Where were you, the day Diana died?
Despite our best laid plans stuff happens, and life changes forever.
And when it happens on a large scale, on the grand historical stage, Each of us who was close to the action gets a unique perspective.
On the day Diana died, I was woken early by my mother in law, who had heard strange reports of an accident involving the Princess in the early hours of the morning. But it was all right, someone reported: she had got out of the car and was talking to people.
It soon became clear how very different that was from the truth.
We woke in Southport, England; our task for the day was to drive south to central England, right into the heart of a maelström which was just beginning to rage. All the way, we listened to the radio updates. History hung heavy in the air.
Other events of national and international importance have had the same effect. Like the execution of Charles I.
We know so much about the King, and how he was prepared for those final hours, and how dignified he was; and so very little about which of the great and the good came along to watch.
But they did. It is possible it became inexpedient, when his son returned tho claim the throne, to shout about their whereabouts that grim day.
But the execution of Charles happened a stone’s throw away at Whitehall, when London was a much smaller place and so many key people lived there. They would have had no screens to monitor: if they wanted to see the execution, they had to be there.
We know poet Andrew Marvell was probably there: his poem records what happened, for posterity. And Samuel Pepys, “a great roundhead when I was a boy” , was there to witness and rejoice. Much later, when he met a friend on November 1st 1660, he recalled: “I was much afraid that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded (that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be ‘The memory of the wicked shall rot…’) ”
Was that other dour genius, John Milton there? Later, in October 1649, he published Eikonoklastes: a justification for the execution.
He had been made Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the regime. This was not only to compose foreign correspondence in the lingua franca of Latin; but also to create propaganda and act as a censor.
I’d place him in that crowd.
Not all momentous events required a monarch. Some had Death himself as grand master of the proceedings. When the plague came to London, Pepys was still in and out of the City: “But Lord,” he writes, “to see, among other things, how all these great people here are afeared of London, being doubtful of anything that comes from thence or that hath lately been there, that I was forced to say that I lived wholly at Woolwich.”
Milton? He took himself away. Not for very long, it is true: long enough to finish Paradise Lost, though.
He came to a “pretty box in St Giles”, as his friend Thomas Ellwood called it. A pad 20 miles from the poisonous miasma of the capital, with a lovely little garden, next to the road which ran through the village now known as Chalfont St Giles.
How the landmark people of a time respond to momentous events; it defines them, and the time. The execution of a king, an epidemic, the death of a princess: each begs the question: where were they that day?
Think on it; and I shall leave you with pictures of the pretty box in Chalfont St Giles.