Thursday, August 18, 2016

Day 49 -- Castletown

Many of my American friends have never heard of the Isle of Man, and most of my English friends have only a passing acquaintance with it. To be sure, none of my acquaintances has been able to explain exactly what a “crown dependency” is. To shed some light on the matter, I decided to delve into the history of the Isle of Man today. I started by doing my own research, using my typical reliable sources, to wit: the internet, persons I met on trains and buses, and hotel service staff, most of whom have been on the isle at least three weeks and still speak with eastern European accents. As always, my thorough research means that everything hereafter is mostly true, or at least partly true, except for the stuff I’ve made up.

Geographically, the Isle of Man is part of the British Isles (as is Ireland), and for that reason the Manx consider themselves British (but the Irish don’t, except possibly those in Northern Ireland). Politically, the Isle of Man is not a part of Britain -- it is not a part of the UK. Nor is the Isle of Man a member of the European Union. As a result, the Manx did not get to vote on Brexit.

The odd relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK apparently started in year 1405 when King Henry IV of England gave the Isle to Sir John Stanley, under condition that each successive lord pledge fealty to the English monarch and present each new monarch with two peregrine falcons at coronation. That historically feudal arrangement meant that each successive monarch of England became the Lord of Man (even if the monarch is a female, like Queen Elizabeth II). Although the Isle of Man isn’t owned by the UK, it is subservient to its feudal overlord – the king or queen of England. This may be an oversimplification, but one that explains “crown dependency” rather than UK dependency or UK territory; further, since the UK doesn’t “own” the Isle of Man, the Isle is self-governing with its own parliament.

To make sense of all of this (or at least of some of this), I went to Castletown, the former capital of the Isle of Man to tour Castle Rushen, where all of this started. Castle Rushen bills itself as one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe (i.e., dating from pre-16th century). The castle was designed to defend the isle from marauders like the French or Spanish who would have liked nothing better than to wrest the isle away from a supporter of the English king and use it themselves as a base from which to attack England. So the English king helped defend the castle, setting the precedent that the English king will defend the Isle of Man -- and he did, at least until the English civil war, when the parliamentarians under Cromwell seized the castle.

Castletown Harbour
Castle Rushen
Replica of Lord's dinner
Historic Lords of Man
That brings us to the Isle of Man parliament, called the Tynwald. After touring the castle, I toured the historic House of Keys – the parliamentary building dating from the mid-1800s. The Isle of Man parliament is much older; it is the longest continuously serving parliament in the world, dating back to the Viking era in the 900s. As a parliament, it made the laws, but in the early years the parliamentarians weren’t democratically elected, and disagreements were not infrequently settled with swords and knives. But at least they got things done, unlike some of our more congenial institutions today.

Historic House of Keys

The next few hundred years get fuzzy, but I suppose it would have been hard for Cromwell’s parliamentarians and the Tynwald parliamentarians to disagree publicly, so life went on. In 1932, the Isle of Man parliament adopted as the isle's official coat of arms a depiction of three armored legs flared like a pinwheel. The image has its source in Nordic heraldry centuries old, and was accompanied by a Manx motto, a very loose translation of which is “Whichever way you throw me I will stand.” Nobody in England apparently objected, so there you have it – a self-governing crown dependency.

War Memorial in foreground; Castle Rushen in background


Isle of Man flag