Category Archives: History

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings (Part I)

…let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
Richard II  William Shakespeare

After writing about Charles I and his execution in a previous post I thought I’d write about a few more Kings and their deaths. I’m starting in 1066 and confining myself to Kings of England. To start earlier than that is to invite trouble from a raft of Kings called Ethelsomething and to include the Scots is to open up a story of multiple murders.

So, we will start with Harold Godwinson. He reigned for nine months, fought two big battles, beat the Vikings (and his brother Tostig) at Stamford Bridge and died after being shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings. Or do we? As usual, someone has come up with a theory that this isn’t true. Nobody has any respect for legends these days. As the new theory draws on contemporary and near-contemporary sources it could well be true. It’s likely that he was cut down by Norman knights (including William) who then put the arrow story about to show that their victory was due to God’s Will rather than force of arms.

As usual, if God did have a view of the matter, he was on the side of the big battalions, as Napoleon didn’t say.

From there we will go to William Rufus, or William II to give him his formal title. He was out hunting in the New Forest one day (2nd August 1100 in fact – sounds like a nice time of year to be out in the woods) when he was killed by an arrow fired carelessly by Walter Tirel. Strangely, his nephew Robert had died in a hunting accident in the same forest in 1099 and his brother Richard in 1075.

It may well have been an accident, or part of a series of accidents. Who can say after this lapse of time? However, it was a very fortunately timed accident for Henry, youngest of the three surviving sons of William the Conqueror. As his brother bled to death Henry wasted no time in securing the treasury in Winchester before he headed off to be crowned in London. Things might have been different if his elder brother Robert had been there, but he was still on his way back from the First Crusade.

As I say, fortunate timing. Henry managed to hang on to England on Robert’s return, took the Duchy of Normandy from him in 1106 and held him prisoner for the next 28 years.

Henry himself died in France in 1135, supposedly from a surfeit of lampreys. Each to his own, I suppose, but they are very unattractive creatures.

We then skip a few kings, and ignore Richard I because I can. Despite his legendary status, Lionheart name and appearance in the Robin Hood legend he hardly spent any time in England, probably around 6 months. Basically he just used the country to finance his many military adventures.

It hardly seems fair that John, his brother, has a bad reputation when he seems to have been better for the country than Richard. John died in Newark Castle in 1216, which may have been the result of poison, a surfeit of peaches (in October? Really?) or dysentery.  Surfeits seem to have been quite fashionable in the Middle Ages. His troops took the body for burial in Worcester Cathedral.

We’ll skip a few kings and get to Edward II, one of the more famous murdered monarchs. He didn’t have a great reign, with trouble from the Barons, the Scots and a famine. He had favourites at court, first Piers Gaveston, then the Despensers, who took advantage of his patronage. As if that wasn’t enough he married a woman nick-named The She-Wolf of France.  Now, I have no way of knowing what she was like as a wife, but I’m guessing the nick-name may be a clue that suggests she wasn’t an easy woman to live with.

She deposed Edward and took up with Roger Mortimer. Edward died whilst imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, and in the years after his death lurid tales about his death started to circulate. These mainly centred on the insertion of a red hot poker into an orifice not normally associated with such things. It may or may not be the most accurate story of how a king died, but it is the one you’re most likely to remember.

The son of Edward II, or Edward III as he was known, eventually seized power back from Mortimer and his mother, capturing them in Nottingham Castle by means of a secret passage known as Mortimer’s Hole.

The Saracen’s Head

Driving into Southwell from Newark, you can’t really miss the Saracen’s Head – as it positively dominates the junction in the middle of town.

In 1646 it was called the King’s Head, and on the morning  of 5th May 1646 the King came to call. Things hadn’t gone well for him over the years.

He’d fought against the Scots in the Bishop’s Wars of 1639 and 1640 and had not covered himself in martial glory.  The first was a draw, the second an emphatic away win for the Scots, who easily over-ran the counties of Northumberland and Durham, They then refused to hand them back until the English reimbursed them for the cost of the war. In 1641 the Irish started again (having fought four wars against the English in the previous 100 years), and in 1642 the English Civil War started.

