Home Page Sometimes the myth is simply better than the facts 07/02/13

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Hart of the Matter

It was good to see Haverhill town councillors giving their full backing to Haverhill Local History Group last week, handing them a grant to get them through their immediate financial crisis and saying the group must never be lost.


But they also wanted the group to be more proactive in connecting Haverhill people with the history of their town through display boards and exhibitions.


They even said it would be nice if the town had a museum to house the group’s activities one day – rather a bland hope, but something at least.


The history group is very good at informing us about Haverhill’s 19th century heritage in the form of photographs and documents, of which there are a wealth.


Prior to that, there is, sadly, a bit of a black hole as far as tangible or visual detail is concerned. That may explain why people have the impression, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Haverhill sprang out of the ground fully formed in about 1780.


It seems extraordinary to me that so little work has been done on trying to establish more about the earlier periods of settlement here.


There has been a detailed excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery around St Botolph’s Church off Crowland Road. More recently there was the dig prior to work starting on Haverhill Research Park at Hanchet End, the results of which, as far as I am aware, have not been made known to anyone.


Haverhill used to have an archaeological group which was highly regarded and carried out some useful work in and around the town. Since that became defunct nothing else has happened – at least that is the way it seems to outsiders. If someone knows different, please let me know.


The annoying thing is that there is an amazing thirst for this sort of information and activity in the wider world, as witnessed by the success of Time Team and, just this week, the huge publicity surrounding the discovery of the bones of King Richard III.


One of the most fascinating things about that event was the coming together of myth and science in an extraordinary face-off. The Ricardians have been battling for years to salvage the reputation of England’s last Plantagenet king, portrayed as a tyrant and a murderer by his successors the Tudors and their greatest panegyrist William Shakespeare.


When I was at school Richard III was still considered the most evil man to have sat on the English throne. I remember the surprise with which the history class I was in received the opinion of our history teacher that the worst-ever king of England was George IV. We had thought it was bound to be Richard III or King John. More recently a national poll voted for George IV, so times have changed.

But in the old rhyme of the Kings and Queens of England, there was the memorable couplet ‘Edward, Edward, Dick the Bad,

Harry, Harry, Ned the Lad’


Richard was the only monarch to be thus labelled as ‘the Bad’ – the opposite to Alfred the Great, whose remains, coincidentally, someone is also trying to trace.


The Ricardians pooh-poohed all this ‘Crookback’ nonsense, so it was wonderful to see how they received the news that this skeleton had a spinal curvature, albeit a sideways one which would not have been very visible.


However, their problems would not end with any proof that he was a decent chap after all. In fact they would begin there, because he would become just another rather boring mediaeval warrior king, albeit one of the last, and the last to be killed in battle.


Shakespeare is their problem, because the character he created in his play bestrides English history like a colossus. He may be mad, bad and dangerous to know, but he is also charismatic, entertaining, hilarious, courageous and devastatingly attractive to women despite his physical handicaps. The myth is simply better than the truth – probably.


Haverhill has a similar problem over its greatest myth which still awaits serious investigation – the Castle. We have Castle Lane, Castle Manor, Castle Hill and Castle Fields, but absolutely no sign of a castle above ground at all.


For years the story of Haverhill Castle has endured, and someone claimed back in (I think) the 18th century, to have found some sizeable stonework remains somewhere around the Newt Pond area.


But there is nothing to see now, not even any earthworks in the ground which might provide clues. There are none of those magical aerial shots during drought showing new lines in the landscape on footballs pitches or wheat fields, which are so helpful to the Time Team experts.


I have often thought it would be good to ask them to find out the truth once and for all, but you wonder whether, like Richard III, that may be more boring than the fiction.


There have been suggestions more recently that Haverhill Castle was just a big house, maybe fortified, but maybe only dating from Tudor times. That would, of course, be quite interesting, but nothing like as good as a mediaeval castle.


And it would pander to those people who think Haverhill has always tried to punch above its weight. You can imagine the snide remarks about people who were historically so ignorant that when they saw a big house they thought it must be a castle.


So unless anyone is wandering about in Castle Manor Academy’s car park, has a funny feeling of inspiration and looks down to find a C painted on the tarmac, perhaps its better left alone.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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