Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The groves of academe

Well, dear readers, it has been quite a few days. I have been on the road on what became a three-centre trip around the country which was as enjoyable as it was exhausting (in ways good and bad).

First, on Thursday, to Durham, for a seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion. Professor Nicholas Watson from the English faculty at Harvard was talking about vernacular Bibles before the English Reformation. I had expected it to be a Lollard-heavy hour but Wycliffe and his followers didn’t dominate proceedings. He began with a marvellous evocation of a scene from Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody (1605), in which Elizabeth I is presented with an English Bible by the Lord Mayor of London and, in imitation of the elevation and breaking of the Host, lifts it above her head and unfastens it: “So long shut up, so long hid, now, lords, see/We here unclasp: for ever it is free!”

I learned a great deal about early mediaeval vernacular Bibles, from Anglo-Saxon prose translations of the Gospels through Anglo-Norman verse Psalms to Middle English metrical versions of the Old Testament. I was particularly taken with the anonymous Cursor Mundi from around 1300:

Men covettes rimes for to here
And romance rede of mony maner
Of Alisander the Conqueror
Of July Caesar the Emperour…
Sanges sere of selcouthe rime
Ingeles, French and Latine.

To rede and here ilkan is prest
The thinges that ham likes best.
The wise mon wil of wisdome here
The fole him drawes to foly nere…
Bot by the frute men may see
Of wat virtue is ilka tree…

Professor Watson’s central thesis is that vernacular English Bibles (and under the umbrella of “English” he included Anglo-Norman or insular French) existed for centuries before Tyndale’s work and the Great Bible of 1539, and were often tolerated and employed by the Church, though there were periodical attempts to control and license them. But it was an emphatic rejection of the Whiggish idea of an English Bible representing England’s march to independent statehood with Henry’s break from Rome in the 1520s and 1530s.

Then to Oxford’s dreaming spires. The journey, by Cross Country trains, was not a pleasant one. Because of problems on the East Coast main line, more passengers piled on to my train to get at least to York or Sheffield, so the service was very busy and cramped. The wifi was useless; not only did you have to pay for it, an affront enough in this day and age, but it barely worked at all. I had, of course, packed a bottle of wine to numb the pain of public transport (I always do) but with the tray table only just big enough for my laptop it was quite a juggling exercise. I was not at all sorry when we pulled into Oxford and I could leap off (well, slouch, perhaps).

I was staying in my old college, Christ Church, a short taxi ride away. I haven’t been in college since my abrupt departure in 1995, and much has changed. The porters’ lodge is now a symphony in blond wood, looking a little like it was purchased at IKEA, and the staircases are now accessed by electronic key fobs. I was given a guest badge and (unnecessary) directions to Peckwater Quad. My room was not large, but it was clean and had an en suite shower and toilet (though no television – presumably a licensing issue). There is also free wifi throughout college, which I daresay students now couldn’t live without. When I was at the House, the internet had hardly been invented. Typing essays on a computer was considered advanced technology.

Having inhaled a sausage roll at the station, I decided to forgo further solids and found my way instead, relying on very old instincts, to the college bar in the magnificent Tudor undercroft. It, too, has changed greatly in the 20-odd years since my last visit; the bar has moved and there is more light wood and, incongruously, that low-level bluish lighting which nightclubs seem to prefer (so I’m told). The barman, an affable young man, told me with regret that they didn’t serve large glasses of wine, but I was mollified by the fact that the small (very small) glasses of wine on offer were only £1.40. It simply meant more trips to the bar, which I suppose is good exercise.

The bar was initially very quiet – this was, I suppose, about 8.30 pm by now – but began to fill up after an hour or so. The jukebox, I discovered, was free, so the barman and the few patrons were treated to a selection of 1970s singer-songwriter hits from Cat Stevens to Joni Mitchell. They took it on the chin. What surprised me, when others wrested control of the playlist, was that the students, who must have been born in the late 1990s (how terrifying that is to write) seemed to favour songs from the 1980s – we certainly had Come On, Eileen and Relax. It is trite to say how young they looked, but they did. I daresay I did too, in my time, as I was only 17 and shaving was not yet a daily activity. Even in the gloom, though, I could discern that sheen of intelligence and self-confidence which Oxford instills in its students. Perhaps Cambridge is the same (I barely know the place) but it is quite striking on the banks of the Cherwell. At closing time, I returned my teeny-tiny glass, thanked the barman, and returned to my room for an early night.

