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Strange but True
By Richard Smyth
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Richard Smyth
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or, Really Really Really REALLY Olde England
Complete this sentence: Nelson's column is to the hippopotamus as Stonehenge is to ___. Give up? Answer at the end of the chapter ...
Contrary to what your schoolbooks and National Trust tea towels might have told you, English history didn't begin with William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. English history began, not with a Norman, but with a Roger.
Roger was a pretty average individual: he stood around 5ft 11in, lived in south-east England and died – alas – at the age of around 40. Strictly speaking, Roger wasn't human, but nobody's perfect.
Roger lived near the pleasant West Sussex village of Boxgrove (good schools, pretty church, Zumba classes in the village hall every Thursday). We don't know much more about him than that. But then, how much will people know about you in half a million years' time? Roger lived near Boxgrove around 500,000 years ago. That's practically before humans were invented.
Roger was a specimen of the pre-human species Homo heidelbergiensis, and is known as 'Boxgrove Man', which doesn't quite tell the whole story; a better name would be 'Boxgrove Shin', as that's all that was left of Roger when we found him. Everything else we know about him has been figured out through expert analysis, beginning with 'the shin bone's connected to the knee bone' and proceeding from there. We don't know very much about Roger's day-to-day habits, although we do know that he was found in the vicinity of a butchered rhino pelvis. Make of that what you will.
As for the 'Roger', that can be attributed to the peculiar whims of archaeologists. England's oldest man was named after his discoverer, Danish bone-boffin Roger Pedersen, who unearthed the shin-bone in November 1993.
Contemplating our ancient history can be mind-bending. For most of recorded history, we have simply had no idea how incredibly venerable we are – as a species, as a planet, and as trace elements in a 13.7-billion-year-old universe. The seventeenth-century Irish archbishop James Ussher famously used Biblical scripture as evidence that the world was created in 4004 BC, and has been vigorously derided for it ever since.
But he was far from alone in massively underestimating the amount of time we humans have so far spent here on earth. The challenge of contemplating prehistory was certainly too much for the antiquarian John Bayford, who, upon finding elephant bones and an ancient spear point near Gray's Inn Road in London in 1715, assumed that the spear point had been used to kill one of Emperor Claudius' elephants on the Romans' entry into Britain in AD 43. He was around 398,000 years out.
It's true: elephants roamed free in prehistoric England. Long before even old Roger de Boxgrove arrived on the scene, around 900,000 years ago, the swamps of south-east England abounded with hippos and elephants. 700,000 years ago, England's climate was more Mediterranean than Nordic; 400,000 years ago, early humans dwelt on the banks of the mile-wide Thames among rhinoceros, lions, macaque monkeys, dolphins, straight-tusked elephant, bison, giant oxen, and wolves. Meanwhile at West Stow, in Suffolk, prehistoric whiz-kids came up with a new-fangled invention called 'fire'.
It all makes it seem as though the events we think of as 'history' happened only yesterday. London looks and feels like an old city, but it's been there for barely an eye blink, compared to the prehistoric bones that have been found beneath it: woolly mammoths down the Strand, reindeer at South Kensington station, rhinoceros at Battersea power station, and – as though to cock a snook at our ideas of what constitutes 'history' – hippos in Trafalgar Square, in the shadow of that 'historical' figure Lord Nelson.
Taking the long view, a hippopotamus is a far more representative icon of England's history than the decidedly modern Nelson. Now there's an idea for that fourth plinth.
The first breakthrough in unearthing our prehistory came not in London, but in Yorkshire (where history is history, and don't you bloody forget it). Kirkland Cave, high in the Dales, was examined in 1822 by the Oxford academic William Buckland – who found it strewn with exotic animal bones. Buckland surmised that the cave had been home to prehistoric hyenas, and was therefore littered with their leftovers (exploding an alternative thesis that attributed the presence of the bones to the Great Flood of Genesis).
Buckland was so enraptured by his hyena hypothesis that he adopted one as a household pet. He called it 'Billy'. It had a habit of upsetting house guests by noisily crunching guinea pigs under the settee.
We can't leave the splendid and flowingly berobed William Buckland without telling a couple more stories about him.
One tale recounts that, in order to investigate the provenance of the fossilised reptile footprints found in Dumfriesshire in the 1820s, Buckland and his colleagues induced a tortoise to walk through wet pie crust. 'It was really a glorious sight,' wrote the publisher John Murray, 'to behold all the philosophers, flour-besmeared, working away with tucked-up sleeves.'
Another concerns Buckland's all-encompassing appetite – and his stated ambition of eating every species of creature on earth. A conservative modern estimate would put that at around 3 million species, so to achieve his peculiar aim, Buckland would have had to munch his way through at least 100 species a day, every day of his life – but he certainly had a good stab at it, sampling such treats as bluebottles, toasted mice, panthers and puppies, among many other creatures (sadly, his recipe book has been lost to posterity).
