Hic Harold Rex Interfectus est

Tom lent me the Game of Thrones to read recently. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I couldn’t help but think that – if you take away the thin veneer of magic and fantasy – it reads a lot like the history of my country. And how much more fantastic to read a true story?

So that’s what I am doing now.

I’ve had Hume’s History of England in three volumes on my iPad for a while (it’s free in iBooks) and I ploughed through Volume I in no time flat.

Every English schoolboy knows that history began in 1066 but my knowledge of what came before was very shaky. I knew some names -Ældward the Confessor,Ælthelred the Unready, Ælfred the Great and a whole bunch of other kings beginning with Æ – but I was a bit shaky on the dates and the sequence of events. In my memory, the shame of the Danelaw went on for centuries and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was only for one king and one generation. I was also surprised that Alfred was much later (and greater) than I remembered.

Really, after reading the history of the Saxon times, I wonder why there is any need to make up fantasy stories. There are at least 10 kings of that era that could have an epic movie of their own. Why are we all so fixated on Robin Hood and King Arthur when the true stories are so much more dramatic? Where are the movies about those forgotten heroes?

I’m loving Hume too. I had previously read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (twice) and Hume shares with Churchill the endearing habit of making little pretence of objectivity. There are good guys and bad guys and Hume makes sure you know which is which. He even pulls off the neat trick of turning the Saxons from “them” – when the likes of Arthur are valiantly but tragically failing to keep them out – into “us” when we cheer on King Alfred’s miraculous victories.

I’ve often wondered about the them versus us thing in the context of Australia and the US. They talk of the first Australian explorers who made it to the red centre but those Australians quickly become British when Tasmanians are being hunted down and massacred. It’s odd when Australians and Americans do it and it was odd to witness the same phenomenon in myself.

Clearly, I identify with the Britons trying so desperately to fight off the Saxon horde but just a couple of hundred years later and we (the Saxons) are fighting off a new set of invaders. Funny how the Normans never became “us”.

Late last night I reached the Norman invasion and put my iPad down so that I could read it fresh today. The story was exactly as I remembered from Mrs Harris’s history class in 1977. The same charges. The same feints. The same tragic ending. It was a close run thing in Hume’s telling of the story. Odd too that I rooted for neither side. Harold got to where he was through treachery but he was, after all, one of us. William brought civilization to my country but it was a foreign civilization. I guess it’s best that he won but his victory feels like a defeat to me.

I leave you with Hume’s recounting of the end of the Saxon era while I move on to Volume II and the Normans and Plantagenets that I remember so well from school.

Thus was gained by William, duke of Normandy, the great and decisive victory of Hastings, after a battle which was fought from morning till sunset, and which seemed worthy, by the heroic valor displayed by both armies and by both commanders, to decide the fate of a mighty kingdom. William had three horses killed under him; and there fell near fifteen thousand men on the side of the Normans: the loss was still more considerable on that of the vanquished, besides the death of the king and his two brothers. The dead body of Harold was brought to William, and was generously restored without ransom to his mother.


Now that I have read about the brutality of William’s reign, I regret my former ambivalence and place myself firmly in Harold’s camp. Civilization, be damned.

History of English

I love learning about the history of English. I love the Open University and I especially love the fact that they put all of their courses online. It’s almost enough to make me want to finish my OU degree. In my day, you had to get up at 6:30am to watch boring lectures and tweed jackets and elbow pads.

So, History of English in Ten Minutes one minute at a time.

In the first minute: Angles and Saxons: gave us man, wife & werewolf; church Latin gave us bishop and martyr; vikings gave us give and take.

Chapter One should be straightforward and obvious but it always surprises me how many people think that English came from Latin. This chapter kills that misapprehension dead. With a big axe!

Next up: The Normans.

In Our Times

I’m reading the biography of Winston Churchill by Max Hastings and I’m also following along with The Orwell Diaries on RSS.

