The Presence of the Past – no.2 in an occasional series

This summer, we went to Northumberland. The past lies deep over the present there, in this land of far horizons, and over the next few weeks I’ll write a few more entries in this occasional series, the presence of the past.

For today, we’ll look at the well in Bamburgh Castle. The rock on which the presnt-day castle stands has been a stronghold for as long as men have lived in Northumberland. It’s a great lump of Whin Sill, the layer of hard dolerite that extends, mostly underground, through Durham and Northumberland. 295 million years ago, an upflow of magma from the earth’s core was diverted on its path to the surface and, instead of exploding as a volcano, slid sideways, below the surface, spreading out along the fault line between two horizontal layers of rock, rather like the jam in a sandwich. But when the magma cooled, it formed dolerite, a much harder rock than the sandstone that sandwiched it. So, as the softer rock has eroded, the hard protuberances of the Whin Sill have emerged, producing features such as Bamburgh Rock, High Force, and parts of Hadrian’s Wall.

Part of Hadrian's Wall, riding along the Whin Sill
Part of Hadrian’s Wall, riding along the Whin Sill

Bamburgh Rock, rising a couple of hundred feet above the surrounding sea and land, is an obvious watchpoint and stronghold. But it lacked one vital feature of a defensible fortress: water. If the defenders were beseiged, they would rely on stored water and catching rainfall – admittedly, not an infrequent occurrence in this part of the world, but, the world being what it is, no doubt drought would be the inevitable partner to siege.

To overcome this deficiency, the Anglo-Saxons dug a well. Through granite. Through 150 feet of granite. And the well is still there, in the lowest level of Bamburgh Castle, with nothing but a small caption to remark this extraordinary feat of Early Medieval engineering.

The well head in Bamburgh Castle
The well head in Bamburgh Castle

Here’s me, standing beside the well.

Standing by the head of the well
Writer, wondering how they did it

How on earth did they do it?

And wondering how on earth they did it
And wondering how on earth they did it

This is what the caption says:

This Anglo-Saxon well was essential for providing the castle with a reliable and clean source of water. The well is 44 metres in depth and 2 metres in diameter. There are no records about how the well was made but one thought is that fires may have been built on top of the hard whinstone. When the rock was extremely hot, cold water would have been poured onto it causing it to contract and split, making the stone easier to work. Beneath the whinstone is sandstone much softer and easier to excavate.

The sides of the well are smooth and close to the bottom there is an arched tunnel approximately 1.75 metres in height which is reached by iron rungs set into the stone work. Running at a south westerly angle it travels to shrubbery outside the castle near the existing pump house and was made in the 20th century to carry services, out of sight, up to the castle.

So, that is, maybe, how they did it. Hot rock, cold water and hard labour. And, well dug, Bamburgh became well-nigh impregnable, the stronghold which became the base for the Idings take over of the kingdom of Bernicia, the land of the high passes.

A Proper Peer

On a recent visit to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, we saw this quote, in the Bowling Green House, from Jemima, Marchioness Grey:  ‘Have been strolling most of the morning with my book, and my dog and my fawn.’ 1744.

Now that is the quote of a proper aristocrat! And here she is – Jemima, Marchioness Grey (9 October 1723 – 10 January 1797):

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Bowling Green House, Wrest Park
Bowling Green House, Wrest Park

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):


And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:


Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:


And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.


It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

Adventures in Bookland: A History of the Church in England by John Moorman

A History of the Church in England
A History of the Church in England

This is a delicious book – in the same manner that taking tea with an extremely well-read, gossipy and slightly camp vicar would be. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine sipping at the cup, with a slice of cake on the table, as Bishop Moorman (he was bishop of Ripon) holds forth on the failings and foibles of his predecessors in ecclesiastical office.

In fact, this might be the best one-volume history of England I’ve read. By using the church as the lens, it magnifies and illuminates history in all sorts of interesting ways; something comparable (although over two much longer volumes) was done by NAM Rodger in his Naval History of Britain, with similarly fascinating results. The history of a country is so multi-faceted that a single volume work can easily either lose itself in distinctions or fall into triviality – Moorman, and notwithstanding his occasionally waspish tone, does neither. The only regret is that the history stops just after the Second World War (although checking the records, there was a revised 1973 edition which would be worth reading – I read the original ’53 printing) and it would be fascinating to know his assessment of the last half century. As it is, Bishop Moorman must be looking at all our goings on with the wry amusement of the dead at the antics of the living.

Give him something else to be amused at: seek out and read his book.

Adventures in Bookland: Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr Faustus
Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus first made his pact with the devil on the London stage in 1572. It’s hard reading it not to think that Christopher Marlowe had concluded his own bargain a year or two before – and like the hero of his play, they were both short changed. Reading it now, after Reformation, Enlightenment, wars world and otherwise, Modernity, Post-Modernity and everything else, it still shocks; its impact near five centuries earlier in the middle of the religious upheaval of the Tudor dynasty must have been overwhelming.

Dr Faustus, speaking with the devil’s own despite, pours scorn over all, but most particularly the religion that had formed, then broken apart, the civilisation of which Marlowe was part.

