Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The tragic death of the Princess during the Plague, 1348

No one is immune from the plague when it strikes England during the Medieval Ages not even royalty. In fact everyone suffers either directly or through the loss of someone close to them. The plague is said to have such a devastating impact when it first arrives in England that around a half of the population go on to lose their lives. In the process the fabric of society is torn apart as feudalism begins to disintegrate.

Even today it is still remembered in seemingly innocent rhymes like ‘ring a ring of roses’.


A pocket full of posies 

Atichoo! Atichoo! 

We all fall down dead

A large part of the problem is that no one knows how to heal the victims. General medical ignorance and widespread desperation drive many to  crazy cures. One option is to place a live hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence from the body. Then to aid recovery you drink a glass of your own urine twice a day. If that does not take your fancy than consider another alternative. It involves using a mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies plus dried human excrement and then applying them to the places where the body is cut open. If that isn’t enough to kill you then you can always try drinking arsenic poison.

An early example of how the Black Death offered no favouritism occurs in early August, 1348 shortly after the plague has arrived in Europe. Joan, daughter of Edward III, is leaving England on a journey to be married to Pedro, the heir to the kingdom of Castile.

Everything appears to have been taken care of. She is accompanied by a heavily armed bodyguard. These included over a hundred English bowmen, some of them veterans of the Battle of Crecy 1346 (one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years' War).

They protect not only her but the large dowry she brings. It includes a huge red silk marriage bed and her trousseau (cloth and linen for her marriage) alone requires an entire ship. Joan's wedding dress itself is made with more than 150 meters of rakematiz (a thick silk fabric embroidered with strands of gold). This is an extremely rare and valuable commodity and helps illustrate her special status. In addition she also has a suit of red velvet, two sets of twenty four buttons made of silver gilt and enamel, five corsets woven with gold patterns of stars, crescents and diamonds and at least two elaborate dresses with an in built corset. Such is her ostentatiousness that she even travels with a luxurious portable chapel so she can enjoy Catholic services without having to use the local churches along the way to Castile in Bordeaux. So large is all of this retinue for the princess that it requires four whole English ships. They leave from Portsmouth and arrives at Bordeaux where a dumbstruck Mayor called Raymond de Bisquale greets them.

From Bordeaux to Castile should be straight forward but what Princess Joan does not know is that a Black Death plague is racing through Europe and sweeping aside all in its wake. In all probability as the pestilence has not been seen in England she probably knows nothing of it. Some say the Mayor immediately warns Joan and her companions about the danger of the Plague, but they don’t listen and proceed to settle in the royal castle overlooking the estuary of the Gironde.

It soon became apparent that a severe outbreak of a lethal disease is taking hold in Bordeaux but such is the ignorance of its potential lethalness the young princess and her advisors do not seek depart quickly enough. Very soon though she regrets her decision as she watches in horror as the members of her entourage begin falling sick and dying. On August 20th even Robert Bouchier, the main leader of the retinue and a tough veteran of the Battle of Crecy falls sick and dies.

A decision is taken to seek isolation and Joan, the 13 year old second daughter of King Edward III is moved, probably to a small village called Loremo where she remains for some time. However even here she can not escape the disease. Tragically for Edward his daughter suffers a violent and quick attack of the Black Death and dies on 2nd September 1348.

It is left to Andrew Ullford, a diplomatic lawyer who does not fall victim to the Plague to depart for England in October and to inform the King of what has occurred. The royal family are shocked even though by now with the spread of disease across the English Isles they are aware of its devastating mortal destruction.

Her dramatic and sudden death sends shock waves across the country. Not only is she one of the earliest english victims of the Plague, but her death disproves the idea that royalty will be spared by God. King Edward III expresses his feelings in a letter he sends to King Alfonso of Castile on October 15, 1348. With regret he ends the marriage arrangements and describes writes ‘but see, with what intense bitterness of heart we have to tell you this, destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched from both of us our dearest daughter, whom we loved best of all, as her virtues demanded".

He describes Joan as a martyred angel looking down from Heaven to protect the royal family, and concludes "we have placed our trust in God and our life between his hands, where he held it closely through many dangers". Then on a more emotional note he finished with "no fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are humans too.’

