Here in the UK, you get not only the great stories from history, you get their settings, too. The USA suffers from a woeful lack of medieval castles, but here you can visit dozens of authentic fortresses from the age of knights in shining armor, and from much earlier ages, too. You’ll find castles in varying states of disrepair, from solid edifices in which some of the original stonework looks as though it could have been built last year, to those of which nothing is left but undulations in the ground, hints of the placement of ancient ditches and defensive mounds. Every county in England, Scotland, and Wales has castles or ruins of castles of one sort or another.
The first of these you see when coming over from the continent is Dover, and that’s exactly why the castle is there. Boats taking the shortest distance to England from France dock right under the castle walls. In that position the castle could defend the coastline, intimidate potential invaders, and impress upon visitors how impregnable this little island is. Invasion? Don’t even think about it.
Our very own Henry II (see previous post) added the Great Tower, the tallest and most imposing part of the castle. It recently closed for a multi-million-pound refurbishment that included decorating several rooms with brightly colored furnishings, the height of late-twelfth-century royal fashion. It re-opened last month, the gray stone rooms decked out with furniture and tapestries in crayon-box colors. It’s easy now to imagine real people inhabiting these spaces, though at the risk of sounding like a snooty interior decorator, I have to say that all the color does make the rooms seem smaller, presumably an undesirable effect in a king’s audience chamber.
When the king himself was in residence, the rooms teemed with people. Henry II was not a quiet, retiring person nor were his friends. Thomas Becket, when he was still Henry’s drinking and wenching buddy and not yet a saint, would vault over the table to sit by Henry at dinner or ride his horse right into the building to amuse the king. A crowd of tourists makes a poor substitute. But until the end of the month, actors playing members of Henry’s court will circulate, in character, through the rooms, talking to tourists and occasionally stopping to put on scenes of court life. The cast of characters varies from day to day. The first one I noticed during our visit was Prince John, although this version of John seemed awfully nice, helpfully translating for visitors the Latin inscription on a wall map of the known world circa 1184. He projected no evil, only perhaps some teenaged sullenness. Then the king’s steward arrived, and he and I had a conversation during which he referred to me several times as “my lady”. I could get used to this.
Eventually the steward instructed us on how we were expected to bow, asked us to keep the strange little boxes we carried from producing light during the king’s address, and announced the royal party. In swept Henry II with the French princess Alys on his arm and John bringing up the rear. In other rooms and on other days, we might have seen the jester or other members of the household, but this was definitely Henry’s day. He spoke at length about his life and his power, reminding those of us who own freehold property in England that the land is not ours, but his; we hold it “freely” from him. (Perhaps I’d better check the deed to the house just in case, although I’m pretty sure that we own it jointly with the bank, and that Queen Elizabeth doesn’t get a look in.)
The king warmed to the subject of Thomas Becket, and vociferously denied that he’d ordered Becket’s murder (there—I said in the last post that there was at least one saint in the story). He scoffed at the idea of Becket as a martyr: “This is the twelfth century! We don’t have martyrs any more!”
When Henry recovered his temper, the steward introduced delegations and ambassadors from various European kingdoms—that is, he found foreign tourists in the crowd and introduced the Germans as having come from the court of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the Swedes as representing Knut Eriksson. I didn’t speak up and represent the USA though I’d love to know what spiel the actors had prepared, since that wall map with the Latin inscription gave no clue of a continent on the far side of the world.
Throughout proceedings, Prince John sat on the king’s right and Alys sat on his left. The king introduced Alys as Richard Lionheart’s fiancé, but failed to mention that he was delaying the marriage indefinitely because Alys was at the time the king’s mistress.
But what of Eleanor? Eleanor couldn’t join the party. She was in prison for leading a military revolt against Henry that turned into a civil war. This is a woman not to be underestimated. She lost the war, but she outlasted her husband; when he died, her son let her out again. She then ruled England while Richard went crusading, and lived to see Richard’s reign give way to John’s. She kept her hand in as a political strategist, granting a charter here, withstanding a siege there, scheming and maneuvering almost to the very end of her life . She died at 82 at Fontevrault Abbey, apparently having become a nun sometime in the last year or two of her life.
The Great Tower would be a good place for dropping that bouncing ball of history. Dover Castle has been a fortified site for over 2000 years; a ball bounced there would land on a lot of the important bits of English history and even of some world history. I wish my teachers could have taken me to castles and I could have seen dramatic scenes showing historical figures as real people with individual styles and personalities. But then again, maybe I should count myself lucky. After all, as time goes by history keeps growing, so kids will have to learn more and more of it. Seen in that light, the fact that my teachers thought history started with Columbus and stopped at WWII may have been a blessing.