So on to the main business of my trip, a two day conference entitled “Prison/Exile: Controlled Spaces in Early Modern Europe”. (Those freakish enough to be interested can find more details on the conference Twitter feed, @OxPrisonExile.) After the opening keynote lecture by Professor Rivkah Zim of King’s College, London, “A Politics of Place in Early Modern English Prison Writing”, I was part of a three-person panel discussing “Nostalgia and Utopia”. My paper, which will appear on my academia.edu profile shortly, was entitled “Imprisonment, Exile and the English Church, 1553 – 1558”, and examined the effect that imprisonment and exile had had on three of the leading figures of the Marian Church: Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor; Reginald, Cardinal Pole, papal legate and the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury; and Queen Mary herself. Modesty aside, it seemed quite well-received, and sparked a few questions, though my bowels did turn to water when one interlocutor prefaced his question by saying that he was studying Gardiner’s time in prison. An expert on Gardiner I am not.

It was a diverse panel. I was followed by a Hungarian academic, Dr Csaba Maczelka, speaking on prison and exile in early modern English and Hungarian literature; then Dr Florence Hazrat of the University of Geneva (though a St Andrews PhD, hurrah) who talked about the incorporation of imagery from Psalm 137 (come on, you all know the words) in different versions of The Merry Wives of Windsor, among other things. She also played a piece of music by Matisyahu, the well-known Hasidic Jewish rapper.

The rest of the conference went by in a blur of topics from sacrifice on the Elizabethan scaffold to “Barbary Captive Discourse and its impact on the Anglo-American imagination”. I enjoyed much and understood rather less, but it was handy that the conference, at the Ertegun House on St Giles, was but a hop, skip and a jump from the Eagle and Child, that famous haunt of Tolkien, Lewis and the other Inklings (“Oh God, not another fucking elf”). So a few pints were had there in the interstices of the conference.

On Friday night, the great Michael Hennessy came through from Reading to share some cheer. We found a table in the Turf Tavern, an achievement in itself, and, happily, they were serving Old Rosie (for me) and Lillie's Apples and Pears (for Mr H). It was a long-overdue catch-up, and an opportunity for nostalgia for him (he is an Oriel man). I had to pity the poor student who fished out his wallet to pay for his drink at the bar, only for a condom to fall out when he opened it. He didn't notice, bless him, but everyone else did. How we larfed. Somehow, some semblance of sobriety was preserved, or at least we avoided a descent into utter oblivion, though we both became a little lachrymose towards the end of the evening. I am reliably informed he made it home, eventually.

The closing keynote address of the conference was given by my old tutor and chum, Professor Bruce Gordon, formerly of St Andrews, but now wreathed in glory at the divinity school at Yale. His title was “Exile, Refuge and Prison in the Mind of John Calvin”, and it was a tour de force. I have always found Calvin the most unappetizing and unsympathetic of the 16th century reformers, even more so than the anti-Semitic and scatologically-obsessed Luther, so for me to find an hour-long lecture on him engaging is a testament to Bruce’s manner as well as his undoubted expertise. (He confessed to me over coffee that he’d spent a career trying to deny that he was a ‘Calvin man’ but now finds himself regarded as a world expert. He is much in demand this Reformation Year of 2017.)

When the conference closed, it was time to return to the Eagle and Child (the Inklings called it the Bird and Baby; I prefer the Fowl and Foetus) for a couple of pints and await the next stage of my odyssey, for I was due to stay for two days in Bloxham in north Oxfordshire with my old friend Hugh Martin and his wife Catherine, who teaches at the school there. Hugh very sportingly drove down to Oxford to collect me in his bright orange Jeep and we wended our way through the darkened countryside past Banbury and into the little village of Bloxham itself, where Hugh and Catherine stay in a little college attached to the school.