On October 25, Edward III sends an expedition to Bordeaux that is supposed to find the body of Joan and bring it back for burial in London. The leader is a northern ecclesiastical lord, the bishop of Carlisle. In recognition of the danger he is exposing himself to he is very well paid by the King at five marks per day. Unfortunately the story ends here as we are not quite sure happens next in the story. There is no record of Joan's remains being returned to England, nor any account of a funeral of any kind. One possibility is that when the Mayor of Bordeaux decides to burn large parts of the town to stop the spread of the disease he might have also burnt her remains.

Her life is but a footnote in history but it has been suggested that actually it is significant as by preventing dynastic union between England and Castile it stops a potential shift in the balance of power between France and England. Had this happened it might have altered the course of the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453) and prevented England from losing the war.

As for the bubonic plague it continues to cause outbreaks that spare no victims. A famous occasion occurs when King Richard II’s wife dies of the bubonic plague in 1394. So distraught is he that when the Earl of Arundel turns up late to his wife’s funeral he rushes over to him and strikes the Earl on the face.

The Bearded Lady and her amazing escape from the Tower of London, 1716

Guy Fawkes is not the only person to try to overthrow the ruler of his day. He is also not the only one to fail and be sentenced to death. Another person set to suffer this fate is the Jacobean, William Maxwell, better known as Lord Nithsdale. His crime is to have supported and played a significant role in the Catholic led, Jacobite rebellion of 1715 that supports the Old Pretender’s attempt to seize the throne back from its Protestant King for himself. The Jacobite forces initially have some successes but at the Battle of Preston in Lancashire they are soundly beaten. In the subsequent aftermath Lord Nithsdale is arrested on the 14th November of 1716 and moved to the Tower of London.

His future prospects look bleak. Rather forlornly he pleads guilty at his trial and begs the King for a pardon on the basis that he felt pressurized into joining the rebellion against his will. The King is in no mood for granting mercy and so in January 1717 he sentences him to death for high treason on 24 February. Such is the King’s displeasure that Lord Nithsdale is ordered to suffer the indignity and horror of being hung, drawn and quartered.

In most instances this would be the end of the story as the prisoner  reluctantly accepts that there is little they can do to change their fate. However what makes this story different is the dogged resolve of his wife, Winifred, the Countess of Nithsdale. She simply can not accept life without her husband and is prepared to go to any length to help him.

As soon as she hears the news about her husband she races from York to London. When her carriage gets stuck in snow she simply switches to horseback for the rest of the journey. Finally she arrives in London and immediately visits various Lords to encourage them to petition the King. It is all for waste though as the King disdainfully ignores the petition for Nithsdale and refuses to see her.

Undeterred Winifred and her servant Lady Nairne ride to St. James Palace. She is absolutely determined to meet the King and plead with him to save her husband. When she finally does meet him she throws herself at the feet of King George I, grasping the skirt of his coat and begs for her husband's life. It is at this point that his blue riband servants belatedly intervene. One grabs her by the waist whilst the other releases her grip on his coast. The King is not best pleased by this act. As far as he is concerned Lord Nithsdale has directly challenged his life and regal status so he feels no sympathy for him.

The situation is now dire and yet the indefatigable Winifred refuses to give up. In desperation she comes up with an all together more dangerous plan. On the evening of 23 February Lady Nithsdale visits her husband before his intended execution alongside her faithful friend, Mrs Morgan, her landlady, Mrs Mills and her maid Cecila Evans.

This is no ordinary visit for Winifred has concocted an elaborate plan to make use of visitor regulations to help her husband. The rules for visiting Lord Nithsdale’s cell are that only two visitors at a time are allowed to enter it. However Winifred thinks up a way around this by making herself and her friends go back and forth into and out of the cell on the pretext that each will share some last intimate moments alone with the broken man. The aim is to confuse the guards as to who is inside and outside. She also takes the further precaution of plying the guards with money, drink and urging restraint on their part by stating that the petition has been passed in the Lord’s favour in the Houses of Parliament.

Once inside the jail Winifred pulls out a spare cloak and puts some make up (powder and rouge) on her husband so as to disguise him as one of the visitors. Lord Nithsdale quickly puts on a dress identical to that worn by Mrs. Mills. Lady Nithsdale then calls out to her friend, loud enough for the guards to hear, to bring her maid, whom she requires to carry a last minute plea for mercy to the King. Mrs. Mills is then brought into the cell, suitably distraught and with her face buried in her handkerchief. Lord Nithsdale then dons her hood (same colour of Mrs Mills hair) and is led out by his wife, also clutching the handkerchief to his eyes. This is a crucial component of the disguise as otherwise the guards will notice that one of the women has a long beard!

