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375 Years Too Late.

27 May

It was the weekend of the Royal Wedding and I was travelling down to London. No, I wasn’t planning to travel on to Windsor, drape the Union Jack around me and cheer on the happy couple. Far from it, in fact. I am an ardent Republican and would like nothing better than to see the end of the expensive and anachronistic institution of the monarchy. I was actually going to see my son and his family who live on the western edge of the capital. My train journey south did however have a Royal connection and one that I was quite excited about. I planned to break my journey at Peterborough and go to see Queen Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in the cathedral there. One would expect that all  Royal tombs in England would be found in Westminster Abbey, London. However, this particular queen was laid to rest 75 miles north in a small Cambridgeshire city on the edge of the Fens. I only found this out relatively recently while watching the TV dramatisation of Hilary Mantell’s excellent historical novel “Wolf Hall.” It follows the machiavellian role of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s difficult, drawn out divorce from his first wife, the aforesaid Catherine. When Catherine died in 1536 after 3 years of enforced, unhappy post-divorce isolation, Henry refused to grant her a place of honour at Westminster and said words to the effect of “stick her in Peterborough.”

Peterborough Cathedral is one of the most intact, large Norman buildings in England. Its official name is the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew. It stands on the site of a monastery, Medehamstede, founded in Anglo-Saxon times in AD 655 and was largely rebuilt between 1118 and 1238. Today its imposing West Front is an outstanding example of  the Early English Gothic style. Following his Dissolution of the Monasteries King Henry VIII kept Peterborough Abbey intact as one of a small group of more secular Cathedrals. This was in 1541. The reason for this was probably that the Abbey/cathedral was very prosperous and would bring in good amounts of money for the Crown. Some romantics have suggested that Peterborough Abbey was made a cathedral as a memorial to Catherine. Who knows what might have been going through the mind of that unpredictable Tudor monarch?

I have travelled through Peterborough many times on my way to and from London on the east coast main line. I always remember to glance out of the window to spot the towers of the medieval cathedral peeping out from behind a modern shopping mall. I have been to the city for 2 unsuccessful job interviews and a couple of exam markers’ conferences. In the 1960s it was designated as Britain’ latest New Town which prompted a big expansion of its population up to about 180,000.  I remember it for its anonymous housing estates, carefully demarcated industrial estates, retail parks and dozens and dozens of identical roundabouts. I got lost there quite a few times as this was before the age of the sat-nav. I used to live just a little to the south in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire. Yet in all that time I never visited the cathedral and wasn’t even aware of the Royal tomb’s existance. I had seen grand, ornamental Tudor tombs before, in Westminster Abbey and other ancient churches up and down the land. Now I knew it was there, I was really looking forward to seeing the tomb of this famous Tudor Queen.

Although a republican today, I have always retained a soft spot for Catherine of Aragon. It’s the history teacher part of me that is to blame. Queen Catherine is one of the 2 reasons why my second daughter shares her name. The other reason is my favourite Hollywood actress: Katherine Hepburn. I always thought that Catherine of Aragon got a very raw deal at the hands of her chauvenistic, cruel husband, but conducted herself with grace and dignity at all times.

The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, she was brought up to be a queen. In her late teens, in 1501, she was married off to Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII and heir to the throne of England. Her title at that point was the Princess of Wales, but she was destined to become the next Queen. Sadly though, just a year later, Arthur died before gaining the throne. Catherine, just a pawn in the power politics of England and Spain, had to quickly shelve her grieving and get married to her deceased husband’s younger brother Henry. She was 19 and he was 17 at the time. Henry and Catherine became King and Queen upon the death of Henry VII in June 1509 and a long, seemingly successful marriage ensued. They had a daughter, Mary, and then they had a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Tragically, baby Henry died after living less than 2 months. Catherine was distraught and worried her family and courtiers by spending many hours kneeling on cold stone floors, praying. She was a very devout Catholic christian. In subsequent years she never gave birth to another son so Mary remained her only child. From Henry’s point of view, this was a disastrous situation. He was convinced that if a daughter succeeded him there would be a civil war, as many powerful people in those sexist times, considered that a woman would be too weak to rule. Perhaps Henry was thinking of what happened when King Henry I was succeeded by his daughter Mathilda. She was challenged by her cousin Stephen and the result was a nasty civil war which led to Mathilda losing her crown. (although she got the last laugh when her son Henry II succeeded the usurper, Stephen.) Therefore, Henry now planned to divorce Catherine and marry a younger, more fertile wife.

