The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

Research in Southwark for Setting for New Novel

Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.

To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.

What a  fascinating part of London Southwark is, rich in layers of history, the medieval squashed in with the 21st century, sparkling new towers, majestic cathedral, paupers graveyard and bustling market and Dickensian street names and eccentric pubs all crammed in together – and one of London’s most colourful and stimulating walks, along Bankside, from More London right through to the London Eye…..

But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.

Guys Cliffe House, Romantic Ruin in a Dreamlike State, Awaiting New Life

What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?

Guy's Cliffe House 25 Aug 2013 (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
Guy’s Cliffe House 25 Aug 2013 (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.

Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.

Guy's Cliffe House as seen from the footpath on the other side of the river Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
Guy’s Cliffe House as seen from the footpath on the other side of the river Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.

For one of those who occupied  the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.

Guy’s Cliffe House  so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.

In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.

And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.

I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.

One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.

We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.

8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.

The cave where Guy of Warwick lived for 2 years (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The cave where Guy of Warwick lived for 2 years (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The chapel of Mary Magdalene with Guy's Cliffe House behind (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The chapel of Mary Magdalene with Guy’s Cliffe House behind (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

And next to the house, the lovely chapel of Mary Magdalene contains Guy’s figure in stone, representing him to be 8 ft high.

The formal gardens have vanished, overgrown by tall trees and shrubs and bamboo.tall bamboo crowds close to Guy's Cliff,in place of the earlier formal gardens

tall bamboo crowds close to Guy’s Cliff,in place of the earlier formal gardens

It’s like another world – untouched, just left as it is.

So many windows. You feel somebody should appear in them.

We couldn’t fail to wonder and imagine as we took the guided tour around the house and grounds on 25 August 2013, guided by our host Adrian, with an excellent, fluent and richly informative talk.

If you’re in the area of Warwick then don’t forget to book a guided tour round Guy’s Cliffe after you’ve visited Warwick Castle!

Controlling Women in History and Life: Bess of Hardwick and Tudor England

Controlling women are a recurring theme in my life.

Bess of Hardwick First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S Lovell
Bess of Hardwick First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S Lovell

Add to this a love of history.

And so when I found the book Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S. Lovell, I felt impelled to read it.

It is said that only when a lesson is learned, does an issue stop recurring in your life.

And so when I read of one of history’s most outstanding controlling women, I am filled with ambivalent feelings.

Three of the strongest, most fascinating women in history – some would call them controlling, others charismatic – all lived in the most turbulent of times, and intersected each others’ lives with the highest emotional stakes.

They were Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabeth I; and Bess of Hardwick.

When I recently visited Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth in Derbyshire, I knew little of Bess of Hardwick. Now, having just finished reading Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S. Lovell, I am fascinated by her. And I cannot read of a powerful historical figure like this without drawing parallels and making connections with this life, and my own; and the world I know and move in.

If I was to sum Bess up for those who’ve never heard of her, I’d say she was a one woman estate and property corporation, plus social and dynastic engineer.  She founded several of our great aristocratic families and greatest landowners. She was strong at a time when women were oppressed, manipulated and exploited.

She was a “Tudor entrepreneur”, absorbing knowledge from each of her four husbands, and applying it practically to far greater effect than they ever did.

I felt very sorry for her fourth husband the Earl of Shrewsbury. For he was caught up between these 3 strong women: Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I & Bess of Hardwick. He ran up huge bills keeping Mary Queen of Scots captive; despite years of begging letters from him, Elizabeth I refused to pay him a penny for it;  and the Earl likewise spent years refusing to pay Bess any of the allowances he’d agreed to give her before they married.  And when his son broke into his bedchamber, following his death, he discovered there was indeed very little cash left in the Earl’s iron-bound coffers. In terms of liquid assets, the Earl had genuinely been run dry. No wonder the poor man ended up bitter, whining and querulous.

Early in her life, Bess was a feisty young woman who fought her corner shrewdly and relentlessly every step of the way, and made few mistakes.

Amongst her personal attributes, readers of this book will note perspicacity; vision; discernment; strategic planning; far-sightedness; a dignified and gracious bearing.

And all around her there swam those who were ruled by one or several of the following: greed, impatience, fecklessness, hot-headedness, lack of vision; lack of anger-management; lust; short-sightedness; tunnel vision.

I believe Bess succeeded because she was a wise and acute observer of human psychology, and applied it to the best practical effect throughout her life. What she did, she did with skill and balance. Where she took risks, she did so with psychology in mind. She was a master at networking, and choosing the right people to ask favours of, at the right time, in the right way.

