Thursday, 21 March 2019


What will historians be writing about our current political chaos in a hundred years’ time? Where might Brexit feature in a list of the worst years in British history? These are questions historians should be very wary about trying to answer. Our job concerns the past. We are not social commentators or soothsayers. Or are we? Surely, if the past has nothing to say to the present, there is no point in recording it. Historians become redundant. With all this in mind it is with a fitting humility that I make the following comments.

 Back in 2008 I suggested that the worst anni horribili were those in which ‘dislocated societies’ were ‘cut off from their past and fearful of their future’. That certainly applied to three out of my top five – 1536 (when the nation was riven by religious and political conflict), 1812 (when, according to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, ‘insurrectionary fury has rarely been more widespread in English history‘), and 1937, a year of hunger marches, Fascist and Communist agitators using popular prejudice for their own ends and millions demonstrating their lack of trust in politicians by refusing to vote in the general election. I see no reason to renege on that analysis.

 Wars, plagues, famine, and other ‘external’ calamities do have some redeeming qualities. They produce remarkable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. They reinforce national solidarity. They inspire people to roll up their sleeves and tackle with shared hope the work of recovery. But when a population is riven by division; when anger and hatred stalk the land; when civilised discourse becomes impossible; when confidence in the nation’s leaders has broken down; where can people look for hope of a better future? The legacy of 1536 was a century or more of politico-religious upheaval and the execution of a king. The fallout from 1812 included the Peterloo Massacre (1819) and the socio-economic deprivation about which Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew were still writing a generation later. And 1937? Well, it took a World War and a near-invasion to shake Britain out of its internal woes and direct its energies towards building a united future.

 How far should we go in regarding such warnings as portents to be applied to our current situation? We are too close to it to know. Crystal balls are not part of the historian’s standard equipment and, therefore, I refrain from making predictions. This alone can I say, based on my study of past crises: specific issues (eg. Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Luddite Riots, the Jarrow Crusade) were only catalysts. They ignited already existing flammable social materials. Whether, when, if and how Britain leaves the EU has become an irrelevance. The damage is done. The argument has sparked a conflagration that will be with us for years. That is what historians will be writing about a century hence.

Sunday, 29 April 2018


          'Neither life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here, which 

          appertaineth unto mine own private commodity, be it never so dearly 
          beloved of me, but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win 
          any man to Christ'

     This is the sort of earnest declaration we might associate with the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century or with the high rhetoric of a modern American evangelistic preacher. In fact, these words appear in a remarkable little book published exactly five hundred years ago. It was entitled The Lamentation of a Sinner and it is remarkable for several reasons: 

1.  It was published by a woman under her own name - a thing unheard of before that time. English women simply did not write books. Such a thing would have been considered a rejection of the divine ordering of society. Certainly, there were some earlier significant contributions to religious literature by the likes of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich but they existed only in manuscript until later ages made them available to a wide public.

2.  It was an intense personal testimony of the writer's journey from formal religion - what she called 'dead, human, historical faith' - to the assurance of 'knowing Christ for my Saviour and Redeemer'.

3.   It was written (though not yet published) at a time when justification by faith was regarded as Lutheran heresy, punishable by death.

4.    It was written by the Queen of England.

For these reasons alone The Lamentation of a Sinner deserves its place in the library of Christian classics and should be better known.

The popular image of the author, Catherine Parr, is probably confined to the fact that she was the last of Henry VIII's six wives - the one who 'survived'. She does not register prominently in over-romanticised annals of Tudor court intrigue as one of the queens who flirted with danger by getting involved in politics. The traditional portrait of her is that of the dutiful wife who meekly nursed her irascible, overweight, semi-invalid husband during the last few years of his life. The reality is very different. Catherine was a feisty, attractive woman who, in the terms of the religious history of the age, was the most committed Protestant of all Henry's wives and did her cautious best to steer Henry further along the path of reform.

According to the story recorded by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, this was almost her undoing. Henry did not take kindly to being lectured by his wife on matters of religion, and the reactionary members of his Council saw this as an opportunity to accuse her of heresy and urge the king to authorise a thorough investigation and a search of her apartments for banned books. Catherine managed to escape the noose dangling before her (the full story is included in the, just published, The Queen and the Heretic) but it was a close run thing and one that C. J. Sansom's excellent fictionalisation, Lamentation, may well not have too much exaggerated.  Had Catherine gone the way of two of her queenly predecessors the course of the English Reformation could have been very different. It's one of the intriguing 'what-ifs' of British history.

What there is no doubt about - no doubt whatever - is Catherine Parr's commitment to the evangelical cause and her desire to do all in her power to further it.

