Thursday, 14 December 2017

Invasion! Archaeology, Genetics, and National Myths

A major new BBC television series, presented by the maritime historian and archaeologist, Dr Sam Willis, sets out to tell "the stories of the invasions of the British Isles" from earliest times down to the modern era. Appropriately enough, Willis begins by insisting that "invasions come in many forms:" glaciers and pigs, as well as marauding foreign warriors, such as the Saxons and Vikings, can be "invaders." The supposed "Celtic invasions" of the Iron Age, he tells us, probably did not happen in the conventional sense (they may, instead, have been "fashion invasions"): and there may even have been a "foodie invasion," between Julius Caesar's brief military intervention of 55/54 BC, and the more definitive Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD; in which Britons were "softened up" by the Romans, through imports of wine, olives, and fish sauce from the Mediterranean. There is little, here, with which I would necessarily disagree.

This narrative, however, is somewhat undermined by the production team's insistence on interspersing the comments of Willis and various specialist contributors with CGI-enhanced "reconstructions," showing hordes of hairy warriors charging across fields, variously waving (depending on the period in question) spears, shields, battle-axes, clubs, swords, bows and arrows. Even in Willis's script, there is much talk of the "wholesale replacement ... through violence" of one population by another, and almost no mention of (for example) trade, or intermarriage; as if the replacement of one population by another could ever have been achieved by male warriors in the absence of women - none of whom appear in the reconstructions until the actress, Gina McKee, appears in the character of Boudica from the recent production at Shakespeare's Globe (which production I very much enjoyed, but as drama, not history). The programme sets out, in Willis's words, to bridge "the gap between myth and reality" (the myth being that of British exceptionalism), yet in some respects reinforces a national myth of the British as not merely an "Island Race" (Winston Churchill), but as an unusually martial one.

The "wholesale replacement" of one population by another is something that has probably happened very rarely in human history. The European colonisation of some corners of the New World between the Fifteenth and the Eighteenth Centuries may have come close, but this was largely down to the deadly pathogens (smallpox prominent amongst them) which Europeans inadvertently carried with them, to which the native populations had no immunity. Prehistoric Britain and its continental neighbours however, had contact with one another over dozens, if not hundreds, of generations prior to the postulated "invasions," making this scenario far more difficult to believe.

The prime example of "wholesale replacement" in the first episode of Invasion! (I ought to clarify that I am writing this having seen only the first episode) is that of the "Beaker People:" these are the people referred to as "Semona" (an entirely fictional name) in my novel, "Undreamed Shores". In the archaeological record for the period 2900-2500 BC, a new package of material culture appears across disparate areas of Europe. This package includes a distinctive form of drinking vessel, the "bell-beaker," together with some of the first tools of copper and bronze, and gold jewellery, and is associated with changes in burial rite, ritual practice, and settlement.

Artefacts of the "Beaker Culture" from Germany. Photo: Thomas Ihle (licensed under GNU).

Copper dagger of the "Beaker Culture" from Brandenberg, Museum of Prehistory and Early History, Berlin. Photo: Einsamer Schutze (licensed under GNU). 

The distribution of elements of the "Beaker Culture" in Europe, based on research by Professor Richard Harrison (image is in the Public Domain).

In my earliest academic publications, written between twenty and thirty years ago, I argued (though I was by no means the first to do so) against the idea that this complex necessarily reflected a mass migration of people: my model, in fact, was rather closer to Sam Willis's idea of a "fashion invasion," although this was not a term that I used. By the time I came to write Undreamed Shores (2012), the discovery of graves such as that of the "Amesbury Archer" (on whom I based the character of Arthmael) had led me to revise this opinion, at least to some extent: the "archer" was, demonstrably, an immigrant to the British Isles, and not from the near continent, but from central Europe (the evidence for this, incidentally, is isotopic, not genetic - it is based on analysis of the water that he drank as an infant, a mineral record of which is preserved in his teeth). Accordingly, I depicted Arthmael as a foreigner, but not an "invader:" nothing in the archaeological record for southern England suggested to me then, or suggests to me now, a large-scale military invasion (which is not to deny that violence sometimes broke out, as it does in the novel), still less a "wholesale replacement" of one population by another.

