Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is Professor of European History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Postcard from Westerplatte, 2019

            This week, the world remembers 75 years since VE day, the end of the Second World War in Europe (May 8th, 1945). That sobering anniversary – which falls in the midst of a quite different kind of global crisis – comes hot on the heels of another grim anniversary marked back in September 2019: the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Whereas the VE day anniversary takes place under lockdown, the 1939-2019 commemorations occurred in what now seems a very different moment in history, at the end of a long, hot summer, amidst tourist crowds and international jet-setting by world leaders. The blog below was written in Gdansk in September 2019, and it is posted now as a postcard, if you will, from a recent-distant past.

Westerplatte, Poland

            In August 2019, international dignitaries flew to Warsaw to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. A parallel gathering of European city leaders, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, was held in the Polish city of Gdansk. They flew to Poland because the opening military clash of this war, which would leave an estimated 70 million people dead, occurred just outside the port-city, on a low-lying Baltic peninsula called Westerplatte. At around 4am on 1st September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military depot at Westerplatte. Both countries had shared an uneasy presence in the Free City of Danzig since the end of World War I, under the eye of the League of Nations. The Polish forces at Westerplatte surrendered seven days later, by which time most of their country had been overrun by invading forces, and Great Britain too was at war.
            Twentieth-first century Gdansk is today a dynamic water-side hub, a popular destination for tourists and foreign investment alike, with gourmet restaurants and gleaning hotels springing up along its canals. The easiest way to see Westerplatte is to take a cruise, slightly improbably, on one of the two replica pirate ships which dominate the Gdansk summertime panorama, The Black Pearl (a nod to Hollywood) or The Lion (a nod to a local galleon wrecked in the 17th century). Tickets are sold by bored Polish girls sitting under an umbrella on the quayside, departures are on the hour, and eager crowds push their way aboard, as a string quartet lustily plays the Pirates of the Caribbean theme tune on a pavement nearby. The passengers are mix of holidaying Polish families with toddlers, East Asian tourists, inebriated stag-groups from Germany, and earnest history aficionados. As the ship turns on its engines and pulls away with surprising speed, children explore the forecastle, parents rush for good viewing seats, and many others head straight for the giant bar in the hold.
            Czarna Perla – The Black Pearl – takes you past the fourteenth-century red-brick spires and city-gates of Gdansk/Danzig, past the striking new Museum of World War II, jutting out of the ground like a crooked red tooth, and towards the historic shipyards where Solidarity, and perhaps a new Europe, was born in the 1980s. The fully rigged, beer-stocked pirate ship continues through a flat expanse of docks, cargo ships and coal heaps, as it negotiates the last stages of the Vistula delta, a maze of waterways and marshes which eventually ooze out into the Baltic, with its sand spits and storms. The pirate ship, stag party in full swing and playing with the plastic cannons, passes the late medieval brick lighthouse-cum-fort of Wisloujscie, which for centuries guarded the entrance to Gdansk. And then, abruptly, with no sea yet in sight, it reaches Westerplatte – there is a sign, a ruined 1930s brick building, and a tiny quay with an ice-cream van. A wooded park stretches along the shore. That’s it. Nearby a rust-streaked car-ferry is moored, bound for Stockholm. Nobody much disembarks from the pirate booze-cruise, the captain booms over the sound-system that this is the very spot where World War Two began, and a live folk guitarist promptly starts playing to cheer up any melancholy passengers. And then The Black Pearl turns back towards the cafes of Gdansk.
            In September 1939, the senior officer in command of the Polish base at Westerplatte was Major Henry Sucharski. On his death-bed in Italy in 1945, Sucharski recounted his experiences to the writer Melchior Wankowicz, who novelised them in his hugely influential 1947 work Westerplatte. Accounts of the battle remain inconsistent and confused. The Polish base suffered aerial bombing, an attempted German landing, and much of the Polish artillery was soon put out of action. On 7th September, after a long battle in the muddy mouth of the Vistula, with some 60 combatants dead, the Polish forces raised a white flag. Aided by Wankowicz’s stirring book, in post-war Poland Westerplatte fast acquired near-mythical status, as a definitive site of 20th-century Polish heroism, resistance and martyrdom. Today, Gdansk’s brand-new World War Two Museum offers special guided boat trips to Westerplatte, ‘the site of the global and Polish tragedy of September 1939’. Roger Moorhouse’s new account of the September campaign, First to Fight:the Polish War of 1939, published in 2019, will likely bring the Westerplatte story afresh to new international readers.
            At the Gdansk commemorations in September 2019, wreaths were laid at Westerplatte, followed by a debate between European city mayors entitled ‘Solidarity and Peace: the City as a European Community’. The city’s streets were decked with striking black ‘1939-1989-2019’ flags. Separate events were organised in Warsaw – the seat of the nationalist Law & Justice party (PiS) government – and cosmopolitan Danzig, whose most famous son Lech Walesa openly campaigns against PiS, and where the murder in January 2019 of the city’s long-serving mayor Pawel Adamowicz by an assailant allegedly inspired by far-right hate speech is still a very raw memory. Adamowicz’s desk is on display, behind glass, in the splendid Renaissance state rooms of Gdansk town hall. In the austere 14th-century gothic basilica of St. Mary’s, modern pilgrims come to seek his grave.
            In the unseasonably hot Polish September of 2019, the ruins of Westerplatte are not faced by Nazi cruisers, but by mock pirate ships. In 1509, the Swiss scholar Sebastian Brandt published his classic satire, The Ship of Fools, a book no doubt much read in the German-speaking, intellectually fertile and wonderfully wealthy Gdansk/Danzig of the early sixteenth-century. In its own way, Czarna Perla is perhaps a kind of 21st-century Narrenschiff. Its late-summer passengers, with their ice-creams and Budweisers, half-look at Westerplatte and the black hole it signifies in our collective histories, and half look-away. Whether these global passengers are listening to the explicit historical commentary dispensed by the replica ship’s audio system, above the hub-bub of music and chatter, is an open question. For there are many histories, and many Europes, lurking in the heavily dredged and wreck-strewn waters of the Gdansk channel; and a labyrinth of possible European futures.

