Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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Black Bishop

Not Bishops Muzorewa or Sentamu! This is the black bishop in chess, but is the conflict really on a chess-board? Towards the end I evoke legends of Arthurian kingship and conflict. Like many of my characters, the Black Bishop feels a sense of duty and the reality of a role, but cannot define either. He (she?) is at once priestly and mystified. I recently posted on “My very own archetypes” and the Black Bishop seems to me to draw on three of them – the Wounded Magician, the Ignorant Soldier and the Watcher – perhaps even the Rider.

 

BLACK BISHOP

 

I am the black bishop, charged to strike

With marvellous speed along diagonals

Unable to go up or down, condemned

To follow one colour only until I fall

Or sleep. I am the lord of sidelong charges.

 

I am engaged in a cause we do not know

I am a soldier in a war we did not start,

And what we fight is like a mirror image

Of what we think we are. There have been wars, I think,

On this terrain before, and those dead struggles

Direct our own: the strings are pulled from far.

I am the priest of all the unknown altars.

 

I am a dream that I have long become

I am a comrade of the warring ghosts

Whose squares and files advance, collapse, reform

Into the mists that grizzle the warm night

My extreme unction’s carried like a mortar

My dying will be by a seep of water

I would not know from blood: I am the wandering order.

 

Here is the blade she gave me by the boardway

Across the marshes that are dried and ploughed

Here is the word I could not speak when grasping

The grooved hilt. For what did I take the sword?

I’ve written in my living will and dying

It should be taken to the fence-fanged pond

Survivor of the marshes, where a lady

Unknown, unseen, may take it in her hand

And that is all, though I apply the book and wand,

That I, blind soldier, fight to understand.

Instead of poetry, I thought I’d talk about wheelchairs, and quarries, and Halloween masks, and ponds, and knights in armour, and wheelbarrows and rainstorms…

While poetry can be a subject, as in the academic study of poetry, it’s really a mode of communication that can be about anything. In the 18th century the opinion grew in Western Europe that there were subjects and words unsuitable for poetry, which should be genteel and uplifting. Uplifting maybe – via the depths – but poetry need not be genteel. Its immediate or apparent subkect-matter can be anything, even wheelchairs, quarries, Halloween masks, knights in armour, wheelbarrows or rainstorms.

TIME AND MOTION

The wheel of the wheelchair, slewed a little sideways

Looks like a spinning wheel, a wheel of fortune

A union of things, a reconciling;

But it has moved, the scene is shifting.

“A wheelchair user” – could be to bring home shopping

Or charge at inconsiderate cyclists yelling

The wheel is latticed by strong light and by shadows.

The aircraft rests, the wing is a fine sculpture

Voluptuous, a curve and line creation

The aircraft flies, at height in the blue sky the wing, though glittering

Vanishes in the implacable mark of movement.

The sharp white rose has grown to these red berries

That look like spots of blood or scattered jewels

Though they will fall and rot, the rule of briars

Spreads over the abandoned ironwork of the quarry.

This is one of those poems where I’d struggle to give a coherent, rational account of what it said. A spark for it was sitting in a Quaker meeting, opening my eyes and finding them fixed on the wheel of the wheelchair opposite me, which had been struck by rays of light. It seemed beautiful – but it might seem very different to the man using it or those close to him. That led me on to an aircraft that also looks beautiful in a way that seems to have little to do with its function, to carry people long distances. The aircraft at rest is an object, but high in flight our eyes are caught by a movement rather than by the object moving: the aircraft seems to lose its identity. The once ugly quarry becomes wild rose-bushes whose fruit becomes mush becomes more rose-bushes and the quarry is transformed.

So I suppose it’s about things seeming different from different anges, about change and about beauty and perception.

The poem contains rhymes and half-rhymes as well as alliteration, but not in any fixed pattern. It’s a good example of what I think can be achieved by long lines which invite you to speak them and not just look at them.

HOME VISIT

The thing has great cold staring eyes

Teeth small, sharp, regular, too regular;

Garish in burning red, shut cupboard black,

Rowing-boat green, it holds your eyes

Like headlights looming down the road

Just for a moment – it’s a mask.

It’s Halloween.

If those small hands took off the cold-eyed face

A child’s eyes would be behind,

I think, and our experience shows.

But if as an unusual trick

The easy shedding of the mask

Revealed another staring mask

What streams would then begin to run?

The body with the broken belt

Dug up with a few strands of hair

Still clinging to the skull will watch,

With that same cold expression, swirls

In the dark water of the pond

Where something old begins to stir;

The broken house with marks of flame

Through the square windows holds their eyes

Who clamber to the town they knew.

We have made all things fresh, and now

Through the unmasking of the dark

Nothing will be the same.