Philosophy is odious and obscure.
Both law and physic are for petty wits.
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile…

But when men make God the reason for their hatred, is it any wonder that others heap coals upon this image and make pacts with a devil who must seem the lesser of the two calamities. What Marlowe really believed is unknown, buried beneath lies and rumours and slanders, aimed not so much at him but the richer and more powerful men, notably Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he was associated. Tudor power politics was a blood game but its rules were laid with ink: was Marlowe the heretic, the atheist, the sodomite and blasphemer the Baines note suggested he was, or were these the casual calumnies of the underworld of spies and recusants, traitors and fanatics and rogues where Marlowe swam. That he was enlisted as a spy by the Privy Council seems fairly clear, but beyond that, it’s difficult to know anything for certain in this murky time. In one sense, Dr Faustus is a medieval morality play, updated, yes, but still with a clear sense of evil (although a rather shakier sense of the good), and justice is done, and seen to be done, in Faustus’s condemnation and damnation at the end of the play. But, on the other hand, Faustus’s almost complete lack of sense for the power of redeeming grace suggests powerfully that Marlowe may also have felt that absence in the milieu of the burnings and executions of the Reformation.

Maybe Marlowe fascinates so because he seems at once a thoroughly medieval man and yet, also, the first truly modern one – in fact, almost post-modern in his scepticism of the rules and mores of his society. Dr Faustus looks at the world around him and has the courage to call it all a sham, and there lies the tragedy: for there is a clarity of vision there that is then clouded and blurred into the petty lusts and (really rather funny) ragging of Pope and cardinals. Dr Faustus is, clearly, the work of a young man, with all the rage of the young fresh burning against the mess they have discovered their elders and supposed betters have made of the world. It burns still.

Adventures in Bookland: London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden

London and the Reformation
London and the Reformation

Now this is hard-core history. I can only stand back in awe before the prospect of the hours, days, weeks, months and years Susan Brigden must have spent in archives and libraries, poring over texts – letters, wills, deeds, all the paper trail of a civilisation that was becoming intensely literate – in the making of this book; and the facility with which she combines the wealth of detail from every sector of society with an overall grasp of the extraordinary changes that befell London and England through the reigns of Henry VIII, and his son and elder daughter. The book does not go on to the reign of Elizabeth, but it is one of the finest pieces of historical research you could ever come across on this topic, doing justice to the complexity of the subject, with its intersecting religious, spiritual, political, economic and cultural vertices, while never becoming lost in this complexity. It stands in comparison, good comparison, with Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and, alike, shows how the Reformation in England was, in the end, the product of the zeal of a small group of people, on flame with the Gospel, but, most of all, the relentlessness and fickleness of one man: Henry VIII. Henry made England’s Reformation. Without him, England would most probably have remained a Catholic country.

The King’s Will

When the monks of Syon Abbey, in 1536, expelled and homeless, looked upon the ruin of their monastery and the destruction of the intricate web of interconnection between the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural that made the medieval world, they asked how what had seemed so permanent, so set in stone, could have been destroyed. Their answer: ‘The King hath done it on his high power.’

Few kings destroy an entire world. Henry VIII did so.

Adventures in Bookland: New Worlds, Lost Worlds: the Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603 by Susan Brigden

New Worlds, Lost Worlds
New Worlds, Lost Worlds

At school, my children have studied the Tudors in Year 1, Year 3, Year 6 and Year 9 and, looking ahead, they will probably turn up in years 11, 12 and 13 too – and that’s not to mention Shakespeare in English, The Tudors on TV, Wolf Hall on stage and screen, and hundreds of other books, plays, films, series and shows. In an age of historical ignorance, we are left with 1066, Elizabeth, bluff King Hal and his wives and, er, that’s about it. But the problem with all of this is its bittiness – we get parts, rather than the whole. Susan Brigden’s book is a wonderful corrective to this, providing an overview of the whole period, from the grey penury of Henry VII through to the dog days of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, I’d say this is the best one volume history of the Tudors that I’ve read. Brigden is particularly good on the religious upheavals that made the Tudor era the definitive break between medieval and modern eras, and the revolution in world views that brought about and was caused by these changes.

Book review: A History of London by Stephen Inwood

A History of London
A History of London

Now this is an interesting addition to reading categories: book as offensive weapon. Honestly, I’m not joking – I weighed my edition (and I have the paperback!) and it came in at over 3 lbs (or 1.4kg for the metrically minded) – so chucking this at an assailant, a critic or a Brummie would certainly cause severe bruising, probably concussion and, hitting the right spot, possibly even death. Even reading it was a workout for the wrists: mine are now like the steel hawsers that they used to use on the London Docks, before containerisation killed them (a death upon which Inwood performs an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, inquest).

