn't alter my trajectory or change my understanding of the world as these books have.

Now I've told you mine, tell me about yours. What books set you on a different path? Which writer changed your life?

Friday, 28 October 2016

When is a henge not a henge?

Civilisation 6 came out about a week ago. Civ, as it is known, has a massive following because it is the most sophisticated game of its type. Yes, you wage war with archers, cannon and nuclear weapons, but you can also win a diplomatic victory, seal trade agreements, found religions, cultures and Wonders.

One of these wonders is a henge. And that is where the confusion starts.

Because when we hear the word 'henge' we automatically think of Stonehenge. I mean, why wouldn't we, it has the word 'henge' in it after all. 

And yet, it isn't a henge.

Confused? I'm not surprised.

OK - this is really simple.

A henge is a prehistoric monument created for ritual purposes, and as if to underline these ritualistic motives, it is purposely built the wrong way round.

Think on this - you build an earthwork structure to defend yourself. You want to make life as difficult as you can for an attacker. So, you build a ditch and a bank. Defensively you build the ditch on the outside, and the bank inside because then any attacker coming from outside has to descend the ditch and then scale the bank.

Let's say you dig a ditch around the outside of your settlement to a depth of 2m. The spoil goes inside the ditch, into your settlement, and you use it to create a bank. Anyone attacking you faces a ditch and a bank. The ditch is 2 metres deep. The bank is 2 metres high. That is a combined difference of 4 metres: 2 metres down, climb back up those same 2 metres, and then scale a bank of 2 metres. That's defensive.

Now reverse that. You build a monument. You build a ditch 2 metres deep. You use the spoil to build a bank, outside the ditch. Anyone coming to your monument goes up a bank of 2 metres. Then they descend 4 metres, easy, and then up another 2 metres. The downward run would carry them most of the way up the 2 metres bank. Not defensive. 

So, a henge is a reverse of a defensive ditch earthwork.

And just to be sure, let's have a look at first Stonehenge:

And now Avebury, a true hengiform monument: 

See the difference?

Now you know conclusively what a henge is.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Memories - the true archives of History

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living – Cicero (106 – 43 BC)

What are your earliest memories? What are they about? Are you three or four years old? Are you on holiday by the seaside, with a grandparent, long passed?  Or at school? We all have memories of childhood, some bad, mostly good, I hope. Mine are. Our memories are our sense of self, the who, the what, the why and the when.  Without memories we would never pass exams at school, we’d forget friends' birthdays, family events, we wouldn’t be popular! And we wouldn’t know who we are.

We have different kinds of memory, long term, short term. Our memory works in very odd ways. We have a momentary memory – that ability to look at your watch, process what it means to you, and then have to look five seconds later when someone asks for the time. And yet we can still recall moments, textures, sounds and smells from the very beginning of our lives, which for some of us are longer ago than others. I walk into a room and forget why I was there, yet I can recall the moment at two years of age that I dropped a cup of scalding coffee down my front.

But what are memories? Where are they collected and stored? In our heads, yes, in our brains. In the limbic system, our mammalian brain near the olfactory lobe, linking memory and smell and emotion so very closely, and all controlled by the neocortex. But is that all?

DNA strands
Doctors don’t actually understand memory. They can say that here and here are where in the brain memory is stored, but they cannot say for certain. In some people memories have been lost due to damage to the brain material through injury of one kind of another and when other parts of the brain are stimulated, parts that are not thought to have anything to do with memory storage, memories return. So if memories can be stored in possibly an infinite number of places in the brain, why not other parts of the body?

OK – this sounds a bit weird, but let’s think about this.  The blueprint for everything we are, hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, every detail, is DNA.  And if we are our memories, why could DNA not store memory?

Tybalt and Mercutio face up in
Romeo and Juliet, photo by
Dee Conway for ROH
People talk of collective memory, a group of people, communities, nations, who all feel the same way, act the same way under a given set of circumstances. Is that passed on in DNA through families? Is this why some family feuds won’t die, the Capulets and the Montagues? Could long-held prejudices also be passed down, through this collective DNA memory - the age-old dislike that persists between the French and English? How often have you heard the phrase ‘It’s in our DNA’?

When we have children they have DNA from both the mother and the father. That could mean that every child has a collection of memories passed on through both sides of their family. Everything that ever was in that bloodline is distilled into each child, and they in turn pass that on.

Now, I’m not talking about solid exam-passing memory here, but the fleeting kind, the dream that leaves little more than a feeling and sense of maybe what was. It makes sense that this memory, this feeling, could direct our actions, our likes, dislikes, career choices.  It could be that someone who loves Romans had an ancestor who had a really good life as a Roman and the memory that persists from then is stronger for it and lingers. It could therefore be that someone who has no particular liking for history but maybe science, may find an ancestor for whom science was a passion, or who liked to understand how the world works. The setting was not important, only the substance.

