Day 13: The Final Battle

So Richard became king. He had many supporters, but many enemies. One was his dead brother Edward’s widow Elizabeth Woodville—mother of the nephews in the tower, head of a family abruptly out of power. Another was Margaret Beaufort, great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, he already the ancestor of seven kings of England.

A contemporary of Henry VI and Edward IV, Margaret had given birth at age 13 to a son. Her husband, who died when the boy was an infant, was the Welsh nobleman Edmund Tudor. A religious zealot, Margaret believed all her life that her boy Henry was destined to be king. And throughout everything including exile and separation, she urged this obsession on her son for decades.

When Richard took the crown in 1483, various nobles opposing him supported Henry’s return from exile. His mother knew the moment of destiny had come. And so Henry Tudor returned and challenged Richard.

They met on Bosworth Field, about 100 miles north of London, in 1485. Which is where I was standing today.

It’s still a field, with a hill, marsh, and forests just where they’d been when they had shaped the battle. The noise and smoke would have been horrific. There would be carpets of dead bodies, terrified horses falling everywhere, tens of thousands of exhausted men literally fighting for their lives.

King Richard’s horse was eventually killed, tumbling Richard to the ground. The king wanted to keep fighting, so he yelled out for a fresh mount—“My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Alas, he was soon cornered and killed. Not captured, but killed. His crown was physically handed to Henry Tudor, the commander of the winning army.

Henry Tudor became Henry VII.
He married Elizabeth of York, the dead Edward IV’s daughter, uniting the long-battling Lancastrian and Yorkist families, ending the Wars of the Roses. Thus his symbol was a white and red rose intertwined. Henry VII started the Tudor dynasty; his son would eventually be crowned Henry VIII, and his daughter would eventually be crowned Elizabeth I.

This was the day that I’d been planning for almost a year. The end of the 300-year Plantagenet dynasty, and the start of the Tudor dynasty. The end of the Middle Ages, opening the door to the Renaissance. Today was 1485, and I was at Bosworth, right where I belonged.

I now understand the difference between Edward III, IV, and V, and Henry IV, V, VI, and VII. I know the difference between Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and French architecture, and between English Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic. I’ve learned the difference between Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort. And I can tell you why it all matters.

I suppose what doesn’t really matter is that I know these things. I created and went on this trip for the very same reason that people did things in the Middle Ages—because it seemed like a good idea.

It was.

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Day 12: A Day With King Richard

This rainy morning I walked to Leicester Cathedral. Far less grand than York’s, it was tastefully built in 1086 in a beautiful brown stone I hadn’t yet seen in England. I was here to see Richard.

Decade by decade, the Wars of the Roses gradually eliminated almost every legitimate contender for the throne of England. With the death of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1483, his oldest son of course succeeded him (as Edward V). But the new king was only twelve years old (with an even younger brother), and so a Regent was needed. The dead king’s brother Richard was the logical choice.

After years as a military and political figure (and the King’s beloved advisor), Richard had amassed his own power base. These people stood to gain immensely were Richard to become king. There was no comparable Lancastrian figure—the Lancastrian king Henry VI only had one son, killed at Towton. All that stood in the way of Richard’s succession were his two nephews, the dead king’s sons.

It was a turbulent time, and so Richard—Regent and Uncle, brother of the king so recently dead—had the boys escorted to the Tower of London for their temporary safety.

And that’s the last that anyone ever saw of them. Did Richard have them killed? People have been arguing about it ever since. But with the boys gone, Richard took the crown as his own, becoming Richard III, Shakespeare’s hunchback villain and history’s obsession.

Across from the Cathedral is the new Richard the Third Center. Its genealogies and displays of medieval clothes and weapons were by now familiar. It did have a wonderful display on the historiography of Richard—how he has been described and portrayed through the centuries. Contrasting film clips featuring Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Spacey were fascinating.

Richard ruled only two years, killed in the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses (which we’ll visit tomorrow). For political reasons, he was buried with only minimal honors, and eventually his burial site was considered lost to the ages. And then in 2012 a group of persistent archeologists discovered it under a parking lot 300 yards from the church—a million to one chance, validated 100% by DNA testing.After a terrible legal fight between the cities of York and Leicester (at least they didn’t use archers or cannon), Richard was reburied in Leicester cathedral with enormously solemn ceremony in 2015 (the Cathedral’s video of this is quite moving).

This Richard has been reimagined—by some—as a devoted prince, rising to (and dying for) the civic duty of protecting his fragile country. The cathedral built a beautiful gothic chamber to house his remains. On the floor above the buried casket is a low plinth of silent black Irish stone (he was Governor there), inscribed Richard III. Topping that is an elegant piece of ancient local marble carved coffin-shape and inscribed with a cross.

This is where I touched a king. King Richard. For a long, intimate moment I had him all to myself. I would have given almost anything to know…when you took the crown, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, what were you thinking? What did you want? How did you feel?

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Day 11: A Day in the Country at Conisborough

Today we drove south into Yorkist country, and headed for Conisborough Castle. It sat on the sidelines during the Wars of the Roses, but it’s an architectural gem with a quirky history.

The castle was built by William, Earl of Surrey who had taken part in the Norman conquest of England in 1066. He was rewarded by his father-in-law William the Conqueror with extensive estates, including the land on which to build Conisborough.

Several generations later it pass through marriage to Hamelin Plantagenet, the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. Hamelin extensively rebuilt the castle in the 1180s, including the gorgeous stone tower. If you’re a fan of Magna Carta you’ll enjoy knowing that King John visited the castle in 1201.

Eventually Edward III gave the castle to his son Edmund, Duke of York. Two generations later it was inherited by Richard of York—who had, you’ll recall, tried to seize the crown from Henry VI, but died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. His son Edward then inherited it, and when he seized the throne as Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461, the castle once again belonged to the Crown.

