Hello, like our host my name is Aaron and I’d like to thank him for inviting us to contribute to his Fab Five series. I write a blog, Europeenses which nominally traces the route of a long distance cycle tour through parts of North-West and Central Europe that I had intended to make this year. Changing circumstances meant that I’m not able to make the tour but as I’d already started to research and draft entries I decided to go ahead with the blog anyway. In it, I write about historical events that relate to the towns, cities, or regions I’m theoretically passing through, with a handful of short biographies, regional recipes, and other pieces thrown in for good measure. Just over two months in I find myself not that far from reaching the end of the ‘journey’, which means I’ll have to rethink the purpose of my blog. Luckily Europe has a lot of history and connections with every part of the world, so I shouldn’t have too much of a problem.
Currently I work as a Librarian at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College Library, which allows me to indulge my interest in history on a regular basis. Some of the Library’s archive collection has been digitized, so if you’re interested in World War One Tanks, The Independent Bombing Force of 1918, Operation Sealion, or Operation Overlord, you may like to take a look at some scanned documents from our archive. For my five I’ve chosen a person whose writing influenced my love of history, a person whose writing influenced history, a person who was influenced by that writing, a person who worked to end that influence, and finally a person whose actions didn’t ultimately influence history, but who nonetheless played an important role.
L. Garde du Peach
Anyone who has read a Ladybird Adventure from History book (and I really, really hope that you did as a child because they are fantastic) will hopefully recognise the name of the author and playwright L. Garde du Peach, the writer of 31 out of 50 titles in the series. My interest and love of history was born as a child largely as a result of his work. Alfred the Great, published by Ladybird in 1956 is the first non-fiction work I remember reading; I must have been six years old at the time. Looking at the cover today brings a smile to my face. I loved the illustrator, John Kenney’s, drawings, and still do, though I’m now aware that Guthrum’s helmet would not have had wings, more’s the pity.
As a young child I devoured the series, learning about The Kings and Queens of England, William the Conqueror, Robert the Bruce, Julius Caesar and Roman Britain, King John and Magna Carta, and others through L. Garde du Peach’s elegantly written, factually accurate, and easily digestible books. From there a series of steps took me through primary, secondary, and further education, where history was always the subject that most intrigued and enthralled me, to taking a degree in History. Ladybird no longer publishes the Adventure from History series, which is a crying shame. As E.D. Mackerness wrote in Peach’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Peach’s Ladybird books were as influential as any professional historian’s in shaping youthful minds’ knowledge of the British past.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Speaking of the ODNB it is extremely fitting that the entry for Karl Marx was written by the late, great, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. I think we can safely conclude that Marx would have appeared in his Fab Five. Through his writing Marx was, and is, undoubtedly one of the greatest influences on modern times. His thought gave rise to the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Castro’s Cuba, North Korea, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and other Marxist governments throughout the world. Figures such as Lenin, Stalin, and Castro loom large over the history of the Twentieth Century, while Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has undergone a secular canonization to become the patron saint of the radicalized, regardless of their cause or political affiliation.
In the UK the recent strike action by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union, led by their General Secretary, and ex-communist, Bob Crow, reminds us that many labour unions and workers parties around the world continue to be influenced by principles derived from Marxism. In the field of history, writers such as Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and Christopher Hill have given us important works, while the social sciences owe much to Marx, together with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. What would Marx himself make of the world today? I think he would recognise in our integrated world capitalist system, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the exploitative nature of relationships between the employer and the employee, much of the world that he predicted under capitalism. As an ardent revolutionist himself, no doubt he would be disappointed that his predictions for the demise of capitalism have not come to pass.
