Blades of Wind

The Polish Air Force in the Second World War

In a series of whirlwind campaigns beginning in 1939, the forces of Nazi Germany had conquered land from the Baltic to the Atlantic coast. A seemingly unstoppable combination of mechanised ground forces and powerful air operations had smashed cities, torn apart resistance and gone as far as taking Paris itself. Of the nations of Europe at war with Germany, only Great Britain remained unconquered, the Channel keeping out the Germans for now. As darkness fell across the continent, the British People stood alone.

Except, of course, they didn’t.

Even setting aside the huge number of people from across the British Empire who had come to fight in Europe, from India, Australia and New Zealand in the east, to Canada in the west, people from many nations had joined the defence of liberty. American volunteers, long before the entry of their own country into the war, came to fly in the Royal Air Force. People of captured countries across Europe, such as Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch and Belgians had arrived to fight both in defence of Britain and for the freedom of their own lands.

And then there were the Poles.

The Fall of Night

It had taken the German military just four weeks to power across Poland and beat it into submission, chopping it in two as part of the Faustian Molotov-Rippentrop Pact and handing the eastern half to the Soviet Union. Despite the valiant efforts of the Polish armed forces, there was no real doubt about the outcome of the invasion once the Soviets had joined the fight. Mutilated, the country would spend the next six years brutalised and oppressed.

Knowing what would happen to them should they stay, and keen to fight again, members of Poland’s army and air force fled the country, passing first through currently-unoccupied neighbours, later making their way to France, and finally to Britain. Their resilience and determination was unparalleled, yet their capabilities were, at least for a while, unappreciated. The late summer of 1940 would change all that, and set them on a path to glory about which everyone, everywhere, should know.

Avenging Angels

126 ‘Adolfs’ – 303 Squadron’s Battle of Britain tally

If the Poles are remembered, a lot of credit goes to the pilots of 303 Squadron and their exploits in the Battle of Britain. The 303 was not the only, or even the first, Polish squadron put together, but what it achieved in the late summer of 1940 would guarantee its place in history. Over the course of the Battle of Britain, the 303 would shoot down one hundred and twenty-six German planes, more than any other squadron. It produced legendary heroes in the form of Jan Zumbach, Witold Urbanowicz, Eugeniusz Szaposznikow and Witold Łokuciewski, among many others. Yet, in the beginning, they were ignored by superiors and authorities. Perhaps it was the idea that the successful invasions of Poland by the Nazis and Soviets were indicative of a failure on the part of the Polish military that led to the RAF leadership mistrusting the Polish pilots’ attitudes and abilities, or maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, the leadership was proved completely wrong.

What was it that made Polish squadrons, the 303 in particular, so effective? Arkady Fiedler stated that one reason was Polish pilots’ superior eyesight. Whether this was biologically true or not – all pilots had eye tests, so there is no reason to doubt the assertion – the Polish pilots certainly could pick a German formation out remarkably quickly and at great distance. It should not be forgotten that they had actually had combat experience in both Poland and France, which surely gave them more awareness of enemies in the skies than the trainees of the RAF. Yet the thing that probably defined them most clearly was their method of attack. This was a no-holds-barred assault from up close, flying in loose formations and then getting in far closer to the German planes than was normal for British RAF pilots. It was a technique they had already made use of in their homeland and in France, and was devastatingly effective. Particularly given the fact that the Hawker Hurricanes in which they flew had less than twenty seconds of firing time, this was essential. Finally, was it simple determination that made them so effective? To suggest that British pilots were not determined to protect their country would be insulting and plainly untrue, yet perhaps the horror of finding their own land torn to pieces gave the Poles an extra edge.

Heroes of the 303

One thing that must not be forgotten when looking at the 303 is that it was not exclusively a Polish squadron. Initially it had a British commander, then there was its Canadian pilot, John Kent. And then there was Josef František. This Czech renegade had fought his way across Europe after the fall of his country, first stealing a plane to fly to Poland, then fighting through the German and Soviet invasions, then on to France and finally to England. Put simply, he was one of the most amazing aces of the war. Fiercely independent, frequently insubordinate, he was eventually given a plane and told he could roam about by himself, something at which he excelled. In less than a month in September 1940 he shot down seventeen German planes, with one additional probable victory. It was with pilots like these – as well as the Polish heroes – that the 303 contributed so much to the RAF’s success in the Battle of Britain.

To the Bitter End

So the Battle of Britain was won and the island nation remained free of Nazi control. The role of Polish pilots in the battle was well known – for the moment – but looking across general histories of the period, one could be forgiven for thinking that was it. Yet, of course, it was not as if after the Battle of Britain had been won the Poles congratulated themselves, put their feet up and had a cup of tea for the next five years. They had been the first to face the Germans in 1939, and they would be there fighting in 1945, with the same fierce determination, character and skill as they had from the start.

Hermann Göring’s house after the bombing of Berchtesgaden – a little gift from the RAF to the head of the Luftwaffe

Once Britain’s shores were relatively safe, aircrews who had been focused exclusively on island defence began to move out into other fields of operations. As the war in the Atlantic Ocean heated up and convoys of ships bringing supplies essential to British survival came under threat, the 304 bomber squadron joined efforts to sink U-Boats, with some success. Polish RAF bomber squadrons naturally joined the major raids against Germany, as well as in Italy. 300 Squadron, the first Polish squadron to be established in 1940, took part in most major raids during the war, including those directly against Germany as well as extensive involvement after D-Day in 1944. Its final mission, surely extremely satisfying, was bombing Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden.

The fighter squadrons too were hard at work for the rest of the war, proving again and again their skill and determination. 303 Squadron in particular was extremely effective as an escort unit for bombers, at one time scoring forty-six enemy planes shot down, with no bombers lost, in a single six-week period. 302 Squadron was called in multiple times as an escort for Churchill. It was Polish crews who perfected the art of knocking the V-1 ‘Doodlebug’ flying bombs off course and harmlessly into the Channel by using their own planes to disrupt the weapons’ jet streams. Spectacularly, on the 18th of August 1944, 315 Squadron, tooled up in fantastic P-51 Mustangs, shot down sixteen enemy planes in a single day, the record for any RAF squadron during the war.

Eugeniusz Horbaczewski, Squadron Leader of the 315, died in the battle on the 18th of August 1944, but not before shooting down three enemy planes himself.

Individual pilots also found themselves fighting the fight in different ways. Eugeniusz Szaposznikow, who had downed eight German planes as part of the 303 during the Battle of Britain, was made an instructor for new pilots joining the RAF. Witold Urbanowicz found himself first in the United States lecturing American trainees on flying techniques, then joined up with a US squadron and headed for China, where he registered eleven victories before returning to Britain.

To detail every contribution made by Polish pilots during the Second World War would take a book thick enough to stand on the Earth and reach the Moon. Suffice to say, their legend and awareness of it should stretch far beyond their involvement in the Battle of Britain. They fought first in 1939 and they would fight to the bitter end in 1945.

The Bitter End

In 1945, these dedicated, brave Polish pilots, their ground crews, all the Polish land and naval forces and everyone they knew back home were betrayed. After nearly six years of struggle, both for the liberation of their country and in defence of others, they found their homeland handed to the Soviet Union under the terms agreed at the Yalta Conference. This was the Soviet Union that had guaranteed Poland’s fall with its 1939 invasion from the east. This was the Soviet Union of Stalin, the butcher of millions, the Soviet Union of Lavrentiy Beria, architect of the massacres of Poles at Katyń and elsewhere, the Soviet Union that had deported and killed thousands upon thousands of Poles. Now most of the land taken by the Soviets in 1939 would remain with them and a pro-Moscow puppet government installed. If Churchill and Roosevelt truly felt they could trust Stalin’s promises to respect elections in Poland, it is hard to understand why.

Mass grave at the site of the Katyń Massacre – just one of the atrocities committed by Poland’s new overlords.