As you probably know, Henry VIII was refused permission to divorce Catherine, by the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope. Henry’s eventual solution, helped by Thomas Cromwell, was to take England out of the Roman Catholic Church and make himself the head of a newly created Church of England. Thus he was, in effect, able to grant himself a divorce and go on to marry the new “love” of his life Ann Boleyn. Poor Catherine never agreed to the divorce and always considered herself the rightful Queen. She was stripped of her Royal titles and was now referred to as the Dowager Duchess of Wales. She was given a house and servants but was regarded as an embarrasment as she refused to accept the divorce and continued to regard herself as the Queen. She regarded the new queen, Ann Boleyn, as an imposter. In 1535 she was moved to Kimbolton Castle where she virtually lived in one room. She only left it to go to Mass. She dressed herself in a hair-shirt of the Order of St Francis. On January 7th, 1536, Catherine of Aragon died. As we now know, she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Henry spitefully refused to go to the funeral and forbade their daughter, Mary, to attend. However, the funeral was a lavish affair, attended by 4 bishops and 6 abbots as well as large crowds. Ironically, on the very day of Catherine’s funeral, Ann Boleyn sadly miscarried.

Catherine’s tomb was one befitting a Queen. I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. I walked from the railway station through a largely nondescript modern town centre. The best bit was the cathedral square which had an attractive old parish church and a mid 17th century Guildhall or Butter Cross. This is where the market is held. Next I passed through an old stone archway into the Cathedral close. I expected it to be a peaceful, spiritual oasis, a world away from the noisy, bustling town next door. However I was greeted with loud pop music and the sight of yellow helmeted people abseiling down the left hand tower of the cathedral’s magnificent west front. The only valid excuse I could think of was that they were probably doing it for charity. I tried to block this raucous intrusion out of my mind and concentrate on the west front itself. As stated before it’s a rare example of Early English Gothic architecture. Three enormous archways are surmounted by statues of Saints Paul, Peter and Andrew.( looking from left to right). Peter crowns the middle and highest archway. At his feet is a fishing net reminding us of his previous occupation before he was called to be one of Jesus’s chief disciples. He and his fellow followers were now to become “fishers of men.” ( All those Methodist Sunday School lessons have stood me in good stead!) In fact the nickname for the cathedral’s west front is Galilee, after the sea where Peter fished. The city takes its name from Saint Peter.

Blocking out the pop music and the shouting abseilers, I entered what I expected to be the hush of the Cathedral’s interior. Unfortunately it was full of chattering school children. The interior is impressive however with tall stone archways and lovely stained glass windows. At the far end, an impressive “new” bit, built in 1500, has sensational fan vaulting. I stared at it for ages and gave myself neck ache! There is a very old font and interesting information boards giving a history of the Anglo-Saxon abbey that became a  Norman cathedral. However, it was the Tudor Queen’s tomb that I was most interested in. The helpful steward told me it was at the far end , on the left hand side. I approached the area with mounting excitement. Soon I spotted information boards about Catherine of Aragon. This was it, after all these years!

Then came the anti-climax — the tomb which my mind had imagined would be so magnificent, simply wasn’t there! All I saw was an engraved marble slab lying flat on the ground . Alongside it was a fancy wrought iron screen decorated with the inscription: “Catherine Queen of England, 1485-1536.” That was it! I desperately searched for something more ornate and substantial. In my haste and excitement, had I missed it? It was then I spotted another information  board. Catherine of Aragon’s tomb had been destroyed by Cromwellian troops in 1643! After they captured the town from The Royalists in the early struggles of the English Civil War, the Parliamentary soldiers went on the rampage and sacked the cathedral. They destroyed the Lady Chapel, the Chapter House, the cloisters, the High altar and the choir stalls. They wanted to wipe out any signs of Catholicism. Medieval records were ransacked and lost to history. Family tombs were attacked and desecrated. It seems strange and hypocritical that so called christian ( Puritan) soldiers wanted to do this. Of course, catholic Catherine’s tomb was a prime target. It was demolished and the gilt lettering stolen. The only blessing was that her body was left to lie undisturbed. So, if I wanted to see Catherine of Aragon’s tomb, I was 375 years too late!

I consoled myself by staring at the New Chapel’s wonderful fan-vaulting again, and swallowing my disappointment I walked on to the other side of the cathedral. To my amazement I now came across a shrine to Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been buried here as well after her execution at the hands of Elizabeth I. Was I going to see my Royal Tudor tomb afterall? Once again a frisson of excitement surge up inside me. But where was the tomb? Then I read that King James I had had his mother’s body removed from Peterborough and reburied in Westminster Abbey when he ascended the throne in 1603. Foiled again! I was 415 years late for that one! Two Tudor queens had been buried there but neither of their Peterborough tombs had survived.

