As a specific genre, the historical novel is only about two centuries old. Historical fiction in the wider sense, though, is at least as old as the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, the narrative books of the Old Testament, Beowulf — the earliest literature of every people is historical fiction. The past is interesting. It’s glamorous and exciting. Perspective allows us to forget that the past, like the present, was mostly long patches of boredom or anxiety, mixed in with occasional moments of catastrophe or bliss. Above all, it’s about us.
Have you ever stared at old family pictures, and had the feeling that you were looking into a mirror? I have a photograph of a great uncle, who was an old man before I was born. I never knew him well. But in that picture, taken when he was about fifteen, he has my ears and eyes, and he’s hugging himself and looking just as complacent as I often do. I have a picture of one of my grandmothers, taken about the year 1916 — she’s photographed against a background of flags and Dreadnoughts. She looks astonishingly like my daughter. It’s only natural that I want to know about them. I want to know what they were thinking and doing, and I want to know about their general circumstances.
For most people, even now, family history comes to a dead end about three generations back. But we are also members of nations, and what we can’t know about our immediate ancestors we want to know about our ancestors in general. You can take the here and now just as it is. But the moment you start asking why things are as they are, you have to investigate the past.
Why do men wear collars and ties and jackets with buttons that often don’t and can’t do up? It’s because our own formal clothing stands in a direct line from the English and French court dress of the late 17th century. Why do we talk of “toeing the line?” It’s because in 19th century state schools, children would have to stand on a chalked line to read to the class. Why does the British fiscal year for individuals start on the 6th April? It’s because, until 1752, we used the Julian Calendar, which was eleven days behind the more accurate Gregorian Calendar; and the first day of the year was the 25th March. Lord Chesterfield’s Act standardised us with Scotland and much of Europe, and moved the first day of the year back to January — but the fiscal year, adjusted for the new calendar, was left unchanged.
Why was Ireland, until recently, so devoutly Catholic? Because the Catholic Church was the one great institution of Irish life that could be neither abolished nor co-opted by their British rulers. Why is the Church losing its hold? Because it is no longer needed for its old purpose. The child sex scandals are only a secondary cause. History tells us who we are. We may feel trapped by it. We may glory in it. We can’t ignore it.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.
October 20, 2016
August 19, 2016
Published on 30 Jul 2016
Bishops. Manuscripts. Pilgrimage. Wealth. In 793 CE, the island monastery of Lindisfarne thrived in a state of harmony. Then, everything changed when the Viking raiders attacked. Once they discovered Europe’s weakness, not even mighty kings like Charlemagne could stop them. They transformed their power at sea into an avenue for conquest and expansion: the Viking Age had begun.
Troubling omens were recorded in Lindisfarne prior to the Viking invasion on June 8, 793 CE. It was the seat of the bishop for much of Northeastern Britain. Monks in the scriptorium produced some of the most celebrated illustrated manuscripts, and abroad they helped convert the pagans of Britain. Lindisfarne had been the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, so pilgrims often came and enriched the priory and the town. It never occurred to anyone that when strange ships appeared on the horizon, that they might be hostile. The men who disembarked were fierce, unknown, and merciless. They cut down monks in the churches and looted the church… then left. Bishop Higbald survived, and sent the news across Europe. From there, the frequency of raids only increased and raged across all of Europe. The burgeoning flame of Lindisfarne was almost snuffed out. It was the first time in history that the reach of Christianity shrank, rather than expanded. But what about the other side of the story? These “barbarians,” who would become known as Vikings, were striking back at a culture that looked down on them, insulted their faith, and tried to swindle them at trade. They had realized how poorly defended these both the British Isles and mainland Europe were, and how rich they were in fertile land. They put their vast knowledge of shipcraft to work and turned trading routes into raiding routes, finding new lands for them to settle. The Viking Age had begun.