His best known image is ubiquitous. From posters, t-shirts, mugs, hats, tattoos, and pop-art, the dashing young man, bearded and sporting a beret emblazoned with the communist red star, gazes thoughtfully, almost mystically, into the distance. Cropped and slightly rotated, the photograph captures Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in an iconic fashion that has since become a brand. Albert Korda’s photograph, on which interpretations of the image are based, was taken on March 5, 1960, at a memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre explosion. We can only guess at his thoughts when the photograph was taken, but it is not unreasonable to imagine they were of those who had lost their lives in the accident, of their friends, and family. I think of it as a human moment of reflection and sadness, rather than the moment of iron resolve, of an implacable will staring boldly into the future, that it has since become.
Guevara was a complex man, full of seeming contradictions, and with a difficult and contested legacy. On the one hand he spoke of the revolutionary being guided by love, on the other of the need for relentless hatred of the enemy. The left is divided in their opinion of him depending on their strand of ideology. The right are universal in their opprobrium. That he influenced the world is undoubted. His major work, Guerrilla Warfare, became a manual for insurgents, and essential reading for counter-insurgents seeking to develop doctrine and strategy to contain communist insurrections. Yet his foco theory of revolutionary warfare was flawed. His own efforts in translating his theories into success in the Belgian Congo and Bolivia ended in singularly dismal failure. Though other revolutionary movements followed his foco doctrine, the only success to date has been Cuba, the highpoint of Guevara’s own revolutionary career. While Mao’s Guerrilla Warfare is still referenced in US Army manuals on counterinsurgency ‘Che’ is absent, his theories presumably no longer deemed relevant.
His lasting significant impact has been social and cultural, as an icon of revolution and counter-cultural symbol for anti-establishment groups of every ilk. I’m sure he would approve of this. The crass commercialization of his image, which at its lowest ebb has seen his face adorn a nappy cover, is another matter. As a Marxist he would probably have been equally as unhappy as the Catholic Church are at his unofficial elevation to sainthood among Bolivian campesinos as San Ernesto de La Higuera. I am torn when it comes to ‘Che’. I admire his passionate commitment to his beliefs and his desire to end poverty and oppression. Less appealing are the finality of thought revealed in his writing and his absolute conviction that ends justify means, whatever the cost.
Pope John Paul II
One person who would have been glad that Marx has thus far proven to be wrong was John Paul II, the pontiff credited with playing a significant role in the downfall of communism. Goalkeeper, poet, playwright, actor, author, factory worker, theologian, priest, and, for a short while at least, volunteer librarian at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Karol Józef Wojtyła was a multi-faceted man, the second longest serving pope in history after Pius IX, the first non-Italian pope for 456 years since Adrian VI, and the first Slav to hold the office. Doctrinally orthodox and unwilling to compromise with modernity, his views on abortion, on contraception, homosexuality, and women’s rights invited strong opposition from many quarters. More appealing to liberal sensibilities were his opposition to capital punishment and to apartheid, his acceptance of evolutionary theory, his commitment to peace and opposition to war, his attempts to reconcile the Catholic Church with other faiths, and his apologies for past sins committed by Catholics.
Perhaps his most significant historical legacy is his role in the non-violent dissolution of communism. Admittedly the conditions for revolt in Poland were in place before John Paul II visited in 1979 and his role may well be exaggerated, certainly a great many other factors were at play in the years leading up to 1989. Yet it is undeniable that he was a central player. Vaclav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and Mikhail Gorbachev all attested to John Paul II’s role, and historian John Lewis Gaddis was unequivocal when he wrote, “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland – and ultimately everywhere – would come to an end.” John Paul II was more modest, commenting that communism fell, “as a consequence of its own mistakes and abuses.” No doubt a definitive assessment of his role remains to be written, and his legacy will always divide opinion. Regardless of one’s personal belief his central message of the paramount need of respect for human dignity, his emphasis on social justice, his commitment to peace, and his calls for action to combat poverty, are values and goals I hope that all can identify with.
