The Middle Age of Beverley

Whereas it might have been more in line to devote this post to discussion of the European Union referendum, here instead is an account of a college trip to some medieval hotspots in Beverley.

That we should have been on such an excursion at all was an oddity – the locations featured were entirely focused on Medieval History, yet the Modern History class were allowed to tag along. This being the penultimate day of the term – and there being no more history lessons in the remainder of the timetable – the educational focus of the outing was light. No worksheets were distributed nor notes taken, though teachers occasionally stopped to explain the historical significance of the local landmarks.

A large black cylinder with wooden boards over the outlines of windows.

The tower at Beverley Westwood.

The first such place was the Black Mill at Beverley Westwood. It one of two survivors of the five windmills which once stood in Beverley, and lost its sails in 1868. The Westwood is one of few remaining areas of common land in England, meaning that residents have maintained their traditional rights to use the turf for grazing cattle or collecting firewood – indeed there were several cows (and cowpats) there to greet us as we ambled across. In the modern era, visible to us on our visit, the territory is also used for a golf course and for Beverley Racecourse.

Beverley escaped the Harrying of the North because the Normans knew of the area’s religious past. John of Beverley – then the Bishop of York – was believed to have performed miracles. He also founded Beverley’s first building, a church dedicated to St John the Evangelist, though this was abandoned in the Viking invasion. The settlement became a large town and was granted borough status in the twelfth century with special interest in trading wool and leather. In the late fourteenth century it became the tenth-largest town in England, having continued to grow despite the effects of the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt and the Hundred Years’ War which stunted the development of other parts of the country.

Having ambled across the turf, exploring the dips and bumps in the ground, we were lectured on the habitation of the settlement in the middle ages. We also were dispatched around this area to uncover a large metal hook in the ground. This was used for the medieval sport of bull-baiting: A bull would be attached to the hook while dogs were sent to attack it. Spectators would bet on the time taken for the bull to die and the number of dogs slain in the process. There was also a practical purpose – the adrenaline rush in the last moments of life improved the taste of the beef.

Grass, a dark circle of earth and a metal hoop protruding from the ground..

The bull-bating hook.

The second stop on our visit was the deserted village of Wharram Percy. Occupied almost continuously from the ninth century to the fifteenth, the village was then abandoned. There are some six thousand or so settlements of this type in Britain but few of them are so large or so well preserved. The nearest car park is some 750m away, so getting to the site requires a lengthy trek down an overgrown rocky slope which some members of our group found taxing. The land, overseen in its day by the Percy family (Earls of Northumberland, and relatives of Lord Percy Percy in the first two series of Blackadder) contains the church of St Martin, the outlines of several houses and, naturally, some more cows.

Having picnicked in the shade behind the minibus, we headed for Rudston Church. There lies the body of Winifred Holtby, the novelist and journalist best known for 1936’s South Riding, which was adapted to a BBC miniseries in 2011 (parts of which were filmed near my house).

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The graveyard at Rudston Church

Our next stop was at Burton Agnes. Though the location is normally advertised for its grand Elizabethan stately home, we headed for the smaller Norman building to its side. The dark, uneven ground floor and tight helical stairway belie the vast dining room above, though the overall appearance was still somewhat spartan, with nothing but a long wooden table in an otherwise empty expanse.

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Burton Agnes Norman Hall (left).

Finally we ventured to Skipsea Brough. Surrounded by grassland and yet more cows, this small hamlet features the motte of Skipsea Castle, built by Drogo de la Beuvrière circa 1086 to secure the region and its trading routes against an invasion by Denmark. The castle itself was destroyed following the rebellion of William de Forz in 1221. All that remains now is the artificial hill. The land was reclaimed for farming in the eighteenth century and taken over by the Office of Works in the twentieth.

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The view from the Motte

It may perhaps appear strange that we closed out the academic term by wandering around the countryside, carefully evading deposits of Bovine faecal material while discussing medieval history, but in many ways it was a blessing that East Yorkshire had such rich locations to offer, and that we were able to visit them all with time left at the end of the day to visit the polling station. Though this day out may well be overshadowed in most people’s memories by the referendum, it will stand out as an example of what rural England has to offer as well as that which can survive the many tests of time. That last point may well prove more important than ever given what is about to come.