Winifred then returns to the cell and pretends to be in a deeply emotional and intimate conversation with her husband. After a suitable period of time has elapsed for her husband to leave she leaves the cell and buys some time for herself by telling the guards that her husband is praying and should not be disturbed. This is a clever ruse as it allows the escape to go unnoticed for a longer period of time than otherwise.

Finally just to complete the clever escape and appear suitably distraught when they leave they give a tearful goodbye to the empty cell walls and are escorted sobbing from the Tower. Later the couple reunite in a small cottage just opposite the guardhouse. Here they enjoy a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread before Lord Nithsdale heads on to the Venetian embassy. He lays in wait here for a few days and then (dressed in Venetian livery) as a servant of the Venetian Ambassador he travels to Dover and from there to France.

When the king hears of his escape next morning, he observes that “it was the best thing a man in his condition could have done”. He is not so objective though in his comments about Lady Nithsdale. He complains that she has “given him more trouble and anxiety than any woman in Europe".

Lady Nithsdale though is not finished with all her business. She is worried that her son’s legacy will be extinguished since she believes that as a punishment the Lord’s land might be confiscated. So at still greater risk to herself she decides to travel on horseback to Traquir in Scotland where the estate papers are kept before returning to London. As justification she writes “as I had once exposed my life for the safety of the father, I could not do less than hazard it once more for the fortune of the son". From London she then travels to Rome to meet up with her husband once again. Here she stays for another thirty three years until the end of her life.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Henry I and the White Ship, 1120

King Henry I achieves many great things during his life but written history is not kind to him. Rather than focus on his hard work to modernize the legal statutes of government into the ‘Charter of Liberties’ our popular history has gazed instead upon his colourful personal life.  This is not really surprising though as he fathers over 20 illegitimate children. This focus is a shame as it means many people are unaware of the events in his life. One such example is the voyage of the ‘White Ship’ on the 25th November 1120.

The voyage comes about because Henry is King of England and much of France so he regularly has to cross the Channel. Before the journey a man called Thomas Fitzwilliam asks Henry I if he will board his new ship. Thomas pleads with him for his regal honour to join him and mentions that he is the son of the sea captain who took his father, William the Conqueror across the Channel back in 1066 for the invasion of England. Henry replies that he already has his own ship but that this new ship called the ‘White Ship’ is fit for his son and successor, William Adelin and his other son, Richard.

So it comes to pass that the King and his 300 strong retinue decide to cross the channel. The mood is one of joy and good spirits. King Henry I sets out first and his sons follow in the ‘White Ship’. Gradually though the crew with his sons become more and more drunk and the mood sours. Perhaps in some ways this is not surprising. Henry of Huntingdon said that William is ‘a prince so pampered’ that he seems ‘destined to be food for the fire.’ This explains why his men think little of insulting some ministers who have tried to bless the ship earlier on. It is in this atmosphere that a rather rash bet is decided upon. William and his men agree it will be fun to race up to the King’s ship and then overtake it.

With 50 eager oarsmen on board the ‘White Ship’ heaving with all their might they are able to surge forward. It is by now night-time and rather unwisely no one sees fit to check the route ahead. Suddenly there is an almighty bang as the ship hits a rock that has been hidden by the full tide. Immediately the ship capsizes and many drown as they do not know how to swim. Tragically their screams are heard in the King’s ship but no one thinks to question what they are. In fact many assume they are just shouts of revelry. 

Only a few remain who can swim and survive the treacherously cold waters. Eventually the survivors dwindle down to only the Captain, Thomas Fitzwilliam, Berold of Rouen and Geoffrey a young man and son of Geoffrey of Laigle. Thomas asks for the king’s son and when he is told that he has died he rather forlornly despairs ‘it is vain for me to go on living’. He promptly gives up the struggle to keep his head above the water and lets his body sink beneath the waves. The bitterly cold night is also too much for Geoffrey and he also perishes.  

By the next day only Berold the butcher of Rouen is alive. His good fortune owes much to the thick ram-skin coat he wears. By sheer good luck he is found by some fishermen the next day who he proceeds to recount the events to. Such news is sensational and travels fast but even though many barons know what has happened all are fearful of the King’s wrath and so say nothing to him even though he grows increasingly concerned by the absence of news regarding his sons’ arrival.

