Tag Archives: opinion

THE MAYORS OF NORWICH

There have only been Lord Mayors of Norwich for just over a century; before then the position was Mayor plain and simple. That was established in 1404 under the Charter of Henry IV. The first Mayor was William Appleyard, a prominent citizen whose house in Bridewell Alley is now the Museum of Norwich. Some famous names have been Mayor down the years. In 1846 for example the founder of the famous mustard business Jeremiah Colman held the position. The first Lord Mayor was Ernest Blyth, whose title was conferred mid-term in 1910. The current Lord Mayor is Martin Schmierer, leader of the Green Party in Norwich since 2016. He was born in Germany but came to Norwich as a seven-year old. Martin is the second member of the Green Party to be Lord Mayor of Norwich. At 31 he is probably the youngest councillor to become Lord Major of Norwich (I don’t think anybody has taken the trouble to research this thoroughly). He attended the Norwich School, where he was a contemporary and friend of my son Peter. Peter has returned from London to attend the Mayoral ceremony on July 7th. After attending the afternoon tea party with Martin he joined the Mayor on his Procession through the City centre. The theme this year was The Circus.

Some other Lord Mayors of Norwich have included the notable author Ralph Mottram, who was appointed for the year 1953/54. Sir Arthur South was another Lord Mayor; he was a prominent Labour Party politician who was also appointed during the 1950s. The South Stand at the Norwich City Football Club has nothing to do with the points of the compass – it is named after Sir Arthur. What is now less well remembered is that he also had a business in the city; it was a shop selling furs. This is now a very non PC business – so much so that such establishments (called furriers) no longer exist. Fake fur may still be purchased, but even this is frowned upon by many. Poor Sir Arthur lived into this period of severe dislike of fur. For some reason people will still tolerate leather goods to a certain extent, but merely to venture a millimetre further to the fur that grows on the animals’ skin is to bring the whole weight of popular disapproval down upon your head. Unless they are vegetarians people will happily eat animals, but are shocked at wearing their fur.

The book The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich by Phyllida Scrivens was published earlier this year (2018). It covers the 17 women who have held the position since 1923, when Ethel Colman became the first. She was the second daughter of J. J. Colman, nephew of Jeremiah. He  it was who brought mustard making to Carrow. (She commissioned the pleasure wherry Hathor, which we saw moored outside Howe Hill on the river Ant on the 2nd June 2018.) Ethel Colman was obviously a powerful lady, being one of the first female deacon at Princes’ Street Congregational Church, among other things. She was unmarried, as was the second female Lord Mayor – her name was Mabel Clarkson and she was a member of the Liberal Party like Ethel Colman.

Mrs Ruth Elsie Hardy, Lord Mayor 1950-51.

The third Lady Lord Mayor, Ruth Hardy (née Peachey), was the first to be a married woman. She had risen from the lowest level in society (unlike her two predecessors). Her father earned a living catching rabbits, and she worked her way up from the bottom, beginning as a pupil teacher. She was a forceful character and became a leading light in the Independent Labour Party before the Second World War. I was too young to remember her period of office in 1950, but I met her many times during the twenty-five years thereafter. This is because she was my great-aunt.

Local government has a long history in Norwich. It has developed, particularly in the 20th century, first in the title of the senior member of the council, and then by including people of both genders in that role. The payment of expenses is a relatively recent feature. The 19th century mayors had no need of remuneration, being such people as brewers, architects and insurance magnates. Those of a humbler station in life (such as my great aunt) had more need of financial support. Although in her time she was granted few expenses, there were other subtler ways of gaining from the position. Until the end of her life I continued to benefit from Marks and Spencers’ shirts which she passed on to me. These were returns from which the labels had been removed, but were otherwise perfectly serviceable. It wasn’t much, but this was one of the perks of having been Lord Mayor! No doubt there were others.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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DEPRESSION

Depression is widespread in the modern West; common certainly, and an affliction it may be, but I don’t see it as a mental illness, as many claim it to be. Why? Well you could say that it seems quite logical to be depressed about our prospects, both on an individual level and as a species. We ultimately have no future, on this earth at least; ages after we have all passed away the whole world will be destroyed, along with everything we know. For what reason is being depressed about this fact seen as abnormal?

