The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

English history: how heavy was the Norman yoke?

In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown. 

It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect. 

Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.

Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books. 

Just something to break up the text. It has nothing to do with anything.

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims. 

See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.

Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.

So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?

Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.

Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.

Slavery

In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.

There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.

Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act. 

Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did. 

What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests. 

I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.  

Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment. 

Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record. 

HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.” 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”

As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population. 

History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population. 

I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please? 

Non-slavery

Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs. 

Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land. 

Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it. 

Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this. 

Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.

The  bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers. 

Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear. 

The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.

Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.

And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?

Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here. 

Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.

The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man. 

Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.

What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”

So that’s what freedom looked like.

The Norman conquest

Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.

I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.

As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.

The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came. 

To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out. 

If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.

So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.

Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.

Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.

We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.

They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved. 

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom.

Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild. 

Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.

In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council. 

Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright. 

We won’t go down that rabbithole today. 

The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.

The heresy du jour  was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism. 

So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t. 

Isn’t the world a strange place?

In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy

Didn’t they get to have all the fun? 

This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.

We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council. 

During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into. 

Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.

Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed. 

The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.

If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers. 

The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.

Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.

Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street. 

But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.

A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point. 

The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.

Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.

English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up. 

And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.

That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.  

And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.

One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership. 

Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.

The search for Robin Hood

Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (she asserted on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) grew up on stories about Robin Hood, that dashing outlaw of Sherwood Forest who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and assorted other medieval baddies, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and who did it all while looking fabulous in green tights and a nifty little hat with a feather. 

Yeah, that Robin. You’ve met him in movies, in comic books, in novels. His arrow never missed its target, his tights never bagged at the knee, and his merry men never got cold or hungry or even wet, living out there in the forest. 

Was he a real person?

Hmm. Probably not–or at least there’s no evidence that he was. The giveaway is those tights that never bagged or sagged. Who thought that was possible? 

But let’s take a quick run through the legends and see what we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: no idea what this is called, but it adds some color to the winter.

The first mention that’s come down to us is in a 1377 manuscript that’s now in the British Museum, In this version he was born around 1160 in South Yorkshire, in Lockersley, which might well be modern-day Loxley. 

But don’t get too attached to that. In another manuscript, he’s from Wakefield and fought in Thomas of Lancaster’s 1322 rebellion. The manuscripts do at least agree that he’s a northerner.

When you go into documents from the period, you’ll find an assortment of outlaws called Robin Hood, or called variations on the name. There’s one to be had in 1226 and another in 1354, and that seems to be a fairly random selection. It may have been a name many outlaws called themselves. Probably after watching too many movies, or possibly listening to too many ballads, because Robin may have been someone troubadours sang about. In Piers Ploughman (written in the late fourteenth century, a bit before The Canterbury Tales), a character says he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood.

We, unfortunately, don’t.

In the fifteenth (or sixteenth; I’ve seen both cited) century–and for all we know, earlier (or later; don’t ask me)–a Robin Hood-like figure showed up in May Day celebrations and took on an almost religious cast. Whatever that may mean. I couldn’t find anything more than a passing reference to that, and an assertion that it was the May Day games that kept the legend alive so that it came down to us. 

In his earliest form, Robin wasn’t a disaffected aristocrat but a commoner–a yeoman, which meant he was higher than a peasant but lower than a knight–and he treated the rich and powerful the way they treated the poor and powerless, which is to say he beat them, robbed them, and killed them. This wasn’t a sentimental era. Doing that would’ve made him an attractive figure.

It’s also in the fifteenth century that Robin starts to rob from the rich and give to the poor. In the Geste of Robin Hood, he says, “If he be a pore man, / Of my good he shall have some.” He makes rules about who can be beaten, robbed, and killed (bishops, archbishops, the Sheriff of Nottingham) and who can’t (peasants, yeomen, virtuous squires).

In this century, Robin not only kills the Sheriff of Nottingham, he: 

  • Version A: shoots him with an arrow, then cuts his throat.
  • Version B: kills him, then mutilates his corpse, using a knife–an act which, I’m sorry, would have spattered his clothes and mussed his tights.

Like I said, it wasn’t a sentimental time.

Why was Robin an outlaw? In early versions of the tale, he just was. It may have been so easy to transgress the law that no explanation was necessary. It’s only later that explanations start to turn up. For what it’s worth, just by living in Sherwood Forest, he would have been breaking the Law of the Forest, which kept people from putting the woodland to any productive use so the nobility could hunt in it. Acts forbidden to commoners included (but weren’t limited to) hunting, carrying a bow or spear (gotcha there, Robin), and cutting wood. 

Scholars can have all kinds of fun aligning Robin with assorted breakdowns of order and conflicts in English history: the conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans; the twelfth-century civil war later known as the Anarchy; or the fourteenth-century Black Death, Hundred Years War, and Peasants’ Revolt (it was a tough century). Not being scholars and not having to convince anyone that we know what we’re talking about, we can nod sagely at all of that and go on our merry way. Or we can write novels setting Robin in the middle of any of it and still sit safely at home eating ice cream.

In early versions of the tale, Robin grew old enough to become ill and went to Kirklees Priory, where his aunt was the prioress, to be treated, but Sir Roger of Doncaster–whoever he may have been–convinced her to kill him and instead of just bleeding him (which was a respectable way to treat the sick) she bled him to death. As loving aunties sometimes will with inconvenient nephews. 

You have  been warned.

By the sixteenth century, Robin had been domesticated by the nobility, although they weren’t in a position to offer him ice cream, so you should be able to outbid them if you want him in your novel. All they could offer was a promotion from yeoman to noble–something they must’ve felt they had to do if they were going to keep company with him.

And keep company with him they did. In 1516, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s May Day festivities featured a couple of hundred men dressed in green and one dressed as Robin Hood to lead them to the feast. 

This is when other characters start to appear: Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, all those folks. One article speculates that Maid Marian was introduced after the Reformation to make up for Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary having been edited out.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

What does it all mean? An outlaw hiding in the wilds (Robin in the forest, Hereward the Wake in the fens) and wreaking vengeance on the arrogant and powerful is a powerful part of English lore. It’s natural enough that it would resonate commoners, especially peasants, who had little enough outlet for their frustrations. They couldn’t take vengeance themselves, so bring on the lurid tales.

Why it was taken up by the nobility is anyone’s guess. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if by Henry’s time they hadn’t tied themselves up with so much protocol and good manners that pretending to be an outlaw living wild and unwrinkled in the forest, answering to no one, bound by no one’s rules, and never missing a shot would have appealed to them.  

In recent times, Robin’s been played by everyone from Errol Flynn to Daffy Duck and Kermit the Frog.  That at least needs no explanation.

The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381

Last week, we scrambled through the mud of medieval England meeting the serfs. Or as they were also called, the villeins. You will, of course, remember every word I wrote, which is good because I don’t and someone should take the trouble. 

We ended, as any good miniseries does, on a cliffhanger: Individual serfs–by no means all of them, but some–were challenging their place in the system, trying to prove in court that they weren’t serfs.  When that starts to happen with any consistency, I claimed (and, of course, I know these things), it’s a sign that the system’s starting to crack. An increasing number of people didn’t fit into the old slots, but society was doing its damnedest to keep them stuffed in there. 

Obviously relevant photo. This is Fast Eddie, free cat of this village. He is relevant to everything that matters.

In The English Rebel, David Horspool says that before democracy (or anything that passed for it) wandered onto the scene, popular rebellions seemed to pop out of nowhere. The country’s rulers knew next to nothing about the people they ruled, and the ruled had no way to make their voices heard. Self-preservation advised them to keep their opinions to their unworthy and unwashed selves. So basically there were no tea leaves for the experts to read. Tea hadn’t been imported from Asia yet anyway.

