Tuesday, July 22

Letter to an Unknown Soldier- Bury's Workshops

Most writers of historical fiction become very attached to their time periods. For me, that would be medieval. But the exploration of any time period is fascinating.

So when I was approached by  Bury Libraries to run workshops as part of the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, I felt very privileged. The LTAUS project is part of 1914-18 NOW. 1914-18 NOW is a major cultural programme taking place across the United Kingdom to mark the centenary of the First World War. (For more details, please click here). The LTAUS is a new kind of war memorial, a memorial made only of words from thousands of people. (Details can be found here).

The statue of the Unknown Soldier on the platform at Paddington Station in London, reading a letter, provided the inspiration. Any individual could write letters. But Bury Libraries took the approach of offering workshops in collaboration with the Council's Archives Service to provide people with a sense of their local history and to make it even more meaningful to them. And here is what we did.

The Call to Fight
© 2014 EM Powell /Bury Archives
Archivists specialise in rabbit-out-of the-hat moments, except they do them with no drum rolls or spangled suits. But when they showed us these original recruitment posters that were used in Bury, it was a proper hairs on the back of the neck moment.

These were enlistment posters issued on behalf of Lord Derby: the very posters that were part the unthinkable tragedy that was the Pals Battalions. Pals Battalions were made up of men from one small area, so relatives and friends would sign up and fight together- just as they would die together. In another part of Lancashire, the Accrington Pals saw 720 men fight. 584 of them died, were injured or were reported missing.

And here were the very posters before which people stood on the streets of Bury and surrounding towns in Lancashire. Stood and were tempted with the promise of  uniforms, money, training at the upmarket seaside at Lytham and St. Annes. There is even the appeal to men who are 'fond of Horses.'

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

The posters are huge, approximately two thirds the height of an average domestic door and about as wide. They shout out the opportunity that was in reality, for many men, a call to death. Our soldier may have stood on the streets of Bury, a young man reading that call before hurrying off to enlist. And once enlisted, his only contact with home would be through his letters.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Life in Bury

What of those left behind? Left waiting every day for a letter that told them their loved one was safe and well, or the dreaded message that they were killed or missing?

Again the Archives provided us with a fascinating insight with the newspapers of the time. We have an account of replica trenches in Heaton Park, Manchester's biggest park that is still thronged today when the sun shines. People in 1916 could pay to go and have a look at the replicas, with donations going to the fund for blinded soldiers and sailors. We doubted that the replicas would have shown the true nature of what the trenches were like.
© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We saw the disapproval of society for a discharged soldier who was drunk on a tram, a finger-wagging article about the wives of soldiers who were spending their government allowance on drink.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We found a letter in a newspaper from a teacher, Mr. Frank Morris. One of his pupils, Corporal Hutchinson, was awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery. In the letters we saw he has been badly wounded. 

Corporal Hutchinson mentions all the letters and telegrams he has received: 'Well, I could do with a typewriter to answer them all'. And he talks of home: 'I am awfully proud of myself for having won so great an honour for the town of Radcliffe.' Corporal Hutchinson touchingly signs his letter: 'So here's hoping you are in the best of health, from one of your Sunday school scholars.' 

So We Wrote...

We found so many other glimpses of life in Bury during the First World War. We began to know our soldier, know his world.

One participant at the workshops had had a great-uncle who fought. Her great-uncle died, unmarried, a couple of decades later, having checked himself into a sanatorium, still carrying the deep scars of what people knew as shell shock. She wrote to him, with the love, care and grief of someone who really knew him.

A young woman wrote to the drunk discharged soldier on the tram, outraged at his treatment by the society for which he had gone to fight.

A man wrote to his Irish relative who had left the soft, green fields of County Clare, only to die in the heat and dust of Gallipoli.

...and a Soldier Wrote Back.

We finished our workshops with a letter that had been sent by a Lance-Corporal J.W. Gilbert, from Tottington. He sent his mother the following poem:, called "TO MY DEAR MOTHER" 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Lance-Corporal Gilbert was a cricket-playing mill worker before he enlisted. He never did come home to his cosy feather bed or his fireside at Market Street. He never did come home to his mother. On June 16, 1917, Mrs. Gilbert received 'official information of his death.' She received this almost a year after being informed he was 'missing.' He was twenty-two years old.

