Do we really care about the past?

Swarms of National Trust members are surely screaming “Yes!” upon reading this question, echoed by millions of English Heritage visitors and heritage professionals. And on the face of it, it is an undoubted fact that, as a society we care deeply for our past. Archives, libraries, museums and galleries in practically every town in the country attest to our regular communing with our ancestors’ lives. Archaeological and historical programmes appear on television, books and magazines are purchased: all these quell any doubt on the matter.

But hold on, before we communally pat ourselves on the back, what do we mean by ‘the past’?

Last year saw the publication of my book entitled The Greatest Traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330. In case the last part of that title should surprise you, Sir Roger Mortimer (no relation of mine, by the way) was the man who forced Edward II to abdicate in January 1327, and then governed England for nearly four years, with the queen as his mistress, until he was arrested and executed. During that period, Edward II supposedly died in Berkeley Castle, some said on the wrong end of a red-hot poker. This would have made Roger Mortimer the only man in European history both to kill the king and seduce the queen (a sort Freudian double). But did it happen?

In the course of research I got a shock. The evidence when looked at in detail and context pointed not to Mortimer killing Edward II, but keeping him alive.

A situation such as this presents the conscientious author with a real problem. On the one hand, yes, it is fantastic to be in a position to make a positive statement about a major event in British history being fundamentally wrong. But on the other hand, anyone who keeps a close watch on contentious historical issues will be aware that revisions of royal deaths are treated with the very greatest scepticism, and their authors are usually pilloried. I was acutely aware that the accepted scholarly process in such matters is to raise ‘doubts’ about previous interpretations in a peer-reviewed journal. Publishing my ideas in a biography aimed at the general reader was bound to have repercussions.

When it came down to it, however, I was writing a biography of Roger Mortimer, and our understanding of Mortimer’s character and power is greatly affected by the question of whether he killed the king or kept him secretly alive. I could have written a book which would have ploughed the traditional furrow, killed off Edward II, and offended no one; but it would have been fundamentally flawed and worthless as a piece of analysis. Therefore I had no choice but to write the best account I could, based on my honest appraisal of the evidence, and deal with the flack when it came.

Of course I took precautions. Revisionist history is regularly dismissed because it often presents only half the evidence, and looks at only the revisionist part of the story. For me to begin to convince others, I had to show why the traditional story of the death is untenable, and how it became accepted, and why it had lasted so long. Sufficient details survive to show that the entire edifice of evidence that Edward died rests on a single message sent from Berkeley to Edward III. As a result of that message the king’s death was announced, and the preparations for the funeral were set in order, masses were said for the dead king, and all the chroniclers recorded the event. Edward II himself was smuggled to Corfe Castle, from which his brother the Earl of Kent unsuccessfully tried to free him two-and-a-half years later.

The reaction to the book amazed me. Several top-flight reviewers - professors of medieval history and well-informed writers - presumed that I based my argument on a document known as the Fieschi letter, written about nine years after the event. But I didn’t even mention the name Fieschi (let alone his letter) until after concluding that Edward II did not die. There was an obstinate refusal to comment on my conclusions in the context of my argument. Those whom we most trust to ‘get it right’ were refusing even to read the argument properly, let alone enter the debate.

The middle-brow and internet-based reviews were even more alarming. One anonymous commentator said that such revisionism was the stuff of ‘books about the pharoes’ (sic). There was clearly a widespread, knee-jerk reaction: many people were thinking that fundamental revisionism must be nothing more than sensationalism. The role of the true expert is to debunk such remarkable stories, not to come out with new ones, surely?

This brings us back to the question of whether we really care about the past. The brick wall against which I have been bashing my head now for twelve months has been most educational. In particular, I realise that the very reason for the brick wall’s existence is that people are passionate about the past. No one - whether scholar, armchair enthusiast, or visitor to Berkeley Castle - wants to be fobbed off with something which is wrong, and that desire not to be misled causes scholars and other reviewers especially to wary about accepting a radical new analysis, especially when experience has taught them that it will not meet with universal approbation. That same desire to know the truth was what drove me to commit my ideas to paper in the first place.

So we do care about the past. But it is as if what we regard as ‘the past’ is a collection of unique and fragile glass vases, all kept securely locked away, which we permit only the most notable scholars to inspect in case they are damaged. And even when it emerges that a particular vase is a fake, our very familiarity with it - the fact we have cherished it - makes us reluctant to throw it out.

Ian Mortimer
19 February 2004



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