Monday, October 25, 2010

The man who changed the course of English history... (and I bet you’ve never heard of him).

Last year, we visited the mighty stone edifice that is Salisbury Cathedral. The interior space is just amazing, and walking underneath the massive scissor columns which have managed to hold up the 7,500 ton stone steeple you really do get a feel of the majesty of man’s homage to God Almighty.... How on earth did they manage to build this thing without it all crashing to earth? It’s like they’ve built a massive medieval anti-gravitational device with thousands of tons of stone suspended above our heads...

Down the centre of the space are a few monumental tombs of the great and the good.. Their stone effigies atop each tomb have been knocked about a bit – a nose chipped here, a finger missing there and a few puritan-inspired graffitos etched neatly into a couple of their foreheads. Most of them had an interesting story to tell. One bloke had actually fought alongside Henry V at the battle of Agincort in 1415. The guy next to him however didn’t appear to have done that much – and what’s more, his nose had received a fearfully bashing...

His name was, Sir john Cheney. And that is all that was said about him really. I took this pic’ of him for posterity..
Fast forward to this summer and I read a fine book on the Battle of Bosworth field and the events leading up to it. The psychology of a battle – Bosworth 1485 by Michael K. Jones is a worthy analysis of an epic event which defined the end of the viciously internecine civil war of the roses, the end of the middle ages and the end of the great royal York dynasty. And as I’m reading it, a name, pivotal to the outcome of the battle is mentioned – and what’s more, I recognised the guy as the man who is laid out in Salisbury Cathedral.

For those not familiar with the battle, the fate of King Richard centred on Lord Stanley’s involvement. Although provisionally promising allegiance to Richard, Stanley, his brother and their great private army held firm on a hillside overlooking the mayhem. They finally came down in favour of Henry Tudor. As they made their way to the ranks of the usurper Henry, Richard realised the game was up. Spurning a chance to leave the field and save his life - in a last, desperate attempt to win, Richard led a cavalry charge of knights specifically aimed at killing Tudor who was sheltering to the rear of his army. They came up against a phalanx of Tudor’s pikemen – the only way through was to dismount and fight hand to hand. As they hacked their way ever closer, Henry’s standard bearer was run through and killed by Richard himself.

Contemporary accounts tell of Richard fighting like a man demented, screaming “Treachery, treachery, treachery” as he fought for his crown – and his life. He was literally within striking distance of his great adversary when Sir John Cheney, the man from Salisbury Cathedral rode his horse between Richard and Henry. Richard’s impetus was halted, his shockwave stopped. Richard struck out at the knight’s horse. Steed and rider tumbled to the ground but by then, Henry’s personal bodyguard had rallied and Richard of York fell, hacked to pieces at the feet of Henry Tudor, the royal usurper.

But for Cheney and his horse getting in the way as Richard was about to strike down Henry, English history would have been very different. Richard’s English army had been defeated, Henry and his army of foreign mercenaries had triumphed largely because of Stanley’s treachery.....

The rest as they say, is history.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Growing history... Rufus oaks.

In September last year we spent a few days camping in the New Forest. I'd never been there before, so seeing assorted pigs, ponies and donkeys meandering down busy highstreets of the pretty bustling towns was somewhat of a shock.

The whole area is weird - but in a good way. The locals seem to know the importance of keeping hold of their idiosyncratic traditions - and watching a line of traffic grind to a halt as a couple of donkeys ever-so-slowly crossed a busy road at the height of the rush hour seemed to confirm this...

The landscapes were fantastic, but there were two places I really did want to visit - and both concerned people who had slipped from the mortal coil. The first was to see the grave of an English legend - a man so mystical a huge folklore industry grew around him in life and especially after he had passed on. His name was Harry 'Brusher' Mills (1840 - 1905) - and he was a New Forest snake catcher.

Brusher caught snakes - mostly Adders and boiled them down to make snake lotions and tinctures - cure-alls for many a Victorian ailment. A true man of the forest, for many years he lived in an old shack deep in the woods - a place he called home. Unfortunately, in 1905, some vandals smashed up the shack and trashed his few possesions - Brusher never recovered from the shock and a few days later he died in a room at the back of his local pub, The Railway.

He was buried in St Nicholas' graveyard at Brockenhurst - the locals thought so much of him they held a collection and paid for this magnificent marble headstone.

The second port of call was to visit the spot where William II - Rufus, son of the bastard Conqueror was slain via an arrow loosed by Sir Walter Tyrell in 1100 AD. It's a really atmospheric place. Lincoln Greenery, broadleaves, dappled shadows, the gentle hum of the wind streaming through the gnarled branches of ancient oaks. The trees of England standing sentinel-like around a royal crime scene .... And there it is, the commemorative stone erected by the Georgians then added to by the early Victorians on the site of the battered oak stump - the tree from which the arrow supposedly deflected into the corpulent bulk of the ruddy red Norman king. 'Here stood the oak tree on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrell at a stag, glanced and struck William the Second, surnamed Rufus on the breast of which he instantly died on the second day of August anno 1100'...

Behind the stone is a big old oak tree. Tradition has it that it sprang from an acorn dropped from the original Rufus oak - and as it was September, the floor was littered with the year's crop of oak fruits. There before me was a direct link to the past and a monumental event in English history. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I gathered a handful of acorns and stuffed them into my pocket.

When we got home, I chucked some leaf mould and a bit of soil into some pots and planted them. This is the result. Two have germinated - and I am now the proud owner of a brace of my very own Rufus oaks..... Eat your heart out Alan Titchmarsh...