July 4, 2016
John Kay discusses the differences between the English anti-EU vote and the Scottish anti-English vote:
As a schoolboy in Edinburgh, I was taught that, long before the union with England, Scotland had been a cosmopolitan country. The ports on the east coast showed the influence of trade with the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League. The Scots language demonstrated continental influences. The citizens of Edinburgh would shout “gardyloo”, supposedly from the French “gare de l’eau”, before throwing their slops into the streets from the windows of the tall tenements of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Even then, this example of early Scots sophistication did not convince. And the claim that their vote to stay in the EU — all districts of Scotland voted Remain in the referendum, and 62 per cent of the nation’s voters as a whole voted to stay in the EU — is the product of a broad-minded outlook not seen south of the border also misses a crucial point.
The reality is that the discontent with established politics that erupted in the Leave vote elsewhere in the country has found expression in other ways. As one student of Scottish politics, explaining the UK Independence party’s lack of traction north of the border, put it to me two years ago: “People in Scotland who are disgruntled and suspicious of foreigners [the English] already have a party they can vote for.”
The fracturing of the opposition Labour party’s traditional support in depressed areas of the north of England, which was decisive in securing an Out vote, paralleled the collapse of Labour’s vote in the west of Scotland in favour of the Scottish National party in the general election of 2015.
The great achievement of the SNP, now in government in Holyrood and with MPs in Westminster, has been to be a party of protest and a party of government at the same time. This is an achievement Brexiters will find hard to emulate.
June 12, 2016
In The New Yorker, Charlotte Higgins describes the Bronze Age archaeological dig near Peterborough in the fens:
… from time to time, the soil pushes up clues, particularly in the fens, where the waterlogged earth creates anaerobic conditions that slow decay. One summer day in 1999, a local archeologist was walking at Must Farm, along the edge of a disused clay pit; at one time it was filled with water, but the water level had dropped enough to reveal some wooden stakes poking out. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which operates out of the university, an hour’s drive away, did some exploratory work and found, through radiocarbon dating, that the material dated from about 900 B.C. The site was monitored for several years, until Historic England, a government agency devoted to preserving the country’s heritage, began to press for it to be properly excavated. Last September, with funding from Historic England and the brick-making company Forterra, a team of about a dozen archeologists went to work.
Each day, they are making discoveries that are radically expanding the knowledge of Bronze Age Britain. The site is unparalleled in the U.K. for its wealth of artifacts and the pristine state of their preservation. Three thousand years ago, it was a settlement of wooden roundhouses, but life there ended abruptly: a fire tore through it, and the buildings collapsed, sank into the marshland, and were quickly entombed by silt and mud. “In archeology, very occasionally, there is the feeling that you have turned up just a week too late, that the people who were here have just moved on,” Mark Knight, the archeologist in charge of excavation at Must Farm, told me when I visited for a day in April. “This site has that feeling to it. Normally in Britain, when you dig, three thousand years of history seems manifest in the remains, because the most you tend to find is a few postholes and a potsherd. Here, somehow, the time span feels short. It’s so intact, so three-dimensional.” Inevitably, perhaps, the site has been nicknamed the Pompeii of Peterborough.
We stood on a low rise, and in the dip below us was a white tent about a quarter the size of a football field, erected to cover the archeological site and keep it from drying out in the harsh East Anglian wind. Knight led me down a path toward it. At the top of the slope, marking the present day, were fragments of bricks, rejects from the nearby factory. Farther down, he indicated a dark layer of earth. “This is Iron Age peat,” he said. And a few steps later: “This is where the sea came in, in the early Roman period, the first century A.D.” As we approached the tent, he said, “Now we’re down into the period where we’re excavating, around 900 B.C.—river channels. Can you see the shells of freshwater mussels?” Inside the tent, the excavation was being conducted two metres below the surface; had we been able to continue down another eighteen metres, to the level of the base of the quarry, we would have arrived at the Jurassic, a hundred and forty-five million years earlier.
From a viewing platform, we could look down on the whole excavation: a large, muddy, roughly rectangular area from which a number of wooden stakes poked up. Gradually, some of the stakes resolved themselves into the shape of a palisade that had once encircled the whole settlement. Inside this enclosure, I could make out individual objects—a human skull, the spine of a horse, something that looked like a woven-willow fence, the lips of pots, all half-buried. “There are some bowls,” Knight said. “There’s a wooden platter. There’s a big wooden trough. Over there, a storage vessel.”