The apogee of Buckland's gastronomical adventuring, though, came during a high-toned dinner at Nuneham House in Oxfordshire. The meal having been concluded, his host, evidently a collector of curiosities, was proudly showing off the jewel of his collection: the embalmed and somewhat shrunken heart of Louis XIV of France, the 'Sun King', the grandest monarch of his (and perhaps any) age. Buckland was impressed. He was also, it seems, still hungry. 'I have eaten many strange things,' he remarked, 'but have never eaten the heart of a king before.' Before anyone could stop him, Buckland had gulped down the nut-sized royal offal in one.
His host was left to reflect that perhaps this is what comes of being stingy with the portions at dinner.
Now let's get bang up-to-date by taking a look at a well-known example of cutting-edge contemporary architecture: Stonehenge. (What? Even by the most extreme estimates, the construction of Stonehenge is far nearer to us than to Roger de Boxgrove – when he passed on, Stonehenge was still at least 400,000 years in the future, making it as outlandish to him as architecture of the year 402,014 would seem to us.)
The name of Stonehenge is, of course, famous around the world. But the reason why we call the monument 'Stonehenge' is less well known, and a bit grim. The name means 'hanging stones'. It was thought in the Middle Ages that the huge crossed 'trilithons' were used not as a calendar or a solar clock or even a set of impromptu goalposts – but as a gallows.
But let's get down to brass tacks. 5,000 years of history is all very well – but how much would you pay for a few blocks of Cenozoic silcrete, a nice bit of rhyolitic tuff and an unworked sarsen stone? In 1915, Cecil Chubb paid £6,600 – and became the last owner of Stonehenge. 'I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it and that is how it was done,' he said. In 1918, though, he generously gave it back to the nation.
Now, that question we began with: Nelson's column is to the hippopotamus as Stonehenge is to what? The answer, discovered only recently, shook England to its very foundations. It is: the frog.
In 2013, frog bones from thousands of years before Stonehenge was built were discovered buried near the ancient stones, just as those ancient hippo remains were excavated in Trafalgar Square. But these were not any old frog bones. They had been cooked (and possibly breadcrumbed)! This led archaeologists to a shocking conclusion: the English had been eating frogs' legs. In fact, it seems that the English invented it between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, long before it occurred to anyone else. Zut alors!
or, All Woads Lead to Rome
For a long time, the Romans were pretty sure that there was no such thing as England. There were rumours among mariners and traders of a rainy archipelago, north-west of Gaul, rich in lead and tin – but the historian Herodotus, writing of these so-called 'Tin Islands', sniffed: 'I do not believe they exist.'
Once the Romans found their way to the top end of Gaul and got a look at the English coast for themselves, they let their imaginations get the better of them. They imagined that they had discovered 'an island of which the shores abounded with pearls, and the soil with ores of the more precious metals'.
But no. It was mostly lead and tin. Later exports included skins, dogs, and slaves – which the Britons exchanged for pottery and salt.
There followed a series of unimpressive attempts to conquer Britain by a succession of emperors whose hearts weren't really in it. Most laughable of all was the 'effort' made by Caligula in around AD 40. This ridiculous Roman assembled his legions on the beach at Boulogne in France, had himself rowed briefly out into the Channel and then hastily back again, and declared that Rome had 'conquered the sea'.
He then told his men to gather seashells from the Boulogne beach, as proof of their conquest. Across the sea, the Britons kept calm and carried on.
It wasn't until AD 43 that the Romans finally got round to launching an invasion worthy of the name. It was a fierce and purposeful assault, and the naked, woad-smeared Britons – whose guerrilla tactics had proved sufficient to see off Julius Caesar around 100 years before – stood little chance.
But this was only partly a Roman conquest. For one thing, the troops who really did the damage were not Roman legionaries but German auxiliaries; the Germans, unlike the disciplined Romans, were adept at taking on the Britons at their own game, and accustomed to scrapping in northern European conditions.
What's more, the invasion, though led by Aulus Plautius, had been instigated not by a Roman or even by a German but by – gasp! – a Brit – one Beric, who, as a result of internal squabbling among the tribes of the Tin Islands, had been exiled from his native land.
A word about woad. Woad was, of course, the blue dye with which the Britons liked to slather themselves before going into battle. But woad didn't die out with the ancient British culture; fermented and mixed with urine, it provided English textile makers with blue dye for centuries afterward.
By the sixteenth century, we actually had too much woad. The mass cultivation of woad plants (Isatis tinctoria) was eating into grain production, and had to be restricted by the government. Elizabeth I later lifted these restrictions (but still wouldn't allow any woad-processing plants near her palaces, because she found the stench unbearable). The last woad mill in England closed in 1932.