Yes, this is is history written big, in a big, big book, of a big, big, big city. It’s were I was born, making me a Londoner in a way that few of the other people I meet here are (almost everyone seems to have come here from somewhere else) so it’s interesting to find out that London has always drawn people in, although for most of the city’s history they were from other parts of Britain. And if not for these historical infusions, London would have withered away, for the city consumed its citizens, killing far more than it gave birth to, so if it was not for the hopeful and the desperate running or fleeing to the city, it would have died to. Although the great Victorian sanitary engineers – Joseph Bazalgette and Co did more for the city than anyone else in its history – stemmed and then reversed the tide of death, yet it still seems a city that consumes itself, eyes directed inwards, darkly. London is a dark city, London is a light city; more stories end here than begin, shuffling without notice into forgetfulness as the city, in its ceaseless churn, buries itself and starts again. No museum piece – no Venice of aspic beauty – it’s ugly and destructive but, undeniably, also alive.

In the battle of big London books, A History of London is longer, heavier and bigger than Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city and Inwood is certainly the better, more careful historian, but Ackroyd is the better writer. Read Inwood for depth and breadth, read Ackroyd for fizz and zap.

Book review: Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi
Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

For the first thousand years after the armies of Islam burst, like a tsunami, upon the unsuspecting empires of late antiquity, destroying the Sassanids and crippling Byzantium, it must have seemed inevitable that the heirs to the Desert Prophet would eventually win, and the crescent flag fly from the cities of Europe, as they flew over the towns that had created and cradled Christianity: places like Corinth, Hippo, Antioch and Jerusalem itself. They all fell under Muslim rule. A grim foreboding seized Christendom, a sense of the inevitable failure of the struggle, a sense made more implacable by the loss of the Crusader Kingdoms and the dribbling away of the crusading impulse under the weight of its contradictions and the rivalries of the kingdoms of Europe.

It was like trying to fight the rising tide. Waves flowed up the beach, and back again, sometimes seeming to recede, but always returning and gradually washing higher, sweeping away, like sand castles, defences that had once seemed firm.

Looking back, with the historical ignorance that now informs most Western debate about Islam, we seem to have forgotten how desperate the struggle was and how doomed it must have seemed. And each time one Islamic dynasty failed, it was replaced by another, more dynamic and more expansionist than the last. So as the Abbasids declined, they were replaced by the Mamluks, and then, finally but no one knew that, the Ottomans. Under the Sublime Porte, Rome – in its eastern Byzantine form – finally fell and the Ottomans advanced into south eastern Europe, conquering Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, turning the Black Sea into an Ottoman lake and twice beseiging Vienna.

The flow was all one way: Muslim advance, Christian retreat. The only exception was the centuries long Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain, once the brightest, most brilliant civilisation of the Islamic world.

The key to this centuries long strategic difference was Christian disunity compared to Muslim unity. The Islamic world saw a succession of strong, centrally organised empires, exercising a long-term unity of purpose directed towards military expansion. The Christian world featured innumerable competing, squabbling, fighting kingdoms, mainly concerned with protecting themselves against the ambitions of their immediate neighbours than the doings of the Sultan. What’s more, as kingdoms coalesced in the late Middle Ages to become the ancestors of modern nations, the Sublime Porte became a most useful ally in the diplomatic/military dance against Holy Roman Emperor/France/Venice/Papal States (delete adversary as applicable). Then, when Europe fractured in the great break up of the Reformation, the skilled diplomatic service of the Ottomans found it had even more fissures to exploit.

For the Venetians, consummate players of the game and thus not trusted by anyone, matters came to a head in the second half of the 16th century as their trading interests and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean were gobbled up by the Ottomans. With Cyprus beseiged, they decided to act, and with the pope, Pius V, an enthusiastic advocate, set about forming an alliance to act against the dominant Ottoman navy – which had not lost a battle for centuries. The problem was, the Spanish, the other main members of the Holy League, were perpetually beset by money worries and the last thing King Philip II wanted to risk was his very expensive ships. The Mediterranean, with its calm waters and long calms, was ideally suited to galleys – but feeding, supplying and paying the men needed to man a galley was wildly expensive. So Philip, for form, joined the Holy League but left his commanders in no doubt that he wanted to avoid battle if at all possible.

But as fortune, and family, would have it, Philip had trusted the command of the Holy League to his half brother, Don Juan of Austria, telling him to avoid women as well as battle. Don Juan had no intention of doing either and, after many months, brought the bickering, quarrelling fleets of the Holy League to face the Ottoman navy at Lepanto.

Capponi points out how battle became inevitable in part because both sides were convinced that they were the stronger. In the end, the Holy League won, and Capponi gives a detailed and convincing account of the battle, a confusion of gunsmoke, burning ships and drowning men.

For the first time in centuries the Ottoman advance was halted. It might have seemed like just another sandcastle, standing before a retreating wave only to be overwhelmed when the sea rose again, but it turned out to be the start of the turning of the tide. Capponi is a master of the historical sources, particularly on the Christian side, and this is a fine account of one of the most definitive battles in history. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, fought at Lepanto, dragging himself from his fever bed to do so and losing the use of his left hand as a result of the wounds he suffered during the battle. Yet even so, he could say:

What I cannot help taking amiss is that he charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see.

 My only real criticism of the book is that the publishers skimped on the proofreading: there are far too many typos and infelicities of translation. Otherwise, excellent.