Before you regard me as a very sad person I must make one thing crystal clear; I am almost never depressed myself. In this respect I think it must be me rather than the rest of you who is acting strangely. Why am I so happy in the circumstances? I will come to that, but first I have some more observations to make about depression. You only have to run through some of the unpleasant side effects of antidepressants to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease; nausea, constipation, weight gain and drowsiness (or alternatively weight loss and insomnia) are just some of them. The loss of sexual appetite is sometimes also cited as an undesirable side effect, but in the circumstances I would call that a positive boon. I have no problem sleeping, and I am of about normal weight, so as you might have guessed I have never taken antidepressants. It is not these pills that keep me so jolly, but without them there would be a lot more depressed people about.

Why is this prevalence of depression such a factor today? In spite of what I have said it is a mystery to me; life has always been depressing if you let it be, but everything is so much more comfortable now in every way. The lack of anaesthesia, infant mortality, no retirement for most people, even widespread hunger; things really were grim in the past. Yet depression was not a major problem back the days of yore, or if it was no one talked about it. Perhaps people were far too busy merely surviving to bother about anything else; and this brings me to my recipe for avoiding depression.

In my late teens I was in danger of being deeply depressed. I remember lying in bed one morning, and I was not merely depressed but positively terrified at what the future might hold. Those awful things have indeed mostly come to pass; many of those who I loved have died, and I myself have been quite severely disabled. All those years ago I resolved to ignore anything that I could not alter, for what is the point of worrying about the inevitable? Living for the present has worked well for me, and it is a much better way to resist depression than medication or visits to the psychotherapist. Also it costs nothing, neither to one personally nor to the National Health Service.

The other way to avoid depression is to laugh a lot; I defy anyone to feel depressed with a smile on their face. The two things are incompatible; even a wry smile will do. People have often remarked how I laugh a lot, and sometimes they complain that I laugh when there is nothing (in their eyes) to laugh about. But if you didn’t see the funny side of life it would really be a tragedy. As I said in the beginning, it is quite rational to see life in tragic terms, and maybe it is mad to laugh about it; nevertheless, it is infinitely preferable to see the ridiculous side of things. Would you rather laugh or cry?

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE MEANING OF LIFE

WEST PORINGLAND

West (or Little) Poringland was pronounced ‘West Pauling’ or ‘Little Porland’ in the days when it existed as a separate medieval parish. It lay between East Poringland and Shotesham. The church of St Michael had fallen into dereliction before the Reformation. It had formerly been administered under a curacy and in 1540 the spiritual needs of the small population were taken over by the Rector of Howe, although the church of All Saints in East Poringland was in fact slightly nearer. The poor of the parish were looked after by East Poringland, who also took care of the roads. The hamlet of West Poringland remained as a churchless parish for over three hundred years.

The site of St Michael’s church is in a farmyard off Shotesham Road, the only remaining vestige of the ancient West Poringland village. I imagine that the large pond and meadow between the farm and the road are what remains of the village green. All traces of the church have now been lost, but the walls still stood at just over shoulder-height in 1800. It was at this time that the land in the village was enclosed, and no doubt that was when the village green was incorporated into the local farm. In 1845 the village had a population of 57, compared with 520 in East Poringland. In 1840 there were four tenanted farms in West Poringland, all owned by the Lord of the Manor.

All the principal buildings and businesses were located in East Poringland – pubs, two windmills and a National School, set up in 1841 and still taking pupils a hundred and twenty years later when I was a lad. In the nineteenth century the surnames of Minns and Tubby were already known in the village, and both families were distant relatives of mine. My connection with Poringland arose from my parents moving there shortly before I was born, and the fact that it was also the home to these relations is coincidental.

JOHN CROME, PORINGLAND OAK

Leafy Oak Lane was a popular dog walking place for me and my sister nearly fifty years ago. This is in West Poringland. Dove Lane, which leads off it, and eventually ends up at the Dove Public House, was a green lane (i.e.not made up) and so no traffic passed that way; it was perfectly safe for our dogs who would happily run and sniff along the lane. Leafy Oak Lane is a lovely name, but most of the oak trees must have been felled a hundred years ago or more, and the fields now do not even have hedges. It is near where the Poringland Oak is said to have been, and as there is a pond where Dove Lane meets Leafy Oak Lane this may have been the exact spot where Crome painted his famous picture.

