Collective memories

Many years ago I cycled to Corfe Castle in Dorset. As I wandered around the grounds looking up at the ruins soaring above my head I remember overhearing a teacher talking to her primary school class about the history of the building. After a few years I do not remember the precise words but I was struck by one thing.

The castle had been held by the Royalists during the English Civil War until it was overcome by the Parliamentarian forces in 1645. I recall that as the teacher told the story to her charges she described the Royalists as the “goodies” and the Parliamentarians as the “baddies”.

History is, as they say, written by the winners. Whilst the Parliamentarian forces won the Civil War, leading to Charles I’s execution, ultimately, with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Royalists were the winners. Ever since, the Parliamentarians, or the “Roundheads”, have been seen as the baddies.

This memory has come back to me recently as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests and, specifically, the overthrow of the statue of the merchant and slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, described such actions as “lying about our history.”

History is not a single unchangeable event, however. It is constantly changing depending upon the views and the priorities of the people remembering. It is like our memories. There are a lot of things that happened in our own lives that we remember fondly and are happy to recount over and over again. However we all have memories that we rather keep hidden; something embarrassing that we hope never comes to the light again. History is a collective memory and as a collective we have decided what to remember and what to hide away.

The heroic efforts of Lady Mary Bankes holding out against the Parliamentarian forces at Corfe Castle until she was betrayed by one of her members of staff, is one memory, and one which that teacher was passing on to her students on that day out.

There are other memories which we choose collectively to downplay. These aren’t necessarily the embarrassing moments (although they could be embarrassing for somebody – organisations that may have been involved in the slave trade?)

These could be the equally heroic events that we have chosen not to celebrate. For example, during the same war that saw the sacking of Corfe Castle, another person, a man called Thomas Rainborough, stood up and declared:

“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

Rainsborough was on the Parliamentarian side, a “baddie”, but he was also part of a movement called the Levellers, one of the earliest organisations calling and campaigning for equality for all people. Today we largely accept the idea that we are all equal and, however imperfectly, we consider that we live in a democracy where everyone’s vote counts.

But in the Seventeenth Century society was more rigid and hierarchical. Whilst the Parliamentarians did not believe that the king ruled by divine right, most of them felt there was a rigid social structure where some people had more rights of representation than others. Rainsborough’s views were described as anarchy by Henry Ireton, a general in the Parliamentarian forces (just to show that history is not black and white).

Rainsborough’s life and death (he was killed by Royalist forces during a bungled kidnap attempt) are commemorated by a few plaques: one at Putney Church, where he made the speech above; another one at the site of his death in Doncaster; and a final one on the wall of the churchyard in Wapping where he was buried. On a recent visit I was not able to find his actual grave.

Thomas Rainsborough, like Mary Bankes and Edward Colston, is a part of our history. Lady Bankes and the Royalists were seen as the “goodies” by that teacher. Overturning Colston’s statue is seen as denying history by the Prime Minister of Britain. But how we remember these people is also our history.

So, what does this have to do with photography? London is full of memorials to people great and small. They are usually the “great” such as kings and generals. At the moment I am seeking the “small”, the unremembered such as Rainsborough for whom there is no grand statue on Whitehall but a simple plaque on a churchyard wall, to bring them to light and to add them to our collective memory.

And to remind us that history is, contrary to popular opinion, constantly rewritten.

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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