The Brexit Warnings to Be Found in Sheep Grazing in a London Park
A hundred and twenty-five years ago this October, Charles Hercules Read, an archaeologist who later became keeper of British and medieval antiquities at the British Museum, conducted an excavation of a mound on Hampstead Heath, seven hundred and ninety acres of rural parkland in London. Read was searching for the remains of Boudica, a Celtic queen of the Iceni people, who led an uprising against the Romans around 60 A.D. There was great public excitement about what the dig might uncover, with onlookers watching “with an interest so keen that it may almost be called feverish,” the Morning Post reported at the time. If the exploration were to prove successful, there was even talk of installing on the site an enormous bronze statue, designed by the sculptor Thomas Thornycroft, showing Boudica—or Boadicea, as she was then known—with her spear aloft, driving a chariot pulled by two rearing horses, a determined expression on her face.
The archaeological exploration was, at best, a quixotic one, as the scholar Martha Vandrei explains in her useful book “Queen Boudica and Historical Culture in Britain.” There was nothing much beyond local legend to suggest that this particular mound was the last resting place of the warrior queen. Still, myths and symbols are powerful things, and throughout the nineteenth century there had been a resurgence of interest in Boudica, who once led an army of ancient Britons in defense of their chilly northern home—with its woodlands and waters, its hardy sheep and equally hardy people—against would-be colonizers from the Continent. Boudica’s campaign against the Romans was linked in the public imagination with the nationalistic pride and imperial ambitions of Britain under Queen Victoria, whose name was fortuitously connected to that of her predecessor. (The root of “Boudica” is the Celtic word for victory.) Boudica was most famously celebrated in a long poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate, who wrote of her defense of this “isle of blowing woodland, isle of silvery parapets,” against the alien occupiers from Rome, “rolling on their purple couches in their tender effeminacy.”
A short history lesson: Boudica had been the wife of Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, who had formed an alliance with the conquering Romans in order to hold onto his power; he willed his land to the shared custody of his two daughters and the Roman emperor, Nero, in the hope of preserving his kingdom and family. Nero failed to honor the will, perhaps unsurprisingly, given what we know of him. After Prasutagus’s death, the centurions descended: Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped, and the Icenic nobility was stripped of its land and possessions. Roused by Boudica, an army of Britons attacked the Romans at their principal military establishment, Camulodunum, now Colchester; in Londinium, the town that was the precursor to London; and in Verulamium, now St. Albans. As the Roman historian Tacitus recounts, the Britons exacted a brutal revenge, “hasty with slaughter and the gibbet, with arson and the cross,” upon civilians and soldiers alike. In rallying her troops, Boudica claimed a populist mantle. According to Tacitus, she told her followers that “she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honor of her daughters.”
The excavations on the Heath in 1894 were short-lived: Read swiftly determined that there were, in fact, no remains of the Icenic queen, or anyone else, in the mound. The only articles recovered from the dig were some bits of charcoal, most of which dated back less than two hundred years. Although today the mound is still sometimes referred to as Boadicea’s Grave, such usage is knowing and ironic, a nod to the fact that the site is just one more place in which the ancient queen is wrongly rumored to be buried. (Other reputed, disputed sites are in northern Wales and somewhere between platforms eight and ten at King’s Cross station, where the story of Boudica curiously, if accidentally, merges with that of a latter-day British legend, Harry Potter.) The mound on Hampstead Heath is now thought to be a bell barrow, or funerary monument, dating back to the early or middle Bronze Age, meaning that it was there well over a thousand years before either Boudica or the Romans showed up.
Since Read’s dig, the mound has been colonized by a tall cluster of Scotch-pine and oak trees, and today it is inaccessible to the public. The Tumulus, as it is officially known, is under the jurisdiction of Historic England, a governmental body concerned with English heritage, and so, though most of the Heath is open meadow or woodland, the Tumulus is circled by sturdy iron railings. It is also somewhat overgrown by hawthorn, gorse, and other vegetation, which means that when the City of London Corporation, which administers the Heath, was looking for a site on which to experiment with the grazing of livestock, the Tumulus presented itself as an obvious choice. Last week, five rare-breed sheep—two Oxford Downs and three Norfolk Horns—were trucked up the hill and released with much fanfare into the prestigious pen, for a week-long trial. The City of London Corporation noted that it was the first time that sheep had grazed on the Heath since the nineteen-fifties, and released a vintage picture-postcard image of a peaceable herd on the slopes, to show how history was being revisited.
While television cameras captured the ovine occupation of the hillock—the five sheep, with handsome black faces and well-kempt white fleece, munched purposefully—John Beyer, who is the vice-chair of the Heath & Hampstead Society, explained that the idea of grazing on the heath had arisen last year, when the artist Lindy Guinness, who has painted the Heath multiple times, gave a lecture to the Society in which she noted that John Constable had included cattle in his paintings of the meadows there. (Guinness, who is otherwise known as Lindy Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, is fond of cows: she owns a small herd of rare-breed cattle, which graze on the grounds of Clandeboye, her two-thousand-acre estate in Northern Ireland, supplying milk for a substantial yogurt business.) But it was determined that installing cows on the Heath might present all sorts of problems: they would poach—that is to say, churn up—the ground with their hooves, mixing in their feces and urine, which is good for the soil but perhaps not so pleasant for the Heath’s human users. Sheep were a less invasive proposition. The purpose of the sheep is not only to be picturesque, Beyer explained, but also to help diminish or eliminate overgrowth of rank vegetation—the nettles and brambles that had opportunistically spread across the mound—allowing some of the more sensitive species and delicate grasses to emerge. “Lindy Guinness’s cows were a rather romantic vision, but the idea coincided with what the City Corporation was thinking about, which is are there ways to manage the heath more ecologically,” Beyer said.
