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(W)rong and Repulsive?    

 by Stoker

 Salle, St Peter & St Paul Church, Norfolk

Those whose knowledge of British history was mostly drawn from that incomparable history of England 1066 and All That, A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates* will remember the two groups who fought in the English Civil Wars from 1642 to 1649 (and that’s all the dates you are getting).  They were, of course, the Roundheads – Right but Repulsive; and the Cavaliers – Wrong but Wromantic.


The Roundheads laid the foundations of British democracy, political systems including the groupings which developed into the Liberal and the Conservative Parties (and allowed the evolution of the Labour Party), and the generally tolerant society which has struggled through, albeit sometimes with difficulty, until the present day.  But at the time, the Roundheads were seen as a violent and extremist coalition of religious fanatics, out to build a new world on the ruins of the old.  They took the ruination part quite literally, demolishing many great houses and castles to prevent them being used for future resistance by Royalist or other forces, driving Catholics and Cavaliers into flight or apparent repudiation of their faith, and smashing many structures and symbols of the old society – not just the monarchy, but also Catholicism, and the broad Church of England.


The extraordinary Norfolk church of Salle is one of the largest rural parish churches in England. There is no village at Salle, or even near; just a few cottages, a parish school (now closed), and a magnificent late C19th cricket pavilion.  Salle church, along with its enormously high lighthouse-like tower, visible for many miles in this low rolling landscape, was built in one campaign in the C15th. Norfolk was rich in those distant times and internally the church was decorated to remarkable standards with carvings and fine stained glass.  It is an astonishing building to find in such an isolated, empty place. 


Perhaps even more astonishingly, much of its original carving and decoration also survives.  The medieval font still stands complete, much of the original stained glass is in the windows, and in the roof and upper part of the chancel and choir almost all the original carving, sacred heads, and roof bosses survive. Even the lower half of the rood screen, a prime target for Puritan smashers, is still in place.


Thanks to the events of the mid C17th, rarely are English churches found so internally complete, and here it is pure luck.  The Roundheads and their religious fanatical bands did not come here much; it was too remote and distant from any place of strategic or economic significance.  And, when they did come calling, the building is so huge and high that it must have been impossible without more time and resources to reach the objects of contempt to destroy them.


Salle shows us what England lost in a brief period of madness and contempt for beauty created by others.  Medieval England survives in ruins and a few buildings, especially churches, but so much was swept away in that time of intolerance.   Yet, it led to one of the most tolerant and liberal societies in the world; it laid the foundations for what for two hundred years and more was an open and increasingly democratic society which spread its influence over much of the world. 


Alas, we stand again, it seems, on the edge of intolerance, destruction and a revisionism that will cause a curtain to descend between the future and the past.  This time, though, what matters is not really about the odd statue knocked over or removed; though they do matter.  What matters is the censorship which is gradually creeping over our discourse and debates, the silencing of dissent, the cancellation of minority voices, whether right or wrong or ridiculous.  And of course it goes much further than that. Try speaking on the BBC or publishing an article on Facebook challenging man-made climate change, or advocating the cause of anti-vaxxers, or in favour of fox hunting.  These may be good or bad positions, right or wrong, but dissenters deserve to be heard; indeed it is essential that they are if arguments are to be tested, theorems proved, and those whose voices argue for the ridiculous be debunked.


It is not really natural human nature to stand up for the unpopular cause.  Self-censorship is indeed one of the greatest threats to an open society.  We, most of us, want quiet lives. We do not like a row or a confrontation; it is our preference  to shuffle away from the frank exchange of opinions. After the English Civil War was over and the Roundheads victorious there was little dissent. The citizenry feared the violence of the angry young men (angry young men are always trouble) on the fanatical verges of the puritans, and just wanted to get on with their lives.  There were many features the majority must have hated – the despoilation of the churches, the abolition of Christmas and many traditional festivals, the strict censorship, the abolition of horseracing; but there was very little resistance. Even Oliver Cromwell, the leading Roundhead military man and eventual ruler of England, seems to have opposed many of these measures, but not so much that he was prepared to risk his position and person by speaking out. When Charles II regained his throne eleven years after the end of the war, all those restrictions were removed and great was the rejoicing. But not many voices had been raised prior.


In the 1920’s and 1930’s the same forces seemed to rise again: the angry young men fought for fascist and communist causes. Winston Churchill’s almost lone voice calling for rearmament against what was happening in Germany was sneered at and “not heard” wherever possible.  Reality in 1939 stopped that but the trend had been clear.


We may have new media in the C21st but the media owners, as one hundred years ago, are not keen on dissenting or unfashionable views. It is especially alarming that now, as then, the suppression of contrary views to the received mainstream should be so strongly advocated in the Universities, supposed beacons of originality and intelligently broad thinking.  Some of us remember the 1960’s when students and lecturers protested against anything that was seen as “establishment thinking”.  This resistance was strongly disapproved of, and a less gentle police force was sent out to dismantle the barricades and crack a few heads, but all that just seemed to make the protestors more determined.   The causes were sometimes later seen to be right, sometimes poorly thought out, and often ridiculous, but at least contrary opinions got an airing.  That has to be, as the authors of 1066 and All That would say, A GOOD THING.


It really is time we encouraged both dissent and toleration (not too violent on either side, please).  We need to hear from the dissenters; we need to listen courteously to contrarians, and they need to listen politely to the mainstream.  Journalists should challenge the established view, and senior academics should shout “Nonsense!” at widely held truisms.  Enough suppression of the unfashionable, let the debates break forth.  That way we may learn more, and we will be strengthened by the test of opinions.  And that process, as in the mid C17th, may produce a finer society.  



 *by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, originally published in 1930 and still in print; and well worth a read.



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