It gradually fell into some disrepair, but it wasn’t attacked, Cromwell didn’t destroy it, and so it sat there accumulating a lovely patina. In 1811 Sir Walter Scott rode by and later used the location for his novel Ivanhoe. That made the castle a tourist attraction, so a century later the government restored it, and it’s now glorious again.

It’s an innovative design, with polygonal corners to improve its defense, and walls that flare out at ground level to discourage undermining during sieges. The sun came out as we we climbed the tower, and it shown straight through the window of the Lady’s Chapel on the third floor. The commanding views from the parapet were peacefully stunning.

From here we continued driving south to Leicester, where we had a date with a king.

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Day 10: Castles & Walls

For our last day in this area, we drove south again, on England’s A1 motorway (essentially a modern version of the 500-year-old Great North Road between London and Edinburgh).

An hour later, we arrived at a small hill studded with medieval walls. Pontefract Castle was constructed around 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land granted personally by Willam the Conqueror as a reward for his support during the Norman Conquest. It passed out and back into the family with the fortunes of war, and in 1311 it came into the House of Lancaster, and so eventually to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. Gaunt was the kingdom’s richest, most respected statesman.

As the 14th century ended, King Richard II (king because his father was Gaunt’s older brother) exiled John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. When Gaunt died, his son Henry should have been invited back to receive his enormous lands—including Pontefract—but Richard II seized and gave them away to his cronies.

Bolingbroke responded by returning to England with a private army. He headed for Pontefract, rallied the local nobles (aghast that Gaunt’s property had been seized—who would be the next target?), and with Richard in Ireland at the time, declared himself King Henry IV. Henry eventually captured Richard and dragged him to Pontefract Castle, where he died.

By preventing Henry’s inheritance, Richard had broken feudal protocol. By deposing an anointed king, Henry had overturned the natural order of the world even more. Thus began the blood feud between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family, setting the stage for a half-century of civil war.

The remains at Pontefract aren’t extensive. But the hilltop’s central location hasn’t changed, and when the wind quieted, we thought we could feel betrayal in the air, and hear vows of vengeance. After a few moments we drove straight into the late-afternoon sun, to Wakefield.
It’s 1460. Henry IV has died. His son Henry V has died. His grandson Henry VI has been king almost 40 years—a weak, sometimes-mad, unprepared king whom no one respects. His wife, the intelligent and noble-born Margaret of Anjou, is the real power behind the throne.

Richard Plantagenet—a Yorkist great-grandson of Edward III with a legitimate claim to the throne, grabs for it. He and the Lancastrian nobility compromise—Henry VI can remain king, but Richard is recognized as his heir, disinheriting Henry’s and Margaret’s son. But Richard can’t wait, and Margaret’s enraged. At Wakefield’s Sandal Castle he is stunned to encounter an enormous Lancastrian force.

Outmaneuvered by an army marched here from Pontefract and personally commanded by Queen Margaret, the Yorkists are crushed. Richard himself is killed, putting the Yorkists in the hands of his son Edward. Two months later, at the Battle of Towton (yes, at the very site we visited just days ago), Edward will get revenge, butchering a retreating Lancastrian army and declaring himself Edward IV. He will reign for 22 years, until he dies in bed—after which the killing will resume.

The Sandal castle’s remains are still standing. We climbed up to the top and surveyed the landscape, barely changed in 560 years. I could see the same road the Yorkists marched on, and the same forests in which Margaret hid her ambushing divisions. Richard never had a chance. The deaths of so many nobles at Wakefield cleared the way for a new generation on each side to pick up the seemingly endless cause.
After driving back to York, I finished off the day with a walk on its famous medieval walls. They are in fabulous condition, built on the Roman (of course) footprint. Several original gates into the city are still intact. Cars and bikes pass through them every day; I took my chances and simply gawked at one for several minutes, my last in this city of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and medieval treasures.

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Day 9: York Cathedral, From Bottom to Top

I had a perfect day today at York Minster (Cathedral). I started below it, continued above it, and finished in the center of it.

The first church on the site was built in 627CE. One big fire and a few Viking raids later, it was again damaged (along with the whole rebellious area) by William the Conqueror in 1069CE.

As soon as things settled down politically, work began on a grand Norman stone church. A century later, plans changed to showcase the snazzy new Gothic style imported from the Continent. York’s Archbishop ordered that the cathedral be built to rival Canterbury (its only architectural competitor to this day), damn the expense. It’s now the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.

I started the day with a special tour of the underground crypt. Protected down there from the wear-and-tear of everyday use, it is remarkably well-preserved. Our passionate guide lovingly showed us features of the Roman, Norman, and Gothic foundations, as well as later medieval and Victorian upgrades.

With all the old stone I’ve seen around the world, she showed us something I’d never seen: mason’s marks. These are monograms inconspicuously chipped into finished stone so the accountants would know how much to pay each craftsman. Using a flashlight, she also showed us tiny parallel striations meticulously scratched into the stone surface that would catch the light and make the stone shimmer.

The next special tour continued our affinity for stone. Leaving the building, we entered the stoneyard to see and touch the cut-to-order blocks of limestone arriving from the same quarry as the original stone that built the cathedral. Then we went to the masons’ actual workshops, talking with the masters who map and draw the individual stones, and observing the journeymen who were chip, chip, chipping away, creating hand-carved replacements for stones (including gargoyles, window ornaments, and vaulting) that need replacement.

The artisans spoke humbly about working in tandem with their brilliant predecessors of 600 and 800 years ago. I myself have a tiny taste of this when I play music written during the Renaissance—communing with a fellow artist (albeit one far grander than I!) to produce the sound he imagined when he composed.