Unfortunately the local farmer had taken to dumping farm effluent in the pond some forty years ago, and the result was not pleasant. Luckily nature soon recovers, and although I have not been there for many years I am sure that the scene is again tranquil and serene.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

CONSCIOUSNESS and COGNITION

What is consciousness? Well, in one sense it just means being awake, and this is a common feature across most of the animal kingdom. Even a worm is conscious of stimuli; if you prod one it will wriggle. In people consciousness means more than just the opposite of being unconscious however; it means self-awareness among other things. Those other qualities include an ability to look to the future. In most people’s minds these are properties unique to humanity. Cognition is a different matter, and it means the ability to think. A high degree of intelligence is exhibited by other primates, and even my dog is much smarter than me in many ways (for example I cannot find things simply by sniffing them out). But can any animal conceive of this time next week? We cannot ask them, but nothing indicates that they can. Self-awareness and a knowledge of the passing of time are two aspects of consciousness, but no one can say exactly what consciousness is. There is no science of consciousness; it is embraced by philosophy, and it has recently been considered by psychologists, though without any success. Where it fits in the scheme of things is still a complete mystery.

I do not know how common my experience is with regard to consciousness, but I suspect it is quite rare. The dawning of my own self-awareness was (as you might expect) also my very first memory. I was sitting on the hearth-rug at home; then it came to me in a flash of inspiration. One minute I was just playing with something as toddlers do, and then suddenly I realised this basic truth; “I’m me!” The memory is still vivid, I can even remember the colour of the rug that I was sitting on. That was how it occurred to this individual, and in spite of its brevity, it was an awesome discovery. A lot of important things go with self-awareness. The concept of individuality is dependant on that of self, and so one needs to have an idea of what self means. The knowledge of good and evil too cannot exist without it. Returning to my dog for a moment, he appears to have a knowledge of right and wrong; he knows it is wrong to bite me, and right to wait until told to eat his dinner. But are these not just just my principles which have been instilled into him? If he had been allowed to grow up as a wild animal he would never have developed these traits.

The story of Adam and Eve is the story of the dawning of self-awareness. Until Adam took the apple humanity had no shame in nakedness, no knowledge of the approach of death and no appreciation of right and wrong. The Book of Genesis is an allegory that contains a deep truth; as I understand things in our post Darwinian era, at some stage in its evolution the animal that we came from became aware of itself, and that was when Homo Sapiens began. In a more personal sense it is a genesis that we all go through, and it comes suddenly like an electric light being turned on. It is me on the hearth-rug all over again. We have no way of knowing if it was a process that took many generations or not, but to me the knowledge of self is either something you have or something you lack. Can it evolve over time? Perhaps Homo Erectus or some progenitor of mankind had a dim awareness of self, but what ‘dim awareness’ means in this context is not clear to me.

It is on a more profound level than a purely scientific one that the idea of consciousness should be regarded. The rationalist whose deterministic universe has no place for such intangibles has nothing to say on the subject.  Yet self-consciousness undoubtedly exists. Perhaps theologians have a better understanding of self recognition. What is consciousness? Heaven knows.

joemasonspage@gmail.com

 JOSEPH MASON

 THE BLOG FOR THE MEANING OF LIFE

WORDS

I used to love words. This delight must go back to my very earliest days, when I first learnt to speak. What my first word was I don’t know (I was naturally far too young for consciousness to have dawned), but it was certainly ‘Ma’; this is how almost everybody start to speak, and it is always taken to mean ‘mummy’ ‘mama’ etc. My son was a slow starter in learning to speak, and an exception to this rule; when he did utter his first word he went straight into saying ‘marmalade’. That too must have meant ‘mummy’, but I like to imagine that he really did mean the orange conserve!

Be that as it may, he has grown up to be better at words than his old Dad; besides having a great command of English, he is also a fluent speaker of Polish and French; in any of these languages he can deliver a speech to an impressive audience of academics, so he must be doing it right.

