Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
the course of an hour sitting in a cafe at the University of Essex
with the eminent historian John Ashdown-Hill, I discover a number of
startling things about him: He doesn't recognise Stay
the 1971 Faces hit. Nor has he heard of Dr Lucy Worsley, a fellow
historian, TV presenter and Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal
Palaces. Dr Ashdown-Hill, in fact doesn't even have a TV.
Previously a distinguished linguist, he taught in Tunisia and Turkey
before deciding to concentrate upon historical research. As a
teenager; it was Ancient Egypt which interested him. Since middle
age, he's been settled comfortably into Middle Ages. At present,
he's busy at the library, indexing, something which he says he
dislikes but which, as most writers will know, is necessary
Dr Ashdown Hill, at present is possibly best-known to the nation for
his salient role in the discovery of the 500 year-old remains of
Richard III in a Leicester car park in 2013. It was he and Phillipa
Langley of the Richard III Society, who were the main players in
turning up the much-maligned monarch's scoliotic skeleton. Ms
Langley, who said that she just 'had a feeling' that Richard's grave
was beneath her feet, might have been dismissed as a mere eccentric,
had she not have been proven correct. The University of Leicester
History Dept, during the resultant media scrimmage, were quickly on
the scene, keen to claim chief credits. Dr Ashdown-Hill, Ms.
Langley's fellow 'Ricardian' whose genealogical skills and research
had helped inform her quest, later said that he had been 'airbrushed'
out of proceedings I, however and I suspect, a sizeable chunk of
similarly-agog history fans, will always think of Dr Ashown Hill as
'the Richard III geezer' – this cannot be taken away from him.
Prior to the discovery of his battle-chipped bones, Richard III was
seen by the world as villain of pantomimic proportions. For five
centuries, unable to answer his charges, the hapless king was
portrayed as an ugly, power-crazed hunchback who murdered the two
young princes in the Tower. The members of the Richard III Society
who, since 1924, had been trying to tell us that history – and
William Shakespeare had got it all wrong, must have partied all night
when the body turned up.
When I ask Dr Ashdown Hill about the two young Princes in the Tower,
he simply asks me. “Where were the bodies?” John doesn't even
belive they were murdered and seems quietly incredulous that anyone
else should. Athough he cannot say with empirical certainty what
happened to them. he seems fairly sure that one died of an illness –
the lad was being regularly attended by a physician – and that the
other simply disappeared, absorbed into history, as most of us are.
Dr Louis John Ashown-Hill, who lives near Lawford, is what I would
call an old-money historian.
He's done a bit of TV yes, but he's not the type of historian to go
charging over muddy fields, yelling and brandishing a broadsword in
order to emphasise a point to the voracious cameras. I get the
impression, however, that history, his subject, is imprinted through
him like the word 'Blackpool' is imprinted in the seaside rock. There
is barely a trace of academic aridity about the way in which he pulls
me up whenever I get my facts wrong.. Rather, it is with a sense
almost of mischief that he challenges me with, “ Ah but what do you
mean by the 'Tudor period' ?” pointing out to me that by rights, it
ought to have had an entirely different name.
haven't, however, come to talk to him today about Richard III,
murdered princes, or the Tudors. I wanted to talk to him about his
2009 book Lost
Landmarks of Mediaeval Colchester
which, as I wrote in this column when I first read it, completely
changed my view of the town.
It also awoke in me a strong interest for the medieval period,
generally. Dr Ashdown-Hill in a time before the records were moved to
Chelmsford, went into the Town Hall and read all about what medieval
life was like for Colcestrians. “It was a bit like a soap opera.”
he tells me. “With people calling each other's wives 'sluts' and so
I remind him of his account of one Robert Cok, a butcher of West
Stockwell Street, who'd been in the habit of discharging chamber-pots
out of his windows and onto the road beneath.
talk about Vineyard Street. In medieval times it was Bere Street,
where Colchester's citizens went to watch bear-baiting. The
historian thinks that it ought to be commemorated in some way:
“Perhaps with a statue of a bear.” Despite possessing the strict
rigor expected of a top historian, John retains an eye for the type
of snippet which might interest a prurient layman. “Did you know,”
he asks me, returning to the earlier subject, “...that Leicester
now has an escort agency which uses Richard III in its advertising?”
I find this mightily amusing, envisaging a picture of a skeleton,
with the caption, “Lovelorn middle ages? Don't wait 500 years for
someone to discover you.
Call us today!” John Ashdown-Hill born in 1949, has lived right
through the most essential period in British rock'n' roll history and
yet didn't recognise the Faces Stay
With Me. His
painstaking research did help turn up Richard III however. He can
probably be forgiven.