Still, there were hints for anyone who knew how to read them. One of them was those scattered people going to court to prove they weren’t villeins. 

Another was—. Well, let’s back up a second. The Black Death had swept through the country, leaving a labor shortage. That happens when, oh, maybe a third of a country’s population dies. And farm laborers and artisans noticed that friends and co-workers were missing. How could they not? 

So what did they do? They took off, looking for better pay, better work, a breath or two of free air. Or they stayed put and tried to get a better deal where they were.

If you ruled the country, you could take those as hints or you could follow the example of those wise those caring people who actually did rule the place and pass the 1351 Statute of Labourers, freezing wages, restricting movement, and punishing offenders by, variously, putting them in the stocks, fining them, and tossing them in jail. And doing twice as much of it if they broke the law again.

It’s worth mentioning that while wages were frozen, prices were rising.

The statute’s goal was to contain the “malice of servants,” which was doing “great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.” All you laborers, back in your uncomfortable little slots. The stability of the entire society depends on you shutting up and acting like you’re making that space work for you.

Interestingly enough, the statute also covered unbeneficed priests–priests who didn’t have a church appointment, which meant they didn’t get the income a church appointment brought with it. I haven’t found any information on why the statute applied to them or how it affected them. Maybe unbeneficed priests were considered the laborers of the church and had their pay fixed along with everyone else’s. I might as well confess that I didn’t read the full text of the statute. It listed so many job categories–hostelers, harbergers, workmen, servants, dairymaids,tailors, tawers of leather, and assorted others–that I got too dizzy to read on. 

But never mind that. Can I offer you a warning instead, just in case you wake up some morning and find you’re the ruler of a wildly unequal society (and aren’t we lucky not to live in a world where they’re easy to find)? Be careful about letting the everyday poor make common cause with people whose education has set them up to nurture an expectation or three. Because when those two get together, they make an explosive combination, and unbeneficed priests (along with artisans) were strongly represented in the Peasants’ Revolt, even though it’s still called the Peasants’ Revolt, not the Peasants’, Artisans’, and Unbeneficed Priests’ Revolt. 

The people in charge of England at the time not only didn’t have the advantage of my advice, they didn’t see people going in search of higher pay as a hint of trouble to come. So they followed up on the Statute of Labourers by introducing poll taxes, which were taxes on “each person in the land, both male and female.” 

Isn’t it nice to see women mentioned for a change? 

The phrase poll tax comes from middle English. Poll meant head. If you had a head, it was taxed. Or it was if you’d had it long enough, because the tax did have a minimum age limit. It’s unseemly to tax newborns.

Poll taxes were imposed in 1377, 1379, and 1380, and the last one triggered the rebellion–or it helped to, in a last-straw kind of way. It was a flat tax–the richest and the poorest had to pay the same amount: a shilling from everyone above the age of fifteen. That was three times the amount of the poll tax that came before it.

To translate that, with complete accuracy, into modern terms, a shilling was a shitload of money. Or it was if you were poor. So if you couldn’t scratch up a shilling, you could pay by handing over your tools, your seeds, your cow. And if it left you unable to feed your family, maybe you should have thought it through before you grew such an expensive head.

Why all the taxes? Because England was in the middle of the Hundred Years War with France. (How do you respond to a disaster like the Black Death? Why, you keep right on fighting an endless war.) England was more or less always at war with France. Let’s not go into the reasons. It was like smoking: one of those habits that’s hard to give up. And like smoking, it was an expensive habit. That’s why all the taxes.

In response to the third tax, 450,000 people magically disappeared from the record books and the government appointed a commission to find them and collect all those missing shillings, one by one by one. In three Essex villages, Fobbing, Cottingham, and Stanford-le-Hope, a royal commissioner ran into trouble. A hundred or so people gathered, refused to pay, and when he tried to have them arrested ran him out of town.

Then they “went to the woods for fear of his malice,” according to a contemporary chronicler. By the time another commission came to arrest them, they’d gone from town to town, gathering support. The commission thought better of the job and left the rebels in control of the county–some 50,000 of them according to a contemporary estimate, although you might want to think twice before you take medieval numbers seriously. It’s better to think of that as a poetic way to say “a lot of people.”

The rebels sent letters to Kent, Suffolk, and Norfolk, calling on people to rise with them, and they may have been written by John Ball, so let’s take a minute to talk about him. He was a priest who for some time had been preaching the coming of a classless society and backing up his argument by drawing on the same religion that normally backed up the existing class hierarchy. 

“When Adam dalf and Eve span,” he preached, “who was then a gentleman?” 

Dalf? That’s means  dug, although I’ve usually seen it as delved. Span means spun

Ball was excommunicated in 1366 but went right on preaching, although not in churches anymore. He preached in churchyards and open marketplaces, and every so often he was thrown in jail for it.

Even though being excommunicated meant people weren’t supposed to listen to him, it didn’t seem to have dented his popularity. When the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he had enough of a reputation that the rebels broke him out of Maidstone Prison and he joined them.

And now, instead of going backward let’s take a stop to one side:

In Kent, the rebellion was sparked not by the tax but by a dispute over whether or not a local man was a villein. It was one of those court cases I mentioned earlier, although I can’t tell you why this particular one sparked the rebellion instead of half a dozen others. But it did and local rebels seized the local castle. After that, some half of the rebels said, “Job done,” and went home, but the other half stuck around to burn records “so that once the memory of ancient customs had been wiped out their lords would be completely unable to vindicate their rights over them.” 

Burning the records seems to have marked a turning point in the rebellion. It took on a larger aim, and it’s at this point that Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Not much is known about him. He might have fought in France–which also says he might not have. We’re doing well to have his name.

It’s hard to put all this together in any sort of coherent narrative. The chroniclers of the time were universally hostile to the uprising, and the rebels didn’t leave much in the way of documents. Their letters calling for risings are an exception, and they’re rich in imagery but light on concrete detail. In modern English, part of one says, “John the Miller hath ground small, small, small / The King’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

If you’re going to invite me to a local uprising, could you please be more specific? I appreciate the poetry and all, but I’m a who-what-when-where-how-and-why kind of person. But the people who received the letters must have understood, because rebels gathered from across the southeast. One strand of rebels headed to Canterbury, where they demanded that the monks elect a new archbishop. They also executed a few folks, who were handed over to them by “the people.”

Which people? Dunno. How enthusiastically or unwillingly did they hand them over? Dunno that either.

Eventually the various groups of rebels gathered outside London, although other parts of the country also saw uprisings. Chroniclers of the time estimate the London group at 100,000. Modern historians, who are more accurate but nowhere near as much fun, guess the number at 10,000, but that was still bigger than most armies of the time and way the hell more than the government could call up at short notice.

England had no standing army at this point, remember. Or–well, why should you remember? They didn’t. New information. If they wanted an army, they called up aristocratic warriors, and they called up the armed free men under them and little by little an army gathered itself. 

Unless, as occasionally happened, it didn’t. But even at its best, it took time, so the rebels had the advantage.

The rebels included free and unfree peasants, tradesmen, laborers, unbeneficed priests, artisans, and some minor gentry, including a knight or two. Their enemy–as they saw it–was the king’s government and advisers, not the king himself. They were loyal to the king. 

Across the Thames from London, they attacked the Marshalsea prison, setting debtors and felons loose. They attacked the archbishop’s manor, where they burned more records. Then guards opened both London Bridge and the city walls to them, either out of fear or sympathy–we’ll never know. 