Many people dream of using words to write a great novel, and perhaps get literary fame and fortune in that way. I am not one of them; I have never wished to write a novel. It is true that when I was about six or seven I did write a story in an exercise book, but that was a complete crib of R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, which was the first full length book I read. Since then I have never wanted to write any more fiction. I hardly ever read it either these days, although as an adolescent I read volumes of the stuff. George Orwell, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley to name but few; I threw my net wide – much wider than I have the space to tell you about here.

Poetry is another matter entirely; at one time I considered poetry as the highest form of art. My attention span will still just about run to a limerick or two, but today I look on words not as an art form at all; to me they are a means of communication. I have just had a book published, and in discussion with my editor I said I was not concerned with the words I used; she could alter them as she saw fit. All I wanted was to make sure that I got my meaning across. You can see my attitude to words has changed.

From the point of view of a foreigner there are far too many words in English. You can say the same thing by using a completely different vocabulary and yet still be intelligible. This is due to the different terminologies than make up our hybrid language. Each new wave of invaders added their own words to the mix. The blunt Anglo-Saxons laid the groundwork for the modern English language. This was composed of words of few syllables; all the common things like cats and dogs, cows and hogs, fish and fowl are all Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. The Viking invaders added some similarly brief Old Norse words that remain in the language, like fog, egg and knot. Next the Normans came and tried to impose their brand of French on the whole country, but instead just made English even more complicated. In the early modern era the educated elite came along and placed words derived from Latin and Greek into the stew. Finally words from across the world were added as the language followed the flag to remote areas, particularly India; the colonists returned with words like hullabaloo, veranda and bungalow. The result is that we are inundated with synonyms, all of which have a slightly different usage. This makes for a language of great richness but also one of great complexity.

The difficulties in English do not end there; there is also the matter of strange spellings, which often bear no relationship to pronunciation. Logically there should be one letter for each sound, but that is not so with English. ‘K’ and ‘C’ can have the same sound, although ‘C’ can also sound like ‘S’. Other sounds have no letter to represent them; although in theory there are only six vowels in English (and two of them, ‘I’ and ‘Y’, have the same sound), in fact vowels have multiple sounds. These can also merge into each other in dipthongs.  Other sounds have no letter to indicate their use. Take the words that use the letters ‘T’ and ‘H’; this digraph represents not one sound but three. Thames, thanks and thought all appear as if they should be spoken in the same way, but they aren’t. Take the last word in the previous sentence; Aunt and aren’t look if they should be spoken differently but sound the same. Who would guess that sauce and source sound identical? That ‘wait’ and ‘freight’ and ‘great’ all rhyme but ‘splint’ and ‘pint’ don’t? I could go on and on. The reason why English is so widely spoken across the world is all to do with the spread of the British Empire and nothing at all to do with it being an easy language to master; it isn’t. Quite honestly it is a crazy way to use words.

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF LANGUAGE

joemasonspage@gmail.com

 JOSEPH MASON

1968

I was a student in ’68; it was my first term at university and I was inevitably drawn into the protests that erupted across the West during that year. In the circumstances the international disquiet that was seen in many places in Europe and the US inevitably had its effect in the UK. It was inconvenient therefore that we, in this country, had little to protest about. Unlike the Americans, who definitely had something to complain about, we were not involved in the Vietnam war (thanks to Harold Wilson). We hadn’t been tearing up the cobble stones like the students in Paris either. Naturally, as this was France, sexual politics played a large part in these riots in the Latin Quarter, but in England this was not an issue. There were no widespread working class strikes in Britain to show that these protests involved anything other than the gilded youth of the upper middle classes having a bit of fun before taking up well paid jobs in medicine or the law. We were the baby boomers, those with less to protest about than any other generation before or since, but that did not stop us.

This was at Oxford by the way, and by the time that the events of May in Paris had sunk in it was the long vacation, so it was October before the undergraduates reassembled to consider their response. As there was nothing obvious to protest about we had to invent something. The student leadership came up with the demand that the University should no longer keep files on the students. I was dimly aware that some records were kept on us, but on sober reflection I now realise that they probably only included things like our Health Service and National Insurance numbers. I very much doubt that they held anything substantial about our opinions, which is what exercised the student body; there is little of substance to be known about the thoughts of teenagers after all. Nevertheless, I joined in the protests. I can remember standing in the square beyond the Bodleian, voicing our ridiculous demands. Some of us even occupied the main reception area of the Clarendon building. We probably screamed some meaningless slogans. In the supine way that the University Authorities have usually caved in to the junior members ever since, they did their best to accommodate us. With the recent case of the Rhodes statue they were about to defer to the activists yet again (and rewrite history in the process), but the matter was taken out of their hands by the alumni’s threats of withdrawing funding. Money talks louder than the most vocal student.

