Layers Of Power: The Lessons Of Old Sarum

Layers Of Power: The Lessons Of Old Sarum

The view north east from Old Sarum.

The view north east from Old Sarum.

There was much consternation when Carcassonne was struck off the official register of fortresses in France.

Napoleon had inherited it as part of France’s military infrastructure.

It had tumbled down through centuries of French rule as a weapon of the state.

There had been no need to either reinforce it or remove it before the mid-nineteenth century but the realities of modern warfare meant it had exceeded its utility.

And so it was left to fall further into complete disrepair until its usefulness as a tourist destination emerged.

We visited Old Sarum on the weekend. It was continuously occupied for almost five thousand years.

From Neolithic farmers, through to an Iron Age hill fort, through its use as a Roman military station, then into the Anglo-Saxon period, then as a frequent residence of the kings of Wessex, then as a Norman castle, then as a seat of ecclesiastical power, then as a prison for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Despite being unoccupied, it even managed to send MPs to the House of Commons right up until 1831. By then it was just ruins on a hill.

Because this happened:

The castle seems to have limped on as an administrative centre into the 15th century, the end finally coming in 1514, when Henry VIII made over the ‘stones called the castle or tower of Old Sarum’ to Thomas Compton, together with the right to carry away the materials.

OS 2

As we clamber to the top of the fortress, rugged up against the bright, cold day, it occurs to me there is something eternal about power.

I stare out across the countryside, buffeted by the wind and think… I would build a castle here.

What is eternal about power is not the continuity of its application but the shape it makes when it is applied. Consider this analysis of the rise of European empires:

An observer looking at the world in A.D. 800 would barely have taken note of the European peninsula. Rome had fallen, and no effective centralized power had taken its place. Instead, a host of narrow-gauged tributary domains disputed rights to the shattered Roman inheritance. The center of political and economic gravity had shifted eastward to the “new Rome” of Byzantium, and to the Muslim caliphate.

Six hundred years later, in A.D. 1400, an observer would have noted a very different Europe and a marked change in its relation to neighboring Asia and Africa. The many petty principalities had fused into a smaller number of effective polities. These polities were competing successfully with their neighbors to the south and east and were about to launch major adventures overseas. What had happened?

OS 4

When I say we’re gonna win what this means in practice is that they are going to lose. In whatever era you incarnate, revolutions -and there is only ever one- are internal transformations set against a collapse into chaos. And this collapse will get very toxic before the end. This is the way of imperial decline and is also one of its signifiers.

Because I am looking for it, I take it as an indication that America has reached a post-imperial awareness that it brings out programmes such as The Americans and House Of Cards. (Exhibit A for my contention is every contemporary political comedy or drama the BBC has produced since the war. When they are feeling patriotic they instead don bonnets like real men.)

Regarding the latter, find me another period of modern American history when Fox (!) can release a programme in which the heroes are Soviet spies operating in Reagan’s Washington. Of course, they go to great pains to indicate that these are “good” people. If you’re worried that your main characters aren’t likeable enough, have one beat up a paedophile and the other one beat up a rapist in the first episode. (There… that should do it.)

OS 3

In both, the system is utterly toxic and ultimately the villain.

Contrast it with the previous decade’s political fictions… there was that weird and instantly-cancelled Geena Davis thing and the overwritten Democrat cocksuck that was and is everything Aaron Sorkin has ever created.

Back to those European empires:

Can anyone say that the present balance of economic and political power will be the same in 2500 as it is today? For example, in the year 1500 some of the most powerful and largest cities in the world existed in China, India, and Turkey. In the year 1000, many of the mightiest cities were located in Peru, Iraq, and Central Asia. In the year 500 they could be found in central Mexico, Italy, and China. In 2500 B.C.E. the most formidable rulers lived in Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan. What geographic determinism can account for this?

We inherit outdated political infrastructure the way Napoleon inherited fortresses. Look at this analysis of the recent vote for gay marriage in the UK:

Tuesday night was the latest climax in a disintegrating crisis of Tory party credibility. Revolts on Europe and the House of Lords have now been trumped by Tuesday’s revolt against the same-sex marriage plans. A significant section of the Tory party has effectively thrown its full weight against Mr Cameron’s Toryism. This bill was intended to be a statement of what has changed about the Tory party. There is still some truth in that modernising claim. But it is overshadowed by the even louder statement about what has not changed – and has no wish to change.

