Friday, 25 March 2016

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

March 25

This day in History, at long last, allows us to pay call upon the enigmatic Year 1 and to go rummaging through its contents to see what turns up. That’d be 1 AD, of course – or Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord, in case there’s any doubt, so we all know what its main claim to fame might be, don’t we? Or do we? Leaving that aside for the moment, March 25 that year goes down as the date of the Dionysian Incarnation of the Word, or what we think of as the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel popped down to Mary with the gladsome tidings, which was all fine and dandy but was going to prove a tad awkward to explain to the doting husband when he got home. (“An angel, you say?”) Being as 25 March is a biologically handy exact nine months before Christmas, Dionysius considered this must be when the whole Anno Domini era kicked off. And, if you’re wondering who Dionysius might be when he’s at home in his calendar-making workshop, he’s Dionysius Exiguus, which, though he might not actually sound like that kind of fellow, what with his deciding When History Began activities, translates roughly as Dennis the Humble. Despite the misleading soubriquet, he was the one who dreamt up the whole Anno Domini caper in the first place, so he was pretty much in the driving seat when it came to deciding when the start of it might be. Though it seems he may well have had an ulterior motive or two up his monastic sleeve when it came to getting this new calendar of his into circulation.

One method of keeping track on the passing years that had been all the rage with folk back then was the AM system, or Anno Mundi, which put Year 1 down as the one in which the world was created, and they’d been able to calculate precisely when that was by using all those interminable lineages cited in the Bible – by which we mean the nonstop begatting business that started when Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enos, Enos begat Kenan and so on. No mention of Cain, you’ll notice, seeing he’d had his collar felt for the first murder by then and was wandering around in the Land of Nod, east of Eden (oh yes he was!). So, armed with all that irrefutable data, the boffins were able to state categorically that the world had begun five thousand five hundred years before the birth of Christ and, just to prove that was no fluke, they also announced that it would end in the year 6000 AM (or about 500 AD). Come on now, be fair, it’s not such a bad stab at it as you might at first think. OK, they’ve missed out the whole dinosaur period and the actual age of Earth happens to be about 4.543 billion years, but they weren’t to know that back then, were they? What you’ve got to remember is that Genesis reckons that Adam lived to be nine hundred and Seth eight hundred – they were also both over a hundred when they were getting down to the actual begatting – so you can see how easily the odd inaccuracy might creep in. Strictly speaking, however, about as much nail-on-the-head precision as you get from those infernal perishers who ring you up to inform you that, “Our records show that you’ve recently been involved in a road traffic accident.” Yes, and I’m eight hundred years old too, you know. Anyhow, Dennis’s big beef wasn’t with the absurd ages of everyone involved (there were no road traffic accidents back then, so maybe they did live longer?) so much as with the fact that everyone was going around the place thinking that the world was about to end. Well, it was 500 or so AD by then, so there was good reason to be getting a touch edgy. Enough to do something about it, anyhow.

As it goes, Dennis was none too keen on the other year-counting convention that was in use at the time either, also known as AM, though in this case that stood for Anno Martyrum, being to do with the Era of the Martyrs, but also known as the Diocletian era (or Anno Diocletiani, or AD), seeing it was named after the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who began his reign in November 284, which made that a fair candidate for being the Real Year 1 as far as he was concerned. Dennis, on the other hand, thought this was a bit of a rum do all round, seeing that Diocletian was exactly the sort of brutal tyrannical blackguard that has ensured that the Romans have received such a bad press down the years, what with all that scourging and crucifying and picking on the Christians for every least little thing that went wrong. In fact, he it was who instigated the Empire’s last major persecution of the Christians, which is the very thing that put Dennis’s nose so out of joint, his feeling being that a blighter like that shouldn’t be brought to mind every time we checked out what date it was. 

