Reasons To Love History

For the last seventeen years I have loved history- Ever since my eighth Christmas when I asked for nothing but books and got exactly what I asked for and ended up really disappointed because I got non fiction instead of fiction. One of the books was KINGS & QUEENS: A royal history of England and Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry and once I’d got over the tears of what was up until then the shittiest Christmas ever (I got no sympathy because I did actually get what I asked for) I started reading this book and I was plunged into this strange, exotic foreign country we call the past, a country which I have never left.

The Capture of Antioch by Bohemund of Taranto- A fanciful depiction I am certain. (Picture is Public Domain -Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Over the last month or so a few things have reminded me of why I love this place so much- Firstly I was reading about the crusades and that reading reminded me not only of how illogical, barbaric and stupid the medieval world could be, but also what an interesting series of events the Crusades were. My favourite story about the Crusades has to be what happened at Antioch in 1097 and 8- After spending over a year trying to reach the holy land, and causing a lot of none goose related face palms along the way, the crusaders finally get through Anatolia and lay siege to the city, then held by a man called Yagisiyan. But Antioch was so big that there weren’t enough crusaders to mount a full siege and the city could still get supplies and men through. Over the next eight months the crusaders, like locusts, eat practically everything in the surrounding countryside and then they begin to starve and die of disease and stuff like that. Failure is imminent. Stephen of Blois, father of England’s King Stephen and son in law of William The Conqueror, decides that he will fuck off and leave everyone else to die. On the way back to Constantinople he encounters the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius, bringing a relief force… And he whinges ‘it’s no good, it’s hopeless… we’ve failed.’ Alexius, thus, turns around and goes back to Constantinople. Cut to a few hours later and Yagisiyan has surrendered because the people of Antioch are also starving.

So the Crusaders now had the city but they were still starving… Then to make things worse a warlord called Kerbogha (who sounds like he should be a fantasy villain) turns up and lays siege to them. And he had more men and so he does manage to lay a successful siege of the city. The Crusaders thus find themselves at the end of their rope and they were desperate. They even start hallucinating towards the end. Enter a monk called Peter Bartholomew. He claims that the Spear of Destiny (the one which pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion) was buried under the cathedral. The crusaders start digging, find nothing, and then Peter Bartholomew jumps into the hole and suddenly produces this spear, which was probably hidden under his robes the whole time. So the Crusaders decide to make one final stand against Kerbogha, hoping that God and the spear will protect them. They fling open the gates of Antioch, spear carrier leading the way… Then, like Gandalf at Helm’s deep, these soldiers dressed in white ride to the rescue from over the horizon. The Crusaders said they were angels but actually they were just other local warlords and their forces who didn’t want Kerbogha taking Antioch because he’d have too much power if he did- So they (perhaps stupidly in hindsight) had decided to stand with the Crusaders. And as an addendum Peter Bartholomew later burnt himself to death trying to prove that the spear was real.

The Spear of Destiny is carried out of Antioch- From a manuscript by William of Tyre (Image is Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

That is a patchy overview at best, I know, but I still think it a damn good story. You can tell, just from that, that it would make a great film and no changes would be needed. Hollywood execs and scriptwriters, when they make historical films, often claim that they’re only making it ‘more entertaining’ when they change things. But as this shows, you don’t need to. Forget Kingdom of Heaven, let’s have a proper film about Antioch and Kerbogha and all that jazz. You could start with a voiceover and a montage of the crusade so far; Pope Urban’s call, the people’s crusade, the taking of Nicea etc. and you could climax it with this epic, tense moment, soaring John Williams style music as the Crusaders fling open the gates with the spear aloft, ready to face death only for the other warlords to ride over the hill just in time for their salvation. And then we can have Peter Bartholomew burning to death in a post credits scene. It would be one of the most awesome films ever made.

Antioch aside, the Crusades are an important part of world history, one that affects us all to this day. If Pope Urban II hadn’t instigated his call to arms in 1095 would we, today, be facing the horrors of a certain bunch of uber-maniac terrorists? Would 9/11 have happened? Probably not- Amongst many Islamic fundamentalists (Bin Laden was one) the crusades are still seen as an unprovoked assault on the Islamic world, an assault to which they still place the blame on the entire western world. Theirs is a very simplistic view and one that misunderstands the Crusades entirely. They were an immensely complex series of wars and not all of them against the Islamic world. The Albigensian Crusade was against a ‘heretical’ Christian sect. In 1096 there was a massacre of the Jews in Germany and France (Yeah… No need to mention that elephant in the room just now) and the excuse for that only had a thin veneer of religion- It was actually more about money than religion. Atrocities were committed by the Christians, indubitably, but lets not forget that Muslim soldiers committed atrocities as well. Overall, what the Crusades did, in the long term, was set the Islamic world at loggerheads with the Christian world and we are still, alas, still suffering the consequences.

Aethelred the Unready… With a sword bigger than half his body- From the Abingdon Chronicle. (Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

This way in which the events of history can have an impact even centuries after the fact is just one of the many reasons why I adore it so much. Dig deep enough and you end up with long, complex, interlinked chains of events which, altogether, make wonderful and often epic stories that are far better than anything any movie can show us. We’re still getting fallout from the Crusades. Henry VIII’s break with Rome resulted in a division between the Catholic and Protestant faiths that wheedled its way into almost every major event in British history for the next two hundred years- The Great Fire of 1666 and the plague the year before are about the only things that don’t have anything to do with religion. And finally Æthelred the Unready sowed the seeds of the Norman Conquest sixty years before it happened, by his second marriage to the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. I don’t need to go into details but this marriage effectively tied the crown of England into the Norman world and that started the ball rolling towards eventual conquest.