Halloween is an ancient pagan institution, seen as a time when the parallel spirit world could invade the familiar human world. The idea survived alongside Christianity into the 17th century in Britain, whence it spread to America; but modern Americans have made a big thing of Halloween in a way foreign to Britain. Recent growth of “trick or treat” in mild forms in Britain is an American import and already seems to be dropping off.

I refer to a child in a scary Halloween mask. Science Fiction programmes like Doctor Who make full use of the real scariness of a mask, which is that we don’t know what is behind it. What if behind the mask were not a child’s face? What if the fear and horror were real? I then move to a scenario influenced by events in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia – communities torn apart by the sudden revival of ancient hatreds, mass murder and the destruction of towns. Evil has been unmasked – but the fact that the executed man’s body is being exhumed and that people who knew the destroyed town are visiting it with compassion suggests that we can fight the evil.

“THE STRANGER IS A FRIEND YOU HAVE NOT MET”

The armoured knights of 15th-century war

Were pretty well protected against arrows

Swords, pikes and lances, slingshots, dangerous dogs

Heavy hailstones and wandering wheelbarrows.

Unhorsed, they could be in a spot of bother

Being unable to get up again; moreover

While in their specialist gear, unlike the rank

And file, if moved, they could not get a legover,

Preserving thus the chastity of the knight.

This specialisation seemed extremely wise

Until the musket and the cannon came.

Today we’re trained to think of clear blue skies;

Sometimes the distant skies are yellow-brown

Or purplish-black: on blue we shouldn’t bet;

While welcoming the strange, remember this:

The strangler is a fiend you have not met.

This is a wry commentary on the slogan (added by a work colleague to her e-mails) of “the stranger is a friend you have not met”, which so easily becomes the entirely rational and sensible observation “the strangler is a fiend you have not met” (or you’d be dead). The excellent armour of the late medieval knight would stop anything likely to be projected at him, but if he fell off his horse or the horse fell, he was in big trouble – and when projectiles arrived with a bigger punch, the best armour was a death-trap. Business consultants, motivational speakers and jargon-drunk managers talk of “blue sky thinking”, which is necessary, but so is envisaging the worst things possible (storm skies).

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Forlorn Hope

Usually I’m reluctant to post any discussion or explanation before the poem as I feel it may unduly influence people’s reaction. In this case, though, the poem is deeply historical and specific to a place and time; it also draws on my unusual degree of knowledge about those specifics. So I need to explain.

At Cambridge I studied History and in the third year we had to specialise a bit, selecting one topic for a detailed study. I chose “Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution”. I’ve remained fascinated by the Civil War and Commonwealth (= Republic) period ever since. I found most sympathy with the more radical people on the Parliamentary side and this poem reflects their experience.

A “forlorn hope” was a military term for a small cavalry detachment – but it’s also, of course, a hope with very little chance of success.

The “Good Old Cause” was the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause and it extended well beyond the Civil War. Examples are “Where’s your Good Old Cause now?” (person in the crowd to Major-General Harrison – “regicide” – when he was being taken to be executed after the rstoration of the monarchy. Harrison: “Why, here it is,” (touching his heart) “and I go to seal it with my blood.”  Sidney, aristocratic Whig about to be executed for his part in the Rye House plot against Charles II some twenty years later: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…”.

I’ve mixed three political ideas in the first verse: the common Parliamentary one that the King was not outside or standing over the law, but subject to it;  the more radical one that the people should be sovereign; and the radical idea held by the Levellers that the English people were a subject people since their conquest by the Normans in 1066 and the Civil War had been a war of liberation. “The Norman yoke” was a phrase commonly used to express this idea.

After the King’s defeat in the war and the taming of Parliament by Cromwell, senior miltary officers (Cromwell the foremost) were widely seen as “the new lords” or “grandees”, though they did strive to limit their own power and find some kind of new political system. “For what, then, did we fight and die?” echoes the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborowe responding to Cromwell’s defence of a social hierarchy of nobles, gentry and yeomen – “If this be true, then for what did we contend?”.

The last verse reflects bitter disappointment after the Restoration and yet (history justified) hope that all would not be lost in the end.

 

FORLORN HOPE

 

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

 

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

 

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

 

Knight at Arms

KNIGHT AT ARMS

Riding a jet-black steed

In snow-white armour clad

He aims for noble deed

In war of good on bad

He seeks the Holy Grail

In purity of thought

No failing on the trail

Will have him lured and caught

He’ll sacrifice his life

Or any other’s too

The outcome of the strife

Depends on being true

And noticing the stain

From some unlucky beast

Or villager’s loud pain

Would shamefully have creased

His shining banner and cause

So quickly he rides on

Ruled by his Order’s laws

But where the light has shone

It travels not with him

And all his noble death

It stays on blood and skin

Impure and loving breath.

The Knight at Arms is anyone prepared to kill for a cause without compunction.