Monday, 14 July 2014

The Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney

Inspiring some thoughts on contemporary power and wealth.

In the 1560s, Mary Queen of Scots granted power over Orkney to her illegitimate half-brother Robert Stewart.  The period when the Stewart Earls, Robert and then his son Patrick (from 1593), ruled is still remembered with bitterness as being a particularly cruel and hard time for the people of Orkney.

In 1607, Earl Patrick Stewart started work on his palace in Kirkwall (HY 449 107).  This was an ambitious project and the final scheme was designed to be grandiose and elegant, something that would easily rival his father’s palace (built at Birsay c.1574).  Today the site is still described as “the most accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland.” The site chosen was just to the north of St Magnus Cathedral, and Patrick’s palace incorporated and extended the earlier Bishop’s Palace to the immediate west.  

On approach today, the most striking features are probably the large decorated turrets, supported by ornate corbelling and set with oriel windows.  But this is also an obviously fortified residence as there are dozens of gunloops, both dummy and real – albeit some of these impractical and more for effect – under the windows, within the corbelling, and around the walls.  Patrick’s palace is “L” shaped in plan; consisting of two long ranges.  As stated, the earlier Bishop’s Palace was linked in to create one side of a spacious forecourt, but the whole was never fully finished.  

The main entrance is set into the right-angle between the two ranges.  Although now much eroded, it was originally highly decorated with arms and symbols of royalty, and heavily protected with those ubiquitous gunloops.

The ground floor was dedicated to utility rooms such as store-rooms, a kitchen and work-rooms.  The entire basement is vaulted and lofty.  The kitchen was enlarged whilst it was being constructed; this was clearly a household which liked to eat well and to entertain.  Vast quantities of food and wine were capable of being stored and prepared at the palace; this was a place of extravagant hospitality and conspicuous consumption.

The main apartments and hall are on the first floor and they are reached by turning right at the entrance and climbing the grand staircase.  This is built in stone of three straight flights, each with a square landing between.  After passing some guest and ante-rooms, the great hall can be entered.    Now this is an amazing space!  Like all medieval halls it is a product of the feudal system, designed to emphasise everyone’s social status; only people of suitable rank would have been allowed at the high end and there is loads of architectural information to literally put people in their place.  Stacks of light would have poured through an oriel window on the west, two bow windows on the east, and a stately window occupying the whole south gable.  A huge fireplace was to the west , the stone carved with an earl’s coronet and “PEO” (= Patrick, Earl of Orkney).  There was another private fireplace in the north, to warm those at the high table.  Beyond the hall are the Earl’s private chambers, set in deep architectural space, perfect for a man who was paranoid about his safety.

Both Robert and Patrick overspent, getting themselves into increasing debt.  To get themselves out of penury, they placed the ordinary farmers and merchants of Orkney under a series of financial restrictions such as appropriating land, raising rents and taxes, and only allowing trade – including ferry traffic, always so vital to the islands’ economy – under strict licence.  Forced labour was conscripted – both Robert’s palace at Birsay and Patrick’s palace were built by slave labour – which meant that the farmland suffered and the people struggled to survive.  This was a time of tyranny and uncertainty.

Patrick was undoubtedly the richest and most powerful man of his time in Orkney.  Isolated by the tides and the waters, he would have been a virtual autocrat.  Neither Patrick nor his father earned their power or their wealth, both of them inherited, their positions being nothing more than an accident of birth.

For a while, Patrick had access to all manner of luxuries, his life was comfortable: in contrast to those around him, he would have lacked for nothing.  What continues to astonish about this palace, and indeed all the works which Patrick ordered, is the beauty and refinement of the architecture.  Patrick appears to have been very much a product of the Renaissance: his life was splendid, luxurious, tastefully cultured ... yet infamous, criminal and cruel.