Inside the city, the rebels were violent but well focused, and they were joined by “the commons of London.” They opened more prisons and burned the much-hated John of Guant’s Savoy Palace without looting it. In the lawyers’ section of the city, the Temple, they destroyed both property and records, beheading eighteen individuals who were targeted for reasons that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, are lost to history. 

Some sources say the violence was more widespread and included slaughter of Flemish residents. When in doubt or anger, blame the immigrants. The point Horspool makes, though, isn’t that the rebels were saints but that they had effective leadership. This wasn’t simple rioting, it kept a political focus. 

The King–Richard, in case you care, who was all of fourteen–and his advisers hied their asses to the Tower of London, which had (and still has) its own set of walls. There his advisers went into a collective meltdown and couldn’t come up with any advice to offer their kinglet. It was the kid who decided to talk with the rebels. 

Which he did, at Mile End, while a few rebels somehow got into the Tower and executed a handful men they particularly hated, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Well, they had called for him to be replaced.

Meanwhile, out at Mile End, the rebels presented their demands to the king: “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage nor any type of service to any lord, but should give four pense for an acre of land. They also asked that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.” 

The king said, “Yup, sounds fine to me,” and the meeting broke up. The killing in London continued that day and the next. 

Richard called the rebels to meet again and spoke with Wat Tyler, who (apparently; remember, we’re getting the story from a limited range of chroniclers who weren’t journalists) again presented their demands, expanding them to include an end to outlawing, the dividing up of Church goods, allowing provision for the clergy, and no lordship except for the king’s. 

Again the king agreed and issued pardons and charters of manumission–a way of releasing people from serfdom. 

Then the mayor of London tried to arrest Tyler, who stabbed him through his armor. The mayor stabber Tyler in the neck, someone else in the king’s entourage ran him through, and Tyler fell off his horse and called on his followers to avenge him.

How did everybody stab everybody when they were on horseback? No idea. Maybe we’re talking about swords, not knives. Maybe they were closer than I imagine them. Again, we’re getting the story from medieval chroniclers and they weren’t journalists. For all I know it’s not hard to stab someone when everyone’s on horseback. I have a shocking lack of experience with this.

The rebels, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, hesitated. This was the king–the person they’d pledged their loyalty to. The good guy who was surrounded by bad counselors.

Or they didn’t hesitate but drew their bows. As usual, accounts differ. The most common one is that Richard rode toward the rebels, calling that he would be their captain and leader, renewing his promise of freedom and pardons.

Whatever the exact events were, the rebellion was effectively over.

The charters of freedom were promptly forgotten. Rebel leaders were executed. John Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his assorted body parts set outside London’s walls. I mention that in case you’re inclined to focus on the rebels’ violence. It was far from one sided. When the government finally gathered up an army, it marched into Essex, where there was still some resistance, and slaughtered five hundred rebels and killed a hundred more later on. Or some other large numbers, since we’ve agreed that any number over one is unreliable.

And the king’s promise? It disappeared without leaving so much as a puff of smoke behind. He now told rebel envoys, “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live and, by God’s grace, rule over the realm, we will strive . . . to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.” 

The Statute of Labourers was reinforced in the next few decades. England never formally abolished serfdom. It died out, but slowly.

On the other hand, no one tried to impose any more poll taxes. And, as these things tend to do, the legend of the rebellion lingers on, often in romanticized form.

Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

Legend has it that the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been at war with Russia for decades. Or if you hear another version of the story, was at war for decades but made peace a while back. 

Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s northernmost town, although if you tune in at another point in the long timeline of English-Scottish conflict, it was Scotland’s southernmost. It changed hands thirteen times in its history.

Its name comes from either the Old English word for barley or from the Celtic word for an estuary confluence. How that’s different from a plain old estuary I don’t know, but you can take your pick on its origins. Both languages are relevant,  and we weren’t there so we’ll never know for sure anyway.

When B-upon-T was founded, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which became part of England in the tenth century, taking little B-upon-T. with it. (That argues for the barley hypothesis.) Then in 1018, Scotland took the town over. By the middle ages, it was Scotland’s richest port, known as South Berwick to distinguish it from North Berwick, near Edinburgh. (That argues for the estuary.)

If you’re not confused yet, stay with me.

Irrelevant photo: After last week’s orange berries, we’re moving on to red berries. I really do need to get out and take some new pictures. There’s an entire world out there–or so they tell me.

In 1296, the town became English again, and so on back and forth. Some of those changes involved raids, sieges, massacres, and other stuff that wasn’t fun to live through. Or die from. Others involved the town being sold or ceded, which is high-handed but by comparison looks pretty good. Finally in 1482–.

Well, here’s where it gets complicated: The town became English, and legal documents called it a kingdom of England but not within England, and if you understand what that means you’re miles ahead of me. What I can tell you is that it was under English control but–.

But what? I’m not sure, but the but’s important.

The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from the Daily Beast, which says the wording made Berwick, like Wales, semi-sovereign. Any royal decree that didn’t specifically mention it excluded it. That continued until 1746, when the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act was passed, but the tradition of mentioning it stumbled on anyway.

Mostly.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that most of my information comes from Wikiwhatsia, a source I avoid anytime I can find one that sounds more respectable, but except for a BBC article and the Daily Beast, everything about Berwick is about how to visit the castle, the bridge, the town walls, and all the many, many places to spend your money. Or else they were even less authoritative. So Wikiwhatsia it is.

Back when I worked as a copy editor, I did some work for the branch of Macmillan that published speciality encyclopedias and I vividly remember reading (I’ve forgotten where but probably in the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune) that on average Wikiwhatsia was at least as accurate as the more respectable encyclopedias. The editor I worked for at the time was less than happy to hear that, especially since the article mentioned the bio of a fictitious person that some pissed-off writer or editor slipped into a thoroughly respectable encyclopedia and that was repeated in subsequent editions. 

My sense of humor isn’t universally welcome.

Anyway, the trick with Wikiwhatsia is to catch your entry on an average day, since its wikiness leaves it open to brief moments of complete insanity.

But we were talking about Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Once it settled into English hands, it became a well-defended border town, and in 1551 it was made a self-governing county corporate.

A what?

A city or town important enough to be independent of its county. The category dates back to the medieval period,

So Berwick was governed by English law and was its own county, Berwickshire, until 1885, when it was folded into Northumberland. And there things sat until the 1970s, when four separate laws managed to simplify and complicate things. One of them, the Interpretation Act of 1978, says, without cracking a smile, that any reference to England in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974 “includes Berwick on Tweed.” And (for our purposes irrelevantly) Monmouthshire.

The legend that Berwick was (or is) at war with Russia grows out of all this murkiness. In 1853, the legend says, at the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria declared war on Russia by signing herself “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions.” Which is a bit like saying that I’m a citizen of Britain and my bathtub, but never mind.

The snag, according to this legend, is that the peace treaty that ended the war left out little Berwick, meaning it was still officially at war. According to the Daily Beast, the story was reported as fact in a New Zealand newspaper in 1914, then in a local (that means, I think, Berwickian) paper in 1926.

The Foreign Office investigated in the 1930s and again in 1965 (sometimes they run short of things to do and people who work there need to be kept  busy) and both times found no truth in the tale, but that wasn’t enough to put an end to it. In 1966, according to legend, a Pravda correspondent visited Berwick, met a town councillor, and the two of them declared peace. The councillor, Robert Knox, said, “Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Guardian’s supposed to have run a story on it. By the time the tale appeared in other papers, the Pravda reporter had become a Soviet official and the two sides had signed a peace treaty.

