Many of the great history-makers of England’s past are very familiar indeed – David-Beckham-familiar, even. There is a continuous chain of famous names stretching back into the fringes of Prehistory, which defines our perceptions of what history is; a gallery of faces, from King Harold (with an arrow in his eye) to Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell (warts and all) to Winston Churchill.
Thing is, these historical celebrities are only part of the story. Look beyond the kings and queens, dukes and prime ministers, and there are countless alternative candidates for that splendid title, history-maker. From religion to fashion, gender to law – the key players through the ages haven’t achieved the renown of pioneers in, say, politics or warfare. But in many respects, their stories are just as important.
English Heritage’s latest digital project, the Story of England, is dedicated to the stories of these history-makers every bit as much as it reflects on grander figures – just as it considers our small (but perfectly formed) sites alongside the more famous places in our collection. So, in the spirit of this summer’s #MakingHistory competition, we decided use the Story of England to hunt down some of the more hidden history-makers in our national story.
King Æthelberht, King Oswiu: Christianity in England
Okay, so this pair were actually kings, but they’re hardly household names are they?
Æthelberht was the powerful Anglo-Saxon monarch whose paganism didn’t prevent him from warmly welcoming (the much more famous) Saint Augustine into his Kentish kingdom in 597 AD. His eventual conversion, and patronage of Augustine and his 40 companions from Rome, gave Christianity the platform it needed to take root in England once more. A few decades later it was Oswiu, King of Northumbria, who resolved the swelling discord between Celtic and Roman Christianity in favour of the latter, with implications for everything from the date of Easter, to the way that priests cut their hair!
Richard Strode and Admiral Hosier: Unlikely Political Icons
Richard Strode was a Devon MP who in 1510 was thrown into the gaol at Lydford Castle, ‘one of the most annoious, contagious and detestable places wythin this realme’, because of his failure to pay a fine. Admiral Francis Hosier was a respected naval officer who oversaw the catastrophic loss of 4000 sailors to tropical fever in the Caribbean, before succumbing himself, as a result of idiotic government orders. Both achieved an unlikely sort of political immortality, however.
Strode’s experiences encouraged him to petition for, and eventually pass, a law that resulted in the phenomenon of Parliamentary Privilege – politicians’ immunity from prosecution pertaining to their activities in parliament. This principle was put to the test as recently as 2011, when the MP John Hemming named a certain famous footballer who had taken out a court injunction to stop details of an extramarital affair going public, during a parliamentary debate.
Hosier, meanwhile, inspired in 1740 a spooky ballad, ‘Admiral Hosier’s Ghost’, which became a particularly popular part of a tide of satirical discontent that eventually brought down Robert Walpole’s government two years later.
Isabella de Fortibus and Margery Kempe: Powerful Women in a Land Dominated by Men
Countess Isabella and Margery Kempe might not have changed the course of history, but they certainly redefined expectations of the possibilities of female achievement during the 13th and 14th centuries, one of the most patriarchal periods of our history.
Countess Isabella inherited vast tracts of land (including the Isle of Wight) from her brother and husband at the age of 26. Though she lived at a time when the ‘right’ to marry women (as young as 10) was traded like a commodity, she held onto control of her lands and property for over three decades in the face of fraud, aggressive pursuit and legal challenge. Kempe, meanwhile, embarked on an extraordinary pilgrimage that took in Jerusalem, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Danzig, Norway and Germany, as well as Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, and subsequently dictated the earliest known autobiography in English.
Mr Hoby: Maker of the Most Famous Pair of Boots in England
At some point in the early 1800s Arthur Wellesley, soon to become the Duke of Wellington, approached his shoemaker, Mr Hoby of St James’s Street, London. He asked him to cut his boots lower and remove their tassel, to make them easier to wear with the new style of tight-fitting trousers that Georgian fashion icon Beau Brummell had popularised. And the rest, as they say, is history.