The Golden Lion, Gdansk

Thursday 30 April 2020

Gesture - from Botticelli to Microsoft Teams

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1470s/80s)
       As Trinity term starts in Oxford, it is not only teaching which has moved online, but also the regular College and Faculty committee meetings which pepper the diaries of academics in this self-governing republic of scholars. Normally, we meet in groups of 20 in the high-ceilinged rooms of the History Faculty, in groups of 10 in Somerville’s SCR Dining Room, or in the full 40+ Governing Body assembly of college Fellows, in the basement hall of our 1970s’ Wolfson building. Instead, we now meet exclusively on screens. Microsoft Teams, the video-conferencing tool used by the University (and the UK House of Lords), currently shows only the faces of the four most recent speakers. The other digitally-present committee members are visible purely as tiny initials at the bottom of the screen. While online committee meetings work surprisingly well in many respects, the move from physical Oxford rooms to screens has revealed how much of a traditional meeting is conducted silently, via body language. Not all 40, 20 or 10 members of a committee will speak on every topic on the agenda, of course, but vigorous nods, discreet frowns, smiles, agitated shuffling of papers – even when only half-registered by others – together create a mood, a collective sense of a group reaction, over and above what is actually said (and minuted). At present, we cannot see our non-speaking colleagues’ mini-gestures, just rows of silent initials in coloured circles – even as we grapple with critical issues, such as the financial challenge which the pandemic urgently poses for Oxford colleges, or the implications of social distancing for teaching now and in the months to come. The ‘chat’ function, where committee members can post brief comments on the discussion in a side bar for all to see, is helpful, but it is still verbal communication; with emojis, but without gesture or human facial expressions.

