Of Being Slighted

Remains of Hemyock Castle, courtesy Eugene Birchall, Wikimedia Commons



Tradition has it that Charles II slighted Hemyock Castle because Parliament held it against his father in the English Civil War. Slighting, in the archaic sense, was to ruin an opponent’s possessions for their intended purposes. It did not mean razing every building or salting the fields until barren, and it was done to more than just castles and for other reasons than depriving an enemy of fortification.

Slighting a castle, though, might mean knocking its crenellations off, pulling down its proud towers, pickaxing out the arrow slits, undermining key walls until they collapsed, or stealing documents or things that gave it meaning. That is, slighting meant to mess with, not annihilate, and to leave someone else diminished, inconvenienced, and brooding on power relations.

“Slight” as a verb starts the 14th century with the meaning “to make plain and smooth.” The 16th and 17th centuries focus the metaphor and make modern: “having little worth,” “insubstantial, trifling, inferior, insignificant.” If the slight kid running the deli counter at the Albertson’s treats me with indifference and discourtesy that never quite veer into contempt, I have been slighted.

As scholars point out, it can sometimes be hard to know what did ruin the ruins we see today. Their buildings might look that way because of siege damage, which is not slighting, or because of the martial assaults of weather and time. Locals in the market town might have stolen ready-cut stones over the centuries for their outhouses and sheep sheds. If nothing else, they represent other opportunities lost forever.

The Romantics loved ruins, but the moodiness they imagined was partly from ignorance of all the hurts forced into silence, which even history failed to take an interest in. No one cared enough to get us word, and this too feels like indignity. It is the final fuck-you of a grinding galaxy.

Picking at, undermining, tearing down, burning up, exploding, thieving, punishing for being on the wrong side, lessening the influence of someone so they cannot provide for their people: I am most definitely talking about slighting castles, not politics, business, or academe.

There is no proof of Charles ordering the slighting of Hemyock, even in his Calendar of State Papers for 1661, and one imagines him thinking, We shall not deign to give this much importance. He was, as Rochester said, the Merry Monarch, and probably had an assignation anyway.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.