Saturday, 30 April 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

Nowadays, royal and ceremonial occasions are an opportunity for some pageantry and public celebration.

However, much of the ceremonial dates from pre-literate times, and had a specific purpose.

If there would be no written record of an event, or none that would be easily accessible, it was important that it was witnessed by as many people as possible, whether it was a coronation, a wedding, or a legal transaction such as a transfer of land.

Not all royal weddings have been public, however. It is not certain when and where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn.

James, Duke of York, brother of Charles II, married Anne Hyde secretly in 1660. Her father Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon, was so mortified by her presumption in marrying so far above her station (and so concerned that his enemies would believe that he had engineered the marriage) that he said

‘He would turn her out of the house, as a strumpet, to shift for herself, and would never see her again … he had much rather that his daughter should be the duke’s whore than his wife.’

Pageantry was a demonstration of power, to intimidate enemies and rivals. In 933, as he was preparing to launch an invasion of Scotland, King Athelstan held a court at Winchester attended by four Welsh princes, twelve earls and a large number of thegns.

The whole force moved north and just over a week later another court was held at Nottingham. The intention must have been to make the Scots aware that a powerful force was approaching. 

Keeping a lavish household with feasting and almsgiving was a way of displaying wealth and attracting followers. When carried to excess by a nobleman, it could be seen as a challenge to the king’s authority. In 1468 the Earl of Warwick 

‘Was always held in great favour by the commons of this land because of the exceedingly great household which he kept daily in every region wherever he stayed or passed the night. And when he came to London he held such a household that six oxen were eaten at a breakfast and every tavern was full of his meat; for anybody who had any acquaintance in his household could have as much boiled and roast meat as he could carry on a long dagger.’ 
Ultimately it did the earl no good, of course; he was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

Now, who is invited to major events and who is not can still carry some significance. There is still protocol governing precedence, dress and conduct. But in general, royal occasions are family events shared with the nation and Commonwealth.  

Saturday, 23 April 2011

England and Saint George

23 April is St George’s day, the feast of the patron saint of England. English people might mark the day by wearing a red rose. The flag of St George might be flown.

St George was known in Anglo Saxon England. Churches were dedicated to him. He was referred to by Bede, writing in the first half of the eighth century. Versions of his legend were circulating in the eleventh century.

St George became better known in Western Europe from the time of the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century. It’s thought that the cross of St George began to be used by the English at the time of Richard I (the Lionheart), 1189-1199.

Edward III took St George as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, which he founded in 1348. The arms of St George were borne by Edward III’s ships, and by his men, fighting in the Hundred Years’ War. The red cross of St George was flown by ships of the Royal Navy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Shakespeare popularised the national connection with St George in Henry V: 'Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George'. 23 April is also celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday, although there’s no evidence that he was actually born on that day. It’s deduced from the fact that he was baptised on 26 April.

The story of St George’s fight with the dragon is believed to date from the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was printed in English by William Caxton in 1483-84 and was retold in ballads and cheap popular fiction from the sixteenth century.

St George, according to fiction ‘never failed of carrying off the Prize at Tilts and Tournaments, quell’d Monsters, overcame Gyants, and slaughtered Beasts’, including the ‘horrid Aegyptian Dragon’.

The story of St George was also being performed as a play from the early sixteenth century, if not before. Printed play books were available. Villages grouped together to bear the expenses of production.

The plays, stories and ballads about St George contributed to the evolution of the Mummers' Play, in which St George is one of the characters.

The play is still part of English folk tradition. Every region developed its own version of the play, which is traditionally performed at Christmas, on May Day and on other feast days and local celebrations.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Royal traditions: ceremony and superstition

21 April is the Queen's birthday. This year it is also Maundy Thursday. On this day the sovereign traditionally attends a church service after which she gives out purses of money to elderly men and women. There are as many recipients of Maundy money of each gender as there are years in the sovereign's age - so this year, there will be 85 men and 85 women.

Members of the royal family are believed to have been involved in the Maundy Thursday ceremonies since at least the thirteenth century. In the past gifts of money and food were given to people in need. Now the specially minted coins are given to men and women who have served the church or their communities, as a way of honouring them.

Another tradition associated with the sovereign is the belief that the King's touch would cure scrofula, otherwise known as 'The King's Evil'.  In England this belief is thought to date from the reign of Edward the Confessor, who reigned from 1042 to 1066.

Charles II is said to have touched more than 90,000 sufferers during his reign (1660-1685). The tradition was last observed in the reign of Queen Anne, 1702-1714.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The painter of light

Today, 16 April, is the official opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery.

It is suggested that English artists were especially successful in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because advances in the manufacture of paper  enabled watercolourists in particular to produce more finely detailed work.

Turner’s techniques were advanced, but his subject matter reflected the times he lived in. His landscapes and seascapes illustrated the natural world that inspired the poets of the time.

He showed how Wolverhampton looked before the Industrial Revolution took hold.

And in his two best known works he showed new technology and contrasted it with the past.

The Fighting Temeraire (1839), shows a steam tug towing the old sailing ship HMS Temeraire to be broken up.

Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) shows a train on the Great Western Railway crossing a bridge.

Both Turner's representation and railways themselves were disliked by many. In the same year Wordsworth was campaigning fiercely against the proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway. He wrote a sonnet to the Morning Post opposing the idea: 

Is then no nook of English ground secure 
From rash assault?