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Long To Reign Over Us

A dark-haired woman of 19 in a military uniform stands in from of a green truck with a large red cross on the right face.

HRH The Princess Elizabeth in April 1945.

Not many people, even among royalty, make it to the age of ninety years. George III and Victoria both expired at 81, while the first Elizabeth was a source of amazement for living to 69. Indeed, many a sovereign has died rather young – Henry V died at 36, Richard II at 33, Mary II at 32 and two Tudor monarchs (Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey) never reached adulthood. Edward V did not manage to reach his teens.

All the more impressive it then is for our diamond nonagenarian to reign as she does today. More so, it is a significant accomplishment that today’s birthday girl can still appear in public for her celebrations, whereas few others of her age could claim likewise. By the time that George III reached his final year he was bald, blind, and utterly insane. Among his many descendants he had outlived three of his children and three of his grandchildren. His wife, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg, tightly predeceased him as well.

Victoria had her own share of tragedies: having been one of few monarchs to truly marry for love, she spent thirty-nine years in mourning for her lost Prince Consort. Again, several princes could not outlive the Queen – Alice, Alfred (of Edinburgh), Leopold, Frederick, Sigismund, Waldemar, Albert Victor, Alexander John, Friedrich, Marie, Alfred (of Saxe-Coburg), Christian Victor, Harald, and two unnamed stillbirths.

Lilibet, by contrast, has her litter, and theirs, intact. Though she has lost her younger sister, the only death so far in the generation below her was Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 (and she, by that point, was not actually a relative anymore). In that decade it was lamented that, in the family supposed to represent the bulwark of British integrity, three of her four children had divorced. Now, though, two have happily remarried while the third has seemingly reconciled with his former spouse.

Furthermore, the institution she represents has generally been stable – whereas Charles

Having been head of state in so many countries for so many years (with the result of featuring on so many coins, notes and stamps), Her Majesty has the most reproduced face in all of human history.

Harold Wilson turns 100

The Nixons and Wilsons stand on a red carpet surrounded by officials and officers.

Harold & Mary Wilson pose with Richard & Pat Nixon outside the White House, 27th January 1970

Britain’s longest-serving male prime minister of the post-war era, and so far the last to ever serve non-consecutive terms, Harold Wilson was born on 11th March 1916. He first entered the House of Commons in the Attlee landslide of 1945, winning the seat of Omskirk from Commander Stephen King-Hall of the National Labour Organisation. By that point, though, he already had a fascinating career behind him.

He was head boy of Wirral Grammar School, having moved there in 1932 after his father was made redundant. In 1934 he enrolled at Jesus College, Oxford to study Modern History. Here he became politically active as a member of the Liberal Party. Later he transferred to Philosophy, Politics & Economics and joined the Labour Party instead. At 21, Wilson was one of the century’s youngest Oxford dons, teaching Economic History at New College in 1937.

As war came to Europe, Wilson joined the civil service, rising swiftly through the Ministry of Fuel and Power to become Director of Economics and Statistics. For his work he was made an Officer of His Majesty’s Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

When the war ended and a general election seemed likely, Wilson resigned from the service in order to be secured immediately as a candidate (bridging the gap as a Praelector at University College). Having been returned as an MP, he was quickly brought into the Attlee government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (the department which managed the requisitioning and development of property). In 1947 he was promoted to Secretary for Overseas Trade, which consisted largely of negotiating supply contracts with the USSR. Later that year he was further raised to the presidency of the Board of Trade (a job now held by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills). This was a cabinet position and he, at 31, was Britain’s youngest cabinet member. During his early tenure, he led a “bonfire of controls” to get rid of wartime rationing and his reputation suffered during debates over the value in sterling when he was seen as having repeatedly changed sides. Opposition to the introduction of medical charges to the National Health Service caused him to resign in April 1951 from the government, which sixth months later fell from office as Winston Churchill’s second premiership began.