                Historians have for decades studied the role and importance of gesture, particularly in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The theme of the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (IMC) back in 2006, for example, was ‘Emotion and Gesture’; in 2016, Piotr Węcowski of Warsaw University published on the gestures of the Jagiellonian kings of Poland in the 15C and 16C, and their grave political meaning to contemporaries. Michael Baxandall’s celebrated book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972), argued that decoding body language in Renaissance paintings is key to understanding their meanings and composition. He pointed out, for example, that in Botticelli’s famously enigmatic Primavera, Venus’ raised hand would have been understood by (educated) contemporaries as a gesture of welcome to her spring bower. Or that the manically grinning, pointing angel seen at the foot of many Renaissance paintings is a reference to a character familiar from 15C street theatre – the festaiulo who literally pointed out which actor the viewer should be paying attention to. Late medieval preachers, meanwhile, had a repertoire of gestures, or sign language, so extensive that (some argue) a wandering Italian friar could preach through body language alone in, say, Brittany. By contrast, on Teams we communicate oblivious to most of the pointing, sighing and waving of colleagues.

                Having our normal professional interactions as scholars shaken up so radically by social distancing, however, can create a new space for potential historical insights and reflections. Looking at day-to-day 21C academic life, as it is turned upside down and rendered no-longer-familiar, mediated entirely through screens, might make us newly alert to elements in past cultures which we have not adequately spotted to date, and generate new research questions about society, culture and communication. Because it is not only teaching and research which are famously complementary scholarly activities; historians and anthropologists know that committee meetings, in both their traditional (tables) and novel (screens) forms, are also a crucial forum for watching, reflecting, and thinking on many levels – a surprising window, if you will, onto bigger norms and wider worlds.

Friday 26 July 2019

The First ‘Love Island’ (1838)

George Sand,
painted by
August Charpentier (1838)
Fryderyk Chopin, c. 1849, by Bisson



               On British television, the reality dating show and pop-culture phenomenon ‘Love Island’ is nearing its finale this weekend. With over 6 million viewers, the programme places 20-somethings on the Balearic Island of Mallorca, in a converted farmhouse-villa decked out with neon signs and gaudy summer accessories. Yet perhaps few of the contestants or viewers know that tourism on Mallorca was kick-started almost two centuries ago by an earlier pair of celebrity, star-crossed lovers, in a remote lodging just a few miles away from the ITV villa.

            In 1838, the ‘most famous woman in France’, the avant-garde, aristocratic, cross-dressing, best-selling novelist George Sand (Amantine Dupin) travelled to Mallorca with the Polish composer, pianist and political refugee Fryderyk Chopin. She was 34, a divorced mother of two, he 28. Sand claimed they were seeking solitude, where she could write and Chopin compose; they were likely also fleeing from the scandal their love affair had caused in Paris. Mallorca in the 1830s was heavily agricultural, with limited infrastructure for foreign visitors – the couple could not find a functioning hotel in Palma, and ended up renting a cell in an abandoned monastery, in the mountain village of Valldemossa. The lovers’ Mallorcan tryst was bitter-sweet. Chopin’s letters praised the natural beauty, calm and ‘poetic feeling’ of the island. Sand, however, grew disillusioned, and angry at the locals who disapproved of the unmarried lovers. She later vented her feelings in her famously acerbic
memoire A Winter in Mallorca.  

            Sand’s book put Mallorca on the literary map. She joked that she had ‘discovered’ the island, and predicted that once international travel connections improved ‘Mallorca would soon prove a formidable rival to the Alps’, a new destination for the North European traveller. That prophecy was realised with the opening of an international airport at Palma in 1960, and the advent of mass tourism. Today, ‘Love Island’ producers distil Mallorca into its essential modern tourist image – turquoise waters, limestone coves, endless sunshine, endless swimming pools. Yet, as the 2019 contestants chat, court and argue on our screens, this social-media television spectacle still evokes the unquiet ghosts of Mallorca’s original, nineteenth-century ‘Love Island’ couple.