Reconstruction of the burial of the "Amesbury Archer," Salisbury Museum: "Beaker" burials tend to be individual, whereas earlier Neolithic burials are often collective. Photo: Richard Avery (licensed under CCA). 

Replica of a copper halberd found with an oak handle at Carn, County Mayo: weaponry does feature in "Beaker Culture" assemblages, and some skeletons show evidence of violent trauma; the rejection of a "wholesale replacement" hypothesis does not depend on an assumption that relationships were always peaceable. Photo: Thefuguestate (image is in the Public Domain).

Barbed and tanged arrowheads from the burial of the "Amesbury Archer:" these are likely to have been weapons of war, rather than hunting equipment. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 

Bell-beakers and associated artefacts are only ever found in a minority of burials in the British Isles, and only in some parts of the country. The burial of the "Amesbury Archer," in many ways a classic "Beaker" burial, was found close to the extensive settlement of Durrington Walls, which was certainly occupied during his lifetime, and where he himself may very well have lived: but where most households continued to use the older Neolithic style of pottery ("Grooved Ware"), and where few objects of copper or gold were found.

Gold ornaments found in the grave of the "Amesbury Archer:" previously described as "ear-rings," such objects may, rather, have been worn in the hair; some of the earliest gold and copper objects in the British Isles have been found with "Beaker" burials. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 

When, in the first episode of Invasion!, I heard the suggestion that the "Beaker People" originated in the steppes of the Ukraine and southern Russia (where "bell-beakers" have never been found), I rather assumed that someone on the production team had been reading a text-book of the 1940s or 1950s, when such interpretations were in vogue (before the widespread adoption of radiocarbon dating in its modern form).

The "Kurgan Hypothesis" for the spread of Indo-European languages, wheeled vehicles, and the horse. The hypothesis was popularised by the Lithuanian/American archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, in the 1940s and 50s. "Kurgans" are burial mounds in the Pontic Steppe, superficially similar to the "Beaker Culture" burials found further to the north and west. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU). 

Out-of-date textbooks pose an occupational hazard for programme makers and historical novelists alike, but so do untested summaries of very recent research. Someone on the production team must surely have read an article in "Nature" Magazine, by Ewen Calloway, dated 17th May 2017, and summarising DNA research by a team led by Inigo Olalde and David Reich of the Harvard Medical School. This research does appear to resurrect Marija Gimbutas's "Kurgan Hypothesis," and to suggest the replacement of earlier British (but not continental) genomes by the "Beaker People." Calloway's article, however, carries a fundamental health warning, to the effect that the research has not yet been through the standard scientific process of peer review. The findings seem to be based on an analysis of just nineteen British "Beaker" skeletons, and thirty-five earlier ones, which, it strikes me, is a very flimsy basis on which to build a hypothesis at variance with the available archaeological evidence. As my colleague, Marc Vander Linden, of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, has commented, this is "not at all the end of the story."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Who were the Scythians? Warriors, Herders and Traders of the Eurasian Steppe

In an earlier blog-post, I explored the question of "Celtic" identity through a review of an exhibition at the British Museum, and a related BBC television series. The British Museum's current major exhibition is on the Scythians, an even more elusive people: it is subtitled "Warriors of Ancient Siberia," but the Scythians (as the exhibition itself makes clear) were so much more than this. Certainly they were warriors, and, as such, perfected the art of mounted warfare, and the technology of the complex bow, to a greater extent than any people before them, and in ways that would influence the military history of Europe and Asia for centuries after their time. They were also herders, goldsmiths, and traders, and their domain extended from Siberia in the east to the Black Sea in the west.

Gold plaque depicting Scythian archers, which would probably have been sewn onto a garment, probably from Kul-Oba (Crimea). Photo: World Imagery (licensed under GNU).

The Scythians are the earliest in a succession of historically documented peoples whose natural environment was the steppe belt that connects Europe and Asia (later examples included the Huns, Goths, Turks, and Mongols). These vast, grassy plains were unsuitable for ancient agriculture, and thus could not support settled, urban communities, but were ideally suited to a nomadic lifestyle, with the herding of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The settled communities of the Greek, Persian, and Chinese worlds feared the sometimes violent incursions of their nomadic neighbours, yet they also depended on them for access to goods that they valued.