Edwin … and Morcar
Okay, hands up, I confess I’m cheating here. My fifth choice makes for a total of six, but as previous Fab Five’s have referred to lunch or dinner with the people they’ve chosen I’ll justify the addition on the grounds that when you sit down to eat there’s always room to be made for an extra guest. Edwin, and his younger brother Morcar, were respectively the earls of Mercia and Northumbria during one of the defining years in British history, 1066. The defeat of their forces at Gate Fulford by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and Tostig, the rebel brother of King Harold Godwinson, left Harold to face both Hardrada and Duke William the Bastard without their support. Having defeated Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, King Harold fell with his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, at Hastings towards the end of a long and bloody day of fighting when the Normans finally smashed through the English shield-wall.
With Harold’s fall English opposition melted away. A brief effort was made to support Edgar the Æthling, but Edwin and Morcar, who after Hastings were left as the leading earls in England, quickly submitted to William who was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066. Despite the fact that we know very little about them, Edwin and Morcar raise several questions. Why did they did not wait for Harold’s arrival before engaging Hardrada and Tostig in battle? Why did Harold face William at Hastings without their support? Why did they initially support the Æthling, only to submit to William shortly after at Berkhamstead? And to what extent did tensions between the comital houses of Mercia and Wessex have an impact on the events of 1066? A lack of sources makes these questions impossible to answer definitively.
I think it fair to say that Morcar, as earl of Northumbria, was obligated to protect his people and his lands against what was clearly an existential threat in the form of Hardrada’s invasion army. As the other northern earl and as Morcar’s brother, Edwin no doubt also felt obligated to act. They both must have felt they could win the battle, and the impression given in the available sources is that the battle of Gate Fulford was, like Hastings and Stamford Bridge, a close run matter, with heavy losses on both sides before Hardrada and Tostig gained the victory. Harold must have benefited at Stamford Bridge from the casualties suffered by the Norwegians, but the available evidence points to the fact that after Gate Fulford, Edwin and Morcar were unable to put an effective force into the field and did not accompany Harold to Hastings. This may partly explain why they were unable to offer effective resistance to William after Hastings, and why they abandoned the Æthling in the face of William’s advance on London.
An intriguing alternative to their actions after Hastings is raised by John of Worcester’s entry for 1066 in the Chronicon ex Chronicis. By sending their sister Ealdgyth, Harold’s pregnant widow, out of London were they acting in their own dynastic interests by protecting Harold’s unborn heir in order to later support his or her claims to the throne? Harold’s marriage to Ealdgyth was clearly political, with the aim of cementing a bond between the house of Wessex and Mercia, and perhaps to weaken the ties between Mercia and the rulers of north Wales. In a twist of fate Ealdgyth was the widow of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, whose head had been sent to Harold in 1063. We should also remember that Morcar owed his position as earl of Northumbria to the revolt of the Northumbrians against their then earl, Tostig, in 1065. Harold, as Edwards’s representative was responsible for the negotiations that led to his brother’s deposition, Morcar’s installation as earl, and Tostig’s subsequent rebel action. Finally, how much credit can we give to John of Worcester’s statement that Edwin and Morcar withdrew their troops from Hastings when they heard that Harold had died? Or the late tradition that after Gate Fulford Harold replaced Morcar as earl with Marleswein?
John was writing some sixty years after the events, but many of his entries may be based on a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that is lost to us. If he is correct the standard narrative of the events of 1066 is wrong and Edwin and Morcar were at Hastings but chose to retreat when they felt the issue had been decided, or, if Harold did replace Morcar with Marleswein, might this be the reason that Edwin and Morcar remained in the north while Harold met his doom near Pevensey? So many questions, and so few clear answers. Edwin and Morcar encapsulate why I love history, because it raises questions, it makes us think, it makes us develop analytical skills, it brings the past alive, but most of all it gives us fantastic ‘his’ and ‘her’ stories, which brings me back to L. Garde du Peach and a six year old boy curling up in an armchair, opening the cover of Alfred the Great and beginning a journey of discovery.
To check out more posts from the series visit its page here. It gives the rules for playing (none, really) and links to the previous posts.