            In their villa, the current ‘Love Island’ contestants are cut off from the outside world, kept well away from the locals. They can only imagine what is being written and tweeted about them in the outside world, or what fame or infamy will greet them on their return. They come to find love, or fame, or the £50K cash prize. Chopin and Sand, too, in their damp monastery sought total privacy, but wondered what the Paris papers were saying. And they too found that that a Mallorcan hideaway holiday had an ambiguous effect on their relationship. Chopin was in 1838 already ill with bronchitis or tuberculosis, and his love affair with Sand would break down in terrible, very public recriminations a few years later. The Polish pianist died in Paris in 1849; Sand did not attend his funeral. The Mallorcan interlude had proved productive for both their careers: Sand wrote her novel Spiridion in the monastery, and Chopin composed a number of pieces at Valldemossa. But the romantic happily-ever-after which the most gossiped-about couple of 19th-century Europe had sought in the Balearic sun had proved, ultimately, far more elusive.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

History on the March...

Pilgrimage of Grace banner, 1536

           Last weekend, along with a million other people, I attended the Peoples’ Vote March in central London. We arrived in Park Lane, super-luxury hotels looming over us, and stood for over two hours in a tightly packed crowd. The two-mile column of humanity ahead of us was so dense, that there was no room to actually march. We eventually shuffled through London, hemmed in by hundreds of people on all sides for 5 whole hours.
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.

Thursday 14 March 2019

Three Days in Budapest

Isabella (1519-1559), Queen of Hungary, attributed to workshop of Lucas Cranach

        This month, I attended a
conference in Budapest, to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Isabella (1519-59), a Polish-Italian princess and Queen of Hungary. In spite of the tsunami of books and novels on Renaissance queens in recent years, Isabella’s dramatic life is still surprisingly little-known outside Hungary itself. Raised at the Cracow court at the height of the Polish Renaissance, Isabella travelled south in 1539 to marry King John of Hungary: only to find herself, just 18 months later, widowed, with a new-born son, and an Ottoman army led by Sultan Suleiman I surrounding her capital of Buda. Via many twists and turns, she came to rule the new principality of Transylvania for her son, as the Sultan’s vassal.
            Isabella was a highly international 16th-century figure, continually crossing borders, and this conference, organised by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, also involved much border crossing, with speakers from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Finland and the UK. Isabella has fallen between the cracks of different national scholarships, but an international conference like this can start to put the pieces back together. Attending the conference programme put together by Dr. Terez Oborni and Dr. Agnes Mate was like watching a new biography of Isabella write itself in real time – as chapter after chapter of her life unfolded before us, reconstructed by experts from sources and archives all over Europe. In the ornate halls of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences headquarters, a 19C academic palace on the banks of the Danube, we spent two days conjuring up Isabella’s Hungary, where great geopolitical and cultural forces clashed in the mid-16C – surrounded by paintings of medieval castles, and listening to a performance of 16C Central European music on period instruments by the Musica Historia group.

It was hard, during this wonderful conference, not to notice also the modern-day political forces at work around us. The conference coincided with an international dispute over a new poster-campaign by the Hungarian government: the posters in question, showing George Soros with Jean-Claude Juncker, were prominent all over Budapest during our stay. The conference also took place during a serious crisis for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, our hosts – the Hungarian government is poised to close or take direct control of its network of excellent research institutes, a move which has drawn international protest, including from the UK’s British Academy, as an assault on the fundamental principle of academic freedom. Staff of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have appealed for international support. Hungarian historian colleagues and friends now find themselves on the front line of this dispute, their research projects, jobs and careers suddenly uncertain. Historians are a tellingly early focus for populist regimes – as we see in clashes over the Poland’s Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, the Polish Jewish Museum (Polin) in Warsaw, and now in Hungary.