Over that evening, I had best draw a veil, as I knew it would be the one night on which I could really let my hair down. Suffice to say, there was lasagne, there was wine, there was gin, there was brandy and, as always when Hugh and I are together, there was singing. The usual repertoire. Even the cats slunk away when they saw which way the wind was blowing. And they are normally very friendly cats.

Sunday dawned bright and clear, though it is fair to say none of us rose early. After a late lunch of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs washed down with champagne, and with another job application completed, Hugh and I wandered to one of the (I think) three pubs in the village, the Elephant and Castle, which, to our delight, served no fewer than five different kinds of still cider. I had the Henry Weston’s Family Reserve, and it is a delicious glass (or glasses). The barman was friendly but not intrusive, and some locals came in and chatted about motor racing while their excellent dog, a little West Highland White terrier, sat amiably at their feet. We retired for dinner and Top Gear (I am still not convinced by the new cast), and had a reasonably early night.

Then came the unexpected part of the journey. On Friday morning, while in Oxford, I had been asked if I could present myself in London for an interview on Monday afternoon. It was rather short notice, and, of course, I was travelling without a suit, but I am nothing if not intrepid (that’s a lie), so I put away my return ticket and was driven to Banbury station where I caught the train to Marylebone. Of the interview I will say little until I know the outcome. But the opportunity of being in London was too good to miss, so after I had been quizzed I walked along Millbank, dragging my bundle behind me, and made for The Speaker on Great Peter Street, one of the best pubs you will find in London. There the inestimable landlord, Dennis, treated me with the scant courtesy which I have come to expect, and I settled in for an afternoon of Guinness. A couple of old colleagues from the madhouse joined me to catch up, and, as the saying goes, a good time was had by all. Well, by me, anyway. I won’t speak for them.

Thence across the river in a Uber to Clapham, to stay for one final night away from home with my very old chum Pete Murray and his (as it turned out) very comfortable sofa. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months so we headed out briefly for an excellent sourdough pizza at Franco Manca on the Northcote Road, before he had to retire to his room to work on a pitch (he recently started a new job and they are working him hard). Not before we watched the final episode of Meet the Lords, however, which has been an interesting insight into the Upper Chamber for one who used to work at the opposite end of the building. Black Rod has ensured a lot of camera time, which I don’t think has wholly endeared him to some colleagues, and my old boss Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, overcame his natural shyness to pop up a couple of times. As a series, I don’t think it has been quite as effective as Inside the Commons, and I think at times they have been guilty of rather hamming it up (though when you are dealing with old hams like Lord Cormack, there’s a limit to what you can do). I loved Lord Palmer in the first episode, he of the silver staircase, but I warmed rather less to Lady King and Lord Tyler.

And so the weary pilgrim returned home. Grand Central, for whom I have a lot of time, had impeccable wifi for once – take that, Chiltern – and the usual bottle of wine soothed the strains of the journey. I was very pleased to drop my bag last night and sink into a dry martini (Sacred cardamom gin and English dry vermouth) then spend a night back in my own bed.

If I were a travel writer, I would probably draw some profound lessons from my peregrinations. If there is one, I suppose, it would be that you should always travel with a tie, because you never know when one might need it. (At work I kept a black tie in my desk in case a Royal were to be gathered unto God.) I will say this: it was delightful to be in Oxford again after a long absence, and Christ Church made me very welcome as an old member, even if I never graduated; London was everything it always is; friends at least affected to be pleased to see me, which was touching; and if I never travel on Cross Country again as long as I live I will be happy.

This has been rather longer than I intended. For those of you who’ve made it to the end, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. Hatta al-Quds, as the man said.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Europe redux

Dear readers,

So, the Supreme Court has spoken, the Government has listened, and the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has been published. It is not a long publication, containing only two clauses, of which the operative one has only two sub-clauses. The first grants to the Prime Minister (not, interestingly, HM Government, only the Prime Minister) the power to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and notify the EU of the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the union. Job done. The second is more opaque: it says that the notification will have effect no matter what other provisions may be made under the European Communities Act 1972 or “any other enactment”. Not privy to the Government’s thinking, I’m not sure against which eventuality this sub-clause is intended to operate, but I do know from experience that the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, the Government’s legal draughtsmen, will have inserted it for a reason. Answers on a postcard, please.

