October 16, 2023

If Walls could Talk

Every visitor who walks into the Dining Room knows exactly where they are, transported into the supper or lunch scenes and conversations of the much loved Downton Abbey. The wit of the Dowager, the barbed sisterly comments, the shocking scene with Lord Grantham’s ulcer… it all happened in here around the table.

Of course the fictional Downton family are seated under our portraits, Highclere’s portraits, real people whose own ups and downs were very real and often very demanding. The most recognisable portrait is, of course, that of King Charles I painted by Antony van Dyck in about 1633. Within ten years of that date, Charles I had embroiled England in a Civil War that would end with his execution. Apart from the countless deaths in battle, perhaps 127,000 civilians lost their lives as well.

The reasons for most civil wars are very similar: who is in charge of the army, the exchequer or the courts. Leaders design autocracies whilst people design democracies which also require leaders. The English Civil War focused on Charles’ adherence to the concept of the divine right of kingship which averred that only the king knew what was best whilst in reality, even then, most of us want a say in values and strategy: some sort of electoral justice and fairness.

Battle of Newbury

The portraits of Geordie’s ancestors flank that of Charles I and thus join him in looking down on us. They supported and fought for the King as Royalists and, in fact, there were a number of battles and skirmishes that that took place around Highclere. Perhaps the turning point of the Civil War was the first Battle of Newbury in September 1643 which was won by the Parliamentarians or perhaps more accurately, lost by Charles I. The 1st Earl of Carnarvon’s portrait is to one side of that of the King and he died in that battle.

In spring 1646, King Charles I was surrounded in Oxford and, as his forces surrendered, he tried to flee. In brief, at times he tried to negotiate some sort of future compromise but the Parliamentarians and their army demanded he was put on trial. He was judged and then executed in January 1649.

This family’s main endeavour thereafter was survival and the huge portrait of the King was hurriedly removed, rolled up and left to prop up a barn door, fading into obscurity as part of the “furniture” hidden in plain sight.

Following the success of the Parliamentarians and rise of Oliver Cromwell there was peace of some sort but a very barbed one with spies everywhere and family and ‘friends’ settling scores and complaining about each other to the authorities. Cessation of battle does not always lead to light and a new world and during these years many families left England to find a new world in the Americas.

Facing fearful wars and sieges today, the impending feelings of doom are the same as 380 years ago. Immediate actions often lack perspective so we can only hope for turning points and pray for the end.

Not every education system promotes history and I can’t help thinking that is a huge error: history is about inquiry, discovery, knowledge and the long view. It helps us understand the options before us today.  Our ancestors throughout the world can still speak to us from beyond the grave.