At the London Victory Celebrations in 1946, the Poles were conspicuous by their absence. Bowing to Soviet pressure, Polish land and naval forces were not invited. Ignoring the Polish Air Force that had done so much during the Battle of Britain was a step too far for the RAF and the government allowed the invitation of a few representatives, but the pilots and commanders declined the offer in protest. So began a long period of relative invisibility for those brave allies who had given so much during the conflict, in Europe and elsewhere, and Poland itself began to disappear into obscurity. In the West, promises made to Poland were all but forgotten and interest waned, their history being rewritten. In a particularly ungracious move, when writing his history of the war, Winston Churchill had the nerve to opine that the Poles had brought all the trouble, massacres and repression on themselves through poor decisions and ‘follies’.

In Poland, the process of deleting the Poles from history was even more extreme. The Communist puppet government pushed the Kremlin’s agenda, creating a new historical narrative that favoured the Soviet Union and ignored the efforts of the Polish people themselves. Mention of the Polish forces in the West was suppressed, focus put solely on the Red Army and its liberation of the country. ‘Liberation’ is not liberation when it comes with its own cage. Yet of course this attempt to eradicate a sense of Polish identity and pride was never going to work. Anybody who had been paying attention for even just the past couple of centuries would surely have known that. It would just take a long time for them to finally be free.

The Polish War Memorial near RAF Northolt. (Picture by SovalValtos)

The most ‘forgotten’ of Poland’s warriors in the West were surely the land and naval forces, who had fought in theatres of war from Norway to Africa, the Atlantic to the Middle East, but even the heroes of the skies found themselves remembered by fewer and fewer people in the Allied countries despite the construction of memorials to them like the one at Northolt. Awareness may have been sparked again by Polish pilots appearing in the 1969 film Battle of Britain, but it is only more recently that a concerted effort has been made to recognise how important and far reaching were their efforts. It is heartening to see, as the tale is inspirational, and a place should long remain in the memory for these glorious heroes who came out of the sun and soared across the clouds like blades of wind.

It’s the Principle

Frustration and Conflict in Colonial Kenya

In the archives of the University of Oxford’s Weston Library sit six folios of private and official documents. They cover the years Sir Arthur Edwin Young spent seconded to the Gold Coast, Malaya and Kenya, to coordinate the reform of the colonial police forces in preparation for those countries’ independence. Two of the documents are not available, access still blocked today by a government ruling. They come from the time of his resignation in Kenya, and their hidden state was the inspiration for this article.

Sir Arthur Edwin Young

Young is hardly a household name, but he was an admirable, principled man who had a fascinating life. He believed deeply in the transformation of police ‘forces’ into police ‘services’, instilling in officers and their superiors a sense of their place as supporters of communities, rather than law enforcers. He was a strong believer in Robert Peel’s idea that promotion to leadership in the police should be from the bottom up, rewarding on merit officers who had been raised and trained in line with this ‘service’ ideology. He proved remarkably successful in achieving these aims, first in Hertfordshire, then the London Metropolitan Police, and finally as Commissioner of the City of London Police. He was the first ‘beat bobby’ to be made a Commissioner, a fantastic achievement in its own right.

In 1948, the Malayan ‘Emergency’ began, a communist insurgency which would eventually last for more than a decade. It was a bloody and vicious affair, with many different High Commissioners and police officials trying to find ways to end it. In 1952, Arthur Young was sent to the colony to try and reform a police force which had been for a some time essentially a military one. He was shocked and deeply troubled by the policing culture he found there, but with the support of the High Commissioner Sir Gerald Templer, he was successful in bringing his own ideals to the service and effecting a great deal of change. He left Malaya in 1953, rightly praised for his positive and determined efforts.

Frustration: Kenya, 1954

If his experience in Malaya had acted as proof of the efficacy of Young’s ideals and methods in certain conditions, his next placement was to prove their limitations in others. In a sense, the factors which allowed for the successful implementation of police reform and the establishment of a police ‘service’ rather than a police ‘force’ in the Asian colony were entirely converse to those in Kenya. Young’s resignation nine months into his contract could be seen to have signified an uncharacteristic admission of defeat, but was more likely a pointed withdrawal in disgust at conditions in the colony and the resistance he constantly faced.

After his term of service in Malaya, Young had returned to his position in the City of London Police with an assurance that he would not once again find himself drafted into a colonial situation which would take him away from the position and career he intended to pursue. Ultimately this was not to be the case, yet he accepted the position in Kenya on the proviso that it would be for no more than two years, to allow him to continue with the London Police and avoid becoming trapped in a colonial career. In preparation for the inclusion of his private and official papers in the University of Oxford’s colonial collection, Young wrote an extensive, revealing and valuable narrative to give background and explanation of the contents of the files. The narrative also allowed him to express his opinions and concerns regarding the situation in the country.

The history of the settlement of Kenya and its development as a colony could not have been more different to that of Malaya. The societies which the British encountered on their arrival were markedly different in structure, outlook, administration and, from a traditional European perspective, sophistication. The purposes to which British authorities attempted to put their new territorial gains and the means by which they did so were also quite different, although in one aspect, that of the role of white agriculturalists, there are interesting parallels. As in Malaya, these factors all contributed to the construction of a socio-political situation in Kenya which would have a direct bearing on Arthur Young’s experience and achievements there.

One fundamental difference that created a radically different outcome for the story of Kenya from that of Malaya was the creation of the state itself. Rather than the clear political boundaries and structures of rule that had existed in Malaya under the Malayan sultans, Kenya had found itself quite arbitrarily forced into being. Within such a framework, it would have been hard for any previously-extant system of rule to have continued to have exercised its powers effectively. As it was, no system of regional governorship which would have been likely to have been accepted as legitimate by the British authorities existed. Instead, Kenya was peopled by various tribes, most of them nomadic, the largest of which was the agrarian society of the Kikuyu. As a people settled in agricultural communities, the Kikuyu may have seen themselves as superior to the other tribes who still wandered the land and had found themselves pushed further and further afield by steady Kikuyu expansion, exclusion and a death penalty for any who intruded on the land of the more powerful and organised group. Yet if the Kikuyu would not have represented a regional power for British authorities, within their society things may have been quite different. In his intriguing anthropological study of his own people, Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta asserted that prior to European arrival, Kikuyu society had been run as a true democracy with its own constitution and council with representatives from every village.

This system would not necessarily have benefited mass white migration and the establishment of a permanent settler community in the White Highlands, rather than the familiar pattern of elevation and relationships with individual tribal chiefs that had been employed elsewhere in the Empire. The arrival of the white settlers, encouraged even further after the Second World War with a programme of promoting the settling of ex-servicemen and their families with generous benefits and support, intensified the emphasis on policies for their protection, to the detriment of the African population. As time went by, the political strength of the settlers went beyond what would normally be expected of citizens in a colonial setting, to the point of aggressive demands, backed at times with a threat of force, for the same constitution as that in Southern Rhodesia to be established in Kenya. By the time of Young’s arrival in the colony, friction between administration and settlers had not abated, with the Governor in particular being a constant target for abuse and at least once…the subject of an abduction plot. Finding himself in such an environment, so different to that in Malaya, Young could not help but see his job for what it was, an uphill struggle.

