Interview with Fergal Leonard

Our next MEMSA seminar will be given by Fergal Leonard, Durham University, entitled ‘”The poor people cry and call for you and your blood to rule them”: The Dacre Tenantry and the Politics of Protest, Resistance, and Rebellion, 1566-1570’’. The seminar will take place on Monday 20th January, in the World Heritage Visitor Centre, Durham. Turn up for tea & biscuits from 5.40pm, with Fergal’s paper beginning at 6pm. We spoke to Fergal about legal history, the Battle of Hell Beck, and curses – with a sneak preview of what he’ll be discussing in the seminar!

Tell us a bit yourself, where are you from?

I’m a second-year PhD student in the history department, researching the 16th-century Anglo-Scottish borders. I’m from Carlisle originally, in the north-west of England—I’m basically studying local history, which is a lot of fun!

What brought you to Durham?

I’ve ended up in Durham by a rather circuitous route. I originally studied law at Northumbria University. Mid-way through my final year there I decided to drop my dissertation on business law, and switch to legal history instead, which was much more interesting. I ended up studying the leges marchiarum, the medieval and early modern international law of the Anglo-Scottish borders, where representatives of both countries would work together (in theory!) to arrest, try, and punish Scotsmen who committed crime in England, and vice versa.

The whole experience really made it clear to me that what I really wanted to be doing was researching and writing about history. So I did a postgraduate course in early modern history up in St. Andrews and was lucky enough that my PhD proposal was accepted at Durham. For one thing, it’s great to be back in the north-east, and I’m working on a project that I find really interesting at a great university and in a beautiful and very historic city.

What is your favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period?

I’m always amazed at how a person’s character can survive so well in the writings they left behind, and how real they feel. It’s great to feel like you’re getting to know people: their hopes and ambitions, the things that are important and precious to them, but also their pettiness, jealousy, and fear. You can often see the exact things motivating them as you see in people today.

At other times, of course, the way they act and the things they believe are very hard for us to get our heads around. It’s this contrast between the familiar and the completely alien which makes studying the early modern period so fascinating.

What does your research focus on?

My research is on the north-west of England in the second half of the 16th century. It’s a really interesting area: it’s still a militarised frontier zone, heavily fortified with the whole administrative structure evolved to deal with the threat of Scottish invasion. But at the same time, the danger of war with Scotland is declining, and the same processes of social, economic, and political development happening across Tudor England are happening here, which creates a tension between the traditional character of the region and these new forces of change.

I’m looking at the  political culture of the region, and how regional political networks were integrated into broader, national-level political networks centred on the queen and her court. As part of that, I’m exploring popular participation in politics, local office-holding, and conflict within the region over position, prestige, or political advancement.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

My talk is on popular protest and rebellion, looking at Cumberland during the 1569 Rising of the North. February marks the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Hell Beck, where 3,000 rebels clashed with a smaller regime army across a small stream in the hills of Cumberland. I’m interested in what brought so many common people together, to risk their lives and their livelihoods in open rebellion against the queen.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I don’t know! In the past I’ve worked in a hospital. I’ve also spent some time volunteering as a guide at a historic house, which I really enjoyed—so perhaps something like that?

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

In 1525 Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow cursed the Armstrongs, an unruly clan of trouble-makers living in Liddesdale, close to the border with England. It’s a wonderful litany of ill-will as he curses every single thing he can think of that has anything to do with them. 

To give you some idea, he starts with: “I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thair tongue, thair teeth, thair crag, thair shoulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, thair armes, thais leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feet, befoir and behind, within and without.”

He goes on to curse their wives, children, servants, and even their cows, sheep, horses, and crops, which seems a bit over-the-top. He calls down “all the vengeance that evir was takin sen the warlde began for oppin synnys, and all the plagis and pestilence that ever fell on man or beist,” to strike them down.

Not only is it a really interesting document in itself, it’s passed into local folklore. In 2001, Carlisle City Council decided to carve part of the curse on a big granite boulder and place it in a public spot, sort of appropriating this Scottish curse on Scottish outlaws to celebrate a broader ‘border reiver’ heritage in the region as a whole. And soon afterwards, a whole load of bad luck befell the area, which of course some people attributed to the cursing stone: serious floods, the football club was relegated, and foot-and-mouth disease. There was a debate in the council whether the boulder should be removed and destroyed, to try and lift the curse on the city. The Bishop of Carlisle even invited the Bishop of Glasgow to come down and formally end the curse, but he refused!


“Naworth Castle” by Simon Ledingham; image licensed under Creative Commons, from CC Search.

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