Monuments to the Losers

As an ex pat currently living in London, I found this article from today’s Washington Post really very interesting (quite apart from Mark’s post on the secessionist movement in Vermont). I have been in London now for seven months and, as a Roman Catholic living here, one of the striking things that stands out is that there are no monuments to the losers in England. For example, I toured Westminster Abbey last Saturday morning. Elizabeth I is buried there in an ornate sarcophagus that takes up a good part of the chapel in the extreme western end of the abbey. What is not as well know is that her older half sister, Mary I (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”) is buried with Elizabeth in the sarcophagus. Mary I was the eldest daughter of Henry VIII and she succeeded her brother, Edward VI, to the throne. Mary is famous (infamous) for trying to turn back the clock on the English Reformation by reestablishing, often violently, the Roman Catholic faith as the the established church of England. As she lay dying, tragically for her, without issue, she had no choice but to recognize her Protestant half-sister as her heir and, once Elizabeth became queen, the Protestant church went on the ascendancy in England with very few interludes. Of course, by the eighteenth century, the Church of England, headed by the monarch became the established faith of England, with far reaching consequences for the Empire, especially Ireland.Mary’s burial is marked by nothing more than a stone slab on the monumental paen to Elizabeth. It is true that the Abbey takes pains to alert tourists that Mary is also buried with her sister. Also, in the 1970’s, a stone marker was placed on the floor near the sarcophagus encouraging visitors to pray for all those who died “for conscience” in England’s religious conflicts.

I think this is an interesting lens through which to view the Washington Post article. Confederate monuments in the United States always struck me as odd. We have to be the only country in the world which lionizes its rebels. With respect to the “martyrs” to the “lost cause” of course, that cuts both ways. Are we celebrating the valor of men and women who fought and died to preserve a way of life and a philosophy of government from tyrannical and alien encroachments or are we preserving, even as nothing more than battle flags and locks of hair, the memory of a social structure that had as it base, the evil institution of chattel slavery. It is a great credit to America, I think, that for 150 years, first slowly and then, as the civil rights movement grew throughout the 20th century, openly and robustly, we have allowed room for this tension to exist in our public space and even our political debates. To my mind, it brings history in focus and it allows us to examine everything, even the painful things, about where we have come from.

There is another English tradition that I would like to mention. On November 5th, fireworks are set off and bonfires lit all over England. The celebration commemorates the foiling of a Catholic plot, led by one Guy Fawkes, to blow up Parliament and assasinate James I, Elizabeth’s cousin and successor. When my 6 year old learned about “Guy Fawkes Day” in school, they told him about the plot and the fireworks. No mention was made of the religious conflict underpinning the history.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Is it better to let bygones be bygones? Or do we loose something when we sugarcoat the past? I think this is a very important question as its answer will say a lot about how we confront our current problems in the Middle East?

Have at it.

A short PS. James the I’s mother was Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth thought Mary a rival to the throne and had her imprisoned for about 20 years and finally agreed to her murder. Once James succeeded to the throne, he had a tomb built in Westminster Abbey for his mother, directly opposite the location of Elizabeth’s, which was larger and more ornate than Elizabeth’s. Somewhere, Bloody Mary must have been smiling.


One Response to “Monuments to the Losers”

  1. Mark Grannis Says:

    We owe a great deal to history’s bad examples. I’m for telling it like it was.

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