This is the sort of oily tick Diocletian was: him and Galerius, a chum and fellow emperor, decided that they needed to see what Fate had in store for them next. Cue the haruspices – they’re the bods who can predict the future using only the entrails of sacrificed animals, with the livers of sheep and poultry said to be especially efficacious in such cases – but, alas, it seems they just couldn’t get a signal (bet nobody asked them if they’d “tried rebooting”) so it soon became clear that it must be the Christians up to their old tricks again, especially when there was a fire in the Imperial Palace not long later. There was an investigation but nothing was ever proven. Still, that wasn’t going to stop someone like Diocletian and, by that stage, they’d got all the executing gear ready anyway, so they might as well just crack on. Which is what they did. Even his own valet was suspected of being a Christian so, just in case, Diocletian had him stripped, raised up on high and then scourged until the flesh came away from his bones. But then, as if to prove that all Romans weren’t just a hardened bunch of scourgers and crucifiers, they then treated his wounds – well, by pouring salt and vinegar into them – before boiling him slowly over an open fire. Imagine what it’d’ve been like if it had been someone he didn’t like …

Thus, in order to thumb his nose at Diocletian, our man came up with Anno Domini (thereby getting rid of the despised AD system by replacing it with … well, the AD system), which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars. Mind you, it had to wait until 731 to really get going, which is when the Venerable Bede used it to date events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Meanwhile, March 25 itself – or Lady Day – had been the traditional New Year’s Day in England right up until 1752. So 1751 was the last year to start on March 25, which ended up being only two hundred and eighty two days long.

So, what of the event of the Year 1 Anno Domini? It pretty much stands to reason that, if you’re thinking up a system that uses the birth of Christ as the starting point, then Year 1 would have to be the one in which Jesus was born, wouldn’t it? Ah, would that it were so. At the time when Dionysius was getting his thinking gear around the old Anno Domini business, he calculated (don’t ask how) that the current year would be 525 AD – fair enough – or 525 years since the Incarnation (Annunciation) took place. This implies that a full 525 years had completely passed since that event (just as a baby is one only when it has lived a full twelve months), which means that 25 March 1 AD is also a year on from the Incarnation, thus placing the Annunciation itself at 25 March 1 BC and, by extension, the birth of Christ some nine months later at 25 December 1 BC. That don’t sound right somehow, BC being Before Christ and all that. Still, things get even worse if you favour the dating-it-by-Herod method (he being the first-born butcherer, you’ll recall), seeing he died as inconveniently early as 4 BC. Before we all start pointing mocking fingers at poor old Dennis’s maths, perhaps it would be as well to reflect that not a few of us modern-agers fell for celebrating the Millennium (ie, a new one starting) a little prematurely when we’d only actually completed nineteen hundred and ninety nine by then.

25 March 1199 was not an especially good one, as far as Richard I of England was concerned. But, then again, he did tend to make a habit of having bad-hair days (except for the one on which his statue was done, in which his grooming is immaculate, suggesting that there must have been a whole host of topnotch barber’s shops around in the Twelfth Century Holy Land). Wherever the Lionheart was, things went wrong. All of which is enough to make one wonder why our goodly Parliamentarians should elect to have the effigy of such an immortal blunderer erected in their carpark as a figure of inspiration. It can’t just be the muscle-clad sword-waving machismo, surely? Marochetti’s bronze is an impressive piece sure enough, but even it was liable to suffer the same sort of mishap as its subject. The horse’s tail fell off the day it was installed (at the Great Exhibition, its original location) and, being bronze, that really was a clanger. Then, much like the recent Tory move to cut Disability Benefits, it was found to be riddled with holes. Plus it had never been fixed to the pedestal properly. Even the artist himself admitted it wasn’t an accurate depiction of a Twelfth Century knight but, apart from that (and the fact that it blew about in the wind), not bad.