Yet Patrick seems insecure, haunted, and threatened.  His magnificent palace, sumptuous and exquisitely tasteful, was built as a fortress and his personal chambers are reached only after penetrating layers of rooms.  Patrick would have been safe in his bed-chamber but this doesn’t seem to have registered for him.  Legend tells us that Patrick was always attended by 50 musketeers ... even when he attended services in the cathedral, only 40 metres away!

Patrick must have been constantly looking over his shoulder for a potential attacker; he can have known no peace.  And, being the tyrant that he was, he must have known that he was creating enmity, he must have felt oppressed by those whom he oppressed.

Now, I am fully aware that a lot of people think that religions should stay out of politics but, as I continue to walk what I humbly consider to be a spiritual path, I inadvertently find myself becoming an increasingly political animal.  Researching the history of the Earl’s Palace has inspired me to contemplate parallels between Patrick’s time and ours.  I come from the perspective of a Paganism which sees everything as cyclical but which also believes that individuals and groups should be the catalyst for positive change within that process.

Fortune is a wheel which constantly turns.  Success and safety are ephemeral.  Earl Patrick Stewart over-extended himself financially with his project and “drowning in debt” he went bankrupt.  Imprisoned for political scheming, he sent his son, another Robert, to Orkney to lead a rebellion.  Robert took control of Kirkwall Castle for a while and bullet holes from the siege can still be seen in the stones of the west face of St Magnus Cathedral.  Finally, Earl Patrick and his son were executed in Edinburgh in 1615.  Folklore tells that Patrick was so ignorant that the date of his beheading had to be postponed so that he could learn the Lord’s Prayer.  Fortune turns for our own financial elites now as it once did for Earl Patrick and not a week goes by without some politician, celebrity, or business person falling from the wheel.

For me, Patrick’s biography is a lesson in how it is never possible to have enough.  I see many similarities between Patrick’s society and ours as both have huge disparities in the distribution of wealth.  Our financial elites cannot seem to waste their money fast enough, purchasing the latest emperor’s new clothes in the form of fripperies such as coffee beans which have passed through the digestive systems of civets.  At the other end of the social scale, workfare is simply forced labour and benefit sanctions create a class of permanent servitude.  The rich get richer and assets get owned by fewer individuals, yet none of them seem sufficiently secure to say: "enough, I have enough, I have plenty, I feel safe now and can stop amassing."

It is not possible to feel secure in this sort of society: there is always someone with more.  Get to the top of the UK rich list and there is still the world rich list to climb.  There will always be someone with more: more wealth, more power, more authority, more desperation to take it all from someone else.  It all feeds insecurity and creates survival anxiety.  And the more you have, the more there is to lose.  Look at the poor, hobbling, hungry masses!  Lose what you have and you have no choice but to descend into their seething grasp.  Fear keeps you hoarding and saving and scrounging.  Fear stops me sharing and caring.

I see a race for the top in our society, everyone so fearful of poverty and want that they ignore how much poverty and want they generate themselves in the wake of their bid to preserve themselves.  It trickles down; this fear saturates and pervades in the same manner we are promised wealth will trickle down, only wealth never does.  Each of us so desperate to hold our place on the ladder that we don’t see that the only way we can ever realistically travel is down.  Upwards mobility is an illusion, a carrot, a dream, unachievable.  

How much better for us all to improve the lot of everyone, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, so that none of us need fear falling down or off the ladder because there is a safety net?  A safety net which we have collectively created and collectively maintain.  As a belief-system with a positive morality, Paganism has the right and a duty to be part of the formulation of a new form of social economics.  We should be working towards a safety net which is unconditional and fit for purpose – even for the Patricks of this world.

It is possible that Earl Patrick Stewart is the most loathed man in Orcadian history.  It is recorded that his palace had fallen into disrepair by 1705, however, stone-robbing was less here than at other comparable sites ... perhaps the people of Orkney did not want to reuse stones tainted with the memory of the hated “Black Pate”? 

I would want to leave a better legacy to the world, wouldn’t you?

(The Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces were placed in state care in 1921 and are now managed by Historic Scotland.  There is an entrance charge and the site is open April to September each year.)

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