It was the day of the royal wedding in 1981. Playing cricket in bright July sunshine seemed much preferable to watching television in a room full of royalists. “You’re missing a piece of history,” I was told.
It was baffling, how could a royal wedding be a piece of history? This was not medieval times when such a marriage might create an alliance between two countries, it was the late Twentieth Century. As it was, the marriage only lasted eleven years, and five years after that, the young bride of 1981 was lying dead in a Paris hospital (now that was an event worthy of a medieval plot).
History, I believed, was not about kings and queens, although that was how it was taught in primary school days – history was about people. Yet if I asserted such a belief, there were people who would tell me that history about people was social history and that it was monarchs and presidents, prime ministers and chancellors who made the real history.
Of course, social history had been taught for our A-level course. We learned about the Poor Law and Education Acts and drainage schemes and the prohibition of child labour. Had our focus of study been from a date earlier than 1815, the slave trade would undoubtedly have been included.
Oddly, however, there seemed to have been moments that were overlooked. Militancy might have been acceptable as a topic for European history, as we followed the events from 1789 onward, but militancy in our own history seemed not to be something with which the examiners were interested. Mention was made of Captain Swing and agrarian unrest, and of the Luddites, who were presented as opponents of progress, but no-one was going to do very well in their exams if they focused on what were considered to be details of history.
Perhaps there has been an unconscious revisionism that has redrawn English history as centuries of stability and order, perhaps there has been a deliberate exclusion of events that would suggest that such a narrative was a distortion of the truth.
The English Civil War was recalled in school days as a time when hothead extremists killed the king, yet closer study in later years revealed the idealism of many who rallied to the Commonwealth cause, and revealed the king as a less than saintly figure.
The Seventeenth Century radical groups, hated by the Crown and Cromwell alike, had their roots in the Reformation that swept Europe in the Sixteenth Century, that much would have been evident from the theology of groups like the Levellers. Yet only this week have I discovered that such radicalism found expression in a piece of historical militancy in the mid-Sixteenth Century. Only in reading CJ Sansom’s novel Tombland have I discovered the story of Kett’s Rebellion in 1549, a rebellion that was accompanied by many other incidences of unrest.
I wonder how many histories there are that have never been taught.