The first action of the king was to raise his standard on Standard Hill in Nottingham. It blew down. It may or may not have been  bad omen, but it was certainly an inauspicious start to a war that gradually went wrong. By 5th May 1646 it looked about as bad as it could be, and the King arranged to surrender to the Scots.

He was rather caught out when the Scots handed him over to Parliament in return for £400,000, but carried on scheming and eventually managed to enlist Scots help in fighting Parliament. A Scots army did invade England in 1648, but was badly beaten by Cromwell at Preston.

With hindsight, (and if you believe in these things), meeting the Scots in a tavern called the King’s Head has the look of a bad omen.

We now come to my view of King Charles I, which isn’t necessarily a balanced academic view. He was a bit of an idiot and a good advert for why royal families should pay attention to the depth of their gene pool. If you look at his father you can see he never had much of a chance.

But when the chips were down he put on an extra shirt so he wouldn’t shiver in the January cold and seem afraid as he stepped up to the execution block.

“Let me have a shirt on more than ordinary by reason the season is so sharp as probably may make mee shake, which some Observors will imagin’ proceeds from fear. I will have no such Imputation, I fear not death!”

There is more to being a King than being clever and avoiding marrying your cousin.

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Mad as a Hatter

Sorry, this should have been part of yesterday’s post.

I’ve always known that “mad as a hatter” was something to do with hatters, madness and chemicals but I wasn’t quite clear on the details. I’m currently reading The Elements of Murder (slowly, I admit, but it isn’t light reading) and the book has some interesting details.

I was going to stick a paragraph in about it, as it seemed appropriate and I had a suitably mad photograph. However, having the information and the need to write a post I thought I’d better find more information to fill it out.

This proved to be a mistake. “Mad as a Hatter”, according to some sources, has little to do with madness, and nothing at all to do with hatters.

This is a nuisance, to say the least. According to Wikipedia there are several possible sources for the expression, including the Anglo-Saxons who used the expression to mean venomous as a viper. There are other explanations too. I’m not happy with any of them, nor am I impressed by the references to early usage, without exact dates. However, this is a blog, I’m citing Wikipedia and I’m never going to be mistaken for an academic.  Can we just say “other explanations are available”, and I’ll talk about the one I want?

The Mad Hatter is supposed to be based on Theophilus Carter, an eccentric Oxford furniture dealer and reputed builder of an alarm clock bed exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. When it was time to get up a clockwork motor engaged and tipped the sleeper into a tank of water. This seems a bit brutal even for stern Victorian early risers.

Unfortunately, though there were two alarm clock beds exhibited in 1851, neither of them was attributed to Carter in the catalogue. Nor, despite Carroll’s extensive diaries, is there any real evidence  that the Mad Hatter is based on Carter. It’s a shame, because it’s a good story.

There is, however, plenty of evidence for hatters exhibiting signs of madness.

The main material used in making hats was felt, which was made from the hair of rabbits and beavers, mixed with mercuric nitrate and repeatedly shaped, boiled and washed until it formed smooth cones of felt. This process released mercury vapour which, went inhaled, caused symptoms such as delirium, hallucinations, irritability, excitability, tremors and depression.

In many countries, including the UK, measures were taken to protect workers from exposure and by the end of the 20th century hatters were no longer suffering the effects of mercury poisoning. In the USA it persisted until 1941, being known as the “Danbury Shakes”, after the hat-making centre in Connecticut. Eventually the need for mercury in the war effort meant the use of alternative chemicals and the end of the Danbury Shakes.

Be that as it may, in the 1860s, when Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter, mercury poisoning, was a major factor in the behaviour of hatters.

The most famous medal in the world

There are probably several contenders for this title. For the purposes of this post I will suggest that the most famous medal in the world is Siegfried Sassoon’s Military Cross. There’s a lot written about Sassoon’s decorations – some people claiming he won a bar to his MC, and others that he was recommended for a DSO and even a VC. Be that as it may, he was given an MC, and, according to the legend, he threw it in the Mersey when he decided to make his protest against the continuation of the war.

I haven’t seen the film Regeneration but I’m told that Sassoon tears the medal from his tunic and throws it in the water.

It’s a good story, though it isn’t true. That’s the trouble with legends, and as they say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The novel Regeneration is quite clear that it’s only the tunic ribbon that gets thrown away and in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Sassoon says:

I ripped the M. C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility.