Also within the perimeter of the palisade were three large shapes, each comprising a number of wooden rafters radiating unevenly outward from a central point, like the spokes of a broken umbrella. These were the collapsed roofs of the roundhouses. Several archeologists were working on excavating a fourth. They had already lifted and removed its roof timbers and were uncovering the dwelling’s contents, now compressed by three millennia of mud. They scraped with their trowels methodically, emptying the dirt into buckets that would later be sifted for small finds. One researcher, who looked to be in his twenties, wore a sweatshirt with the words “MY FUTURE LIES IN RUINS.”
May 7, 2016
The Borderers are usually called “the Scots-Irish”, but Fischer dislikes the term because they are neither Scots (as we usually think of Scots) nor Irish (as we usually think of Irish). Instead, they’re a bunch of people who lived on (both sides of) the Scottish-English border in the late 1600s.
None of this makes sense without realizing that the Scottish-English border was terrible. Every couple of years the King of England would invade Scotland or vice versa; “from the year 1040 to 1745, every English monarch but three suffered a Scottish invasion, or became an invader in his turn”. These “invasions” generally involved burning down all the border towns and killing a bunch of people there. Eventually the two sides started getting pissed with each other and would also torture-murder all of the enemy’s citizens they could get their hands on, ie any who were close enough to the border to reach before the enemy could send in their armies. As if this weren’t bad enough, outlaws quickly learned they could plunder one side of the border, then escape to the other before anyone brought them to justice, so the whole area basically became one giant cesspool of robbery and murder.
In response to these pressures, the border people militarized and stayed feudal long past the point where the rest of the island had started modernizing. Life consisted of farming the lands of whichever brutal warlord had the top hand today, followed by being called to fight for him on short notice, followed by a grisly death. The border people dealt with it as best they could, and developed a culture marked by extreme levels of clannishness, xenophobia, drunkenness, stubbornness, and violence.
By the end of the 1600s, the Scottish and English royal bloodlines had intermingled and the two countries were drifting closer and closer to Union. The English kings finally got some breathing room and noticed – holy frick, everything about the border is terrible. They decided to make the region economically productive, which meant “squeeze every cent out of the poor Borderers, in the hopes of either getting lots of money from them or else forcing them to go elsewhere and become somebody else’s problem”. Sometimes absentee landlords would just evict everyone who lived in an entire region, en masse, replacing them with people they expected to be easier to control.
Many of the Borderers fled to Ulster in Ireland, which England was working on colonizing as a Protestant bulwark against the Irish Catholics, and where the Crown welcomed violent warlike people as a useful addition to their Irish-Catholic-fighting project. But Ulster had some of the same problems as the Border, and also the Ulsterites started worrying that the Borderer cure was worse than the Irish Catholic disease. So the Borderers started getting kicked out of Ulster too, one thing led to another, and eventually 250,000 of these people ended up in America.
250,000 people is a lot of Borderers. By contrast, the great Puritan emigration wave was only 20,000 or so people; even the mighty colony of Virginia only had about 50,000 original settlers. So these people showed up on the door of the American colonies, and the American colonies collectively took one look at them and said “nope”.
Except, of course, the Quakers. The Quakers talked among themselves and decided that these people were also Children Of God, and so they should demonstrate Brotherly Love by taking them in. They tried that for a couple of years, and then they questioned their life choices and also said “nope”, and they told the Borderers that Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley were actually kind of full right now but there was lots of unoccupied land in Western Pennsylvania, and the Appalachian Mountains were very pretty at this time of year, so why didn’t they head out that way as fast as it was physically possible to go?