In 1968 they did what they could to placate the radicals but this is now totally opaque to me. I wish  that I had done something else – anything else – with my time; it would have been so much more productive. Still, for the most part, I got on with my studies and the ordinary activities of daily life. Let me give you a taster of what this entailed. I went down to breakfast while my scout made my bed (honestly), perhaps I attended a lecture, had too much to eat for lunch at the Chinese restaurant in Ship Street, wandered down to the Radcliffe Camera to snooze it off (in theory to browse the history books) and then had a pint or two at the Welsh Pony in George Street. I had dinner in Hall before an evening with Elizabeth Jennings at the Poetry Society. Back in my room I made a cup of coffee on the gas ring before retiring to bed.

As for the financial side of things, don’t forget all this was free; the university fees were paid for us without our being concerned about where the money came from, and even the beer and chop suey were purchased out of our generous maintenance grants. Students today cannot believe what a pampered lot we were. As the autumn turned into to winter it got too cold to go on demonstrations. We returned to our incredibly cosseted lives. We took prelims (the only exams we did in the whole three years before finals) and then went home in early December to prepare for Christmas. Downtrodden? No wonder we protested.

Joe Mason and Bill Wragge, Rimini 1968.

Fortunately it did not take me long to realise how foolish it all was. It was another demo, one involving Enoch Powell, that persuaded me that such direct action was pointless when it was not positively counter productive. Some of my contemporaries (like Peter Hitchens) took far longer to abandon their Trotskyist past, and a few have never done so. While I was not at Oxford I continued with my life’s routines of ordinary affairs, only they weren’t really ordinary at all. I spent the spring on the island of Guernsey (where my sister was working) and then went to Italy for a holiday with my friend Bill. There we  spent a morning going round the railway depot at Rimini (it was still full of steam engines); nobody seemed to mind. It was quite unlike a railway works in Britain – there were geraniums growing between the tracks! In Venice we enjoyed a trip down the Grand Canal in a gondola. Back in England I paddled my canoe on the sea off Lowestoft with my Dad, while catching dabs and plaice. These events were in every way far more real and rewarding than the all the intellectual nonsense of meaningless protests. However I must admit that the graffiti was witty; the walls of the colleges were still black with the grime of centuries of coal smoke (cleaning got underway in the 70s), and were perfect for chalking up cheeky messages . Yes, that was the best part of 1968 as far as Oxford was concerned: the rude epithets.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR HISTORY

COUNTRY SPORTS

FOXHUNTING

I want to make one thing clear from the outset; I have never hunted a fox, even when it was legal to do so. I would be very bad at it for a start. Nor did I ever have any wish to hunt a fox; perhaps if it was edible and I was starving I might have a desire to hunt it down, but with a fox this does not apply. With the fox it is all about the hunt.

It is hard to find a more basic animal instinct. The desire to hunt is ages older than humanity itself.  To watch a pride of lions tracking down their prey (on television of course) will tell you this. Nor do animals only kill to eat; see the results of a fox getting into the chicken coop. It is therefore rather naive to imagine that merely by passing a piece of legislation you can banish the urge to hunt to the past.

The Dunston Harriers at Wymondham for the Boxing Day Hunt

The argument between the foxhunter and the animal rights protester is vastly complicated by the class divide between those two opposing types. In their visceral hatred the interests of the fox itself often get overlooked. From the hunting pink of the clothes, to the riding of a fine piece of bloodstock, the whole picture of a hunt reeks of the upper class. This class hardly exists anymore, and the importance of foxhunting is entirely symbolic. The number of foxes actually killed by hounds was alway tiny, and has now been legislated out of existence. What do the protesters have left to protest about? Only the toffs themselves.

To make one thing clear; the muddy booted protesters do not represent the workers in any way. The working class too has mostly vanished from the land, but in as far as it exists at all it rather approves of hunting. In this case it is hare coursing rather than fox hunting that takes their fancy. All hunting with dogs has been made illegal, unless the prey is rats or rabbits (apparently these species do not feel pain). Fortunately for Jack Russells it is still legal to catch rats.