One baron, Count Theobold hears the news and after a while musing over the predicament that he faces he manages to come up with the following ruse. Since he can not muster the courage to tell the King directly, the following day he makes a young boy fall to the king’s feet and tell him. When Henry hears this appalling tragedy he falls to his feet in utter despair. His family and friends then help take him to his private quarters where he weeps inconsolably.

His reaction is a stark contrast with his image as a tough, uncompromising ruler. After all this is the very same man who has earlier fought with his brother for the English throne, imprisoned him and when he escapes and is recaptured, burnt out his eyes so as to stop any future attempts by him.

This event has big ramifications for the English throne. Namely it leaves his daughter Matilda as the heir to the throne. This is astonishing as in the Norman culture of this time women are routinely looked upon as inferior to men. That is not to say that Henry I does not try to have more children to create a male heir. Just two months later he marries Adeliza, a young woman. Unfortunately for him in one of those curious twists of fate he becomes infertile.  We know this because he has no children with her and yet after his death she remarries and goes on to have seven of her own.

Matilda’s fate is also sealed by the ‘White Ship’. It is alleged that her great rival, Stephen of Blois, only remains as a contender for the throne by disembarking from the ‘White Ship’ due to a sudden bout of diarrhoea. This leads to one of the great what if questions in history. Had he not disembarked he would have died so would have left Matilda as the unchallenged ruler of England from 1135 onward instead of plunging  England into a long drawn out and very violent civil war.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The ghastly death of the pirate Blackbeard, 1718

Blackbeard is the most famous pirate that ever lived. Who can forget a man so successful, dangerous and terrifying to look at. It is all a far cry from his origins. He is originally known as Edward Teach and his first experience of the seas is gained with the English Navy but when the lure of great wealth proves irresistible he moves on to pirating.

He first gains notoriety in Charleston where his ship and several other pirate ships he controls carry out a South Carolina naval blockade of the port. Eventually a man called Maynard takes it upon himself to go after him.

On November 21st 1718 he catches up with  the Blackbeard ship when their two respective ships meet and a fierce hand to hand fight soon ensues. Blackbeard takes the initiative and clambers on to the ‘Jane’ ship used by Maynard in the mistaken belief that his broadside attack has killed most of his adversaries. His confidence takes a hit when several men in hiding come out. This has little bearing on Blackbeard’s stomach for a fight. He barks at Maynard ‘damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you’. When Maynard and Teach (Blackbeard) come across one another they lunge straight for one another with their swords. Maynard makes a thrust and catches Blackbeard’s cartridge box with the point of his sword with such force he bends it to the hilt. Teach counters by breaking his guard, and wounds Maynard's fingers but not enough to finish the fight. It is a desperate situation but Maynard is quick witted enough to realise his only chance is to use his pistol so he jumps back, throws his sword away and fires his pistol at Teach.

This time he wounds him. Another officer, Demelt then intervenes and catches Blackbeard with his sword on the pirate’s face. Blackbeard praises him and Demelt attacks him once again. They only break off because both get attacked by others.  

Maynard continues to fight long after. Later during the battle, while Teach is loading his pistol he finally dies from blood loss. According to Maynard’s report, when he examines Teach he has five shot marks and has been stabbed more than twenty times. Maynard then completes the coup de grace by cutting off his head and hanging it from his bowsprit. It is such a triumph that Teach's head is later placed as a trophy on the ship where it is kept until Maynard can show it to claim his prize when he returns home.

If you like reading about the Blackbeard death and enjoy hearing about Pirates then go ahead and read about

Henry Every and his Amazing Pirate Theft from the Mughal Convoy, 1694

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Winston Churchill's incredible escape from prison, 1899

Winston Churchill was one of our finest Prime Ministers. His resolute spirit during the war is widely celebrated. Few are aware though that this stubborn streak is part of his character even from a young age and gets him into a lot of scrapes when he is only a young man.

Back in 1899 Winston Churchill is caught up in the Boer war between the South African Boers and the British Government over sovereign rule in his role as a news reporter. He is anxious to be right in the thick of the action so he stays alongside the British Army as they travel on a train.

All of a sudden the Boers carry out a surprise ambush attack and manage to derail his train at 40 mph. At this point the safe and maybe sane thing to do would be to leave but Winston can not resist adventure and decides to stay. Seeing the problem he immediately sets out to help the driver barge away three carriages that are blocking the track.  

