Anyone for History? by Julia Jones

I showed this photo to a group of ten year olds at a primary school in Clacton-on-Sea without telling them what it was. I asked them to imagine they were on their own, aged about twelve, and looking up at it. They had thirty seconds to look and thirty seconds to jot down words. Then they were allowed to call them out:

“Dragon – sea lion – exciting – ugly – fierce – hairy – epic – weird – Elvis Presley hair – alien – zombie dragon – halloween decoration – statue – fat – dirty – slimy – red – Chinese dragon”

In fact it's a figurehead from a Dutch warship, the Stavoren, built in Edam in 1653. She was built for the Amsterdam Admiralty (each section of the United Provinces supplied and managed their own fleets) and was probably sponsored by the town whose name she bore. Pencil sketches made in 1658 show, indistinctly, that she had a large painting of a town emblazoned across her stern. The Stavoren was a 48-gun ship with a crew of 180 men and the exciting, ugly, fierce, zombie dragon with Elvis Presley hair is actually a red lion, symbol of the United Provinces – and frequently used on English warships too.

Here's what I wrote, before I consulted the ten year olds. Luke's aged twelve and this is his first solo adventure. He's on his way to hospital to visit his father who has suffered a serious accident in a boatyard on the night of Halloween.(I was so pleased when they included that word!)

Even the long way made him early. Luke stopped at the main road junction and looked at the pub sign. He’d passed it in the car plenty of times but he’d never properly noticed what it was. It was a sort of emblem bolted onto the pub wall, underneath an overhanging gable and next to a peculiar old window. Luke crossed the road and got as close underneath as he could.
It was red all right, crimson as spilled blood. A red lion with a mane that was painted so deeply purple you’d think it was black. Wasn’t like any lion’s mane that Luke had ever seen. It was more like a king’s wig, the sort they wore in history.
Thick dark curls clustered round the lion’s eyes. Though you could hardly see eyes from on the ground. You stared at flaring nostrils, gaping mouth, a pointed tongue and sharp incisor teeth. Then you noticed claws clutching at a dark breastplate, and more waves of wooden hair that looked as if they’d been arranged by some celebrity stylist.
The lion’s heavy torso bulged out from the pub wall. It was a monster, a crimson king and it was coming for him. It would have pulled the whole pub with it, if it could. Luke hoped the fastenings were firm.
Then it sort of tapered, like a merman or the top half of a seahorse. There was something missing from this monster. It needed to be able to move. It was like a captive genie struggling to escape.
The more Luke stared, the more he felt the carving’s hidden power. He could have battled it on his Nintendo and that would have been well exciting but today it was like an encounter with a 100% legend – old and fierce and probably cruel. It hadn’t even seen that he was there. There were heavy guns behind the lion and a flash of steel through the smoke. It would ride him down.
Luke turned away and ran. Re-crossed the road and took refuge in the brick bus shelter beside the flat stone bridge. 

Luke has a clue which the Clacton children didn't have: he knows that it's a lion because he's read the Red Lion pub sign. Otherwise I think that they were absolutely right to guess that it could have been a Chinese dragon. Most state primary schools today manage to make colourful enjoyment out of festivals such as the Chinese New Year, Diwali or Hanukkah. It may be superficial but it's fun and it's good education too. 
The new children's laureate, Malorie Blackman, was quick to use the rush of interviews surrounding her appointment this week to insist that we oppose any political meddling that seeks to dilute multiculturalism in either in literature or education. Her immediate target was Michael Gove's proposed curriculum for history.

The National Curriculum for history aims to ensure that all pupils:
  • know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world.
(Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English readers you can make your way to the comment box NOW!)

Luke's as yet untitled adventure – and the story of the Stavoren's red lion now fastened to the wall of a Suffolk pub – depend upon knowledge of a particular segment of history where an English king behaved in a morally reprehensible fashion and lost. It hasn't been taught in the past and I'm guessing that it's unlikely to feature in the new curriculum either. 

