Chronological distance has a puzzling effect on the mind that even geographical distance cannot match — It is ever more remote.
When we hear of an earthquake that has struck China today it somehow evokes a more visceral response than, say, one which struck the same place some 200 years before; even if the toll on human life was far more massive then.
Both of these events have the same real and remote quality — a calamity in a distant land — and yet the tragedy of today communes with us, not with any real proximity, but with a sort of phantom accessibility.
Owing, I suppose, that it has happened in the here and now.
I think about this often and I try to fight it when my mind’s eye is drawn into some historic event. I try to think what it must have felt like to have been in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay Castle in the anxious moments leading up to, and through, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
What was the body language of the executioner as he asked her forgiveness for the duty he was to perform; and how it must have changed when she gently replied that she did?
I imagine what her loyal attendants must have felt when they partially disrobed her purely for the convenience of the man who was in mere moments going to take her head?
I wonder what it would have been like to have suddenly closed ones eyes and pivoted ones head at the axman’s heave and swing; thinking then that the dreadful deed must be over and thus now it was safe to look, only to discover to your horror that the hooded executioner had missed and struck her head instead, necessitating another blow.
Was he as horrified as the witnesses? Through his hood, it is hard to say. Was Mary conscious? What did she feel? What did she utter?
Even the second blow did not fully sever her head and thus required a short-handled butcher’s stroke to finish it off. How long was this ordeal. Surely it could not be measured by the clock. The emotional watch-piece of the brain must have made time an elastic and lumbering blur.
Was the executioner self-satisfied at the point just before he lifted the Queen’s severed head only to have it revealed that her auburn hair was but a wig, learning first of this by the sound of her gray-crowned head hitting the floor? Was anyone in the room so struck dumb by the absurdity of the macabre scene before them that they let out an uncontrollable laugh?
How the emotions must have twisted and wrung through the hall when Mary’s blood splattered dog, a small terrier, refused to leave her side, despite nearly drowning in her blood?
What did her cousin Queen Elizabeth, who had signed her death warrant think when told of Mary’s ghastly ordeal. What thoughts fluttered about in the executioners mind on the long lonely horse ride home? Having botched the execution, were they now planning one for him?
Fast forward a few centuries…
The Signing of the Declaration of Independence took place this day, August 2nd in 1776. Everyone of the brave men who signed that bold and audacious parchment on that hot summer’s day was sealing their fate — one not unlike Mary’s. Only they would not have been granted the ceremonial pomp that had accompanied the time leading up to her death.
It would have been far more brutal. All fifty-six of them would have been brought back to London in chains, charged with high treason, their signatures affixed to the Declaration of Independence being the only evidence required to convict them.
Found guilty, the court would have ordered their immediate execution. The prescribed method of death would be unthinkable today. The infamous Signers would have had each of their limbs tied to a horse so that their body was spread in four different directions. At the command of the executioner, the nervous horses would be whipped and set off at a fierce gallop, instantly tearing at the arms and the legs of the American patriots until ripped from their bodies.
We remember July 4th and celebrate it as the day we proclaimed our liberty. On that day the Signer’s were congratulating themselves on their newfound freedom as well. But a month later, on August 2nd , they were not signing a Declaration, they were signing their death warrants. They knew it and they did it anyway.
We must endeavor to put ourselves in the moment, even those to which we have no physical tie. In reality, an event we experienced early this morning is just as gone as one 241 years ago. It is only the impression that remains. The point of memories is to make them proximate in the mind; to make them them rich, rewarding, replete.
Think about that the next time you hear “We pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Imagine the “pledge” which was likely sharp in the mind of those men, like the blade of an executioner. Do this and our children and their children’s children, will be glad you did.