The Only Important Dates in English History, or, Biased? Me?

Demonstrating a particular world view . . .

With any nation’s or region’s history, one can generally find a long list of important moments, most of which  have dates we have decided to agree on (Digression: really, a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence withal). If one has a deep knowledge of that history, one likely knows many of those dates. If, however, one is merely skimming, one may amuse oneself with sweeping, unsupported statements.

The only dates in English history that everyone should know:

• 55 BCE (Before the Common Era, same as B.C.), when the island that England’s on enters recorded history (lastingly recorded in simple Latin by a Roman eyewitness, anyway);

• 1066 CE, when William the Conqueror enforces a Saxon promise and becomes the umpty-umpth foreign king;

• 1485, when a Welsh marcher lord—the grandson of a French queen—settles a family dispute amongst other marcher lords in the traditional, hallowed, homicidal fashion (becoming another foreign-ish king);

• 1883, England wins the Home Nations Championship in rugby; and

• 1967, the Welsh Language Act.

Out of kindness and sloth, each date is limited to the year. There are some others that could make reasonable claims, such as

• 1415 (Henry V prolongs the Seventy-Eight Years War into the Hundred Years War by neglecting to be killed);

• 1814 (because the British general is dressed more plainly than the French one, the Etonian-led riffraff and Prussian children defeat French-led French riffraff, who got no help from French-led Sweden); not to mention

• 1688 (Parliament rules, but through a Protestant monarch), something earlier in the 1630s,  a female king before that, etc. I’m told there has even been history since Waterloo, but my interest seems to wane progressively down the centuries after the 15th.

Fortunately, it’s not my decision (else I might get distracted by all that Empire stuff). The eminent scholars W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman decided it back in 1930, with obviously impeccable judgment. The basic work of English history truly is their 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1066_and_All_That:

It turns out there are only two important dates, 55/54 BCE and 1066. The tests included in this authoritative tome include “How far did the Lords Repellent drive Henry III into the arms of Pedro the Cruel? (Protractors may not be used).” Easily as insightful and important an historical ponderable as that inspirationally researched ditty, “The Night Chicago Died.”

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Allegorical image: a pelican doing what to its what?

As everyone who cares knows, the clan badge of the Stewart/Stuart clan is a pelican feeding its young, surrounded by a buckled garter with the clan motto on it. The motto is “Virescit Vulnere Virtus,” which means approximately “virtue strengthens by a wound” (we’ll talk about the words virtue and the Italian vertú some other time).

It’s the central image that strikes me. Standing on a nest (which is perched on the twisted ring of cloth that usually holds up a crest) is a bird with a long crane-like neck and a pouchless beak that could never hold more than its belly can, extending that pointy bill over the clamoring kids.The badge for the Stewart clan

For those who know what pelicans look like, this bird looks little like one, especially around the beak. For those who know the allegory of the pelican in its piety, it’s just silly.

Very condensed, this is the idea: Mom and Dad Pelican create little pelicans. As they grow, they rebel against the parents, attacking and enraging them. Depending on the version, Dad kills them, or he and Mom do it together. After three days, Mom pierces her breast (alternatively, Dad pierces his), sprinkling her blood over them to revive them. Obviously, it’s an allegory of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the redemption of believers. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III uses it as an expression of his mercy to former enemies; now you’ll get it when you hear or see it.

Pelican in its piety: If you must know, the blood-sprinkling scene is called a pelican in its piety, at least by heralds. Subtract the nest and the little darlings and it’s a pelican vulning (wounding) itself; one must wonder why, when there’s no one there to revive.

You can see the whole story in a picture in the Aberdeen Bestiary. The University of Aberdeen permits linking to a URL on a personal site, so here it is:

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/35r.hti

or:

Statue of a pelican in her piety, from the Bar Convent in York, England

Pelican in her piety

Apparently, however, the person creating the original of this casting of the Stewart clan badge found this just too bloody and brutal an image, and softened it. In the symbolic version, the bird’s neck was extended and its bill compressed only to make the breast-piercing look physically possible. But if the pelican is not in its piety and vulning itself, why not make it look just a touch more like a natural pelican? Like this:

Pelican perched on a railing over water

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=2932&picture=pelican-perched-on-a-pier-railing
Pelican Perched On A Pier Railing, by Andrew Schmidt

The irony, to me, is where this bit of bowdlerization has been perpetrated. The badge represents a Scots family, primarily Lowlanders as I understand, some of whom eventually made it all the way up to being monarchs of Scotland. Later, they seem to have inherited England (and Wales; it’s a package) as well.

Too rough and bloody to represent a Scottish noble family? That status alone rates an automatic 3 on the Carnage Counter. Deep involvement in the fighting over the royal succession gets them another 4, marrying into the Tudors adds 2, achieving the thrones gets them 2 more. Out of a possible 10 points, the clan scores an 11. One symbolic bird bleeding symbolic blood over its symbolic nestlings is surely not too much.

—An aside about the motto: It’s very like “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger;” that just seems so unlikely, much as I approve of the sentiment. I think it would be more realistic to say “What doesn’t kill me makes me weak from blood loss.”  The appeal of the saying just dissipates, though.

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Stories — everything’s a story

I’m not a professional scholar in history, nor even a self-taught expert. I’m sure of this because I’ve met samples of both, and unlike this expressive fellow, they didn’t remind me of the face I often shave.

If you haven’t read the “About” page, you should. It describes what I’m trying to do, gives some justifications, and makes some promises. It’s also longer, so I could understand skipping it. But do read it before you post.

Mostly I’m here to tell stories. People ask me to tell stories, apparently because they were entertained the last time they saw me go off on a long digression. The problem is that these are fleeting moments, difficult to summon again later. They also tend to be judgmental; actually, they repeatedly slide into tawdry, Livy-like gossip. Fortunately, the people I’m slandering (or if putting it on the Web is the same as publishing, that would be libel) are centuries in the grave.

I was talking about . . . what? Stories, telling of. Right. Anyway, when people ask for stories, I don’t seem to have any on the roweled spur of the moment. I need a theme at least. If someone were to say, “Kenilworth,” I’d launch into the Amy Robsart scandal, which might remind me of Lord Darnley’s shady death, or perhaps of Attila’s (it’s the most upbeat).

To sum up: Glad you’re here, welcome, don’t sit in my chair. I’ll try to freeze some of my stories onto the virtual paper (reminder to self, skip the butterfly metaphor) so you can read them at leisure. Talk to you soon.

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