But if we DO carry memory in the DNA, doesn’t this explain past life regression? We haven’t ‘lived’ before, we are recalling lives lived in the past, the details of which are merely more vividly recalled. Just as sometimes that dream doesn’t fade but remains as clear as a movie, in glorious Technicolor and surround sound.

William the Conqueror, medieval
Marmite - love him or hate him?
For us history people it could explain why some people are passionate about certain eras and with a certain lack of logic, loathe certain people from history.  Maybe someone who hates William the Conqueror has an ancestor who faced him at Hastings. Or someone who adores King John had a relative who was on the receiving end of his lesser known but equally powerful generosity.

Take me – from family legend and my family name, we came from Brittany and first came to England in 1066 in the company of Count Alan. If this is the case then it is pretty fair to say that until we left to travel to war, we lived in Brittany and probably didn’t stray too far, meaning that we would have always have been Bretons. Which could take us as far back as the era of Vercingetorix. And if an ancestor had lived through that rebellion, that would be a perfect cause for hating the Romans, and yet maybe loving the beauty of Rome the city, a place that would be an unimaginable futuristic fantasy for a rural Breton captured and brought to Rome. Such traumatic and pivotal events would leave a trace.  And if the men of the family did cross to England with Count Alan, chances are they were excited about going on an adventure, relieved to have won against the barbaric Anglo Saxons, delighted to receive rewards from their master, all good reasons to feel pleased with themselves.

A gallant King Edward III
And all this may explain why I was utterly enthralled when I began to investigate the king who fought and won at Crécy. Did an ancestor know Edward III? Did they fight on the Crécy campaign under his command, a sailor at Sluys maybe, or merely an admiring lady at whom he may once have bestowed a fleeting smile that meant little to him, and all to her? (Perhaps this explains my intense distaste for Alice Perrers). Maybe it is merely because, as Dr Ian Mortimer holds, if you can trace your family back to England before the steam train allowed widespread travel options and migration around the country, you are around 80 - 95% likely to be a descendant of Edward III. That is a beguiling thought.

We don’t have strong feelings for all eras and times, just some - a love of Anglo Saxons, and a detestation of Victorians, but maybe Queen Anne leaves us feeling, well, nothing really. And I would like to hypothesise that the reason for this is that, as we do in our own lives, we forget the boring and uneventful, and recall just one or two, maybe three major events from the past  which were memorable, for good or bad reasons. We may be predisposed as humans to forget pain – and thus allow us ladies to have more than one child – but the fear is there, and that is not forgotten. But the mundane, the average, the tedious, that passes quickly from memory and we dwell either on the very bad or the good. And so it may be with DNA memory.

Queen, err, who? Oh,
yes,Queen Anne
Another aspect to this subject to consider is instinct. Instinct is passed on from mother to child, and that must be housed in DNA. Instinct tells the heart to start beating. Instinct tells a baby to breathe when it is born. Instinct tells a calf it has to stand shortly after. No one teaches this behaviour, it is natural, and through evolution, passed from one animal on to the next and to the next.  Instinct comes from a behaviour that was exhibited by one animal that gave it an advantage over another and was thus passed on because that animal survived, when the other did not. That is evolution.  And so is instinct, therefore, any more than a memory? And if instinct is stored in DNA (how else can any animal act before it can communicate?) why then should not memories of the lives, loves, likes and dislikes, of our ancestors also be encapsulated in DNA?

But, I hear you cry, why don’t we have identical feelings on subjects to our parents and our siblings, cousins, aunts? If we share a collective memory, why do we not feel the same way? Well, one explanation is that we all remember things differently – you can ask ten people who saw the same event what they saw and get ten differing versions. We each have a personality and we each will place more or less weight on different things. And maybe we treasure different memories, value different aspects of it. Maybe our upbringing influences what we recall, what we pay attention to and what we ignore.

Until scientists can pinpoint exactly where in our bodies we store memories, the theory that it is stored in our DNA can’t be disproved. And if instinct can direct our actions so forcefully, why cannot these other DNA memories make us like, love or loathe?

Now, where did I leave my crown?

Friday, 13 May 2016

Edward III – the Perfect Leader?

I need little excuse to extol the many virtues of Edward III, I really don’t.  But I was rather surprised when I researched for my day job into the topic of leadership skills and came to the conclusion that if you need an example of a great leader, Edward fulfils almost every criteria, constraints of Medieval technology and lack of email allowing.