At the time, the Appalachians were kind of the booby prize of American colonization: hard to farm, hard to travel through, and exposed to hostile Indians. The Borderers fell in love with them. They came from a pretty marginal and unproductive territory themselves, and the Appalachians were far away from everybody and full of fun Indians to fight. Soon the Appalachian strategy became the accepted response to Borderer immigration and was taken up from Pennsylvania in the north to the Carolinas in the South (a few New Englanders hit on a similar idea and sent their own Borderers to colonize the mountains of New Hampshire).
So the Borderers all went to Appalachia and established their own little rural clans there and nothing at all went wrong except for the entire rest of American history.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Albion’s Seed“, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-27.
April 8, 2016
Published on 7 Apr 2016
As the other fronts are relatively quiet, the war is taken to the air. Zeppelins bombard Britain, the Italian and Austro-Hungarian air forces were fighting on the Italian Front and Greece was bombarded. The British and Greek civilians were now too casualties of this war with no end in sight. Though the Kaiser thinks the decision will be made at Verdun in the near future.
January 19, 2016
Matt Ridley on the legacy of Capability Brown:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
Frederick Law Olmsted laid out Central Park in New York in conscious emulation of Brown — as John Nash did with St James’s Park (Hyde Park is by Bridgeman). Golf courses nearly always pay unconscious homage to Brown. There is something deeply pleasing about a view of rolling grassland punctuated with clumps of low-branching trees and glimpses of distant water.
Mountains may have more majesty, forests more fear, deserts more danger, townscapes more detail, fields more fruitfulness, formal gardens more symmetry — but it is the informal English parkland of Capability Brown that you would choose for a picnic, or for a visit with a potential lover. It feels natural.
And yet of course it is wholly contrived. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters explains to another in his play Arcadia, as they contemplate the view of a park from a country house:
BERNARD: Lovely. The real England.
HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!
Hannah’s right. Claude Lorrain’s paintings of scenes from Virgil were all the rage in the 1730s. By the 1740s, when Brown started work at Stowe under William Kent, prints of 44 of Claude’s landscapes were on sale in London. The landscape at Stourhead (not by Brown), with its Grecian temples seen across lakes, is little more than a copy of Claude’s Aeneas at Delos. Kent’s genius, inspired by Lord Burlington and Alexander Pope, was to supply this craving for classical rural Arcadia.
The satirist Richard Cambridge joked that he wanted to die before Capability Brown so that he could see heaven before it was “improved”. In 2016 — the date of Brown’s birth is unknown; we have only the date of his baptism, August 30 — I shall raise a glass to a humbly born county boy, who mixed Northumberland with the Serengeti to produce Arcadia and gave us the archetypical English landscape.
July 22, 2015
At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait sings the praises of “an infirm hand on the tiller” during the War of the Roses:
For my point is that this royal “hand on the tiller” that Wilson says the country so much needed can sometimes be rather too firm.
Wilson is right that medieval civil war, or medieval war of any kind, could be a disaster to the wider society in which it happened. A routine military method in those days was for a retreating army to wreck the countryside, burning crops and killing livestock, in order to deny these resources to an advancing enemy. That this was a death sentence to whoever lived in this devastated area may have troubled the people who inflicted such horrors, but not enough to stop them doing it whenever they were told to. Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions an episode of just this sort, in which the King of Scotland inflicted just this horrible fate upon great swathes of Scotland, when he was faced with an invading English army. Those medieval wars between England and Scotland were not quite the nationalist confrontations that Anglo-Scottish wars later became. They were battles between aristocratic dynasties, between “families”, in the Godfather movies sense. Civilian populations were more prizes to be contested, to be owned or failing that denied to an enemy, than the ideologically enthused participants in the contest, as they became later, for instance in the seventeenth century.
But, on the whole, England’s Wars of the Rose, as they later came to be called, were not like this. These “wars” tended to consist of relatively small armies having sometimes very bloody battles with one another, but not, on the whole, creating all that much havoc for nearby civilians, apart from the unlucky civilians whose crops or animals had been on the actual battlefield.
So, what of that mercantile class which, in Wilson’s word, “emerged” at the same time as all of this rather low level fighting? He makes it sound like an unrelated coincidence. But might there not be an element of cause and effect in operation here? Was not the very fact that all this commerce, all this development of the wool trade, was “beyond politics” perhaps one of the key things that enabled it to “emerge”?
