September 8


For three hundred years, after the Norman Conquest, English was the third language of Englishmen, who spoke French at Court (and in Parliament, when first there was a Parliament), who wrote or recited Latin in their studies and prayers, and regarded English as a peasant tongue whose dialects were so multifarious that what was spoken, say, in Winchester – where the King had his court – was barely comprehensible in Yorkshire – in whose dales and valleys the Anglo-Saxon and the Viking were beginning to coalesce. And as to the residue of Jute and Fresian, or the Gaelic and Celtic languages spoken at the fringes of the country…

Then, as now, French symbolised power, wealth and sophistication, to the point that bourgeois language, the jargon of the avant garde and the à la mode, is French, and it remains de rigeur to drink wine, not beer, and in a wine bar not a public house, if one wishes to demonstrate savoir faire in the best milieu of all the proper social circles. As Walter Scott (a Scotsman, as his name indicates) famously pointed out, peasants breed pigs and bulls, but the masters eat pork and beef.

Henry II ruled a vast empire, encompassing all of France and Britain, but his capital was in Poitiers, and he never set foot in England save when circumstances made it unavoidable. His successor, Richard I, spent less than a year in England all his life, seeing the Duchy of Aquitaine, which he inherited from his mother, the extraordinary Eleanor, as a far more princely throne. Richard, who was born this day in 1157, almost certainly spoke not a single word of English. He is remembered, Frenchly, as Coeur de Lion; what is forgotten is that he was yet one more mediaeval king whose reign ended vaingloriously – in a war against his former lover, Philip of France, in futile battle at the castle of Chaluz. He died and was buried where he had lived in heart and spirit all his life, in France, and his only significant appearance in England, for his coronation, was also the occasion of one of the worst anti-Semitic atrocities in English history. He also bankrupted the country, requiring it to pay 150,000 Marks for his ransom after he was captured on the way home from a failed Crusade. Why then is he remembered with such affection as their favourite English king, and his the statue that stands (see illustration) in prominent position, between the entrances to the Houses of the Commons and the Lords, at Westminster?

Amber pages

Ludovico Ariosto, the other great Italian poet, after Dante, born today in 1474

Anton Dvorak, the other great Czech composer, after Smetana, born today in 1841

Siegfried Sassoon, the other great English war poet, after Wilfred Owen, born today in 1886

And lesser than these three, but unmissable from my personal catalogue:

Alfred Jarry, French surrealist poet and playwright ("Ubu Roi" especially), born today in 1873

Freddie Mercury, or Farrokh Bulsara really, when he was named in his native Zanzibar, before Zanzibar became democratic Tanzania and he became the Queen of Bohemian Rhapsody; born today in 1946

The first (known, modern) circumnavigation of the globe was completed today in 1522, by the Spaniard Juan de Elcano, a name not much remembered (add him to my list of Sherpa Tenzings on July 24 and elsewhere), because the glory is given to his captain, Ferdinand Magellan. But Magellan didn't complete the voyage; he was stabbed to death in a stupid engagement with indigenes at Mactan in the Philipines on April 27th 1521. Elcano took charge and brought the ship safely home (see September 20). The British, of course, claim that Drake was the first to achieve this achievement, sailing into the Pacific on July 23rd 1579. Fifty years behind, Brits; fifty years behind!

The first permanent European settlement in North America, Saint Augustine in Florida, was founded today in 1664 - much more about this gorgeous little town when the book of my American road-trip is published, sometime soon.

The Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam to the British, today in 1565 - New York, as it would later be renamed

And today in 1980, Willard Frank Libby (not to be confused with G. Gordon Libby, who made his name at Watergate), the inventor of "carbon dating," died, though there is some dispute about this date. Forensic evidence of his skeleton, using the Carbon-C method, suggests an energy depletion from 160keV to just 159.9888keV, so he may in fact have died yesterday.

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