Heart of darkness: from the time-honoured barbarity of the Tudors in Ireland to Islamic State

The leader of a small military force – perhaps 500 strong – is determined to subdue a province, and to do so quickly. Terror is his explicit policy. Every inroad he makes into enemy territory is followed by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. Every man, woman and child is killed. Houses, churches, crops – everything is burned and despoiled.

Each night, the heads of all those who have been killed are lain in a path to the commander’s tent so “the people . . . see the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the colonel”.

If this sounds like the barbarity that Isis has made commonplace in the news in the last couple of years, think again. It is not Isis. It is the English in Ireland in 1569 and the leader in question is Humphrey Gilbert. He was knighted for his efforts within months; the following year he became an MP.

Drawing analogies between events at different times in history is always fraught; circumstances change. But where there are echoes we do well to heed them, because what resonates with the past can inform our understanding of the present. And while there is little in English history per se to match Isis, our record in Ireland is a different matter. It is there that we succumbed most deeply to the poisonous cocktail of religious self-righteousness and nascent nationalism that so intoxicates Isis. Protestantism and Wahhabism are closer cousins than we care to think.

Five years after Gilbert, the Earl of Essex at the head of the English army in Ireland hunted down and butchered 400 women and children of the M’Donnell clan at Rathlin Island off the northern coast of Antrim. A few made it down to the caves by the sea but Essex’s men followed them and smoked them out, cutting them down on the shore as they ran choking from their hiding places.

At Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland in November 1580, a group of 600 or so Spanish soldiers surrendered a small fort to an English force under Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey sent in a number of men under the captaincy of the young Walter Raleigh. Once disarmed, the Spanish were all put to the sword; there were too many bodies in the fort for the English to count. Pregnant women were hanged. Three men were dragged off to the local blacksmith where their joints and bones were smashed with a hammer on the anvil. They too were hanged. The English used their bodies for target practice as they hung on the gallows, literally shooting them to pieces.

Elizabeth I was delighted. Her handwritten note of thanks to Grey said, “You have been chosen the instrument of God’s glory”.

As for the kind of destruction practised by Isis at Nimrud and elsewhere, the remains of Protestant iconoclasm – Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” – still litter our landscape. To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

Some buildings were destroyed more thoroughly than others. Thomas Cromwell, who personally took possession of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes, employed an Italian military engineer to raze the building to the ground.

There were over 800 religious houses before the Dissolution. The extent of the loss across the country is hard to underestimate. And there were other, more subtle, but no less catastrophic, destructions. The religious houses looked after the poor, the sick, the elderly, the infirm. There was no national health service back then, but the religious orders came close. They were the country’s principal education providers too.

In many parishes, church treasures were hidden among the parishioners. They were being vigorously hunted out and destroyed for decades. As late as August 1578, Elizabeth I’s progress through East Anglia brought her to the house of a Catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood. His house was searched and an image of the Lady Mary discovered in a hay rick. It was “such an image . . . as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match”, reported Richard Topcliffe, later infamous as the government’s principal torturer.

Elizabeth ordered the image to be burned in sight of everyone that evening.

That Isis is depraved is beyond question. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the human talent for depravity does not belong to one people or one faith or one era. All evil is banal, repetitive in its cruelties.

The question shouldn’t be why Isis behaves this way, but what conditions enable or encourage any human to behave like that. The line from Gilbert to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – by way of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz – is a short one, and surely too short for our moral comfort.

NOTE: This piece was first published by the New Statesman online.

Human remains: some thoughts on the funeral of Richard III

Over the course of this morning, thousands of people will gather in Leicester for the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. Many more – hundreds of thousands certainly – will watch proceedings on TV as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the actor Benedict Cumberpatch speak at the ceremony.

What does it mean, though? Two patrician voices, pure and incantatory in their privilege, orating over the boxed skeleton of a man who reigned for a mere two years and whose claim to the throne was, to put it mildly, dubious?

Why does this matter to us? Because, clearly, it does.

All the evidence suggested that Richard’s bones were buried behind the altar of the Greyfriars in Leicester. There was good evidence to show where that altar was. There is a reason, after all, that the archaeological team hit the late king’s resting place with more or less the first plunge of their digger.

But if anyone, other than the indefatigable Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, cared you could have been forgiven for not noticing. There were hardly queues around the car park.

But now his bones are out in the glare of the arc lights and the whirr of social media it seems he is important to us. Is it something about the bones themselves? One of the most memorable sequences from the Channel Four documentary about the archaeological dig was the sight of Philippa Langley overcome with emotion at the sight of her long-sought desiderata, the bones of her hero. laid out cold in a laboratory. She had to leave the room. The depth emotion was at once laughable and entirely understandable.

Because it is true. There is a vulnerability about skeletons that echoes in us all. They are curious things, human bones, signifying both strength and frailty, vulnerability and resolve, death and life. We know this is what we all come to, in the end. We can feel the pressure of our bones beneath our skin. We know our flesh is weak. It hides nothing.

But bones, for all their metaphorical resilience, are things of tenderness and reverence, too. If there is anything sacred about our concept of human life, it lives on in the sad and resolute indifference of our skeletons. Empty of individuality except under the expert’s microscope, they are nonetheless intensely human.