I’m at a similar point in both stories and what strikes me most forcefully is how bleak those times were and how close Britain was to utter disaster. My imagination won’t stretch far enough to accommodate the events of those dark days.

It puts the rhetoric about the threats we faced from Al Qaeda in perspective for me. Britain circa 1941 faced an existential threat. America circa 2001 did not.

It’s also hard to imagine a politician in our shallow times doing something like this:

On January 27, amid increasing parliamentary criticism, Churchill faced the commons. “It is because things have gone badly, and worse is to come, that I demand a Vote of Confidence,” he said.

He won the vote by 464 to 1.


A bleg: when I am done with this, I’d like to learn a little more about the American Revolution and the Civil War. Any recommendations for a book on each? I’m more interested in the politics and the build up than the actual fighting in each case.

For the Revolutionary War especially, I want to be more prepared the next time a teacher sends a child home to interview their English father to get the “other side’s point of view” 🙁

Who cares about this stuff?

The Times has a great series of essays by Errol Morris on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

According to the author, Structure is a post-modern work which makes the relativist claim that people in one paradigm (or culture or era) are unable to fairly judge the ideas of another paradigm because the two are paradigms are incommensurable.

The series takes us on a breathtaking tour of the meaning of the word incommensurable through three thousand years of the history of mathematics taking in Pythagoras, the legend of the execution of Hippasus for showing that the square root of two is irrational, Socrates & Plato and the moment that Thomas Kuhn threw an ashtray at the author’s head before throwing him out of Princeton.

Before reading today’s article (article 3 of 5), I had taken seriously Kuhn’s claim that each so-called paradigm shift creates an unbridgable divide from the previous paradigm that scientists are unable to cross. Kuhn – like the creators of The legend of Hippasus’s murder – created the legend of incommensurability to imply a dramatic resolution to a crisis that never existed. He created a legend which – like all legends, we learn – is more memorable than fact.

At the end of today’s article I was left wondering: how many people are actually interested in this stuff?…

Who cares about Theories of Naming and incommensurability and proofs of irrationality and philosophy and maths and greek history.

…and where can I meet them?

Part 4 was published just now. I have reading to do.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Remember, remember
The fifth of November.
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

King James I

A long time ago, there was a King of England called King James I.

In the years before James came to the throne, there was much religious strife in England. James’s great-great-uncle, King Henry VIII, created a new religion because the Pope – the leader of the Catholic religion – would not allow Henry to get divorced. The new religion was called the Church of England and Henry forced everyone to join it and he killed many Catholics who refused.

When Henry died, his daughter, Queen Mary, switched everyone back to Catholicism and killed members of the Church of England.

When Mary died, her sister, Queen Elizabeth, switched back again and killed more Catholics including James’s mother Mary, Queen of Scots.

By the time James was crowned King, most people were sick of all the killing and King James promised to allow Catholics to worship as they pleased as long as they were loyal to the country.

Not everyone people was happy with this state of affairs though and some very important people were still suspicious of Catholics and wanted them punished. There were also some very important Catholics who wished that England would return to the Catholic religion. Several of these Catholics got together and plotted to kill the king and put his Catholic daughter on the throne instead.

The Gunpowder Plot

The plotters were led by Robert Catesby, but the most famous plotter of all was a soldier named Guy Fawkes who was in charge of a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, with the King and all of the Lords of England inside.

Guy Fawkes was an expert in explosives. He rented a room underneath the House of Lords and filled it with thirty-six barrels (about a ton) of gunpowder. The plan was set.

Several of the plotters had friends in Parliament and one of them sent an anonymous note to one of the Lords of England warning him to stay away.

they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.

The Arrest of Guy Fawkes
The Arrest of Guy Fawkes

Lord Monteagle passed the note on to the king who ordered the Parliament building to be searched. The king’s men found Guy Fawkes with his thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and arrested him on the spot. Guy Fawkes was tortured to find out the names of the other plotters and eventually they were all captured and were hung, drawn and quartered as a warning to others.