The Eurasian steppe belt, indicated in blue. Image: Clivius (Public Domain).

Scythia and Parthia (Persia) in c 100 BC. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU).

The steppes of Kazakhstan. Photo: Togzhan Ibrayeva (licensed under CCA).

The Greek historian, Herodotus, seems either to have met Scythians, or to have met people who had traded with them, but he would have known nothing of Siberia. His Scythians lived along the northern shores of the Black Sea, including the Crimea: he refers to more or less settled communities of "Royal Scyths," who regarded the truly nomadic Scythians to the east as their slaves. Archaeological evidence suggests that these "Royal Scyths" had a taste for Greek wine and metalwork, which they probably obtained in exchange for Chinese silks and Indian spices.

Electrum vessel from Kul-Oba (Crimea), found between the feet of a woman in a Scythian royal grave, 400-350 BC; Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. Photo: Joanbanjo (licensed under CCA).

The design from the Kul-Oba vessel; the man on the right is stringing his bow, whilst the one on the left wears a diadem, similar to that worn by the principal (male) burial in the grave; all wear trousers, a characteristically Scythian garment (image is in the Public Domain). 

Gold ornaments from the Kul-Oba grave, showing Greek influence; these would probably have been sewn onto clothing; Cabinet des Medailles, Paris. Photo: PHGCOM (licensed under GNU).

Relief from Behistan (Iran), showing the Scythian King, Skunkha, as a captive of the Persian King, Darius the Great. Photo: (reproduced with permission).

At the other end of the trade route, in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, close to the modern borders of Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, lived other groups of more or less settled Scythians, whose elites lived a similarly "royal" lifestyle, based on their close trading contacts with the Chinese. The archaeological evidence from Siberia, which is well represented in the British Museum exhibition (many of the artefacts on loan from The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg), is of particular interest, since frozen conditions have allowed for the exceptional preservation of wooden objects, textiles, and even human bodies, some of which have elaborate tattoos.

Gilded wooden deer from a royal grave at Pazyryk, Siberia, c 400 BC. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 

Part of a carpet from the Pazyryk burial chamber; possibly made in Persia or Armenia, it is the oldest surviving wool-pile carpet in the World. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Painting on a felt hanging from the Pazyryk burial chamber. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Gold plaque from Siberia, thought to represent a resurrection scene from Scythian mythology. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 

The Scythians were never a united people, and may not even have shared a common language. Those around the Black Sea seem to have spoken a language allied to modern Iranian, whilst others may have spoken Germanic, Turkic, or Mongolic languages. As highly mobile traders, however, their elites are likely to have been multi-lingual, and they seem to have initiated the complex network of overland trade-routes that would later be referred to as the "Silk Roads," connecting Europe and the Middle East with India, Central Asia, and China, and which continued to operate, in a myriad of different forms, throughout ancient and medieval times, until they were finally supplanted, in the late Fifteenth Century, by maritime trade routes controlled by the Portuguese and Spaniards.

The British Museum exhibition, which runs until 14th January, includes a wealth of spectacular objects, never previously seen in western Europe, and shedding important new light on our shared European and Asian heritage.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: December

The Medieval approach to "The Festive Season" could hardly have been more different from our own. The festivities, which today culminate on the 25th December, could not begin, in the Middle Ages, until Christmas Day, and, in order to respect the religious solemnities of the festival, the exchange of gifts more commonly took place towards the end of the season, often on New Year's Day.

Nativity scene, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 18v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

In place of the modern commercial bonanza, with "Black Friday," "Cyber-Monday," and "Small Business Saturday," Christmas was preceded by twenty-four days of fasting and penance, as Christians prepared to mark the arrival (adventus) of Christ. Rich foods, and especially meat, were set aside. The Fifteenth Century Franciscan, James Ryman, complained of the fare served in his priory during Advent, that: "we ete no puddynges ne no sowce, But stynking fisshe not worth a lowce."  Other sources, however, suggest that, in the private homes of the wealthy, a rich variety of fish and seafood were served, elaborately prepared in spiced sauces.