So a short Bill (very short) but a long debate. The Government has scheduled two days for its Second Reading, and then three days for Committee stage (on the floor of the House), Report stage and Third Reading. In terms of the minutes-to-words ration, that’s pretty high. It is no surprise that the Committee stage is on the floor of the House; this is standard for major constitutional Bills (and, conversely, for very minor Bills). It was also inevitable that the Government would allow plenty of time for debate to ensure that all the issues were, in legislative parlance, “well-ventilated”.

The Bill will pass the Commons easily. The Opposition are imposing a three-line whip in favour of it, which has already caused internal strife, with one front-bencher resigning rather than fall into line. I am not an expert in the politics of the Commons (procedure was my specialism), but this strikes me as odd. Certainly, I see that voting against the Bill en bloc would be an act of foolhardiness given the clearly-expressed will of the electorate. But why not have a free vote? The result would most likely be the same – the passage of the Bill. And the ructions within the Labour Party would have been avoided. I never seek to make windows into men’s souls, to paraphrase Good Queen Bess, and much less so if the man in question is Jeremy Corbyn, but I can’t help wondering if his long-held Euroscepticism is coming to the fore. Remember that being anti-Europe used to be the stamping ground of the hard Left, and the Labour Party’s 1983 general election manifesto (famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history) committed the party to withdrawal from what was then the EEC. The late Tony Benn was fiercely against the Community, which became the Union.

That is not to say that Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition will have nothing to say over the five days of debate. I have no doubt that the Labour Party – as well as the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the other minor parties – will seek to table a forest of amendments to the Bill. This will tax first the clerks of the Commons’ Public Bill Office, then the various occupants of the chair for the debates. Amendments to Bills, in Westminster (unlike in Congress in DC), have to be within the ‘scope’ of the legislation. That is, they have to relate, quite closely, to the contents of the Bill, and cannot be tabled to frustrate its main aims.

(There is an exception. At Second Reading, or, very exceptionally, at Third Reading, Members may table what is called a reasoned amendment, which argues for the Bill to be substantially altered or rejected entirely. This must be very carefully and adroitly drafted. Clearly, in the case of the Brexit Bill, the Labour Party has no intention of tabling such an amendment. It would not surprise me, however, if the SNP or the Liberal Demorats put down such a measure.)

Once the amendments have been tabled from all sides, then it becomes a matter of judgement. Amendments must be selected if they are to be debated and, perhaps, voted upon. The decision on selection is taken by the Speaker, for amendments at Second Reading and Report stage, and, under his auspices, by the Deputy Speakers for Committee of the whole House. (Parenthetically, it may interest you to know that CwH is, as far as I can think, the only proceeding on the floor of the House which Mr Speaker cannot chair. He must cede his place to one of the Deputy Speakers or a member of the Panel of Chairs. It’s complicated.) The advice to the nabobs of democracy on whether or not to select an amendment comes from the clerks in the Public Bill Office. But they can only advise according to precedent and procedure. What the elected Members of Parliament bring to the party is an ear for politics, a sense of what the House wants to debate.

Like so many parts of the British constitution, it is a compromise, and all the better for it (if anyone is asking me, which they rarely are). The Speaker and his Deputies know the House and its moods, and can judge what is necessary to satisfy the appetite for debate. The clerks are there to advise on what the rules of the House say, and what has happened in the past. Generally, it works.

Amendments to such a short document as the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill will have to be tightly drafted. There is very little in the Bill and so the scope is necessarily narrow. I imagine some Members will want to try to require the Government to set out its negotiating position for Brexit, or at least some red lines. In scope? Dubious. Not advice I’d want to have to give.

