The History of the Shepaug Railroad

Today’s (well, tonight’s) virtual event was The History of the Shepaug Railroad. It was jointly hosted by the Gunn Historical Museum and the Danbury Railway Museum.

The former has put the whole presentation on its YouTube channel so I needn’t give a long synopsis, which is just as well since my computer was having difficulties and I probably missed a fair bit.

The Archives Arrive

The BBC Archive YouTube channel claims to have existed since 2018, but their videos only go back three months. I discovered them just yesterday. My favourite thus far is an interview with J. R. R. Tolkien explaining the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Also featured is the Shildon steam celebration of 1975, which includes an interview with Wilbert Awdry (strangely called “William” in the voiceover), and at least two short documentaries about the making of Classic Doctor Who.

It’s too early yet to know just how many videos this channel will post. If it’s anything like British Path√© I will be greatly impressed.

The Good Lancastrian?

Today’s virtual lecture was by Rory MacLellan at the Society for Court Studies.

To recap for those unaware: The Lancastrian dynasty came to power in England in 1399 when Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, deposed his cousin Richard II, and acceded as Henry IV. It was continued by his eldest son Henry V after 1413, and then grandson Henry VI after 1422. Richard II had no children or siblings, and Bolingbroke was his heir presumptive according to agnatic primogenture, but by the male-preference cognatic method that was the consensus then in England the throne should have passed to Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March. Even if Bolingbroke’s claim had been legitimate, the overthrow (and later probable murder) of his predecessor stained him in the eyes of his people, and of God. Henry V made some efforts to atone for his father’s treason. He won the respect of the population by his glorious victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and subsequent capture of the crown of France. Henry VI was beset by mental health problems and under his weak leadership English politics fell into severe disarray, resulting in the loss of most of the French possessions he had inherited. Opposition to his government was lead by Richard, Duke of York (Edmund Mortimer’s grand-nephew and Richard II’s cognatic heir), whose own son eventually unseated Henry to become Edward IV in 1461.

MacLellan’s research concerned the manner in which the three Lancastrian monarchs were officially remembered under the Yorkist regime. They were clear that the 1399 coup was illegal and that the Lancastrian line was thus illegitimate. Each was called “King in deed but not in right”. It was easy enough to condemn Henry IV for having committed regicide, and Henry VI for losing France, but Henry V presented a challenge – all the territories his son lost were only held by England in the first place due to the supreme military, chivalric and diplomatic skill of his father, whose accomplishments are revered even to this day and which the Yorkists themselves strove to honour.

Later historians have given differing reviews of how Henry V was regarded under Edward IV’s first reign (1461-70). Jonathan Hughes found “universal respect and praise” and Russell Butcher said “one of the most successful medieval kings was difficult to criticise”, but Alison Allan said he was “usually quietly ignored” so as to maintain the Yorkist line that Lancastrian rule was a misery.

The only positive comments by Yorkists about any Lancastrian were made in the 1450s while the latter dynasty still reigned, and while Richard still insisted he only opposed Henry’s advisors instead of Henry himself. Once the White Rose had supplanted the Red the line quickly changed, with Speaker Strangeways recanting the new official version to Parliament. An act was passed to overturn the 1415 treason conviction of Richard of Conisburgh (Edward’s grandfather), saying that “a pretensed session had reached an erroneous judgement”. All other official correspondence from this time made clear that Henry had been king by usurpation. Even during Edward’s own 1467-8 bid for France, when Henry V’s legacy would have been useful, it was kept under wraps.

In Edward’s second reign (1471-83), when the House of Lancaster had been extinguished, it was politically safe for his government to recognise the personal virtues and accomplishments of Henry V though still condemning his illegitimacy. MacLellan noted that whereas Edward had been hostile to Henry VI’s establishment of Eton College and King’s at Cambridge he still patronised the religious organisations (Syon Abbey and Sheen Priory) set up by his father. Richard III also owned several books that praised Henry V, such as The Book of the Order of Chivalry (Caxton’s translation) and The Book of Noblesse (William Worcester). Perhaps Richard could be somewhat more tolerant of the Lancastrian legacy, not being the first Yorkist king.