Saint Ambrose, with a border of mussel shells, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain). 

Saint Laurence, with a border of fish, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain).

Then, as now, the season was marked by the telling and retelling of particular stories: not only the familiar ones about the Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, but also those of Saint Nicholas (a Fourth Century bishop in what is, today, Turkey, who resuscitated some children whose remains had been salted by a butcher during a time of famine, and whose feast is celebrated on 6th December); Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr, celebrated on 26th December); and the Holy Innocents (the children supposedly massacred by King Herod, commemorated on 28th December); even the story of Adam and Eve, whose sin created the need for Christ's redemptive Passion.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Philip the Bold, c 1370, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 20v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

Saint Nicholas, De Grey Hours, c 1390, National Library of Wales MS 155370 f37p (image is in the Public Domain).

King Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents, Black Hours, Morgan Library MS M493, c 1475 (image is in the Public Domain).

Then, as now, also, there were specific pieces of music, including "There is no Rose of Swych Vertu," "The Boar's Head Carol," and "The Coventry Carol." Some of the stories were enacted in puppet-shows, and, whilst Saint Francis, in 1223, may not actually have been the first to reenact the Nativity as a tableau with live animals, he and his followers certainly did much to popularise such practices. There were no Christmas Trees, as such, but the Elizabethan commentator, John Stow, found a document of 1444 (it has not survived), describing a tree erected on Cornhill in London (almost certainly the "great shaft" which, in the Spring, served as a maypole), "nailed full of holme and ivie."

A puppet show, 13th Century, MS 251, Brugge (image is in the Public Domain).

When it came to the festivities themselves, turkey and roast potatoes would not have been on the menu (they did not arrive in Europe from the New World until the Sixteenth Century). Richard de Swinfield, a Thirteenth Century Bishop of Hereford, held a Christmas feast that included boars' heads; beef; venison; partridges; geese; bread; cheese; ale; and wine. King Richard II's Christmas feast of 1377 required the slaughter of twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep. Game of various sorts was often a feature of such feasts, and hunting scenes are frequently depicted on the calendar pages for December.

Hunting in December, Hours of Hennessy, 1530, Royal Library of Belgium (image is in the Public Domain). 

Hunting in December, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c 1440, Musee Conde MS 65, f12 (image is in the Public Domain). The building in the background is the Chateau de Vincennes.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 4 - "Now is the Time," by Melvyn Bragg

The Black Death, which swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353, was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, killing between 30% and 60% of the continent's population. In crowded cities, such as London, the figure may well have been higher. The shortage of labour pushed wages up, both in the cities and in the countryside, and the attempts of governments, including that of King Edward III in England, to use legislation to keep wages low, and keep peasants tied to the land, unsurprisingly failed (unsurprising, that is, for anyone who has a modern understanding of economics). Of those who survived, many did well, taking over land that had belonged to their dead relatives (and, sometimes, land that had belonged to other people's dead relatives). Families in the countryside sent their sons to the cities, apprenticing them into trades that their own parents could never have afforded for them. The children of peasants became City goldsmiths and vintners: some of their grandchildren would become university-trained lawyers, working in the City whilst their wives managed their estates. 

When the young Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, as King, he inherited a kingdom in economic turmoil. Decades of war with France, brought to an abrupt curtailment by the pestilence that had scythed down thousands of fighting men on both sides, had left, in their wake, a mountain of debts. Richard's government responded by imposing poll taxes: four pence for everyone over fourteen years of age in 1377; three pence for everyone over the age of sixteen in 1379; an average of twelve pence per person in 1381, supposedly linked to the individual's ability to pay, but this qualification was often ignored. When high-handed royal officials attempted to collect the taxes by force, they met resistance, not, for the most part, from "peasants," but from literate community leaders and small-scale landowners, men cut from the same mould as Geoffrey Chaucer's Reeve and Franklin.