We tend to share still, almost 500 years later, Thomas Cromwell’s scorn at the Catholic taste for relics and such. But are we really any different? What is the new tomb of the last Plantagenet but a vast and vulgar reliquary for the bones of a king remembered for little more than infanticide and the stentorian camp of Laurence Olivier’s unflattering portrayal?

Perhaps the funeral – the divine glamour that hedges a notionally royal body with grace – is no more than a national memento mori, a reminder of what little we are, each of us, but also – paradoxically – a reminder of the triumph of memory, that most tenuous and elusive of things, carried down on oral and written histories, forgotten, abused, disdained and championed, and of the tenacity of human life too.

After all, the men who fought and fell with Richard III are lost. The bodies of his victims are mostly gone. The men and women who died over the long dynastic struggle that his death marked the close of – all of them, these ancestors who died in their tens of thousands for little reason and less reward – they are all lost to us. But these bones, these bones of his, they have seen 21st century air and light. We have seen them. The curve of the spine. The death wounds to the unprotected skull. He has been lain out for us in his nakedness and we have seen him, this sometime king of ours.

It is, in many respects, an authentic medieval experience. A hyper-medieval experience. We have seen his vanitas for what it is, as his contemporaries never quite would. What royal dignity, what grace, what power he had is surely gone. The pomp and ceremony serves to highlight that, paradoxically. All this shameful expense over a waste of bones. He is one of us now. Human. Broken. Frail. Dogs could dismember him. Children would, too, offered the chance.

Is this what all that bloodshed was for, Richard? All that ambition? To be carried through the streets of an unremarkable city far from any seat of power, the height of your glory a tourist attraction, a road sign, a minor detour for the SatNav in days and years to come?

We are all Richard, on this reading. We are burying and commemorating something of ourselves today. Vain, foolish, flawed beyond measure yet somehow, too, overwhelmingly human and explicable in the glory and humiliation of death.


NOTE: I was asked to write this piece by the team at the Emotional Objects blog. It appeared first over there under a different heading.

History Today column: Charlie Hebdo and the judgement of history

As I write this, millions of people are on the streets of France to protest about the murders of eight writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, of four Jewish patrons of a kosher food store, and of three police officers.

Much comment in the media has identified the slaughter in Manichean terms, reflecting a battle between religious sensibilities and free speech, between the forces of reaction and modernity, between Islam and the West – and so on.

We, as historians, have to judge such claims – both in the present and where they arise in the past. Discerning motive – or finding a way to calibrate the balance of motives in individual acts – is perhaps the hardest task we face. It is an intellectual challenge of course; but it is also a narrative challenge. How far to use the individual act to explain wider societal, cultural and intellectual forces; how far to claim those forces diminish the role of the individual actor, diminish the extent to which his or her uniquely personal experiences shaped and defined their choices.

It is curious that journalists and politicians on both left and right have been much happier discussing the murders in Paris in terms of sweeping cultural wars than in terms of individual actors. For some, they arose out of racism, ‘Islamophobia’ and various kinds of economic and political imperialism. For others, they were another bloody skirmish in the West’s war with ‘Islamofascism’.

It might be glib to suggest the attraction of such responses lay in their simplicity and neatness. Glib, but not necessarily untrue. Few people like to let events redefine their worldviews; editorial writers and politicians like it less than most. Historians, I like to think, are made of sterner – if more supple – stuff.

One of my first thoughts on hearing of the killings at Charlie Hebdo was Milton’s dictum in Areopagitica: “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, the image of God”. Milton’s language as the passage extends is emotive, powerful: massacre, homicide, martyrdom. Censorship is a kind of murder. The concept of murder itself – and the threat of murder – as a kind of censorship does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

Not that Milton would have approved of Charlie Hebdo, of course. Far from it. His lines

“Licence they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good:
But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.”

could almost have been written with the recent events in Paris in mind. For Milton – as for some of those who would import rigid Islamic standards of blasphemy into European society – a free press was intended to enable God’s Englishmen and women to find a truer path to revealed wisdom. He did not understand why the people, in their wisdom, had thought to use it otherwise.

There have always been people like those at Charlie Hebdo who, wherever the boundaries of free speech are, can be found pushing against them. Causing offence is almost a raison d’etre for it, and the magazine’s savage glee at doing so places it somewhere in the arc between South Park and Jonathan Swift.

But, given the magazine’s many provocations, were the forces of history such that the killings were inevitable? Or should we allow more for the role of contingency and chance in what happens – in the present as much as in the past?

As historians, we try to make patterns out of encounters and events, to sift for meaning beyond the oddities and quirks of each human actor. But surely we must resist the temptation to fit each of us wholly and neatly into a wider ideology or identity, to make coherent rational wholes of humans who are rarely less than contradictory and impulsive at the best of times.

Arguably, perhaps, the true definition of civilisation is the absence of a demand for too much intellectual clarity and precision in each other. As individuals and as societies, perhaps the more tolerant we are of both our own contradictions and those of our fellow humans, the more civilised we shall be.