So, what is it about this flaw-fuelled filibuster that makes our most upstanding members look up to him with such awe? Contrary to popular belief, he was born in this country and lived most of his childhood here – it was only after he got a whiff of power that he naffed off so conspicuously, spending as little as six months in England during his entire reign. (Lots of foreign jaunts for the powers-that-be? That’s got to go down well.) He spoke no English, only an obscure dialect version of French, in which tongue he was known as Oc e No (Yes and No) because of his reputation for terseness, so that’s another box ticked. He rose up in armed rebellion against the ruling powers (that’s be his dad, Henry II), got soundly thrashed, then blamed someone else (his mum) for egging him on before falling weeping and begging for forgiveness at Henry’s feet, who gave him the kiss of peace. All a bit unmanly, but we’ll brush over that. It seems that, like many of the Plantagenets, his hair was “between red and gold”, so more like your Boris or a young Michael Heseltine than your Dark Dave Cameron.

Then, on 3 September 1189, he finally got to park the royal backside on the English throne when he was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Despite having taken the precaution of barring all Jews from the ceremony, they had the temerity to turn up anyway and to come bearing gifts. Clearly, the only thing for it was to have the impertinent beggars stripped and flogged, then flung out on their ear. Mind you, he wasn’t completely anti-Semitic: when a rumour spread that he’d ordered all Jews to be killed and people got stuck into doing just that, he decided that this sort of behaviour wouldn’t do at all, though mainly because he was on the point of heading off on crusade and didn’t want his realm destabilised while he was away. So he organised some executions for the ringleaders to calm everyone down, and even released a royal writ telling folk to leave the Jews alone. But, the minute his back was turned, they held a massacre at York anyway, so fat lot of good that did. He remains one of a very few monarchs remembered by epithet rather than regnal number, his being Richard the Lionheart, of course, another being Ethelred the Unready, though this is a mistranslation, seeing it should be Æthelred Unraed or, at a push, Ethelred the Redeless, turning his whole name into something of an Anglo-Saxon pun, the Ethel part meaning noble and the raed (or rede) meaning advice or counsel, which would then make him Nobly Advised Badly Counselled. Not such a rib-tickler nowadays, admittedly, but it would’ve had them rolling in the aisles back then. Or a hundred and fifty years after the poor chap pegged it, when they first started to use the name, anyhow.

Back with Richard I, he’s now chomping at the bit to get off on the Third Crusade but crusading’s a costly business, so he’s going to need cash and loads of it. Having used up most of his father’s treasury, he then raised taxes, granted William I Independence for Scotland for ten thousand marks (there’s an idea) and he even went in for a spot of selling privileges and titles (nice New Labour touch) and charging those who already had them exorbitant fees to retain them. Famously, or infamously, he is said to have declared that, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” Can’t you just hear, floating in the background somewhere, the phrase, “This is a good deal for Britain”? Having safely pocketed his wedge, he then had to agree to going with his sworn enemy, Philip II of France, mainly because they were both such perfidious and suspicious blighters that they couldn’t trust each other not to nick their lands while they were away, thereby unwittingly establishing an early basis for the entire European Community. On the way over, he further enhanced his credentials as a great political leader by showing just how untrustworthy he really was: in Cyprus, he married Berengaria of Navarre even though he was still officially betrothed to someone else. Be fair, though, she did come with vast swathes of land, so that was “a good deal for Britain” too. Well, Aquitaine, anyhow.

From thereon in, it was onwards and downwards. When they reached Acre in June 1191, Richard was already sick with scurvy. Give him his due, mind: he was the sort of guy that got things done. Ill or not, he was still able to maim, debilitate and kill, by having himself carried about on a stretcher so he could take potshots at the guards up on the ramparts with his crossbow. Faced with that sort of thing, the residents of Acre soon threw in the towel but, even then, Richard was able to contrive calamity from the jaws of victory: he took great umbrage when Leopold of Austria had the brass neck to raise his standard inside Acre next to those of England and France, so our man had it torn down and thrown into the moat, at which Leopold flounced off in a huff (falling out with colleagues and allies? You wouldn’t find such goings-on in Parliament, now would you?), which left only Philip on his side, so he promptly bickered with him, leaving Richard as the last man standing. Or Dickie No Mates, as the case turned out. Well, apart from the two thousand seven hundred Muslim prisoners he’d captured, whose bogging-down presence was now hindering his pressing on for Jerusalem so, when Saladin kept dragging his heels over the surrender terms, he had the whole bally lot executed one by one in a spot where Saladin could see precisely what was going on. Henry V, our other great chivalric hero, would employ similar tactics at Agincourt.