In the Q&A the only attendees (there were but twelve of us) to ask questions were myself and Fabianpersson. He asked how Henry V was perceived by other Lancastrians, and then by the early Tudors. MacLellan said that he was revered up until the point at which his French conquests were lost, after which they simply stopped mentioning him. To lean on his glory would only have served to highlight how poorly his son was performing by comparison. Even John Fortescue’s Commendation of the Laws of England, written for Edward of Lancaster, does not mention his grandfather. Henry VII rarely brought up his namesake-but-one, except for a pamphlet around 1510 using his precedent for another campaign in France. Fabian suggested that political memory fades after 20-40 years, though MacLellan countered that the Yorkist side still brought up precedents from as early as Henry I to support their cause. Fabian also asked how Henry VI’s perception was affected by that of his father and grandfather, and how either dynasty dealt with Richard II’s own problems. MacLellan said that it was risky to criticise the foundation of the Lancastrian dynasty while it still reigned. Henry VI had the advantage that he was born into an already-established succession rather than personally being involved in its installation, and that he was well-known to be much more pious than his grandfather. The Yorkists presented Richard II as entirely blameless in his own demise. Henry V made some effort to rehabilitate him, including a reburial, but it was still to early to cede much moral ground to the former monarch without jeopardising his own crown.

I asked how the Tudor dynasty, which claimed to be the union of York and Lancaster, reconciled the competing claims of the two houses in their own official communications. MacLellan wasn’t sure about Henry IV, but said that later pamphlets were generally positive about both Edward IV and Henry V. The counterpart question to the original study- how was Edward IV was regarded during Henry’s readeption. MacLellan replied that what little had been written during Henry’s second reign was swiftly destroyed once Edward returned. He also surmised that the Lancastrians just weren’t as good at this sort of political propaganda as the Yorkists had been. I asked how long it took for historical tensions between York and Lancaster to finally subside, having heard from other historians that the controversy lingered well into Elizabeth I’s reign. He said it was slightly out of his period of study, but noted that there were still Yorkist claimants in the late fifteenth century and that it probably wasn’t until the next change of dynasty (with James VI of Scotland’s arrival) that the issue faded, though there remained a legal vaguery as to which claim was more legitimate. Finally I noted that there were many references in his own speech and in other historians’ accounts to Parliament praising whichever dynasty was then in power and condemning the one that had gone before, and asked to what extent the medieval Parliament of England simply acted to give a veneer of retroactive legitimacy to what had already happened by force. MacLellan said this was definitely the case, and that most of the parliamentary speeches that survive were written on behalf of the then-incumbent monarch so as to persuade other representatives of whatever narrative was politically convenient.

EXTERNAL LINKS

The Deep Breath Before The Plunge

File:2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine animated.gif

Almost two years ago, it was becoming clear in Britain and most other countries that the coronavirus was a global problem and not merely a regional one. There were cases identified in the UK in January 2020, through February its news coverage slowly outgrew that of Brexit, with stories of panic buying and rising case rates, but much of ordinary life went on. By mid-March the crisis had become unavoidable – the government was giving daily press conferences and many public places (including universities) were shutting down. Hand sanitiser dispensers and social distance signs popped up all over. Then, on 23rd, the entire country went into the first lockdown. The Britain at the end of that month felt like a wholly different world from what it had been at the beginning. For other countries the exact dates vary but the overall phenomenon is very much the same. In retrospect, there was something particularly surreal about the week of 17th-23rd, where for many it may have felt like an unplanned holiday, the full weight of the disaster looming but having yet to hit.