For many people, the mere possibility that the dynastic fights of the fifteenth century might degenerate, even if only in their immediate vicinity, into something more like the English — or worse, the German — civil wars of later times, was probably enough to make them believe, as Wilson believes, that a firm hand on the tiller would be preferable to rival hands flailing at each other. But in the meantime, it surely must have helped farmers — often farmers way off the beaten tracks of the contending English armies in places like East Anglia, and merchants, and speculators, and seafarers, that the aristocrats who might have taken command of their “emerging” arrangements, who, had they been all on the same side, might have brought them into politics, and if not ruined them then at least slowed them down quite severely, instead had other things on their minds. Basically, each other. What I am suggesting is that, from the commercial point of view, the Wars of the Roses might have been quite good wars, complicated enough to divert the attentions of aristocrats away from their usual anti-commercial meddlings, yet not too widespread in their destructive effect. That the Wars of the Rose were, for some, very bad wars, I do not contest.
June 26, 2015
As an atheist in good standing, I go to meetings every week, I’m suppose to scoff and keep directing my fire at something more vital to the modern world than the Anglican Church. Which would be pretty much everything at this point.
The Anglican Church, however, isn’t just another Christian sect, it is the official sect of the United Kingdom. Justin Welby, in theory, reports to God and the Queen. That’s a pretty posh set of bosses. Despite it’s compromised beginnings the C of E has been one of those bulwarks of English life that made England what it was. You can mock its theology, you can criticize its history yet, in its own remarkable way, it has basically worked. The manners and mores of the English speaking people have been profoundly influenced by the teachings of this church. Laugh if you want, but you’re laughing at one of the unacknowledged wellsprings of the Anglosphere.
This is deep culture stuff. Beneath the Rule of Law, Free Markets and Parliament stuff is manners and mores. It’s hard to explain really. The cadences of the language, the body language of the people and the basic decency of its public life. It’s impossible to imagine that somewhere, behind all of that, there is not some country vicar going about his business in an earnest fashion. There are thousands of Christian sects. This one helped established the culture of the modern world in a way unlike any other. Attention must be paid.
Richard Anderson, “Put A Hat On It”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-07-16.
May 27, 2015
Mark Steyn on the result of the British general election:
It would be churlish to deny oneself the pleasure of hooting at the politico-media establishment, but, when that’s done, this is a deeply unhealthy electoral result. The Conservatives won because Labour got wiped out in Scotland and the Liberals got wiped out in England. But the reality is that, for a supposedly United Kingdom, the country no longer has any national political party. England and Scotland have taken on the characteristics of Northern Ireland — hermetically sealed polities full of weird, unlovely regional parties (“SNP”, “Conservative”, “Labour”) that have no meaning once you cross the border, and whose internal disputes are of no relevance to the other three-quarters of the kingdom: Nobody outside Ulster cares about “official” Unionists vs the more red-blooded Democratic Unionists. And so it goes with the Scots Nats and Labour in Scotland: nationalist socialists vs unionist socialists; Likewise, with the Tories and UKIP in England: transnationalist conservatives vs nationalist conservatives.
Wales is the exception that proves the rule, where UKIP outpolled Plaid Cymru, albeit with no seats to show for it. The Scottish National Party got 4.7 per cent of the UK vote, and 56 seats. UKIP had nearly thrice as many voters — 12.6 per cent — but only one seat. That discrepancy is because there is no longer any such thing as “the UK vote”. I far prefer the Westminster first-past-the-post system to European “proportional representation”, but it only works if you have genuinely national parties. If the system decays into four groups of regional parties, the House of Commons will look less and less like a genuine national parliament, and more and more like some surly conditional arrangement — Scottish Kurds, Tory Shia and seething Labour Sunni triangles.
