Wakefield Platinum Jubilee Time Capsule: A Sneak Preview of My Contribution!

In June, thanks to our chum Dr Keith Souter of the Friends of Sandal Castle, I was given a fantastic opportunity: to deposit some of my work in Wakefield’s Time Capsule, placed into the well at Sandal Castle to celebrate a unique national occasion, the Platinum Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. This was particularly exciting for me since the castle is our local monument, allegedly a favourite home of Richard, Duke of York, (father of my favourite king, Richard III), who died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 (subject of two of my non-fiction publications). I was duly proud to donate six books including the Wakefield histories, a ‘biographette’ (due to appear on my website home page), and the piece below in case you’re not around in fifty years and would like to read it now!

The Bishop of Wakefield, Tony Robinson, unveils the blue plaque to remind people there’s a Time Capsule down the nearby well!

Helen Cox, aka Helen Doggett, aka Rae Andrew/Rae Paxton

Hello! Do you read me? I hope so, because it’ll mean that despite the mess the world’s in as I write on 8th June 2022, humanity’s still hanging in there… and that even if the ice-caps have melted and you’re among Wakefield’s survivors living in a rebuilt Sandal Castle, standing proud above acres of water, you’ve managed to haul this time-capsule out of the well and take a peek back fifty years.

Unless I’ve been bitten by a vampire or stumbled on the key to longevity, (in which case I’ll be eleventy-one, like Bilbo Baggins minus the One Ring), I doubt very much I’ll be among you – which makes this an odd, uniquely poignant piece to write. Obviously, all writers would like to think that their words will live on after them, being read and enjoyed by generations to come; I now have the privilege of knowing that even if all my other works are long lost in obscurity, some people in 2072 will read (the covers at least!) of the little gift here enclosed with my love and best wishes. And while writers may keep a hopeful eye on posterity, we normally work in the here-and-now, for living contemporaries, rather than for a posthumous audience of people currently either young or as yet unborn… though my soul will be thrilled if that audience includes anyone – perhaps our great-nieces – who read and enjoyed Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat as a child, or came to any of my talks, guided walks, or Wars of the Roses events here with Towton Battlefield Society’s  Frei Compagnie, the re-enactment group Hubcap and I founded in 2007.

Above: Battle of Wakefield Commemorations back when today’s Castle Café used to be a Visitor Centre: me and Hubcap (far right and left) with friends, and me holding forth on a guided tour of Sandal Castle. If the present building still exists, the perspective of the castle on its window was painted by current Frei Co secretary and renowned fantasy/gaming artist Wayne Reynolds – just thought I’d bask in a little of his reflected glory!

If you are still with us, I hope you’re living in a cleaner, safer, wiser, kinder, saner world than I am today. One of the great frustrations for any historian is the truth of George Santayana’s statement, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 561 years after Richard, Duke of York led his troops from this castle to slaughter at the Battle of Wakefield, nations and individuals are still ruled by the same power-hunger, greed, self-interest, and ruthless ambition that characterised politics in the 15th century (as they had for centuries before, probably ever since humankind gave up hunting and gathering in favour of accumulating land and possessions). Sadly, it seems that very few people remember, or learn anything from, even the most recent past. We’re still living through the biggest pandemic since World War I Spanish ‘flu, the one that locked the world down for months only two years ago, when everyone started saying, ‘Oh, isn’t it lovely and quiet, listen to the birds, see how beautiful the sky looks without con-trails, we must keep things this way etc etc’ – but of course now we’re back to the ‘new normal’ with people jetting off abroad willy-nilly, congregating in large numbers, driving ten miles to buy fast food or franchise coffee, (then chucking the rubbish out of the window as they speed home, backfires exploding), hardly anyone bothering with masks any more, even on public transport, just as if it had never happened – and still dying by the hundreds per day, vaccinations notwithstanding.