Did the papers really carry that story? I can’t confirm it and in a story where so many elements are questionable that would be worth doing. But they ran well before the internet sent its tendrils creeping into our brains and I don’t live where newspaper archives are easily (or even difficultly) available. If anyone wants to search, the original article is said to be in the Guardian of 28 December 1966. The follow-up articles are supposed to be in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Your guess is as good as mine on the dates.

A 1970s BBC program went back to the original documents and found no mention of Berwick in the declaration of war, meaning that it’s not at war and making a disappointing end to the tale.

Allegedly. I haven’t seen the documents myself and I don’t know that anyone really did land on the moon. Or that any of you actually exist. You could all be elaborate fever dreams.

*

So what’s Berwick-upon-Tweed like when it’s not at war against overwhelming odds? The BBC reports that Berwickers feel themselves to be Berwickers first and English or Scottish second. Not English second, you’ll notice, although they’re still oficially part of England. They still feel the choice is open to them, whether or not any particular government agrees.

*

My thanks to John Russell for giving me a shove in the direction of this story. He also tells me that the Isle of Man is said to still be at war with the Kaiser. It’s roughly the same tale: They were–apparently–part of the declaration of war at the start of World War I but not of the peace. However, the only mention I’ve been able to find is on a discussion forum where someone wants to know whether, since the island’s still at war, he can shoot some random German.

I’d like to think he’s joking, or at least trying to.

I haven’t been able to find anything more authoritative–or more sensitble–than that. If someone can send me a link, I’d be grateful.

The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

A man was arrested in October for trying to steal a copy of the Magna Carta. Or–depending on what news source you like–on suspicion of trying to steal it. It happened in Salisbury, where it was on display in the cathedral, so for all we know he may have been a public-spirited citizen who wanted the city to be known for something other than novichok poisonings.

But enough about him. Let’s talk about the thing he was trying to steal.

We’ll start, while we still remember that someone tried to steal it, by saying that only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta survive. They’re written by hand (as everything was in those days) and in Latin (as everything that mattered was).

In 2015, a version from 1300 was found in the archives in Maidstone, Kent. Stay with me and you’ll see why they have different dates. It had somehow gotten filed inside the pages of a Victorian scrapbook and was (don’t ask me how these two facts can coexist) cuddled up next to a Charter of the Forest. We’ll get to the Charter of the Forest eventually, but in the meantime we can pretend it was in the scrapbook as well.

Irrelevant photo: hemp agrimony–a wildflower.

Part of this newly found version of the Magna Carta is missing, but it was still valued at around £10 million. So stealing one? Yeah, you could make a few bucks that way. Or quid, if you prefer. But put your wallet away, because it’s not for sale. It belongs to the town of Sandwich, which decided to use it as tourist bait. Presumably it’s worth more that way, at least in the long run.

The find supports the belief that the Magna Carta was issued more widely than historians had thought–that it was sent to at least fifty ports and cathedral cities.

So let’s talk about what the Magna Carta is and why it matters.

The story starts, or at least can start, as many stories from this period of English history do, with the English fighting in France, parts of which belonged to England. Or at least the English thought they belonged to England, and so did what passed for international law at the time. We’ll skip the details. What matters is that however many times England won or everyone involved worked out a peace deal, France was still across a big damn chunk of water, England’s French lands were still on the other side of the aforesaid water, and the next thing anyone knew everyone involved was fighting again.

That’s why I feel free to skip the details. Just when you get the kids all settled down to eat a meal in peace, they start the whole thing over again. If it’s not fighting over who said what to who, it’s over who lost the remote and who was the first one to throw food. Besides, we’ve already got a long post here.

All that fighting took money. Lots of money. And that money had to come from somewhere. Keep that in mind while we swerve left to avoid a pothole and explore a bit of church history.

In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. The monks of Canterbury and King John couldn’t agree on the next archbishop, so they appealed to the Pope (if that sounds peaceful and cooperative, it wasn’t), who had a third candidate in mind.

King John did what any sensible adult would do in that situation, he banished the Pope’s candidate, and the Pope did what any pope would do and placed an interdict on the country, which meant that no religious services could be held. Church bells couldn’t be rung. According to one source, people couldn’t be buried, but I seriously doubt they were left lying where they dropped. Let’s agree that for the sake of public health they were put in the ground but without the religious rituals that people of the time considered necessary.

Eventually, the Pope excommunicated John, which meant his subjects were freed from their oaths of allegiance and the French were free to invade, which they did, although not until a sentence and a half from now. John felt free to confiscate church property, which he did. Then he sold it back to the church, making a profit that he used, in part, to create a navy, which he used first to invade Ireland (in case he didn’t have enough trouble) and then to defeat the French invasion that happened at the beginning of the paragraph, which has been in suspension until we got to this point.

John’s  excommunication also gave some of his barons the excuse they needed to start plotting against him. John grew suspicious. Tensions rose.

John accepted the Pope’s candidate for archbishop, humbled himself publicly, and paid 100,000 marks to compensate the church for the trouble he’d caused. That got him re-communicated. Tensions fell. Everyone kissed and made up and buried the dead bodies they’d left lying around, but none of them (that’s the living people, not the dead) liked each other any more than they had before.

Then John invaded France. It didn’t go particularly well and he returned to England trailing a whiff of cowardice, at which point the barons who’d been plotting rose against him, because if there was one thing aristocrats of the era couldn’t stand it was the scent of cowardice. The accusations of cowardice may or may not have been justified, but it didn’t matter. They’d been in conflict with him for a long time and this was a great excuse, so a few of them met with the Pope’s shiny new archbishop (who might just possibly have harbored a resentment or two) at Bury St. Edmunds and swore to fight the king if he didn’t grant them a charter.

Keep the thought of a charter in your mind while we wander off again. The story’s full of potholes. We’ll get to the charter eventually.

Charter, charter, charter, charter.

A few barons put clothespins on their noses to block that whiff and declared for John, but most of them burrowed deep in their beds and waited to see who’d come out ahead, John or the rebels. A few baronial families did even better than that: They split their allegiance, planting family members on both sides. Whatever happened, the family would come out ahead.

The rebels chose Robert FitzWalter was their leader. He’d been tangling with the king for years. But although personalities loom large in the tales that lead up to the Magna Carta, they’re not what matter most. The world’s full of personalities and conflicts between them, and most of the time they’re not much more than a background hum. It’s only occasionally that events give them space to flower. The root of the trouble seems to be what the monk Roger of Wendover described as the king’s “unjust exaction which reduced [the barons of England] to extreme poverty.”

You might want to think of that as relative extreme poverty. They were still barons. Their poverty would’ve been a peasant’s most outrageous dreams of more-than-plenty.

The newly re-communicated King John got the Pope’s backing against the rebel barons, so he had god’s support and could take the field as a crusader. The Pope excommunicated the rebels, but they also had god’s support–they declared themselves the Army of God and the Holy Church, even if the church was backing the other side.

If you believe in the same god they did, you can assume that he was, at best, confused and might understandably have decided to sit this dance out.

The barons sent John a list of demands. He read it and said, “Go fish.”

Okay, he didn’t say, “Go fish.” That’s from a kids’ card game that hadn’t been invented yet. What the kids of that era did to keep themselves out of trouble I can’t imagine. What John actually said was some era-appropriate version of “When I see pigs fly by this arrow slit that I call a window, I’ll put my name to this piece of crap.”

The barons responded by besieging Northampton, where John defeated them, but London opened its gates and FitzWalter and his Army of God marched in. King John, with his own lower case army of god, held onto the Tower of London.

