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NA541012 - MARSHALL, H.E.: Our Island Story, Vol. 2 (Unabridged)
The Magna Carta—the Great Charter—was a milestone in the social and political development of England. King John was forced to admit that he didn’t have total supreme control and that his subjects were entitled to have a say in things too.
The great event at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, when the Magna Carta was signed by King John, gives us a vivid picture of a time when the barons supported the rights of the people.
However, we know about the past not only through major political events, wars, the passage of kings and queens, and official records such as the Doomsday Book. We also gain much information through the art of the times—not just paintings and sculptures, but the written word, architecture and music too.
Our Island Story, first published in 1905, is an enjoyable summary of Britain’s history by the children’s writer Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall. This recording covers the reign of England by two families: the Plantagenets and the Tudors. Henry II was the first Plantagenet king when he came to the throne in 1154; and the dominance of the family lasted until Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, more than 300 years later.
The victor on that day was Henry IV, the first of the Tudors. The reign of his family didn’t last for three centuries—in fact, it lasted for little more than one century. Queen Elizabeth I was the final Tudor sovereign, before King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. He was the first of the Stuarts.
Artistic life changed quite a lot in those four and a half centuries. The Plantagenet reign took place in the medieval period, and the Catholic Church was a dominant force in artistic life. It was a time when the great Gothic cathedrals were built: those in Gloucester, York, Wells, Ely and Durham, for example. These large and magnificent building projects were ambitious for the age and costly to build. Each incredible example of tall, shaped stone, thrusting up to the sky, could take as long as one hundred years to complete.
These cathedrals needed sacred music for the monks to sing. In the early medieval period, before the Plantagenents, the choral music was quite simple. There was Gregorian chant: nobody knew who wrote it and all the monks sang it in unison. But as the centuries went by, the music became more complex, with different lines being sung by different voices. For the first time, the names of individual composers began to emerge: John Dunstable (c. 1390–1453) lived in the reign of Henry VI; and Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521), born during the reign of Edward IV, lived into the reign of Henry VIII.
There was also secular music—music which was not for religious purposes. It was by ordinary people for ordinary people, because music has always been an important part of everyday life. It was played in towns and villages by local musicians and travelling minstrels. But generally the music was not written down—people played by ear and passed on tunes from generation to generation. So we can only guess what it sounded like from the few pieces of written music (in quite simple notation) that survive.
There was travelling theatre, but most of the plays were based on religious stories; or if they did involve ordinary life, there was always a moral at the end. People liked laughing, of course (life was hard but not always miserable!), and there were entertainers such as clowns, acrobats, dancers and animal trainers. We know about all these mainly through passages and illustrations in books.
Books were rare, precious and expensive—but they did exist. The written word played an increasingly important role in the medieval world. This was despite the fact that before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all books were copied by hand.
Sometimes, in the big monasteries, there would be large rooms where one monk would read from a book and lines of other monks seated at rows of desks would write down what they heard. Many of these books would also be beautifully illustrated, with tiny drawings of animals or people decorating a letter at the start of a paragraph.
The books were mainly religious, containing stories from the Bible or writings of monks. Some great folk tales from the past were written down, like Beowulf, and some poems. Increasingly, just as composers did, individual authors began to emerge. One of the first whom we know about was William Langland: he wrote Piers Plowman, the story in verse of a humble ploughman, in 1362.
At the end of the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) wrote his long poem The Canterbury Tales, which gives us one of the most colourful pictures of medieval life in England.
Books, and reading, became more widespread after 1474 when William Caxton (c.1422–1491) started printing books in England. Two of his first books were Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
As the circulation of books grew, they began to play a major role in society’s development. Many more people started to think for themselves, and not just do what they were told to do by the Church and their lords and masters. This marked a new period in European history called the Renaissance (which means ‘rebirth’). A keen interest in the arts and education spread across Europe—and that included England.
The arts themselves changed too. Composers still wrote music for the Church despite battles between the Catholics and the Protestants. In the reigns of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis wrote beautiful, lofty choral music to be sung in church. But they, and many others, also wrote secular music that has survived through the years—because music, like words, was printed and distributed around the country. There was music for the organ and other keyboard instruments, and for small orchestras. Other composers such as John Dowland wrote songs for lute and voice. At the Tudor court, words, and their inventive and gracious use, were prized.
Courtiers, and explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, wrote poetry. And it was at this time that great dramatists emerged. Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) wrote Dr Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great. Then came William Shakespeare (1564–1616). His great plays—Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and many others—form one of the most important bodies of work ever to be produced by one man. Theatres, such as the Globe in Southwark, were built specifically for such plays to be performed.
Shakespeare didn’t only write plays. As he produced one masterpiece after another, he invented many new words. Most people who speak English throughout the world will probably say words invented by Shakespeare a few times a week—though they may not realise that he invented them. Among ‘Shakespeare’s words’ are ‘lonely’, ‘fixture’, ‘torture’, ‘advertising’, ‘blanket’ and ‘birthplace’. It is said that he invented some 1,700 words which we use regularly.
Castles and cathedrals are the main medieval buildings that have survived, as well as some grand banqueting halls. But among the most distinctive Tudor buildings are the wooden houses seen in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon; the big country houses such as Hatfield House (where the young Elizabeth was told that Queen Mary was dead and she was now Queen of England); and very ornate chapels such as the one in Kings College, Cambridge.
Painting also began to play a prominent role in life. During the medieval period, most painting concentrated on religious subjects, and was relatively undeveloped. But as the Renaissance flowered during the early Tudor period, painting in England became increasingly sophisticated. That is why we have strong portraits of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein and portraits of other leading men of his day; and of Queen Elizabeth I and her court life. We even have exquisite miniatures by artists such as Nicholas Hilliard.
It was during the Renaissance, too, that people began to take a renewed interest in the great times of Classical Greece and Rome—their architecture and their writing. This also had a strong influence on poetry, drama and other art forms in Tudor times: we can see it in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.
So, artistic life developed considerably from the time of the Magna Carta and the Plantagenets to the end of the Tudors and the beginning of the Stuarts. Religion continued to play a key part in music, the written word, the visual arts and architecture. However, the lives of ordinary people became increasingly reflected in various art forms, and this contributed to a broader and more lively development.
As Shakespeare writes in As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII):
Notes by Nicolas Soames
John reigned 17 years, from 1199 to 1216 A.D.
Henry VII reigned 24 years, from 1485 to 1509 A.D.
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