The Destruction of The History of the World

© Barry Kavanagh 2016

The Destruction of the History of the World

The history of the world existed in the mind of one man, in the year 1612, as he lived imprisoned in the Tower of London. This Tower is in fact a castle of many towers, and this man dwelled in the particular one called the Bloody Tower, at the southern wall by the wharf and the Thames; it was the main river entrance, and this historian could look out from his mullioned windows to see the operations of the portcullis and watergate. His name was Sir Walter Raleigh. At the time it was pronounced raw-lee, but today people pronounce it the way the Beatles did, when they sang about him, calling him a 'stupid git', cursing him for introducing tobacco to Europe.

Apart from creating cigarette addictions for musicians, he is also remembered as an important political figure of the Elizabethan age. Unfortunately for him, Elizabeth died and James ascended, and Elizabeth's favourite statesmen were swept away to the Tower. As a home for political prisoners, where also could be found Percy the Earl of Northumberland; Florence McCarthy the Irish Prince; and James's rival to the throne Arbella Stuart; it was not the worst kind of jail, there were even servants to wait on you, but Raleigh felt the pain of being lied about, of being tried and convicted on no evidence at all, of fictional reality becoming official and legal reality. He had a long history of serving the kingdom and was now in his fifties. He was no traitor, as they said he was. The lies pained him more than being a prisoner. On the other hand, he had not been entirely crushed: his death sentence had been commuted, because his unpopularity among the public before his trial, because of his arrogance and vanity, had turned into popularity, because of the dignity he maintained during the trial while being accused of impossible crimes against the King. He was still a part of London, in that the public could view their hero, when he walked the wall for daily exercise. They gawped up at him from the wharf, or from the ships on the river, a symbol of a bygone era in a black cloak fastened with a glittering jewel, and from beneath his velvet and lace cap, he gazed back at them, into the present.

In the afternoons, he tended his New World herbs, shrubs and tobacco in the garden that adjoined the Bloody Tower, and he also frequented a plaster hen-house that he had converted into a chemical laboratory and distillery, where, among a web of copper tubes, he experimented with cordials and medicines. At other times, his wife and children visited. They were free to live in the Bloody Tower with him, but occasional outbreaks of plague within the walls put them off the idea. The remainder of his time Raleigh spent writing, and the subject of his pen was nothing less than the history of the world and the governance of its kingdoms.

Raleigh had the idea that writing this book might get him out of here. Henry, the teenaged Prince of Wales, was very different to his father King James. The boy was quiet, serious, and intelligent. He was sporty, disliking only his father's sport of hunting, and he was interested in topics very related to Raleigh's expertise, such as politics, the exploration of foreign lands, and the greatness of warships. Henry was also teetotal, homophobic, and kept a swear jar. The King of Scotland, England and Ireland was superstitious, had no interest in war machines, surrounded himself with young, frivolous boy favourites, and was in love with a young man called Robert Kerr. He drank to Scottish proportions, was perfectly happy to keep Elizabeth's favourites locked up, and wrote a pamphlet entitled A Counterblaste against Tobacco. Raleigh might well have been executed, if it was not for the fact that Queen consort Anne swore by the medicinal cordial he brewed in the hen-house.

Sir Walter was pinning his future hopes on the heir to the throne. He saw the history of the world the way Henry did, firstly with a distaste for rulers such as Ninias, Rehoboam, Darius and Alexander, who packed their entourage with pretty boys, and secondly, with an idealization of the temperance of the Theban general Epaminondas. Such a book might gain Raleigh's release from prison through the intervention of the young Prince of Wales; in fact, it was true that of Raleigh, Henry had said, 'Only my father would keep such a bird in a cage.'

A new five o'clock curfew imposed by the incoming Governor of the Tower of London, Sir William Wade, ensured that Raleigh had little to do in the evenings but write, so he quickly produced the first volume of the great History, which covered everything from Adam and Eve to the assassination of Laïs in the Temple of Aphrodite in 340 BC, to the Roman conquest of Macedonia in the year 146.

Because Queen Anne liked Raleigh, Governor Wade was nervous about this prisoner, and was glad that this was counterbalanced by the fact King James had no use for him. Wade certainly didn't want to have much contact with him, and between his residence and the Bloody Tower was the garden, in which they would inevitably meet. Wade's solution was to have a wall erected, behind which Raleigh could be invisible with his plants and his laboratory, while Wade would have the rest of the garden to enjoy, strolling about, quaffing ale. It was to be set at a height and at a distance from the Bloody Tower so that Raleigh would not be able to see much over it even from one storey up. Workmen were set to the task with bricks, almost as soon as the idea occurred to the Governor. Wade smirked as Raleigh, writing about life after 146 BC by his tower window, or, at other times, peeking out of his hut, glumly looked over the work that was to reduce his freedom of the garden. The work was chiefly undertaken by two labourers called Fuller and Harrington. It was to go way over their heads, so that Raleigh and his hut would ultimately disappear from Wade's view.

Fuller was the fatter of the two, Harrington the leaner. Apart from that, they had a certain similarity: the same close curls of brownish hair, the same kind of short beard, and the same muscularity of the arms as they laid one brick upon another. Raleigh saw a delighted Wade stroll over to Harrington and tip him a silver coin. Spreading his hands over the chest-high wall, Wade was evidently pleased that the wall had reached this height so soon into the job. When Wade was gone, Fuller walked over and pointed to the coin, and the two discussed it for some time.

