‘At least I’m not translating the King James Bible into Algonquian’ my Academic Advisor once stated to our Colonial American seminar during the process of re-drafting his latest book. So in my anxiety relating my future, my family and life who am I happy I’m not? What historical undertakings am I happy I’m not groaning under the pressure of right now as I sit here in my pyjamas in a post-final exam state of catatonic laziness?
1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in East Anglia in the mid-1640s
Hammed up by the horror hero Vincent Price in the cult classic Witchfinder General, the real horror lies in the true story of the East Anglian witch-hunts. Beginning with the torture and interrogation of one-legged older lady Elizabeth Clarke in Essex, her shocking sleep-deprived confessions of meetings with the Devil and suckling imps sparked a witch-hunt that claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk.
Have you ever had a fight with your neighbours? With a friend or loved one? Have a pet or ever been seen near an animal? Have a predisposition towards speaking your mind, cursing or being a little odd or eccentric? A little worse off than your peers? Then East Anglia in the seventeenth century was not for you. From ‘schollers fit for Cambridge’, to older marginal ladies, to the litigous eighty-year-old Suffolk Parson John Lowes, nobody seemed safe from the sinister perambulations of the self-titled ‘Witch Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne.
You can stand trial and see whether you would be found guilty of witchcraft over at the BBC History Magazine website, or see if you could survive trial in the hysteria of the emergency court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 over at the National Geographic.
2. ‘At least I’m not…’ Anne Boleyn
The year is 1536 and the month is May, after three years of marriage and ten years (depending upon historian) of a cat-and-mouse game waiting for Henry to discard his Spanish wife, Anne Boleyn sits in the Tower awaiting execution. In a cruel quirk of fate she spent the last days of her fall imprisoned in the rooms that had once been sumptuously adorned for her Coronation; her greatest moment of triumph framing her utter destruction.
I cannot imagine the horror, pain and fear Anne would have gone through in her final moments. During her imprisonment the Queen’s emotional state oscillated between dry humour, and hysteria to dark dejection and weeping. She famously joked with her jailer Sir William Kingston that she had but ‘a little neck’ as she clutched it within her small hands and giggled. She would tell her ladies too she would go down in history as ‘La Royne Anne sans tête’, Headless Queen Anne. A remarkable incite considering the future prevalence of ghost stories regarding the tragic Queen.
Why most of all am I not glad to be Anne Boleyn, other than brutal death? The delays in her execution allowed for her to begin to believe that Henry would forgive her, sending her into exile as he had done Catherine. Whilst the fact Bluff King Hal spent the day of her execution playing tennis and became betrothed to his next ‘sweteharte’ and Anne Boleyn’s former Lady-in-Waiting Jane Seymour within a day of her being laid to rest in that too small arrow chest has to sting!
1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in James Town in 1609 – 1610
Rumours of cannibalism have lingered around the early English settlements in Virginia since the dry humour of seasoned soldier Captain John Smith (yes he was real, yes he knew Pocahontas, no they weren’t in love – she was a child) described in his works a particular delicacy amongst the New World colonists – ‘Powdered Wife.’
The first men who arrived under the banner of the Virginia Company in 1607 were piteously unprepared for the New World. Doting on ‘mines of gold’ to their ‘utter undoinge’ as the good Captain wrote in 1631, the men spent their time scrabbling for glittering rocks and not crops, realising their fatal mistake come winter. The worsening period from 1609 – 1610 has become known to history as ‘the Starving Times.’
Chaos prevailed with violence, disease, summary executions and political instability rife. Men ate roots and dogs before finally boiling their boots and belts desperately eating the softened leather. Historians have poo-pooed the idea that the colonists were desperate enough to eat their own, classing Smith’s tale as the wry sedition.
You can imagine then the shock, when archaeologists recently found this, the skull of a young woman they have named ‘Jane’ found with marks symptomatic of butchery hidden in a rubbish heap. It appears post-humously (I hope) Jane had the flesh scrapped from her face and her brain removed, probably to be eaten. Perhaps John Smith’s ‘powdered wife’ was no joke after all? Whilst the results of the investigation are inconclusive, I would much rather be in my bed in Norfolk with some M&S brownies then supping on boots and early modern brain in a colony that had become hell on earth.
Of course there are a million other historical figures and contexts I would rather not be in, but these three popped from my recent Undergrad. Are there any historical places, peoples or times you are glad you are not? I’d love to hear from you.
Armstrong, Catherine, Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century (London, 2007)
Ewen, L’Estrange, Cecil, Witchcraft and Demonism (London, 1933)
Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (London, 2005)
Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (London, 2004)
Middleton, Richard, Colonial America: A History (Oxford, 2003)
Starkey, David, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London, 1985) etc., etc.
- The Rape of Anne Boleyn (thehistoricalnovel.wordpress.com)
- Writing History: Joanna Carrick’s Anne Boleyn in ‘Fallen in Love’ (theculturetrip.wordpress.com)
- The Creation of Anne Boleyn (sarahshistoryblog.wordpress.com)
- ‘Anne Boleyn was no soap seductress,’ says US academic Susan Bordo (independent.co.uk)
- Review: Fallen In Love (londonhistorians.wordpress.com)
- “At least I’m not…” (thehistorygraduate.wordpress.com)