To Aetius thrice Consul, the groans of the Britons

Gildas, in the 6th century, tells us that a generation after Britain had left the Roman Empire, a plea was sent to Rome to return and rescue the Britons from incoming hordes:

“To Aetius thrice Consul, hear the groans of the Britons

The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.”

The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence.

Flavius Aetius was the senior general commanding in Gaul and Hispania, and the effective ruler of much of the Western Empire. Britannia had left the Empire long since and been abandoned. He did not respond.

Who wrote the letter he does not say. This was in about 450 AD, forty years after the legions had been expelled from Britannia. Aetius had other things on his mind at the time, such as suppressing numerous invasions and rebellions, and the little matter of confronting Atilla the Hun as he invaded Gaul with the largest invasion force in Roman history. The Britons only ever thought of their own position. How little things change.

What was this island, cut off from the Empire? It had been conquered as a public relations exercise by Claudius and while towns and roads and coloniae were built, much of Britannia remained a wild frontier for the three and half centuries of occupation. It was the one province of the West which never spoke Latin but kept its own language. It was the one province of the Roman Empire from which no native ever rose to become a leading general or magistrate. When the legions withdrew and the last Roman magistrates were expelled, the Celtic Iron Age seems to have resumed as if nothing had happened in the meantime.

It was a fertile land and one defended only by the soldiers of a distant Empire, and increasingly not even by Romans but auxiliaries, and when even these withdrew then there came other Britons, untamed Britons, and from across the sea came tribes of untamed Germany

Was this letter to Aetius written by a king or a faction? Gildas is unclear, but the wording he gives is in the style of an oration recounted by Tacitus, which is to say made up for effect. (Not that I would knock a Tacitus oration: Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt – brilliant) Nevertheless, whatever its words and from whomever it came, the letter was written, as a plea for Rome to ride to the rescue.

Perhaps it was the ultimate Remoaner moment. Are we to expect a faction of die-hard pro-Europeans to write, forty years hence, a similar letter to a leader of the European Empire, and what will they find?

The letter Gildas describes, the Groans of the Britons, was addressed to the closest commander of an empire dying as it stood. No answer came, but there was none in truth who could answer, for those who wrote the letter were appealing to the dream that was Rome, and no more than a dream. The Empire they called to was already dead.

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Titus Oates

Titus Oates was in a short time the most feted and hated man of his time. Few would understand him today, apart from Tom Watson.

In Good King Charles’s Golden Days there was an infamous scandal brought about by the abiding fear of the age, and promoted by one man into a frenzy alleging a sickening conspiracy suffusing the corridors of power.

He was a man whose manner made men listen, as he told them what they wanted to hear, what they wanted to believe, and he gave a justification for their darkest desires for blood. In the end he fell from his lofty perch and met a form of justice, but only after many innocent men had suffered the destruction of their reputations and death.

It is impossible to put a character on Titus Oates as he was above all an actor and dissembler.  We know he was born in Rutland and after the Restoration was educated in Cambridge for a while. He followed the wind: when the Puritans were in the ascendant he became a Puritan, but when they fell he reconciled to the Church of England. Like some in our time he rose to public office despite his obvious unsuitability; in the manner of his time it was within the Church. He had no reputation for intelligence, which has never been a bar to public office, but could speak.

Oates was a survivor on the edge; on one occasion as his career stalled he sought advancement by accusing a fellow cleric of abusing young men in his care, which was a gross slander and he fled London to avoid charges. Soon he was himself accused of a capital offence, and survived the noose only by the privilege attaching to his position. He joined up with a popular actor in a new enterprise, and failed at that also.

In 1667 came the turning point for Oates: this former Puritan Baptist and Protestant preacher embraced the enemy and was received into the Roman church. He left for France to enter a Jesuit College, and was in Spain also. The next year he was back in London, renouncing Rome and with a list of names.  These were men from the cream of society whom he accused of a foul and widespread conspiracy of which he had learned amongst the Jesuits.

