Lyon Lectures

Video

A downside of the fading of the pandemic and return to normalcy is that a lot of the institutions which had taken to putting on virtual meetings have now reverted to doing them in person only. Since these events are in many different locations around the world, far away from each other and from me, my ability to attend is severely limited.

One particular frustration has been been the Lyon Court, which for the last few months has been commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Lyon Register. Many times I have seen these lectures advertised on EventBrite, but I have not been able to go to them.

Now, belatedly, there is happy news, for the Lyon Court’s formerly-sparse YouTube channel has in the past fortnight seen a flurry of uploads from this lecture series. It is a little disappointing to have to catch up months later instead of taking part live, but getting to see them at all is still a great improvement compared to what would have been expected three years ago.

Developments in England have been less encouraging – there has been no newsletter from the College of Arms for this July. Upon inquiry, Portcullis told me that they hope to publish one later in the year. The heraldic decisions of Amess, Amos, Blair and Hoyle remain elusive.

The ‘Brexit Freedoms’ Bill and Retained EU Law

Video

This was another session with the Constitution Unit of University College London.

The topic of “skeleton bills” and “Henry VIII powers”, which have been highlighted a lot in recent political blogs and podcasts, was also prominent here. Although this problem is said to be particularly bad in the post-referendum era, it has been in the making for many decades. I asked the panel (at 1 hour and 35 seconds in):

“If the trend towards skeleton bills and secondary legislation gas been noticed for many decades, does this indicate a problem with the permanent government rather than the politicians?”

It was put to the panel simultaneously with two other questions. I will try my best to disentangle the answers.

Doctor Tom West said: Absolutely this is a long-running trend. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 had very wide powers and people called it the “Abolition of Parliament” Bill. There are all sorts of examples of this being an issue, such as the financial crisis of 2008. Ministers, once they’re no longer in power, will come clean that there is an issue – Theresa May mentioned it at an IfG lecture last week. It’s very difficult while you’re in power to give up these very convenient ways of making law through secondary legislation. Brexit and COVID have raised the profile of this problem, but it is not exclusive to them. That’s what our Delegated Legislation Review Programme is looking at – we think there’s a need for a reset of the whole system of what these powers can be used for in the first place and how they can be scrutinised. We are in the middle of developing proposals.

Ruth Chambers said: This trend towards framework bills has been going on a long time. I’ve worked on environmental legislation for over twenty years. Just to give one practical example – it used to be that when governments would state consultation requirements on the face of the bill they would be quite explicit about which sorts of people and groups the minister should consult before taking powers forward. Now the more standard construction says the ministers can consult whoever they think they need to. Obviously that has consequences – bills often lack the future-proofing edge. It doesn’t matter how many times you have that conversation with ministers while they’re passing legislation, it doesn’t quite register that at some point in the future someone else will be wielding those powers. It also has huge implications for the public – the public businesses and civil society organisations really need to stay the course and engage with the secondary legislation not just the bill.

A Blackmailer at Frogmore

Today’s virtual outing was with the National Archives again. James Travers, Cultural Property Manager, was promoting his new book on the “ghost” of Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of George IV.

The centrepiece of the book, and the lecture, was Thomas Ashe, whom the injured consort had commissioned to write her memoirs. His book The Claustral Palace was suppressed from publication, for it would have revealed the intimate life stories of her sisters-in-law who were confined at Frogmore House.

How much of the novel was true is unclear, but it put Ashe in conflict with the government as well as George IV’s brother the Duke of Cumberland (later Ernest Augustus I of Hanover).

Travers’s lecture was quite convoluted in its story, which combined with his soft way of speaking and some technical glitches at my end meant it wasn’t always easy to follow the plot, so reading the book itself is probably necessary to get a full understanding.

Link

Today’s virtual lecture was by the York Festival of Ideas, starring Eleanor Parker.

