Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Battle of Bosworth Field and inevitability...

My regular reader will probably know that I am something of a history buff; not quite in Ana's league, I would happily concede; more of an enthusiastic amateur with an abiding interest in the history of medieval England, which is why this story from last Friday's Times (I've been a bit busy lately!) caught my eye.

I'm sure many of you will have read or heard about the new research, suggesting that the Battle of Bosworth Field, fought in 1485, actually took place a couple of miles from the location in which it was previously believed to have occurred.

So far, so good: despite the fact that the battlefield visitor centre was built in the 'wrong' place, it is still close enough to be of service and in some ways, doesn't actually sully the ground on which our last Plantagenet king, Richard III, lost his life and his crown to the future Henry VII.

But what I found particularly thought provoking about Ben Hoyle's article (I can only assume he is not an historian -he is billed as the paper's Arts correspondent) is the content of this paragraph:

In those few frenzied moments the future of England — and by extension much of the world — changed course. Bosworth became the bridge that links the Middle Ages to modern Britain and ushered in the dynasty of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. If Richard had killed Henry there might have been no English Reformation, no Church of England and no Elizabethan golden age to inspire artists, explorers and empire builders.

Yes, in those few moments, the future of England changed; the dynasty that had provide the country with fourteen kings in an unbroken chain from 1154 until that moment, was unseated and a new one, the Tudors, took their throne; that much is unarguable. It is the suggestion of inevitability contained in the sentence "If Richard had killed Henry there might have been no English Reformation and no Elizabethan golden age to inspire artists, explorers and empire builders."

Did Richard's defeat, deposition and death really inevitably lead to those eventualities? Or, is all history - including this section of it - essentially the outcome of a series of sometimes random, often unplanned and unforeseeable events?

Let me use the accession of the Tudors and their developing history to illustrate my point.

As many of you will know, the future Henry VIII was not his father's eldest son and was not, therefore, born to be king. That role initially went to his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, who died aged only fifteen in 1502, seven years before his father. Arthur was (famously and subsequently) married to Catherine of Aragon, who was to become his younger brother Henry's wife after his death.

Imagine, as was entirely possible, that Arthur had lived to maturity and that he and Catherine had produced children. The man we now know as Henry VIII would never have become king and would have been known to history as a mere royal duke; a footnote at the bottom of a page.

Continuing that thought process, had Arthur not died prematurely and he and Catherine had produced children, there would have been no split with Rome (at least when it actually happened), England would have remained as it had hitherto always been: firmly and devoutly Roman Catholic and the Dissolution of the Monasteries may have been unheard of even today.

So much for inevitability.

But Arthur did die, Henry did become king and went on to marry his brother's widow. Their union was blessed with only one surviving child, Mary (the future Mary I); but the couple also had a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who catastrophically died aged less than two months in 1511.

Returning to the concepts of randomness versus inevitability, what if baby Henry had lived to become Henry IX of England? Given his obsession with securing a male heir, the very obsession which subsequently led to his divorce from Catherine and his cataclysmc split with Rome, is it not entirely likely that Henry VIII would have remained happily married to his first queen, as his son and heir grew up, married and had children himself?

Such an eventuality would have meant that Anne Boleyn may have never graced the pages of our national history, other than possibly becoming Countess of Northumberland. A similarly anonymous fate would have befallen Jane Seymour and as a consequence, neither the future Edward VI or, crucially, Elizabeth I, would have been born, still less occupy the Throne in their own rights.

I could go on; what if Mary had not died without issue from her marriage to Philip of Spain, what if Edward VI had lived to adulthood and had children - both eventualities would have meant that Elizabeth would never have ascended the Throne; but I think my point is made.

There is nothing inevitable about the course history takes; it is entirely random and subject to the vagaries of life, death and even human fertility.

I'm sure Ben Hoyle was only using his assertion as a convenient journalistic vehicle in order to illustrate the importance of the discovery of the real Bosorth Field and I am grateful to him for doing so, for prompting me to write this post.

By the way, can anyone else spot any similarities between this related story, also written by Ben Hoyle and published in the Times in September 2009 and the one which I link to above?

Cut and paste journalism in the Times? Perish the thought...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Weather watch...

Whilst it might be a very pretty sight, this photograph, taken about fifty yards from my front door about 8.30 this morning serves to illustrate the sheer inaccuracy of our weather forecasting service, as provided by the Met Office.
During last night's local evening news programme, the weather forecast made no reference to the possibility of snow in the Ribble Valley, or anywhere else in Lancashire, for that matter, whilst the earlier national version warned of potentially heavy falls on the Eastern side of the country.
So, it was with weary resignation that I looked through the window an hour later and saw a scene more reminiscent of Ice Station Zebra, than a small corner of northern England.
However, my fundamental point is this; if the Met Office are really only providing us with what is little more than their best - and often inaccurate - guess as to what the weather is going to do, what is the point of spending so much money on it.
We'd be as well served going to the local wise woman and asking her to divine the forthcoming weather by a skilled examination of freshly slaughtered chicken intestines.
It is a nice picture, though...