Parliament also passed a law ordering that the plot be commemorated every November 5th and, since that time, the English people have celebrated the discovery of the plot with a bonfire and fireworks. The children of England make a pretend Guy by stuffing old clothes with crumpled up newspapers. In the weeks leading up to the Fifth, children sit on street corners asking for a Penny for the Guy and they use the money to buy fireworks. On the fifth of November, they make a big bonfire with Guy on the top. They burn him so that no one will ever forget that terrible plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

Our Guy Fawkes
Our Guy Fawkes

Jazz and I made our Guy this year and we are taking him camping in the Santa Cruz mountains where we will make a big bonfire and burn our guy like millions of English children before us.

If you want to learn more about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, the BBC made an excellent documentary to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the plot. The documentary, The Gunpowder Plot – Exploding the Legend, tells the whole story of Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and the other plotters. Best of all, they build a full size replica of the original House of Lords to show what would have happened if Guy Fawkes had lit the fuse on those thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. You can see the whole documentary on YouTube.

John Barleycorn Must Die

I find it simply amazing that, one thousand years ago, people were drinking excellent beer and singing this fantastic song and that even now, one thousand years later, beer is still excellent and the song is still fantastic.


There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.


They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

John Barleycorn is the personification of beer and/or barley and the three men from the west killed him and buried him in the ground.


They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.


They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

But John Barleycorn springs back to life and grows strong again… until the men cut him down and make sure that he is really dead this time.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.


They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.


They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They grind up him up to make beer giving John Barleycorn the chance to get his revenge on those three men from the west.


They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.


And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last


The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn

The earliest surviving written record is from the sixteenth century but there is evidence that the song and the story is much older – like this twelfth century pub in Hampshire.


I spent a very pleasant day listening to every version I could find – from Martin Carthy to Paul Weller via Billy Bragg and Jethro Tull and The Fairport Convention and many, many more. The best version by far is by Traffic but they each have their own charms.

Turn up the volume and raise a glass to that ancient hero.

John Barleycorn Must Die. Album by Traffic

Long live John Barleycorn!

Which of the Founding Fathers would get elected today?

In the comments at In the confident hope of a miracle, Matt suggested that the founding fathers were – or at least appeared to be – devout Christians and added

It would have been heresy 🙂 to elect someone who wasn’t a Good Christian at that time, I’d expect.

I wonder how many of them were actually Christians and how many of them would be electable today.

In the confident hope of a miracle

The defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, marked the end of Spain as a global power. Before sailing, one Spanish commander “reasoned” as follows: “It is well known that we fight in God’s cause. So when we meet the English, God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board them, either by sending some strange freak of weather, or more likely, just be depriving the English of their wits. … But unless God helps us by making a miracle, the English, who have faster guns and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage as well as we do, will … blow us to pieces with culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. … So, we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle.”

Professor Baresh argues that America should beware of going the way of the Spanish Armada…

Is America ready to elect a devout Mormon? I certainly hope the answer is No. Indeed, here is a controversial suggestion: it is high time for the electorate to reject a devout Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shinto, Wicken, or committed practitioner of any other faith or creed. Our problem isn’t too much prejudice against devoutly religious presidential candidates (e.g., Mr. Romney) but not enough.

Innoculation against extremism

Scott Adams proposes a plan to rid the world of religious extremism

I have often thought that America’s strict rule about not teaching religion in schools is responsible for the fact that the more fervant forms of christianity are more widespread in america than they are in europe. In english schools religious education is (was?) compulsory and usually took the form of comparative religion and the history of religion.

I expect that, if people knew more about the origins of their respective religions, they would be far less likely to adopt fundamentalist positions. A timeline that takes in the origins of the pentateuch, the early christian synods, the arian heresy, the filioque clause and the spanish inquisition would innoculate most kids against some of the wackier ideas that masquerade as religion.