I asked her at what point in English history the Saxons and Normans were no longer considered different races/nations. She replied that the Normans quickly came to call themselves English, but that twelfth century sources still indicate a cultural and linguistic split, with non-Francophones held back in life.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Streets, Railways and Brownfields

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Today’s virtual outing took an unusual turn, featuring the London Natural History Society. The title proved a little misleading as the lecture was less about the streets and railways themselves than the plants growing on them.

At about 50:45, I asked Dr Spencer which species were most advantaged or disadvantaged by the presence of a railway line. He said the most advantaged were wind-dispersed plants, such as the “classic story” of Oxford ragwort which was confined to the walls of that town from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century when the railway arrived to blow its seeds around the country.

Power and pageantry: The coronation of King Richard III and Queen Anne

Another date with the National Archives, this time featuring Dr Sean Cunningham,the head of Medieval Records.

I was faintly amused when he brought up a still from The White Queen (2013) featuring Aneurin Barnard and Faye Marsay, if only so he could point out the inaccuracies. Then again, this coronation does not have many other televisual depictions to my knowledge.

Accessions and Assumptions

Today was another virtual double-helping. The first was a Teams presentation from The National Archives in which Dr Tracy Borman, Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, plugged her new book Crown & Sceptre: a new history of the British Monarchy.

Borman gave a synopsis of her publication, which essentially amounted to a summary of English and then British royal history since 1066. That part I will not type out again. She called Elizabeth I a brilliant propagandist and “the greatest monarch of all time”. She thought less of Victoria, who spent so much time in retirement after Albert’s death that the institution of the crown was nearly disbanded. She also called Edward VIII’s abdication a lucky escape, noting the callous attitude he had both to the institution and his family members. She spotted a theme that the best monarchs were those never originally supposed to reign – including the present one. Another important point was that after the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, Britain’s monarchs were reduced to ceremonial figureheads, focusing their efforts on charity and patronage instead of direct political power. This earned them mockery from other still-absolute monarchs at the time, but seems in the long term to have greatly contributed to outlasting them.

In the Q&A, I asked how much the present day royal family was influenced by the Scottish half of their pre-C17 ancestry, since her book was focused on the English side. Borman said that the constitutional model which Britain still has today (and has exported around the world) largely resulted from the absolutist attitudes of the House of Stuart clashing with the English parliamentary system, without which its seminal conflicts would likely never have happened.

While I enjoyed the presentation I am not sure that I will end up buying the book. While Borman claimed to be “inspired” by the Platinum Jubilee giving the opportunity to look back over the last millennium, I suspect it was more a matter of judging the point in the media cycle when such a book would get most sales. I am reminded of J. P. Nettl’s preface to his 1967 book The Soviet Achievement, beginning with “Anyone should have serious doubts before adding to the mountain of literature on the Soviet Union. The fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution provides an occasion, perhaps, but no automatic excuse.”, a sentiment that could apply equally well here.

The second event was a Zoom lecture by the Heraldry Society. Marcus Meer‘s talk “And No Recently Assumed Arms…” was about the display of, and attitudes around, heraldry in medieval German cities, and something of a sequel to his “Lest They Pass to the Peasants” lecture to the Scottish society in March.

Urban centres in the Middle Ages were festooned with heraldic marks of the municipalities themselves as well as the guilds, corporations and individuals resident within. They would be set in stained glass, carved into stone walls or moulded on cutlery. The use of such images was a shared focal point for citizens’ attention, helping to maintain communal stability. They were also used to demarcate sections of the urban space, and to claim control of said sections on behalf of their owners. Delegated authority was rendered visible as government officials wore the state or city’s badge, and armorial marks would be painted on items produced in the city as a sign of quality control. Heraldry was also a mark of power struggles – guilds would fight for precedence in civic processions and conquerors of a town would displace existing shields with their own.

Meer spoke of a departure in scholarship from analysis of heraldry as a fixed symbol of meaning, towards a study of medieval perspectives.

