Friday, 29 October 2021

Maggie's Gospel: The Sermon on the Mound (Thursday 18 November)

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in May 1979. In 1981 Ronald Reagan assumed office as President of the United States and Francois Mitterand was elected President of France. The next year, 1982, saw the election of Helmut Kohl as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. Thatcher retained office for 11 years, Reagan for eight (the maximum permitted), Mitterand for 14, and Kohl for 16. Whatever anyone thinks of their politics - and they all, inevitably, faced crises and controversy - they were giants of late twentieth century history. It is worthwhile to observe also that Leonid Brezhnev, long-serving leader of the Soviet Union, died in November 1982, to be succeeded eventually, from 1985, by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms went further than even he imagined.

Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister for nine years when, on 21 May 1988, she addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The General Assembly Hall is situated on the artificial hill in Edinburgh known as the Mound.

In her address, which came to be known as 'the Sermon on the Mound', Thatcher offered a theological justification for her ideas on capitalism and the market economy. What was expected to be merely a formal engagement became the focus of a storm of controversy about politics, faith and morality.

Thatcher emphasised individualism, choice and wealth production while making an idiosyncratic and ambivalent reference to democracy. She stressed the individual's responsibility to take care of themselves. She said, 'Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.' She linked the idea of free will with consumer choice. She praised the role of private enterprise in wealth production, quoting St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians: 'If a man will not work he shall not eat.' On democracy she observed, 'Nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned.'

Thatcher was preaching to a church and a nation that had mostly rejected her ideology, but the reverberations of the speech travelled far beyond Scotland. For those of us who lived, vividly, through the Thatcher years it is easy now to overlook the fact that she was ousted from the premiership by her own party's MPs 31 years ago. 

For our November lecture we welcome Dr Clifford Williamson of Bath Spa University who will seek to reevaluate 'the Sermon on the Mound' and its contribution to our understanding of Margaret Thatcher and the political ideology associated with her.

Mike Short

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Medieval Queens: Ruling Women in a Man's World (Thursday 21 October)

The names of many medieval queens are readily recognised by people who read and study the history of the Middle Ages: Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), Empress Matilda (1102-1167) and Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) are examples.

Few were queens regnant, ruling as monarchs in their own right. Isabella I of Castile was. She married Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting the two realms and laying the foundations of Spain and, famously in 1492, sending Columbus to the New World. Margaret I of Denmark (1353-1412) was queen regnant. Empress Matilda, married to the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, would have been queen regnant of England if the wishes of her father, Henry I, had been fulfilled.

Medieval queens were usually the wives or mothers of kings. Given the tendency of royal families to intermarry they were often the sisters or daughters of kings too. They were women who lived in and probably ran the royal households. They were very close to the centres of power, knew what was going on and were commonly kings' most trusted advisers. When a king travelled to distant realms, perhaps to defend or gain territory, he might well appoint his wife regent to assume the responsibilities of day-to-day government in his place. Matilda of Scotland (1080-1118) was the wife and regent of Henry I of England. Philippa of Hainault (1313-1369) fulfilled the same roles for Edward III. The formidable Margaret of Anjou was Henry VI's wife and regent.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, merits a lecture - and more - to herself. She was married first to King Louis VII of France, then to Henry II of England. Among her ten children were a count and countesses of Champagne, Blois and Poitiers, a duchess of Saxony, a duke of Brittany, queens of Castile and Sicily, and King Richard I and King John of England.

These were women who ruled, at least some of the time, in the 'man's world' of medieval Europe. Who some of them were and how they were able to exercise power and influence is the focus of Dr Ellie Woodacre's lecture on 21 October. Ellie is Reader in Renaissance History at the University of Winchester.

Mike Short  

Monday, 6 September 2021

Building a Righteous Nation: Religion in the political construction and disintegration of the United States 1787-1861 (Thursday 23 September)

Religious conviction and affiliation have been and remain fundamental components of being American since the first ships carried hundreds of Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century in search of new lives. Many who settled and founded colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America sought the freedom to worship in ways they believed to be correct. The Rhode Island colony was founded on the principle of religious freedom, while some Puritans, who had left Europe to escape persecution for their beliefs, expelled dissenters from their own communities. Quakers founded Pennsylvania, Catholics Maryland. Lutherans and members of small Christian sects came from the German states. Jewish refugees fleeing Dutch Brazil settled on Long Island (New Amsterdam/York).