Stavoren in 1658 by W Van de Velde
The Stavoren was part of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter's United Provinces fleet which surprised and effectively defeated a combined English and French fleet at the Battle of Sole Bay off the Suffolk coast in 1672. I went to school in Suffolk and learned my history the R.J. Unstead way – which I loved and which is probably the model that Michael Gove, a person of my generation, secretly yearns to recreate. If I heard at all about the Battle of Sole Bay I assumed that it was the perfidious Dutch coming across uninvited to attack we Brits in our own home waters. Nobody mentioned that this THIRD Anglo-Dutch war (1672-1674) was deliberately provoked by King Charles II – that cheerful chap with curly hair and lots of bosomy girlfriends.

In the secret Treaty of Dover (June 1670), Charles, in debt as usual, had accepted money from Catholic King Louis XIV of France to attack the United Provinces from the sea. If successful, the English would invade: if not they would have caused a diversion while Louis invaded overland with his large, professional army. There were lots of clauses that set out how they would then divi up the country between them and an extra-specially secret section stated that if Charles could see his way to converting to Catholicism, Louis would pay him several millions more.

When Charles signed the Treaty of Dover, England was officially allied with the United Provinces and he seems to have found it quite difficult to dream up any pretext to declare war on this peaceful, fellow-Protestant country. Eventually some Dutch ship failed to salute some small English yacht in quite the approved fashion and that was good enough. A combined English-French invasion fleet set off across the North Sea to attack the United Provinces. Admiral de Ruyter, however, was both canny and a much better seaman that King Charles's brother, James Duke of York (future King James II) who was in charge of the wannabe invaders. De Ruyter lurked behind the coastal shoals with his shallow draught ships, using them to defend his country and, when the English gave up and went home to re-provision, de Ruyter followed and caught them by surprise in the early hours of May 28th as they were anchored off Southwold.

Sole Bay was a bloody battle lasting all day. About two thousand five hundred men and boys were killed or wounded on either side. Bodies were being washed up along the Suffolk and Essex beaches for weeks afterwards. The Dutch destroyed the newest and biggest English ship – the 100 gun Royal James (killing most of her 800 man crew) and the English had to be content with the relatively elderly 48-gun Stavoren as their only prize. A ship was a ship however. In the summer of 1673 the English and French attacked the United Provinces once again. The Stavoren had been renamed HMS Stavoreen and her red lion figurehead was sailing against her former countrymen. The English lost three further battles and in 1674 public opinion forced Charles to make peace. The Stavoren (or Stavoreen) had been badly damaged at the Battel of the Texel (August 1673) and in 1682 she was declared 'useless' and sold to the ship-breakers.

How did the Stavoren's figurehead arrive on the Red Lion pub wall? I wish I knew. It's an old pub, a coaching inn, probably pre-dating Sole Bay and the lion has been there for a very long time. “Red as the lion of Martlesham” has become a Suffolk saying and my best guess is that it was purchased from the shipbreakers in 1682, perhaps with some useful timber.

A much more immediate problem is how to share the history of Sole Bay with readers, especially young readers. My story's not a historical novel, it's an adventure but the politics of the past has the power to affect the present. That's why we argue about the teaching of history. If Luke is to discover that a set of extreme Dutch nationalists are plotting to steal the lion, I'd like him to understand why. He enjoys history but when challenged (on Guy Fawkes day) he finds himself distinctly hazy about the difference between Catholic and Protestant and why anyone should be wanting to kill anyone else in the name of religion. Poor Luke.

I've allowed myself an obsessive local historian as one of the characters (he's me of course) but I can't really let us bang on for too long as we do slow the action. At the moment we've bagged ourselves a separate space at the beginning of the book with a note on the door permitting readers to skip the following fifteen pages. I think of it as a draughty village hall with a row of empty chairs and an optimistic tea-urn.

