Memorial Events

Perhaps it was because of his own immersion in the history of seventeenth-century England, and the obsession at that time for memorialisation, or perhaps it is just a natural human instinct, but when my husband John was diagnosed with terminal cancer he became concerned about his own legacy. Besides the bench near to our home that he requested, he was also keen to have a memorial in the village of Cobham in Surrey, the home of Gerrard Winstanley, and the setting for the radical Digger movement’s occupation of common land in April 1649. 

John Gurney's thesis and publications. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Gurney's thesis and publications. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Winstanley and the Diggers had been the main focus of John’s research from the time he began working on a DPhil at Sussex University in the 1980s. This focused on the County of Surrey during the English Revolution. He was supervised by Willie Lamont, the inspirational historian of seventeenth-century England. By the time he died, John had written several articles and two books on this subject. His first book, Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), sought to set this unusual radical movement in its local Surrey context, demonstrating the extent to which the movement grew out of, and fed on, existing social tensions; and detailing the impact of civil war on the local community. The second book, Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy (London: Pluto Press, 2013), focuses more directly on the Digger leader, tracing both the origins of his ideas and writings, and their subsequent impact (and that of the Diggers’ actions) on politics and popular culture right up to the twenty-first century.

Brave Community poster, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Brave Community poster, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Given the focus of his first book, an event in Cobham seemed a particularly appropriate way of remembering John. Before he died, he had already spoken to a couple of fellow Winstanley experts about this: David Taylor, an historian based in Cobham who is extremely knowledgeable about the local area; and Andrew Bradstock who organised a commemorative conference on the Diggers in 1999 (the 350th anniversary of the Digger movement). John had himself attended that anniversary conference and had contributed to the resulting collection of essays, Winstanley and the Diggers 1649-1999 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2000). Consequently, after John died it was to David and Andrew that I turned for assistance in thinking about a suitable memorial.

Quite quickly we hit upon the idea of organising an afternoon of talks, readings, video clips, and music focusing on Winstanley and the Diggers. My aim was to create the kind of event that John himself would have enjoyed; and to open it up not just to his family, friends and colleagues, but to anyone with an interest in Winstanley and the Digger Movement. I was honoured that Michael Wood, the public historian well known for his engaging BBC Television series ’Story of England’, and more recently for his groundbreaking series on the history of China, agreed to speak. Michael had produced a programme dealing with the Civil War, which touched on Winstanley and the Diggers, as part of a series on the history of England for Jubilee year. As a result, he was familiar with both the Digger movement and Cobham, and already knew John’s work. At the same time, John had been particularly impressed by the thoughtful and sensitive way in which Michael engaged with and presented the history of England in his television programmes. Consequently, in so many ways, Michael was an ideal choice. We also managed to secure a panel of Digger experts, including Ariel Hessayon, Rachel Foxley and David Taylor himself, to speak more directly about the movement and its place within a wider radical context. Finally, Leon Rosselson, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who wrote, among many other things, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, which tells the story of the Digger Movement, very kindly agreed to come and provide musical entertainment.

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Brave Community programme, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Brave Community programme, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Leon Rosselson, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Leon Rosselson, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

I called the event ‘Brave Community’ after John’s first book. It seemed appropriate not just because of the reference back to the book, but also because those two words resonated strongly with me. John had been very brave in the face of his devastating cancer diagnosis, and bore everything that this horrendous disease threw at him with a calmness and dignity that both astounded me and simultaneously gave me strength. Since he died, the children and I have had to continue to be brave, as have his parents, his sisters and all who loved him. Bravery is a word that is so often associated with violence, war and aggressive action, yet the immense courage required to calmly continue with life in the face of illness, death and bereavement involves bravery of a much more enduring kind. While to some extent each of us had to face the horror alone, I know that I have drawn great strength and assistance in my darkest moments from what I have come to think of as ‘John’s community’. This is an eclectic group comprised of John’s family, friends - old and new, and colleagues past and present. Many of them attended John’s funeral or wrote to me at that time, and a wonderful number have kept in touch since. They provided me with sustenance by their kind words and by making clear that, lonely as I sometimes felt, I was not the only one who mourned the loss of John Gurney. It strikes me as odd, but at the same time absolutely right, that 'John’s community' has continued to exist and to remain important even in his absence. 