The two sides negotiated and eventually met at Runnymede, a field of no particular distinction at the time but now famous for being the place where they met, where they’d agreed that John would sign the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called that yet and was the same thing John had called an era-appropriate version of “this piece of crap.” It guaranteed the rights of the Church–an interesting provision, given that the rebels were still excommunicated. It also limited some of the ways the king could exploit feudal customs, confirmed people’s rights under Common Law, and protected the barons’ from any repercussions of their rebellion.

One clause said twelve knights would be elected within every county to investigate abuses by sheriffs, foresters, and other royal officials. Another set up a committee of barons to enforce the settlement. In return, the rebels promised to surrender London.

Both sides crossed their fingers behind their backs and John signed.

Neither side kept its side of the bargain, or meant to. The rebels kept London. For his part, John sent out copies of the charter but put the sherriffs in charge of investigating abuses by the sherriffs and their cronies. He also sent a copy to the Pope, who (as John had expected) promptly nullified it. He wasn’t about to have either a king–or by extension, a pope–rule under the supervision of his subjects.

But for all that no one planned to abide by it, the charter bought both sides a short stretch of peace, which was all they’d hoped for. Then the two sides were fighting again. You had the remote last. Yeah, but you threw mashed potatoes at me. With gravy. The rebels offered the English crown to Prince Louis of France. Predictably enough, Louis’ proud father, Philip, sent troops.

Things looked bleak for John. By now, a good two-thirds of his barons had gambled on the French, and John and his troops were being harried through the countryside. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, when his army and, more importantly, his baggage train were crossing some muddy tidal flats of Lincolnshire that are called the Wash, a rising tide swept away his treasury and the crown jewels. The land there is flat and the tide, according to the BBC, which knows these things, can rise faster than a running man. Or, presumably, woman. At the full and new moons, it can outrun a horse without stopping to ask if it’s male or female.

It was all looking pretty grim for John when he played a card that turned a losing hand into a winning one: He caught dysentery and died, the clever devil. His son was crowned Henry III and he reissued the Magna Carta, which left the rebels without much to rally around. Barons changed sides and suddenly the French troops looked more French and less English than they had a few minutes before. The war changed from a civil war to a war of resistance against the French.

Louis was defeated, in a nice bit of balance, at Sandwich, which appeared early in our post, making a sandwich of the intervening potholes, detours, and information. Less helpfully, he was also defeated at Lincoln, which has nothing to do with our tale.

He withdrew in 1217.

And the Magna Carta? It was re-reissued in 1225 and again whenever the king and some element of his country were at odds with each other. In the 1270s, the Church demanded that a copy of Magna Carta be displayed on the door of every major monastery and every cathedral church.

What made the Magna Carta so important? Well, it made the king subject to the rule of law. That was not just new, it was shocking. It established the idea that taxation depended on the consent of the kingdom. A few hundred years later, the American Revolution dropped that thought into the social media of the time and it went either bacterial. Or viral–no one knew the difference then.

It–it being the Magna Carta here–also made taxation all the more necessary because it blocked many other sources of kingly revenue. So the great and powerful (although sub-royal) would now have to be summoned to give their consent to new taxes, and that opened the door, for the first time, to what would become a parliament.

In theory (and I’m borrowing this thought from a British Library video by professors David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent) it put an end to arbitrary kingship, although in practice kings went right on being arbitary. They continued taxing and tyraninzing. “What mattered about Magna Carta . . . was Magna Carta the idea, not necessarily Magna Carta the political tool. It survived long after the tyranny of any individual king and therefore it became a point of principle rather than of practical politics.” 

Now let’s go back to the Charter of the Forest, which you could be forgiven for having forgotten was found sandwiched in with the Magna Carta in the Sandwich archives.

The Charter of the Forest was issued in 1217, when Henry III issued a new version of the Magna Carta. By then, roughly a third of the country (or of southern England, depending on your source) had become royal forest, and the king made a big honkin’ chunk of money from fining people for various offenses within its bounds. The charter reduced its area by un-foresting everything that had been added since Henry II’s time. It also got rid of capital  punishment and mutilation for poaching (which is basically hunting game that belongs to some aristocrat). People could still be fined or imprisoned for poaching, but hey, they weren’t being killed or mutilated. Progress has a  bleak sense of humor.

It allowed  free men (notice the limitations there) who had woods within the forest to put up buildings and clear land for farming.

How can people have woods within a forest? Forest, as it turns out, didn’t mean forest. Ever since the Normans conquered England, it meant an enclosed area claimed by a king or lord, along with all the huntable animals in it and the vegetation they fed on. A forest could be forest, grassland, wetlands, whatever–blue sky, presumably, if you could enclose it. The royal forest grew big enough to create a hardship for people trying to do frivolous things like farm, fish, gather fuel, pasture animals, and generally feed their families.

Where the Magna Carta was most immediately about the rights of the powerful, the Charter of the Forest was about common people’s rights. Some of its clauses stayed in force until the 1970s.

At the same time that the Charter of the Forest was issued, the Magna Carta was modified so that widows could refuse to remarry and could retain some of their husbands’ land and their rights to the common, which meant they could still make a living–a reduced one, but better than what they’d been able to do before.

It was the Charter of the Forest that established the name of the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called the Great Charter because it was fantastic, wonderful, and better looking than your average charter. It was bigger than the little charter–the Charter of the Forest. Calling it Magna was a way to keep them straight.

The Charter of the Forest isn’t as well known as the Magna Carta, but for hundreds of years every church had to read it out four times a year. It provided a legal basis for commoners–meaning people with a right under feudal law to use a common plot of land–to defend that right for centuries to come.

England has never had another king named John.

*

Someone left me a comment about the Charter of the Forest a good long while ago. I’d never heard of it and without that shove wouldn’t have found it. The information’s easy enough to find, but even so you won’t find it unless you look. My thanks, and my apologies for losing track of who you are. Give me a shout and I’ll post a link to your blog.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

We’re going back to the England of the 1830s, with all its romance, not to meniton its mud and its misery. But first, a health and safety warning, because England—or Britain, really—of the twenty-first century just loves its health and safety warnings: Our trip will be heavy on mud and misery and light on romance. We’ll be in a rural area. If you’re not familiar with farm animals, please understand that they are not pets. Above all, do not pet the bull. He has no sense of humor, even if you borrow the U from bll and move in into humour. Please stay with the group. Waterproof shoes are not required but are recommended. Above all, don’t do anything stupid.

Good, with that out of the way, here we are in the 1830s and, as a newspaper article from the British Library archive puts it, the life of an English farmworker is “dismal. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would cost a typical family 13 shillings a week. But exploitative landowners, given land by the Enclosures, paid their workers as little as 9, 8, even 7 shillings.”

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

Enclosures? You can catch up on that by going to an earlier post about hedges, which were used to enclose the fields. Scroll down to the section on history, then scroll another few paragraphs below the subhead and you’ll find a bit about enclosure. I’ve been on a history binge lately.

Or you can skip the background and simply understand that farmworkers weren’t getting paid enough to keep their families fed a very minimal diet of starch and caffeine.
Helping produce this general misery were the Corn Laws, which were in force from 1815 to 1846. They taxed and restricted the import of grain, keeping prices high. That was great if you were selling the stuff and a disaster if you were trying to buy it on 9 shillings a week. Or on 7. (Corn, just so this makes sense to everyone–or as to many people as I can manage, anyway–is British for grain.)