The ancient Britons also used woad to tattoo themselves. 'The Briton was vain of this hideous ornament,' one historian has sniffily noted, 'and to exhibit it before the eyes of his enemies, he was always careful to throw off his clothes on the day of battle.'
The ancient Britons were, of course, followers of the Druidic religion, about which we know very little. It was mostly to do with mistletoe and human sacrifice.
The Druids did influence modern society in one very specific (and rather morbid) way – or anyway, a Druid did. He did so in 1884. For the avoidance of doubt, that's AD 1884. William Price was a devout Druid. He refused to wear socks and frowned upon marriage and meat-eating. All well and good. Then, in 1884, Price's son died, and Price took the body to a Welsh hilltop and tried to set it on fire.
But such Druidical practices had fallen out of favour in the 1,800 years or so since the religion's heyday. Price found himself in court. 'It is not right,' he protested, 'that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living creatures.'
He was acquitted. Cremation, the judge ruled, was not an offence – and so Price the Druid, in pursuing his ancient way of life, transformed our way of death.
It wouldn't be quite right to say that people were queuing up to be cremated after that, but in 1885, the body of one Mrs Pickersgill was consigned to the flames at a Woking crematorium. It was the first official cremation in the UK since pre-Roman times.
Having invaded and made themselves at home, the Romans didn't get things all their own way. Enter Boudicca, widow of the Iceni king (and Roman ally) Prasutagus. After Prasutagus' death in around AD 60, the Romans reneged on their agreements with the Iceni and plundered the king's estates. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged and her daughters raped.
70,000 Romans – and Roman sympathisers, who were considered just as guilty – were killed in the ensuing revolt. London and St Albans (the principal city of early Roman Britain) were ravaged. It was a horrendously bloody business. 'The Britons,' wrote the Roman Tacitus, 'took no prisoners ... [and] wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning, and crucifying.'
It all came to an end when Suetonius' 10,000 Romans quashed the revolting Brits in a battle somewhere in the Midlands. Suetonius supposedly outdid the rebels in butchery: the British death toll was estimated at 80,000.
Boudicca escaped the slaughter, but died soon afterwards (it's probable she was poisoned). 'Boudicca', by the way, is best rendered into modern English as 'Victoria'. She was our first Queen Victoria – and she too, it's fair to say, was not amused.
Just as they'd harassed the invading Romans to distraction, the Celtic Britons did their best to resist the advances of the fierce and piratical Saxons, Angles and Jutes, who late in the fourth century started bothering the English coastline in a determined manner that suggested they might intend to stay around for a while. The British soldiers fought back with chariot, spear – and shouting.
Shouting, on at least one occasion, was a more effective weapon than you might imagine. In the fifth century, a force of Britons (led by a Gallic bishop, Germanus) travelled to the south coast to confront an army of marauding Saxons. The Brits waited in ambush for the trespassers – and then, as they approached, 'raised a general shout of '"Hallelujah!"' The cry, it is said, echoed around the surrounding hills, and scared the bejeezus out of the Saxons. They fled in reckless disarray – and many perished in a nearby river.
This strange incident became known as 'the Hallelujah Victory'. It was also, given the years of Anglo-Saxon dominance that followed, something of a final hurrah for the Celtic Brits.
or, Wessex Girls Do It in the Dark Ages
The post-Roman, pre-Norman period is English history's equivalent to that awkward bit of the twentieth century that came after rock 'n' roll but before the Beatles. It's generally given the dismissive sobriquet 'the Dark Ages', which leads many people to think that nothing at all of interest happened then. This is simply a case of bad branding.
But actually, it's pretty typical of the so-called Dark Ages to end up with a duff nickname. English rulers of the period made rather a habit of it. At around the time that the Vikings were rallying round Erik 'Bloodaxe' and Harald 'Greycloak', for example, Essex was being ruled by a man called Sigebert the Little.
This isn't to say, however, that the Vikings always got it right. One of their greatest leaders in the ninth century was known as Ivar the Boneless, as though he were some sort of oven-ready Norse fillet rather than the man who invaded England at the head of the Great Heathen Army in AD 865. Ivar's grandson came off even worse: could you be introduced to a man named Sihtric the Squint-Eyed and not start giggling, even if he was the Viking King of York? Another Viking invader, Thorgils Skarthi, 'the Harelipped', not only overcame the embarrassment of having a needlessly personal nickname, but even ended up having a whole town named after him: the seaside resort of Scarborough.
But of course, there were worse things that could befall a Dark Ages monarch than being lumbered with a silly name ...
Excerpted from English History by Richard Smyth. Copyright © 2014 Richard Smyth. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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English History: Strange but True,