I was looking into the subject of what makes a great leader and if you look on the internet there are lists and lists and lists of attributes that people believe makes one a good leader.  It appears to depend very much on who you ask what the answer to the question of ‘what makes a leader?’ turns out to be, if the respondent is a leader themselves, a subordinate or the boss of a leader, and yes, leaders do have bosses.  What the board are looking for in appointing a new leader is very different to what those who report to a leader want to see.

There are common themes however, that all agree to varying degrees.  Leaders communicate well.  They develop people.  They allow others to take the credit. They lead by example.  Leaders also inspire, are charismatic, are excellent at managing people.  They have clear foresight. They innovate and they see beyond themselves and strive for something greater than they are.

So what does all this look like in practice?  Well, that is really easy – just look at Edward.

Communication – well, this is not the easiest to deal with so let’s get it out of the way first. Communication in Medieval Europe was not what it is now.  Communicating with someone in southern France could take months. Now it takes as long as it takes you to write an email and hit the Send button.  So to what extent can we say Edward was a great communicator?  Did he communicate?

He could read and write, and he used communiqués for his own uses, and he used his own code.  Between 1327 and 1330 when he was under virtual house arrest, he added a line of text, ‘Pater Sancte,’ to those letters to the pope that were directly from him and not from Roger Mortimer. These letters are in the papal archives still.

Edward's code clearly visible in an unprofessional hand, beneath the formal, neat and even official script
He certainly understood the value of communication and he understood the need to standardise language. He decreed in 1362 that English should be the language of Law instead of French to that the average non-French speaking Englishman could understand the law.

Battle of Sluys from Froissart
Develop people / allow others to take credit – this is an area in which Edward excelled.  A great leader will collect together a pool of talent to get things done. Churchill did this with his wartime 
coalition government drawing on the best of all parties. Edward did the same thing.  He used talent where he found it. He was wise enough to know where he had skill gaps and he filled them where he could.  In 1333 the notorious pirate John Crabbe was captured in Berwick having fought on the behalf of the Scots.  He had a long history of pillaging and plundering on the high seas, and the lower ones far closer to the English coast, and harrying English merchants, murdering their crew and stealing their cargo. Edward II sent many letters demanding restitution from the count of Flanders who was assumed to be directing his actions.  However, despite having very much deserved it, Edward did not hang him.  Edward was just twenty at the time, but he was already aware that John Crabbe could be useful.  So he paid his gaoler Walter Manny £1000 for his custody and promptly pardoned him and brought him into his household.  He managed castles, prisoners, ships, archers, anything that needed to be done that he could do he did, including using his knowledge of sailing at the battle of Sluys in 1340.

Similar was the fate of one Aimeric de Pavia, a Genoese soldier and sailor who survived the siege of Calais on the French side but served Edward for the rest of his life as captain of the king’s galleys.  When the famous knight Geoffrey de Charny contacted de Pavia in 1348 to bribe him to hand over Calais, Aimeric appeared to accept but sent word straight to Edward allowing him to launch an ambush on the Frenchman and saved Calais.  Aimeric sadly paid for this act with his life.  A few years later de Charny captured him and hanged him.

Here Geoffrey de Charny, left, confronts
Edward, in the red with lions, fighting
under the banner of Walter Manny
That ambush at Calais illustrates another point about Edward, how he was happy to let others take the credit. He and his son Edward of Woodstock, later the Black Prince, travelled to Calais to counter the de Charny threat, with several men and soldiers, in disguise as merchants.  Edward was very much in command.  However, once the fighting started he joined the fray, not under his own banner, but under Walter Manny’s.  It was something he often did in tournaments and games, rather than fight under his own colours, he would join the ranks of one of his friends.

Lead by example – this one is easy – he fought with his armies as was expected of a king of those times.  He fought personally at Sluys and was wounded in the leg, immobilising him for two weeks and ruining a pair of boots.  He probably saw little fighting himself at Crecy but at the crossing of the Somme it was he who personally managed the crossing of the baggage train while others fought the French on the other side of the river.  He was in reserve at Crecy itself, but his son was in the vanguard so it was obvious to all that he had invested a great deal in the battle.  He fought personally at Winchelsea and nearly drowned when his ship was sunk under him.  As we have already seen, he fought at Calais. 

Fascinating 3D scans of the tunnels under
Nottingham castle leading into the town
I really don’t need to go into how he inspired his men or how charismatic he was.  People liked him.  His wife was dippy about him: an anecdote included by Froissart that must have come from her or someone close to her spoke of how she cried when he had to leave after they met for the first time, in Hainault.  In 1330 it was not Edward himself who captured Mortimer, but his friends who had entered Nottingham Castle via secret passages – and they did it solely for him.  Mortimer was an able administrator and those who served Edward himself would have done perfectly well without Edward, but they chose to first put themselves in danger in front of Mortimer when he confronted a suspected plot and then to act directly against him.  Back to Calais in 1349 he only had to lift his helm from his head and show his face to  make others fight for him and to discourage the French from fighting against him.