This was an unsettled time – the Restoration was only eight years in an those who led the Civil War and Cromwell’s dictatorship were still there, but in the reaction to the Puritans was another danger, of emboldened papists drawing strength from Louis XIV revitalising France and the Roman clergy across the Channel. In 1666, London burned and some were quick to blame a papist plot (which was even inscribed on the Monument). The fate of the nation was in the balance as three factions circled the seat of power looking for advantage. There were plots of some sort, but no excuse as yet to strike with deadly force against the rival.

In stepped Oates with his revelation of a Popish Plot he learned of in France and a list of names.

Oates spoke well before the Privy Council, which was always on the look-out for conspiracies against the realm. They wanted to believe him. By chance, one of the names he first put forward, Edward Coleman, was found to have corresponded with King Louis’s personal priest, which gave credibility to the tale. Colman was hanged. Oates knew that the more he accused, the longer his fortune would last. More names followed and more elaborate plots were ‘revealed’.

Oates suffered an early check when he had an education from King Charles – the King was no fool and when he examined Oates he saw through him at once and locked him up – but Parliament wanted to believe in the Popish Plot and forced his release.

There were well-publicised raids on the homes of accused men and anyone in the public eye could be accused, and no doubt some stood by Oates to avoid accusation. The gallows began to fill. In the meantime, Oates was given an apartment in Whitehall, a noble coat of arms, and rumours of a marriage into nobility.

After three years of blood and destroyed reputations, the acquittals began and it became clear that Titus Oates was spinning fantasies. His fall was rapid and brutal, and his final wild accusations against the King himself let to prison and poverty, and this as the reign of King Charles II was drawing to a close and the heir was known to be a papist himself, and the new King James II had Titus Oates dragged back before a judge, to be stripped, pilloried, whipped through the streets and thrown in prison (where he remained until the papist King was himself chased off the throne in 1688).

It could happen today. We have seen it, when a politician without principle of discernment makes wild, unfounded allegations about the frenzy of the age. The question for us is how we deal with it, to resist or be driven along with the popular mood of hatred and accusation.

One thing for the immediate moment – such a man as Oates, and we know who stands in his shoes today, must never be feted or honoured. Now one such has been put forward for elevation to the House of Lords, where he would have honours, titles, arms and lifelong privilege to accuse whomever he wishes without consequence. It does not matter what his party leader promised him in return for resignation: no such man should be considered for that place.

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The oldest story in the World

The oldest story in the World, intriguing… How many ancient tales survive among our own nation? Very few.

Once there would have been more, but while printing saved stories, it lost them too by its silence, so the first printers gave new life to the Canterbury Tales, they ignored peasant stories, which have been lost. One 15th century writer said he would pass over in disdain such traditions ‘Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, and also his strange exploits in the same’ but what is this lost tradition?  Soon came the Reformation, and old, heathenish stories were cast out deliberately.  It was a blessing to the nation overall, but incalculable loss to our folklore.

Writing discourages the oral transmission of stories, perhaps because we look to the page for confirmation, perhaps because those written down lose their vitality when nailed to paper, perhaps because the old is drowned in the huge volume of new, printed stories. Many of our traditional fairy takes survive only because the Brothers Grimm hunted them down in the forests of Germany and Walt Disney committed them to film. We have a lot to thank Mr Disney for if the opposite of ‘Disneyfication’ of stories is losing them entirely from our consciousness.

The oral tradition is stronger than a book-bound people can imagine.  The Book People at the end of Fahrenheit 451 are a fantasy suggested by oral stories but are actually celebrating the written word. We are Book People. Beyond our paper culture, the story long handed down is a phenomenon.

For bookless people, a story is more immediate.  When John Ross moored his ship further north in the Arctic than any ship had hitherto sailed, the local Eskimos told his crew of another fleet which had visited them, and recounted all the detail as if it had been yesterday: but it was Martin Frobisher’s fleet of three hundred years before.

Britain has some older stories surviving from a distant age, like those of Beowulf, and the lively tales of the Mabinogion, which would have been lost if not written down. Ours is a young nation, of just fifteen centuries or so.  Beowulf is but a youngster, and the older stories it recounts, of the Volsings and of Waldere reaching into pan-Germanic legend, are wet behind the ears compared with the classics.  We have some older snippets – the legend of the Lady of the Lake, who wed her suitor on condition that she be touched with no thing of iron, may come from the collision of the Bronze with the incoming Iron Age.  Even this story is young.

