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