As the War of American Independence (1775-1783) brought together the thirteen colonies of British America and a new nation was born, religious freedom was a primary concern of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were all active in their local churches but keen to avoid religious dogma and strife. The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, had a strong secular character, and its First Amendment (1791), part of the Bill of Rights, sought to ensure freedom of religion.

Our first speaker of the new season, Professor Richard Carwardine, has taken 1787 as the starting point for his lecture Building a Righteous Nation: Religion in the political construction and disintegration of the United States 1787-1861. The 'disintegration' of his title relates to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Its central cause was slavery. The schism was between the Northern states (the Union) and the South (the Confederate States of America). Methodists, Northern Baptists and Congregationalists usually supported the war effort, though Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and conservative Presbyterians were wary of dividing their members. Richard Carwardine has argued that many Methodists regarded the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God in America. The Confederate States were overwhelmingly Protestant. Both free people and slaves identified with evangelical Protestantism, but slavery divided the evangelical denominations.

Some members will remember Richard Carwardine speaking on Abraham Lincoln: Myth, Legacy and Reality at Green Park Station in February 2012. Those who do will be pleased to welcome him back to Bath for what is likely to be a stimulating lecture.

Mike Short            

Monday, 9 August 2021

The 2021-22 season

 A new season of lectures and visits beckons the members and supporters of the Historical Association's Bath branch. We must all hope that it is able to proceed without let or hindrance after the Covid-related disruptions towards the end of the 2019-20 season and throughout 2020-21.

The branch committee was grateful for the enthusiastic support given by so many members to the two limited-audience lectures and four presented online using Zoom that did take place between September 2020 and May 2021.And what a joy it was for the 24 of us who were able to visit Old Bowlish House one afternoon in June under conditions that were almost normal.

As I write we do not yet know whether our occupancy of Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution will be affected by ongoing restrictions, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Any limit on numbers is likely to be much higher than was the case last autumn, and there may be no special limit at all. The branch itself may need to decide its own policy about the wearing of face coverings. This website will carry any relevant information, and members will be informed by email.

The new season incorporates seven lectures, one of which will be given using Zoom. A twice-postponed visit to the Merchant's House, Marlborough, is again planned for May. The branch committee hopes to be able to organise a special pre-Christmas event in December. There is likely to be another visit in June and a guided walk on the Lansdown battlefield. Other special events, including one in London, are being considered.

For now, it is a pleasure to be able to list for you the seven lectures for 2021-22 and one of the visits. Let us hope that they will take us forward to an even better 'normal'.

Thursday 23 September 2021
Building a Righteous Nation: Religion in the political construction and disintegration of the United States 1787-1861
Professor Richard Carwardine (Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford)

Thursday 21 October 2021
Medieval Queens: Ruling Women in a Man's World
Dr Ellie Woodacre (University of Winchester)

Thursday 18 November 2021
Maggie's Gospel: the Sermon on the Mound
Dr Clifford Williamson (Bath Spa University)

Thursday 20 January 2022
Illuminating conversion: manuscripts from the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms
Professor Joanna Story (University of Leicester)
This lecture will be given using Zoom. It will not take place at Bath Royal.

Thursday 24 February 2022
Louis XVI and the French Revolution
Professor William Doyle (University of Bristol)

Thursday 24 March 2022
'That Epidemical Madness': Women and elections in eighteenth-century England
Professor Elaine Chalus (University of Liverpool)

Thursday 28 April 2022
Royal Attitudes to the Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Professor Suzanne Schwarz (University of Worcester)

Thursday 19 May 2022
Members' Visit to the Merchant's House, Marlborough

All lectures will begin at 7.30 pm at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square. I will introduce each lecture in this diary.

Finally, a note about BRLSI. Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution - known variously as 'Brizzly' or 'Brilsi' - has decided to rebrand as 'Bath Royal'. The Historical Association wishes it well and looks forward to continuing to enjoy its facilities.

Mike Short