In the 30 years since 1989, we have made real progress in integrating the rich history of Central Europe into our wider histories of Europe, after decades of intellectual separation in the Cold War. Scholars working in Budapest have been key to this – both those at the Central European University (also now under sustained and grave governmental attack), and at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who have written reams of excellent work, opening up their country’s past to international audiences. Back in Oxford tutorials, my students sat grim-faced as I explained how historians were under government pressure in Hungary, certain areas of teaching banned, and that we should seize in both hands the intellectual freedoms we have. EU expansion, migration and the Brexit crisis have, I hope, by now given the lie to Chamberlains’ infamous words of British indifference to Central Europe in 1939:  we can no longer say that this is ‘a faraway country of [whose people] we know nothing’. As Isabella, the half-Italian queen of Hungary shows, the history of Central Europe is the history of Western Europe, in the Renaissance, 20C, and today alike.

Friday 9 November 2018

Between Two Novembers

This weekend, the world will face the bracing 100th anniversary of 11th November 1918 – a date with very a different meaning in the two traditions in which I grew up, British and Polish. In the UK, on their winter coats people are wearing not just red paper poppies, but elaborate enamelled flowers engraved with the dates 1918-2018. For the British, November 1918 is Armistice, a solemn national occasion of mourning and memory, in a military key. For Poland and its international diasporas, however, the 11th November 1918 is celebration – Independence, the day on which the European empires which had partitioned and gobbled up the old Polish kingdom, and ruled it for 129 years, fell away, leaving the way open for Poles to take up arms and create their country anew (or a remembered version of it).

            This 100th anniversary comes at a time when both these countries are debating their identities, and pasts, out aloud before the eyes of the world. In Britain, some look forward to a sharp break with the EU and a rekindled imperial trading future, while others wait for a UK-style en marche progressive wave to sweep those visions, and Brexit itself, clean away. In Poland, meanwhile, the ruling nationalist Law & Justice party, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, and ultra-far-right groups are caught in a three-way struggle over the annual Independence Day march, in a proxy fight for the meaning of the day.
     As a historian and British citizen, I’ve always been caught between, and within, these two national conversations, but the tensions of British-Polishness (or Polish Britishness, if you will), are in November 2018 more pronounced than ever. The rise in anti-East European xenophobia seen in the UK during and since the 2016 referendum has, and has not, caught me by surprise. In the 1990s, during an internship at the Foreign Office, a succession of top civil servants commented on my surname with disapproval, declaring: ‘we can’t have foreigners working here, can we?’ In the 2000s, habituating the riverside children’s playgrounds of Reading, I could see local parents and grandparents visibly stiffen when I spoke Polish in that public setting; and visibly relax when I took care to intersperse it with a few sentences in my impeccably middle-class English, as I have learnt to do ever since, on streets, trains and buses. After the Referendum, guests at Oxford high tables and shop workers alike felt free to announce that I was not British, à propos nothing at all. English white-on-white xenophobia is not universal, but it is a persistent daily undercurrent, encountered along the whole social spectrum - upper class, middle class and working class fellow citizens alike, in metropolises, provincial towns and rural pubs.

            And in Poland itself, people are equally quick to judge the name-accent-passport combination of their diaspora kin, in archives, hotel receptions, restaurants, conferences. Poles in these varied social situations quickly feel the need to tell the diaspora who they really are: ‘so you are not Polish’, ‘so you are Polish’, ‘so you are foreign’. This urgent need to categorise reflects a deeper set of anxieties about what, and who, ‘Polish’ is, 100 years on from independence. Whoever ends up marching, and in the name of what, in the streets of Warsaw on Sunday, the very equation ‘1918-2018’ is, historically speaking, a potentially uncomfortable sleight of hand. It tacitly equates the Poland created in 1918 by the Versailles Peace Treaty with the Poland created in 1945 by the WWII Allies. Yet, in their borders and peoples, these two countries were very different places. The Poland born on 11th November 1918 had a highly mixed population: the 1921 census found that 30% of its citizens were Ukrainian/Ruthenian, Jewish, German or from other minorities. The Poland of 2018 is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous states in Europe. The celebratory slogan ‘1918-2018’ does not seem to make much room for that absent 30%.