This interconnectedness means that every once in a while you just can take a step back and see the bigger picture, a whole spiders web of cause and effect that has no beginning and will have no end. We tend to parcel history up into little boxes, boxes labelled Tudor and Stuart and Roman, mostly for our own ease, but history doesn’t conform to them. It is too big to be confined. To look at that big picture, to see how it all fits together, for me is one of the great thrills. There are few things like the thrill of discovering a new connection and following it.

And let us face it, some parts of history are just plain cool. I was reminded of my personal coolest period, funnily enough, by a television series about the formation of the English nation state. Ok, that wording makes it sound really dull but trust me, it isn’t. England was forged in blood and the story of it is one that, mysteriously, isn’t told all that often these days. The series I’m referring to was The Last Kingdom, which uses as its backdrop Alfred the Great and his quest to defend his kingdom of Wessex from being overrun by Vikings. Although Alfred isn’t the main character (that honour belongs to Uhtred, an Anglo-Saxon Ealdorman taken prisoner and raised by Danes) it still centres around the same historical events, starting with the destruction of Northumbria in 867 and ending at the battle of Ethandun in 878. It plays very loose with the actual history of course, though unlike most modern historical dramas it never goes completely off the rails. It pays an awful lot of homage to the truth- The main details surrounding the Battle of Cynuit, for instance (The army of Odda camped atop a hill with no water; Warlord Ubba at the bottom, trapping them up there) are accurate, but it is far too early. In reality the battles of Cynuit and Ethandun were very close together, Alfred was already at Athelney by the time of Cynuit, but for the series they are significantly separated- Cynuit appears about halfway through the series, Athelney in the second to last episode and Ethandun right at the very end. There are also a lot of minor niggles in there, a lot of them concerning the ages of characters and Asser’s nationality, but mostly, it is just a loose retelling of the historical events.

I tried reading the first book of the series (By Bernard Cornwell, same guy who wrote Sharpe) years ago but only got a few pages in before I tossed it aside. That was before I actually started learning about this period and realized how amazingly cool it was. For almost two hundred years there was a series of ongoings battles and wars between Saxons and Danes that eventually come to a decisive and final end with the Norman Conquest. It isn’t a period I’ve looked at for a couple of years but this series has reminded of how much I love that two hundred year period. The book series goes past Ethandun (and they’re doing a second TV series as well) but the whole Danish conflict thing rumbles on and on, with triumph and disaster for both sides. For my mind it is this period where we get some of the most interesting (and some of the most understudied) characters in British history- Alfred’s daughter Æthelflaed, who is a total badass, for instance. King Edred suffered from a digestive complaint that meant he had to suck the juices from the his food, chew what was left and then spit it out. We also have Cnut, who like Alfred is also sometimes referred to as ‘the great.’ Watching the series through has turned me back towards the period and I have realized all over again how this was one of the best of times (to look at and study at least.) I’ve even started on that first book of the series again- I’ve got a bit further than the first few pages this time.

And now that I’ve come back I’m learning all sorts of new things. I found out about something called the Cynehelm, a sort of royal helmet that was a bit like a Bishop’s mitre. There is only one representation of this, a ring belonging to Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf, which is on display at the British Museum. There has also been the discovery that St Cuthbert may have tried to baptise a Puffin. I shall just leave that as it stands as I do not know any more than what I have already said.

Hermitage

The place where Harold was supposedly buried, according to the Vita Haroldi, is under the building to the far left of the picture

It is one of the beauties of history that there is always something new to learn. You can think you know everything there is on a part of it and then you discover a new path on the web and it changes and challenges everything you thought you knew- A few years ago I learnt of the Vita Haroldi, a book which claims King Harold survived Hastings! He didn’t, as so happens. That thing (the manuscript in the British Museum dates to around 1200) was more than likely written by someone with a beef against the Angevin kings. It can’t be a coincidence that the other source which mentions this survival, The Journey Through Wales by Gerald of Wales, was also written by someone who had a grudge against a particular Angevin king, Henry II. Finally it is just a little too perfect and well rounded to be real, especially for the period. Nevertheless, the discovery of this opened up new avenues to explore. I looked deeper, finding out how it could be true and if it were even possible. I even went down Chester way to look at the site where he was supposedly buried. And even though it is 99% likely to be bullshit it stills adds that extra layer to the Norman Conquest, a sort of addendum to the main story if you like. It also adds something to the reign of the Angevin Kings- A signifier that people hated them so much they were prepared to question their right to rule.

I will never be done exploring the foreign country we call the past. I came close, in my second year of university, to throwing in the towel and leaving forever for reasons I shan’t go into now. But I am glad that I didn’t in the end. I would have missed this place terribly. I had too much fun the other day imagining exactly how St Cuthbert managed to baptise that puffin and if I had left this land then I would never have had that. I’d have never known about it. History is vast and complicated, but it is also very cool and you can spend forever exploring it and never be done. That’s why I love it.

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