Exiting the workshops we donned hard hats and took a construction elevator nine stories up. We walked the scaffolding surrounding a section of the Cathedral under renovation. We got to see and touch the carvings, repairs, and windows that mortals normally see from 100 or 200 feet below. We could watch the painstaking work of artisans, alone out there in the cold, chiseling an angel’s expression, or curling a saint’s toes. No one down below could possibly see the difference if a mason stopped short of perfection. But the masons up here knew no other standard for their work.

After a brief rest and late lunch (another tiresome pizza—if only these Brits could cook the way they used to build!), we returned to the Cathedral. The medieval glass is still beautiful—transcending centuries is the point of the artform. The soaring vaulting, the contrasting Gothic styles facing each other, the lachrymose memorials to dead soldiers, dead children, dead dreams, all combined to reduce our voices to whispers and slowed our pulses. They walked these floors twenty generations ago.

Among those buried there are Thomas Bayeux (who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, narrating the Norman Conquest of 1066) and the infant son of 14th-century Edward III.

We walked into the Cathedral’s largest chapel for the Evensong service, mostly to hear the music. There was some chanting by the choir of twelve. And the Psalms that were recited were familiar, if repetitive. But I received an unexpected jolt when the Minister read the scriptural portion about the Jews killing Christ. I am not making this up—the week’s portion was about Pilate offering to free the arrested Jesus, but the Jews passionately objecting. And so Pilate ordered Christ killed.

Architecture, artisanship, and history aside, I was, after all, in an old Christian church. Hearing a very old—and very modern—Christian story.

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Day 8, Part II: The Killing Fields of Towton

While I pondered the bustling day in York, John brought the car around and we drove a half-hour southwest to the enormous battlefield of Towton. It was here on March 29, 1461 that the Wars of the Roses continued. The Yorkist royal contender completely routed the forces of Lancastrian Henry VI (who had ruled almost 40 years), declared himself King Edward IV, and drove the remaining Lancastrian leadership into exile. Spoiler alert: they do return; hence Wars of the Roses.

We parked at the side of the road and walked the empty killing field on a very cold, blustery, damp gray day as John retold the story. Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil—28,000 knights, archers, mercenaries, and peasant conscripts cut down in 10 hours of fighting. Having marched for days to get here, the two sides ultimately faced each other on a front that stretched a mile from left to right. Every man knew he was fighting a battle to the death. Sleet blew into the Lancastrians’ faces, and the wind behind the Yorkists gave their arrows an extra 30 yards of reach.

John and I stood shivering in the middle of the battle line, the field unchanged since then: a ridge here, trees over there, low ground cover between. We strained to hear the horrible groans and see the horrible sights of five centuries ago.

At the battle’s climax the Lancastrians broke and ran some five miles back to their camp, chased by Yorkists on horseback or foot, thirsty for blood. Their weapons were primitive but effective—archaeologists say that many, many people died of blunt-trauma head wounds.

On the drive back from Towton John spoke less than usual, and I was pretty quiet. Comfortable in our modern car with the heat turned on, we were still deeply chilled by the carnage we had vicariously experienced.

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Day 8: York’s Medieval Metropolis

York is halfway between London and Edinburgh. Occupied on and off for 10,000 years, the actual town was founded by the Roman IXth Legion in 71 BCE. When the Emperor died in 306CE, it was in York that Roman soldiers declared Constantine (later “the Great”) emperor.

York’s location in northern England, with access to the sea via the Ouse River, destined it for greatness. It became a seat of power, commerce, learning, and the arts for a succession of empires. The Vikings first terrorized it and then made it part of their trading network. Things got a huge boost when William the Conqueror arrived shortly after 1066.

I spent the day exploring the city. We started at Clifford’s Tower, all that’s left of the 12th century Norman castle built on the remains of William’s castle on a commanding hilltop. The small Jewish population in York during medieval times apparently became quite wealthy lending money to the king and various nobles. When the debts became too high for the nobles to manage, they’d encourage the local peasants to riot and kill the Jews, whose debts were then conveniently erased. Then the cycle would start again.

In 1190 all the city’s 150 Jews took refuge here at Clifford’s from a mob crazed by the belief that the Jews were ritually killing Gentile children (yes, the start of the Blood Libel). Depending on whom you believe, the Jews were either massacred by the mob, or they killed themselves Masada-style to avoid the mob’s torture and murder. A century later King Edward I expelled all the Jews in England, who didn’t return until invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.

I appreciate that the story of a crazed mob massacring the city’s Jews is presented in a fairly unblinking way by the signage and the city’s tourism industry. Throughout our two weeks together, John periodically repeated that in those days it wasn’t anti-semitism, but anti-judaism. The first is hatred of race: Jews can’t help who they are, and we hate them. The second is hatred of religion: Jews are choosing to be blind and ignorant, and we hate them. In the Middle Ages Jews could therefore save themselves by converting (if they wanted to)—the opposite of Hitler’s policy that a single drop of Jewish blood contaminated someone, which conversion could not change.

Once again I experienced first-hand the power and importance of William the Conqueror. He connected England and France politically, brought sophisticated Norman culture to England, and united the various clans here—some by bribery, some by marriage, and many through a brutal scorched-earth policy in 1069.

Walking the medieval cobblestoned streets, we stopped at two churches—All Saints and Holy Trinity Goodramgate. They were both pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon churches, built before The Conquest. As with all the old churches across Europe, some of its finest artwork—frescos, statues, stained-glass windows—was damaged or destroyed in the iconoclastic frenzy of the 16th-century Reformation. My expert guide John was able to show me where, over time, the architecture transitioned from Romanesque to early Gothic to later Gothic.