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is now considered one of the greatest English artists. In his lifetime however his work was not always appreciated because of his impressionistic representation of light and colour.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

You can’t write history from one source only

- was the well known saying of a historian who once taught me.

All historical sources are biased or inaccurate in some way. The historian who relies on only one will inevitably have a one-sided view of events, people and places.

W. Whellan & Co.’s Directory of Manchester and Salford, published in 1853, said of Manchester:

‘Perhaps no part of England ... presents such remarkable and attractive features … as Manchester and its manufacturing district; its vast population - its colossal mills, works and warehouses - its vast extent and variety of manufactures - its commercial grandeur and magnificence - its boundless resources - its scene of untiring bustle and energy - as the “workshop of the world“ altogether presents a picture … to which neither this nor any other country can yield a parallel….

Though we cannot claim for Manchester any degree of picturesque beauty, which characterise some towns in our island, yet this deficiency is in a great measure redeemed by the noble streets, imposing buildings, and busy scenes which strike the eye.’

Brief mentions of polluted rivers and inadequate housing are well hidden among accounts of Manchester’s history, cotton manufactures, public buildings, churches, schools and parks.

Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1844, wrote:
 ‘He who turns to the left from … Long Millgate, is lost; he wanders from one court to another, turns countless corners, passes nothing but narrow, filthy nooks and alleys…. Everywhere half or wholly ruined buildings …rarely a wooden or stone floor to be seen in the houses, almost uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth! Everywhere heaps of debris, refuse, and offal; standing pools for gutters, and a stench which alone would make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilised to live in such a district….

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants.’

Dr James Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) wrote of Manchester in 1832:

We discover in those districts which contain a large portion of poor … that among 579 streets inspected, 243 were altogether unpaved, 46 partially paved, 93 ill ventilated, and 307 contained heaps of refuse, deep ruts, stagnant pools, ordure, &c; and in the districts which are almost exclusively inhabited by the poor … among 438 streets inspected, 214 were altogether unpaved, 32 partially paved, 63 ill ventilated, and 259 contained heaps of refuse, deep ruts, stagnant pools, ordure, &c.

All of these were written for different and specific purposes, which the researcher must be aware of.

The same is true of historical research for fictional purposes. The writer needs to gather information from a wide  range of sources. It is possible to use these differing accounts to good effect in fiction, of course. Having characters representing the different points of view discovered in research can provide conflict.

Although there must be more to the characters than their opinions on the burning social or political issues of the day. They must talk, discuss, argue, share experiences, find common interests, and one, or, ideally, both, must learn and change over the course of the book. Otherwise they will be two-dimensional and there will be no character development or plot progression - and thus no story!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

This Sun of York

Today, 9 April, is the anniversary of the death of Edward IV in 1483.

Edward IV is perhaps England’s most under-rated king. He reigned for more than twenty years (with a brief hiatus in 1470-71 due to a Lancastrian resurgence), an achievement in itself in the Middle Ages.

He introduced many of the policies that Henry VII and Henry VIII are given credit for. He restored the authority of the monarchy, non-existent under Henry VI. He tried to diminish and counterbalance the power of the great noble families - that was the point of the Woodville marriage. He understood the importance of trade and paid attention to economic affairs and the interests of the merchant classes.

Is the lack of appreciation for Edward IV a sign that Tudor propaganda is still effective, five hundred years later?

The one thing Edward failed to do was live long enough for his heir to reach his majority. In the Middle Ages, an under-age king was nearly always a disaster for the country.

If Edward IV had lived another ten years or so, and Edward V had succeeded to the throne as an adult, would he have had a successful reign?

Would he have managed to break away from the Woodvilles and overcome the faction and rivalry among the nobility? Would he have defeated Henry Tudor in battle? Would the break with Rome and the Reformation still have happened in the sixteenth century?

Joan Aiken wrote a series of novels based on the idea that the Hanoverians never succeeded and the Stuart dynasty continued into the nineteenth century. (The novels were written for children, but can be enjoyed by adults.)

Perhaps a historical novelist should show us what English history might have been like if there had been no Tudors.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Now that April's here -

Robert Browning was not the only poet to be inspired by the English spring. Some of Alfred Noyes’ best known lines, from his poem The Barrel Organ, are on the same theme:

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn't far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer's wonderland;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn't far from London!)

The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world's a blaze of sky
The cuckoo, though he's very shy, will sing a song for London.

And Geoffrey Chaucer pointed out that spring is a time for journeys:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Spring is a good time to set the opening of a novel if the mood is intended to be upbeat and optimistic. But such is the English weather that at any time of year there might be weather to match any mood a novelist might want to establish. An unseasonably warm, spring-like day in January or February, perhaps, or a grey, cold, wet day in July. Snow stopped play in a cricket match in June once.

Conversely, the weather can contrast with a character’s mood; the protagonist’s family and friends might all be enjoying themselves outside in the sunshine while he or she remains indoors trying to deal with bad news or resolve a serious problem.

The weather has influenced real historical events. Storms delayed and ultimately destroyed the Spanish fleet in 1588. Bad weather in the English Channel caused the launch of Operation Overlord to be delayed in June 1944.

In historical fiction especially the weather can be used to raise tension. The hero can be delayed on his way to rescue the heroine from a dangerous situation; the crucial piece of information can arrive too late to stop a wedding or secure an acquittal in a trial.

There’s nearly always something to say about the weather, too. So if two characters who are strangers to each other need to strike up a conversation on a train or in a stagecoach or at an inn, a remark about the weather makes a good starting point.