Snowdrops in Beverley Minster churchyard

Each year I see snowdrops not only as the harbinger of spring when the earth awakens from its winter sleep, but also of hope.

The word ‘harbinger’ derives from ‘herberge’ or lodging, denoting protection, like the French inn, the ‘auberge’. The harbinger was someone sent in advance of an army or royal train to secure lodgings for the travellers. He was often the herald, who rode ahead to announce, with a fanfare, the imminent arrival of some person ‘of substance’like Montjoy in Shakespeare’s Henry V,

What part does the simple act of communication play in history? Even when passed on in good faith, the message might be misunderstood, embellished, cut or twisted by the messenger. The outcome could lead to peace – or war.

The hazards of communication before railways, telephone or telegraph – over 200 years ago – would have been entrusted to the network of stagecoaches between towns and villages and to ships. My grandfather volunteered to serve in World War I when he was working in Canada, so he enlisted in a Canadian regiment. While sailing back to Britain he was rapidly promoted from the ranks to become a major, much to his astonishment. He did not realise that he would have to spend his leave in Canada, a trifle unwillingly, as he had met in London the person he wanted to marry! But those were the rules so, having no relatives to visit in Canada, he decided to spend his leave exploring the USA.

When he alighted from the train to visit a small town in Wyoming, he was surprised to find a group of people gathered there to welcome him. They gave him hospitality and invited him to address a meeting of townsfolk the next day. News of a British soldier, who had been in the trenches and would talk about his war experiences, was travelling ahead of him along the railway tracks. This was only the start of what became a soldier’s lecture tour, all expenses paid.

Before the railways, mail and gossip were conveyed at the speed of a stagecoach. Urgent communications were entrusted to news-riders like Paul Revere – the heralds of their times. Some three hundred years ago the Archbishop of York was returning from a long tour of his large diocese. He was amazed to see that the city was in mourning. Poking his head out of the carriage window, he requested the coachman to stop so he could ask a passer-by what had happened.

‘Our archbishop has died!’ he was informed. Imagine how amazed that Yorkshireman must have been when the elderly man in the carriage – perhaps reaching down to place his mitre on his head – replied,

‘But I am your archbishop!’

Fake news, even then, travelled faster than what had really happened – or the truth!

Thomas de Rotherham (1423 – 1500), Archbishop of York


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