Follow the Bouncing History Ball, part 1

The inner curtain wall at Dover Castle, and the top of the Great Tower built during the reign of Henry II.

The inner curtain wall at Dover Castle, and the top of the Great Tower built during the reign of Henry II.

The history lessons I had in school followed something like the path of a ball dropped from a height, bouncing through time, hitting the dates and subjects the teachers deemed important. The ball took a big bounce at first—that’s Columbus ‘discovering’ America—and then successive bounces, getting faster—Walter Raleigh and the lost colony, the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers—then bounced so fast it was more of a dribble—the shot heard round the world, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death. Dribbling even faster, we bounced through the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, the Teapot Dome Scandal, and so on until the bounce flattened out into a smooth roll at about WWI, slowing as it went up the gentle hill of (paradoxically) the Great Depression, to stop finally at WWII. Everything after that isn’t history, apparently; it’s just stuff that happened.

History over here is completely different. Columbus? Pfui. England had a long history before he was a gleam in the eye of—hang on while I look up his parents—Domenico and Susanna. While Columbus was still looking for a venture capitalist to fund the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, Henry VIII was born; he would become the second king of the Tudor dynasty. But before the Tudors came the Plantagenets, and before them came the houses of Normandy, Wessex, Denmark, and Mercia. By some reckonings, the English monarchy goes back to the year 774, and even that’s not close to the beginning of the known story of England. Now that’s what I call history.

It is a rare nine year old who is truly interested in the fact that the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac took place in 1862, and since my history teachers force-fed me long lists of such dates, I grew up thinking I hated the subject. That lasted until my husband’s grandmother said “How can you not like history? It’s the stories of people” and opened up my eyes to the wealth of material that makes up the bulk of history, but that somehow doesn’t make it into the curriculum.

The tomb effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevrault

The tomb effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevrault

English history furnishes plenty of juicy stories about people, sometimes including remarkable and powerful women. (History lessons in my school days pretty much omitted women except for Betsy Ross, long may her needle wave, and of course Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea who, as women and members of ethnic minorities, did double token-duty). My favorite of these is Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II (aka Henry Plantagenet) and mother of both Richard the Lionheart, who may be an English hero but who spent so little time in England that he never bothered to learn the language, and of John Lackland, the evil king of the Robin Hood stories, a ruler so hated that there has never in the 800 years since he died been a King John II.

Eleanor, however, was much more than somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother. It was she who proposed to Henry, and not the other way around. He was nineteen at the time and happy to have a politically astute and experienced wife; Eleanor was 30 and had until recently been queen of France. She had her own land. She had her own troops, and even went with them on crusade; some think that she (as Katharine Hepburn said when playing Eleanor in The Lion in Winter) “rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus and…damn near died of windburn.” She is credited with creating the ideas of courtly love that form part of our stereotype of the Middle Ages, while presiding over her own court in Poitier.

There’s more to the story, but it’ll have to wait until next time, because this is already long and I don’t want to tax your patience. Please visit again tomorrow to follow the bouncing history ball right into the keep of Dover Castle. I was there last week, in the great hall, to see Henry II address his subjects and welcome foreign ambassadors. Well, sort of…

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4 Comments

Filed under History, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Follow the Bouncing History Ball, part 1

  1. Mary Korndorffer

    Columbus’ tomb in Seville Cathedral: a gothick catfalque dated 1898, see the Wikipedia article for details of the travels of his remains!
    And don’t get me started on the airbrushing of women from [mediaeval English] history: Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville…..

  2. Martha Powers

    Thank goodness you paid tribute to Katherine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.” She really did Eleanor justice, I thought.

    • Absolutely! I haven’t seen the newer movie with, er, is it Glenn Close? Is it good?

      I don’t like to think I’m inflexible, but I think I’d have trouble with anyone else playing those roles on film. We’ve seen it so many times we could probably quote seriously large chunks of it. (“It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.”)

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