So, what did happen to the medal?

It finally came to light in 2007 when a member of the family went through a trunk in the attic and found the MC in its case, along with an ID disc, a revolver and “some poetry medals”. It was put up for auction “on behalf of the family” with an estimate of £25,000 (about 100 times more than an MC without the Sassoon connection at the time).

However, it seems that not all the family agreed and it was withdrawn from the sale, later turning up with his Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

In case you find it off-putting to discuss fame and bravery in terms of cash, don’t. As an ex-antiques dealer I can tell you nobody else does. In fact, many of the recipients sell their own medals. As the links show, Sassoon wasn’t much bothered about his medals, and apparently told the family to sell them.

He never bothered to claim his campaign medals, which were eventually claimed by his son. They were duly put up for auction with his CBE and made £4,375 despite the fact he was dead before the campaign medals were issued so they had no personal link to him. Again, this would be about 100 times more than you’d normally expect.

If you think that’s a lot, how about his hockey medal? It was sold with the final contents of Heytesbury House (after the building itself had been sold) and then sold again in 2012 for £880.

I could go on. In fact I’ve probably gone on too long anyway.

There are plenty of catalogues of around relating to sales of Sassoon’s property (he seems to have had a lot of stuff) if you search for them, including his Point to Point Cups and hunting coats – Wooley and Wallis 27th October 2010 if you’re interested. (I just had a look through their last militaria sale and see they recently sold Lord Kitchener’s tea cosy for £600).

Just one final note – when Cambridge University bought his papers, seven boxes of them, they paid £1.25 million. That really is a lot of money for the sort of stuff Julia makes me throw away.

 

Hitler and the Avocets

“I cannot help thinking that if only Hitler had been an ornithologist he would have put off the war until the autumn migration was over.”

Manchester Guardian”Country Diaries” September 1939

I suppose most readers will already have a view on Hitler, and that it is unlikely to be based on the impact he had on European ornithology. However, as the quote shows, people are able to view major historic events and see them from a very different point of view. They may even find the energy to write to the papers about it.

It also shows that the consequences of major events can be far-reaching and quite significant, even if they don’t involve battles and the fall of governments.

In the case of the Second World War this included bombing my mother, training a new generation of naturalists, and flooding large parts of eastern England to defend against possible invasion.

Another, better known, example features the struggle with malaria. In the war this involved the wonder chemical DDT, which continued to be used in great quantities after the war as the answer to many problems. The inventor even got a Nobel Prize in 1948  “for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods”. It was also highly effective at reducing the viability of birds’ eggs and nearly wiped several species out in the UK.

However, back to the flooded lands. As luck would have it, a party of Avocets drifted across the sea from Holland in 1947, and found conditions that suited them for breeding. At Havergate Island the army had accidentally breached the sea wall during training and at Minsmere the coastal area had been deliberately flooded as a defence against German landings.

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Avocets

 

At that point they had been extinct as breeders in the UK since 1842 due to the pressure from hunting, egg collectors and taxidermists. It seems to be a factor in the decline of rare birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon and Great Auk, that the rarer they became the more desirable the few survivors became to egg and skin collectors.

Gradually the Avocets consolidated their position, becoming the symbol of the RSPB along the way. From four pairs in 1947 we now have 1,500 pairs according to the latest figures.

For another example of how WW2 is contributing to wildlife, see this link.

I found this whilst looking up DDT. The mind boggles.

Thanks to Rodney Read and the Chatburn Village website for the well researched story of the bombing.

Shakespeare, St George and the Calcutta Light Horse

I have now managed 102 consecutive days of posting. It’s an example of habit taking over. You sometimes hear about it when athletes are interviewed on TV when the interviewer refers to dedication in training and the athlete responds that it’s just about establishing a habit.

That much is true: training is just a habit. However, I’m not trying to make it sound easy. The habit bit is easy, but simply turning up for training doesn’t guarantee success. That is where the dedication comes in. And the luck, the talent, the work ethic, the…

As I’ve said before, quantity is no guarantee of quality. It also means that I’ve resorted to posting at five past midnight just to ensure that I’m credited with a post for that day. It has also led to me writing things in advance and, as mentioned here, posting by accident. That was a simple button pushing error.