The "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381 is thus miss-named: its leaders were not peasants (even if their grandparents had been) but yeomen and artisans. The men of Kent, led by Walter ("Wat") Tyler (who probably was a tiler by trade), and the men of Essex, led by the priest, John Ball, converged at Rochester, and marched on London in June of that year, determined to gain redress from the King. They seem to have had at least some support from Londoners, who joined them in burning the palaces of the King's hated advisers. Xenophobia also played its part, the homes and workshops of Flemish weavers targeted by London apprentices.

The meeting of John Ball (mounted, at right) and Wat Tyler (in red, at left) at Rochester, from the Chroniques of John Froissart, 1470, British Library Royal MS 18E I f165 v (image is in the Public Domain).

Melvyn Bragg's novel, Now is the Time, follows the course of the revolt as the rebels march towards, and into London, and afterwards, as they are hunted down, and their leaders executed. It is a novel of multiple viewpoints, including those of Tyler and Ball, and that of the King's mother, Princess Joan.

"After Tyler and the men had gone to the Thames, John Ball stood on a mound sufficiently high above the crowd ... The priest's stillness brought a responding quiet among the massed congregation. The spot was some distance from the Corpus Christi Fair, which had begun in innocent gaiety as if nothing at all unusual was happening, He began: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?' His words sang across the heath, reaching many of the gathered multitude. It was a couplet he had used before, a simple couplet easily remembered, Inside its simplicity was the promise of a new life. In those few words his congregation were back with the firstborn of God, in the Garden of Eden ... In their rebel state of hope, apprehension, hunger, longing and frustration, they were ready to be captured by the spell of this man. Then the words, repeated with all his strength, rang like the peals of a bell and they were taken up and chanted back to him by the eager thousands ... "

Richard II addressing a deputation of the rebels from a ship at Greenwich on 12th June, 1381, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart, 1401-1500, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain). 

"Tyler looked over to the city, smitten by its grandeur. It shimmered in the heat of the June day, he thought. It glowed, like, he imagined, the Holy City of Jerusalem. Such a Tower, so many steeples, such a number of boats on the snaking Thames, and the bridge across it crammed with workshops, merchants, taverns, butchers, bakeries ... Walter Tyler had told the rebels, 'This will be ours.' And John Ball, unmoved by the romance of the place that had captivated Tyler, had said, 'There is the city of all wickedness, which must be brought down."

The Chapel of the White Tower, where Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer, two of Richard II's most detested advisers, were seized by the rebels on 14th June, 1381, and led to execution. Photo: Crux (licensed under CCA).

"Late on that hot June afternoon, on Corpus Christi Day, the Savoy Palace was to be erased. Fire and the axe were the chief weapons. Some of the rebels, once over the bridge, fed and plied with unaccustomed wine - peeled off down Fleet Street. They broke open the Fleet Prison. By now some of the most vicious gangs in London, those who had just escaped hanging, were reassembling and they saw heaven in the anarchy on the streets. Man of the people of London who were on the side of the rebellion had scores to settle and now was the time. Moneylenders could be threatened, grievances addressed, bad neighbours attacked. Robbery could seem like sympathy with the rebellion. The law began to crumble."

The meeting of Richard II with the rebels at Smithfield, on 15th June, 1381. On the left, the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth slays Wat Tyler. On the right, the King leads the rebels towards Clerkenwell Priory, allowing Walworth to secure the gates of the City of London. British Library, Royal MS 18E i-ii, f.175 (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint John's Gate, Clerkenwell Priory, 1880. Photo: Henry Dixon, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

The rebellion was suppressed, its leaders executed. Peasants, the King insisted, would remain peasants. Yet no more poll taxes were levied, and, for all the words of the King and his advisers, the age of Feudalism was over. The "True Commons of England," in whose name the rebellion had been undertaken, were coming into their own, whether in the City, the market towns, or the countryside.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: An Interlude

As the Roman administration of Britain collapsed, during the course of the Fifth Century AD, London was progressively abandoned. Urban life becomes impossible in a land without reliable infrastructure: some Londoners probably took refuge on the continent, still, at least nominally, under Roman rule; others melted away into the countryside, where they could, at least, produce their own food, and where they were less obvious targets for increasing numbers of Saxon pirates.

