The closeness of history

To paraphrase Doctor Emmett Brown, it could be that the fifteenth year of each new century inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Well… perhaps not. There are certainly, however, a number of noteworthy centennial anniversaries this year.

One thousand years ago, in the late summer of 1015 the Viking invasion of England began, under Cnut the Great – or King Canute if you will. A little obscure maybe, but I’m sure everyone remembers the story of King Canute and the waves. I think it was Miss Parker, in class 5J, who recounted to me and my classmates the (possibly) apocryphal tale of Canute failing to hold back the tide. Ah, Miss Parker… how we all went weak at the knees over your long, golden tresses of bouncy blonde hair and your exotic Liverpudlian accent! It mattered not that we were but eleven years old.

I digress. I’ll whizz through the rest so that I can get to the reason for my writing this post.

October of this year (2015) sees the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, occurring on 25th of that month in 1415. Scooting forward a hundred years (in the blink of an eye), on 12th February 1515, building began on Hampton Court Palace. And just two hundred years ago, on the 18th June 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte met his match at Waterloo. (There appears to be a bit of a theme developing here, albeit unintentional, of us sticking it to the French!)

Significant though all of these are, the anniversary that has piqued my interest in recent days is that of the signing of Magna Carta, eight hundred years ago this month (at the time of writing). I recently paid a visit to the awe inspiring Worcester Cathedral. If you’ve never been I urge you to do so for, religious or not, you simply cannot fail to be impressed, not only by the building itself, but by the passion for faith that inspired the construction of such an august and spectacular edifice. If you’re not moved, I question the existence of your very soul and indeed your capacity to be moved at all! The cathedral is the final resting place of King John, who died just sixteen months after the signing of Magna Carta. His tomb, a substantial, imposing stone sarcophagus, surmounted by a smooth, carved, Purbeck marble effigy of the king, flanked by the miniature figures of St. Wulfstan and St. Oswald, lies on the pavement of the quire in the cathedral’s chancel.

And this is really my point. That you can stand right there at the heart of Worcester Cathedral, a king of England at rest mere inches away, so close in fact that you could reach out and touch the cool, burnished marble surface of his tomb, is completely extraordinary to me. For all his notoriety, to be in the presence of a figure of such import is a humbling experience. There’s an almost visceral connection to the past that is undeniable, and it puts history right there, right at that moment, right next to you. All at once, eight hundred years is as nothing.

Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales

A few steps away is Prince Arthur’s Chantry Chapel, containing the tomb of the young Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales – heir apparent to Henry VII and older brother of who would later become Henry VIII. And here again, history is made tangible by how closely Arthur’s short life is linked with Worcestershire, and Bewdley in particular. Arthur died of an unknown illness shortly before his sixteenth birthday, but for part of his life he lived at Tickenhill Manor (also know as Tickenhill Palace) in Bewdley. Arthur’s marriage by proxy to Katherine of Aragon took place at Tickenhill, and when Katherine finally joined him in England, the young couple lived at the manor for a month, before establishing their home at Ludlow Castle.

The site of Tickenhill Manor, high on a hill overlooking Bewdley, at the top of what is now Park Lane, is just minutes away from where I now live. Sadly nothing remains of the original manor, apart (it is suggested) from some of the foundations in the basement of the Georgian manor that now stands in its place. Yet the notion that the young prince who, but for his untimely death, would have gone on to become King of England instead of his younger brother, spent much of his life in this very town, and walked along these same banks of the River Severn – now much changed of course – is something I often wonder about.

Prince Arthur's Chantry
Prince Arthur’s tomb, in the chantry chapel

History never held much interest for me at school, which I regret. I wasn’t dismissive of it by any means, I simply had other interests. I’m hesitant to say that the fault lies with my former history teacher, but perhaps it does, as the subject is a source of great fascination and enjoyment for me these days. So the seed must always have been there, surely. My teacher could have done much more to engage us, certainly. It’s a matter of finding some way to connect with the subject, I think. I don’t believe a text book can ever be quite enough.

History’s not in the past, it’s right here.