History Today column: In search of lost time

If we think of time at all, it is as a dimension: something we travel through, an abstract and universal measure against which we mark our progress, and against which we are judged – from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day to day, from birth to death. It dominates our lives; and like life under all tyrannies, we are so immersed in the ubiquity of its oppression we don’t notice the constraints. Where I sit now, I can see the time in three places. If I cared to, I could find it in four more without moving from my chair. The computer I am writing this on can, with a little effort, be made to measure time in micro-seconds.

I can think of no practical use for that level of knowledge; but it’s difficult not to feel the anxiety of its influence. Quick is good. Fast is better. Speed is everything. And most of us, I suspect, mark out our working days – and too much of our private lives – in the fine-sliced minutes of deadlines, alarms, appointments and schedules.

But the ability to dissect time in such detail is a relatively recent phenomenon; clocks didn’t have minute- or second-hands until the late 1600s. Hence there are no seconds in Shakespeare; and minutes are mostly metaphor. The shortest practical unit of time in his plays is the quarter hour, as in the length of time Lady Macbeth has been seen trying to scrub the imagined blood from her hands, or that Prince Hal boasts it would take him to learn how to speak like a tinker.

But what would it have been like to live in a world so heedless of the passage of time? One answer is that one’s relationship with it becomes far more subjective and personal. The Greeks recognized two kinds of time: chronos – the scientific measurement of its passage – which is the sense we have retained; and kairos. Kairos is more epiphanic, opportunistic and experiential; it was, and is, also the Greek word for weather.

Even Renaissance science had to resort to more ad hoc, human measures – a quality of experience we can savour in this weather-related story. Among the papers of Thomas Harriot, the English mathematician and sometime scientific advisor to Walter Ralegh, is the record of a rainy afternoon in his room up beneath the leads in Durham House, Ralegh’s magnificent London home on The Strand, overlooking the Thames. Presumably at a loose end, Harriot decided to calculate how much rain would have fallen in his room over a 24-hour period, were it not protected by the roof.

But he had no means of measuring the passage of minutes or seconds. So he used his pulse, assuming that each beat of his heart equated to a second.

This was poor science, of course. But I think it points to an understanding of the world which we can no longer share: time wasn’t only, or even principally, an external measure but also something to which our bodies, and our experience of our bodies, our sense of ourselves, could be wholly aligned.

There is a similar story about the counter-Reformation Cardinal and Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine was one of the judges who sentenced Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake, and was the man who told Galileo to abjure Copernicanism. But he was not in any sense anti-intellectual and had always had a deep personal interest in astronomy and science. He simply refused to accept that it couldn’t be reconciled with doctrine.

On one occasion, he set out to measure the speed of the sun’s rotation about the earth by sitting on a beach in western Italy – most likely in Calabria – and timing the sun set. With no means of measuring time, however, he fell back on an intensely familiar, regular, unvaried unit of time: the recitation of Psalm 51, the misere, ‘Have mercy upon me, Oh God…’ It is, I think, an acutely poignant image, the very measure of time he used embodying both the futility of his actions and the devotional passion of his certainties.

On some level, then, the emerging tension between chronos and kairos was also the struggle between empiricism and, for want of a better word, spirituality. It is not the right word: the shadow of these tensions fall across Henry IV. Prince Hal’s destiny, his royal inheritance, is the arrow of time pulling him forward towards history. Falstaff is all kairos, life in the moment, to whom the measure of minutes and hours is superfluous. “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” Hal asks him in their first scene. Falstaff – surely no-one’s idea of spiritual – has no answer.

But then, what is the answer to the demands of chronos?

Sir Walter Ralegh and the Babington plot

Mary, Queen of Scots

I was not, truth be told, expecting to write much, if at all, about the world of espionage when I first set out to research The Favourite, my recent book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Ralegh. After all, Ralegh’s protestant credentials in the fight against imperial Spain would appear, at first sight, unimpeachable. What could possibly connect his world with that of Babington?

As it happens, quite a lot. As I have tried to show in The Favourite, the young Ralegh was a much more ambivalent figure than traditional histories suggest. In particular, during his first years in London at Middle Temple in the mid-to-late 1570s, when he was scratching around half-heartedly on the far margins of the court along with many contemporaries, necessity demanding they pretend to a status they could barely afford, ever threatened by poverty and debt,  his reputation extended little further than drunkeness: louche, reckless and wanton.