Author's Note: If you prefer to go straight to the story please turn to page 16 now. I was personally delighted when the well-known Suffolk historian, Mr M.W. Vandervelde, agreed to allow me to transcribe his series of lectures on the Battle of Sole Bay. I was afraid that the events surrounding the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) might not be uppermost in every reader's mind. Mr Vandervelde, however, assures me that most people manage quite well from day to day with no knowledge at all of the capture of the 48-gun Dutch ship Stavoren or the capture and liberation of HMS Royal Katherine. A few are even content to remain ignorant of the carnage and destruction on board HMS Royal James, the first 'great ship' to be surrounded by the enemy!

Be that as it may, Mr Vandervelde is so passionate about his subject that he will give his lectures wherever an opportunity arises – with, or without, an audience. A mutual friend, Ms Helen de Witt, confided that on one occasion Mr Vandervelde delivered the entire series of talks to his wife's collection of garden gnomes. I cannot believe that readers of this book will wish to show less interest than garden gnomes but our lecturer requires me to say that if you choose to go for the story first, he will still be here at the end. There may even be some cups of tea that haven't quite gone cold.
Battle of Sole Bay W. Van der Velde the Elder (the artist was sketching from the small vessel in the foreground)


Dennis Hamley said…
Fascinating, Julia. What a great story. What a lovely piece by Luke. How right on the button Malorie is. And perhaps we should think less of Nelson and his mates when we write sea fiction and dramatise the battles Mr Vandervelde talks about instead.
Bill Kirton said…
Having researched figureheads for... yes, The Figurehead, I found this fascinating. They're such evocative objects, give ships their identity but also help the romance of those great ages of sail to persist in our unromantic times. That wonderful mix of words shouted out by the kids conveys both their mythic value and the power of their presence. But no doubt Gove has his own list of approved nouns and adjectives all ready for the kids to learn instead of engaging with the world and with real history.
julia jones said…
I thought of The Figurehead frequently when I was writing this novel, Bill -- and also of your own experiments with wood carving. I have looked longingly at a couple of courses but haven't got that far yet. (Probably won't - no time no time)The carving in your story was made with love and pride: this one was presumably intended to terrorise. But then the Stavoren had a lovely painting on her stern as well The whole notion of decorating these ships then sending them out pulverise each other is more bizarre than romantic, I think. I suppose it's rather like the trappings on a medieval knight.
julia jones said…
And thanks for your comment Dennis. Richard Woodman's completing a seventeenth century trilogy at the moment but I haven't noticed any others. Trouble is, I suppose, that it shows England in such a disgraceful light!
Claudia Myatt said…
I'm driving past the Martlesham Red Lion every day with a new appreciation now. I love the way your stories bring the power of history kicking and screaming into the present!

Given how biased history teaching has proved to be, maybe it's just as well that we have forgotten more of it that we ever remember.
Lydia Bennet said…
fascinating! Living by a dangerous sea, near me is a small museum about shipwrecks, and it features quite a few figureheads. So many beautiful features on ships, regardless of the dangers and the hard life for those who sailed in them - there's always room for myth, creativity, and beauty.
Peter Dowden said…
Amusingly, Google has ":censored" the loon figurehead by blurring it out of Street View:,1.285207&spn=0.003099,0.006791&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&hnear=Martlesham,+Suffolk,+United+Kingdom&t=m&z=17&layer=c&cbll=52.077296,1.285107&panoid=9SZD-Ke7AqXOVSsvjP-zZg&cbp=12,260.71,,0,0
julia jones said…
You'll have to come over and look at it in person Peter.
julia jones said…
Realise I should have said a thank you to Essex Book Festival for sending me off to the Tendring District schools. I'm just home from a day in a school where everyone has many many problems to deal with and it was simply lovely. Hard work for all but the children so engaged and responsive. I felt privileged to be allowed to share some writing ideas with them
Anonymous said…
Peter, I've sent in a report of the blurring - maybe something will be done, probably something won't. Worth a shot, though:

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