This ban is something that would be incomprehensible only a few generations ago. Whatever could possess the great and powerful to gather in Parliament to discuss something as trivial as whether a few foxes should be killed by hounds or merely shot? This, when real problems like burglary and violence go unchecked. The hunt protesters are middle class intellectuals, who have nothing in common with ordinary people. They do not really care about the fox either, except in a purely abstract way. What they really object to is the foxhunter. They do not gather to protest hare coursing; for one thing these meets are held in secret, but the largely polite way in which the foxhunting community tolerate the hunt protesters would not hold true among the hare coursing set.

It may be illegal to hunt any mammals with dogs under UK law, but it cannot be made illegal for dogs to hunt unsupervised. Dogs have no respect for human laws, only the law of the jungle, and that not only allows hunting but demands it. What is the position when you take your dog for a walk and it picks up the scent of a squirrel? The dog may have no chance of catching it, but he is hunting a mammal while theoretically under your control; sounds like a crime to me. What do you lawyers say? My dog once hunted a mouse who was unwise enough to enter our house. He never got near enough to touch it, but it was frightened to death nonetheless. It is just as well I was in bed at the time, to be on the right side of the law.

There are several hunts in Norfolk that still exist, though the hounds no longer pursue live prey. In theory the nearest hunt to me while I was growing up was the Dunston Harriers, though their kennels are near Long Stratton. Their quarry in those days was the hare, although (in common with all hunts) they now go drag hunting after a scent like aniseed. Slightly bizarrely they still have a closed season. Perhaps the man with the scent needs a rest – it must be quite tiring dragging that cloth across the countryside. The Dunston Harriers hold regular meets around the county, and at special tines of year (like Boxing Day) these are well attended by supporters.

The shooting of game birds and rabbits is still legal, and dogs are still allowed to retrieve the birds. The increasingly arduous requirements of shotgun licensing make this increasingly difficult however. I believe that, although hunting with dogs has been prohibited, it is still legal to hunt with ferrets; perhaps because ferreting has always been a sport of the lower classes and therefore does not enter the consciousness of the hunt saboteurs. Fishing is the other kind of sport that is still fairly easy to accomplish, though how long this will continue is anybody’s guess. The killing of most kinds of fish is already frowned upon, though the unlucky trout may still be caught for supper; also good luck to anybody who attempts to disgorge an eel of its hook without first cutting off its head. People have strange thoughts about cruelty to animals. They shudder at hunting foxes who live entirely natural lives; even being hunted is part of the law of nature.  But they will happily eat chickens almost daily, whose brief existence is constrained by appalling conditions; artificial light 24 hours a day, fed till they almost burst and squeezed in so tightly that they can hardly move. C’est la vie, c’est la mort.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

St ALBAN

St Alban is Britain’s protomartyr, that is the first Christian in Britain to be killed because of his faith. The period was around 270 AD, and at the time the whole of the Roman Empire worshipped pagan gods. Although Christian missionaries were operating throughout the Empire, they were routinely persecuted. Several of the early popes were martyred. This persecution was ended in 313 by the order of the Emperor Constantine, and thereafter he progressively introduced the Christian religion into the Roman Empire. He was himself baptised shortly before his death in 337.

What made this Roman Emperor so well disposed towards the new faith? It was the influence of his mother Helena. Helena must have been very attractive as a young woman, because, in spite of her lowly birth (by later report she was a stable-maid), she became enamoured of a senior Roman officer, who became Emperor in 293. It is doubtful that they were formally married, but that so humble a woman should have achieved the position of being mother to his successor is remarkable enough. That she was also a member of that persecuted minority, a Christian, was hugely significant. The fact that his consort was a Christian had little or no effect on her husband, who allowed the persecution of her coreligionists to continue, but with her son things were different. When his father died in 306 he was serving in Britain, together with son Constantine, who was acclaimed Emperor in succession to his father by the legions in York. It is immensely satisfying that such an epoch-making occurrence should have happened in this country.

In his early years his hands were tied by having to share power with two other emperors, but once he had defeated his rival in 312 he became sole Emperor. He was able to introduce his toleration of Christianity.