The Telegraph on top form...

Thee excellent articles in this morning's daily Telegraph, here, here and here. I agree with every word in all three of them and I have to say that Jeff Randall is rapidly becoming one of my favourite weekly reads.

Snow permitting, I hope to be back later with, er, a weather related post...

Monday, February 15, 2010

St George he was for England...

My regular reader will not be surprised to see me expressing my delight that the people of Darwen, a small market town in Lancashire (for the geographers and town planners amongst you, a classic example of ribbon-development) have decided to hold a week-long celebration to mark St George’s Day on and around 23rd April this year.

Here’s hoping that other towns and cities decide to do likewise and follow the example set by my fellow Lancastrians.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Philistines of Sussex...

I have to confess that it was the headline of this article from today’s Daily Telegraph which first caught my eye and, as an historian, made my hackles rise, even if the article itself didn’t quite live up to its sensationalist billing.

Notwithstanding the fact that the article was mostly sizzle and very little sausage, it still concerns me greatly that Sussex University is proposing to withdraw from “research, and research-led teaching, in English social history before 1700 and the history of continental Europe before 1900”.

Unlike the seventeen Sussex-educated historians who wrote to the paper condemning the move, and the proposal to withdraw from the teaching of the history of continental Europe before 1900 in particular, however, I am more concerned with the suggestion that henceforth at that university 1700 will represent year zero as regards English social history.

I note at this point, that the article refers quite clearly to English social history and not its political cousin (my ‘discipline’, as it happens) and I take that reference to mean that the politcal history of England will still be researched, lectured on and taught there.

I certainly hope so, and I will return to my reason for saying so in due course.

However, returning to the original quote as to the university’s intentons, and at the risk of being accused of wanting the cake and the ha’penny, it would appear that henceforth, according to Sussex University, prior to the dawning of the twentieth century, nothing of any consequence occurred througout continental Europe.

By doing so, as the article suggests, they clearly think that events of such seminal importance as the French Revolution are not worthy of research or study.
Or, come to think of it any of the following, which I in list in no particular order, either chronological or as to my personal perception of their importance: The Napoleonic Wars, The Renaissance, The Thirty-Years War and the life and works of Martin Luther, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, after whom the great American Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King - another towering figure - was named.*
I could go on, but shortage of prevents me from doing so; and in any event, I suspect my point is made: for a university history department to abandon the study of European (or indeed any history) before an arbitrary date - one which is, in historical terms, relatively recent - is to abandon the subject as a serious academic discipline, in direct contradiction of its raison d'etre.
Returning to the prospect of the university 'starting' English (social) history in 1700 (only seven years before England was subsumed into the kingdom of Great Britain by the passage of the Act of union with Scotland) is also, in my submission, to ignore the importance to that subject of a number of significant events in our political history.
I don't propose to link to these on the basis that a) my reader is more than likely to be already familiar with them or b) that in the event that they are not so familiar, but are still reading this increasingly lengthy piece, they will more than likely be sufficiently interested in the subjects I cite to research them separately.
That explanation aside, these are just some of the political events or processes occurring in England prior to 1700, which I suggest had a significant impact on our social history:
1. The Norman Conquest of 1066 - which essentially removed the old, Anglo-Saxon ruling class and replaced it with invading Normans.
2. The signing of the Magna Carta (which I reproduce in the picture above) by King John in 1215, enshrining a large number of the rights of which our current leaders are so assiduously stripping us, into English law.
3. The Great Plagues of the Fourteenth Century, which went a long way to ending feudalism.
4. The Civil War of 1642 - 1649, which saw England become a republic for the first (and hopefully only) time in its history.
Once again, I could go on; but again, I think I've made my point: English social history did not begin in 1700, and to pretend that events before that date are of insufficient relevance to warrant further study, is to abandon even the pretence of academic rigour.
Defending the university's stance, the deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Paul Layzell said: “The history degree at Sussex, as befits a programme offered by one of the top 20 departments in the country, will continue to be broad based and intellectually challenging.”
I would conclude with this observation, professor. I rather suspect that given the proposed vandalism you propose to inflict, your claim to be 'one of the top twenty [history] departments in the country', will soon be ringing somewhat hollow.
You should hang your head in shame.
* Forgive the continued links to Wikipedia; they simply provide the shortest thumbnail sketch of the events in question, for ease of reference.