This struggle was made no easier by the history of the colonial police in Kenya. Since the establishment of the colony, the police had always acted under direct command of the central administration and the armed forces, a situation favoured by soldiers and the military leadership. As early as 1907, long before Young’s arrival on the scene, the authorities in Whitehall had been keen on some kind of reform of this system, yet although it had been attempted, the police continued as a quasi-military force. With such an entrenched culture of the police as an extension of the military with no autonomy whatsoever, combined with a deeply-embedded culture of impunity, the system in Kenya represented the antithesis of all that Young held to be necessary and right in policing. Earlier, in 1953, a commissioner’s report described exactly the kind of problems Young would face on his arrival. It found that police recruited in large numbers over the previous year had no true understanding of what their duties entailed, nor of what their role in the community was intended to be. Training in these important areas had been curtailed to allow for the rapid deployment of new recruits as a result of the outbreak of Kenya’s own ‘Emergency’, the Mau Mau Rebellion. The events, methods and attitudes which characterised this period of conflict are infamous and need little exploration here beyond some scene-setting. Still controversial to this day, police brutality in response to the savage attacks by the Mau Mau rebels was extreme. Mass shootings of suspects were held without any attempt to hide what was taking place. Kikuyu people were placed in concentration camps in huge numbers. Torture of suspects appears to have been standard practice and the Governor himself voiced the opinion that a form of ‘counter-terror’ was desirable in fighting the insurgency. It would be a challenge to conceive of any situation in which principles of policing stood more at odds with Young’s ideals.

Police guarding suspected Mau Mau rebels

Loggerheads

Arthur Young was a man of great personal conviction and confidence. Personal conviction and a desire to overcome any obstacle in the pursuit of what one perceives as righteous goals are, as long as one shares the view of the goals as righteous, admirable traits, well worthy of support and emulation. This feeling is particularly strong when the resistance to the actions of that person is as strong as the convictions themselves. Yet even the most intelligent, thoughtful and principled person can, when so driven, fall victim to moments of lack of self-awareness and blindness to the realities of the situation. During his tenure in Kenya, Young was no exception in this regard, although his later actions do represent some acceptance of the necessity of compromise.

Bolstered by his success in Malaya and the very public praise he had received as a result, on accepting the position in Africa, Young lost no time in asserting himself strongly. After a lightning visit to the colony prior to taking up the position of Commissioner of Police officially, he actively lobbied cabinet members for the replacement of both the governor and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Hardly actions designed to create a pleasant working relationship with the administration, particularly as they were not taken up, Young made matters worse by publicly denouncing the Kenyan leadership in The Times. Perhaps such behaviour shows the level of his confidence at the time, yet that confidence had doubtless developed out of his experience of a close and positive working relationship with Gerald Templer and others in Malaya. With little-to-no bars imposed on his methods and demands in South East Asia, naturally he had achieved a great level of success. However, if he had expected the same headstrong and demanding approach to encourage the same level of cooperation and support in Kenya, a place with a markedly different political and cultural climate, he was sorely mistaken and had risked jeopardising the success of his efforts before he had even arrived on site. Because the settler population was frequently hostile to the administration as whole and to what was perceived as its intrusion into settler affairs and a lack of support for their interests, potentially making enemies among the government officials would inevitably make his job all that more difficult.

Kikuyu men in a concentration camp
Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer, an ally.

All of this is not to suggest that Young received no support for his moves in Kenya, nor that he had an entirely negative experience of working within the administration. He described his relations with Sir Evelyn Baring, the Governor of the colony, as pleasant and courteous, but asserted that he was seen not as a colleague as with Templer in Malaya, but a subordinate official about whom no special consideration applied. Of particular concern and particularly damaging was Baring’s refusal to allow Young to be present at any high-level policy meetings, in spite of him holding a place on the national War Council. Whether this was a decision made purely for reasons of political propriety or that it grew out of resentment of Young’s criticism of the administration is difficult to assess from the documents available, but without a doubt it would have had anything but a positive influence on the Commissioner’s feelings and room for manoeuvre.

Sir Evelyn Baring, an obstacle.

It was in his attempts to confront the core problems in society and policing where Young would find himself undermined. He received no replies to letters sent to the Governor expressing fear of the level of violence being carried out by some branches of the security services. Demands that he expand rather than reduce the size of police auxiliary forces prompted him to declare his intention to resign rather than do so. Repeatedly his insistence that the police needed psychological and moral reform through a redefinition of their place as part of society was met with the same answer, that the ‘time was not yet ripe’ in East Africa.

Towards the end of his stay, Young was granted permission to present his arguments in favour of the separation of the police from the central administration and military control before colonial ministers in what he saw as a last-ditch attempt to persuade them of the value of the plan. As he had already done so to no avail in talks and attempted correspondence with individuals including the Governor, the frustration in his preparatory notes and draft of the presentation is palpable. He described the police as having been ‘sick’, both physically and mentally. He described himself as a ‘specialist’ called in to treat the sickness, asserting that while the physical malady – a lack of organisation and material needs – may have been successfully treated by that point in time, the mental issues still had a long way to go. Such a striking choice of language is absent from most other documents in his files and whether it was intended to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the lack of support he had received or not, ministers did not act favourably. Key among their responses were two main points.

The first was a concern that the authority and position of District Commissioners would be jeopardised if the police were no longer under their direct control, allowing Africans with complaints to bypass them and deal with the police and Commissioner directly. The role of the District Commissioners was seen as vital and more suitable to what was perceived to be the kind of authority the African population would understand. Young saw the role of the District Commissioners as essentially problematic. Their ability to shut down investigations arbitrarily had, in his opinion, developed a reluctance on the part of individual officers to engage in painstaking and enthusiastic work when there was a high probability of it being neutralised by the local authorities.

The second argument against Young’s suggestion was that illiterate locals were not yet ready for such a move and would be unable to understand its value or how it would work. This was also seen to be the case with illiterate police officers. Young had accepted the difficulties in dealing with illiterate police and had still attempted to involve them in learning more than merely how to control the population and to do more than train them in the role of soldiers. He had found that while the use of printed textbooks was naturally unrealistic, the police learned well and with much enjoyment through role-playing exercises. Regardless, the Council still insisted that his aims were unachievable. In this case, Young had gone to the trouble of offering an uncharacteristic compromise that the measure should first be implemented only with members of the force who held positions in the upper echelons, but it was still rejected as not being viable.

Clearly having reached a point at which he felt a complete lack of administrative support, Young’s handwritten notes on his copy of the report submitted after the ministers’ deliberations seem positively angry. In response to calls for greater discipline in the police force and greater awareness of ‘civics’ on the part of the population, Young expresses agreement but argues that before this training and education can take place, the fundamental principles on which the force and its relationship with the public are based ‘must be right’. He disagrees with a scrawled ‘no!’ with the suggestion that the British concept of a police officer can only function in a racially and linguistically homogeneous society. He dismisses the idea that for the foreseeable future the police must remain an ‘extinguisher force’, opining that the suggestion that the police need to be above local intrigues directly contradicts the criticism of his ideas.

Support

Young’s efforts did attract a great deal of praise from Europeans beyond the mainstream of settlers and administrators. The English Missionary Society worked tirelessly in promoting better relations between the races and decried the excesses of the government and security forces, publishing letters and pamphlets promoting new attitudes and behaviour. Much as in Malaya, Young’s departure late in 1954 produced much dismay within these sections of the community, letters being penned to British newspapers thanking him for his work and attempting to encourage greater recognition of the efforts of a man who was indeed greatly respected. If his commitment to implementation of the same system that had paid dividends in Malaya had here caused friction and been rejected, the principle and the intention were appreciated. Shortly after Young’s return to London, Willoughby H. Carey, a secretary of the Church Missionary Society, wrote to The Times thanking the former Commissioner of Police for what he had achieved. He wrote of a ‘noticeable sudden change’ in the state of Kenyan policing, followed by a ‘swift improvement in the behaviour and conduct of the Police…towards the African population.’. The problem is however obvious: none of those who offered unqualified support were in any position to influence or decide the practical outcome of government policy. It was for this reason that ultimately attempts at colonial police reform had not met expectations.

Walking Away

Arthur Young returned to Britain at the end of 1954 intensely dissatisfied with his Kenyan experience. He may have received praise for his efforts from some quarters, but the contrast with Malaya was clear. Even at the time of his departure, Young was unable to clearly express his views, his letter of resignation being suppressed because of its content and a more palatable alternative submitted. To this day, two of his final letters to Baring, surely those inaccessible at the Weston Library, remain under an embargo, his voice still silenced decades after his death.