And many of Ralegh’s companions were, largely, Catholics and their fellow travellers, since he quickly became part of the circle around the Earl of Oxford, a group largely defined by a sour, sullen and reactionary opposition to the Elizabethan settlement. In one sense, this suggests a personal indifference on Ralegh’s part – which I suspect was also widespread – to the schism that separated the faiths, enjoying with his friends a fellowship defined by circumstance far more than ideology, and sharing a voluble, almost fashionable, disaffection rooted more in youth and under-employment than in the practical matters of revolt.

He sounds to me one with some of Babington’s ale-house seditionaries, such as Chidiock Tichbourne, who said sorrowfully on the scaffold, ‘Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most flourishing estate: of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet Street, and elsewhere about London but of Babington and Tichbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for: and God knows, what less in my head than matters of state?’
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The Babington plot: the capture and execution of the conspirators

Scene from an execution

On Tuesday 20th September 1586, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London – one of them, a priest named John Ballard, on a single sled, the others two-a-piece – and then dragged westward on their final slow journey through the city’s autumnal streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open fields ‘at the upper end of Holborn, hard by the highway-side to St Giles’. The scaffold was probably situated somewhere a little to the north west of what is now Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then known as Cup Field. The crowd gathered there to watch them die numbered in thousands. The authorities had fenced off the site to stop horsemen blocking the view, and had also raised the gallows ‘mighty high’, so that everyone could see justice being done.

The names of the men were – Ballard aside – Anthony Babington, John Savage, Robert Barnwell, Chidiock Tichbourne, Charles Tilney, and Edward Abingdon. (Seven more conspirators and their accomplices would die the following day: Edward Jones, Thomas Salisbury, John Charnock, Robert Gage, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy and Henry Donne, elder brother of the poet.) Most of them were minor courtiers, well-connected, wealthy; it was said they wore fine silks on this, their last day.

Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason; six weeks before that, they had still been free men. But then had come intimations of arrest – one story is that Babington was alerted by catching sight of a message delivered to a dining companion named Scudamore and realising that Scudamore was, in fact, one of Walsingham’s men – followed by dispersal and desperate flight. Babington and four others took to what was then still wild woodland beyond the city at St John’s Wood.

The authorities searched the houses of some thirty known recusants around London. Almost all were outside the city walls in places such as Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Highgate,  Enfield, Islington, Newington and Westminster. One conspirator, John Charnock, was captured on the road from Willesden, where he too had slept in the woods.
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Sir Walter Ralegh on war and faith

Gaspard de Coligny

It is a little-known fact about Ralegh that, when he was 14 or so, he went to fight for the Hugenot cause in the French Wars of Religion as part of a small group of West Country men under the leadership of his cousin, Henry Champernowne. Insofar as we might tend to perceive Ralegh as something of a protestant hero in the struggle against imperial Spain, this isn’t terribly surprising – despite his extreme youth. We have a ready 20th-century analogy for such idealism in the form of the international brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

But whatever Ralegh’s motivation in enlisting, the experience taught him a deep and abiding cynicism. Wars fought under the banner of religion were, he concluded, merely the continuation of other struggles for political power.

History doth plainly tell us, that that furious war (which broke out in France) in the reign of Francis II, and which occasioned the most barbarous murders, devastations, and such other calamities, (which are the common products of civil commotions, and by continuing near forty years had reduced France to the last misery,) was begun and carried on by some few great men of ambitious and turbulent spirits, deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion, to gain their assistance to what they did more especially aim at. It is plain the admiral Coligny advised the prince of Condé to side with the Huguenots, not only out of love to their persuasion, but to gain a party, and be made thereby the stronger; neither can any man think that the papists, out of the principle of the Christian religion, which enjoins us to be meek and charitable, did in few days’ space cut the throats of near thirty thousand protestants in France, many of whom were men of great fame and quality, but out of fear of their numbers and power: these being removed, they made sure of grasping to themselves all rule and dominion.

