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Aylesbury Proclamation

Proclamation

As with most Britons alive today, there hasn’t been a change of the UK’s Sovereign in my lifetime. Not any more. I don’t follow that branch of the entertainment industry known as ‘The Royals’ and I have no particular affection for its various actors. Most of them strike me as charmless or gormless or both. But I think the system of constitutional monarchy has served this country well, all things considered. I like it that we have a head of state in the UK who’s independent of political parties, lobby groups, and financial donations. The monarch unites the nation in a way no elected president ever could.

The Crown is not just a symbol of the nation in unity, but of continuity, stability and tradition. A symbol, in other words, of the simple things, the understandable things, the relatable things. The things that radicals, progressives, and leftists sneer at and want to abolish, along with the monarchy itself.

Aylesbury Proclamation

I went to my local market square to see the Proclamation of the new Sovereign. It’s a ceremony that’s been held in towns and cities all over the United Kingdom in recent days, and it’s just the kind of event that republicans love to mock as outdated and comic. It’s all a bit of a joke, a bit Gilbert & Sullivan, a bit cringe, actually. Other countries don’t have this nonsense, they’ll say, as if being the same as other countries is a end in itself.

Of course, most of us there didn’t think it was cringe. We gave three cheers for the new king and sang the national anthem. This being the county town of Buckinghamshire, there were mayors from all over the county who came to take copies of the proclamation back to be read to their own citizens. Just as happened in 1952, when Elizabeth II became queen, and just as happened before with preceding monarchs. This kind of ceremony may be archaic and faintly daft, but I found it comforting and moving.

Metaphysical monarchists will tell you that the Crown and the person who wears it should not be conflated. Still, it seems that the monarchy’s popularity since 1952 has, with a few wobbles, been due to the personal qualities of Elizabeth II. She became queen when she was just twenty-five and effectively began with a clean slate. Charles III is seventy-three and begins with several slates’ worth of incidents which cast him a poor light.

Aylesbury Proclamation

The Royal aides have been trying to manage the mainstream media for decades now, with mixed results. They haven’t a hope in hell of managing social media. The ongoing William/Kate vs Harry/Megan conflict might simply have kept the tabloids and gossip columns fuelled with endless copy thirty years ago. Now it’s become another front in the culture wars.

Yes, I know — it’s the Crown, not the person. But in the social media age the personal qualities of the monarch are scrutinized as never before. I do wonder whether Charles or his successor (who can’t be that far off) will be the last of the line, especially given almost everybody under age of forty seems to think socialism is the answer to everything.

But those republicans who want an elected president as our head of state — so much more modern, so much more egalitarian — should be careful what they wish for. It could as easily turn out to be a Trump or an Erdogan (or a Corbyn, God help us) as an Obama or a Macron.

Forty-five years, ago, Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, writing about the Silver Jubilee, compared the queen with the prime ministers who’d served under her:

Success is the real difference. Whatever it means to be a successful queen, Elizabeth is that. Her system visibly works. The ceremony glitters, a simple speech brings tears to the eyes. And so much else in Britain, political and economic, does not work.

Plus ça change…

St Mary Redcliffe window

Cancelling Colston

Bristol’s connection with the slave trade goes back a long way, a thousand years and more. Slavery was an accepted practice in Anglo-Saxon England, and historians have estimated that between 10 and 30 per cent of the population were slaves. There was also money to be made by exporting English slaves to Ireland, and by the eleventh century Bristol was the main centre for this trans-Irish Sea trade.

The twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury looked back with revulsion at this Bristolian commerce:

They would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit; and put up for sale maidservants after toying with them in bed and making them pregnant. You would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.

English slavery was brought to an end through the efforts of two churchmen, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury and Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester. Both men preached on the evils of slavery and Lanfranc, who had a close relationship with William I, eventually persuaded the king to outlaw the practice. To paraphrase a well-known line, what did the Normans ever do for us? Well, they did abolish indigenous slavery.

The better-known Bristolian slavery connection originates a few centuries later, when the Royal African Company’s monopoly of the British transatlantic slave trade was ended in 1698. The merchants of Bristol, ever eager for a new business opportunity, leapt in and were soon reaping a great deal of profit from this traffic in human beings.