The Importance of Letters

The letters we wrote will never bring Lance-Corporal Gilbert home to Tottington. But we think Mrs. Gilbert would have liked that we spoke of her son and her heart-breaking loss, all these years later. Our letters will be there to remember him and honour all the others who have been forgotten.

The Letter to an Unknown Soldier project was commissioned by 14-18 NOW who supported the Bury project. A book of some of the letters has been published. You can find more details here. Alison Bond, Nichola Walshaw and Adam Carter from Bury Libraries and Archives brought the soldier home to Bury with their wonderful resources. Contact details for their service can be found here.

Sunday, July 13

Thomas Becket: The Blood of a Martyr

On July 12 1174, King Henry II of England did public penance in Canterbury for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. The infamous murder had taken place in Canterbury Cathedral in the cold and dark of a December evening in 1170.

Henry II doing Penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket
By John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet here was Henry, ruler of England and much of France, walking barefoot along the rough cobbled streets in the heat of July, making his way to a tomb in the cathedral. It was Becket's tomb, and the slain Archbishop was now a canonised saint. Thousands of pilgrims had already made their way there but one doubts if anyone that day expected to see the king follow suit.

As if his humble progression was not astonishing enough, Henry then prostrated himself at Becket's tomb and spent many hours in prayer. He begged for forgiveness from Becket for the uttering of his words that had sent a group of knights to murder the archbishop.

© E.M. Powell 

The king had good reason to do so. He was facing the loss of his crown to a rebellion led by his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three eldest sons and King Louis of France. Henry believed that his failure to repent for Becket's death had led him to this point.

Now that he had come to make his belated penance, Henry's public display of humility reached new heights. He removed his upper clothing and was subjected to strikes from over seventy scourge-wielding monks. His royal flesh was torn and his blood flowed freely from his chastisement. While the chroniclers at the time were stunned, more modern interpretations are that the scourging of the king must have been relatively light, for otherwise he could not have survived so many blows.

© E.M. Powell 

If only the assault on Becket had been so forgiving. There are eye-witness accounts of how he died and they are brutally graphic. It will suffice to say that the monks who converged on the dead Becket were able to collect splashed blood and and the results of his massive head wound from the stone floor of the altar.

Yet their gathering of Becket's life-force and his stained clothing were the first acts in propelling Becket along the road to sainthood. It may seem repugnant to some modern sensibilities but blood was seen as an immensely powerful force in medieval society.

This power could be seen to be evil. Necromancers (when summoning demons) followed instructions that they should write their symbols or incantations in the blood of cats, bats and even a hoopoe. There was widespread belief that a murdered corpse would bleed afresh in the presence of the murderer.

© E.M. Powell 
But of course blood was also seen to have the power of good. Devotion to the shedding of Christ's blood and miracles resulting from it had existed since the seventh century. One early reported miracle was the transformation of the host into a bloody finger to convince a woman who doubted her faith.

And so it was with Becket, viewed by all as a martyr who had died for his beliefs.Within hours, a steady stream of people had arrived, looking for cures to all manner of afflictions from Becket's holy blood. Miracles were attributed to him immediately. The cloths stained with his blood brought cures to local women. There are accounts of people dabbing it on their eyes to cure their sight. Holy water containing Becket's blood started to be sold. The story of Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage had begun.

© E.M. Powell 
An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. Becket was made a saint in 1173, making his a very swift canonization. His popularity as a saint grew.The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine. 

Myths also grew up around Becket. One woman claimed she had taught a bird to pray to the saint. When the bird was hunted by a hawk, it sang out Becket’s name and was released. A story circulated that while Becket was alive, he needed a woman to mend his clothes while on his travels. The woman that did so in a convent mysteriously disappeared after completing her task. The woman was deemed to be Our Lady.

And what of Henry II, one of Canterbury's most famous pilgrims and repentant sinners? The very next day, as he nursed his wounds from his penance, he received news of important victories for his troops. As far as Henry's subjects were concerned, Saint Thomas Becket had spoken: the penitent king had been granted his miracle. The rebellion was swiftly crushed. 


Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Kieckhefer, Richard, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)
Lindhal, Carl et al., Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs & Customs, Oxford University Press (2002)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
This post or an edited version of it first appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in July 2014. 

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