The last resting place of Catherine of Aragon may not be an ornamental Tudor edifice today but it is still very smart, well kept and dignified. In the late 19th century, the wife of one of the cathedral’s canons, Katherine Clayton, started a public appeal, asking all the Katherines ( Catherines) of England to donate towards a replacement black marble slab that can be seen today. Apparently, after the Roundhead soldiers had smashed up the tomb and stolen the gilt lettering, a dean of the cathedral used the marble for the floor of his summerhouse sometime in the early 1700’s. The appeal was successful and the replacement slab was inscribed with gilt lettering and installed. On her new tomb, Catherine is now referred to as Queen of England. A wooden plaque remembers her as “A Queen cherished by the English people, for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion.” Her notorious second husband may be more famous but I would argue that Catherine of Aragon deserves much more of our admiration and respect.

Every year, in the weekend closest to 29th January ( the date of Catherine’s passing) a special, Catherine of Aragon festival is held at Peterborough Cathedral. A civic service is held on the Friday, attended by a representative of the Spanish Embassy. Then on the Saturday, a rare Catholic mass is held in this Anglican Cathedral. Hundreds of school children attend in mock Tudor costumes. Flowers and Catherine’s heraldic symbol, the pomegranite, are laid upon the tomb. Ironically, considering her subsequent childbirth travails, the pomegranite is regarded as a symbol of fertility.

Although I was 375 years too late it was still a fascinating visit to Queen Catherine’s last resting place at Peterborough. In my opinion this historical experience was eminantly more interesting than the orgy of swooning, genuflecting and sycophancy that ensued in Windsor the next day. Surely attitudes towards a privileged, immensely wealthy and unelected monarchy should have changed in the 500 years since Tudor times?


Why I Didn’t Celebrate The Diamond Jubilee. ( June, 2012.)

8 Jun

It’s been a long weekend of avoidance tactics — avoiding the TV news, ignoring the newspapers, boycotting Jubilee street parties and barbeques, shunning the empty patriotism and meaningless pageantry. Luckily there has been some good Grand Slam tennis from Paris to distract me.  Federer, Del Potro, Djokovic and Tsonga have distracted me from the humiliation of being a citizen of a country that adulates an unelected, undistinguished monarch. Apparently, according to the opinion polls, I am one of just 13% who wishes the United Kingdom was a republic, with an elected, representative Head of State who has gained that lofty position through the merit of his/her achievements. A whopping 80% prefer to be the subjects of a Queen who has no special qualifications except to be the eldest child of the previous monarch, King George VI. Just by chance of birth she has led a life of great wealth and privilege and is worshipped by the bedazzled masses as if she is a goddess. In a country that is proud to be a democracy and has laws to try to ensure equality of opportunity and equality of treatment for all, this elevation of one family to semi-divine status, is extremely strange and irrational.

  It’s wierd that our country goes to war to spread democracy and apparently supports Arab counties whose people have overthrown their undemocratic rulers, and yet  maintains, at great expense, a Head of State who has no democratic credentials whatsoever. The vast majority of countries around the world are republics and seem to be quite happy, so why has Britain persisted with this unfair, anachronistic system of Government? ( and I’m not even mentioning the unelected House of Lords.) The most difficult thing for me to grasp is why my country not only tolerates these unrepresentative “Royals”, but actually celebrates their longevity.

  When I announce that I am against some Royal event I am often accused of being unpatriotic. Afterall, what is wrong with flying the Union Jack and being proud to be British? Well, that flag symbolises to me, all the evil things that the British have done over the centuries in the name of their Empire — war, conquest, murder, massacres, subjugation, enslavement, theft of other countries’ resources, prejudice, discrimination and abuse. All this was supervised or agreed to by our Royal Family which took more than its fair share of the loot. It’s difficult to imagine how Queen Victoria had the nerve to accept the extra title of Empress of India after all the atrocities and abominations of The Indian Mutiny gave ample and graphic evidence that the British presence was not welcome there.

 Even the Union Jack itself represents the brutal subjugation of the rest of the British Isles by the English. It certainly wasn’t an amicable or peaceful union. But that’s all in the past you might say, and it could be argued that it has nothing to do with our present, peaceful Royal family. This ignores the fact that the Royal males love parading up and down in military uniforms and is it  Prince William or Harry, or both of them, who have actually joined our military forces?  Well apart from all that, surely the Queen is a really nice, peace-loving old lady?  Well, I do concede that apart from supporting wars in: Korea ( early 1950’s), Egypt ( 1956), Malaysia ( 1960’s), the Falkland Islands ( 1983), the Gulf ( late 1980’s and early 90’s), Iraq again ( in the early 21st century), and Afghanistan ( ongoing), not to mention being involved in civil strife in Kenya, Ulster and other places I cannot think of, Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 year reign has been very peaceful!