One prominent Bristolian merchant who made a lot of money from the slave trade was Edward Colston (1636-1721). Colston was a member of the Royal African Company and, later, of the Society of Merchant Venturers, the company which controlled Bristol’s sea trade. Both companies dealt in West African slaves. In later life Colston turned to philanthropy, endowing schools, churches, almshouses, and hospitals. In 1895, a statue was erected in the centre of the city to commemorate the great man and his generous benefactions.

When I was a student in Bristol, more than twenty-five years ago, Colston’s name was everywhere. There was a Colston Hall and a Colston Tower, a Colston Avenue and a Colston Street, Colston Almshouses and even a Colston Bun. Bristol, it seemed to me as an outsider, was very proud of its famous and generous son. Still, there was no conspiracy of silence about Bristol’s connection with the transatlantic slave trade back then. I remember it was talked about and acknowledged quite openly. Which brings me to the present day and to how that debate has changed over the years.

I think there are two main differences. Whereas the slave trade was regarded as a terrible, shameful episode in the city’s past, it was then treated as history, something that had occurred in less enlightened times, yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man. In the present day, it is viewed as a collective sin in which every Bristolian, many of whom have benefited from Colston’s bequests, is complicit. This tremendous wrong must not only be acknowledged but expiated.

Colston plinth
Colston’s empty plinth

The other difference is that Edward Colston’s involvement in the trade has been foregrounded. Colston is the man who personifies all the evil of that time. Which is why, when the Black Lives Matter protests reached their height in June 2020, his statue was pulled down by a mob and dumped in the harbour. This in itself was unsurprising, given the febrile period we were living through then. What was surprising, at least to me, was that the Bristol police stood back and watched.

‘Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic,’ said Superintendent Andy Bennett, of the Somerset and Avon police. What’s also symbolic is that the police decided to let it happen. It should be acknowledged that an investigation into criminal damage was carried out after the event, but, well, whatever happened to crime prevention?

The historian David Olusoga wrote a piece of purple prose for the Guardian — ‘tonight Edward Colston sleeps with the fishes’ — in which he commended the protesters for their direct action. Which only goes to show, once again, that leftists are happy to justify mob violence so long as it supports their cause. To be clear, I’m not out to defend Colston. He profited from a barbaric trade. By all means, if that’s what the people of Bristol want, remove his statue from the town centre. But that’s not a decision for a self-appointed popular committee to make.

The statue was eventually recovered and is now on display in the M Shed museum. I hope this means that Bristol’s part in the history of the slave trade can be discussed and contextualized, rather than erased. And I mean really contextualized, which the likes Olusoga never actually do. To listen to them you’d never know that slavery has been an almost universal institution in many different civilizations and is sill practiced today.

Bristol is home to one of the most beautiful churches in England, St Mary Redcliffe. Until recently there were four small stained glass lights dedicated to the memory of Edward Colston. In the wake of the statue toppling, the church authorities decided to remove them. I’m puzzled as to why, if these objects were so objectionable, the good men and women of St Mary Redcliffe left it so late to take them out of public view. It was obviously a preemptive move, to spike any criticism from the social justice crowd and to make sure the windows don’t get smashed in. I doubt more than one in a thousand Bristol people even knew they were there.

The information board by the window explains the church’s rationale for the removal and it’s worth showing it here.

St Mary Redcliffe info board

That the window is not an original feature of the church is a bizarre argument for the removal, and clearly made in bad faith. That it reflects ‘a different worldview’ is true not just of the stained glass but of this information board, of the church that houses it, and indeed of the campaign to cancel Colston. Worldviews gonna change, that’s for sure.

Anglo-Saxon burial ground Greenwich

Anglo-Saxon bones

There aren’t many material traces of the Anglo-Saxons visible in London, at least within the bounds of the old medieval city. I can think of an arch in the church of All Hallows by the Tower, an altar stone at St Pancras Old Church, and, though this was made barely a decade before the Normans took power, a wooden door at Westminster Abbey. The Romans left more of a mark than the later Anglo-Saxons. But of course Londinium was the Roman’s provincial capital for most of its existence. The various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that came after the Roman collapse didn’t have capital cities in the modern (or Roman) sense.