            So, for the British-Polish and Polish-British, this will be a strange weekend, watching stately processions to the cenotaph in London, and the noisy and possibly violent Independence march in Warsaw – red poppies, red and white flags. Many histories, communities and lives do not fit the clear national stories which these 1918 commemorations try to unite their respective societies around. Yet, in the wider run of European and global history, those who cross boundaries, inhabit margins, or live in zones of overlap make up a large part of the world’s story. Perhaps one day the solemn Polish and British Novembers will also find a way to make their peace with that.

Monday 21 May 2018

Royal Wedding as Microcosm...

Two years ago, serendipitously, the Bodleian Library offered the Jagiellonians Project (which I lead) a spring 2018 slot for an exhibition about a Renaissance royal wedding. As the Bodleian staff, my co-curator Katarzyna Kosior and I hurried to write captions, secure an object loan, design flyers and pick 9 objects to mark the 500th anniversary of the 1518 wedding of King Sigismund I of Poland and the Italian princess Bona Sforza, the media grew steadily more excited about preparations for the British royal celebrations. As we held a conference on Renaissance Royal Weddings, from Paris to Constantinople, the imminent Windsor wedding moved higher and higher up the news agenda. And the parallels between 16C and contemporary royal nuptials are rich.

The British royal wedding this weekend boasted impeccably 21stcentury features: the digital clock on Windsor Council’s website, A-list celebrity culture, the tens of thousands of tweets generated. But, like royal weddings across time and space, the event was at heart a symbolic performance. It was thus in the Renaissance, when princes put on treasury-draining, eye-poppingly spectacular festivities for their nuptials. It was thus in imperial nineteenth-century Britain, when the royals invented a new traditional-looking pageantry to awe onlookers. Historians know that royal weddings perform identity because they are a chance for princes, and their subjects, to stage who think they are - or who they might like to be.

When the bride is a foreigner, from a distant land, this effect is heightened. Meghan Markle is the first foreign bride for a senior British royal since, whisper it, the abdicated Edward VIII took the American socialite Wallis Simpson as his wife. Historically, a royal marriage to an overseas bride was proof of a country’s essential cosmopolitanism – its diplomatic connections, its international power, and also of the prince’s good cultural taste and broad horizons. When, 500 years ago this spring, King Sigismund married Bona Sforza in Cracow, he was reinforcing his own reputation as a leading enthusiast for the Italian Renaissance and all its heady glamour. Prince Harry too was showing us a more global, forward-looking British monarchy, open to the future.
But a prince’s foreign spouse has also consistently been a touchstone for anxieties about national identity and belonging, galvanising local anger. In 1554, for example, the English noble Thomas Wyatt led a rebel army to London, to prevent Mary I from taking a foreigner, Philip II of Spain, as her husband. In Poland, the teenage Bona Sforza immediately became the subject of obscene verses, lambasted for bringing with her Italian ‘sodomites, patricides and epicureans’ who stole jobs from honest Poles. Meghan Markle, even before the wedding, became the target of hate mail. At a country house outside Reading this weekend, I heard visitors (racism alert) grumbling out loud, as they tucked into their picnic, about the inclusion of a Gospel choir in the royal wedding service because this ‘wasn’t British music’.

Foreign brides for princes have, for centuries, highlighted and even inflamed tensions between a country’s local and cosmopolitan identities. Royal weddings thus show us a society in microcosm. Royal nuptials hold up a mirror in which historians catch a glimpse of past identity crises; and in which we can today catch a bracing glimpse of Britain, with all its fissures, in 2018.