Monday, 12 March 2018


            We are sickeningly accustomed to seeing bestial images of Syrian civilians being indiscriminately burned, gassed and shattered by ‘brave warriors’ pouring obliteration into homes, schools and hospitals from the security of aeroplanes and artillery vehicles. We hear the partisan rhetoric used to defend such acts by men who have no right to call themselves human. But, hideous though such long-range obscenities are, they come nowhere near the hand-to-hand vicious slaughter that raged throughout Central Europe during the conflict which began exactly four hundred years ago. The Thirty Years War was, without a shadow of doubt, the worst conflict in European history. Worse than the Second World War? Yes. Worse than the First World War? Yes. Worse than the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War? Yes. Just look at the stats. Between 1939 and 1945, sixty million people perished. Between 1618 and 1648 a mere seven and a half million died. But the fatalities of World War II represented 3.5% of the population of the nations involved. The combatant states of the Thirty Years War lost 35% of their populations, and in the German lands most affected the proportion was higher.
            But let’s leave the cold balance sheet of death from military action, disease and famine and talk about actual events such as the siege of Magdeburg. At dawn on 17 May, 1631, that fine city held some 30,000 inhabitants. By noon on the 20th that number had been reduced to 5,000, most of them women and children. The downfall of Magdeburg was the end result of strategic miscalculation and rivalries between commanders supposedly on the same side. The siege, by Catholic forces fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor, began on 20 March. The city held out doggedly. The imperial commander, Johann Count Tilly, called for reinforcements from his ‘colleague’, Albrecht von Wallenstein. But Wallenstein was fighting a personal war and was happy to see his rival getting into difficulties. The citizens, too, were looking for a saviour in the form of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, leader of the Protestant forces. But he was also baulked by German princes who should have been his allies but who dallied over their response and prevented him coming to Magdeburg’s relief. The result was strategic stalemate, one of the worst things that could happen in seventeenth-century warfare. Idle armies rapidly became demoralised. More than that, they became resentful. And hungry. The majority of soldiers were conscripts, men plucked from the plough or prison or the ranks of unemployed vagabonds. The age of conscription was lowered as their conflict dragged on. Those African child soldiers drafted into modern wars had their counterparts in Europe 400 years ago. Tilly’s rag-tag army had little concern for ‘rules of engagement’. Their first and most desperate need was to survive. And that need became more urgent as the siege dragged on.
            When a false rumour that Gustavus Adolphus was advancing rapidly reached the besiegers, it panicked them into redoubling their efforts. They knew they had to take the city and commandeer all the food they could lay their hands on as soon as possible if they were to be in any shape to face the advancing Swedes. They had become little more than crazed animals who would do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival. On 17 May Tilly’s men began a fierce artillery bombardment. It went on, unsuccessfully, for more than two days. It was dawn on the 20th before a breach was, at last, made large enough for the desperate invaders to pour through.
            What followed was an orgy of killing, brutality, plunder and destruction on a scale that shocked the whole of Europe. Tilly’s troops swept through the city, completely out of control, mindlessly punishing a defenceless civilian population for their own sufferings. They broke into wine cellars and rapidly got drunk. Now they were not only savage beasts; they were insensible savage beasts, slaughtering every cowering man, woman or child they came across.
            Then came the fire. At the beginning of the onslaught, the imperialists had set fire to one of the city gates to stop it being closed again. Sparks were carried to the thatched roofs and timber-framed houses of the crammed streets. Within hours beautiful Magdeburg was in flames from one end to the other. The pile of smouldering ash took days to cool down and, when it did, the gaunt, blackened walls of the cathedral and a handful of other churches and public buildings stood like tombstones in a bleak, grey landscape. The city had to be rebuild almost from scratch. And the citizens? Their bodies lay piled in the streets. Survivors huddled together in groups for shelter, unwittingly spreading disease. There was no question of burying the dead. Eventually Tilly ordered all the remaining corpses to be thrown into the Elbe. For months afterwards the river was choked with putrid bodies.
            The siege of Magdeburg was one battle among many in this devastating war in which the Swedish army alone destroyed 1,500 German towns, 18,000 villages and 2,000 castles.
            2018 marks another anniversary. It is 80 years since one of the great historians of the twentieth century published the definitive and immensely readable history of the Thirty Years War. Dame Veronica Wedgewood’s verdict was unequivocal:
Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.
            Only months after that was written, German troops marched into Poland. As we watch from the comfort of our armchairs the hideous events in Syria, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we civilised Europeans would never do that sort of thing, can’t we?