Squinting at history

The great thing about the past is that it is open to visitors.

I spent a recent day out in the wild Badlands of Bedfordshire visiting a series of historical sites – the picture shows one of them – the pack horse bridge at Sutton. It’s five hundred years old and used to offer a way of getting heavily laden ponies over Potton Brook. It’s a rather elegant, narrow structure which provides a brief ‘passing place’ at its apex. The stone balustrades are low to allow two horses to pass with their bulky panniers hanging over the water. On a quiet, rainy, November day with little traffic venturing through the ford beneath it was possible to imagine yourself back in the reign of King Louis 1 of England.

The country had been torn apart by the First Barons War in which King John had turned on those who’d made him sign the Magna Carta. The turmoil which followed allowed the barons to chose another king. Primogeniture was not yet established – after all, the barons had chosen Stephen as king a generation before, and he’d been merely a nephew of Henry 1. This time round they needed someone of royal blood, good reputation, and a proven warrior.

Step forward Louis – the son of the French king Phillip Augustus. Young Louis had married the grand-daughter of Henry II, Blanche of Castille. He’d helped take Normandy off John, and had fought noble wars in defence of the Faith. He was everything John wasn’t – and most of all he could be trusted. Invited, he came, and marched on London almost unopposed. Swiftly half the lords of England had sworn allegiance. In St Paul’s Cathedral he was acclaimed king,and then set off to win over the rest by force of arms.

John tried to secure his realm, at the same time as trying to fight off a challenge from Scotland. (one of the leitmotifs of English history – the French and Scots working together) John set off north towards the border. The royal baggage (carried by pack horses) followed their master as he ran from pillar to post. Famously, he was supposed to have lost the Crown Jewels in the tidal sands of The Wash. Several pack horses may have been lost at the same time. It’s tempting to think that at some point they had struggled over Potton Bridge.

Then John, brilliantly, did the only thing which could have saved his throne, he died.

Louis immediately lost his appeal. The barons had no argument with John’s young son Henry, and even less with the regent William Marshall. A French fleet sent to aid Louise lost a battle at sea off Sandwich, and Louis gave up. He reigned, briefly, as Louis VIII of France, but died young at 39. His son, Louis IX, was to be seen as a great king. So poor Louis is unknown in both his kingdoms.

This corner of English history came up during my visit to Sutton. If one wished to write a scene set on the bridge – in 1217 – what would be the subject of the dialogue? The temptation, of course, is to go for Louis and the great panorama of history.

Two peasants approach with pack-horses, meet at the apex, and stop to rest.

So, something along the lines of….

“It’s a hot day. I see they’ve asked Louis of France to be king. That would be nice.”

“Yes. Apparently, he’s been proclaimed king at St Paul’s. I wonder what John thinks?”

“Well – he can hardly complain. Louis is his cousin after all. And he’s broken every promise he made at Runnymede. The rumour is he’s lost the crown anyway – trying to get across the sands to Kings Lynn. Quicksands and whirlpools. What an idiot.”

This – clearly – isn’t the way to do it. Even a well-written version would be plodding. The fact is that if you eaves-drop on history people should never be talking about great events. They would, instead, be talking about the price of corn, local scandal, mutual friends, distant rumours of great events perhaps – but well out of date, and almost always inaccurate.

So what would they gossip about? My guess would be the prospects for the harvest, prices at market for the goods in their panniers, the health of the ponies. Would they care who was king? Perhaps the local town was hoping for a royal market charter? Now that would have changed their lives.  I live in Ely and it got its charter in 1224 – although it was operating in some form by 1214 – and it is still going. It’s the heart of the place, even now.

So – what if – John had turned down the town’s pleas for a charter? Perhaps the new king would be more amenable? What if the local rumour that summer was that Gilbert de Clare – one of John’s fiercest enemies – had joined Louis’ army. De Clare was the son of the earl of Hertford who – possibly – had lands in neighbouring Bedfordshire. Might strings be pulled?

So – our merchants are Ralf Moulton and Esdrae King (names taken from the list of vicars of Sutton) and they meet on the bridge. Ralf is heading west to Oxford with candles to sell, Esdrae east, to Norwich with cowhides. They both agree a market in Sandy – just a few miles away – would make life a lot easier, as they both live within a few miles of the bridge on which they’re standing.  

“De Clare’s the man for it,” says Ralf. “That’s the story in the Ferry Boat. And now’s his chance – with the king gone. A charter market – Thursdays they say.”

“Too good to be true,” says Esdrae. “I’ll be a week away with this lot – and I’ll get a pittance for it.”

And that would be the only reference to great events.

History is something seen through a squint.

(Squint: a small splayed opening in an interior wall of a church allowing those seated in an aisle to see the altar – and especially the elevation of the host)