These and dozens of other places in York are living textbooks, with stones and wood arranged in ways both exotic and familiar. After all, steps are steps and roofs are roofs. But we know that material culture shapes the people in it. How did the dramatically limited light in these people’s lives affect their perception of color? How did the ongoing near-silence (no cars or planes, no electronics, no ringing phones or talking TVs) affect their response to a baby crying? Calf-deep in mud or straw most of their waking hours, how did they perceive the stone floor of a church?


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Day 7: Time Out for Trains

That sound you hear is Europe’s largest train museum calling me, right here in York. I didn’t even try to resist.

I spent most of today there, and barely scratched the surface of the place. The world’s first actual train (1831). The royal carriages designed by Queen Victoria and each of her various royal descendants, including Queen Elizabeth—truly palaces on wheels. The loco with the largest wheel ever (diameter 8.5’). The fastest steam train ever (125 mph). Dozens of glorious beasts with parts now all shiny, each one with a million soot-covered stories.

Specialty stuff: a hospital train that ferried the wounded away from WWI battlefields. The last steam locomotive ever built. A working turntable (with a cool demonstration). A diesel locomotive with the steel side panels cut away, exposing its innards. Perhaps best of all, a walkway built beneath a steam engine, providing a view of the machinery I certainly had never had before.

A knowledgeable and generous docent named David showed me around, his stories bringing the exhibits to life. He explained how a steam loco re-watered while driving 50 miles per hour, deftly sucking up thousands of gallons of water from strategically placed troughs along the tracks. “A train man had to be really good to manage that,” he understated. David also talked at length about the working partnership between driver and fireman. “The drivers made more money,” he said, “But they said the firemen had more skills.”

There was a huge exhibit about the Flying Scotsman, the name of both a famous train and a famous route—London-to-Edinburgh in just a few luxurious hours. After leaving active service the locomotive was almost scrapped. Public outcry (and private money) saved it—and a succession of famous owners have been exhibiting it (and losing money doing so) ever since.

The place was, of course, filled with kids. And although I didn’t enjoy their continuing squealing, I was glad they were there. We need to spark every generation’s engagement in the romance of this extraordinary technology that transformed the 19th century, making the 20th possible.

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Day 6: Medieval Abbeys, Connected By a Steam Train

Fully rested (and fully windblown), I finally bid farewell to the little seaside town of Redcar and headed south along the coast to another little seaside town, Whitby. Except this town hosted a blockbuster attraction—Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey started as a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea in North Yorkshire, which was a key area of the medieval kingdom of Northumbria (which kept changing hands over centuries of border wars).

As we crested a small hill the abbey suddenly appeared, floating between earth and sky. It is absolutely magnificent—enormous yet graceful. Although less than half of it remains, the site can’t really be called the abbey’s “ruins,” because it’s perfect exactly as is. The soaring height and broad size are plenty to take in.

Because it was built and modernized over several medieval centuries, the abbey combines several building styles. John helped me see the difference between Early Gothic and the subsequent Decorated Gothic—I do love those fancy windows. Like so much of “English” culture, Gothic design had first been used in France, and was imported into England in the late 1100s.

It’s esoteric but of lasting significance: In 664 the abbey hosted the Whitby Synod to reconcile local Celtic and Roman Christian practices. The Roman practices won out, including the date of Easter, which was then set for succeeding millennia.

Continuing south toward York, I stopped at Kirkham Priory. Unlike Whitby, the place was empty—in fact, a small wooden admission gate was locked (a full hour ahead of the posted closing time), and in the tradition of the self-sufficient Augustinians who had founded the place in 1122, we climbed over the fence and strolled around.

There were fewer buildings than at Whitby and they were smaller, but the place had a dignified beauty of its own. On the front of the gatehouse I saw the armorials of the main 12th-century benefactors sculpted onto the stone.

Because of its isolation, sheer walls, and nearby lakes, the site was used to test the vehicles and tactics used in D-Day—supervised by Winston Churchill himself. And apparently John has been hired multiple times to reenact Churchill responding to that challenge.

Both Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Priory suffered similar fates when King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries and seized all church land and property in the 1530s. The Catholic Church had owned about 1/3 of the country’s land, including its income (wool, wine, etc.), so seizing its property across the country created an enormous windfall for Henry.

And how had I travelled between Whitby and Kirkham? By steam train, a two-hour trip via the North York Moors historical railroad. I saw some lovely scenery inaccessible to cars, spoke at length to the on-board docent, heard the most beautiful 19th-century sounds of steam and rail, and got my share of soot on hair, clothes and hands. It was a slightly jarring interlude between medieval sites, but it was a calm two hours to reflect and relax.

Two revolutionary technologies: gothic architecture and the steam engine. Still very, very easy to admire each.

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Days 4 & 5: By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea…

I’m taking a break from the 15th century at a little seaside resort in 1962.

I had this brilliant idea of spending two days by the sea—walking for miles along a placid beach, sitting outside reading, after-dinner strolling through a quaint town. Well, note to self: the North Sea isn’t the Caribbean, ducky.

I’m in a gently shabby hotel in the gently shabby town of Redcar. My gently shabby room does face the sea—I’m close enough to see the sandpipers poking along just 25 feet away. But how windy is it here? Less than a mile away, clear as those birds, I can also see the silent sentinels of the offshore Teesside Wind Farm. Completed in 2013, the 27 vertical turbines are part of group of 40 such farms ringing the sea off the coasts of Germany, Denmark, Norway, and the UK.

Not exactly bikini countries, right?

I sat in the window of my room, reading, writing, and enjoying a cuppa. At high tide, the sea was rambunctious, white waves crashing against the wall of the two-lane road separating the water from my humble inn. Low tide, however, was a revelation: a quarter-mile of fine clean sand, lightly rippled by wind, leading right up to the water, now absolutely still.

