Channel Five’s reputation for history programmes has risen greatly over the past few years. At the heart of this, first in a Great Fire of London series with Suzannah Lipscomb and the ubiquitous Dan Jones, has been the “engineering historian” Rob Bell, who has toured bridges, ships, buildings and lost railways in his own amiable, enthusiastic but authoritative style.
Now, only four days after completing series two of Britain’s Lost Railways, Bell is back, touring some of our great battlefields. The series, initially shown on 5Select, starts at Bannockburn, progresses to Hastings, Watling Street, Bosworth and Naseby, as well as Kett’s Rebellion. Perhaps the six episodes could have been shown chronologically by the battle years?
The third, fourth and fifth shows, however, do form a neat triangle in the East Midlands, if you accept the suggested location of the Battle of (the very long) Watling Street. Featuring historians such as Matthew Lewis, Julian Humphreys and Mike Ingram, the hangun (or arquebus) is described with respect to Bosworth, as is the evolution of the musket to the forms used at Naseby, together with commanders such as Fairfax and the Bohemian brothers: Rupert and Maurice.
Following an unsuccesful Viking raid in 924, the battle of Maldon took place in August 991 and the result was a victory for the Norse invaders. Byrthnoth, the Essex earldorman who led the Saxons that day, was among those killed and Ethelred II instituted payment of the “Danegeld” to pacify the Vikings. This Byrthnoth statue (left), consequently, is displayed and a tapestry marking the millennium is part of the Maeldune Centre, to which we shall return.
Just over a mile from the town centre is Beeleigh Abbey, where Isabel Countess of Essex (Richard’s aunt) was buried, together with her Bourchier husband and son, before they were moved to Little Easton by her grandson, then Earl of Essex, at the time of the Dissolution, as were the Mowbrays and Howards in Thetford. The Abbey is closed nowadays, although it can be viewed from the gardens, which remain open.
This Essex town, by the Blackwater Estuary and the narrower River Chelmer, lies about six miles from Witham and was previously accessible from there by train. This plaque (left) by the Moot Hall details the more recent historic buildings, many of them on the High Street. The Rose and Crown (bottom) is one of these, down the hill and still in operation as an inn today.
The Maeldune Centre itself lies at the Market Hill junction, by Coes. Across the road is a long redundant church (St. Peter’s), which was adapted by the Maldon-born Thomas Plume (1630-1704), Vicar of Greenwich and Archdeacon of Rochester, to place Maldon Grammar School on the ground floor and his extraordinary private library (below left) on the first. The school has moved on but the Plume Library, funded by the income from nearby farmland, still stands.
Here, in a structure open only eight hours a week and accessible by a spiral staircase, the books are arranged by size and are not lent but have been stored since Plume’s time and a modern volume is very occasionally added. The collection relates to Plume’s interests in theology, history, science and philosophy, as well as the Civil War that plagued his youth. Some of the leather spines on the books are disintegrating although the pages themselves are in good condition.
Plume’s collection also includes a notable range of portraits, including all the monarchs of his lifetime and others from Edward IV, but excluding Edward V, the first two “Tudors” and Jane. The portraits include other clerics, including an “unknown divine”, whilst that of Charles I was made before his beard made an appearance. Groups can visit only by appointment and the total capacity is limited to twelve, including the staff.
So, to view a good portrait of Richard III and the former burial place of his Bourchier relatives, as well as some other history, Maldon is certainly worth a day out. All Saints, the contemporary civic church, houses the remains of George Washington‘s great-grandfather.
During the Wars of the Roses, was there ever a deliberate policy of depopulation? By that, I cannot think of an example. Destruction, yes. Killing off the other side’s armed forces, yes. But the annihilation of towns and villages? Or of castles and strongholds, which were surely regarded as great prizes. So how could there be a complete scorching of the earth?
I raise this question because of something I have just read in John Dunkin’s The History and Antiquities of Dartford. The introduction to this work describes Caesar’s first arrival in and advance through the county of Kent. He landed on 26th August, 55 BC, perhaps at Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet, see this article, and left again thirty or so days later.
According to Dunkin, the Romans encountered armed resistance when they reached Detling, where they camped for the night in preparation to cross the Medway at Aylesford. There was a rather nasty battle with the Cenimagni, the local Britons, involving stakes rammed into the riverbed to pierce the oncoming Romans. However, Caesar was triumphant and the Cenimagni leader, Caswallon, was forced to submit.
Caesar continued north, the Dartford area being his next port of call. Close to Hextable, he came upon a large circular mound, called ‘Ruehill Wood’, where the Cenimagni had their stronghold. It was a wonderful vantage point, and more substantial than the Romans expected, with sturdy stone buildings, and he set about destroying it. Completely.
Then he was wrong-footed, because, rather sneakily, Caswallon began to attack the Roman camp on the coast, obliging Caesar to turn around and hurry back. He certainly hurried, that’s for sure, and boarded his ships to sail away. He would return, of course, but this was the rather ragged end of his first invasion.