Not many years before the time we’re visiting, the Swing Rebellion had swept through southern and southwestern England. Rebellious farm workers and craftsmen demanded higher pay, lower tithes, an end to rural unemployment, and a few other things along those lines. Barns were burned. Farmers were threatened. The well-fed (to generalize) were frightened. The rebellion ended with 19 executions, 500 people transported, and none of the rebels’ demands met.

It was a perfect set-up for another uprising.

But that’s not what happened. What took place in Tolpuddle isn’t the sort of tale that makes a good action movie. No barns were burned. No one went to a Shao Lin temple to meditate for six years and emerge able to do flying kicks and avenge the evil landowner who murdered their mother/father/entire family/pet bull.

There weren’t even any drunken fistfights. The central people involved were Methodists, which meant they didn’t drink.

What happened was that in 1833, in Tolpuddle—a village in Dorset—a handful of men founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, whose goal was to stop the lowering of agricultural wages. It wasn’t an uprising, it was an attempt to organize.

What’s a friendly society? A mutual aid group. I haven’t been able to date the first ones in Britain, but one website dates them, with criminal vagueness, to the Industrial Revolution. Most were very local, although a few started out that way and then expanded. Some involved no more than a few families. Members paid in a small amount each month and could count on help if someone got sick or died—or sometimes even if a cow died, which when a family’s livelihood hung by so thin a thread could be almost as catastrophic as a wage-earner dying.

This was a time when most people had somewhere between very little and nothing at all to fall back on. If things went wrong, they could become vagrants—homeless beggars. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, vagrancy was illegal. So, as far as I can tell, was compassion except in small and humiliating doses. What help was offered came from the parish, which translates to local government, and it was miserly, punitive, and given at the discretion of the local gentry.

To modern ears, the Tolpuddle group sounds more like a union than a friendly society, but the categories were still fluid. And the organizers may well have thought that putting together a friendly society was safer than organizing a union. Unions had been illegal as recently as 1824 and were still considered reckless, revolutionary, dangerous, and several other scary adjectives.

Modern writers tend to talk about the group as a union. It’s always simpler in retrospect.

The group’s members took an oath that if any master reduced wages, all members of the society would walk out. They also swore not to tell anyone the group’s secrets and agreed that anyone who did would be hunted out of the society, not just locally but throughout the country.  As far as I can tell, the group was strictly local, but that’s the wording they used. They had ambitions, I guess.

Initiates also had to wish that their souls would be “plunged into eternity” if they broke their oath. Within three months, some 40 people had sworn, and at least one of them must have plunged his soul into eternity, because a local landowner and magistrate, Squire Frampton, heard whispers about the group and wrote to the home secretary for advice about how to respond. The home secretary recommended prosecuting the leaders under the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797, an obscure law that outlawed secret oaths.

To understand the squire and the home secretary’s reaction, remember that not only was the Swing Rebellion in the very recent past, the French Revolution was also still alive in their minds. I have no idea if it was alive in the minds of Tolpuddle’s farmworkers, but the people who considered themselves the farmworkers’ betters were haunted by the fear that something similar could happen in England’s green and hungry land.

In February 1834, three months after its founding, six members of the friendly society were arrested. As far as I can establish, the group had done nothing more dangerous than gather members, swear oaths, and exist. But swear a secret oath they had, and all six were convicted and transported to Australia. The jury, the BBC notes, was made up of “farmers and the employers of the labourers under trial.”

It was all very efficient, and it backfired. After the conviction, the six became popular heroes, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. A huge meeting and a march were held in their defense (one site calls it the first mass trade union protest) and a petition for their pardon gathered 800,000 signatures. And not on the internet. Remember paper? Copies of the petition had to be passed from hand to hand and then delivered physically to whoever it was addressed to in government. And since quills–or even birds–hadn’t been invented yet, it had to be signed with sharpened dinosaur bones.

The most imaginative part of the campaign involved a call to prosecute the Duke of Cumberland—who just happened to be the King’s brother—under the Unlawful Oaths Act, since as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons he’d also taken a secret oath. Hey, if one secret oath was illegal, weren’t they all?

In the meantime, the families of the transported men were destitute and applied to the parish for relief. The people deciding whether they were worthy of it included none other than the man who’d set the prosecution in motion, Squire Frampton. To no one’s surprise, they were turned down. Unions across the country raised money to sustain them.

In 1836, the six were pardoned and returned to England. Only one, James Hammett, re-settled in Tolpuddle. The other five eventually emigrated to Canada, which must have promised a kind of freedom they couldn’t imagine in Dorset, and in one of those little ironies that history’s so good at, they settled on land which would have been snatched from its original settlers, the Indians.

So who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Five of the six were Methodists, and their leader, George Loveless, wasn’t just a Methodist but a preacher. Methodism had begun in the previous century and had become a powerful force among working people. It preached the priesthood of all believers, and that led some of those believers to decide that if god valued them, so should their employers.

The sixth, Hammett, wasn’t a Methodist, hadn’t been at the initiation ceremony, didn’t move to Canada, and had been arrested once before, for theft. He may (or may not–who can tell at this point?) have allowed himself to be convicted to protect his brother. He seems to have been an outsider in an otherwise tight-knit group.

After the Tolpuddle prosecution, the National Archive says, “the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.” But in spite of that, union memebership continued to grow and by the 1850s and 1860s trade unionism was again on the rise.

Today, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are commemorated by a museum and a yearly festival. I haven’t gone, but judging from the festival posters it encompasses sober political discussion, open mics, and concerts by groups that this year included the Barstool Preachers.

I just had to work their name in. I doubt the five Tolpuddle Methodists would have approved.

But we’ve been serious long enough, so let’s talk about place names: Before we’d heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, my partner and I drove through the area reading the signs that pointed to nearby towns and villages and laughing hard enough to make ourselves a hazard on the road. In addition to Tolpuddle, we found Affpuddle, Briantspuddle, Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, the River Piddle, Tincleton, and Throop.

Throop didn’t fit the theme, but somehow that only made it funnier.

My friend Deb swears that Little Piddle, Upper Piddle, and Lower Piddle are around there somewhere. I don’t doubt that she’s right but we, sadly, missed them.

*
My thanks to Emma Cownie for mentioning the impact of the Corn Laws on food prices in this period. And to Richard for dropping me a line about Lord Byron’s speech about frame breakers. I haven’t gotten my claws into that yet, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about (and why would you?), it’ll all make sense eventually.

England’s lost patron saint

The world of patron saints is a murky one. Job descriptions are hazy, the hiring process is opaque, job security’s nonexistent, and conflicts of interest are so much a part of the system that it’ll take a revolution to get rid of them. Take England’s patron saint, George–or St. George as he prefers to be known. As well as being the patron saint of England, he’s also the patron saint of  Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia (which is named after him), Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia. And Genoa. England more or less rented him from Genoa.

You can read about St. George, rent, and Genoa here

But as happens so often on this cloudy island, the story isn’t that simple, because England had an earlier patron saint, Edmund.

Edmund started his career as the king of East Anglia at a time when England didn’t exist yet. The space it now fills was occupied by a collection of small and usually warring kingdoms. If you’re used to kingdoms being the size of–oh, let’s randomly choose England as an example, then you can think of him as a kinglet, but he wouldn’t have appreciated the description. He was a king, thanks, and we can all just take that seriously.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion (or possibly one of a few thousand flowers in Britain that look like dandelions but aren’t), doing its bit to help its species take over the world.

Edmund was born in 841 C.E. (in old-school reckoning, that’s 841 A.D.) and became king in 856 when he would’ve been–oh, good lord–all of fifteen. He was a Christian and fought with King Alfred of Wessex against the non-Christian Vikings and Norse–or as the Historic UK website puts it, “against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army).”