So I bundled up and took a winter walk. It was, well, quite fresh out there. And glorious. Even when it (sigh) sprinkled a bit. And definitely when the sun came out, oblivious to the raindrops, which soon stopped. It was easy to imagine the burly Norsemen arriving here, wide-eyed, a thousand years ago—“Ay, Eric, pretty mild here!”
~ ~ ~
I couldn’t survive on just the traditional British food in the hotel, so I ventured into the little town a few times. It was mostly pubs, a few restaurants, and a bit of halfhearted commerce (including a barber shop called “The Barber Shop”). I ventured into a couple of small cafes over my two days here with mixed results. As is often true, the Asian place (here it was Thai, in Edinburgh, Indian) was best.

The tiny town was Central Casting come alive—twenty-something couples shepherding their three blonde children; elderly people calling each other Mum and Dad sipping pints at all hours; people smoking and speaking in accents so strong I could only understand half of what I overheard.

Across the two days, I asked locals their view of Brexit. Sometimes I didn’t even have to ask; as a foreigner I was sometimes enlightened on sight. The consensus here is that Brexit’s essential, and that Boris is heaven-sent. Why? To end ‘free movement’—“We can’t have the whole world just coming in here and living off Benefits,” as a taxi driver put it.

I didn’t argue, I just wanted to hear unedited opinions. So, let’s restrict the immigration of people like the Poles? “Nah, they’re OK, they work,” said a café manager. It was Middle Eastern people he was resentful about. And what about the predicted shortages of produce and medicine? “I don’t worry about all that international trade stuff,” he said.

Redcar is part of Britain’s depressed northern belt that hasn’t gotten much of the advantages of the 21st century. These people voted for the Brexit vision of turning the clock back a century to when Britain was powerful, self-sufficient, and everyone’s neighbor was, well, British. The world will never be that way again, of course.

If you haven’t been following Brexit, you might want to start. In just eight weeks Great Britain will start to collapse of a self-inflicted wound. Towns like Redcar will take it right back to 1962—years of agonizing slide into irrelevance, unemployment, bad food, and wondering where it all went wrong.

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Day 3: South Into England: The Wars Begin

Historian John Sadler arrived in the morning to start our drive south. He spoke more or less non-stop the entire day, which was at times tiring. But he is so breathtakingly knowledgeable, I really couldn’t get enough of either his narrative or cynical and dryly hilarious asides.

With the Firth of Forth (the bay on which Edinburgh sits) on our left, we headed east toward the North Sea—fully as rocky, wide and windy as advertised. The Vikings must have been incredibly tough to repeatedly cross this rough expanse 1200 years ago—and must have been ready for some serious plunder when they reached the shore.

Because these civil wars were spread out over much of north and central England, we aren’t doing this history trip in strict chronological order, The first battle was 300 miles south of here at St. Albans in 1455, where the Yorkists defeated King Henry VI, a Lancastrian. Five years later they actually captured the king, and a year after that, the Duke of York was crowned King Edward IV.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today, Bamburgh Castle was our first goal:
prime real estate occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, destroyed by the Vikings, rebuilt by the Normans, royal reward for a Crusader, prison of Scottish King David. Then in 1464, it was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, after a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick, commander of the Yorkist forces. And that’s why we’re here.

The castle is lovely. The Crown awarded it into private hands about 1600, where it has stayed ever since. In 1894 industrialist William Armstrong (whose gun innovations had made our Civil War even bloodier) bought it, and his family completed the restoration begun earlier.

Maybe it’s been restored a bit too much. I yearned for a bit more medieval and less Victorian. The building’s stones were a little too clean, too straight, and too, well, gray. Or not gray enough. I strolled the Great Hall where Warwick had his triumphant banquets. I couldn’t quite hear his harsh laugh.

This just whetted my appetite for old gray stone, so we continued a few miles south to Warkworth Castle, inside a loop of River Coquet, less than a mile from the coast. It was the day’s highlight.

Built sometime after the Norman conquest of 1066, the castle changed hands often during three hundred years of border wars with Scotland and internal English strife. King Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”) gave the castle to the powerful Percy family in 1416, who supported the Lancastrians. When the Yorkists won at St. Albans and Towton, Edward IV confiscated all the Percy property, including Warkworth. It went back and forth in the succeeding decades of warfare.

We had the place to ourselves on an overcast but mild day. The place hadn’t been rebuilt, but wasn’t falling apart, either. Interior stairways led to intact vaulted storerooms, kitchens, and other chambers. The late-medieval tower was safe enough to walk through, with magnificent views of the river and current town below. With its strategic views and source of water, this site had been perfectly selected.

The architecture was both familiar and exotic, combining French/Norman, Scottish, and later English elements. The king’s chapel was especially beautiful, even without the colorful tapestries, stained glass, and rugs that would have enswathed it. It felt both cozy and regal.

Castles were essentially walled towns. Soon it was time to leave Warkworth’s beautiful old stones and head to the seaside for a few days of rest.

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Day 2: Walking Tour of Edinburgh: Scotland Really Is A Separate Country

The place we now call Edinburgh has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years. When the Romans arrived they found a thriving Celtic community. The area eventually passed to a fierce tribe of medieval Angles (as in Anglo-Saxon), who lost it to the Picts, who lost it to the Scots. It was chartered as a royal city some 800 years ago.

And it’s gorgeous.

I’ve explored the Old Town for two days, a charming tangle of medieval, Renaissance, Georgian, and Victorian lanes and buildings. Its architecture and culture have a subtle French influence, the result of centuries of cooperating with a common enemy, England.

Everywhere I go I see that Scotland is its own country, with its own language, customs, religion, and aspirations.  And its own history, with as colorful a cast as any country I’ve ever seen: national hero Robert the Bruce, who led the First War of Scottish Independence Against England in 1314. Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned by her half-sister Queen Elizabeth for 19 years. Mary’s son James, the Scottish king who also wore the crown of England. Oliver Cromwell, who occupied Edinburgh in 1650 to punish it for supporting the Restoration of the Stuarts.