Arthur Young’s successes and shortcomings were probably inevitable when such fundamental reform was required. If his own strong will and refusal to compromise could have caused friction with administrators and resulted in some measure of failure for his plans, that would be a great cause for personal regret. Yet as evidenced by his experience with Templer in Malaya, it was the reception his ideas received and the culture of thought and openness to them which determined their success rate. Sir Evelyn Baring’s Administration in Kenya had resisted, where Sir Gerald Templer’s had supported.

At the end of the preface to his Kenyan narrative, Young recalls a letter he received from B. N. Hinga, the Kenyan Commissioner of Police, in 1968. Hinga reminded Young of a time he had spoken to students at the Alliance High School, calling on Africans to join the police, to give service to their community and to make personal integrity the foundation of their conduct. As a result of the visit, three of the students joined the police, and one of them had been Hinga himself. Regardless of the eventual outcomes of his policies, for those who saw and desired what Young saw and desired, he could be nothing less than an inspiration.

Antarctica

The expression of a love of history can take many forms. Constant reading, the writing down of ideas, the desire to speak and discuss what may or may not have happened in some past time and place – all of these are ways of celebrating the beauty of historical learning and the hunger for greater knowledge that develops from it. For some, it is the love of details that keeps them going, the physical and tangible minutiae of every historical milieu that holds them rapt. Yet the intangible is just as powerful a driver – the deep emotion one feels when gazing upon a burial mound thousands of years old, or seeing in the flesh an item which once belonged to some famed figure of hallowed antiquity.

I put this video together many years ago now, but looking back at it, I find myself feeling that same rush, the same tingling in the spine, that I felt when first I saw these early 20th Century images from Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. This is an attempt to capture that feeling, without words of explanation or justification.

‘Antarctica’

As has been requested, anybody who finds the ambient music in this video appealing can now download it here.

The Unknowable and the Quest for Understanding

The role of space, climate and geography in the establishment of norms in human life cannot be overstated. On a surface level it can be seen in the structure and organisation of community groups, in the construction of buildings and places of worship, and in cultural features such as diet, traditions and leisure or recreation. The Polynesian context of this article, and in particular the coming together of markedly different cultures in Tahiti in the Nineteenth Century, is an intriguing example. This is particularly true in looking at one of the most fundamental aspects of human life and society, the development of religious or pseudo-religious beliefs.

Generally speaking, systems of spiritual or religious belief develop from a desire to comprehend. The main purpose of a system of religious beliefs, even greater than the creation of guidelines or rules for behaviour, is the explanation of what things are and why they are that way. The ‘what’ is naturally likely to come first, but attempts to explain the reasons and purposes of real world entities and phenomena are unlikely ever to be far behind. The days of such complete ignorance may have passed, but much remains. Indeed, one of the clear central features of true scientific study is undoubtedly the acknowledgement of that ignorance and the acceptance that it is currently impossible to have all the answers to every question that may arise, as well as an understanding that it is likely that any answer discovered is certainly going to raise yet further questions and reveal new areas of ignorance. Yet in the period before such a concept and mentality became commonplace, human beings needed assurance that there was a way to understand the many wonders and terrors which they would encounter on a daily basis.

Before existential questions arose, the most obvious cause of the development of these ideas was naturally going to be the need for an explanation of the physical world in which early humans found themselves. This geographical, biological and spatial influence, combined with human creativity and imagination was clearly central to all belief systems. Knowledge of what the surrounding environment contained could only provide assurance and a sense of control when combined with ‘knowledge’ of why that was the case. In a sense, the development of these beliefs and the establishment of a clear structure for their use was just that: an effort to take control of the seemingly uncontrollable and the seizure of greater human power over these environmental factors. The most common form taken appears to have been the decision to anthropomorphise the world and its features. The desert was not just a vast stretch of inhospitable land, but one which contained untouchable forces and spirits which could threaten. The inhospitable nature of the landscape may have made it necessary for people to imagine such a threat.The threats of the world around, always likely to be more important to creatures which had gone through much of their evolutionary journey on the dangerous plains and savannah of the African continent, needed control through warnings and means of self-protection.

No one environmental feature could possibly have required this approach more than the colossal unknowable of the oceans. So unpredictable is the weather and ‘behaviour’ of these expanses of water, so vast is their scale and so incomprehensible and fearsome were, at that period in prehistory and history, their depths, nothing could have been more awe-inspiring or terrifying. The oceans were the central factor in the lives of a people such as the Polynesians who had braved them to reach new lands and new environments. Indeed, it is startling and almost unexplainable how these people, in the days before the age of sail, without maps and without a clue whether they would ever find land, could have even thought of making the journey in the first place. The migrations into the blue of the Pacific truly do deserve recognition as the bravest and greatest human endeavour and achievement in the world before people finally shook off the shackles of the Earth and ventured into the even greater ocean of Space.

For Love of the Father

What then were the beliefs which developed out of these new lands and the waters which separated them over such great distances? It is worth considering that Europeans too experienced great fear of the seas, frequently born of religious stories which in themselves were born of concern regarding the surrounding waters. Alain Corbin’s excellent study of European views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic identifies many of these fears as connected with the Biblical stories of Noah’s flood and the world’s creation. The ocean held the abyss from which the dark beasts of the world could come forth, the waters representative of Creation’s unfinished state, their storms and fierce unknowability a humbling element in social consciousness which dissuaded people from exploring them in any significant way1. In some ways, these early concerns can still be seen in works of literature of more recent times, from Melville’s great white whale to Lovecraft’s Cthulu, lurking in his underwater city of R’lyeh.

In Tahiti there were similar concerns, yet they naturally differed in some aspects. In one way it can be asserted that as much as the ocean itself, the islands on which these new societies were established contributed to the birth of gods. The nature of the Tahitian environment is one of impermanence. Dodd’s The Rape of Tahiti identifies this as significant. The island’s environment is in some ways unforgiving in its treatment of human settlement. Homes and other structures suffer from the effects of the elements, the humidity and the ceaseless assault of the salt-filled air which made it necessary to renovate and reconstructhomes every generation2. If the world around forbade the establishment of physical permanence, it is understandable that people turned to the unseeable for continuity and a kind of comfort. Instead of seeking to place a solid and stable centre of society in an environment so hostile, the Polynesians and other Pacific islanders turned to the permanence of family continuity. A whole pantheon of gods developed across the ocean, most of them present in all the separate communities, although respected to different levels from one island group to the next. Yet these gods were not merely disembodied spirits and powers existing forever outside and beyond the reach of the people of the islands, but members of a single traceable familial community stretching back millennia. Recently deceased members of a grouping joined the ‘gods’ in their positions watching over the generations to come, but the oldest and greatest also held the place of ancestral spirits with whom Polynesians could directly identify and from whom they could trace descent. In general they served the purpose of ‘household’ gods, departmental forces not unlike the kami in Japanese Shinto, the gods of pagan worship across the globe, or the vast canon of saints found in Roman Catholic Christianity.3 Different ancestors could offer protection and success in different situations and would receive tribute and be afforded great respect in rituals before any undertaking, in the hope of securing their support. The greatest of these gods, revered across the Pacific – and particularly in Tahiti and the Leeward Islands4, was Tangaroa, and the best thing about Tangaroa was that he was not just a god, he was family. While he may have been worshipped as a kind of god of the ocean waters, he also represented the earliest common ancestor of the islanders, a ground zero for the differently-evolved societies which were established and developed on the islands across the ocean5.