  A big justification for the Royal- inspired national celebration is that it unites the nation and allows us to be proud to be British. What’s wrong with being patriotic? The Queen, as our Head of State, is the living embodiment of Britishness. Surely this is what all those foreign tourists flock to see — a person ( the Queen) and an institution ( the Monarchy), who/which is British through and through. Even her family name — the House of Windsor –is the very essence of Englishness. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems. Elizabeth’s actual name should be Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as she is closely descended from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort. The name Windsor, so quintessentially English, is actually a fake, invented by King George V in 1917, to disguise the embarrassing fact that our royal family was half German at a time when we were at war with Germany. In fact, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was George V’s cousin, as was Czar Nicholas II of Russia, another not so British connection. At the time, Kaiser Bill saw the funny side of this deceit when he joked that he was looking forward to seeing a performance of William Shekespeare’s play: ” The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.”

  Then there is the case of the present Queen’s consort ( ie husband) Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the father of the heir to the throne. Surely there’s nothing unpatriotic about Elizabeth marrying someone from the capital of Scotland, an integral part of the United Kingdom? Well actually this particular Prince is Greek. His full title when our queen met him was Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, of the House of Schleswig- Holstein-Sonderburg- Glucksburg. All of this makes one very proud of our thoroughly British Royal family. Maybe, instead of the Union Jack, we should be flying little plastic EU flags from our cars and houses, to celebrate being loyal subjects of this English/German/Greek/Danish monarchy. Further back into history our Royal masters have come from France ( William I etc), Spain ( Philip II, husband of Mary I), the Netherlands ( William III) and Germany ( George II and George II.) In fact for many years French was the official language at court and some of our monarchs could not even speak the English language.   This family with the fake English name really represents internationalism rather than the more insular patriotism that we have witnessed across the UK this week. This should be a cause for celebration except that they now reside in  Britain, in a string of palaces, castles and grand houses given to them by the British people and they receive enormous, mostly tax free wealth provided by the country they are leeching off. I wonder how many British people realize that the Royals are excused inheritance tax plus a whole slew of other taxes that the rest of us have to pay. If they do, why are they celebrating 60 years of being ripped off? It’s all very strange.

  The biggest objection to the British Royal family though, is that it is totally undemocratic in a country that is supposed to be a shining beacon of democracy. They are hereditary monarchs. They are born into their positions of power, wealth and privilage — they have not earned any of these things. The hereditary system is also sexist of course as the males jump ahead of the females in the line of succession. The ancesters of the present Royal family grapped power, often through war, intrigue and murder and now we meekly let them keep it. Our queen is the descendent of a foreign conquerer ( William I), someone who had his own teenage nephews murdered ( Richard III), someone who defeated his predecessor on the battle field and had him killed ( Henry VII), a wife- murderer, twice over ( Henry VIII), someone who had protestants burnt at the stake ( Mary I), someone who had her own cousin executed ( Elizabeth ), someone whose abuse of power caused a terrible civil war ( Charles I), plus countless others who presided over invasions and devastating wars. Does all this make the monarchy fit and proper to continue to rule over us? I don’t think so.

  However, blinded by their wealth and “majesty”, fooled by a false version of history, and obsessed by the tacky “celebrity” status the popular press has bestowed upon them, the majority of the population continues to be obsessed by the Royal family. They are not democratic. They are not purely British. They have no moral validity to “rule”. They do not do anything that is useful to the country — unless one counts opening buildings, launching ships, waving at people, accepting gifts and bouquets, and reading other peoples’ speeches. Our Queen never expresses any opinion, or exercises any real power. She  has kept her mouth shut and sat on the political fence for 60 years. That’s quite an achievement. It would drive me nuts doing nothing useful or saying nothing of interest for my entire life. Elizabeth II has devoted her whole reign to doing her “duty” to the nation. I have never been able to work out what that “duty” is. I would have respected her a lot more if she and Philip had gone to live in a council house and got a job that was useful to the rest of us. Wouldn’t it have been great if she’d been a nurse and he had gone into teaching and they had paid all their taxes. ( like my wife and I have done.) Maybe Prince Charles could have been a long distance lorry driver or worked down the pit instead of pontificating about modern architecture, raking in the profits of the Duchy of Cornwall and expecting a servant to squeeze his toothpaste. But that would have made the Windsors ( or the Saxe- Coburg-Gotha’s) just an ordinary family like the rest of us, and they would not have been able to provide the glitz, glamour and pseudo- escapism that 80% of us seem to crave. Maybe that’s their real function — as real-life soap opera stars who “entertain” us and enable us to lead vicarious lives by providing  the magic and enchantment that our own distinctly ordinary lives lack. We pay all that money to subsidise a temporary escape from reality. ( even in the middle of a recession in which we are told that we are all in it together.)

  I feel a lot better now that I’ve got all that lot off my chest! I think I’ll get back to the tennis.