And then the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution both apparently started right here in Edinburgh. Statues to David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, James Watt, and others dot the city. I also learned how the loss of supplies of raw cotton during the American Civil War forced Scotland to diversify, and then develop world-class industries building ships and locomotives.

I went to the Scottish National Museum, documenting century after century of warfare, coinage, diplomacy, and maritime commerce. Yes, they’re a nation. I ended the day with a drive through the New Town, a sophisticated urban center outside the ancient city walls. “It looks a bit like Dublin,” I told my guide. “Yes,” he nodded, “They were built at the very same time.”

I’m here only 48 hours and already love this place. Fortunately, the weather combines all the charm of Chicago and Seattle, so I’m safe from any impulses to emigrate.

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Day 1: Edinburgh, Jewel of Scotland

Scotland and England have had an uneasy relationship for a thousand years. And no place in Scotland resonates with this history more than Edinburgh–which is where I found myself on day 1 of my trip.

Windy, cloudy, warm, cold–I had typical Scottish weather in just my first hour here (It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, which will complete the deluxe weather package). But the buildings surrounding me more than made up for it. Even my hotel is part of the atmosphere. That’s my window in the turret, above the R in Radisson.

But wait, climb the Royal Mile up Castle Hill with me. I passed St. Giles Cathedral, centerpiece of the Scottish Reformation. Fiery theologian (read: serious troublemaker) John Knox was installed as minister here in 1559, and it’s now known as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism. I passed it three times in one day, and each time the stones were a different color–once shimmering in the sun, once shivering in the wind, and once quietly watching  the sun set,  tourists scurrying off for tea or Glenlivet.

The climax of the walk uphill is the castle itself. I’m afraid words can’t do it justice. It’s massive, graceful, cleverly built atop a small plug of volcanic basalt, hardest rock on earth. like every ancient building it’s been repurposed, renovated, burned, and rebuilt over and over.

The ceiling of the Great Hall was built by some 600 years ago by marine architects–so of course it looks like an inverted ship’s hull. Tiny St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building in the city (around 1124), honoring Scotland’s first saint.


The clock tower is stately, backing up to the sheer drop that made the castle site so perfect.

My favorite part of the castle was one in which no photos are allowed–the War Memorial honoring the tens of thousands of people who had died fighting in Scotland’s various wars. Looking around, I saw centuries of regimental colors–and loss, and grief–from around the globe. Gallipoli, Suez, Cuba, India, Falklands, America.

A quote from Thucidydes beautifully summarized the enormous death and profound respect surrounding me:

“The whole earth is the tomb of heroes; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”

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Coming Up: The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles that took place across England between 1455-1485. Battling for the English crown, the civil war lasted through the reigns (and untimely deaths) of kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III (“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”).

Fought between the York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose) families until there were no male heirs left, the winner was neither–it was Henry Tudor, who founded the dynasty that begat Henry VIII (of the 6 wives) and Queen Elizabeth I (of Shakespeare’s day).

I’ll start with three nights in Edinburgh, Scotland, and travel for two weeks through northern England visiting castles, touring battlefields, exploring the city of York and ending, ironically, at the tomb of Richard III–discovered when the locals in Leicester were excavating a site for a new parking lot.

My amazing guide will be military historian John Sadler, author, BBC consultant, and one of the world’s experts on medieval England.

I leave August 27. Do scroll up to my photo and sign up to get notified of my almost-daily posts and photos.


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A Week in Medieval France

My college roommate–let’s call him James for privacy’s sake–grew up to be wealthy, famous, and good-looking. I appear to have escaped all three of these fates.

When he recently invited me to spend a few days with him at his apartment in Cannes, I readily accepted. Thus I will be spending the first week in June in the south of France, also known as Provence (click on map above).

It’s called Provence because it was the first province of Rome beyond the Alps. Indeed, some people say the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world are there. I’ve seen my share of these gorgeous ruins in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Slovenia, as well as in Rome itself (take that, James!), so I’ll let you know.

Prior to the Roman conquest, Hannibal marched the armies of Carthage through Provence on their way to Italy. I don’t expect to see any elephants, but again, I’ll let you know.

Rome eventually collapsed, as did the marauding Germanic tribes that succeeded them. After being ruled by the Counts of Provence for over 600 years, the area became part of France in 1486. Like Sicily, Catalonia, and Brooklyn, Provence has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity.

I’ll land in Marseilles, drive to Cannes, and soak up some sun. First stop after that: the hill town of Grasse, the world’s perfume capital. The factories there are older than America. After that I’ll turn west to explore towns and cathedrals built in the Middle Ages.

Thanks for joining me.

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Day 9: Ending the Trip Where It All Began

Today was a lazy day: a walk on the wide windswept beach of Sullivan’s Island, and a cruise around Charleston Harbor. The star of that show, of course, is Fort Sumter.

Built by the federal government after the War of 1812, South Carolina claimed it January 31, 1861 as tensions rose after Lincoln’s election. Governor Francis Pickens demanded that President James Buchanan surrender the fort because “I regard [federal] possession is not consistent with the dignity or safety of the State of South Carolina.”

When Buchanan and then Lincoln refused to surrender the fort, South Carolina blockaded it. When the fort’s supplies dwindled, Washington sent a ship to resupply it; the state then fired on both the ship and the fort. War was on—and Lincoln had maneuvered the South into starting it.

Exactly where I’d walked yesterday, the grandees of Charleston lined Battery Street to watch the bombardment.  The porches of the magnificent town homes I’d strolled by were the best seats in town.


So what have we learned here? It will take many weeks for me to integrate my time here.