In this context, Tangaroa’s status as a force connected with the ocean itself makes perfect sense. The heaving waters seemed both eternal and ever changing, but the birth of Tangaroa as the ancestor of those who conquered the waters would be immensely comforting, bringing certainty to a surrounding world of constant change. While he may have become a deity powerful enough to prompt reverence and awe, his human origin could be empowering. Again, the environment itself doubtless demanded such psychological reassurance for any people dwarfed by its huge size and trapped by its instability.

The Polynesians did not rely merely on the idea of these deified ancestors, but as with human beings throughout history and across the globe, they were allocated physical space within the community. In Tahiti and elsewhere this took the form of the marae, a separated space in which rituals could be performed and the intangible could become tangible. In Tahiti, these were sizeable temples, although elsewhere they took more modest forms, such as small walled enclosures containing small rock figurines or markers, carefully placed in specific positions to indicate the correct places to be taken by people or artefacts during the performance of rituals6. While all else may have been impermanent, the marae was to be maintained at all costs, as it surely represented the physical existence of the long line of descent repeated again and again in oral history.

Marae

Movement and Misunderstandings

By the time Royal Navy Captain Henry Byam Martin arrived in Tahiti in 1846 as a British observer, the alien belief system of Christianity in both of its main conflicting forms, had become established, replacing these earlier gods, at least in theory. In a sense, Christian missionaries had arrived with what, if they took the trouble to learn anything about the meanings of the marae and the apparently polytheistic nature of pre-Christian Polynesian beliefs, they must have considered a trump card. Here was a god that promised not only a single object of devotion – one king to rule them all – but also genuine personal permanence in the form of heavenly immortality. If they understood the effects of the environment on local beliefs and rituals, they must have been confident of success, a confidence that appeared to be justified by the conversions they achieved. However, these assumptions would have missed a very important point about who and what the Tahitians’ gods were. Tahiti’s new French rulers at the time of Captain Martin’s arrival in the group misunderstood too what the islands and family ties actually meant to the native people.

Where the European newcomers originated in societies which, although built in many ways on the actions and relations of various ruling families, often and increasingly defined communities as peoples of areas and ‘nations’. Polynesians came from far more focused cultures which, although they had branched off from one another over the centuries, maintained the same basic common elements. The marae, as previously explained, tied together the people of each family, genealogy being absolutely central to their understanding of society and history. In terms of space, these families were not tied to a state as the European arrivals may have understood them, but localities8. More familiar to the newcomers would have been the importance of these lineages and the long stories which established them often as far back as the legendary cultural heroes of the past in asserting and sustaining claims to land. This was not such an alien concept and would have fit nicely with ideas of land ownership in the West. Yet Polynesian ideas of the connections between land and blood went far beyond this. Damon Salesa has argued that it is rare for one to be able to disconnect the lives, beliefs and family ties from the places in which these things developed: ‘Where one’s ancestors’ bones rest…or where one’s placenta is buried…enshrine the connections between genealogy and place.’9

Similarly tied to the long traditions of oral history which cemented families and lineages was the fact that these lineages had all been born during millennia of colossal and intimidatingly daring voyages. The movement from place to place over such a long period was therefore likely to be far more connected in the mind of the people as a combination between history and space – or more accurately, history existing as space. Genealogies were not merely placed in a single location or in a limited area as might be those of Europeans, they were part of stories which emphasised distant origins10. The migrations, so impressive now in the modern mind, were central to a sense of self and family identity. Movement, perhaps even more than settlement, was the defining feature of genealogical memory.

This bond between cultural heroes of the past who lived on as spirits, both dangerous and friendly, the essential connection between space and identity which differed in some ways from Western concepts of the same, came crashing into conflict with the invasion of the French. Some of the French island invasions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how land, authority and community were connected in Polynesian society. Bringing the assumptions that a single area may have been ruled by a single ruler to whom all other nobles would pay tribute and, in many ways, derive their own status from this relationship, something which had ultimately been true in Europe for much of its history, French leaders and commanders fell victim to their own ignorance. Fischer has asserted that while European religion had long been separate from secular society, in Polynesia it was simply one aspect of a society’s entire structure, fundamental to the authority of the ruling classes12.

By the 1840s it was undoubtedly true that, for most realms and nations in Europe and in the lands of the European diaspora, religion and political society had been completely separated. The relatively new American Constitution had cemented this idea in written words and in Europe the French Revolution, regardless of any subsequent revisions, had obliterated the political power of the Church. In Britain too, the Civil Wars and revolutions appear to have created a distaste in the population for Church intrusion into what was now, politically, the most powerful nation on the planet. Therefore, it is interesting that missionary activity abroad did receive such support at home. This perhaps represented a backlash against the diminished religiosity of the State, but may also have been seen as a means of reconstructing the religiously-focused society of the past in new lands populated by heathens who still required liberation from ignorance of Christ’s teachings.

Missionary activity therefore presented the opportunity or, more realistically, the risk of direct religious political interference in foreign lands. Captain Martin’s take on the matter is characteristically on point. In his early meetings with missionaries working in Tahiti he considered them potentially useful, yet only in a political sense, and explicitly stated his belief that ‘like all churchmen of all nations & all ages, they aim at power & cannot be prevailed upon to play 2nd fiddle.13‘ However, it is important to consider that as traditional native religion was not just close to secular and physical society but an intrinsic part of it, the glue which bound everything together, missionaries would have had little choice but to engage on that level. Naturally, some may have gone further than simply using this to advance their religious aims, but there is no reason to suspect all of doing so. To advance religious interests and to attempt the conversions of Polynesians, it was necessarily to walk a tightrope between the political and the spiritual. Indeed, a tightrope may not be the best analogy, as the two were indivisible.

Most of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia are today largely Christian societies, but I wish to argue that it was ultimately futile for missionaries to attempt to remove the ancestors from the equation entirely. This is true because of the inseparability of the native society from its space and ancient history of movement. The god of the sea was not simply the deity of the waters, he was a ‘real’ person who had made the journey with his ‘children’ and still lived with them. The Tahitians’ proximity to the sea and their reliance on it, their knowledge of its space as inseparable from the land on which they lived because of their history and lineages as travellers, adventurers and explorers, made such a separation ultimately impossible. Space, again, built the world of humankind in the islands and they would forever remain its children.

Notes

1Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea (London: Penguin Books, 1994) pp. 2-4.

2Edward Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1983) p. 18.

3Steven Roger Fischer, A History of the Pacific Islands (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), p. 72.

4Robert J. Suggs, The Island Civilizations of Polynesia (New York: The New American Library, 1960), p. 134.

5Fischer, p. 72.

6Ibid., p. 75.

8Damon Salesa, ‘The Pacific in Indigenous Time’ in Pacific Histories: Ocean, Lands, People, ed. by David Armitage and Alison Bashford (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) pp. 31-52 (41).

9Ibid., p. 42.

10Ibid., p. 43.

12Fischer, pp. 71-72.

13Captain Henry Byam Martin, The Polynesian Journal (Salem: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1981) p. 33.

姫路城: The Glory of Himeji Castle

Castles are truly fantastic destinations for any occasion. Whatever the weather, whatever the time of year, there is always something to see and fascinating history to uncover. From the monolithic structures of Northern Wales, to the fairytale edifices of Bavaria, castles come in many shapes and sizes, evoking different emotions and gifting rewarding trains of thought for wandering minds. This article is about one of the greatest.

A Survivor

The soaring central keep

Himeji Castle in Central Japan is one of the few remaining original castles to be found in the country. While castle visits are easy in Japan, most of the ones to be found are concrete reconstructions with traditional facades, the originals having been destroyed in the 19th Century and by bombing in World War II. Himeji survived all that, as well as emerging unscathed from the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake. Yet even if the castles in Japan were all originals, Himeji would surely still be cream of the crop. Towering magnificently over the landscape, its buttresses, courtyards, walls and towers dwarf everyone and everything around them. The area is tended beautifully, surrounding the brilliant white walls of the castle itself with trees and grass, trimmed to perfection. Cherry blossoms in the Japanese Spring may almost be a cliché, but there can be few sights more glorious than the castle rising from a sea of white and pink. Simply everything about the place overwhelms and impresses.

