Long ago and far away

You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Duke of Suffolk. Not the current Duke of Suffolk (there isn’t one), but the first one, William de la Pole.

An unpleasant character, he made a bit of a mess of the campaigns in France (we’re talking Hundred Years War here, not the Normandy landings), but despite being outwitted by Joan of Arc he managed to get himself in prime position back in England under the inept Henry VI, from where he made many people’s lives a misery through extortion, theft and a certain amount of killing.

He was a bully of the first order, and so were his friends. So no-one was terribly distraught when he was not only banished in 1450 but intercepted on the high seas and beheaded at Dover.  Obviously nowadays he would have got a community service order, but times have changed. I believe Bob Dylan said that.

Why do I bring these facts and prejudices to your attention? Not because I hate Suffolk generally, or Ipswich in particular. But because a lecture centering on the Duke and – more especially – his attacks on Sir John Fastolf, who had a castle at Caister (Norfolk), was able to attract some 70 or so people to the Norfolk Record Office on a wet and grey November Wednesday lunchtime.

Admittedly the lecture was free. And there was a splendid exhibition on at the NRO: The Pastons and the Pursuit of Power, also free, which I can recommend wholeheartedly, and definitely not because I’m a trustee of the Paston Heritage Society. Oh no.

It was one of a series of lunchtime lectures: the first three have all attracted similar numbers, and there is every reason to believe that the remaining five will do the same. But why on earth should we be bothered by events so long ago and far away? Or the Duke of Suffolk? Or Sir John Fastolf? Or his lawyer, John Paston?

It’s because, as human beings, we need depth. We can float along on our 21st century raft, unaware that there’s anything beneath us other than a drop or two of water, and no idea where we came from or where we’re going to. But it’s a very thin and unsatisfying life.

History is fascinating, if you have the time to look closely. It’s so rich that you can’t hope to take in more than the tiniest part of it. My brief encounter with the Paston Letters, starting only about five years ago, has opened a door which, if I went through it every day, would leave many acres unexplored if I lived till I was 100. No, it’s not all that far away, but still….

I am not trying to persuade you that depth is available only through history. Of course it’s not. But seeing a little bit more clearly where we came from must help us when we look to the future. Because we’re essentially the same people – then, now and tomorrow.

History repeats itself, you see. As the poet Steve Turner pointed out, it has to. Nobody listens.

Or do they?