Some say history repeats itself. It’s more accurate to say it rhymes, it echoes, it twists and turns and revisits itself.

Charleston was a city of Revolutionary War patriots—Fort Sumter was named after one of its heroes—and less than a century later, became a city of traitors. Or patriots, depending on your point of view.

Were the North and South two countries at war, or were the Confederates merely criminals?

Lincoln was remarkably flexible on this point, depending on his political needs. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been an illegal government seizure of legal property unless slaves were property that contributed to a foreign power’s war effort. Ironic, that: to free the slaves, Lincoln had to declare them property.

Since Charleston lacks mountains or quarries, Fort Sumter was built with seventy tons of New England granite. That must have been some government contract. It isn’t hard to imagine that people in both the North and South made a fortune on it. They lived in the same country—the country of money.

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Day 8: Charleston, SC: Ellis Island of African-American Slavery

Charleston is as “ancient” as a U.S. city can possibly be, and today I took a wonderful walking tour of this gorgeous city.

My incredibly knowledgeable tour guide could not stop talking, one story inevitably cascading into another. Everywhere we walked, the colonial, Revolutionary War, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction era were entangled right in front of me. The hill the British army marched down from is the same the Union army marched down 87 years later.

My hotel is on King Street—the oldest street in town, named after King Charles II, who awarded the land grant here almost 400 years ago. Of course, I’m also near evocatively named Queen Street, Cannon Street, and Market Street.

Evidence of staggering plantation wealth (first indigo, then rice, then cotton) is everywhere in the city—from the homes to the street layout to the monuments.

Charleston is called the Holy City because of the number and diversity of its religious institutions. Unlike other 17th century “American” communities, there were no religious restrictions here (except people had to believe in “One God”). 

You’ll recall, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was limited to Puritans. And utopian early Savannah explicitly excluded Catholics (and lawyers, but that’s another story).

Yet the plantation wealth and the religious freedom here had a darker side—the enslavement of African people. The more I learn about it, the worse it gets.

Charleston imported almost half of all slaves in the American colonies—the Ellis Island for Africans. When an occasional black was able to buy his freedom, his first step was to try to save money to purchase his wife—because he’d have rights over her as property, whereas as an enslaved woman, she’d have none. My guide described this as smart African couples gaming the slavery system; he was loudly disdainful about anyone claiming that this proved slavery wasn’t so bad.

The tiny shacks of free blacks were a huge contrast to the opulent homes of their former masters. I saw Boundary Street—south of which even free blacks couldn’t walk.

Ironically, it’s been renamed Calhoun Street, after States Rightist John C. Calhoun. Why is his statue so much taller than all the other local monuments? Apparently because people kept defacing it when it was at street level.

I saw the home in which Calhoun convened a committee in 1820 to articulate the Nullification policy, in which they said any state could ignore any federal laws they decided were unconstitutional—such as those limiting slavery. Later the house would be owned by Aaron Burr’s daughter.

I walked on opulent Legare Street. Named for the wealthy, mean-spirited cotton merchant living there, it’s pronounced “Luh-Gree”—which Harriet Beecher Stowe named her villainous slave-owner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On and on we walked—wealth and cruelty, history and more history, irony and more irony.

And off in the distance, sitting serenely in the harbor, if I squinted through the heavy sunlight, I could see Fort Sumter.

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Day 7: A Cultural Tourist Meets His Tribe

I had one more stop in Savannah: the Georgia Railroad Museum.

Train museums are repositories of great industrial beasts and fascinating human stories. The best ones not only collect stuff, they research, repair, and save our heritage from permanent destruction.

History, of course, is all connected. It isn’t sorted neatly into categories like transportation, health, the military, and recreation. For example, the bicycle radically changed women’s clothing. Air conditioning shifted the American population south and west, altering U.S. politics. Trains themselves led to the invention of time zones in 1883.

The Central of Georgia Railway began in the 1830s, led by William Washington Gordon,  whose statue I’d seen in Savannah. The company quickly grew and built a machine shop, foundry, upholstery shop, paint shop, and even a print shop. I saw that complex today—which is now focused on restoring and displaying old trains.

The Railway saw itself as a community institution, running a large hospital and using progressive labor policies. But legal maneuvering and hostile takeovers resulted in the railroad going bankrupt and reorganizing around the turn of the century, and again after WWII.

The whole enterprise was then bought for scrap, and the specially-made (by slaves) bricks called Savannah Grey started selling. When local people in the 1960s noticed the 150-year-old showpiece brick tower getting smaller and smaller they went to court, invoked a century-old clause in the corporate contract, and many years later got the railway buildings back, turning them into a museum—not just of trains, but of a way of life.

And that’s why historical preservation is important—they are a living textbook of various ways of life that are in the process of simply disappearing. Or already have.

I toured the machine shop, entered some of the cars being restored (including a Jim Crow car that separated Negroes from Whites), and was transported. I’ve heard that only heartless people don’t love dogs. Nah…but what kind of person doesn’t like trains?

My last stop in the train museum was the most poignant. As Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia in 1864 tearing up the railroads (so they couldn’t transport Confederate troops, food, or exports), they became quite efficient at it. They’d periodically pull up the wooden ties, build enormous fires with them, toss in a few rails, and when they were red-hot, twist the rails around trees so they could never be repaired. The result was called a Sherman Necktie.

I saw a real one today. It testified to war, and hate, and humans’ extraordinary power to both create and destroy.

Leaving the museum I headed northeast to Charleston. Crossing the Savannah River, a sign welcomed me to South Carolina’s Cultural Tourism Corridor.

That’s me, I thought—a Cultural Tourist. I had chosen this area for vacation (instead of, say, Palm Springs, Las Vegas or Orlando), had flown across the continent, and was spending my time and money right here examining the past.

