Impressions of Old London

1Marykathryn Huffman (mar: Gough) / February 10th, 2006 / Essay 1: J. Bratt

 Impressions of Old London

My impressions of old London have been, at this point in our studies, well-informed by my experiences here. However, Christopher Daniell’s A Traveller’s History of England is quite a concise book, and has been a great help to me in getting an overview of the area’s development since the Old Stone Age. I found his quick run through centuries of history rather disorienting — but strangely orienting as well, especially considering that I am here, and so have physical reference to so much of what he’s talking about. Of particular interest to me in my study so far has been the country’s involvement in and conquest of other countries: its foreign policy. Mostly this policy has seemed to revolve around France. England’s eye has ever been on France (until 1453 and the loss of Calais, in any case) with a covetously green gleam. The Norman rulers involved were generally ambitious and greedy, wanting to embellish their names in the historical record. Sometimes, however, they were just violent and actually relished warfare more than the rest of their kingly duties. Most especially named in the rist round are Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, and Edward I. During Edward’s reign the Welsh campaign began and the tight focus on France waned until the early fourteenth century. But after the resurgence of interest in France during the Hundred Years’ War (in the year 1337, during Edward III’s reign), it was the same story all over again, except that this time they eventually lost Calais (1453), which signaled the end of any future in France. England then turned its attention to expanding its empire in a whole new way, through exploration, exploitation, and colonization in the New World.

Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, giving him England, Normandy, and the run of France all the way to the Pyranees. Thus marriage into France caused the necessity for much of England’s initial interferance in that country. And it remained a convenient focus for quite some time until the Welsh campaign and the Scottish uprisings took so much of Edward I’s time and attention that he couldn’t even consider anything else for long. Edward II’s wife was French, however, and the strife involved in their marriage and in his own pitiful reign set the stage for a return to France after his first and only obligatory attempt at taking Scotland. Edward III, his son, spent part of his childhood in the french court with his mother, and grew into a fifty year reign. During this period the external focus of England moved from Scotland and Wales to France once more because the French king died and Edward had a claim to the throne through his mother. The story goes on. . . until the French Dauphin is crowned King of France and Henry VI still has six years till he is of age. Joan of Arc is leading uprisings in France and wreaking havoc. Even after Henry was crowned, not much helped the situation and the English kept losing land. Henry went untreatably mad in 1453, and this caused so much English turmoil that Calais, the last French holding, was lost.

Being at the Tower of London was revealing of this time, with all the armor displays and artillery — the children’s armor was especially amusing and rather shocking. I enjoyed learning about how horses were armored and some of the pictures of the Tower during Norman times and then its remodeling done for the Tudors was interesting as well. Centuries were all combined into one single display, which made some of the studying in the place difficult to do quickly. The crowns and royal raiment were incredible — I can’t imagine wearing so much finery. How heavy it must be! Watching the coronation video in one of the rooms before reaching the jewels was revealing in that I was able to see how much help a ruler needs, even to move around in that kind of symbolic get-up. . . Everything is so weighty and large and significant, just loaded with meaning. I used to think maybe just for flash, pomp and circumstance, but I don’t think it’s just to show off any longer. I think of myself in that position, and needing people to help me with my robe, gown, cape, crown, hand me the items that signify how and why I am to reign. . . There’s so much behind it all. It’s really a wonder that anyone could go through that experience and be desensitized to it. I suppose you must retain some sort of a sense of wonder and openness to life and to others. To a meaning other than your own content. That’s where being a servant really hits the road in a very extreme way.

