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