The composition of the new house would strike any mid-20th century Briton as freakish and unsettling. It’s a bit like Canada in the Nineties — where Reform couldn’t break out of the west, the Bloc Québécois dominated Quebec, the rump Tories clung on in the Atlantic provinces, and Ontario and a few seats hither and yon gave the Liberals their majority. The difference is that the Bloquistes are pretend separatists; the Scottish National Party are not.
And that’s before you take into account the competing nationalist dynamics of the Anglo-Scottish victors: secession from the UK north of the border and detachment from the EU south. Cameron is a wily operator and one notices he uses the words “United Kingdom” far more than his predecessors. But saying will not make it so.
February 23, 2015
At the Magna Carta Project, Professor Nicholas Vincent recounts how he tracked down a previously unknown copy in Sandwich:
Now, I have often found that the most interesting original records of Magna Carta, as of much else, have gone unnoticed precisely because they are assumed either to be copies rather than originals or because they travel with other less famous documents. Cataloguers, assuming that Magna Carta is much too important to have been overlooked, have very frequently assumed that originals are copies, not from any physical evidence of the fact, but simply because the idea of possessing an unknown Magna Carta has appeared to the cataloguer to be as absurd as suddenly stumbling upon an unknown play by Shakespeare or a unknown canvas by Vermeer. The most famous documents are often the documents that, in their natural habitat, have been least studied. Edgar Allan Poe sums up this situation perfectly in his story “The Purloined Letter”. Poe’s plot here turns on the fact that, if you wish to hide something that everybody else assumes hidden, the best place to hide it is in plain view.I can claim, long before last December, to have found at least three Magna Cartas. All were in plain view. None of them was ‘unknown’, in the sense that they had all previously been listed, albeit in obscure places, either as Magna Cartas or as ‘copies’ of Magna Carta. They were nonetheless ‘unknown’ in the sense that they were either assumed to be ‘copies’ or ‘duplicates’ rather than originals (one of the three 1217 Magna Cartas, and the 1225 Magna Carta in the Bodleian Library in Oxford), or were known locally but without any appreciation that local knowledge had not come to national or international attention (the 1300 Magna Carta preserved in the archives of the borough of Faversham). In one instance (the 1217 Magna Carta now in Hereford Cathedral), it had been catalogued as a royal charter of liberties, but without realizing that these liberties were those otherwise known as ‘Magna Carta’. I vividly remember phoning Hereford Cathedral, in 1989, and asking if I could go down there the following day to see their Magna Carta (for there could be little doubt from the catalogue entry that Hereford’s ‘Charter of liberties 1217’ was a 1217 Magna Carta). I received a very dusty answer. ‘We have no Magna Carta’, I was told, ‘You must be thinking of Mappa Mundi!’. Ignoring this, and ordering up the document by call number, I found myself, the following morning, greeted on Hereford railway station by the canon librarian and the delightful cathedral archivist, Meryl Jancey. Archivists and canon librarians do not generally go to the railway to greet visiting postgraduate students. Short of playing me up Hereford High Street with a brass band, they could not have expressed more joy. And inevitably, their first question was ‘How much is it worth?’.
[…]One other detail before we pass on. Magna Carta as issued in 1215 promised reform not only of the realm as a whole but of the King’s administration of those parts of England placed under ‘forest law’ (i.e. set aside for the King’s hunting, with severe consequences for land use and the preservation of game). In 1217, to answer this demand for reform, King Henry III not only issued a new version of Magna Carta but, as a companion piece, an entirely distinct and smaller charter known as the ‘Forest Charter’. From 1217 onwards, the Forest Charter travelled in the company of Magna Carta, rather as a pilot fish accompanies a shark. It was in order to distinguish between these two documents, bigger and smaller, that as early as 1217 Magna Carta was first named ‘Magna’ (‘the great’). Thereafter, on each successive reissue of Magna Carta, the Forest Charter was also reissued, in 1225, 1265, 1297 and 1300. The Record Commissioners, in their search for original documents, were much less thorough in their treatment of the Forest Charter than they were in their search for its more famous sibling. Blackstone had found only two original Forest Charters, both of them very late. The Record Commissioners knew of only three. By contrast, we now know that at least twelve survive. Some of these turned up fortuitously at the time of my own search for new manuscripts in 2007. Others had resurfaced even more recently.