Of course, the next two weeks is only half the parliamentary process. Then we move to the House of Lords. Bills must be agreed in identical form by both Houses of Parliament before they can receive Royal Assent from the Queen and become law. Their Lordships are not, of course, accountable to the voting public, which could cut either way; either they could ignore the result of the EU referendum and seek to frustrate the Bill altogether; or they could acknowledge their lack of legitimacy and give the Bill a fair wind.

Timing matters. We know how long the Bill will spend in the Commons. How long it spends in the Lords is another matter. The Prime Minister has committed to invoking Article 50 by the end of March, which really isn’t all that long in parliamentary terms. If both Houses amend the Bill, it will need to go back and forth between them until both agree on the final form – what is known as ‘ping pong’. This can happen at great speed, as I know to my cost, and what will eventually emerge is a physical copy of the Bill with any amendments pasted in (literally) in different colours. My hunch is that the Lords will see sense and speed the Bill through in short order, but it is not impossible to imagine that some of the peers, particularly the Liberal Democrats, may embark on a kamikaze mission to try to stop its passage. If we miss the deadline of 31 March as a result of the actions of the House of Lords, we face a constitutional crisis of considerable magnitude.

So, it’s a fun few weeks in prospect. I will watch with interest what happens, and may, from time to time, offer a few insights. What I will say now is that I’m glad I’m not a betting man.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Does it do what it says on the tin?

Dear readers,

As the title of this enterprise suggests, I like nice things. While financial necessity sometimes (often!) intervenes, I appreciate luxury, from scent to food to drink to clothes and shoes. However, a conversation with my stepfather recentlt raised an interesting philosophical question: can the power of a brand overcome the shortcomings of a product itself? The subject which sparked this off was the automotive industry. Can a good product by an everyday manufacturer (in this case the Ford Mondeo Vignale) beat a so-so product by a prestige manufacturer (the now-late Jaguar X Type was the example we chose)?

It is a question which is relevant in these times when the middle classes laud bargain outlets like Aldi and Lidl, even for luxury items such as champagne and smoked salmon. Are consumers willing to pay a premium for the brand, or is the canny shopper to be found in these cut-price retailers?

To some extent, the latter must surely be the case. Last year, The Daily Telegraph reported that a Which? blind tasting had rated Aldi’s champagne (a tenner a bottle) more highly than Laurent-Perrier and Moët & Chandon. You would be a fool, a snob, or a very expert connoisseur to choose the big names and their attendant big prices. I will leave the reader to decide into which category he or she falls.

A word at this point on champagne. I am as much of a fan of a good dollop of fizz as the next man, but it can be hideously overpriced. Cava and, more recently, prosecco have, of course, made real inroads into champagne sales, and the market for English sparkling wine, such as the excellent Nyetimber, is booming. However, sometimes only the genuine article will do. Forget Moët & Chandon: it is overpriced and unremarkable. If you do drink it, please at least remember that the ‘t’ in Moët is hard and should be voiced. I’m not a huge fan of Bollinger, either, despite its legendary status (thanks in no small part to the appalling Absolutely Fabulous). Taittinger I do like, but it’s more than £30 for even the standard non-vintage, which is a lot to pay for a famous name. If you are willing to make the financial outlay, Billecart-Salmon is excellent, and the rosé is particularly good (a friend of mine bought a bottle on the day I had my viva, and it was a lovely treat: of course, the PhD remains unfinished… but this is The Year).

Champagne is probably the most obvious product for which people are still willing to pay for the brand name. Yet there are areas in which there exists no discount option for even the savviest bargain-hunter. A good example is aftershave (and, I daresay, perfume too). I favour Acqua di Parma, though I also occasionally wear Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, which was used by Cary Grant, apparently. But they’re expensive. A good deal can be had when travelling by buying at duty-free, but there is no Aldi equivalent for scent. If you want a particular product, you have to pay.