The Gossembrot Armorial of 1469 was an attempt by the author to shore up his family’s status against the threat from social climbers. It collected the arms of all the families into whom Gossembrots had married, but it omitted arms which had come into use too recently in favour of those long-established. Others would embellish their own heritage beyond plausibility, such as Ulman Stramer who, in his Book of my Lineage and Adventure (1360-1400), claimed that his ancestor Gerhart of Reichenbach was granted arms by King Conrad, even though Conrad reigned in an age before it became customary to have arms formally granted by a sovereign. In the fifteenth century there was a social distinction between arms officially sanctioned and arms privately assumed. Urban grantees, much like their contemporaries in England, sought to consolidate their status. Also similar to England, “confirmations” of supposedly-old arms were preferred to grants of clearly-new ones, for armigers wanted proof that they and their agnates had always belonged to the gentry instead of recently joining it. Sometimes grants were sought from foreign rulers, such as Henry VIII of England to Lorenz Stauber of Nuremberg in 1521.

There were accounts of legal disputes over heraldic ownership, such as unrelated armigers bearing the same shield, and the city authorities deciding that they must be long-lost family. A case study was the Church of St Anne in Augsburg, where Ulrich, Georg and Jakob Fugger had endowed a family chapel. When the male-line of the dynasty died out the female-line descendants were allowed to inherit the chapel but not the Fugger arms.

I asked Dr Meer what was the lowest social rank at which one could get away with assuming arms. He replied that there were no hard rules, and that at Nuremberg there is evidence of armigerous peasants, albeit probably the wealthier peasants. Emperors were known to complain of non-nobles assuming arms, but there wishes were not enforced.

10th June is International Heraldry Day (though as little recognised as all the other National Whatever Days) and the society was proud to unveil its new logo, courtesy of Quentin Peacock. Also today it was announced that Her Majesty had appointed two new members of the Order of the Thistle – former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini and former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Sir George Reid. Their arms, if yet they have them, will at some point be displayed at the High Kirk. Meanwhile, with just three days to go until the Garter service, I am still none the wiser as to the arms of Amos and Blair.

Rees for the Stars

The first of two virtual conferences today was at the Royal Astronomical Society, by the Lord Rees of Ludlow, the society’s president from 1992 to 1994.

A brief introduction was given by executive director Philip Diamond, who announced that it was the last in their 2021-2 lecture series.

Rees is a former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He said that the college looked much the same three centuries ago as it does today. Newton’s legendary apple tree incident occurred when he was sent home during the 1665 plague outbreak. Sadly, none of the students put into lockdown during the COVID pandemic have had similar moments.

Rees proudly displayed his photograph of the lunar surface, autographed by seven astronauts who had been there. He noted how rapidly space exploration had progressed, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957, to dogs, then Yuri Gagarin, then the moon landing in 1969. Today only the elderly, such as his lordship, can actually remember watching the moon landing when it first happened. He and his contemporaries firmly expected to have conquered Mars within another twenty years. Alas we are still waiting.

Rees discussed the book The End of Astronauts which he co-authored with Donald Goldsmith. Artificial intelligence has become greatly more sophisticated with each decade since the time of the Apollo program. Miniaturised probes are already exploring much of the Solar System, especially Mars. Perseverance can navigate around rocks, whereas Curiosity needed to call back for instructions. The only downside is that the shear amount of time needed to travel to the outer planets often means that the probe’s technology is already obsolete by the time it arrives to start its survey. With each advance in artificial intelligence, the practical case for sending humans into space gets weaker. Robots can simply hibernate along the journey whereas humans need to sleep, eat and breathe. Also, fundamentally, they are disposable. NASA’s astronaut projects since Apollo have been limited to the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope. They are constrained by political pressure, especially since the Challenger disaster. Although this only represents a 2% overall failure rate, which would easily be acceptable in other fields, the public attitude towards NASA was damaged irreparably.

