It’s the last day of the year, and like Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and traditions, we should take the opportunity not only to look back on the past year, but look forward to 2015. Next year brings us a banquet of options to look both forward and back as we have centenaries, bicentenaries and more to commemorate.
The General Election is naturally going to be a focus of attention and conversation as our screens will be filled with political speeches and policy announcements and our doormats littered with election literature praising the actions of our representatives over the last five years.
But if the daily bouts in Westminster leave you a little unsatisfied, just look at the opportunities for history, tradition, culture and spectacular defeats over the French that we can commemorate.
Magna Carta – 19th June 1215
Commemorate 800 years of democracy as the Barons of England forced King John who, I suspect nowadays we would say ‘had difficulties with trust and interaction’ to sign up to basic liberties rather than relentlessly demand hostages of the children of noble families to ensure their loyalty and his habit of not giving a groat about the law.
Once the notion that the King was not above Common Law (even though Pope Innocent III declared the document illegal) then Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede on 19 June 1215, became an idea which could never be uninvented, or unimagined.
And the great minds of the time made sure that everyone knew about it. In a medieval version of an amusing cat video going viral, thirteen copies of Magna Carta were quickly made and sent throughout the Kingdom.
John died the following year but history remembers him as a tyrant who was forced to agree to basic rules of liberty and law. And, of course, the mean King in Robin Hood stories.
Celebrate this hugely significant document by taking part in events around the country or perhaps reminding your MP that he works for you, not the other way around.
The Battle of Agincourt – 25th October 1415
People these days wonder why we Brits make French-baiting a national pastime, but a look back at the days of the Angevins and Plantagenets (surely the best surname in the whole of the country, even if it does mean ‘sprig of broom’) makes it all clear.
It was ours! Well, some of it was. And okay, we lost it, fair and square.
But more importantly, English troops (and a few Flemish mercenaries) including the brave English Longbows, thrashed the French army at Agincourt despite being significantly outnumbered. This was part of the long running battle between the two countries which had ramped up when Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of King Louis VII of France and a Duchess in her own right, married Henry II of England and presented him with some rather rich and fertile lands in her home country. Thus, there was quite a lot of France which was actually under English rule – although the Royal Court and the nobles all spoke French, even at home.
After the battle, which, to reiterate, was a major English victory, Henry V married the French King’s daughter Katherine of Valois (who went on to marry Owen Tudor and thus keep her genes in the Royal line) and Henry’s son – also called Henry – would become the heir to England and France.
It’s famous in our history not only because of the Shakespeare play we say we have read or watched but haven’t really, but because Henry V led his troops into battle whilst the French King Charles VI was back at home, reclining on a chaise one imagines, suffering from severe and repeated illnesses.
It’s also not a little bit annoying that after this great victory and diplomatic coup, Henry V died and his son became a child king who didn’t like fighting.
You can visit Porchester Castle and see the very place where King Henry gathered together men and arms for his military campaign.
The Battle of Waterloo – 18th June 1815
Celebrate the 200th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington. While this battle does not evoke the tragedy of the opening of the First World War, the scale of fear induced across Western Europe by the military prowess of the little Corsican cannot be underestimated.
The man who started off as someone who many believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchial ideals (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) of the French revolution, he soon revealed his feet of clay and the temptation of nepotism.
One such fan was Vienna resident Ludwig van Beethoven who initially dedicated his 3rd Symphony to the squat Frenchman. But on hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, he broke into a rage, exclaiming:
“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”
For those who are aware of Beethoven’s attitude towards the man who would be President of Europe, the fact his ‘Ode to Joy’ is the Anthem of the European Union is something of an insult to the outstanding musician and composer.
Waterloo marked Napoleon’s final defeat at the hands of British, Dutch and German armies; his ignominious surrender and death six years later, as a British prisoner on St Helena.
Those wanting to take part in the bicentenary celebrations have a whole host of choices, from visiting Apsley House in central London to buying a special coin from the Royal Mint or going to whole hog and joining in a battle reenactment. Find out more here.
Death of Edith Cavell – 12th October 1915
Edith Cavell was the World War I British nurse who is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers in Brussels from all sides without distinction. She and Belgian and French colleagues helped over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.
She was arrested, tried with 33 others by a German military court, found guilty of ‘assisting men to the enemy’ and shot by a German firing squad on October 12 1915.
It is thought that her assassination and the subsequent publicity surrounding it spurred the Allies on to fight the Germans who had murdered a woman dedicated to saving lives.
She is well known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough”. Her strong religious beliefs pushed her to help both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”
In 1917 funds raised by two national newspapers in memory of Edith Cavell were dedicated to the creation of at least six rest homes for nurses around England.
You can visit her statue at Trafalgar Square or click here for a list of centenary events.
With all these ideas for your next twelve months, nothing remains but to wish you a Happy New Year in 2015.