When I think of how much goes into the making of a king or queen, and all the power bestowed upon them, it’s all the more abominable to think of how abusive royalty has been in their lofty positions over the centuries. I see that when you marry into a family and you get more land, you must travel around and keep track of it and your territory expands (though the idea of marrying on purpose simply to enlarge the boundaries of your kingdom is repulsive). But all this conquest into other countries, armed to the teeth with ideologies that protect against the softness of one’s own heart towards one’s fellow human beings. . . It seems the most costly way to go about making your kingdom prosperous. Costly in lives, though perhaps not as costly in time as the alternatives. I feel that the effort would be about the same. The selfishness of these rulers just boggles the mind. Of course I understand the macho-culture (“For Death and Glory!”) and the religiosity behind much of the drive for securing new lands. There’s a lot at play behind the scenes — and so much of the human heart is laid bare under close scrutiny of the external actions of a kingdom. But none of it excuses the human frailty as highlighted by the blindness, weakness, pleasure-seeking, vain, covetous, violent natures of these unbelievably powerful individuals. Before God, they are as guilty as I am as guilty as they, I know. It is simply more tragic to contemplate how many people they were able to immediately affect in such a way.

I saw Richard III performed live at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon last semester. It was incredible and spine-chilling. I think one of my favorite characters was Margaret (if I remember her name right), the crazy old woman/prophetess who showed up in otherworldly scenes, pronouncing doom on those who had called down curses on each other or invoked the spiritual in one way or another, pointing out their wickedness and their suffering, opening up their earthly robes and showing us the tormented souls within — or warning of future torment. She was amazing! I wondered a bit whether she was the voice of the people of England, speaking of how England’s rulers bloodied the hands of her people with their evil deeds. I’d like to read the play again and think about that. Richard was also spectacularly brought off the page — I really shivered at the way he spoke and moved when revealing his inner motives to the audience. They portrayed his lameness, by having him walk with weakened legs and the help of crutches that wrapped around his arms as well as providing handholds, which were truly great dramatic props and kind of made him look like a poisonous spider. They also gave the impression that he was really quite good at handling himself (which was quite true, metaphorically, considering he managed to kill a woman’s husband and then woo her almost immediately). His asides were bone-crunchingly honest and got at the heart of Tower politics — of royal maneuverings and disingenuousness. However, surprisingly, even at that purity was not shortchanged. The tower scene was particularly wrenching, as the poor men employed to do the deed were well cast and pulled at you — one stricken with religious simplicity and the other with self-imposed blindness and callousness — even as they struggled to murder two young boys. Seeing that room in the Tower of London was really fascinating to me, walking through the Bloody Tower, even though it has been remodeled since then, simply because of everything that has happened there. . . It’s not quite like walking through a torture chamber, but several of the places of in the Tower (Beauchamp Tower!) are just layered with the metaphysical grime of history. I didn’t realize that the tower held prisoner’s even as late as the late 20th century! That was news to me.

On a Walk through Notting Hill I found a bookstore where there was a section of Asian books that I poked through for a bit, and I found a book about the Tower of London by Suatsume Soseki (sp?) who visited from Japan in the 1800s at some point and wrote about his experience there. I wanted to put down his a couple of quotes from a fellow observer of another era. Soseki says that

“the history of the tower of London is a distillation of the history of England. The curtain veiling the mysterious things called the past rending itself in two and reflecting ghostly light from out of the depths over the twentieth century is the Tower of London. The all-burying current of time flowing backwards and fragments of ancient time floating up into the present age, that is the Tower of London. Human blood, human flesh, human sins crystallized and left behind in the midst of horses, carriages, and steam trains, that is the Tower of London” (92).

He also jots down a poem that I really identify with, about the feeling of walking through the gate of the Tower:

“Through me you pass into the city of Woe:

Through me you pass into eternal pain:

Through me among the people lost for age.

Justice the founder of fabric moved:

To rear me was the task of Power divine,

Supremest wisdom, and primeval Love.

Before me all things create were none, save things

Eternal, and eternal I endure.

All hopes abandon, ye who enter here” (94).

My feeling currently is that the foreign policy of England between the 12th and 15th centuries was (for the most part) a dramatic disaster. Its ‘involvement’ with other countries, if it can be called that, had more to do with war than anything else — wars that were tied to the inner demons of the monarchs rather even than the inner demons of the country. . . Not that I know I could have done any better. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at it, like I look at my own life (by itself) as a tragedy that chills me with all the immediate intensity of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

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