Wednesday 18 May 2016

Wiseing Up after Dumbing Down

For so long 'dumbing down' has been the path taken by many institutions. The National Trust and English Heritage have sometimes seemed determined to turn the country into a kiddies' theme park. Is there just the beginning of a return to sanity, a real attempt to recognise the history of the places in their care? Certainly the latest English Heritage members' magazine has given me some hope. Instead of highlighting the "Murder Mystery" events taking place at Rievaulx this summer, they have a major article on ILLUMINATING THE PAST.

Rievaulx: in the care of English Heritage
It is not long since the history of Monasticism was either ignored (as the National Trust would do at such sites as Mottisfont - Rex Whistler and rose beds being far more entertaining than old ruins) or the 'history' would recount familiar fables about the debauched lives of monks and nuns, and the wonderful clean-up job done by our late gracious monarch Henry.

Now English Heritage is opening a new museum and visitor centre in Rievaulx devoted to telling the story of how the religious life was led there for four hundred years. There is recognition of the holiness of the monks of Rievaulx, witnessed by the many lay people seeking monastic ground for their final resting places. We read how the decline of the Abbey after the devastation of the Black Death was followed by a great revival in the 15th Century. The Heritage magazine goes on to tell how the place was flourishing right up to its ruination at the 'reformation'. It even has put in its museum a great mass of lead, melted down from the abbey's roofs and windows, which, it says "vividly evokes the rapaciousness of Henry and his followers".

Mottisfont: House North Side, formerly Nave and Crossing of the Church
Even the National Trust now has a little (albeit rather shabby) account of the Priory of Mottisfont before its annexation by one of Henry VIII's chums. Are we then at last getting away from the Whig view of history? Can we hope for even the Church of England one day admitting its complicity in the blackest period of our nation's history, when the Church was plundered so that the Tudors could finance their anti-Catholic vendetta? It may be only one step in the right direction, but English Heritage should be congratulated on taking such a step. Can we hope that even the BBC might one day follow suit and atone for the distortions of Ms Mantel's Wolf Hall?

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