The Trojan War reaches deep into the Bronze Age.  The names of Graeco-Roman deities can be traced to the early Indo-European languages, but not their legends. The Bible reaches back to Creation itself, but the earliest actual stories are of the Bronze Age, and in parallel the earliest written stories from Babylon and the east tell of the great flood, which happened millennia ago in many places across the world.

We can tell stories that are written in the landscape, as Rudyard Kipling did of his beloved Sussex, and wind yarns about the bits of history we know and the castles, the carved hillsides and the ancient standing stones, but this is not a living story of those times.

See you the dimpled track that runs, All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns That smote King Philip’s fleet!…
And see you, after rain, the trace Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place, When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade, Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made, To guard their wondrous towns!

In Australia there are tribal tales that have no dates and were not written down, until white anthropologists passed by. We may think of Australia as young, but its native people had the place for untold ages without interference.

There is in Victoria a mountain called Mount Eccles with a slot-like crater lake in its heart, and around it a wet landscape, inhabited since tie beyond estimation by the Gunditjmara tribe, and they have a creation story of the High Head emerging from the earth, spreading his blood and teeth across the landscape and creating the wetlands, just as the lava did when Mount Eccles erupted. Stone tools have been found buried in ash from that time, so the people were already here.  The thing is, the scientific data for the eruption puts it at 36,900 years ago, when even in Europe the Old Stone Age hunters were still wandering an untamed continent.

It is unimaginable that a story could be told uninterrupted since Palaeolithic times, but somehow among a tribe in a once forgotten continent there is proof of a form of immortality of the spoken word.

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Never again.

No jolly banter today. No cheap political point-scoring. No penny-philosophy. Just ‘Never again’.

In a camp seventy-five years ago today men had waded through blood and burnt villages to reach that spot broke down and wept, and that was just one camp. I can write no more about it as many others have written more and better and with better understanding.

We can blame a disembodied evil for it, or conjure the Devil into the midst, but these were the deliberate actions of men, and the causes are in the elemental heart of man. It is the fundamental duty of society, which is to say of every man and woman whose multitude of interconnected relationships make up that intangible web that we call society, to ensure those social bonds work for the good, for we have seen how easy it is to deploy the irresistible strength of society to destruction.

From time to time the papers titillate us with displays of the everyday propaganda used by the Nazis to normalise race-hatred across their society, and we grimace or maybe think it too crude for anyone to take seriously. Then as someone speaks to me he spits out the latest conspiracy he has heard and thinks it modern, but my heart is chilled because it is very familiar, very old. It all emphasises that we must learn to speak up to challenge the re-normalisation of these ideas and say with no lessening vigour ‘Never again.’

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Dark times and better times

Treason is never far from us. It may come with an explosive blast – we have seen too many of those in latter years – or it may come with a whisper in dark corners. It may be in the actions of a murderous man intent of terrifying and tyrannising, or in the words of a useful idiot. Ambition, arrogance, malice, or a naïve hope to make things better out of the destruction and weeping – all these are with us.

How many politicians and activists agree that a “desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy”, and justifies thereby what is really an exercise in personal power for a personal thrill? Guy Fawkes and Catesby are not history but a tragedy of humanity.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
‘Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

The cynics have called Guy Fawkes the only man to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intent, but there are many men and women of selfless service there and long have been, and I trust that after the election there will be some there again, amongst the bulk of timer-servers and egotists.

Even now there are plots and plotters, and traitors. Times have been worse though, and the fact that we celebrate our national deliverance on the Fifth of November every year still after all the wars and calamities of the age tells us something. It was not wiped out even by the wars.

During the Second World War and the blackout, P L Travers, the authoress of Mary Poppins wrote:

From 1605 till 1939 every village green in the shires had a bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Day. … Since 1939, however, there have been no bonfires on the village greens. No fireworks gleam in the blackened parks and the streets are dark and silent. But this darkness will not last forever. There will some day come a Fifth of November — or another date, it doesn’t matter — when fires will burn in a chain of brightness from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before. They will take each other by the hand and watch the rockets breaking, and afterwards they will go home singing to the houses full of light…

So we do, and long may we do so.

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