Talking Walls

Himeji Castle’s history dates back to the the mid-14th Century and it has undergone reconstruction a number of times. It was first transformed into the complex we see today in the years after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. During the 17th Century it was expanded and improved with the addition of many features typical of Japanese castle architecture. More than a thousand arrow loops are built into its walls, as are holes for dropping stones and tar on attackers. The route to the main keep is through a long series of gates and steep-walled passageways which endlessly double back on themselves, forcing any would-be invader to run a punishing gauntlet. As it happens, Himeji Castle was never attacked anyway, so its formidable defences were never put to the test. It is a real thrill to walk through the passages, imagining what it would have been like when it was a functioning castle and home to a samurai lord and his retainers. The original interiors, with their wooden floors and tiny staircases, only add to the experience.

Majestic white walls rising above the beautiful gardens

Visiting

Entrance to the castle is a wonderfully cheap ¥600, far more reasonable than many castles in the UK (I’m looking at you, Warwick Castle!) and there are plenty of volunteer guides ready to show you around and introduce the fascinating history and design of the place, including a lot of tiny details that are easy to miss if you go alone. All in all, a fantastic destination, with a lot to enjoy for all the family.

Port’s Rating: FANTABULOUS!

Wojna Polska: A Different View of World War II

In my article on historical cinema and its value, I talked about how new times and places can be opened up for those watching, and inspiration to study can be fired. Yet as I revisited the piece recently I became aware that all of the examples I gave were of American movies, often with heavy British involvement. I think that was natural. Born and raised in England, years of living abroad could not change my fundamental connection to the history and culture of this country.

Now I have decided to go some way towards redressing the balance. To move outside the realm of English-language cinema is to see not just different experiences and perspectives, but to have consciousness raised and to discover events that have been lost in the wave of movies more internationally famous. In this article I want to look at two films that take place during and shortly after the Second World War. I have chosen this period primarily because it is one so familiar to audiences in the English-speaking world, yet one where many events have not been covered by Hollywood in any real detail. Few American war movies have stepped outside the experience of people from America – or perhaps Britain. Even those which have, Schindler’s List and Enemy at the Gates being two examples, have been made by film-makers who are not from the nations they are portraying and are peopled mainly by British or American actors. Greater awareness of the story of Oskar Schindler and discovery of the tale of Vasily Zaitsev is great, but a world at war has thousands of places and people that are unknown to viewers of a different background.

This article is about two Polish films, both directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, about aspects of the Polish experience of the war and its aftermath of which I was embarrassingly ignorant.

A brief warning before looking at the films: Neither of these are easy watches. Any knowledge of the experiences of the war in Poland should tell us that there will be no Hollywood-style air punching glory and triumph. And there too is the value of the experience.

Wołyń, 2016

It is hard to say which of the two films is quite the most harrowing, but it is probably this one. It is the story of the Polish region of Wołyń (Volhynia), an area heavily populated by ethnic Ukrainians as well as Poles. The start of the war and the arrival of Soviet forces fires a drive for Ukrainian nationalism in the area and leads to the most appalling acts on both sides. At its core are two young characters, one Polish and one Ukrainian, trapped by their love for one another between the partisan forces on both sides. What follows is a litany of tragedy and pain.

Opening Deer Hunter style with a long wedding sequence, the normal life of a small community of these two nationalities is established. Being in a predominantly Ukrainian area, the Polish characters rarely speak their own language, yet they seem to be fairly well integrated. It is the Ukrainian characters who demonstrate their resentment of being – as they see it – under the yoke of the Poles and the Polish government. Swiftly this resentment turns to outright hostility with the arrival of the Soviets. Polish flags are replaced by Ukrainian ones on public buildings. Mobs start to abuse and even mutilate their Polish neighbours. The sense that things are only going to get worse is there at every moment. The violence spreads, with Polish members of the community beginning to attack others who they see as traitors.

And then, in the final act of the film, the story descends into a vision of Hell. The Ukrainian militia run amok, their weapons blessed by their priests. There are disembowelings, slaughter of pregnant women, children wrapped in hay and burned, people being skinned, eyes gouged out and a man being ripped in half by horses (yes, that actually happened). It is a vision of a society trapped in endless hatred, unleashed by the licence of war, a horrific exploration of inter-community conflict. Just when you feel that it can get no worse, the Polish get in on the act too.

The massacre of Poles in 1943
The division of Wołyń in 1939

It is a part of history about which many in Britain may never have heard. To see it in a film made by someone from a nation in which it happened, where the memories of it affect attitudes and relations today, is eye opening and, which is more important, extremely valuable. It is an agonising film to watch, bleak and without any sense of hope, but it simply must be experienced.

Róża (2011)

Wojciech Smarzowski’s earlier film, Róża touches on similar themes to Wołyń. Again we see a community fractured by the different nationalities that come into it. Again we see the effects of prolonged mistrust and hatred, the violence – physical, verbal, sexual – that is set loose by war. Here, however, the setting is not the war itself, it is in the dying down of conflict in 1945 and beyond. Again, it is a time, a place and a society of which many are undoubtedly ignorant.

Set in the region of Masuria, an area of Poland formerly in Prussia and populated by ethnic Germans, Róża examines the effects of defeat on the world and lives of a people. Here the ‘Germans’ are slowly forced from homes and made into an underclass in society by the Polish authorities and migrants who are moved in to occupy the land. The focal characters are the titular Róża, an ethnic German who has lost her husband in the war, and Tadeusz, a Polish man who comes to the area. The development of their relationship is at the heart of the film, as Tadeusz attempts to protect Róża from the threats posed by the Polish, the Soviets and even her fellow Masurians. Róża is rendered helpless in the face of this combined hostility, as are so many others.

The film is, once again, a difficult one to watch. Inside the first sixty seconds, Tadeusz’s wife is raped and shot by German soldiers. Within the next three minutes we see the summary execution of a group of other soldiers. Sexual violence is a constant, yet one more way that the male characters – as always – exercise power over women. Róża herself is a victim of such treatment at the hands of Soviets and Poles. This kind of brutality is, and has always been, a terrible part of war (for a detailed examination of this issue, Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is a must-read), but it is combined here with the defencelessness of the ostracised. Beyond Tadeusz himself, Róża has no protection of any kind. She has been abandoned by her people, oppressed by the Soviets and abused by the Polish. She is a symbol of the plight of thousands of people who find themselves in the same situation after every war.

In Britain, the war ended in 1945. The country was pretty much bankrupt and lives had to be rebuilt, but it was over. Soldiers came home, families were reunited. In Masuria, as in so many other parts of the world touched by the conflict, there were no longer homes to return to, and the war never truly ended. If those of us removed by time and place from the experiences in Masuria and Wołyń take nothing else from these films, it should be awareness of that fact. We, all of us, have so much to learn.

The Dig (2021)

MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

The Dig by Simon Stone – available on Netflix – works on so many levels that there is surely something in it to appeal to everyone. On the surface it is, of course, the story of the spectacular, spine-tingling discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The jaw-dropping thrill of the discovery of a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, filled with treasures, both financially and culturally priceless, is documented with the sense of wonder and majesty it fully deserves. If it does nothing else, the film proves that a film about archaeologists can be engaging and gripping without whips, fedoras, Nazis or hideous racial stereotypes. But it does so, so much more than that.

