Yes, i know it’s a door. But it’s actually jolly old – dating back at least to the English civil war in fact – and for the whole of last week, it was our front door in the old farmhouse we stayed in near the Forest of Dean on the Welsh border. The reason for putting it here is that fact that it contains a real historical curiosity – and not entirely unrelated to the news of the Queen’s grandson, Peter Phillips having asked a Canadian catholic girl to marry him. For historical constitutional reasons, he would have to renounce his claim to the throne (he’s 10th in line) if he married Autumn Kelly because she was baptised a Catholic. It all dates back to the 1701 Act of Settlement – which had come about after years of conflict and argument, dating back to Henry VIII and his successors (in particular the consequences of Elizabeth I being succeeded by the Stuart, James VI/I). Charles I never became a Catholic, and nor did his son Charles II, but James II (Charles II younger brother) did. And for political, as much as religious, reasons, this horrified the political establishment. This resulted in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1689 when the Dutch William of Orange and his staunchly Protestant wife Mary (herself a Stuart) landed in England and were offered the throne by various nobles and bishops (James II fled to France where he remained for the rest of his life). So much for the history. But the idiosyncrasies of the Act of Settlement are stark these days because as numerous commentators have pointed out, there is nothing to prevent royalty marrying a Hindu or Atheist, only a Catholic. Be that as it may, it seems that Peter has ruled himself out.
What’s this got to do with this ancient front door? Well, it is fairly tenuous, but not entirely unconnected (although more an excuse for an intro into talking about this doorknob). But i’ve been musing about England’s turbulent religious history, and the quirks and paradoxes that result in our so-called secular age. They can seem so alien, embarrassing and unnecessary (eg Prince Charles’ concern to be Defender of Faith rather than Defender of the Faith – despite the ironies lost on many protestants that it was a Catholic title granted by the Pope for Henry’s strongly anti-Luther and anti-Protestant pronouncements). But in the past they could mean life or death, wealth or penury. As this front door alludes to… For just below the latch-ring there is a bolt on which it is just possible to make out a rough inscription. We traced it a few times, just to make sure. But it seems very likely indeed that it reads:
Big deal, perhaps. Until you remember what happened, or rather who died, in 1649. Well, it was none other than the execution of Charles I (beheaded on 30 Jan 1649 in front of Banqueting House – see print below taken from the Wiki page). The Foresters of Dean had been a pretty Parliamentary bunch, and so strongly supported the Roundheads. However, just over the Welsh border, from Chepstow westwards, they were strongly royalist.
Could it possibly be that the owner of this farmhouse was declaring his allegiance in a very surreptitious way, not to the Commons like his fellow Forresters, but to the Crown? Pretty amazing if so – a tiny token of a farmer’s private rebellion, perhaps to soothe a soul sickened by contemporary political turmoil.
Now, while most in the UK would despise the idea of execution, let alone beheading, in modern political terms, the majority would today side with Parliament in its total rejection of the concept and theology of the divine right of kings. It is absurd for today’s mindset. And i would whole-heartedly chime with that, for theological, as well as political reasons. While not endorsing everything said and done during the era, i have to say that i find myself particularly sympathetic to a lot of what the Puritans said and wrote. But it’s funny how much of a bogeyman Cromwell is these days. I suspect that in large part our modern anti-Cromwell feeling is as much to do with the post-Restoration propaganda of Charles II’s reign as real understanding of what the Parliamentarians achieved and sought. Ho hum.
Still this is a very rambly, holiday style post – and so i’m going to end with something equally random – a pub sign spotted in Chepstow, just up the street from the awe-inspiring Chepstow Castle. Clearly a modern image (after all, Rumpole of the Bailey seems to make an appearance in the form of Leo McKern). But perhaps of older origins. Christianity is yet again clearly part of the historical fabric of this country. Bizarre combination – though classically British.