Foresight and innovation – Edward again had these qualities in spades.  In wartime he saw the potential of archers.  The strength of an archer lay in their ability to attack from a safe distance – projectile warfare.  Yes, the famous Genoese crossbowmen also did this, and from the behind the safety of their pavisses.   But although they had a similar range, possibly a slightly longer range, they were slow to reload.  They were utterly out-gunned by the English.

Another of Edward’s wartime innovations were cannon and ribalds.  There is debate over how effective these weapons actually were, if they did more than merely make a bit of a racket, but I believe that is beside the point.  They were there, for the first time, at Crecy under the command of Edward.  Someone had to do it, had to try, and it was him.  As they say, a good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

In peacetime he innovated as well.  He owned a clock just a few years after they were perfected in Italy. He had hot and cold running water at three of his palaces.

By whatever criteria you wish to use, Edward measures up pretty well if not excellently.  Sadly we do not have enough of his personal thoughts and feelings and the detail that we have for more recent leaders to judge if he consciously tried to be a great leader or whether he was a lucky combination of genes.  Can he then further the understanding of whether a leader is truly born or if it is a skill that can be learned? Considering how his father embodied a great number of behaviours of poor leadership regardless of whether he was a good man or not, which is not under discussion here, does not help – was Edward acting deliberately, or was he just a natural where his father was just not? 

An unusually flattering image of Edward I, but
was he really a 'git'?!
Edward I, his grandfather, is accepted as being a great leader, who displayed many of the skills that his grandson was to, but he was rather insular in his thoughts and his actions were motivated more by personal ego than the greater good. In a seminar session in my third year at uni a fellow student shocked the modern historians present with her judgement on Edward I – that he did what he did because he was, and I quote dear Amelia, ‘a git.’  Whatever motive Edward III had for going to war, the country benefited.  His decisions were designed for the benefit of England, and not solely himself. 

Let’s have a look at two of those now.

Edward went to war with France because he claimed he was the rightful heir.  That the French changed the law to prevent him inheriting suggests that he was onto something.  But, as kings of England before him had, he owed fealty for lands held in France, left-overs of the Angevin Empire.  He was therefore subordinate to the French king, and if that is extrapolated, so was England. Philip VI even made comments to this effect. So, Edward claimed the throne through his mother and as a declared claimant he could not be subordinate to the French king for lands that he held in France. He elevated himself from a mere disruptive vassal to an equal. England was taken entirely out of the equation, as was any land he held in France, such as Calais that he declared was not part of any discussion while he laid siege to it. Clever.

Another of his actions was the sumptuary laws.  It was Edward who declared that certain strata of society should not wear certain fabrics.  It was not a status-based law but a monetary-based one, designed so that overly-competitive merchants or others would not bankrupt themselves and their families in competing with the Jones family across the way.  Seen as a way of constraining lower social classes, it was meant as a protective measure – if you could afford it, great; if not, don’t.  Sound advice, even now.  I have not done any research into this particular area but laws designed to limit a person’s ability to bankrupt themselves, and their families, through unwise expenditure, was also being examined in Bohemia at the same time. Was this a mid-fourteenth century concern or a happy coincidence?

So, can we answer the question of whether leaders are born of created, just by looking at Edward?  He seems to be a little of both.  His abilities had to have been innate to be so well honed at such a young age.  Such perfection cannot be learned, not in the toxic atmosphere that Edward found himself in as a teenager.  Had he turned out to be a tyrant there would have been little surprise.  And some of it had to be a reaction to seeing what the consequences were of getting it so badly wrong, having witnessed everything that had happened to his father.  A lesser man with less support would have allowed the likes of Mortimer to continue, using it as a fabulous excuse for inaction.  But that was not what Edward was.  For the measures taken by Mortimer and Isabella in those last few months, Edward’s mother taking personal hold of the keys to Nottingham castle, Mortimer’s questioning of Edward’s household in front of him that sparked the whole rebellion, suggest very much that Edward was not to be trifled with, suggest that the ruling couple had good reason for their caution.

Edward was not perfect. No one is.  Much of what he did is held up to criticism, and probably rightly so. Remember, however, that the great Winston Churchill was voted out of government twice in his illustrious career and at one time Nelson Mandela believed that violence was a legitimate form of protest. Imperfections and failures can make a person a great success.

Born or created, it doesn't really matter. A great leader is a great leader, whether they are naturals or strive to overcome their own personal shortcomings. That the best turned their talents to the greater good makes them more extraordinary. And for Edward to embody all of this makes him exceptional.