That’s Why We Dig

The tale of the hiring of Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes with a wicked Suffolk accent) by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to excavate burial mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in the year before the start of World War II, The Dig is a glorious, poignant and moving meditation on life, death, time and impermanence. Shot with luminous cinematography that seems to leave Sutton Hoo almost permanently at sundown, it is more about the characters and how the discovery affects them mentally and emotionally than about the titular dig itself. Death hangs heavy in the air, but never in a way that is dark or oppressive. There is a pathos, to be sure, particularly for Edith Pretty, as she knows her time is fading away. As Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) muses at one point, if a thousand years were to pass in a second, what would be left of each of us? The find at Sutton Hoo answers that. The body and who we are may be gone, but the memory of the life we led is there for the finding, if only somebody is around to find it.

Basil Brown at the original Sutton Hoo dig.

The cast of characters allows for this meditation, the broad range of ages, personalities and experiences of life all reflecting the different ways the discovery of the distant past can inform and influence perspectives. The young, their lives seemingly stretching out before them, full of possibilities that they may or may not grasp, are reminded of how fleeting those lives are to be. The older characters, closer to the end of their brief experiences on Earth, ponder what shall remain, either with melancholy or acceptance. The constant presence of the approach of war is not merely background, it is a reminder of that impermanence, a call for these people to grab what they can in a time when it is impossible to know what the next day, week or month may bring.

Players on a Stage

The film’s ability to dwell on this theme without becoming maudlin is down to its excellent, considered and subtle script and consistently great performances from an excellent cast. Mulligan and Fiennes are absolutely perfect in their roles, becoming rather than just inhabiting them. Fiennes finds great depth in Basil Brown, with warmth and a philosophical mind beneath an occasionally curmudgeonly exterior. Yet it is not just these much-praised two who make the film. Peggy Piggott (Lily James in a pair of specs the size of her face) is sparky but frustrated, yearning for life, love and the thrill of discovery that she is not getting – or going to get – from her husband (Ben Chaplin, clearly more interested here in waxing someone else’s board, rather than his own). She wants respect and freedom, rather than some cringe-inducingly patronising verbal pats on the head (she finds a piece of treasure in the ship…“Oh, darling, aren’t you clever!”)

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes completely own their roles.

In the end, there is a sense of uplift, if only in the promise of the future, in spite of its many perils and obstacles. Not everyone is going to realise that promise, for a variety of reasons, but it remains. And where it remains, there is hope.

And finally, there is just the archaeology itself. If this film inspires anybody to look into the field, it will have achieved something valuable. Hell, I was ready to buy some tweeds, grab a trowel and then get out there. Until I realised that I was still in Lockdown v.3 and that even the people making the tea on digs have doctorates these days.

In the final analysis, a stunning film that is so much more than it first appears.

Rating: *****

1381: The Bumpkins’ Revolt?

‘You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still…’

Richard II, Waltham, 22 June 13811.

The Killing of Wat Tyler

And rustics they indeed remained. Crystallised in the national consciousness from that day onwards as either a treacherous rabble or campaigners for liberty, depending on the perspective of the individual considering the event, they were part of the greatest popular uprising, in terms of the percentage of the population participating, in England’s history, immortalised as the country’s most notorious band of rebels. It would be hard to deny Alistair Dunn’s statement that few common people in the history of the nation have ever been so successfully cemented in the national mythos than the leaders of the rising, Wat Tyler, John Bull and Jack Straw2. For centuries since that fateful year, civil disorder and rebellion have prompted the resurfacing of memories of the revolt, right through to the English Civil Wars of the sixteen-hundreds3. Yet that pervasive image of yokel recalcitrance is deceptive, ignoring the vast number of people involved who could not be described as ‘peasants’. It is to the use of this term in general that attention must be turned.

Before beginning to analyse the social make-up of the rebels in any of the main centres of disturbance, it is essential to deal with an issue of perhaps even more fundamental importance. The terms ‘peasantry’ and ‘revolt’ are problematic when considering the events of summer 1381. Contemporary chroniclers almost exclusively used words synonymous with ‘peasants’, ‘rustics’ and ‘serfs’, except when sliding deeper into their indignation and utilising language that degraded the rebels still further – ‘oxen’, ‘swine’ and ‘mad dogs’4. The participants in the rising are known to have referred to themselves as the “free commons”, a phrase repeated throughout the rising and of a distinctly different character, carrying connotations of community and far broader in its inclusion of various demographics within society. It indicated a shared lifestyle and shared concerns, particularly within urban settings where the term first experienced clear development and which were, at least in theory, collectives5. The use of this phrase by the people involved in the uprising is not merely an issue of semantics, it is of crucial importance in understanding not only how they viewed themselves, but also the reality of the social nature of the rising. The term ‘peasant’ is also problematic in that its use can be taken in a narrow or broad sense. If ‘peasantry’ is taken to describe individual families working their own holdings for the purposes of subsistence farming, the inclusion in the revolt of local craftsmen such as smiths and carpenters needs qualification. Rodney Hilton does include these people as integral parts of the wider peasant community and therefore allows for a less focused definition on the part of external commentators6. Indeed, broadening the scope of the term may have been a conscious decision on the part of chroniclers and other observers, a point which will be dealt with later, but when extended to include minor gentry and townspeople who also became involved, the word itself becomes inadequate and perhaps even redundant.

‘Revolt’ too presents problems. The appropriacy of its use depends heavily on whether the observer considers the events to be closely linked and coordinated. Strohm dismisses the suggestion completely, stating that in truth it was ‘a disparate and widespread protest movement’, rather than a coherent, unified attempt to force social change7. Opinions have diverged widely on this issue, although given the range of grievances and the actions used to deal with them, the arguments advanced by historians such as Edgar Powell8 and Nicholas Brooks9 to support the idea of a pre-planned and organised insurrection seem less plausible outside their primary focus on events in Kent and Essex. Although here the rapid spread of the uprising does suggest some coordination on the part of the participants, particularly as the first actions took place on the second of June in both Essex and Kent, Brooks himself acknowledges that sympathetic movements elsewhere only manifested themselves once news of the initial successes in the South-East had arrived10. Beyond the borders of these two counties and the mass movement of their inhabitants to London, the picture of cohesion becomes far less convincing.

With the intricacies of nomenclature examined, the possibility for analysis of individual outbreaks of unrest opens up. Inevitably the clearest evidence of a lack of uniform demographic for the uprising can be seen in the events that occurred in towns. The information available regarding the activities of townsfolk is far more plentiful and therefore gives a greater picture of events, while simultaneously often being more problematic in its tone. Indicative of these issues is the situation that arose in the town of St Albans. Thanks to Thomas Walsingham’s detailed chronicle of the burgesses’ activities and demands, it is possible to create a clear timeline of events, yet his animosity towards the St Albans rising in particular makes his account decidedly problematic when considering bias. His position as a member of the town’s ecclesiastical community placed him in direct opposition to events and his anger is palpable. However, the incidents he describes are explained lucidly and are directly relevant to the question at hand. Far from being concerned with the plight of peasantry, and without making demands for freedom of villeins and serfs of the sort that were made in other areas, the townspeople assaulted the object of their dissatisfaction – the local abbey with which they had long had disagreements. Chief among their list of grievances was the abbey’s control of common land in the area which restricted the freedom to fish, hunt and graze livestock, rights they claimed to have been granted in the past11. The actions taken by the locals directly attacked this hegemony. Folds and gates erected by the abbot in the nearby Falcon Wood were torn down, and inmates were released from the prison maintained by the town’s monastery12. Ultimately the abbot was brought before the leaders of the movement and presented with a charter from King Richard himself that ordered the return of the disputed rights13. In spite of the aggressive nature of the confrontation, the negotiations that followed were held peacefully, in marked contrast to other notable examples of hostilities at the time, a fact that perhaps also had a bearing on the relatively peaceful suppression of the town once the ‘revolt’ had ended14.