Thanks, guys. I appreciate an even-handed approach to history.

What am I complaining about? They were invaders–I can’t argue that, although the Angles themselves had invaded Celtic land not long before. It’s the “pagan” and “heathen” that make me want to tip the sentence into the recycling bin. Both are Christian words meaning, give or take a shred of exaggeration on my part, ignorant savages who don’t share our religion and who we don’t have to think of as fully human.

Even my description of them as non-Christian uses Christian as the default setting, which is both biased and historically inaccurate, but I’m not sure what else to call them and I’ve already spent two paragraphs on it, so let’s leave the word where it is. I’m not sure what else would work.

Before we turn to another source for balance, I just have to quote the interfering pop-up box that appears on Historic UK’s website, inviting the world at large to “get to know us a little better by following our occasionally entertaining musings on Facebook.”

Thanks, guys, but I’ll pass. Back when I worked as an editor, I read enough letters introducing unsolicited articles to know that when someone tells you their writing is amusing, it isn’t. If anyone had said it was occasionally amusing, I’d have slit my wrists. The people whose work is genuinely funny? They write something funny. Then they get out of the way.

But back to our search for balance: A Wikipedia entry says that very little is known about Edmund’s life, because the Vikings devastated his kingdom and few records survived. His date of birth is guesswork, and so is the identity of his father, who may have been an East Anglian king and may have been a Germanic one.

So take your pick on any of the detail, because chroniclers of his life wrote with a free hand and a fair bit of imagination. Some have him born on December 25. Others have him crowned on December 25. Both were happy coincidences, no doubt. He was, of course, a model king in all possible ways, except for the minor problem of him having been defeated by the Vikings. 

His ally King Alfred was, presumably, also defeated, but the focus is on Ed, who was captured and told he’d have to renounce his religion and share power with the Vikings. When he refused, he was killed. Which is why he’s also called Edmund the Martyr.

As the story was told some hundred years later, he was beaten and tied to a tree and shot full of arrows and then (just to make sure) beheaded, but his head was reunited with his body with the help of a talking wolf, who called out to Edmund’s followers, saying, “Hic, hic, hic,” which is Latin for here, here, here.

Why did the wolf speak Latin, not whatever the Angles called their language? (A brief interruption: We call their language Old English, but they wouldn’t have called it that any more than the Vikings would’ve called themselves heathens and pagans. It’s not loaded, like heathen and pagan, just a bit later-day hindsighted. End of interruption and back to our question, which was why the wolf spoke Latin.)

Because Latin was the language of the church and this was a Christian wolf.

Or else it was a wolf with hiccups.

I can’t confirm this, but I seem to remember that being buried whole was important in the Christian belief system of the time: On Judgment Day, Christians would rise from their graves and be physically resurrected. Being resurrected headless could be awkward.

Tradition holds that Edmund was killed by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba (or Ubbe; you can take your pick here too; this was long before anyone fussed over spelling).

No, I did not invent Ivar the Boneless. I wish I had the kind of mind that could. Ivar the Boneless was a real person, a Viking (or Norse, or Danish–I’m not sure how different those were at the time) warrior who led the invading army that Christian chroniclers called the Great Heathen Army. He was reported to be tall enough to dwarf his contemporaries and to be both powerful and ruthless.

Why was he called the boneless? There’s lots of speculation about this and no agreement. Contemporary theories run the spectrum from great flexibility to impotence.

In the 1980s, Martin and Birthe Biddle discovered the skeleton of a Viking warrior who they believe was Ivar the Boneless. This was in Repton and the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok does say that Ivar was buried in England, so it’s not out of the question. If the Biddles are right, it would lead us to believe that Ivar the Boneless did have bones.

A seventeenth-century excavation of the same site claims to have discovered the body of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. Or, depending on which source you like, the Biddles found the skeleton of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. I’m a little skeptical that nine-foot-tall humans ever lumbered across the earth, but at five foot not very much, what do I know about being very tall? I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole big enough to bury him in.

Are you getting the sense yet that some of the sources we’re working with here are less than entirely reliable?

Let’s leave Ivar’s body in peace and talk about Edmund’s, which was not left in peace. What was left of it after a few hundred years (and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they got the right set of bones) was moved in 902 and reburied in, handily, Bury St. Edmunds, which was then known as Bedricsworth. King Athelstan founded a religious community on the site, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. English kings patronized the abbey, the cult of St. Edmund grew, and everyone involved became wealthy.

Or some did, anyway, the abbey among them.

Bury St. Edmunds is named after Edmund but, to my disappointment, the bury part of the name doesn’t come from him having been buried there. It comes from the same root word as burg, by way of the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe before they became a British one, and who brought their language with them, as people do. It means city, fortress, castle, that kind of thing.

I haven’t found a date for when Ed became England’s patron saint. In fact, I can’t find an exact date for when England became England, so let’s dance away from that and hope no one notices. What I can tell you is that his cult continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066, adding a bit of weight to my belief that when you conquer a place, in one way or another it also conquers you. As that reputable site Historic UK tells the tale, “Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St. Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law.’ ”

When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, Edmund’s remains–and by then there couldn’t have been much left–were moved to France.

Or possibly not. The BBC says simply that they disappeared. It also says that one version of Edmund’s death has him hiding under a bridge when the Vikings found him. Which sort of lacks glory. The other sites don’t mention it.

Then in 1199, Richard I got bored with Edmund. He visited a shrine to St. George during the Third Crusade, went on to win a battle, and adopted George as his patron saint, renting his banner from Genoa.

Genoa got consulted about this. George and Edmund did not. Saints don’t get any say about who adopts them. They just get stuck with these annoying little beings, always wheedling: Can I have a victory, or rain, or sun, or a trip to the movies? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. And just when it looks like the saints have gotten their humans settled down to watch the show, they start whining for candy, popcorn, ice cream, fizzy drinks. It’s endless.

And after all that, the humans abandon their original saint and dedicate themselves to some new one who just happens to sashay past at the right time, loaded down with goodies. What ungrateful wretches humans are.

And what does the ex-patron saint do? I’m no religious scholar, but If I believed in saints, patron or otherwise, I’d think long and hard before I worked up the nerve to abandon one. 

In 2006, a petition asked the government to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint. (England’s government and the Anglican Church are still intertwined, so that would be a governmental decision.) The campaign failed and in 2013 another campaign asked for the same thing. You’ll understand how deeply religious the impulse was when I tell you that the second campaign was backed by a brewery based in Bury St. Edmund.

It also failed, but Edmund did become the patron saint of the Suffolk County Council.

How are the mighty fallen. I’m not sure who I’m quoting–or misquoting–there, but it’s somebody famous. When in doubt, claim it was Shakespeare.

Of kings and car parks

Q: How many kings can you find under British car parks? (In case you speak American: Car parks aren’t places where cars go to play on the swings and feed the ducks. They’re parking lots and they’re boring, boring, boring. Unless they’re full, in which case they stop being boring and become annoying.)

A: Right this minute, the answer is either one or none, at least that we know of. Richard III rested in somewhat uneasy peace under one for a long, undignified time, but he’s been moved now. We’ll get to that in a minute. Henry I may be under another one, but that hasn’t been confirmed, which explains the wiggle room in my answer. Others may be slumbering away somewhere under your wheels, but no one knows. Yet.

Q: What happened? Couldn’t they remember where they parked?

Semi-relevant photo: A cat, it is said, may look at a king, and Fast Eddie’s looking. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t found any yet. It’s all voles and mice around here, but if he finds one I’m sure he’ll drag him into the house and dismember him. Once he’s done looking. If and only if he’s small enough.