Michael Wood, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Michael Wood, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

So, approximately 100 people willingly spent a sunny May afternoon in Cobham Church learning about Winstanley and the Diggers and celebrating John’s life and work. Some had travelled a long way to be there These included a group from Wigan, Winstanley’s birthplace, where an annual Digger Festival is held; and another group from Wellingborough, the site of another Digger settlement, and now also the setting for an annual celebration of Winstanley and his comrades. Also attending were a number of Surrey residents with an interest in their own local history.

Frontispiece to John Toland's edition of  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington  (London, 1737). Private Copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Frontispiece to John Toland's edition of The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington (London, 1737). Private Copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Though attitudes to history and death have changed dramatically since early-modern times, as well as always being contested and subject to different interpretations, commemorative events took place then as they do now. One only has to think about the annual marking of the regicide in the late seventeenth century. This included both 30th of January sermons hailing Charles I as a martyr and gatherings of those who lamented the passing of the Good Old Cause (even if they did not actually do so by devouring a calf's head as the mischievous publican and anti-Whig satirist Ned Ward claimed). Of course, gatherings and events are notoriously difficult for historians to recover in detail, and so it is perhaps not surprising that no records remain about commemorations of Harrington after his death. However, we do have an important commemorative object which, just like our event for John, celebrates Harrington’s work and seeks to demonstrate the continuing relevance and importance of it. This object is John Toland’s beautiful and richly decorated frontispiece to his edition of Harrington’s political works.

A Magical Day Out

Harrington blue plaque. Photograph by John Gurney.

Harrington blue plaque. Photograph by John Gurney.

In my memory, 25 July 2013 has taken on a special, magical quality. It was a great day in its own right, but its place in my memory is particularly treasured because it can never now be repeated. I was staying with my husband, John Gurney, and our two young children at my parents’ house. It was the beginning of the long summer holiday, the weather was good, and my parents had agreed to look after the children in order to give John and I a rare day alone together. The original idea had been just to go out for lunch, but John (like me an historian) had other plans. He had realised that James Harrington, a seventeenth-century political thinker central to my research, had links to several Northamptonshire villages near to where my parents lived. John had started to get interested in Harrington himself and so we decided to go on a pilgrimage to look at some of the houses, churches and plaques relating to Harrington and his family, before lunching in a pub. This may not sound like everyone’s idea of a treat, but for John and me it was perfect. It gave us the opportunity to escape the constant demands of life with young children for a few hours and to rekindle the foundations on which our relationship was built: our mutual interest in seventeenth-century history; our passion for talking about and sharing our ideas; and our love of visiting historical places (as well as our enjoyment of large pub lunches). There was also the sense that this might be the first of many such days. With our youngest child due to start primary school the following September, the possibility of spending a bit more time on our own together was starting to open up.

