Built about 1482, Oxburgh was the home of a well-connected family who hung onto their Catholic faith throughout a period in English history when it was dangerous to dissent from the religious line the Crown laid down. Oxburgh’s inhabitants suffered as a result, passed over for lucrative posts at Court, closely watched for sedition and treason, and restricted from certain occupations as well as from celebrating their religion openly.
The result of this (relative) penury is that the building escaped the zealous passion for updating property that characterised the aristocracy, and many of its original features remain intact, including the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, authentic Tudor bedchambers in the tower house that spent many years used only as storage spaces!
Oxburgh appears to float on its moat, which cannot be drained as the 500-year-old elm wood posts which support the foundations would crumble were they to dry out. It still has the barleysugar chimneys and characteristic towered gatehouse that recalls the Wars of the Roses. Inside the sombre portraits of nuns, the needlework sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots in her years of captivity, and the Priest Hole, where illegal Catholic priests had to hide from government troops, speak of a dark history of dissent and risk, of members of the family living in fear for their lives, simply because of their religious beliefs. Oxburgh was a particular target during both the Reformation and the Civil War. And yet, despite this, the little rowing boat that floats beside the steps on the moat is named ‘Le Boat sur le Moat’, so the family still kept their sense of humour!
I started wondering what it would be like to live through that? Never to be able to trust your neighbours, your servants, even your family? To live constantly in the shadow of the block? To live in fear of the next knock on the door? To question your beliefs every day because they challenge your personal safety and that of those you love? To always be regarded as ‘Other’?
The history around us gives us an opportunity to look at our own lives through a different lens. What happened in England in the 15- and 1600s is not really much different to what is happening in parts of the world now. Being inside a building where these things happened, seeing and touching the belongings of people who lives through such terrifying times, brings the realities home in a much more deeply felt way. If we do not live under such stresses ourselves, we can never truly understand what they mean, but we can imagine.
I live in a house that was built in the 1880s. Its just a little country cottage, the middle one of a row, the kind that are common in the UK. It was originally built as two houses, one up-one down dwellings with an outside wash house, coal hole and privy each. The men who lived here worked for the local Lord as farm workers or gamekeepers, and got the house as part of the deal. Their women kept the house, cooked the meals, raised the children, and spread their washing out on the pasture behind the houses to dry on wash day every week. The children would have walked across the fields to school each weekday, and worked alongside their parents when they got home. They would have worshipped at the medieval parish church whose tower can be seen from our livingroom. How different the lives of those souls would have been from mine.
Think about historic buildings and places near where you live. try to visit one or two if you can. They don’t have to be as old as Oxburgh to count. What about a coffee shop built in the 1930s, during the Depression, or a 1950s diner?
Take some time to soak up the place. Think about the people who have lived and worked there. How would the community have reacted or been affected when the building was put up? They might have had to sacrifice their own land or homes, for instance, or they might have objected on moral or economic grounds. How would it have felt to visit this place in those days? What kind of day to day issues would have been on the minds of those who lived here? What stories are concealed in their lives?
Take some time to write a few pages, answering these questions. It doesn’t have to be historically accurate, but it helps. Use the building or place as an entrance into someone else’s life and see where it takes you.