|Pilgrimage of Grace banner, 1536|
|Photo by @JesseJJWS|
As well as the in-the-present-moment sense of insurrectionary urgency which infused the march, the day was full of curious historic echoes, like a magic lantern show. The tallest flags, on enormous home-made flagpoles, were from the regions. High above the crowd, there fluttered Yorkshire white Roses, Lancashire red roses, the yellow Dorset cross, and the black flag of Cornwall - all held proudly aloft by protestors who had travelled by coach to London, setting out in the early hours of the morning. The Cornish flags marching on Parliament put me in mind of their most famous antecedent, the Cornish rebellion of 1497 against Henry VII, in which armed Cornish miners made it all the way to London, and the Battle of Blackheath. The roses from northern England, meanwhile, in their own distant way evoked the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, that great early modern rising of the north, which marched under its own banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, with matching badges for the Pilgrims: begging Henry VIII to reconsider his legal breach with Rome, and save the English monasteries.
As this great anti-Brexit carnival shuffle-marched past Green Park, a man stood on the metal railings, blowing kisses and calling out to the crowd like a preacher: ‘All you need is love! I love you all! You are looooved!’. Someone in my party said: ‘Do you think that’s how the Levellers started?’, imagining the most radical sects of the English Civil War originating as yelling mystics on the edge of a 17C political crowd. On the march, people were talking excitedly about the on-line petition to Parliament to revoke Article 50: as fellow historians have pointed out, petitions are not trivial gestures, but a tradition deeply embedded in British political culture. When James VI & I processed from Scotland to take up his new English crown in 1603, he was met outside London by a delegation of Puritan ministers who handed him the Millenary Petition, which they claimed had 1,000 clerical signatories.
Past the Ritz, and down Saint James, into London’s club-land. In the window of a cigar boutique, three tanned men smoked insouciantly, watching the noisy crowd pass by. On a balcony on Pall Mall, a family sipped champagne, as a million shouting, singing people filed past. Approaching Trafalgar Square, we spotted signs in the crowd in Polish: a bilingual placard saying ‘The Duchy of Cieszyn rejects Brexit’ – Central European regionalism here – and, more bracingly, an unfurled red-white ‘Solidarność’ banner, bringing Poland's anti-Communist resistance symbol par excellence to Britain’s anti-Brexit march. And, of course, in the crowd demanding a second referendum, there were hundreds and hundreds of blue-yellow EU flags: worn as capes, as face-paints, as antennae on children’s heads, wrapped around dogs, serving as blankets for protesters in wheelchairs. Here, a flag – the 19C medium of national identity par excellence – was repurposed for a very 21C anti-nationalist, transnational message.
This is the trouble with historians: they see deep layers of meaning, century upon century, wherever they look, as if deep time were all around them. Most commentators referred to the march as ‘historic’, by which they meant that it would be remembered, shape events, feature in future textbooks. But historian-marchers keep one eye behind them too: the People’s Vote March was also historic, because it drew together, in a carnival of protest, so many rich threads from the past of both these islands and of their European neighbours.