Now, after twenty-three months of on-and-off disease control, much of the developed world is transitioning from “pandemic” to “endemic” and returning to something like normality. In Scotland and Wales, all remaining COVID-induced restrictions are set to be lifted by the end of next month. In Northern Ireland they were lifted on 15th of this one. In England they went on Thursday. By superb coincidence, that was the same day the Vladimir Putin launched a full-on invasion of Ukraine.

Compared to the virus, this is neither as surprising nor as sudden – Russia has been in a state of war with its western neighbour for just over eight years, and diplomatic relations with other countries have been tense throughout that time, including many accusations of election meddling, political bribery and even assassination. Over the last few months the pressure could be seen rising. It was generally understood that war would properly break out at some point, but not exactly when. I remember Lucy Worsley’s Empire of the Tsars airing in early 2016, with quite a few online quips that the BBC wanted to get the filming done quickly in case war was imminent. Now, at the time of typing, it looks as if momentum has gathered – countries are, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, freezing (soon it could even be seizing) the financial assets of Russian businessmen and officials, as well as banning such people from their airspace. Sporting organisations look to ban Russia from their games. Britain is even sending troops to Eastern Europe. Other countries are doing likewise, or at least supplying equipment to the Ukranians themselves.

All that being said, we are not yet actually at war. British and Russian embassies to each other remain open, as do those in most other countries. It remains to be seen how long that lasts. The situation of the tens of thousands of Russian people living in Britain is perilous, as is that of Russian businesses trading here, or vice versa. This week’s invasion has been dubbed the largest conventional warfare operation in Europe since World War 2, and cries of World War 3 are widespread – and they are not meant jokingly this time. In the books that my late grandmother bought for me about the first two, it was mentioned that before the United States’s involvement, British and German ambassadors in Washington DC were competing with each other for American military contracts, and that private businesses within the allied and axis territories continued trading with each other (including weapons) right up until the declarations of war took effect. It will be interesting to see how much of that is repeated with Russia Today.

Speaking of Russia Today, RT continues to broadcast in this country. Suffice to say, its coverage of the invasion differs sharply from that of most other networks. The channel has been under review by Ofcom, and the leaders of the Labour and Scottish National parties have called for its termination. This has already been done in Poland and Germany, though the latter’s own public broadcasting service was reciprocally banned in Russia and there are fears that the BBC would suffer the same fate. I discovered RT in late 2012, at the same time as I was covering the Soviet Union for GCSE history. I appreciated the level of attention it gave to topics other channels thought less important, such as SOPA/PIPA/CISPA/ACTA and the Snowden revelations, as well as its documentaries on a variety of topics. If nothing else, it was good for checking the aspect ratio settings on one’s television, being for the time one of very few networks still airing in 4:3. All that being said, as a state-controlled news outlet it was never entirely trustworthy, and one could always sense that it was going out of its way to depict western democracies – and indeed “The West” as a concept – in the worst possible light and to encourage any kind of crankery that would undermine Russia’s strategic rivals.

As many are now pointing out, the true strength of Russian propaganda is online rather than on television, and that will be much trickier to sort out. The powers, rights and obligations of the large social media sites to intervene on political matters has long been controversial, as have measures to restrict the digital activity of Russia in particular. If the situation continues to escalate we may well see YouTube channels and Twitter accounts being suspended en-masse, as well as purges of suspicious users from message boards. As far as the pandemic comparison goes, we must currently be at least at the second or third week of March. I dread to think what the fourth looks like.

OTHER ANALYSES

  • Putin’s Power and Western Impotence by David Starkey. He says that Putin seeks to revive Tsarism not Stalinism, and that he understands that all authority derives from force whereas Western nations have forgotten this. Starkey condemns Angela Merkel for shutting down Germany’s nuclear plants in favour of Russian gas, as well as all European nations for letting their militaries wither. This being Starkey, he also takes potshots at 16-year-old girls.

UPDATE (2nd March)

RT’s television channel is off air and YouTube, along with other platforms, has hidden all of its videos.