Falling somewhere between the two, for me, are watches. Clearly, one can have a timepiece for very little money, one which will accurately and reliably tell you the time without offending aesthetic sensibilities. So the bargain marklet exists. But I am, I suppose, a bit snobbish about watches. I’m sure there are many people for whom they are purely functional items, to allow them to track the passage of the sun across the sky, but for me they are about display too. Therefore brands matter. When that EuroMillions win comes, for surely it will, I will be off to my local horological dealer to buy a collection: a Cartier Tank, for sure, and a Dunhill facet; probably a TAG Heuer Monaco, and maybe a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. For the moment, until Croesus-like wealth falls into my lap, I have an Omega Seamaster which was bought for me many years ago, when Pierce Brosnan was re-popularising the brand in his Bondian pomp, and a relatively modest Rotary, which is smart and unfussy.

Back to cars (a field on which I can hold forth at enormous length). There is little doubt that the Vignale range of Fords is very good. Personally, I think Ford are going great guns at the moment, and have a well-designed set of models, from the Fiesta to the Edge. The Focus RS is a ridiculously fast car and really recalls the hot hatches of the late 1980s. However, there will always be people who will not be comfortable saying they drive a Ford, and will pay more money for a perhaps-less-capable Mercedes or Audi. It is a strange marker of accomplishment, the brand of car you drive (if any), and I think it is probably a male trait. It always makes me think of Seventies swingers throwing their car keys into a bowl. I’m not immune to the arms race myself; I would very much like a Maserati Quattroporte, partly because it’s a lovely car, but partly so I could say to people, “I’m sorry I’m late, I was just parking THE MASERATI”. (Not an excuse to use at the synagogue on a Saturday, by the way. Awkward.)

So what is the conclusion? I suppose it depends on what sort of person you are, and what you’re buying. Quality can be had at comparatively modest prices in some markets. Whether it’s Aldi champagne or a Ford Mondeo, you don’t need to pay top dollar. But sometimes the brand is the point. You do sometimes get what you pay for.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Sorry is an easy word

Dear readers,

I want to be serious for a minute. Well, a bit longer than a minute. It depends how quickly you read. Fear not, I’m sure the mood will pass. But anyway. The two primates of the Church of England, Archbishop Welby of Canterbury and Archbishop Sentamu of York, have issued a statement urging Anglicans (and, who knows, perhaps others) to repent for the divisions and the violence of the Reformation. It is, of course, 500 years this October since Martin Luther published his famous 95 theses which would be the catalyst for a reform movement that split the Catholic Church apart. Here is not the place to discuss the fact that there had been reform movements before, from the Cathars to the Lollards to the Hussites, and that Luther was building on their work as much as he was innovating. In any event, it is a year of considerable commemoration, and as good an anniversary as any.

(In parentheses: I find something rather admirable about the Archbishop of York, if only because he has removed his dog collar and refused to put it back on until Robert Mugabe no longer holds Zimbabwe in his thrall. As an action of protest, it’s not exactly Jan Palach, I admit, but he’s stuck to it, and it hopefully does some tiny good in reassuring the people of Zimbabwe that they are not totally forgotten as they endure the devil Mugabe’s vile dictatorship.)

I should say here and now that in general I don’t like apologies for historical events. I think they are gesture politics and virtue-signalling at their worst, and they are un-historical too, because they imply, or perhaps I infer, that we should judge the past by the standards of the present, which is an abnegation of the empathy that any decent historian must have. There are exceptions: when David Cameron apologized for the events of Bloody Sunday in 2010, in the wake of the publication of the Saville Report, it made a real difference to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and, of course, it was within living memory. On the other hand, I think apologising for the Potato Famine, say, or the Zulu Wars (and I’ve heard calls for both) would be worthless and stupid. The past, as LP Hartley said, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. And that, really, is the point I want to make.

What I find so stupid and wrong-headed, as well as historically illiterate, is the ecumenicalism which has driven the Archbishops’ statement: “Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them.” Their message is that we should all just get along and realise that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, all religions are really just different roads converging on the same point. Well, that may be the mood of the early 21st century, and perhaps it is an enlightened and liberal view to take as we contemplate the divine. I am not religious, so I don’t have a dog in that particular fight. It would, however, be utter anathema (if I can use that word) to the 16th century mind.