Years after his speculative, fruitless dig of Boadicea’s Grave, Read defended his specialty’s contribution to the common good. “Such intellectual enterprises as ours add to the intellectual food of the nation, and the mere fact that such tasks are being carried on in the country helps to arouse and quicken the intelligence of the oft-quoted man in the street,” he told the Society of Antiquaries in an anniversary address in 1911, in what might now be thought of rather a romantic view of the beneficent influence of academic pursuits upon the popular imagination. Some years before Read spoke those words, a site for Thornycroft’s monumental statue of Boudica had been found, on Westminster Bridge, right next to the Houses of Parliament. It was erected there in 1902, though by that time, Martha Vandrei writes, “the fervor which had surrounded the excavation in 1894 had lost all immediacy,” and the public reception of the statue was decidedly lacklustre.
The statue is still there today, passed daily by tourists and those who work in Westminster—and also, lately, by protesters on their way to or from the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street. Since last week, they have been assembling to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his precipitous, widely condemned proroguing of Parliament—a move that, while defensible within the letter of the law, is seen by many, including John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, as a violation of the spirit of parliamentary democracy. The proroguing, which reduces the amount of time that Parliament is in session in the run-up to the deadline to leave the European Union by October 31st, looks remarkably like a ruse on Johnson’s part to gain the upper hand over M.P.s on both sides of the Commons who are opposed to Britain crashing out of the E.U. without an exit deal in place.
Johnson presumably knows the story of Boudica well, having studied classics at Oxford University while he was not scheming to become the president of the Oxford Union. Perhaps he has even taken inspiration from her: she did, after all, make herself an unlikely figurehead of those whom Read characterized as the “man in the street,” and whom Tacitus dismissed as the “barbarian host.” Being a member of an élite who has nonetheless managed to channel the fury of the people, Johnson may recognize himself in her example—though not, perhaps, in the manner depicted in an illustration by the cartoonist Chris Riddell, in the Guardian, which, drawing on Boudican imagery, portrays an ungainly Johnson wearing a diaper while urging forward a gilded chariot bearing the words “NO DEAL BREXIT.”
The Victorian veneration of Boudica that led to the erection of the statue in Westminster did, of course, tend to elide the less than glorious outcome that followed the Celtic queen’s rousing of her compatriots in the attempt to overthrow their smooth, foreign, cosmopolitan occupiers. After the Romans had withdrawn from Londinium, which was, as Tacitus noted, already a thriving center of commerce, the Britons burned it to the ground, an early but by no means singular instance of national economic self-harm. Even if Tacitus’s claim of nearly eighty thousand British deaths during the final battle at which Boudica gave her rallying cry is an implausibly high figure, there was a horrific loss of life in the course of the conflict. And, whatever the number of Britons who died in conflict, still others died afterward as a result of it. Tacitus wrote, “Nothing, however, pressed so hard as famine on an enemy, who, careless about the sowing of his crops, had diverted all ages of the population to military purposes.” Even Tennyson remarked upon the needless brutality of the conflict, and his poem ends not with triumph but with slaughter: “Perish’d many a maid and matron, many a valorous legionary. / Fell the colony, city, and citadel, London, Verulam, Camulodune.”
Boudica herself, of course, was among those who fell, even if no one knows where she’s buried—except that, for certain, it’s not on a hill in Hampstead Heath. Although Boris Johnson seems eager to adopt Boudica’s posture of championing the downtrodden British against the rapacious Europeans, he also seems temperamentally unlikely to embrace martyrdom. Razed cities and famine—or their modern, Brexit-induced equivalents, hollowed-out local economies and increased food prices—are unlikely to afflict Johnson on a personal level. One imagines that he sees himself taking more the Tacitus route in the ultimate aftermath of this particular British secession from Europe—being a statesman, writing important books, that sort of thing. When he says that, under his energetic leadership, Britain will exit the E.U. on October 31st, “Do or die,” he doesn’t mean, you know, die.
By the time the Brexit date rolls around, the sheep will have left the Tumulus. They are only on the Heath for a week—which was, as it happens, exactly as long as Read’s search for the remains of Boudica lasted. He dug from October 29th to November 6th, and by October 31st Read must have been grappling inwardly with the sobering acknowledgment that things were not turning out as he had hoped, and that nothing of any value was likely to emerge from the earth. He kept going, nonetheless, it being too late to undo what he’d already done. For now, though, the sheep can be seen atop Boadicea’s Grave, contentedly and impassively chewing the cud—ignorant, in the manner of all sheep, of where they are to be herded next. In their case, it is back to Mudchute Park and Farm, in the Isle of Dogs, where they will rejoin the rest of their flock. This is a happier end than that of the last sheep to graze on the Heath, in the nineteen-fifties: they were imminently headed to slaughter at Smithfield, the meat market in central London. Myths and symbols being powerful things, it’s hard not to wonder which flock’s fate more closely resembles the future that the people of Britain are facing. But that will be for the historians to reckon.
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