Having left Philip free to go plotting with his own brother, John, and with Jerusalem in sight, Richard was forced to pack the whole crusading thing in as a dead loss, meaning a total failure of all his plans. Instead, he made a deal with Saladin, no doubt a good one for Britain. On the way back, bad weather forced him to put in at Corfu (land of Emperor Isaac II Angelos, who he’d also squabbled with) but, undeterred, he disguised himself as a Knight Templar and sailed away again. Only to get shipwrecked. So that meant going overland. It seems he was no great shakes when it came to the fancy dress business either because it was instantaneously seen right through, though the fellow that captured him just before Christmas 1192 had something of an advantage: he’d met him. It was Leopold of Austria, who can have lost no time in renewing the acquaintance. “Do you recall that time back in Acre? When you chucked my flag into the moat?”

Our hapless monarch then found himself banged up in Dürnstein Castle and, being something of a balladeer, beguiled the time by writing a song moaning about how he’d been abandoned by his people. Even though they were at home where they’d always been and he was the one who’d gone walkabout, leaving them to it. He was then handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, who just happened to be someone else in dire need of cash, so decided ransoming might bring some his way. All he was asking for, in order to let Richard go, was a hundred and fifty thousand marks, the equivalent of two or three times the national income (about £1,150,000,000,000 today). Up went taxes once again, and not just for the highest earners but across the board, in a kind of early version of One Nation politics that nearly bankrupted the country in the so-doing. Still, never mind, at least we got our King back. Though not for long, seeing he was off again more or less the moment he landed.

In March 1199, this Holy Christian Warrior of ours spent Lent in “devastating the Viscount Aimar V of Limoges’s lands with fire and sword,” then besieging the puny castle of Châlus-Chabrol, on account of the fact that he’d heard that a treasure trove of Roman gold had turned up there, which he reckoned must be his, being feudal overlord and all that. So, come the evening of 25 March, there he is, strutting around the walls without having bothered to put on his chainmail, as you would in a siege situation – and if you also happen to be an arrogant fathead who’s temporarily forgotten that blundering bad luck seems to dog him everywhere he goes – checking out how the sappers are doing and calculating how long it’ll be before he gets his mitts on the dosh, when some wretch armed with a crossbow takes a potshot at him. But misses. An amused Richard, who’d evidently not come across the saying, “He who laughs last,” sarcastically applauds this failed attempt. At which, a crossbow bolt instantly thuds into his left shoulder, wiping the grin clean off his face. The doctor then botches the removal and the wound turns gangrenous, which is pretty much your Twelfth Century sentence of death. As he lies dying, Richard summons the marksman to be brought before him. No point in bearing a grudge now, so Richard forgives him and even gives him a hundred shillings before ordering that he be allowed to go free. Which, given all the misfortune he’d suffered, was a nice final gesture. Richard died on 6 April 1199 in the arms of his mother.

Didn’t do the archer much good, mind. As usual, the minute the King was out the way, they took not a blind bit of notice of him, had the poor wretch hauled outside, flayed alive and then hanged. Richard's heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, his entrails in Châlus, and the rest of him at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. About which, you might say, “That’s him all over, that is … ”


Campin Annunciation: By Ad Meskens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adam & Eve: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Monk in a Scriptorium: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Diocletian: By G.dallorto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

The Venerable Bede (“The Last Chapter”): By James Doyle Penrose ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nativity by Rogier van der Weyden: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard the Lionheart: Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ethelred the Unraedy: By See description [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Berengaria of Navarre: By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Surrender of Acre 1191: Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dürnstein Castle: By QEDquid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb of the Lionheart: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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