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Friday, 16th May 2008
History is what you make of it.

The book 1066 and all that deals in a humorous manner all those bits of history you remember from your school days. As you grow older history seems to become more fluid in interpretation. Perhaps it is just me but every day it seems some bit of history, once carved in stone is being revised.

If history has got anything to say about the present it is probably that it is very complicated and nobody can agree about anything.

One of the problems with history is that there is an awful lot of it and a great many people have been involved. Given this it is just not possible to cover it all. My education is English, best in the world which only befits a nation of heroes that single-handedly civilized the world, industrialized nations, fought tirelessly and victoriously the forces of evil while all the time being jolly good sports, you get the idea.

A resounding 3 cheers went up when we learnt about Drake singeing some Frenchman's beard. Afterall Calais was part of England anyway. I have a feeling the school dinner bell was ringing when the American War of Independence was being fought.

The tutor probably intended to spend a little more time on the topic but we had taken longer than expected over the colour of King George's urine.

' history is written by the victorious.'

All this might come as a bit of a surprise to those that have not ' benefited' from an English education. I say English because Hollywood has brought it to my attention lately that Scotland, Ireland and Wales seem to have slightly different perspective on things and the rest of the world seem to have come from a different planet.

How can it be that the rest of the world can be so wrong and a small island off the coast of Ireland so right?

It is often said, ' history is written by the victorious.' That might well be the case but it would appear to be revised by the powerful, everyone writes history in their own image. Once you realize hindsight is not an exact science, [although how looking out of your behind could be considered anything other than ill-advised is another question] and therefore you cannot trust the past, then things become shaky.

In 1912 Wills produced a set of 50 cards entitled, Historic Events. It very much has the feel of 1066 and all that, those bits of history you remember but have no particular connection or relevance to one another. Things were clearer back then Great Britain was both victorious and powerful just the right time for writing some history.

Card 1 is not the best of starts as the Romans have just invaded in the form of Julius Caesar. By card 4 things are looking up with Christianity being introduced by St. Augustine who becomes the first Archbishop of Canterbury [more on the dangers of that particular office later]. The front of that card looks very Hollywood Bible-blockbuster.

Card 5 shows a very downcast King Alfred who in 878 burnt some cakes and 1000 years later is remembered for little else, perhaps the poor fellow was having a premonition of just such a thing happening.

Although being a member of the Royal family today might mean you are liable to brutal assaults from the media; cards 7 and 8 remind us that things were a little more direct in the good old days.

Edward the Martyr was stabbed, March 18, 978 and William Rufus was killed by an arrow while out hunting in the New Forest. Which, incidentally, was also the place where 3 of William the Conquerors family died. Killing was a good way of getting to the throne and once you got there killing was a good way of staying there.

Card 10 shows the murder of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury due to an off-hand comment by Henry II. Give the fellow his due though when he discovered what his knights had done he was awfully upset.

Jumping ahead on the time line and to card 17

On card 20, we get Lady Jane Grey. After the death of Edward VI, 1553 there was something of a power vacuum and this poor woman obviously had not heard how dangerous being royalty was thought it would be a jolly wheeze pretending to be Queen. All went well for a week or two but she was rumbled and her head left her body Feb.12, 1554.

Calm before the storm

The murder of the Princes in the Tower is one of the great historical unsolved murder cases. Card 17 shows the two assassins, Dighton & Forest about to smother the young Edward V and his brother The Duke of York. The text of the card only goes so far as to say that most people believe Richard III, the twisted uncle had them murdered making his claim to the throne rather more secure.

Moving back in time which I excuse myself for doing because I can connect the name Edward between these cards.

Edward I decided the Welsh were a bit annoying so invaded their country in 1277. It took until 1282 to stop the Welsh being difficult about this [card 12]. It did give him the opportunity to give his son the title Prince of Wales and build a lot of castles so it was not all such a bad thing. Quite far sighted of the fellow to set-up all those tourist industry opportunities.

Henry VIII had a disagreement with the Pope over marrying so many women so decided to invent the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey became the centre of much power during that period.

Unfortunately Wolsey grew fatter than the King which annoyed Henry and he seized Wolsey's property and then charged him with treason. It is all there on card 19, apart from the fat issue.