The Pagan Saxons from northern Germany, who had, at first, come to Britain as mercenaries, and then as raiders, now came as settlers, but the walled city of Londinium, with its high wharves, had little interest for them. They established their city, Lundenwic, to the west, in the area that is now Covent Garden, running parallel with what we call "The Strand," then literally a strand (or beach), on which they could haul up their shallow-draft open ships, with their cargoes of Baltic amber; Russian furs; and Irish & Scottish slaves.

Earl Medieval brooch (650-670 AD), found with a woman's burial at Covent Garden. PAS/British Museum ID 257458 (licensed under CCA).

In the Ninth Century, new Pagan raiders, the Vikings, began attacking the now Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. During the winter of 871 AD, they camped within the ruins of the old Roman city, fortifying it against the possibility of an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack. Having expelled the invaders, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, took the decision to resettle the walled city, beginning in its south-western corner. Lundenwic was abandoned, and Lundenburh was born.

London Wall outside the Museum of London. Photo: (licensed under CCA).

In the decades and centuries following the Norman invasion of 1066, the military and spiritual defences of the city were developed and enhanced. William the Conqueror built the White Tower, the first element of the Tower of London, in the city's south-eastern corner; he licensed his knights to build other fortifications, Chastel Baynard and Montfiquet Tower, to the west; and he began the construction of Saint Paul's Cathedral. Within a few centuries, these constructions were joined by around a hundred parish churches (many of them tiny, but built in stone, unlike most of the houses, which were of wood and thatch), and dozens of monasteries and priories.

The White Tower. Photo: IncMan (licensed under CCA).

The Norman St Paul's Cathedral digital reconstruction based on a model of 1908. Photo: Bob Castle (licensed under CCA).

The Medieval London Bridge, as depicted by Claus Visscher in 1616 (image is in the Public Domain).

Perhaps surprisingly, I struggled to find novels to reflect this period of almost a thousand years in London's emergence as a city and port. There are, doubtless, plenty of novels set in this period, in which at least some of the action happens to take place in London (if only because many of the leading royal and religious figures of the time spent much of their time here): but, for this series, I was seeking something more than this; novels in which the city itself is, at least to some extent, a character in its own right. If such novels exist for this period, I have not read them.

I therefore return to the first novel that I explored here, Edward Rutherfurd's "London," who covers the period in a series of interlinked stories: "The Rood" (604 AD); "The Conqueror" (1066); "The Tower" (1078-97); "The Saint" (1170-72); "The Mayor" (1189-1224); and "The Whorehouse" (1295); in all of which fictional characters mingle and interact with historical figures of the time.

The Rood.

"Above the wooden jetty, a small group of buildings included a barn, a cattle-pen, two storehouses, and the homestead of Cerdic and his household, surrounded by a stout wattle fence. All these buildings, large or small, were single-storey and mostly rectangular. Their walls, made of post and plank, were low, only four or five feet high, and strengthened on the outside by a sloping earth bank, turfed over. Their steep thatched roofs, however, rose to a height of nearly twenty feet ... The floor of Cerdic's hall was slightly sunken, so that one stepped down onto the wooden floorboards covered in rushes. The space inside was warm and commodious but rather dark, since when the door was shut the only light came from the vents in the thatch, made to let out the smoke from the fire in the stone hearth near the centre of the floor. Here the entire household gathered to eat."

The Tower.

"The two men sat facing each other across a table. For a while neither of them spoke as they considered their dangerous work, though either could have said, 'If we get caught, they'll kill us.' It was Barnikel who had called he meeting in his house by the little church of All Hallows, which now overlooked the rising Tower, and he had done so for a simple reason. For the first time in the ten years of their criminal activities, he had jut confessed: 'I'm worried.' And he had outlined his problem. To which Alfred had just offered a solution. When Alfred the armourer looked back, it often amazed him how easily he had been drawn into the business ... It had all started ten years ago, the summer that Barnikel's wife had suddenly died. All Barnikel's family and friends had rallied round, taking turns to keep him company. His children had encouraged the young apprentice to go too. Then, one evening, just as he was leaving, the Dane had put his huge arm around Alfred's shoulders and muttered into his ear: 'Would you like to do a little job for me? It could be dangerous.'"