Anglo-Saxon London, called Lundenwic, was concentrated in the area of what is now Covent Garden and the Strand. Unlike in Roman times, this London was no administrative centre or military garrison. Lundenwic was a port and trading centre, a purely commercial settlement. For unknown reasons, the walled city the Romano-Britons built seems to have been virtually shunned the ninth century, when Alfred the Great initiated a rebuilding and resettlement scheme. Those early Anglo-Saxons are such a mysterious lot in comparison with the Romans who preceded them.

Anglo-Saxon burial ground Greenwich

I said there weren’t many material traces visible, at least within the boundaries of medieval London. But further down the river at Greenwich, if you walk up to the top of the park, you can see a cluster of smallish mounds, like blisters on the surface of the greensward. These are the visible remains of a sizeable Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

There were about forty barrows here, dating to some time between the sixth and eighth centuries AD. It’s a pagan burial ground, from a time when Christianity was still trying to re-establish footholds in the island of Britain. The first recorded excavations of the barrows were carried out by Reverend James Douglas, in 1784, though there seems to have been an earlier excavation, in 1714, the results of which are not known. Douglas published his findings and the artefacts he unearthed included an iron spearhead, knife, shield boss, woollen textiles and glass beads.

Anglo-Saxon burial ground Greenwich

Those eighteenth century antiquarians wouldn’t have been the first to disturb the graves and if there were items of greater significance and value, they had long since been plundered. According to the Royal Parks website, ‘any surviving finds from that dig [by Douglas] should be in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford’. ‘Should’ is an interesting choice of word, but I’m planning a trip to the Ashmolean soon, so I’ll see if there’s anything there.

A nineteenth-century reservoir scheme levelled about a dozen of the barrows and would have obliterated the lot, but fortunately a public outcry brought the work to a halt. So the site, albeit far from pristine, has survived to the present day. The recent heatwave has brought the mounds into shaper relief, as you can see from the photos I took this month.

University College Oxford

Murder on the quad

The title of this post sounds like it might belong to a story by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers. But in this case, we know whodunnit from the start. It begins with a letter penned by John Fulljames, a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at University College, Oxford, around midday on 17 May 1940. He’d been invited to dinner that evening by another undergraduate, David Pope. In the letter Fulljames wrote:

Dear David
Thank you for your invitation. I am sorry if you have ordered my dinner, but I am afraid I shall not be able to come to Oriel to-night. Probably an unforeseen engagement will detain me during this time in durance vile. Still. Iron bars, &c, or is it stone walls? All the best.

Shortly after writing the letter Fulljames picked up a Lee Enfield .303 rifle he’d borrowed from another student, leaned out of the second-floor window of his rooms overlooking the college’s front quadrangle, and opened fire on some students emerging from the college hall after lunch.

His first two shots hit Charles Moffat in the neck and body, killing him instantly. Moffat’s friend, Denis Melrose, saw his friend fall, thinking at first he was playacting. When he went to help he was hit in the chest, saved only by the bullet ricocheting off the fountain pen in his breast pocket. Another student, a South African Rhodes Scholar named de Kock, was hit by a ricochet, as was a college servant.

The University College chaplain, John Wild, heard the commotion and ran out from the Senior Common Room to see at what was going. Britain was officially at war with Germany and the Battle of Britain would begin in earnest just a couple of months later. Could it be that German paratroopers had landed in Oxford? But this was not the first skirmish in an invasion.

Demonstrating considerable bravery, Wild approached Fulljames and persuaded him to lay down the rifle. Fulljames was taken into police custody and the investigation revealed that he’d had several disputes with his fellow undergraduates. He was convinced that one of them (it’s not clear if this was Moffat or Melrose) was been playing loud music and entertaining women in his room, with the sole purpose of annoying him. But the real spark seems to have been an argument over breakfast that morning, in which Fulljames defended conscientious objectors when Melrose and his friends were disparaging them.

While awaiting trial, Fulljames was examined by a psychiatrist and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was tried at the Stafford Assizes and found ‘Guilty but Insane’. Escaping the death penalty, he was sent to Broadmoor, the high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire.

But his stay at Broadmoor was a relatively short one. Fulljames was released in 1945 and seems to have passed the rest of his life in obscurity. He died in Cardiff in 2013 at the age of 90. The murder on the quad remains a strange and tragic footnote to Oxford’s wartime history.

[The factual information in this post is gleaned from Robin Darwall-Smith’s A History of University College, Oxford, and from the Times archive. The photograph of the University College front quadrangle is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]