Why have I described these events? Because, again according to Dunkin, Hasted in his History of Kent hints that the site of the Ruehill Wood fortress could ‘perhaps [be] the remains of depopulation occasioned by the Wars between the houses of York and Lancaster’. Why the Wars of the Roses? Why not the Civil War? And why should the site have been anything other than ancient? Hasted also states that the manor of Ruehill or, now, Rowhill, ‘was, in the reign of King Edward [not explained which Edward] in the possession of the family of Gyse’, and proceeds to give the manor’s descent through several lords to as late as 1778. So Ruehill/Rowhill certainly wasn’t annihilated into extinction during the Wars of the Roses. Besides, if it had been, we’d surely know of it, even if just as a legend.
This manor house is now the Rowhill Grange luxury hotel and spa, and still commands a great vantage point. However, I cannot think it retains much of the original manor.
So why would this site have ever been thought of as anything other than Caswallon’s levelled fortress? And why would Hasted light upon the remains being the work of devastating depredations during the Wars of the Roses?
Well, the link below is about the 450-acre Duncombe Park estate and house, which has provided the backdrop for the latest film version of The Secret Garden. The interest for Ricardians can be found in the following extract:-
“….This impressive medieval fortress was built in stone in the 13th century and has passed through the hands of several noble families – it was once owned by King Richard III.….”
Until now, I have not encountered any of the books of Gilliam Tindall, but some of them look as if they may be of interest to us. The one I came upon is here, which I intend to get, because I have always loved the beautifully detailed work of Wenceslaus Hollar, about whom I am eager to learn more.
But Gillian Tindall has written other books which may be worth a look …
This famous painting, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, is so well known that it barely requires introduction.
It should be noted though that, contrary to some analysis, the fact that the children are wearing colourful clothing does not of itself make them “Royalist”.
Parliamentarians often wore colourful clothing too, and many of them wore their hair long – not cropped. Equally, supporters of the King often appear in portraits wearing black. Black happened to be fashionable, and it was also an expensive dye. So a suit of black implied your wealth, especially if cut from fine cloth. The mother of the children, standing in background, is wearing black.
Clothing was, in fact, more a matter of class distinction than political.
At the Battle of Marston Moor, one of the Parliamentary generals, Sir Thomas Fairfax (not this Royal ancestor), passed through the Royalist lines by the simple expedient of removing his “field sign” – without which he was indistinguishable from a Royalist officer.
It should be explained that up until the creation of the New Model Army (which wore red) regiments were clothed in whatever colours their colonel chose, so you could have regiments wearing (say) blue on both sides of a battle. Officers naturally wore their own clothes and equipment – nothing so lowly as uniform for them! Hence the “field sign”. This was usually improvised on the day. It could be something as simple as a sprig of barley worn in the hat, depending, of course, on what was available.
This excellent Channel Four programme, presented by Professor Alice Roberts, with Dr. Ben Robinson in the helicopter, has returned for a new series. The early venues were Dover (World War Two, visiting the underground base, concentrating on the retreat from Dunkirk and subsequent Channel defence, meeting some survivors, wearing ATS uniform and riding in a tank), her home city Bristol (Georgian, with slavery, gin, chocolate and great architecture featured) and Cardiff (where coal and the Marquess of Bute brought much prosperity in the Edwardian era, before it could supplant Machyllenth as Wales’ capital).
The series then moved on to Oxford to illustrate the Civil War sieges, where Alice Roberts’ Worsleyesque love of dressing up saw her in New Model Army uniform, playing real tennis and viewing Charles I’s ersatz capital. Episode five illustrated Plantagenet Canterbury, featuring St. Augustine, Becket, Chaucer, the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. We were also shown a copy of the Magna Carta. The last show was about Stewart Stirling, where she visited the Castle and walls, brewed beer, played with a replica antique football and visited a well, illustrating how individual Stewart monarchs were vulnerable, even to internal opposition, but the line was secure.
I have just watched a truly aggravating documentary from this 2014 series. In particular the episode called “Secrets of Westminster”.
It starts with the tomb of Edward the Confessor…for which they show the correct tomb, yes, but then include a lot of lingering close-ups of the tomb effigy of Richard II. The implication is, it seems, to inform the viewer that what they were seeing was the Confessor.
Then there was a section about Henry III…erm, showing Edward III. Again, no mention of Edward, to keep the viewer properly informed. Just the same hint that the tomb was Henry III’s.
The last straw for me was when they showed the wonderful roof of Westminster Hall, of which they spoke in glowing terms as being 11th-century. There was no mention at all of the hammerbeams, angels and so on actually being the 14th-century work of Richard II, who remodelled and improved the entire hall.
So I cannot recommend this awful programme, even though it was interesting in many other respects. The trouble was, I could not help wondering how many other bloopers there might be? Could anything be trusted, and taken at face value? Did Guy Fawkes really try to blow-up Parliament? Was Charles I really executed? Or were both stories muddled up. Maybe Charles was the one who tried to blow-up Parliament? And Guy Fawkes marched into the Commons and started the English Civil War? Who knows?
So don’t bother to watch it, unless you want to sit chucking missiles at the screen. You take your chances with the other episodes in the series. I won’t be viewing them.