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British Heritage: AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 1999 Letters

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 23, 2000 
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REFLECTIONS ON THE PAST MILLENNIUM

In 1758, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Poor Richard's Almanac the now-familiar lines: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, the horse was lost; and for the want of a horse the rider was lost."

It is an entertaining–if rather profitless–exercise to wonder how history might have unfolded differently had a few seemingly trivial events, like a nail that goes missing, unfolded differently. Would Britain at the dawn of the next Millennium look substantially different if things had taken another turn at just a few such crossroads during the past 1,000 years? Arguably, the broad sweep of history would have brought us to roughly the same end even had such momentous events as the Battle of Hastings never occurred. It is not unlikely that England would have prospered as much under Saxon rule as under the Normans. The differences would be many–school children today, for example, would be required to memorize an entirely different succession of royal names (probably in an "English language" bearing scant resemblance to that understood today), but "Angle-land" itself would inevitably have risen to a prominence not altogether different from its historical role.

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The unifying and stabilizing influence of the Church would have ensured that Britons deviated little from their ordained social, moral, artistic, and intellectual paths. The nation's relations with the Continent would perhaps have been more eastward-facing, towards Scandinavia rather than France, and thus the Hundred Years' War would probably have been avoided–replaced, perhaps, by some prolonged Anglo-Danish squabbles. The Domesday Book and the Bayeaux Tapestry would never have come to be, and Shakespeare's history plays would have drawn inspiration from a different stock of characters, but one can still picture a recognizable British Empire under a beloved King Ethelbert VIII.

Could other twists of fate have led to more fundamental changes? Imagine, for example, that Robert the Bruce, instead of taking inspiration from a persistent spider, had impulsively flattened the loathsome arachnid with a rock. (Of course, the story of Bruce and the spider is of doubtful authenticity, so this is really a double "what-if.") Having killed the bug, Bruce might well have brooded over the fragility of life and the futility of all our deepest ambitions and, in a state of despair, have given up the fight for Scottish independence. Afterwards, England would have consolidated its control over Scotland, the Auld Alliance would never have formed, and Scotland would have become a junior partner to its southern neighbour. The Act of Union, however, ultimately accomplished many of the same things, so in the long run, Bruce's insecticide would have resulted in no great upheaval in history's timeline.

Another English military "turning point" hinged on the decision made by the Maid of Orleans, Joan d'Arc, to lead the French into battle against the English. What if Joan, instead of climbing into the saddle, had sought psychiatric help when she began hearing voices from God? Well-meaning friends, it might well be imagined, could have compelled her to take some bedrest, accompanied by a regime of ineffectual folk remedies that only served to make her light-headed and lethargic. Without her inspiring brand of leadership, the French might never have lifted the siege of Orleans, turned the tide against the English, and gone on to recover most of the lands lost during the Hundred Years' War. Instead, the British Empire might have gotten off to an early start by annexing the Crown's substantial Continental territories, and France would today be a name found only in history books alongside such realms as Aragon and Castille.

But imagination must give way to probability. While Joan d'Arc's presence undeniably lifted French morale and contributed to a reversal of French military fortunes, she probably only hastened the inevitable. Within a few years, the Wars of the Roses forced English monarchs to turn their attention inward, and any hope of defending far-off lands in France would have melted away on the fields of Barnet, Tewkesbury, and Bosworth. So once again, fate would have returned history to its expected course.

Somewhat more lasting might have been the effects of a long and happy reign by Arthur Tudor, eldest son of Henry VII. During the rule of a King Arthur and Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry's younger son, also named Henry (an athletic lad whom many may have felt would have made a better king than his brother), would probably be best remembered for strengthening England's ties to the papacy by writing his treatise against the teachings of Martin Luther. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry could possibly have succeeded in keeping the Protestant Reformation from crossing the Channel and winning large numbers of converts in England. Arthur's son, Arthur II, married to Mary, Queen of Scots, might even have allied England with Spain in a campaign against the Dutch, sending an English Armada to threaten the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Against this rising tide of orthodoxy, Puritans would never have succeeding in establishing a foothold in England, let alone crossing the Atlantic to build Anglo-America. In their place, French Huguenots eventually would have settled all of North America . . . conceivably, at least. On the other hand, Arthur I, after fathering three successive daughters, might have petitioned the Pope to annul his marriage. . . .

Perhaps history has no true "turning points." As Asa Briggs points out, the events we are tempted to call turning points are often more correctly identified simply as "landmarks." On the whole, history seems to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, with precious few opportunities for drastic deviation from an inevitable path. You may choose to call this fate or predestination or maybe just inertia, at your own preference.

Logically, this intransigent nature of history ought to have an intriguing consequence. If the course of human history is more or less inevitable, we should be able to predict the future with a great degree of precision. Sir Arthur C. Clarke does his best to accomplish this in "A Thousand Years Hence." It is probably fortunate, however, that the many variables that determine history's ongoing course are most apparent in retrospect. As a result, history's landmarks will surely continue to surprise and delight us all in the next Millennium.

Bruce Heydt
Managing Editor

 

THE MAN (OR WOMAN) OF THE MILLENNIUM?
SOME CHOICES BY BRITISH HERITAGE READERS

 

WINSTON CHURCHILL: "There can be no other serious choice than Winston Churchill. He is a giant of all human history, not merely the last 1,000 years."

 

MARGARET THATCHER: "Britain's first woman Prime Minister, but also the century's strongest leader."

 

QUEEN VICTORIA: "She was the longest reigning monarch of the Empire. She led Britain through some of its most glorious of years. Through her character and power, she made Britain arguably the greatest Empire ever to exist on earth."

 

JAMES COOK: "The great mariner mapped the East Coast of Australia, and he is my favourite British subject. We Aussies are forever grateful to him; pity the rest of you don't show the same mettle!"

 

THE EARL OF SANDWICH: "The invention of the sandwich is certainly one of universal appeal, and I can't imagine how any of us would manage without it. Hurray for the sandwich and that canny Earl who invented it."

 

VERA BRITTAIN: "A prolific speaker, lecturer, journalist, and writer–devoted to the causes of peace and feminism. She wrote 29 books. The most famous one, Testament of Youth, is a passionate record of the Great War and a loving memorial to a 'lost generation.'"



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