In a “terrifying” speech to a thousand GCSE students last month, Rees asked how many would actually endure the long journey to Mars. Only half would, but curiously all would be willing to send someone else away. One in particular was put off by the notion of a forty-minute delay in communications with Earth – a stark reminder of the change in expectations compared to the age of exploration by sea.

Rees believes that from now on state-funded scientific exploration of space is best accomplished by unmanned machines, while human journeys should be the preserve of prize-seekers in the private sector (where a greater level of risk is tolerated). He would support the efforts of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos over any more missions by NASA. He recalled that the former wishes “to die on Mars, but not on impact”, which could be plausible if he lives another fifty years. The term “space tourism” is highly misleading. This is a dangerous sport for intrepid exploration. Mass emigration to escape Earth’s problems should not be expected for there is simply nowhere habitable.

The professor then moved on to the possibility of life elsewhere. He said that settlers on Mars would be beyond the clutches of regulators on Earth, and that over time their progeny could diverge into a post-human species. Astronomers, he thought, have a special perspective – humans are not the pinnacle of evolution, for our sun has another six billion years to go. We could see a move from Darwinian evolution to secular intelligent design, so that by the time Earth dies the intelligent life on the planet will not resemble us at all. There is a debate among philosophers and neurologists as to whether AI can be truly self-aware. If machines were zombies then we wouldn’t value their experiences. The motives of the post-humans are, at this point, reserved for speculative fiction, though most expect that they would be expansionists. Even if life originated on Earth it need not remain a trivial feature of the cosmos – humans could found a galactic diaspora. Colonisation would take less time than has already elapsed since the Cambrian explosion.

The topic of life on other worlds has been hugely exciting for astronomers in the past twenty years. Nearly all stars are orbited by a retinue of planets. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, with several thousand more coming since. Planets are not observed directly, but detected by their effect on their stars. The brightness of a star is briefly dimmed when a planet moves in front of it. Kepler used this method to find several thousand stars with planets around them. The case study of TRAPPIST-1, discovered in 2000, shows a “miniature system”, the innermost planet having an orbit of one Terran day and the outermost an orbit of two weeks. Four of them are within a habitable zone that in principle could allow the existence of water, thus supporting life. It is frustrating that we cannot see planets directly, though in theory we could with a sufficiently large telescope. The European Extremely Large Telescope is planned to have a mirror thirty-nine metres wide. The James Webb Telescope is smaller but has the advantage of viewing infrared. The differing shades of blue on Earth could indicate the presence of oceans, continents and an atmosphere, while the time taken for each pattern to reoccur would indicate our rotation period.

In summing up, Rees said that we understand evolution but not the origin of life. Evidence of civilisation on other planets might only exist for a short time, and not be synchronised with that on Earth. Life may not yet have evolved, or could have already been superseded by machines. If the search for extraterrestrial intelligence fails then we can be less cosmically modest, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Following the presentation there remained a few minutes for questions and answers.

Does what you’ve said imply the end of astronauts as a profession?

I can’t predict more than fifty years ahead. We think human spaceflight should be left to private adventurers. Robots are better for state efforts.

Will there be a replacement for chemical rocket engines?

It’s certainly conceivable. Nuclear can provide low thrust for long periods. Ground lasers can push a small spacecraft by sail.

Will the first human on Mars inevitable contaminate the biosphere?

We have to be very careful, treat Mars like the Antarctic. Also, bringing organic material back could contaminate Earth.

Which planetary body has the best potential for life?

Looking under ice is obvious. Any evidence of life on other planets could help explain the origin of life on Earth. If life originated twice independently within the same star system it’s probably widespread.

What are the prospects for manufacturing probes in space to keep the technology up to date?

The Space Station has done some research and development. We would like to build a telescopes in space with an iterferometer. It should be a target for the 2068 centenary. Building solar panels in space would be good – you get ten times the power per square metre compared to the sunniest spot on Earth.

FURTHER READING