A: No, no, no. Cars hadn’t been invented back when Richard and Henry were still kings, and that means parking lots hadn’t been invented either. Or car parks. That’s why they were called the dark ages.

(A quick note for the historical nit-pickers among us: I do understand that the official and capitalized Dark Ages ended long before either Richard or Henry came along, but just think of the lives they lived. The fastest thing around was a horse. The country had polluted its waterways so seriously that drinking water was considered dangerous—and it was. They didn’t have TV, or even radio, for god’s sake. Or street lights. Their castles didn’t have plumbing or anything we’d call heating. There were advantages, and I admit that. They didn’t have to worry about global warming, but on the other hand being overthrown by restive nobles was a serious (if less global) threat, And on the third hand, they didn’t have to contend with restive-noble deniers. And let’s not get into the fourth and fifth hand, on which we’d have to count the threats we face in our oh-so-enlightened age. Let’s just agree that these were the unofficial dark ages.

(And one more aside: I was in either grade school or junior high when I first heard about the Dark Ages. Our history book (our alleged history book—every school history book I had was stunningly and mind-numbingly awful) must’ve made a passing reference to the Dark Ages and they sounded interesting, so I asked my teacher what happened during them. “Nothing,” she said.

(I’m still giggling over that. And shaking my head. End, at last, parentheses and back to our alleged topic.)

Q: This could make parking your car exciting, couldn’t it? You look for a space and wonder if you’ll find parts of a king.

A: It hasn’t worked that way for me, but maybe the Cornish kings were more selective than the English ones about where they left their bones. Or maybe it’s just that, with the exception of Arthur–who may not have existed, which is awkward, bone-wise, and who other parts of Britain claim anyway–they didn’t become as famous

Q: Are we going to keep this Q and A thing going? It’s getting a bit ragged.

A: No. We’re going to find a nearby car park and bury it there in the usual quiet and dignified way. Then we’re going to talk about who Richard and Henry were and how they came to be found. And we’re going to do it just as seriously as if we had good sense.

Ready?

Richard III was killed in battle in 1485 and was found under a parking lot in Leicester (pronounced Lester) in 2012. His story, briefly, is this: A bunch of kings and attendant upsets came before him. His older brother was king before him but died, as people will if you give them enough time, after which his brother’s young son then became king and Richard became his protector, only there was some question about whether the new king’s parents had been properly married, so the new king was duly unkinged and Richard—who of course had nothing to do with the rumors—became king. Then everybody went to war with everybody else. In this period, “everybody” meant the nobility, but they dragged the commoners into it pretty quickly.

Richard was killed in battle. His body was slung over a horse and carried in the most undignified possible way (“with his privy parts exposed“) to Leicester, where he was found under a parking lot centuries later.

And the young former king? He disappeared, along with his even younger brother, before Richard’s death. If you hear about the princes in the tower, that’s them.

If you want a more reliable history, you’ll find it here.

Richard has long been portrayed as having a withered arm and a limp, but the bones tell us he had scoliosis—a curvature of the spine. No withered arm; nothing that would have made him limp. At the battle of Bosworth, he was offered a horse to flee the field. He was reported to have turned it down, saying he’d either die a king or win.

How’d he end up in a car park? He was “given a hasty burial”—no casket; no shroud; not even a full-size grave—in a church that was torn down when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, convents, priories, and so forth. (It was a nifty way to seize their income, which Henry VIII felt he could put to better use.) Eventually, since the church wasn’t around, its location was forgotten.

Having been found, Richard was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. Tourist numbers have soared and a permanent exhibition space is planned. York wanted him back (see “tourist numbers have soared,” then add local pride and regional rivalries), and Richard’s living relatives formed the Plantagenet Alliance, demanding to be consulted on the subject so they could haul him back to York, which they considered more appropriate.

One of the relatives is described as a direct descendant of Richard’s sister. That’s clear enough, but I’m still trying to figure out how anyone can be an indirect descendant. My understanding of birth is that you’re either someone’s kid or you’re not, so this descent business doesn’t jog sideways. It’s either direct or nonexistent. Admittedly, I never gave birth to anyone, but I’ve heard rumors about it, and I was–or so I’ve been told–given birth to. So I feel  almost qualified to comment on the strangeness of indirect descent.

If you understand how it works, do let me know.

But let’s move on to Henry I. He came before Richard but comes second here because we don’t yet know if he’s been found. He was the youngest “and most able” son of William the Conqueror, according to the BBC.

But let’s take a step back, because I write for a somewhat international audience and not everyone will know the ins, outs, ups, and downs of English history. William—Henry’s dad—conquered England in 1066. He was (and still is) also known as William the Bastard, not because he was a nasty man, although I expect he was, but because he was the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, and being a bastard mattered back then. (See above for the princes in the tower. They still haven’t been found, by the way. If you’re parking your car, do look around.) In spite of not being legitimate–I should put that in quotes, shouldn’t I?–William became Duke of Normandy. Which was in France, where it’s stayed to this day, and not in England at all. It has car parks of its own, and I have no idea who’s buried under them. Possibly no one. The French may be more careful with their kings.

For reasons too complicated to go into (and irrelevant unless you take all this divine right stuff seriously) William considered himself the rightful heir to the English throne, and when the old king of England, Edward the Confessor, died, William seized the throne from King Harold, who also considered himself the rightful heir and who got there first.

Are you still with me? Good, because I’m not sure I am.

Conquering a country is one thing, though, and keeping it is another. (That’s true of seizing a crown and keeping it as well, as Harold could have told us if he hadn’t been dead by the time the full extent of his problems became clear.) Keeping England was a ruthless business, involving slaughter, famine, the overthrowing of one aristocracy and set of relationships between lords and commoners and the installation of a new one, not to mention a lot of castle-building to keep the conquerors in power. Plus the installation of another language, French, which the aristocracy spoke for generations and which eventually seeped into the English of the conquered people, creating something vaguely related to what we speak today, and let’s all be grateful for that because if we didn’t have it we couldn’t bury kings under either parking lots or car parks because we’d be calling them something entirely different.

You knew I’d get back to those car parks/parking lots eventually, didn’t you?

Henry I was buried in front of the high altar of the church at Reading (pronounced Redding: it’s English, so don’t ask) Abbey. And there he stayed until Henry VIII et cetera’d the abbeys and monasteries, see above. As part of that, in 1539 the church at Reading Abbey was mostly destroyed. Stories circulated about Henry I’s grave having been desecrated, but no one really knows if it was. Henry I dropped out of sight. As dead people will.

Personally, I can’t get worked up about graves. I don’t want to upset anyone who feels strongly about them, but what with the people inside them being dead and all, I’m more likely to get worked up about housing the living–an effort that effort hasn’t been going well lately.

Still, it’s a good story, so let’s finish it.

The Hidden Abbey Project used ground penetrating radar to map out where the church used to be and found what they’re calling three potential graves. But it’s not yet clear where the high altar was, and without that they can’t say for sure that they’ve found Henry’s grave, only that they might have. They’ll begin digging sometimes this fall—or autumn, as they say here.

The car park in question belongs to the Ministry of Justice, and two of the potential grave sites are under it. A third one is half under a wall that divides the parking lot from a nursery school’s playground. I have no idea what they’re going to tell the kiddies about the digging equipment sneaking under the fence.

Q: Why are these kings showing up in car parks instead of under, say, the kind of lovely parks where people go to walk and enjoy the fresh air?

A: I don’t know. It may tell us something about the percentage of Britain now covered by each.