“You could hardly have a better ex­am­ple of how his­tory mat­ters”

BBC History Magazine - - Comment - Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. Down­load his BBC se­ries The Story of Eng­land at store.bbc.com/ michael-woodsstory-of-eng­land

It’s Jan­uary, and ahead of us yet an­other fas­ci­nat­ing year of an­niver­saries to mull over, for his­to­ri­ans and his­tory buffs alike. Here are five key ones that have long fas­ci­nated me, and about which I am look­ing for­ward to learn­ing more in these pages over the next year.

First, the First World War an­niver­saries keep com­ing – and quite right too, given its huge im­pact on our na­tional psy­che. Af­ter the Somme last year, 2017 brings an even more ter­ri­ble cen­te­nary, among the most weighted words in our his­tory: Pass­chen­daele. “One of the great­est dis­as­ters of the war,” as Lloyd Ge­orge said, Pass­chen­daele is still the em­bod­i­ment of the hor­ror of con­flict, and the recorded rem­i­nis­cences we can ex­pect to hear on TV and ra­dio next au­tumn are among the most mov­ing of all its wit­nesses.

The Arab Re­volt against the Ot­toman em­pire was also rag­ing in 1917. In his fas­ci­nat­ing new book The Great War and the Mid­dle East (2016), the mil­i­tary his­to­rian Rob John­son shows that the re­volt was far from a sideshow but at the very heart of the strug­gle for im­pe­rial dom­i­na­tion – al­most the cen­tre of grav­ity of the First World War, out of which our trou­bled mod­ern Mid­dle East would arise. As the tragedies there mul­ti­ply now, you could hardly have a better ex­am­ple of how his­tory truly mat­ters. No doubt more is to come this year, in­clud­ing new light on the enigma of TE Lawrence.

Then, in Oc­to­ber, comes the 500th an­niver­sary of an ab­so­lutely cru­cial event in Euro­pean his­tory. On 31 Oc­to­ber 1517 Martin Luther – ac­cord­ing to a pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal story – nailed his 95 the­ses on the church door at Wit­ten­berg and be­gan the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion against the Catholic church. His ser­mons and his ver­nac­u­lar trans­la­tion of the Bi­ble would change the world. Luther is a riv­et­ing though deeply con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure, not least for his anti-Semitism, which left a dark scar across Ger­man life that has en­dured un­til our own times.

Fourth is the Siege of Con­stantino­ple by the Arabs in 717. This is one of the great bat­tles of his­tory. If Con­stantino­ple had fallen, the world would have be­come a very dif- fer­ent place. I’m look­ing for­ward to new nar­ra­tives of this in­cred­i­bly dra­matic story, which the Greeks have al­ways thought to be as epoch-mak­ing as Marathon and Salamis.

Lastly, 2017 will mark 1,000 years since the mar­riage of the Dan­ish king Cnut and Emma of Nor­mandy. Read­ers will re­call last year’s an­niver­saries of the wars that Cnut fought against Æthelred and Ed­mund Iron­side, cul­mi­nat­ing in the fi­nal shat­ter­ing de­feat of the English at Ash­ing­don. Then, the fol­low­ing sum­mer, Cnut mar­ried the widow of his en­emy Æthelred, the mother of the athelings Al­fred and Ed­ward (the fu­ture Con­fes­sor).

Emma mar­ried Æthelred in 1002 af­ter the death of his first wife, and would be­come a ma­jor fig­ure in late Saxon Eng­land. When she re­mar­ried in the sum­mer of 1017, her new hus­band was now king of the English. He was around 21, and Emma in her early 30s. By him she had the fu­ture king Harthac­nut. “The most dis­tin­guished woman of her time for de­light­ful beauty and wis­dom,” she is the sub­ject of the first po­lit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy of a woman in Bri­tish his­tory, the En­comium Em­mae Regi­nae. Till re­cently only one copy was known, but then in Devon Record Of­fice a me­dieval man­u­script copy was iden­ti­fied which ap­pears to be a later ver­sion spe­cially re­vised for her. Sold at auc­tion, it was even­tu­ally bought for more than 1 mil­lion euros by the Royal Li­brary of Den­mark.

Af­ter the deaths of Cnut and his sons and suc­ces­sors Har­ald and Harthac­nut, the English no­bil­ity re­called from ex­ile Ed­ward, Emma’s son by Æthelred, and in 1042 he was pro­claimed king of the English.

Emma would re­main a power be­hind the throne till her death aged nearly 70 in 1052. The wife of two kings and mother of two, she is surely one of the most re­mark­able fe­male roy­als in our his­tory. She was buried with Cnut in Winch­ester where DNA spe­cial­ists are now try­ing to iden­tify her bones from jum­bled re­mains in a mor­tu­ary chest in the cathe­dral which car­ries their names. So among 2017’s many hotly an­tic­i­pated gifts of his­tory, I for one am hop­ing to learn more about this ex­tra­or­di­nary per­son!

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