Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon Sanctuary I only recently discovered.

It’s in St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, situated between Henley-in-Arden and Stratford-upon-Avon. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the “manor”) of Wootton before 1066.  And I thought of him as I  looked through the exhibition. When William the Conquerer took over, he  swiped that land from Wagen and gave it, (as was the way of many English monarchs) to a pal of his. In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

As I wandered around the church,  I mused upon the lessons of history, and whether I can learn anything from them, in my life.

Along with the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought  played into my musings – a recent TV programme on the 50 greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC TV drama production of  Shakespeare’s “Henry V”; and our planned visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III was killed, thus signalling the end for the Plantaganets and the rise of the Tudors.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind, in no particular order:

A Viking with “bad attitude” buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found  by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt, then married Catherine daughter of the King of France. Their son Henry VI was a bit of a wash-out as a king, and would have preferred not to be king at all; he shrank from the role whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Following Henry V’s death when his son was 9 months old,  Catherine  went off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

When Richard III fought Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Henry was the rank outsider, and Richard would have been expecting to win. Shakespeare has him saying, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!” He probably never said it but with those words Shakespeare exactly captures not only the poignancy and significance of that moment, but gives us a metaphor for human life many can recognise.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future – but whatever she achieved was only temporary. Her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune, and how they interface with our lives.

Consider the following:

What might have happened if:

– Richard III’s (metaphorical) horse had been available at the moment he needed him?

– Mary I had had a successful pregnancy which led to the birth of a healthy baby, thus securing a Catholic Tudor dynasty in England?

– if Harold had beat William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?

– if James II had won the Battle of the Boyne?

– if Charlotte, the beautiful daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, (as beloved as Princess Diana was when she died in 1997)  had safely given birth to a healthy child, and lived to claim the throne and reign for 60 years, before Victoria was ever thought of?

– if Edward VIII had not met Mrs Simpson?

Some of these events could be interpreted as arising from errors of judgement and human failings; others from quirky twists of fate.

Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of the world; and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

So what do I deduce from this? And is this something that can apply to anyone who has a dream or vision or sets out upon a course of action with a great goal in mind – such as a creative writer who would like their words to be read by many?

Simply that success or failure is not determined by hard work and striving.

Certainly “hard work and striving” cannot just be dispensed with. But perhaps we have to live with a healthy knowledge that that they may in a moment be swept away, and rendered irrelevant, by a quirky twist of fate.

What do you think? Do you share my fatalism? Or are you a historian who disagrees with my interpretation of English history?  Do consider leaving a comment!

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Comments on: "Musings From a Saxon Sanctuary – A Lesson of History: Success or Failure Turns on Quirks of Fate" (7)

  1. What an interesting post and thoughtful comments! I often wonder, idly I have to admit, how different our country might be if events had swung in favour of those that were defeated or died young and childless. We always seem to strive so hard to ‘prove ourselves’ and yet in the end it doesn’t matter. We ultimately have no control over our fate and fortune, other than putting ourselves in the right place at the right time, with the necessary tools or ingenuity, and we leave it for the Fates to decide…

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found my post thought-provoking. I have really appreciated all the comments. When you mentioned the Fates you reminded me of Norse mythology – there are characters called the Three Norns who weave the rope of fate. For our forbears, the image of weaving must have seemed so appropriate for the irrational elements of life. In Wagner’s famous four-part music drama “The Ring of the Nibelung” (which is based on the Norse legends) the Three Norns spend a long time on stage in the fourth opera, discussing events so far and weaving the rope of fate! Then the rope is broken because of the actions of the hero and heroine – Brunnehilde with her love for Siegried has broken into the workings of Fate. I believe we have something to learn from all the world mythologies and different faith systems; they all have their part to play in helping us as we look at life.

  2. Interesting blog, and an endlessly fascinating subject. A lot of great stories have been written around all the different possibilities – I’ve got a few ideas in mind myself! But for a Christian, a key question is ‘how much is God in control? Does he directly shape history, or just intervene at crucial points? In regard to your concluding point, though I’d say that from God’s eternal perspective, nothing done in his service is ever truly lost or made pointless. He measures these things with a different rule!

    • I was hoping for someone to make a comment like this! I felt sure there must be something important a Christian could add to it. How does God interface with this fatalistic idea that we are all at the mercy of the irrational, i.e. “quirky twists of fate”? A spiritual writer I greatly admired once wrote “Nothing we love is lost”. In the face of the reality of life it is so difficult to hold onto that insight.
      2 hours ago · Like · 1

  3. Oddly enough the fate of Richard III was a topic I discussed with my daughter only yesterday, ruminating on how his survival at Bosworth might have affected the complexion of English history at the time. We also commented on how, even now, there can still persist a tendency for people to view his death (and others in similar circumstances) as just punishment for his crimes (whether proved or not) echoing an age-old human connection between God’s judgement and failure of a cause. This is not the case, of course, although some will argue otherwise. And if you were wondering what my daughter and I thought at the end of our conversation? We concluded that Richard III’s death was the country’s loss.

    • Yes, I understand that Richard III has been much-maligned by history, largely because of Shakespeare’s portrayal of him which has now been acknowledged to be Tudor propaganda. Nevertheless it remains very difficult to discover the truth about some of these great historical figures (Ann Boleyn is a good example & I’ve read a number of biographies of her). On 18 August I’m going with my family to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the famous battle where the Tudors won out ove the Plantaganets. Whilst there we’ll have the opportunity to meet David Baldwin, medieval historian, who is signing copies of his book, the latest biography of Richard III. Apparently he has done an in-depth study of Richard III’s dealings with his contemporaries, in order to try and answer the question ‘what was Richard III really like’. I expect we will be buying it! My 14 year old son is very keen on history too and wants to make a career out of it in some way!

      • I expect we will be buying a copy as well – we seem to have collected a library of books on the subject over the years.
        Whatever the outcome of events in history, our understanding is shaped and limited by our humanity. God’s purpose might not be clear to us, and how much He shapes events or allows them to play out as part of our free will, is a moot point.

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