The Mayor.

"A long-nosed man on a piebald palfrey was leading an elegantly mounted lady and two packhorses over the quiet waters of the Thames and into the city of London. The man was Pentecost Silversleeves. The lady was Ida, the widow of a knight, and despite herself she had just started to weep ... As she looked at the city before her, it seemed to Ida that the world had turned to stone. The great walled enclosure of London seemed like a vast prison. On the left she could see the thickset stone fort by Ludgate. On the right, down by the waterside, the grey, square mass of the Tower, surly even in repose. All stone. Over the two low hills of London covered by houses loomed the dark, high, narrow line of Norman St Paul's, dreary and forbidding ... as the horses' hooves clip-clopped softly on the wooden bridge in the morning quiet, the sound of a striking bell came over the water with a solemn, sullen sound, as though it, too, were made of stone, to summon stony hearts to stony prayer."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Memories of the Festival of Britain

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having arrived at Waterloo Station, can exit via the Victory Gate, crossing the busy York Road to the South Bank Centre, an arts complex that today includes the Royal Festival Hall; the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room; and the Hayward Gallery (the National Theatre and National Film Theatre are not, technically, part of the centre, but are in close proximity, and broadly share its modernist, concrete architecture).

The land between Waterloo Station and the River Thames had been an industrial area up to the time of the Second World War, when it was badly damaged by bombing (Waterloo Bridge itself was damaged, and had to be hastily repaired, some have claimed by a largely female workforce, although historians have found this difficult to verify).

The Festival of Britain was conceived by the Labour Government, elected in the aftermath of the war, as "one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate affirmation of faith in the nation's future." The previous and future Conservative Prime Minster, Winston Churchill, saw it as "three-dimensional Socialist propaganda," although strenuous efforts had, in fact, been made to avoid the politicisation of the exhibitions. Perhaps Churchill, who was determined to preserve the integrity of the British Empire, objected to its exclusive focus on the contribution of the islands of Britain themselves to science, technology, design, architecture, and the arts (taking place over the summer of 1951, it consciously looked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, but lacked its international focus).

The Festival of Britain South Bank site, as viewed from the north bank of the Thames. Photo: Peter Benton (licensed under CCA).

The Festival emblem, designed by Abram Games (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).

The festival site on the South Bank received 8.5 million visitors (from a UK population of 49 million at the time). Not everybody was able to visit (my late mother recalled that, although her school in Sussex organised a visit, parents had to pay for their children's admission, which hers could not afford), but many who could not do so participated in linked events held around the country. There were few foreign visitors: a bomb-shattered London was, as yet, in no condition to receive large numbers of tourists. Two short video clips of the festival can be seen here and here.

Visitors sitting outside the "Dome of Discovery" in 1951. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

The Skylon was a sculpture, 300 feet (90 metres) high. It was demolished when the festival ended. Photo: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). 

The Royal Festival Hall is the most tangible remnant of the festival: built on the site of the former Lion brewery, its foundation stone was laid by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Its inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. It continues to host prestigious concerts and literary events, but also remains one of London's most authentically democratic cultural spaces, accessible to everyone, with food and drink to suit all budgets, and plenty of room in which informal meetings of book groups and discussion circles can take place, and students can work together on projects.

The South Bank Centre today, with the Royal Festival Hall to the left of the Hungerford Bridge. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

Fountains outside the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Sandpiper (image is in the Public Domain). 

Other buildings, including the "Dome of Discovery," were demolished when the festival ended, but the "Telekina" became the National Film Theatre, and the area has been a cultural quarter ever since, subsequently expanded to include Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe to the east. Architecturally, the festival had pointed towards the ways in which a wrecked city could be rebuilt relatively swiftly and cheaply, sing modern materials.

An indirect legacy of the festival is the Thames Path, conceived in 1948, but not actually opened until 1996: it now extends over 184 miles (296 kilometres), from the Thames Barrier in the east to the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire. It is to the west, along this path, that we will take our next steps in exploring the Borough of Lambeth.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.