Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Blast from the past as the medievalists strike back

A sword fighting display at Castle Park in Colchester during the Medieval festival and oyster fayre.

A sword fighting display at Castle Park in Colchester during the Medieval festival and oyster fayre.

LAST week, as news broke of the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III, history probably came its closest yet to being proclaimed the New Rock’n’ Roll. For a moment it was off with the tweed jacket and on with the black leathers, as it ran out onto the stage, stuck its foot up on the wedge monitor and then, punching the air triumphantly, yelled: “Awraght! How ya doin’ Leicester?”

Actually, that’s not what happened at all. The announcement was: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that, beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England.” There was a gasp, followed by a discreet hubbub from the waiting audience, who exhibited only as much excitement as their considerable decorum would allow.

Richard III’s remains were found in a car park under which they had lain for well over 500 years. Such an overstay might normally have incurred a hefty fine. Luckily for Richard, his scoliotic skeleton confirmed that, technically, he would have qualified for a blue disabled badge.

Richard, as the Richard III Society have been attempting to prove to the world since 1924, was not quite the pantomime villain he’s often made out to be. Nor did he meet his doom offering his kingdom for a horse; although, according to the recent food scandal headlines, he probably wouldn’t have had to go too far down any High Street in order to locate the components for one.

Salient among the Leicester team who found Richard III, we are proud to say, was a local man, John Ashdown-Hill. Mr Ashdown-Hill, who lives at Lawford, is a linguist-turned-historian. He completed his history PhD as a mature student at the University of Essex and I have to say that his first book, Medieval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks (2009), changed the way in which I saw the town.

Colchester, you see, is clinically obese with history. You will hear about Boadicea, the Romans, the Normans, the Civil War, the Flemish Weavers, William Gilberd and our post-Napoleonic War military connections. What you generally won’t hear much about, as Mr Ashdown-Hill asserts in his book, is medieval Colchester.

The medieval period wasn’t just some passing clothing style or a music trend. The high to late medieval era ran roughly from just after the Norman Conquest right up until the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 1530s. At almost five centuries, that’s not far off the amount of time that Richard III’s skeleton languished undiscovered under that Leicester car park.

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The point is that up until I’d read John Ashdown-Hill’s book about medieval Colchester, for years if not decades I’d cheerfully walked around the town as if I were sleepwalking. I never really noticed, for instance, a certain jettied building in Trinity Street. Even more staggering, I never saw the carved wooden figures adorning the gates of the Red Lion pub in the High Street, even though I must have walked past them hundred of times. Over decades I’d strolled down West Stockwell Street, fuzzily admiring its general antiquity, and yet, somehow, always missed its jutting medieval lines.

I prided myself that I knew something of East Hill and St Botolphs, since I’d lived around there for a few years. Now, thanks to Mr Ashdown-Hill, I began to learn more. The old street names, for instance: Queen Street was once called South Street, whereas Vineyard Street used to be Bere, or Beris, Street – probably because bear baiting had once gone on there.

When I first read Medieval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks, it was like getting a new Colchester to walk around in. I’m not a historian myself, not even an amateur one. I just don’t possess the required academic rigour. But I am a fan of history, almost a groupie lately, and the more I flirt with the subject, the more fathomless it becomes.

History is populated by people who, after all, are only earlier editions of us. They felt the same pain, elation and anger as we do. They harboured the same fears, vanities and petty jealousies. They were capable of the same villainies and kindnesses as we are. In many ways, therefore, their portraits are our own, albeit with very different backdrops and frames.

The value of historians such as Mr Ashdown-Hill is that through their painstaking work they help clear away some of the smears left by time on those portraits, so that we are able to see something of our past selves more clearly.

Colchester, we are frequently told, is a Roman town. This helps to obscure the fact that it’s also very much a medieval town. Evidence of it remains all around us: evidence which many people, if they’re anything like I once was, will pass daily without even noticing.

I expect that right now John Ashdown-Hill is justifiably chuffed about being a part of the team which turned up Richard III. But he’s also the person who raised my awareness of medieval Colchester, which, once I’d begun to tune in to it, would never look the same to me again.

• If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, or think that there might be a lost king under a carpark near you, Medieval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks, by John Ashdown-Hill, is published by Breedon Books.

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