We can all learn from her.

Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth reads like a morality tale about money, success and power.

Those who get it and keep it; those who get it and lose it; those who have a talent for letting it slip through their fingers; and the multifarious ways people with varying degrees of honour or dishonour behave around it.

Bess did make some mistakes – and one of these was her decision to hold captive her grand-daughter Arbella, who was in line to the throne, on an equal level with James I.

Bess was almost responsible for Arbella’s existence, having carefully engineered the coupling of Arbella’s parents for the very purpose of producing another heir to the throne.

But she imprisoned Arbella at Hardwick Hall, in almost the same manner as her 4th husband the Earl of Shrewsbury had tohold Mary Queen of Scots captive.

And not surprisingly, Arbella didn’t like it.

Things didn’t work out the way Bess hoped with Arbella – (which was that Arbella should become Queen of England after Elizabeth). If they had, it would have been Bess’s most triumphant achievement.

Instead Arbella’s fate was to make a forbidden marriage, to die a lonely, squalid death in the Tower, and to be written out of history.

Bess had plenty of bad luck and tragedy in her life but she always fought her corner and her personal strength brought her through.

This story reminds us, too, through the experiences of others in Bess’s social ambit, that in life there are those who do extremely well for many years, then make a massive error of judgement which ruins everything.

And there are others who spend years causing trouble and living fecklessly – who suddenly come upon a stroke of luck and find themselves in high favour.

But this can all be forfeited, once again, by poor judgement – or the intervention of fate.

All these elements of our own lives stand out in high relief against the political and social landscape of Tudor England – brutal punishment, hereditary succession, fortunes made and lost, sexual liaisons which threaten the throne, secret and fateful marriages and desperate bids for power.

If you love history, put this book on your list!

The Curious Tale of a Rediscovered King, a DNA Trail and What It Tells Us of the Nature of Truth

“There were a lot of nasty rumours spread about me,” says Horrible Histories actor Jim Howick in his  hilarious portrayal of King Richard III. “Tudor propaganda, it’s all absurd. Time to tell the truth about Richard III.”

Who was he? “That King they found in the car park in Leicester”. This will have been the phrase on many lips, of those who, with little historical knowledge, will nevertheless find this a topic of conversation with friends.

Richard III - earliest surviving portrait (credit : medievalhistories.com)
Richard III – earliest surviving portrait (credit : medievalhistories.com)

The story of Richard III to me illustrates how nothing in this life can guarantee any particular outcome. And as I read “the book that inspired the dig”:  The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA by John Ashdown-Hill, this was brought vividly alive to me.

According to Ashdown-Hill, historian, genealogist, and member of the Richard III Society, Richard III was a young man probably too kind, too naive and too forgiving. If anything sewed the seeds of his downfall at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, it was that trust –  for he was betrayed by the Stanley brothers, men he could easily have captured and imprisoned in the Tower much earlier, if he’d been sharper and more rutheless.

Because his death and defeat  on that Bosworth Battlefield meant the end of one dynasty – the Plantaganets – and the beginning of another – the Tudors – a lot of hard work subsequently went into “re-writing history”: blackening his reputation, falsifying his story and character, and destroying historical evidence.

I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.

For the basic principles of life do not change.

Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.

But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.

Richard III facial reconstruction based upon his skull (credit: cnn.com)
Richard III facial reconstruction based upon his skull (credit: cnn.com)

Though it may be centuries later, and only after hundreds of years of fabrication and half truths and lies and myths.

On that day, 22 August 1485, at 8 am, Richard III rode onto the battlefield an anointed King, new marriage plans very much alive, expecting to reign for many more years. At 9.15am he was killed. And later, at 2 pm,  he left the battlefield, a mud-and blood-spattered corpse, naked (stripped of his finery by the local scavengers who would have surrounded every medieval battlefield), slung over a horse, later to be tipped unceremoniously into a shallow grave in Leicester.

Only nine years later, in 1494, did his successor, Henry VII, cause a tomb to be erected over his grave at the Greyfriars church in Leicester – and then only because it served Henry’s own interests that it be publicly known that Richard III had been a true King, and not a usurper of the throne.

I can throroughly recommend Ashdown-Hill’s book; if you love history I believe you too will be fascinated by  his methodology, as a historian and genealogist, as he teases out the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the probable from the unlikely, evaluating the different grades and types of evidence and the quality of witnesses and testimonies against each other.

You too may  find cause to reflect, as I have done, on the fact that tales about historical figures can often be total fabrication, or embroidered, or half- or quarter-truths, and only rigorous painstaking historical research can correct them.