So it was, that around 4.30am in the morning of 9 December 2014, I decided that a catalogue entry describing a Forest Charter of 1300, might well merit further investigation. Even in the seven years between 2007 (when I compiled my lists for Sotheby’s) and 2014, when I stumbled on the reference to the borough of Sandwich’s Forest Charter, I had found at least three further original Forest Charters previously misidentified or ignored. The earliest of these, of 1225, came to light amongst the muniments of Ely Cathedral, the most recent, of 1300, in the British Library. An original of 1300 at Oriel College seen by Blackstone, reported missing in 2007, had re-emerged safe and sound.
Thanks to modern technology, from Belfast to Maidstone is a mere click of the mouse. At 4.39 Greenwich meantime on the morning of 9 December last year, I sent an email (I have it in front of me) to Dr Mark Bateson. I have known Mark for nearly twenty years, first as an archivist at Canterbury Cathedral (where he was one of those who devised the magnificent catalogue of Canterbury’s medieval charters), and more recently following his transfer to Maidstone. I told him that I had found the reference to a Forest Charter , and as I noted in my email: ‘If this really is the 1300 Sandwich copy of the forest charter, issued under the seal of Edward I, then it is a major find. There are only a handful of such exemplifications still surviving as originals. It would also fundamentally alter our understanding of the way in which the charters of liberties were distributed for the later reissues of Magna Carta. Is there any chance of your taking a sneak preview?’
January 8, 2015
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or lave his country for ever without a passport of any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly ₤200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of thirteen. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of seventy. Since 1913, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
All this was changed by the impact of the Great War1. The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman’s food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order.
His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, other artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed. The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with: licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks was changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was again to increase. The history of the English state and of the English people merged for the first time.
1 In contemporary parlance, the war of 1914-18 was always, not surprisingly, the Great War. It did not need the war of 1939-45 to change it into the first World War. Repington devised the phrase at the time of the armistice, “to prevent the millennian folk from forgetting that the history of the world is the history of war.” Repington, The First World War, ii. 291.
A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, 1965.
December 19, 2014
Published on 18 Dec 2014
German admiral Franz von Hipper reluctantly carries out his orders to bomb British coastal towns. And indeed, this attempt to intimidate British civilians only makes them more united. British propaganda gets another opportunity to portray Germans as bloodthirsty and brutal. Meanwhile, the French start a new offensive near Vimy on the Western Front.
December 17, 2014
Published on 20 Apr 2012
London Midland & Scottish Railway educational film that explains the role played by the railways during World War Two.
October 21, 2014
A man in Middlesbrough has been convicted of possessing illegal images of children … in his Manga collection. That is, cartoon drawings in the Japanese style called Manga. Gareth Lightfoot reports on the case for the Gazette:
A jobless animation fan has made legal history as he was convicted of having illegal pictures of cartoon children.
Robul Hoque, 39, is believed to be the first in the UK hauled before court over his collection of Japanese Manga or Anime-style images alone.
He admitted 10 counts of possessing prohibited images of children at Teesside Crown Court.
His barrister Richard Bennett said: “These are not what would be termed as paedophilic images. These are cartoons.”
And Mr Bennett revealed that such banned images were freely available on legitimate sites.
He said: “This case should serve as a warning to every Manga and Anime fan to be careful. It seems there are many thousands of people in this country, if they are less then careful, who may find themselves in that position too.”
Police found the images when they seized Hoque’s computer from his home on June 13, 2012, said prosecutor Harry Hadfield. He said officers found 288 still and 99 moving images, but none were of real people.
They were classified as prohibited images as they depicted young girls, some in school uniforms, some exposing themselves or taking part in sexual activity.
For obvious reasons, the newspaper article does not show any examples of the images in question, but Rob Beschizza warns you not to read his post at BoingBoing if you’re in England, as it does show an image that may or may not have been part of the investigation.