And so were those strangers with whom I’d toured the railroad museum, and those other strangers whom I’d seen walking the paths of Kennesaw Mountain and those other strangers getting windblown at Fort Jackson.

I smiled, driving the hundred miles to the next rendezvous with my tribe. We’re meeting at Fort Sumter and a 200-year-old synagogue and Charleston’s City Hall. We’re keeping the past alive.

It’s a noble pursuit.

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Day 6: My Tour de Forts

Although Union General Sherman outnumbered Confederate General Hardee 7 to 1 (with troops that were better equipped, better led, and convinced of their destiny), it took Sherman 10 days of maneuvering to capture the city.

The reason is the ring of historic forts that encircle Savannah. I saw four of them today on a breathtaking tour with five military historians, researchers, and re-enactors. Although I was the ostensible reason for the gathering, I quickly became small fry tagging along. They avidly swapped details of weapons, uniforms, and events, and laughed at each others’ sophisticated jokes that I simply didn’t get.

I loved it.

We started at Fort Jackson, a Revolutionary War fort guarding the narrowest part of the Savannah River (now guarded by a Hyatt and Westin), some seven miles from the ocean. Anticipating a war with France or Britain, President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the earthen structure to be rebuilt with brick.

I stood on the high rampart feeling the two-century old cold, stiff wind coming off the river. It was hard to imagine the swampy air, thick with huge mosquitos and tiny gnats, that killed way more soldiers than enemy gunpowder. As important as this location was, it was considered an awful assignment.

Next we drove to Fort Boggs—or its remains. One of our party had arranged for the Savannah Country Club (established 1794) to let us onto their grounds. The place is normally closed on Mondays, so our little group (plus three excited Club VIPs) had the place to ourselves.

We found miles of earthworks that had been the star-shaped fort, protecting Savannah’s east. Boggs had a large number of huge cannons, and our historians eagerly compared old maps to determine the exact locations of the various weapons. The sharpest-eyed among us also found several pieces of period pottery as we walked from mound to mound. Better than a hole-in-one any day.Thanking our Club VIPs, we caravanned south to isolated Rose Dhu Island, now used as a 300-acre camp by the national Girl Scouts. Tramping almost an hour through brush, we saw miles of earthworks, rifle pits, connector trenches, and the heights on which cannons had guarded the Little Ogeechee River just a few miles from the Atlantic.

After a quick late lunch, we sped west to Fort McAllister, at which two of our historians had each worked. On the south bank of the meandering Ogeechee River, observed the very pragmatic architecture of the enormous earthen-walled fort, and walked underground to barracks, powder magazines, and other structures. We saw black cannons along with their wooden carriages, ramrods, and other equipment.

After arriving at the well-guarded city of Savannah, Sherman had decided that this would be the place he’d make contact with the U.S. Navy and its much-needed supplies. After getting his forces into place, Sherman watched from across the river as a depleted Confederate army surrendered. The exposed city would quickly fall in the coming week.

In earlier, far less heady days, these were the same Union troops Sherman had personally led—as a division commander at Shiloh, and as a corps commander at Vicksburg.

His triumph on this very spot, which I had anticipated through eight months of vacation planning and studying, had me feeling melancholy. In only two days I had developed a crush on Savannah, with its sad history just below its elegant surface.

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Day 5: “I Beg to Present to You the Gift of Savannah…”

It was painful to drag myself away from Dr. Bob and Milledgeville, but my longest drive beckoned. I had three hours of rural Georgia ahead of me—towns with names like Black Creek, Willie, and Social Circle, each with one or two hundred people. The rolling hills rolled by without gas stations, billboards, or anything else to mar (or enliven) the landscape.

I finally pulled into Savannah at dusk, and after checking into the Hyatt, I strolled the waterfront. A gigantic container ship from Hong Kong slid gracefully by. Then it was time to write, stretch, and sleep. 

The next day, I met Kelse, my guide for the day. He tried to stick to the civil war, but in a history-rich place like Savannah, it was impossible.

The story begins in 1732 when Georgia is founded by British philanthropist, member of Parliament, and social reformer James Oglethorpe. When he arrives with some 100 Europeans, he immediately becomes lifelong friends with local Creek Indian chieftain Tomochichi, who gives him land to build Savannah.

Oglethorpe divides the city’s land into open squares surrounded by houses, churches, and shops. This open-space-based-grid is unique in America, and gives Savannah a wonderful airy yet intimate feel.

I walked the town (population today less than 200,000), stopping in the various squares to admire the statues, greenery, and houses. Here was John Wesley, founder of Methodism. There was William Washington Gordon, who quit as Savannah’s mayor to start Georgia’s first railroad. And over there was the house in which Gordon’s granddaughter Juliette Gordon Lowe was born. Lowe later began the Girl Scouts.

The city’s location on the Savannah River destined it to be a merchant city. I saw the clever way warehouses were built below the river front street to ease loading and unloading cargo.  And I saw the gorgeous red brick Cotton Exchange Building, eventually the cotton trading center of the world, where world-wide prices and quality standards were set.
On December 10, 1864, Sherman arrived here with some 60,000 men. Ten thousand confederate soldiers had dug into fortified positions after flooding the area’s rice fields to limit his access into the city.

After a short battle at nearby Fort McAllister Sherman’s cavalry prevailed, and he was reinforced by the Union navy and artillery. Sherman offered surrender terms to Confederate General Hardee. Rather than fight or surrender, Hardee and his men escaped under cover of night.

The next morning Mayor Richard Arnold led a civic delegation offering the keys to the city if Sherman would protect Savannah’s people and property. Sherman accepted and occupied the city. I sat in front of the elegant house in which he lived and worked.

On December 21, Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns [cannons] and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

As he had promised Grant and Lincoln, Sherman had indeed marched to the sea.

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