Here, I wrote a post and automatically pushed the button, which means I posted several times yesterday. If I’d pushed the button 15 minutes later it would have been OK, but I ended up posting just before midnight, so I posted three times yesterday and need something for today.

It’s St George’s Day today, and if Labour win the election it will be a public holiday, as will St David’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and St Andrew’s Day. That’s March 1st, March 17th, April 23rd and November 30th. I don’t know about you but I really don’t need days off in March and November. As for 23rd April, we already have Easter, which moves, May Day and Late Spring Bank Holiday  (which used to be Whitsun). That would be three Bank Holidays in 5 weeks. Well, it would be in England and Wales, it’s different in other parts of the UK.

Even more confusingly, whilst re-enacting the Battle of Dunbar, I found out that Haddington in Scotland also follows some English holidays.

It’s also the 99th Anniversary of the Zeebrugge Raid. It wasn’t necessarily a great strategic success, but it’s a good story. The Hundred Year’s War didn’t end particularly well but we still have Henry V.

There are some interesting sidelights on the raid. It was, for instance, the last time a VC Ballot was held. The VC is unique amongst British decorations in that if a unit performed in a particularly valorous manner the participants are allowed to vote on who they think should be awarded a VC. That way you limit the number given out, and they go to people who really deserve them.

One of the casualties of the raid was Wing Commander Frank Brock of the fireworks family. Amongst other things he invented the machinery to produce the smokescreen for the raid.

Another participant was Bill Grice. He lied about his age to join the Royal Navy and was Mentioned in Despatches for his part in the raid. Thirty years later took part in another daring raid with the Calcutta Light Horse. This link has more details – there’s a bit of a proofing issue with this article but it’s better than some of the others out there. The man who took his glass eye out before the action started was called Bill Manners. When volunteering he’d asked if the glass eye would be a problem. Grice said it hadn’t been a problem for Nelson…

There were no decorations for the 1943 raid, though Grice was played by David Niven in The Sea Wolves.

I’m already running on, and haven’t even started on Shakespeare’s Birthday or the likely consequences of having a public holiday on St George’s Day. I’ll have to cover them on another day.

 

 

More Glass

These are a few more photos from the visit to the Stained Glass Museum. It’s surprising, on revisiting the photographs, just how bad they are. The two roundels below give some of my troubles – they were both the same colour when I took them, but they are now distinctly different. I tried to match them up but this is as good as it gets.

They were made in the 1920s by Thomas Cowell and based on the dancer Isadora Duncan, decorating his bathroom in Surbiton for many years.

Several of the pictures are blurred and others are slanted (due partly to my problems with perspective and partly due to not all of the panes being a regular shape). I knew that one had a reflection of what looked like an old testament prophet (I really do need to trim my beard and remaining hair) but I noticed that several others have reflections of the shirt I was wearing that day. It’s the check shirt I always seem to have on in profile photos and selfies. Strangely, it didn’t show on the day, or on my first look, but it’s plainly there now.

The glass on the left is the Duke of Clarence, grandson of Queen Victoria, depicted as St George in a memorial window (he died at 28) which used to be in Buckingham Palace.

On the right is a window commemorating Queen Victoria. It used to be in St Mary Magdalene’s Church, Barnstaple. It was designed by Hugh Arnold.

I’ve included on of the Old Testament Prophet photos, once I realised I couldn’t get a decent shot without me in it I decided to go for the publicity.

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Self-portrait of a poor photographer

Finally we have the window that also provides the featured photo – Lancelot and Elaine based on a German Art Nouveau tapestry designed in 1898. The window was made by Andrew Stoddart (1876 – 1940) and installed in his Nottingham home.

In 1911 he was living with his wife, 2 daughters, brother and servant at 9, Clarendon Street. I’m not sure if that was the house with this window, but it looks like the sort of house that might have a had an elegant window like this. At the time the two brothers were listed as Stained Glass Artists. Searching the internet reveals several of his windows are still on disply, including St Andrew’s and Long Eaton Library.

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Lancelot and Elaine

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The May Queen

And Finally – the May Queen (1900). Designed by George Parlby and painted with paint and silver stain by  Thomas Cowell (1870 – 1949), who also painted the dancers at the top of the page.