Roman glassware (found in Colchester).

Having given you some of the historical context of the death of St Alban, let me fill you in on some of the less contentious details of the story. (I will omit the more miraculous parts which inevitably crept into the story.) A Christian priest was being hunted down in Britain, and on his travels he came across Alban, who was living in Verulamium (now St Albans), to the north-west of London. Although not at that time a believer, Alban was well disposed to fugitives from persecution, and took the priest into his house. Being impressed by the sanctity of the man Alban became a convert. On hearing that a Christian priest was in hiding with Alban, the local magistrate sent a party of soldiers to arrest the priest. Alban dressed himself in the priest’s cloak and presented himself in his place. On discovering that Alban had enabled the priest to escape, the court imposed the same penalty on Alban that had been intended for the priest. He was whipped, but on refusing to indulge in a pagan sacrifice he was taken outside to be beheaded.

Within a few years the whole environment of the Empire changed, and a shrine to St Alban was established at Verulamium once Christianity emerged from the shadows. This first period of St Alban’s veneration was interrupted by the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons who destroyed the shrine in 586. Once the newcomers were themselves converted, a church was built near the place of his martyrdom. This is referred to in the History by Bede, from which book I take the story of St Alban. Bede died in 735 and King Offa II of Mercia founded an abbey in St Albans in 793. Less than a hundred years later the shrine was again destroyed by the pagan Danish invaders. It re-emerged when the Danes were pushed back from the London area. The Abbey’s high point came with the Norman Conquest, but hundreds of years of decay and destruction began even before dissolution of the monasteries, and continued up until the 19th century. Major repairs were then carried out to the Abbey, and the Bishopric of St Albans were created in 1877. Its constituent parts, Essex and Hertfordshire, were previously in the Diocese of Rochester south of the Thames; Essex was split off when the Diocese of Chelmsford was created in 1914.

So there you have the story in short of who St Alban was.  Considering the importance of Alban in the story of the Church in Britain, the long history of the settlement on the river Ver has been a chequered one. [Don’t forget to learn more about another local martyr, St Edmund. My book on this King of East Anglia will be published on April 19th at Jarrold’s shop in Norwich. Arrive at the Book Department from 6 p.m. for the presentation at 6.30: attendance and refreshments will be free. Enquire may be made at Jarrolds on 01603 660661.]

 

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR HISTORY

ST EDMUND and the VIKINGS

St Edmund was king of East Anglia in the 9th century; he was killed by the Vikings in the year 689 AD. In other words a very long time ago; but there is much new information about this Anglo-Saxon monarch, his people and their attitude to him as a saint, and their relationship with the Vikings. This is contained in a new book, St Edmund and the Vikings, to be published on April 19th. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in history. It uses a revolutionary approach to the period, one that you have to read to appreciate.  The new source material that the author has uncovered offers an amazingly detailed account of the year that ended with the death of the king. All the standard histories of this period use the same religious texts, which give a one-sided and biased view of the way in which contemporaries viewed him. According to the religious authorities he was a peace-loving man of God. This was not at all how he was seen by ordinary Englishmen; to them he was the hero who united the people against the Viking menace. No wonder some people refer to him as the first patron saint of the English. He was certainly that, and with reason.

Let me give you a hint of the way the Saint was invoked by the ordinary inhabitants of England, as they were hounded by the marauding Vikings. In the late ninth century these warriors landed on the island of Mersea in Essex. There the Viking invaders built ramparts to defend their camp against the local Englishmen, and these earthworks remain to this day in the North East corner of the island. When the Vikings left and the immediate danger had passed, the people of this Essex island built a church near the Viking camp that they dedicated to St Edmund, the saint who they hoped would defend them from any return of the unholy Danes in the future. In case you think this is just an isolated example, this pattern can be seen time and again round the coast of England. Even two hundred years after this attack on Mersea Island, the Viking were still descending on the English people, intent on warfare. When, for the last time, these Viking warriors tried to take over the country, they were defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. This victory was commemorated by a chapel built on the bridge; these river crossings frequently possessed a chapel in those days, but there was something special about this long-vanished building. Is it just a coincidence, or does the fact that the holy place was dedicated to St Edmund tell us something about his opposition to the Vikings? Surely it was to commemorate what the people saw as St Edmund’s help in defeating the Scandinavians that the chapel was dedicated to him.

