Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Castles and Dragons

Dover Castle
Photo by Karen Roe, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

In the middle of the once-in-a-decade September storm which rocked the UK this weekend, I visited Dover Castle, high on a windy and very wet hill looking out towards the French coast. There were the usual English Heritage features: handy castle plans, on-site museum with artefacts, and animated films about the Angevins playing on large screens. Inside the main keep, however, the keepers and curators had prepared something more unusual – a mock-up of how the main rooms might have looked in the time of Henry II (1154-89).

Wandering through them was a rather peculiar experience. The throne room, with its giant banners of dragon-shaped lions, scarlet hangings and rather psychedelic royal chair looked more like a scene from The Last Emperor, than anything you might see in a standard textbook on medieval England. In Henry’s bedroom, a fire illuminated a painted wooden bed, with a squirrel-pelt, silk-lined bedspread, and a very solid wardrobe, brightly painted with Old Testament kings. The colour scheme was mainly cobalt-blue, poppy-red, and yellow-orange. “Lots of visitors say the furniture reminds them of Ikea,” said one of English Heritage experts on hand. This Henry-II look was painstakingly recreated, in a £2m project executed by 140 craftsmen, by copying surviving 12C furniture in southern Scandinavia, and depictions of medieval interiors in illuminated manuscripts.

English Heritage have written that their aim is to allow the 21C visitor vividly to ‘experience’ the medieval past (a kind of medieval virtual tourism). Perhaps the purpose of that experience is to make the 13C more tangible, a place we can relate to with its cosy beds and large wardrobes. For me, at least, the strange and beautiful rooms of the Henry II Tower had the opposite effect, and I found them unsettling because they rendered the local past and its material culture so very unfamiliar – rather as the HBO series Rome made the ancient city memorably more eastern, garish and dark than the clean marble metropolis of popular imagination. The rooms had a fairytale, slightly unworldly look to them, as if a dragon were about to creep out from under the bed. This slightly trippy recreation of Henry II’s Dover seemed to make it less real, less tangible, and to cast a pall of myth over it. Here, the line between the recorded past, the re-imagined past and a medieval dream world seemed very blurry indeed. It made me wonder what we want the medieval past to be – a sober story of the origins of English laws and institutions (Magna Carta, Parliament, etc.), or raw material for ‘medieval’ fantasy epics, such as Game of Thrones.

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