Raleigh thought of the coin again the next morning when he became aware that the two workers were arguing. He was busy writing in the tower, and he heard raised voices. He looked out the window to see the two men on the far side of the wall. Fuller's left hand suddenly grabbed an unsecured brick, and swung it towards a surprised Harrington, catching him on the right side of the head. There was an explosion of blood, and then there was a second heavy blow with the same brick, and Harrington fell backwards onto the ground, completely out of Raleigh's view, as pieces of his skull flew into the startled air. Prison guards ran towards the wall, and as long as Raleigh watched them remonstrate with Fuller, who would not let go of the bloody brick, he could not see whether Harrington got up again.

The next day, Governor Wade appeared in Raleigh's chambers. The prisoner greeted his gaoler effusively with a long greeting that praised the man, saying that he looked so healthy today and so on, but Wade, who looked well-fed but grumpy, found pleasantries from former royal courtiers uncomfortable, and with a frown and a wave of his hand, motioned Raleigh to be quiet. The Governor sat down on the nearest seat and said, 'The guards say that you are a witness to yesterday's incident.'

'The altercation?' Raleigh asked.

'Yes, although it is a little more than that. Mr. Harrington was killed.'

'The thin fellow? That's very sad. Yes, I did witness it.' Raleigh the former statesman found himself glad to be a witness. It felt refreshing once again to let the truth flow from his lips towards officialdom, and have someone listen. 'They were arguing, and the rotund man attacked him viciously with one of the bricks of their trade.'

For Wade, this whole investigation was a chore. Kilings in the grounds of the Tower he could well do without. 'Could you hear what they were saying?'

'No, I am just a little too far away. But had I been in my laboratory - '

'So, you heard nothing.'

'Nothing, but I have a theory that they may have been fighting over money, a perennial source of conflict, you'll agree.'

'What makes you think the motive was monetary?' Wade asked, rising from his chair with the notion that this interview was surely coming to an end by now.

'You paid one of them a silver coin the day before. For it to be shared, one of them would have had to take charge of the coin and change it into smaller coins, then pay the other his half. Perhaps your Mr. Harrington refused to share.'

'Well, it's a theory,' sighed Wade. He saw Raleigh's writing materials scattered on the desk by the window, and muttered that he should write a statement for the official inquest. Then he went out.

Over the next few days, Raleigh wrote up an account of the incident, relishing the importance of once again putting his signature to an official document. But it was not statesmanship that he was really reminded of as he wrote, but his recent work on the history of the world, writing the story of Cain slaying Abel with a stone. Just as kingdoms rose and fell throughout history, so again did the first murder reappear, as a pattern. A ritual in time: the killing arm making an arc through the air, the violent impact of the stone upon the temple of the head.

Lost in wonder at these fanciful ruminations, he found himself staring out the window, and he noticed that work had resumed on the garden wall. It was getting higher, but he could still make out the face of the worker on the other side. It was Fuller. Why was the man free? Why was he not in a cell, awaiting the hangman?

He shouted for a servant, and asked him to send a message: he must see Governor Wade urgently.

Wade, when he heard this, thought he might as well set Raleigh's mind to rest. The last thing he wanted was Queen Anne upset on behalf of her medicine monkey. So he returned to the Bloody Tower and flopped himself down on the nearest chair one more time, hoping this was the last occasion on which he would have to visit Sir Walter.

'The murderer is below, in the garden!' Raleigh exclaimed.

'In your world, here,' said Wade, 'Mr. Fuller, who is working hard down there, is a murderer. But there are other worlds. The world of the Earl of Northumberland, also a witness, albeit a pompous one who talks to me like I'm his junior shit-shoveller. Then there is the world of Florence McCarthy, a writer like you, labouring away on his mythic history of Ireland, who laughs at me when he sees me. And there's the world of sad, unlucky Arbella Stuart, who spends her time ordering deliveries of dresses for weddings she is not permitted to attend, and she stares right through me, barely aware that I exist. They are other witnesses, Sir Walter, and they all agree on what they saw.'

'And what was that? I saw Fuller slay Harrington in a sudden, destructive assault, with my own eyes.'

'You did not see the smoothing-trowel held at hip-level, with which Harrington cut Fuller, and was about to plunge into his heart with great ferocity. Quite simply, Mr. Fuller acted in self defence. He hit Harrington until he fell to the ground, and the mortal danger Fuller was in had passed.'

Raleigh was quiet for a time, then asked, 'Why did Mr. Harrington attack?'

'That is a mystery we have not been able to solve. Fuller says that he does not know, that Harrington went on an inexplicable rampage. Their wives could throw no light on it, and by all accounts they shared their pay, tips, and all monies equitably. It is a mystery that is lost to time and death, Sir Walter, and now I must leave you. Ale and other pleasures await me.'

Wade was gone. Raleigh looked at the witness statement he had written. It was a history from his side only, from his one tower among many. Was all history remembered and recorded this way? From one tower, from one side of a wall? There was only ever the one account of the story of Cain and Abel. He thought now he could do well to doubt it. Abel could have been a fiend. Raleigh had prided himself as a new breed of historian, casting a great hand over all of history, but could his perception be trusted now? He felt like a puppet of his own pretensions, clubbed down by giant effigies of forbidding Northumberland, legendary McCarthy and icy Stuart in a mocking piece of public theatre.

The witness statement lay beside the unfinished pages of The History of the World, and all the plans for the second volume. The statement, useless and false, seemed to undermine all his writing. What did he really know anyway of the last King of Macedonia, or anyone born before or after him?

He gathered up all the papers, walked over to the hearth, and threw them on the fire. Let the light take them! He was not cynical enough to continue with a history of lies and unverifiable truths, to impress Prince Henry with, when he no longer valued what he was doing. Let freedom be damned with it.

Volume one of the History was already at the publishers, and it was too late to convince them not to proceed. But he knew he could add an afterword. He sat down to write, and thought of a line from the Book of Job, something about a musical instrument being no such thing any more, but instead becoming the voice of those who weep.