Back in the day, when I was trying to teach Tudor history to young moppets, one of the great barriers I had to help them overcome, before they could really reach any understanding of the period beyond knowing dates and names, was grasping that men and women of the 16th century were simultaneously people just like you and me, and also utterly different. What Luther was proposing in his Wittenberg outburst was not a matter of abstruse academic and theological debate. It struck at the heart of how the world worked. As someone said of football, it wasn’t life and death, it was much more important than that. When Protestants came to say that man was granted salvation solely through faith rather than, as the Catholic Church maintained, good works, this was a chasm between them, and it mattered. If you were religiously confused in the 16th century (and I suspect many, if not most, people were), you had choices to make. Pick the wrong side, and, for as far as you knew, you were going to Hell. And for them, Hell was real. This was eternal damnation, fires and torments for the rest of all time. This wasn’t a matter of which football shirt you wear or what kind of hat your priest has. The stakes literally could have not been higher. Salvation versus damnation. Not a choice you wanted to get wrong.

Stakes, punningly, bring me to the inevitable subject of religious violence. The Pope has said of the Reformation that the division between Catholic and Protestant “has been an immense source of suffering”, and he is, of course, in a mechanistic way, right. Each side killed the other in horrifying numbers and in horrifying ways for most of the 16th century before the bloodbath culminated in the dreadful violence of the Thirty Years War. It was not an edifying time for religion: I think particularly of the scene in Cambridge in 1557 when the bones of Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius, two eminent Protestant theologians, were disinterred and publicly burned while the Bishop of Lincoln preached a two-hour sermon on the dead men’s errors. But I could equally think of Prior John Houghton, of the London Charterhouse, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1535 and who, according to tradition, prayed to God as the executioner cut his chest open to pull out his heart.

The idea of killing in the name of religion is very topical as Syria burns and European cities wait anxiously for the next attack by Islamic extremists. The important thing to understand about the atrocities of the 16th century is that, however abhorrent they seem to us, however alien, however gruesome (remember that public executions drew large crowds of spectators until the 19th century), they were not, in the main, done out of spite, but out of religious conviction and even, in a way which seems perverted to the modern mind, out of charity: charity in its proper sense of caritas, that is, love.

I return, as I often do, to my beloved Queen, Mary Tudor, forever labeled by history as “Bloody Mary” (or more wittily by Sellars and Yeatman as “Broody Mary”; for me, the best line in 1066 And All That is that “Broody Mary's reign was, however, a Bad Thing, since England is bound to be C. of E., so all the executions were wasted”). It is undeniable that the persecution of Protestants under Mary was harsh and, with 280 men and women burned at the stake in under four years, it was the most intense campaign of its kind in 16th century Europe. To modern eyes, it is unimaginable to put so many people to death, and in public too, simply for their theological leanings. But we cannot judge the past by our own standards, or, at least, if we do, we miss the point. The martyrs who would go on to be immortalised by John Foxe in his Actes and Monuments were not killed out of spite, or from a psychopathic bloodlust. They were killed because they were, so far as the Church was concerned, wrong, and destined for Hell unless something was done about their doctrinal errors. Many repented, no doubt some from fear of punishment as well as from religious revelation, including, famously, Thomas Cranmer, who recanted six times before deciding to go to his death after all. For those who would not, however, the only path to salvation was through the fires of the stake. In the eyes of the Marian Church, it was a matter of being cruel to be kind. Earthly torture was bad, but eternal torture was worse.

Now, before any of you stage an intervention and worry that I’m filling out my application form for the Spanish Inquisition, I am not endorsing the burnings of Mary’s reign. (I would quite like a cardinal’s outfit, though. That’s for another day.) I am not saying they are right. But historians have to understand the why as well as the what, otherwise the whole discipline is pointless. Those who ordered and carried the executions were not blood-soaked monsters. They were, in their own way, doing what they thought was not only right but necessary.

How does this take us back to Justin Welby, one of the greatest milquetoasts in a Church which is not short of the bland and platitudinous? It is his desire to impose the modern Church on the Church of the past. It is to say that the differences over which people argued, fought, and ultimately killed each other did not matter. But they did to them. Fail to grasp that, or try to sweep it under the carpet, and you may as well abolish every history department in every university.