I find myself returning to Ralegh’s phrase ‘deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion’ when I read about today’s militant religious movements – whether Christian fundamentalists, Jewish settlers or Islamist radicals – or a theocratic state like Iran; and I wonder if it wouldn’t be more a productive political response simply to ignore the religious codes in which they couch their views of the world. They are more or less coherent social groups – some of them transnational – reaching out for dominion. Faith is their uniform; it is not their cause. To the extent we might consider such people our enemies, their religion isn’t the thing we are fighting; it is a distraction from the real battles for power.

And I worry that the same might also be said of those whose faith is placed in liberalism, and particularly in its more muscular expressions. I worry, of course, because I’m probably one of them.

NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Sir Walter Ralegh on Henry VIII

Ralegh waited until Elizabeth was long dead before he committed his thoughts on her father to paper. This brutal analysis of Henry VIII’s moral and political shortcomings comes from the Preface to Ralegh’s History of the World,written during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and published in 1614.

If all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this king. For how many servants did he advance in haste (but for what virtue no man could suspect), and with the change of his fancy ruined again; no man knowing for what offence! To how many others of more desert gave he abundant flowers from whence to gather honey, and in the end of harvest burnt them in the hive! How many wives did he cut off and cast off, as his fancy and affection changed! How many princes of the blood (whereof some of them for age could hardly crawl towards the block), with a world of others of all degrees (of whom our common chronicles have kept the account), did he execute! Yea, in his very deathbed, and when he was at the point to have given his account to God for the abundance of blood already spilt, he imprisoned the Duke of Norfolk the father, and executed the Earl of Surrey the son; the one, whose deservings he knew not how to value, having never omitted anything that concerned his own honour and the king’s service; the other, never having committed anything worthy of his least displeasure: the one exceeding valiant and advised; the other no less valiant than learned, and of excellent hope. But besides the sorrows which he heaped upon the fatherless and widows at home, and besides the vain enterprises abroad, wherein it is thought that he consumed more treasure than all our victorious kings did in their several conquests; what causeless and cruel wars did he make upon his own nephew King James the Fifth! What laws and wills did he devise, to establish this kingdom in his own issues! using his sharpest weapons to cut off and cut down those branches, which sprang from the same root that himself did. And in the end (notwithstanding these his so many irreligious provisions) it pleased God to take away all his own, without increase; though, for themselves in their several kinds, all princes of eminent virtue.

NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

State terror in Elizabethan Ireland

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Returning from court to military service in Ireland in early 1581, Walter Ralegh wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham boasting of his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s reputation in the province. ‘I never heard nor read of any man more feared than he is among the Irish nation,’ he said.

This might seem like characteristic hyperbole, arising more from familial loyalty than anything more substantive. Gilbert’s own command in Ireland dated to the autumn of 1569, when he was charged with suppressing a widespread revolt with a mere 500 men behind him. Thus it was more than a decade earlier; and the record of the Elizabethans in Ireland had hardly been unblemished in the intervening years. In July 1575, for instance, the Earl of Essex had led his men in a hunt for the women and children of the M’Donnell clan. Running them to ground at the clan’s stronghold on Rathlin Island, off the northern coast of Antrim, his men butchered some four hundred of them. A few escaped to the caves on the shore, but Essex’s men tracked them down and smoked them out, cutting them down there on the rocks and stones as they fled their sanctuary.

What, then, could possibly account for Ralegh’s claim? The answer can be found in the report of Gilbert’s campaign written by Thomas Churchyard, an old soldier-poet loyal to both Gilbert and – later – to Ralegh. Published in 1579 as part of a wider treatise named A Generall Rehearsall of Warres, Churchyard considered what he wrote to be entirely favourable to Gilbert and his reputation.
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An exchange of poems between Sir Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth I

This exchange probably dates from 1587, around the time Ralegh’s influence of power had reached its high-water mark. I don’t propose to blog at length about the poems – I have said what I have to say about them in The Favourite and, for the most part, they speak for themselves.

I would say, though, that it’s evident – beneath the histrionic, self-pitying rhetoric – that Ralegh can sense the tide of favour turning against him; and I’m not sure we should automatically dismiss as fraudulent the expressions of pain such a rejection might engender. For a man in his circumstances, the cooling of royal warmth towards him could presage a wider kind of abandonment and ruin too. As for Elizabeth’s poem, I think it reveals something we don’t often see in portrayals of her: a gentle affection and an unmistakeable kindness and solicitude. It also shows, of course, how perceptive her judgement of those around her was.
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