Inevitably, the walls and towers of a bygone age that find themselves on the wrong side of history are either left to impotent decay or are appropriated for the pigsties and homemade concrete of those who replace them.

OS 5

This is of course, the lesson of The Tower; the monolithic fractures and becomes piecemeal. Here is what the Great and The Good consider ‘x factors’ in the next decade:

  • The ‘discovery’ (ie ‘inability to keep secret any longer’) of alien life.
  • Professor Xavier-style mutants.
  • Immortal billionaires.
  • The rise of supervillains who will manipulate/are manipulating global weather systems.
  • A planet trying to kill us.

Power’s grasp on the flow of innovation is slipping. History is running away from them. Hail chaos and man the trebuchet. Some analysis of the significance of this WEF report from an alternative researcher with a background in ‘proper’ academia:

Notice here what the World Economic Forum actually seems to be implying: not “rogue nations” but simply “rogue” deployment, implying that they know they are not dealing with groups represented solely and exclusively by rogue nations, but by other types of groupings: criminal syndicates, corporate cartels, Fascist undergrounds, rogue elements within the international intelligence community.

OS 6

Recall the visit the Queen made to the Bank of England in December. (Apologies for the Daily Fail link but it had the best coverage of the event. Those racists sure do love their Queen!)

It’s only her ninth time there and the first in fifteen years. Why? Perhaps because she is the most depicted person in all of human history and having her wander up and down the gold reserves means there is global coverage that the gold is actually… you know… there?

Think that’s a stretch? The cornerstone of post-war financial terrorism; on-again-off-again gold-backed currencies; may well be about to get the Old Sarum treatment:

(Like so many people operating in the alternative research field, Dr Farrell’s conclusions are his own but his research methods are frequently very sound.)

I’ve mentioned this before but can you recall a time when such ‘boring’ topics as personal taxation, the private ownership of the Fed or inter-bank lending rates have been such hot topics? Like Europe in AD 800, like Old Sarum at least five times in its history, we are living through a period defined by the energies of The Tower. I think on this again as I watch children and dogs play in the ruins of the cathedral beside Old Sarum -a cathedral that was heavily damaged by lightning in the week it was completed, requiring a complete and ultimately pointless rebuild:

OS Church

The monolithic age is over, once again.

Once again? Yes.

Because even when the castle on the hill has crumbled to nothing, there will still be those that dream of building another.


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  1. 1
    Andrew B. Watt

    From time to time I think about my town’s “five hundred year plan”, which I think of as summed up in six words and a pair of parentheses: river, highway, railroad, greenway, bridge (mountain).

    We’ve never had a castle nor a cathedral — a shameful oversight, I’m sure, but we’re American barbarians: the descendants of junk-religion salesmen who abandoned science and authoritarianism in favor of vandalous, villanous individualism in a plague-ridden New World. But the mountain is there, at the back of town, and it guards the pass where the railroad and the highway come down to the river. And it’s hard not to imagine a day (perhaps) not too distant when a keep or donjon,with its attendant temple/cathedral/mosque/grove/nemeton stands hard by. The university may stay open, or not; the churches and meeting houses, with three exceptions, are ugly and should be torn down; but this place’s prosperity and future health rest upon the intersection of those highways under the shadow of the mountain (mountain? It’s barely 800 feet above sea-level), and cemetery hill closer at hand.

    It’s a useful exercise to think about ruins, yes, and to remember that towers fall. As emotionally moving as as the memorials of America’s toppled towers are, though, that stark outline of a cathedral floor at Old Sarum is still more of a reminder of how power dissolves. The crumpled barns around these parts remind me that our soccer fields and tract houses used to be farms; that the movie theater parking lot used to be Center Street, until the descendants of Puritans bulldozed the Italians out of a neighborhood to make way for their shipyards in the1880s, and the tumbledown factories by the river remind me that the Italians in turn bulldozed the African-American neighborhood (we always adopt the tactics of our oppressors) in the 1910s to make way for the textile mills and the millinery workshops of their own tower-building game.

    You talk to folks here, and the seething resentments surround folks like a halo. The past isn’t even past. The tower, in its rumbling and crumbling, has a tendency to change the shape of the board — but only rarely does it change the underlying rules of the game. We’re chimps that know HTML5 and how to drive a bulldozer.
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Taiji day 335: winter blahs / reposition

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