So you must not expect this book to refer only to the way the Vikings killed the king; this martyrdom was obviously a very important event, but it was only the start of a long period of Viking aggression against the English. We can trace the various raids and battles between the two sides, and at every turn the saint appeared to support the English; nor is this only moral support. The most dramatic event was when the long-dead king returned to kill the Danish monarch Sweyn Forkbeard as he slept in Grantham, Lincolnshire; or at least this was what everybody believed at the time. There can be no doubt that this East Anglian king became the symbol of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Vikings; this is the most important aspect of the saint, and it is the theme of the book.

The book has other insights into the story of St Edmund. It sets out a convincing case for the location where the saint was killed, and the village where his body was first interred. His final resting place was of course in Suffolk at Bury St Edmunds, but initially his cult began in Norfolk. To find out where you must read the book.

The book, which is well illustrated with photographs in colour, is due to be published in April this year. It will be available from the launch day from Jarrold’s shop in the city, and from the publisher’s website on-line, via Ebay or you can order in from you friendly local bookshop. Do not hesitate to spend a few pounds on this exciting new work.

The author, JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

HISTORY

“Histories make men wise.” Francis Bacon

What is history? My father had a saying: history is everything up to now. This is true in a sense, but it is obviously impossible to study everything that has ever happened in the world. We have to extract stories from this mass of information, and in doing this we shape the past in ways that should enable us to make sense of it. A mass of meaningless incidents can be distilled into a few events, which can be made  meaningful. Of course a problem for historians is that the vast majority of evidence was never a matter of record, and even with the tiny fraction that was recorded, most of those records have been lost. However this problem is also a benefit; it narrows down the possibilities of history and makes it manageable.

It ought to be obvious that history should try to tell us objectively what happened in the past, but far too many historians attempt to make subjective judgements. This particularly true in the matter of conformity with contemporary custom. As observers we must all have opinions about the good as well as the bad, but these opinions will inevitably change over time; our attitude to capital punishment (for example) is very different now to what it was a century or two ago. The facts of history on the other hand do not vary with the changes in beliefs. There will always be scope for a certain amount of disagreement about what the facts of history are, and our interpretations of them may change, but factual opinion should not stray into assessments of moral rectitude. We should all be seeking the bare bones of history. We can never ignore morals, but these are the province of the study of ethics and not of history.

We can all agree that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066; we may be even more specific and say it occurred on the 14th October; we may speculate on the view of the Anglo-Saxons, as their land was irrevocably changed to Norman England. This all is a legitimate part of history. On the matter of the introduction of serfdom (equivalent to slavery) by the Normans we may deprecate it, but this is part of our moral attitude, and should not the concern of historians. We can all agree that we do not want serfs to return today, but whether the Norman Conquest was morally positive or not must surely be irrelevant after a thousand years. It happened; how and why is what we want historians to tell us, not to wring their hands over the evils of serfdom.

I think most people would accept this, but as we get closer to the present this distinction gets blurred. We may regard the history of Imperial Rome dispassionately, but it is much harder to take the same stance with the doings of the Fascist leader Mussolini; he was active in living memory. Yet he is as much a figure of the past as the Emperor Caligula. In comparison with the actions of the Romans, those of even the most extreme of twentieth century Italians were relatively mild (I could not say the same of the Germans). Nevertheless I think that the task of the historian is not to take a moral position, even in its most stark reality, with the appalling behaviour of the Nazis. I can do that for myself. I want to know what happened and why; the ‘should’ and ‘ought’ questions are important, but they are not within the remit of the historian.

I am well aware that many people disagree with my position and the distinction I draw is lost on many modern writers. For example, the history of the British Empire is a case in point. Like most empires it had its positive and negative sides, but none of us can do anything about them now. It is still very common to read highly politicised accounts of Imperial Britain. Is anyone writing about the Roman Empire as a great evil? Of course not. It is a fact of history, and although we may be appalled by the doings of the Emperors, this is only obliquely relevant to the nature of Imperial Rome.  What is important historically is what an Emperor did, rather than our opinions of whether he was a nice man or not. So there you have my opinion; history is about what happened, not a tract on the good or otherwise of those things.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

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