Is it still part of your lives, I wonder? Has it turned into one of those annoying things people take for granted, like the common cold, (‘I’m having a couple of days off work, got a touch of COVID’), or is it still fatal like ‘flu and pneumonia can be? And is the climate still in such crisis? I can’t report on today’s situation because I can’t bear to know; if I paid any attention to the horrifying statistics, the news about wild fires, floods, rainforests burned for palm oil etc, I probably wouldn’t still be around to write this, I’d have overdosed myself out long ago. Some things are improving though, especially since lockdown when people had more time to notice and get upset about plastic pollution and littering, for example. Helped by the Council’s brilliant StreetScene initiative, we now have a lovely social network of hundreds of volunteers all round Wakefield, who go out solo or in groups to litter-pick and clean up fly-tipping day in, day out, year-round. But I hope it no longer exists by 2072 because it’s no longer needed, because EVERYONE has finally grasped the basic social responsibilities of minimising waste and disposing of it properly. However, I do hope that junior members have picked up the torch and that Kettlethorpe Nature Action Group is still alive and knagging on nature’s behalf. Thanks to semi-retirement, we could make KNAG our contribution to lockdown life, a Facebook group founded by Hubcap in January 2021 to help local flora and fauna in any/every way – improving our woodland walks, cleaning up harmful litter, donating and fitting swift-boxes to provide homes for an endangered species luckily still flourishing here, helping neighbours create wildlife gardens, and generally trying to make this a cleaner, safer place for all residents, human and animal. I hope we succeeded in leaving you the legacy of a Kettlethorpe Community Nature Reserve to enjoy, as I hope the thousand or so trees we’ve planted to date around the estate (that’s Hubcap below, helping plant our bit of the White Rose Forest), have grown up into nice little woodlands, and that the two wildlife ponds the Council dug this year near Kettlethorpe Lake are still there, looking as if they have been forever, full of frogs, toads and newts. Maybe we even achieved our bigger dream of integrating our neck of the woods into a wider ecological landscape, a protected Calder Nature Corridor embracing Newmillerdam, Kettlethorpe, Pugneys, Seckar Wood and all our other wonderful local wild areas. That’d be nice.

To close with a few words of such wisdom as I’ve gleaned in my 61 years: life is the only thing that matters; the only thing any of us truly possess yet can only rely on keeping from one heartbeat to the next. So take good care of yourself and of your loved ones, of your pets, and the birds and bees in your garden, and of all living things, and above all, take good care of Mother Earth herself… then maybe there’ll still be people around to open YOUR time-capsule in 2122.

Love and light to you all from this little blast from the past,

Helen

Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see http://www.helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk/publications/4539280721 ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Anti-history: Edward IV’s ‘Secret’ Illegitimacy

As the old saying goes, it’s a wise child that knows its own father; one might add it’s a sure child that knows its own mother, if only because maternity is harder to conceal, deny or be mistaken about. So while doubts have been cast on King Edward’s paternity ever since the 15th century, it’s always been accepted that his mother was Cecily, Duchess of York – at least, until 2015, when some gobsmacking new theories were unleashed on an unsuspecting Ricardian community.

According to their author, both Edward and his younger brother Edmund were born on the wrong side of the blanket. Not, (as the usual story goes), because Cecily had been playing fast and loose in Rouen with a lowly archer called Blaybourne. No, apparently the Duchess wasn’t their mum at all; the real adulterer was her husband Richard, Duke of York, who had sired this brace of bastards upon no less a personage than Jacquetta de St Pol, mother of Elizabeth Woodville – so not only was Edward’s 1464 marriage ill-advised, it was also (gasp!) an incestuous union with his half-sister! And as if that wasn’t incredible enough, York’s liaison is supposed to have occurred in the 1430’s, making his eldest sons some ten years older than contemporary sources indicate.

After skimming through a scathing review in Ricardian Bulletin, I thought the book in question sounded much too wacky to take notice of, and dismissed it from my mind – until I read the March 2017 Bulletin, wherein the author presents the ‘evidence’ to support her preposterous tale. Cecily in such a snit about Richard’s adultery that she refuses him sex, hence their lack of issue in their first decade of marriage! Five family members, including the Duchess herself, calling Edward illegitimate, (they tactfully gloss over Edmund, perhaps because that poor bastard was killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460), so therefore it MUST be true. Besides, the boys admit it themselves, in a letter to the Duke from ‘we your true and natural sons,’ – the key word being ‘natural’, the term used to describe illegitimate or adopted children! Fancy no-one noticing THAT before; I guess we all took for granted that the expression had an altogether different and more innocent meaning. And fancy no-one noticing or reporting that Edward and Edmund looked a bit, well, pubescent at their christenings in 1442 and 1443; I’m curious to know how the author explains that – albeit not curious enough to shell out for a copy of her book.