Harrington's house at Milton Malsor, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Harrington's house at Milton Malsor, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Little did I know at that point that far from being the first summer of the rest of our lives, 2013 would be my penultimate summer with my wonderful husband, and the last one before our lives would be torn apart by John’s cancer diagnosis. John died just fifteen months later on 8 December 2014. Nothing prepares you for a tragedy of this nature. Before John’s diagnosis I was always amazed by the ability of others in dire circumstances to cope and carry on. All too suddenly I found myself on the other side of the mirror and, of course, I too coped and found others amazed by my resilience. Yet to me it didn’t feel like coping. That implied a conscious choice. Whereas with two children and a job that I couldn’t give up (even if I had wanted to) the only option was to get out of bed each morning and continue. In a funny way I think the urge to carry on actually provided me with the means to do so. There were, however, other lifelines that I instinctively reached out for in those early months. One that proved particularly important to me was my, at times unhealthy, obsession with grief literature. I devoured Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life (by far the cream of this niche genre) in one evening’s sitting. I also read a whole host of material of a more varied quality: memoirs, fiction, blogs, newspaper articles - anything I could get my hands on. The authors of these works helped me to feel less alone. They reminded me that my situation is actually more ‘normal’ than it sometimes feels out there in the real world. These works also aroused within me an insatiable desire to deal with my own grief in a creative way. I had no illusions about writing a blockbuster memoir. Julian Barnes was a great novelist long before his wife died. It wasn’t this experience that made him one. Following this logic, the obvious outlet for my creative yearning was to write something historical. I had been an historian before I had met John and my status as an historian was not (outwardly at least) affected by his death. It was one of the few constants in my identity at a time when everything else seemed to have been turned upside down and I was having to come to terms with new labels that I had not chosen for myself. Moreover, John had left me a kind of signpost for the direction that this work might take.

Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Both before and after our magical day in Northamptonshire, John had been making notes on Harrington. Using the research skills he had honed first as a DPhil student at Sussex University and later at the Historical Manuscripts Commission, he had tracked down all kinds of  information about Harrington’s family connections, his activities during the Civil War, his friends and associates. By the time he died, John had produced hundreds of pages of hand-written notes and references detailing this research. We had talked a bit about his findings both on our day out and afterwards. We had vague ideas of writing a book together, with John researching and writing the sections on Harrington’s life and me contributing chapters on his ideas. When it became clear that the treatment wasn’t working, and that John had very little time for any more historical writing, we talked more about this project. In one of many poignant conversations that we had in John’s last weeks, he mentioned these notes, told me where they were, and made clear that they were mine to do what I wanted with after he was gone. They were an odd parting gift in many respects, but they were very much in keeping with our relationship. Those notes provided me with a lasting link to my husband’s talents and passions. In working through them I was, paradoxically, both drawn closer to him and also given the means to continue my journey as an historian alone. They acted as a bridge between our old life and my new one, and as a bridge they protected me from the yawning chasm below which might otherwise have swallowed me up.

While I knew where the notes were, and while I knew that I wanted to work through them, I did not feel strong enough to do so until about six months after John had died. Even then it was, to begin with, an extremely painful experience. I had not realised before just how evocative of personality handwriting can be. To begin with just reading the notes made me cry. Quite quickly, though, it became comforting, a way of feeling close to John while continuing with my work. Of course at times it was also a deeply frustrating experience. John’s handwriting was not easily legible at the best of times, and when he was scribbling down references on scraps of paper to remind himself of what he had found, it could become almost completely indecipherable. What made it worse was the abbreviations. John evidently had a whole catalogue of acronyms in his head that he regularly used, particularly for the titles of key sources. Some I worked out relatively quickly, but others, including A&O for Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum flummoxed me for some time. On numerous occasions I sat and wept because I could not simply run downstairs to John’s study to ask him what a seemingly random series of letters meant. On the other hand when I finally worked out the meaning of a particular short-hand term, I felt a small rush of triumph as the cypher suddenly disclosed a whole raft of new information to follow up.

Plaque commemorating James Harrington in Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Plaque commemorating James Harrington in Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

As I slowly worked through John’s notes I began to realise that they could act as a bridge in another way too. They provided me with a whole new way of seeing Harrington: one that challenges the conventional republican reading of him and reveals previously hidden aspects of his life and thought for investigation. This new vision of Harrington has also led me to new formats and modes of communication, not least as a reflection of Harrington’s own playful and experimental attitude towards genre and form. This blog is just one facet of my exploration of this new territory. I will use it to present elements of my new interpretation of Harrington (though this will be developed in full in the book on which I am currently working). It will also be a vehicle for reflecting on the range of sources that I’m using in my research: what can be gained from them; and some of the quirky information I’ve found in them. Finally, it will allow me to log this journey that John set up for me, but which I must travel alone.