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.

Book review: The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham & Martin Ryan

The Anglo-Saxon World
The Anglo-Saxon World

Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.

Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.

England’s Last Wilderness

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding
Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back
Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

Our Lady of Montserrat

Our Lady of Montserrat
Our Lady of Montserrat

On 25 March 1522 a young soldier hung up his sword in front of a small statue. He crossed himself and looked at the dark features of a crowned woman and the child seated upon her knee, hand raised in benediction. Then he turned and limped away, his leg still weak from the cannonball that had wrecked it. He would wage war no more. The man was Ignatius of Loyola and he would go on to found the Jesuits. The statue was the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and she would go on to greet pilgrims by the million.

Black Madonnas – that is pictures or statues of Mary that depict her with dark skin – are widespread through the Catholic world and often come with a reputation for working miracles. Theories as to why Mary should be represented thus vary from the spurious (they’re really depictions of Isis and Horus) to the practical (centuries of candle smoke have stained them) but whatever the reason they always seem to evoke popular devotion. La Moreneta, or ‘Little Dark One’ as the Virgin of Montserrat is usually called, is no exception. Pious enthusiasm dates the statue to St Luke in the first century, po-faced scepticism to the 12th. Whichever is true – and there is also evidence for the statue having been hidden from the Moors and then rediscovered in the ninth century – what is certain is how quickly the statue became a major centre of pilgrimage from the 12th century onwards. This was no doubt helped by the identification of the mountain as the site of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parsifal. But what really swung it was the miracles. And it certainly didn’t hurt that King Alfonse X ascribed miracles to Our Lady of Montserrat in his canticles, songs composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin that are still sung. For when all is said and done, one can gauge the popularity of shrines by their results: those that produce get the pilgrims, those that don’t fade into obscurity. By these standards the Little Dark One must still be doing the business: even today more than two million people visit each year.

(This article first appeared in the Time Out Barcelona guide.)