So yes, I am condemning it unread. The latest article was hard enough to swallow; I can’t stomach an entire volume of such stuff. It has the dubious distinction of being the first book I don’t want to give even the small publicity of this blog by identifying its title or author – because it isn’t just revisionist, it is anti-history, an uncorroborated web of fantasy woven from mistakes, misinterpretations, metaphors and supposed coded messages in paintings. (Anyone sufficiently desperate to know what it is can ask a Richard III Society member). I won’t elaborate further because I plan to offer a reasoned response (minus the snark) to the Bulletin, and don’t want to pre-empt its possible publication – but I will post it on here in due course.

Meanwhile, naturally, I’d love to know the truth about Edward IV’s legitimacy, but the only thing that would convince me is scientific proof – which we’re unlikely to ever get. What a shame our Victorian forebears, who weren’t shy about opening tombs to have a good nosey at royal remains, didn’t have DNA analysis – I bet they’d have settled the question!

Sandal Castle: Ruination of a Famous Ruin

dscn3857Sandal Castle near Wakefield is well-known to Wars of the Roses history buffs as a favourite residence of Richard, Duke of York, and close to the spot where he and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, met their deaths in battle in December 1460. This, along with its connections to Richard III and its use during the later English Civil War, make the castle a site of local and national heritage significance; and when I published my Wars of the Roses battlefield guidebook Walk Wakefield 1460 in 2011, the place was in fine fettle. Stout timber stairs across the moat and up the motte gave full access to the monument (a couple of years later, stairways down into the moat were added, giving spectacular views of the earthworks), and its Visitor Centre, containing displays on the castle’s history, plus space for educational activities, loos and a shop, was open every Wednesday to Sunday for four hours a day. The site looked tidy and well cared-for, and was a wonderful amenity for the dog-walkers, joggers, local families and visitors from farther afield who came to enjoy its beauty and unique atmosphere (not to mention the bracing winds that always seem to blow there).

Today it’s a very different, and depressing, story. Years of savage cuts to local authority budgets forced Wakefield Council to pare back staffing until the Visitor Centre finally had to close completely; then the stairways to the inner bailey and up the motte became structurally unsound and were blocked off in March this year, limiting permitted access to the perimeter of the monument only.

The consequences were sadly predictable. Lack of access for grounds maintenance means the inner monument is now so overgrown with bushes and weeds that it looks a right mess. Many visitors totally ignore the ‘No Entry’ and warning signs, (or view them as a challenge), and simply scramble or ride mountain bikes up and down the earthworks, damaging the grass and forming highly visible, unsightly tracks. With no staff to warn them off or call the police, they do this quite blatantly; the other day I witnessed several truanting schoolboys climb to the top of the motte, and a ‘carer’ (hah!) lead his special needs charge very deliberately up and down the sides of the moat (proving that some folk really don’t have the sense they were born with). The site has become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, a place for teenagers to congregate at night to booze (leaving their empties behind, of course), intimidate bona fide visitors, and spray their moronic graffiti – yes, recently the stonework was vandalised with purple paint, the work of local yobs well-known to police, who are now bragging about their exploits around the neighbourhood. Most dangerous of all, a group of young adults who should have known better drove a car around the site during the day, putting everyone else present with their children and dogs in danger, and leaving deep wheel ruts in the grass as a lasting trip hazard.

Am I angry? You bet. Who do I blame? Primarily the Government, for consistently starving local authorities of the money to provide essential services, let alone quality of life amenities like heritage (always a soft target at times of austerity). The site abusers: those who lack respect for themselves, for other people’s safety and enjoyment, and for our shared environment and history. (However, I can sympathise with locals whose Council Tax goes in part to pay for Sandal Castle’s upkeep and who are determined to continue accessing the whole site as they always have done, despite the blocked stairways). And for all that I understand Wakefield Council’s financial difficulties, I can’t help feeling frustrated by the flabby, short-sighted, ‘we can’t do that’ approach they seem to have taken, rather than energetically pursuing solutions to this problem. Where is the joined-up thinking? Where is the major public appeal to raise a relatively modest £175,000 to reinstate the walkways? Where is the regional tourism drive to capitalise on the unprecedented levels of national and international interest in the Wars of the Roses since the discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012? And why is it now falling on unpaid members of the community to kick up a fuss and take action when there are senior and principal council officers receiving good salaries to address issues like this?!