Attlee stood down as Labour leader after the party lost another general election in 1955. He was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell, who returned Wilson to the front bench as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Wilson stayed there until 1961, facing down four Conservative incumbents (Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan, Peter Thorneycroft and Derick Heathcoat-Amory). He had the unusual distinction of serving on the shadow cabinet and simultaneously chairing the Public Accounts Committee, the latter role normally being given to backbenchers. After Labour lost its third consecutive general election in 1959, Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to replace Gaitskell as party leader. Later, George Brown beat him in the deputy leadership election of 1962. Wilson’s break came in January 1963 when Gaitskell died and he won the subsequent leadership election (ahead of both Brown and eventual successor James Callaghan). As the Profumo Affair sullied the government’s reputation, the opposition gathered greater public support. When Macmillan left office, the disclaimed earl (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) who followed him proved no match for Wilson at the dispatch box. The ultimate result was that the 1964 general election made Harold Wilson into Britain’s youngest premier for more than seven decades.

Yet his victory was, if anything, underwhelming: rather than the red landslide which pundits had expected, Labour in fact had a majority of only four seats. This is a curious part of Wilson’s legacy; he is famously remembered as the man who won four general elections – whereas Blair and Thatcher each only managed three. Wilson, however, had fewer years in office than either, and usually worked with much smaller majorities. Only the election of 1966 proved a decisive triumph, with Labour earning a 111-seat lead over the Conservatives whose rookie leader Edward Heath was still relatively unknown as a political figure. Heath and Wilson were vital figures in one another’s political careers: Born in the same year, they both broke the political mold by attending grammar schools rather than private, and they both came to the frontbench with records of wartime service. Their clashes across the dispatch box caused them to be seen as a modern-day Gladstone and Disreali, and began the path later completed by Thatcher and Kinnock of defining the modern day rivalry between party leaders, especially at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Another defining feature of Wilson government’s was their poor track records in by-elections, which caused the repeated whittling down of their parliamentary majorities. As the 1970s arrived Labour had lost control of sixteen constituencies. When polls suggested that their popularity had risen again, the prime minister called an election, only to find himself swiftly replaced by Heath. Wilson survived as Labour leader and after four years of Conservative rule Heath himself was in trouble with oil price rises and industrial unrest leading to three-day-weeks. A snap election was initiated. Wilson did not strictly win (it being a hung parliament in which the Conservatives actually outpolled Labour yet returned fewer MPs), yet after six days of negotiation he was once again posing before the black door. His minority government was unstable and so after just seven months Britain went back to the polls. On the second attempt Labour outpolled the Conservative and won a majority in the Commons – yet it was one even smaller than that of ten years before. This, though, would prove only a brief encore: Wilson did not intend to stay in office past the age of sixty years. On 5th April 1976 he resigned, by which point he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and drinking during the daytime. His resignation honours were derided as the “Lavender List” for giving gongs to businessmen and celebrities with little connection to public service. The list was so named after the suggestion that his political secretary Baroness Falkender had written the first draft on lavender notepaper.

James Callaghan (Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Cardiff South East) won the Labour leadership election and took over as prime minister while Wilson was made a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Sir Harold remained on the backbenches while the government deteriorated until eventually in 1979 a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons forced a general election in which Margaret Thatcher brought the Conservatives to office. Sir Harold retained his seat and continued to serve in the House until 1983 when, after achieving her second (and largest) election victory, Thatcher included in her dissolution honours a peerage for her predecessor. he declined the earldom which retired prime minsters normally enjoyed, settling for the Barony Wilson of Rievaulx. He made his last speech to the House of Lords in 1986 (on the subject of Marine Pilotage) but continued to attend that place until 1994. One year after that, he passed away from a combination of Alzheimer’s and colon cancer at the age of 79. The noble Lord’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey was attended by Sir Edward Heath, the Baroness Thatcher, the Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and the Prince of Wales.

This year, Lord Wilson’s legacy is under renewed scrutiny as we approach a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. When he called a plebiscite in 1976 on the European Economic Community (or Common Market), his cabinet was split on the issue as seven senior ministers campaigned to leave as Wilson (and indeed Heath) pushed to remain. The decisive Europhile victory briefly settled the issue, but in the following decade the Labour Party was wrought by internal divisions which kept it out of government until 1997. Now it appears that David Cameron may be facing a similar situation as six of his own cabinet ministers campaign for Brexit while the Scottish National Party have repeatedly hinted at a renewed push to break up the United Kingdom itself. Time may tell a different story but for now it appears that Wilson’s troubles of forty-one years ago may soon return to haunt Downing Street once more.