As if the tension between Royalty and religion was not complicated enough, to make it extra exciting Protestants thought they would liven things up a bit. Unfortunately things got a little hotter than anticipated when Bloody Mary got on the throne. She took a pretty dim view of Protestants so decided to throw some light onto the situation by burning as many Protestants as she could get her hands on. Card 21 shows Latimer & Ridley being roasted alive on Oct.16, 1555.

It looked like things might be just as grim when Elizabeth I got to the throne but luckily she decided those annoying Europeans needed a good kicking something most of the Brits could agree upon whatever their religious beliefs.

Card 23 has Raleigh doing his best to look comfortable in an incredibly uncomfortable looking chair. Things are going to go from bad to worse as his servant is about to throw a mug of beer over him not realizing Raleigh was enjoying a smoke rather than being on fire. Raleigh is probably better known for the incident with Queen Elizabeth. I will let card 24 explain.

Details from Card
Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh. The story of Raleigh's introduction to the Queen is thus related by Fuller (1662): "Raleigh found the Queen walking, till meeting with a plashy place she seemed to scruple going thereon. Raleigh spread his new plush coat on the ground, whereon the Queen trod, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his free tender of so fair a footcloth."

Elizabeth might have been keen to stop persecuting her own people but this was not to last.

Remember the Protestants suffering? Well by 1604 it was the turn of the Catholics. This brought about the gunpowder plot. The idea was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars of the building checking over the gunpowder barrels. We remember the event every year on Nov.5th with a firework display which over the years has killed and maimed more people than Guy Fawkes ever did.

Card 32 shows Charles II hiding in an oak-tree. A very famous event which if all the pub-signs and local legends are to be believed he repeated just about every time he saw an oak, something of a party-piece one imagines. You can imagine the scene as the Royal Procession moves about, 'Where art Charles?', 'Look yonder, cannot thoust see his stupid head poking out of that tree?'

Once Charles II had escaped to France Cromwell rose to power. Card 33 shows him dissolving Parliament and later he was to make the wrong type of thoughts punishable by law, very progressive.

July 21, 1704 depicts the capture of Gibraltar. Clearly the locals were not as keen to be British citizens as they are now. The Spanish have never really grown to appreciate the British presence. Card 36 shows us rowing ashore after bombarding the town for six hours, which given other examples of British Gunboat diplomacy was quite a bit of bombarding.

Battle of Plassey, The English making themselves popular on another continent.

The South Sea Bubble appears on card 37. This economic disaster could perhaps teach us a second valuable lesson about human nature. The card explains, ' The mania for gambling and stockjobbing surpassed all bounds.' Bogus companies were floated on the stock-exchange for any number of ridiculous ideas. The card mentions extracting silver from lead (which sounds like a darn good idea, got to get me some of those shares, it certainly sounds more feasible than extracting coffee from dates). Eventually somebody realized all this was very silly and the bubble bursts ruining thousands of people in the process. Man is basically a greedy lazy pack animal and for our society to exist and grow my theory is this has to be the case and I happily put myself squarely in the middle of that pack, sleeping on a warm rock in the sun. lovely.

Card 41 depicts the Battle of Plassey, 1757 in which 3000 men defeated 70000 in revenge for the ' Black Hole of Calcutta'. This battle certainly improved our grip on India if not exactly improving relations with them.

June 1st, 1794 saw the British navy giving the French fleet a severe mauling known as the Glorious 1st of June, in Britain anyway. Card 43 naturally shows an unscathed British ship sailing past a badly damaged French vessel. The British fleet had projected British power since Elizabeth I and it was to remain that way for about 300 years. A few years after the issue of this set the Battle Of Jutland was to shake that authority.

Card 48 is unusual because it shows English failure with the retreat from Cabul where a rebellious element within Afghanistan harried a British retreat to such an extent that there was only one survivor a Dr. Brydon who got to Jellalabad. The card shows the fellow coming in, heroically defeated on his retreat.

The final card was quite probably the inspiration for the entire set, the funeral of Edward VII.

So there you have it, a set of cards depicting a series of events unconnected by any visible thread produced during the last days of the old order. In a few years war like no other would explode upon us after which nothing could ever be the same again.