Cambridge too provides ample evidence of opportunistic attempts to resolve long-standing differences, with previous examples of violence in 1304, 1322 and 137115. Here the object of ire was the university itself and the issues at the centre of the conflict were entirely economic in nature. Permission given by the king in 1378 allowed the university to seize and hold assizes of goods such as bread and wine “if the mayor and bailiffs be negligent or remiss”16. In parliamentary discussions of the rising it was alleged that the mayor and bailiffs themselves had been the instigators of the assault on the university, as well as on hated local figures17. Roger Harleston, a local lawyer, former sheriff and MP, had his home and guest house raised to the ground and looted. The university’s role in training lawyers made it significantly unpopular with local burgesses, particularly when those lawyers had been involved in economic issues which negatively affected them18. Archives and charters held by the university were burned, with Corpus Christi College a particular focus of attack, possibly as a result of its close association with the king’s much-loathed uncle, John of Gaunt, a man whose humiliation appears to have been a priority in other areas as well. The colleges and scholars were presented with a charter renouncing the rights they had formerly claimed19. No demands appear to have been made regarding any change in the social structure of the land, certainly not related to rural issues far beyond the borders of Cambridge. If a ‘peasants’ revolt’ requires, as would seem logical, actions designed to deal directly with the hardship and restrictions imposed on the lives of rural agricultural communities, there is little evidence of this to be found here.

John of Gaunt

Further afield in other towns, things were similar. In Ipswich, rebels launched attacks on the homes of John Cobat, an assessor who had been directly involved in collection during the second and third poll taxes, a lawyer named John Gerard, and on the property of the Roman cardinal bishop of Sabina, the archdeacon of the area who had never once visited his archdeaconry but still insisted on collecting his feudal dues20. A royal commissioner was executed in Ely on the seventeenth of June, while the bishop’s prison was broken open and the prisoners released21. In both cases there was, once again, no evidence of sympathy with peasant concerns and the perpetrators were inhabitants of the towns. Even those that owned agricultural land were hardly humble labourers. Thomas Sampson, a particularly wealthy rebel, owned land across a minimum of three separate parishes, with hundreds of acres being cultivated22.

King Richard II

As the site of the most dramatic episode in the rising and because of its overall importance in the country, London is impossible to ignore. The infamous burning of the Savoy and the storming of the Tower of London stand out as moments when the rebels achieved successes far beyond what perhaps even they had imagined possible. The involvement of the Kent and Essex rebels, a large number of whom were undoubtedly those who could be termed ‘peasants’, in the meetings at Mile End and Smithfield may be seen as the climax of the drama, yet once again events in the city were essentially internal affairs. London had as strictly stratified a society as anywhere else in the country, with its economic and political monopolies, trade jealously controlled by guilds, and a population in which seventy-five percent of residents had no official citizenship and therefore no right to engage with the city’s governance22. Such circumstances made friction inevitable and violent conflict an alarming possibility. Strohm suggests that it was fear of this ‘inner division’ which led the authorities to be cautious in their dealings with the rebels beyond the gates, lest violent action there should spark sympathetic violence within the city walls23. London’s independence with regard to interference by authorities was surely acknowledged at this time and continued to be a source of concern into the future. In 1397 an older Richard II would deal with these issues himself, favouring Nottingham as a setting for councils as he stated openly his concern for his safety in the South due to the perceived hatred of Londoners and their neighbours in nearby counties24.

With the arrival of Wat Tyler and what must have been an increasingly confident cohort of rebels, opportunities presented themselves to those in the city who had personal grievances to resolve, the wealthy as well as the poor and disenfranchised masses25. Ronald Webber states that the rebels were ‘egged on’ by locals26, but recent research has suggested that the vast majority of those involved in the London violence were inhabitants of the city itself, most of them urban workers or “journeymen” who were unable to access the trades and employment available through the guild system27, although members of other social groups also took advantage of the situation. That city aldermen aided the external rebels by lowering defences including the drawbridge on London Bridge is well known, although some of the details, including the assertion that John Horn and Walter Sibley attempted to prevent aid reaching the king after the confrontation at Smithfield, have been questioned and at least partially discredited through research begun by Bertie Wilkinson in 194028. Another group identified as likely active participants in the chaos within the city walls were the organised weavers native to London. Long-term resentment of the privileged position of Flemish weavers, combined with predictable xenophobia, may have been the cause of attacks aimed against them29. Similar assaults on Flemish textile workers and establishments took place around the city, a brothel frequented by them being, tellingly, the first building targeted by the Kentish rebels on their arrival in Southwark30. The connection between the victims and concerns of rural folk is negligible, if non-existent, once again clearly highlighting the confused aims even among those of the counties that provided the initial spark for the uprising.

In the final analysis the question remains one of definition. A true peasants’ revolt would surely need to have been one where the majority of instances of insurrection involved people that could easily be included within a narrower definition of the term ‘peasantry’ than appears to have been the case in 1381, and where the primary focus of demands and aims was the amelioration of rural suffering and repression. Rebels who fell into the above category were undoubtedly a part of the rising, involved in the cases of rebellion analysed previously. As an example, there is no strong reason to question Walsingham’s indication that villagers from areas around St Albans took part in the townspeople’s moves against the abbey31. Rural labourers also inevitably made up a significant proportion of the forces of insurrection in Essex and Kent, given the numbers apparently involved. Yet the hostilities clearly spread far beyond this group, bringing in people from all areas of society outside the aristocracy.

Why then the insistence in contemporary records and analyses on blame of the peasantry? Perhaps the previously mentioned fear of publicly acknowledging the central role of Londoners in the rising provides an answer. Laying sole responsibility at the door of the most easily maligned sectors of England’s population could arguably have been a logical, if not subconscious, response to accepting the far more worrying truth – that the dissatisfaction and volatility in society spread far more widely and posed far greater threat to the established order. For ultimately the events of June 1381 could not be disingenuously dismissed as a restricted movement of pitchfork-waving yokels. It was an explosion and outpouring of national anger and refusal of the status quo, an alarming prospect for those whose voices have defined the accepted story of that summer and undeniable motivation for the tone and nature of the documents they left behind.

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Notes:

1Simon Schama, A History of Britain: The Edge of the World? (London: BBC Worldwide, 2000), p. 254.

2Alistair Dunn, The Peasants’ Revolt: England’s Failed Revolution of 1381 2nd edn (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2004), p. 75.

3Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History 2nd edn (London: Harper Perennial), p. 516.

4Paul Strohm, ‘A Peasants’ Revolt?’, in Misconceptions About the Middle Ages ed. by Stephen J. Harris (New York: Routledge , 2007), pp. 198-9.

5John Watts, ‘Public or Plebs: The Changing Meaning of ‘the Commons’, 1381-1549′ in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies ed. by Huw Pryce and John Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) <http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2153/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199285464.001.0001/acprof-9780199285464> [Accessed 8 October 2017] (p. 4).

6 Rodney Hilton, Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London: Methuen&Co., 1973), pp. 35-36.

7Strohm, p. 197.

8Edgar Powell, The Rising in East Anglia in 1381 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896).

9Nicholas Brooks, ‘The Origins and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381) in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis ed. by Henry Mayr-Harting and Robert Ian Moore (London: Hambledon Press, 1985).

10Ibid., pp. 248-50.

11Dunn, p.144

12Richard Barry Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 2nd edn. (London: MacMillan, 1983), p. 273.

13Ibid., p. 275.

14Ibid., p. 276.

15Juliet Barker, England Arise: The People, The King and The Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little, Brown, 2014), pp. 321-22.

16Ibid., p. 322.

17Ibid., p. 323.

18Ibid., pp. 320 – 22.

19Ibid., pp. 324-25.

20Ibid., p. 310.

21Ibid., p. 314.

22Ibid., 309.

22Dunn, p. 84.

23Strohm, p. 201.

24 Michael Bennett, Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999), p. 130.

25Dunn, p. 85.

26Webber, p. 70.

27Strohm, pp. 197-8.

28Dunn, p. 87.

29Hilton, p. 195.

30Dunn, p. 113.

31Dobson, p. 273.