According to him the next thing to happen is for two men in plain clothes to appear who are ‘tall figures, full of energy, clad in dark, flapping clothes with slouch, storm-driven hats’ ready to fire at him for around a hundred yards away. Winston rushed to escape to the engine as bullets whistled past his face. He finds a bank nearby but it offers little in the way of cover so again he rushes onward. In the distance he can see some masonry and further ahead at about two hundred yards away he sees the rocky gorge of the Krantz river. Just as he makes a rush cavalryman gallops up to him and aims right at him.

He now has two choices fire back with his pistol or surrender. Being the plucky man that he is he decides upon the former but then realises that he has left it behind so he resigns himself to surrender. This is despiriting for him but as he notes ‘"When one is alone and unarmed," said the great Napoleon "a surrender may be pardoned."

After capture Winston is marched off and on November 18, 1899 he arrives in Pretoria and settles into a prison that is known as the State Model School. Whilst here he tries to claim status as a non-combatant. In the belief that it might garner him enough sympathy that he will be allowed to leave. Not leaving anything to chance though in his letters he also claims to be a soldier so as to improve his chances of leaving should a prisoner of war exchange take place.

Alas for him it helps him not one bit and so being an impatient young man he decides he absolutely has to escape. On the night of December 12th his opportunity comes along with his fellow Prisoners of War, Captain Aylmer Haldane and Sergeant Major Brockie. Noticing that the prison guards have turned their backs on him he seizes the moment to climb over the prison wall at a spot where it is poorly lit. He waits for his two friends to join him but when it seems that this will not happen he departs in a leisurely manner so as not to arose suspicion whilst wearing a brown flannel suit with £75 (the equivalent of $375) and four slabs of chocolate in his pocket to keep him going.

He makes his way straight to the Delagoa Bay Railway in the hope of making a quick and rapid escape straight to British held territory. When Winston arrives he sees a passing train and jumps on it. He then hides among the soft sacks covered in coal dust. He stays there for several hours all the time conscious and fearful of being caught. By daybreak he feels the risk of capture on an obvious escape route is now too great he must leave so he jumps off the train and moves on.

As he moves further and further along Churchill grows increasingly desperate through exhaustion and fear of being caught so he takes a bold risk and knocks on the door of a nearby home ready to plea for sanctuary. It happens to be owned by Mr. John Howard, manager of the Transvaal Collieries. When Mr. Howard sees him and hears his request for help he replies “Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Winston is lucky. Mr. Howard first hides him in a coal mine then transports him to safety by having Churchill squeeze into a hole at the end of a train car loaded with bales of wool. Whilst there he is aided by another Englishman, Charles Burnham who owns the consignment of wool. He helps out by bribing any Boers who might otherwise have discovered him. This is critical as the Boer leaders are now offering £25 (a then considerable sum) for him to be found dead or alive.

Finally Winston arrives safely to Durban, South Africa where he is in British held territory and feted as a hero. Some controversy now exists as to quite how Winston managed to escape. His fellow captives, Captain Haldane and Sergeant Brockie seem to have felt that Churchill spoilt their plan and did not try to help them over the wall. Perhaps Winston is only seen as successful by history because in his words ‘I will write it’. The South African General, Joubert held a different opinion of him at that time. When told that Winston had escaped he referred to him dismissively as ‘a little bit of a newspaperman’. What is not in doubt is that he is a very strong willed man even as a young man and thank goodness nothing changes when he becomes Prime Minister.

Churchill was an amazing man and his life was full of bravery, surprise and disaster. The definitive book about him is by Martin Gilbert 'Churchill; A Life'.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Margaret Thatcher's Fall from Power, 20 November 1990

Margaret Thatcher is without doubt a remarkable woman who as Prime Minister makes a huge indelible mark on British society that we are still feeling today. She is also very divisive as is most apparent in 1990 when a leadership contest is held against her by a stalking horse, Sir Antony Meyer. She calls a date quickly fully expecting her great rival Michael Heseltine to lead the assault but thinking it will only be a ‘fortnight’s agony’ and then she will be able to carry on as before.

Little does she realise the storm clouds rapidly gathering. Her long-time political colleague, Geoffrey Howe resigns on 1st November 1990 and delivers a thinly veiled attack on her in his resignation speech. In it he says ‘the conflict between the instinct of loyalty to the Prime Minister which is still very real and loyalty to what I perceive are the true interests of the nation had become intolerable. That is why I have resigned. The time has come for other to consider the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have wrestled for perhaps too long’.  

This is an open call to arms as Thatcher is all too aware. The challenge worries her enough that to pacify her ambitious colleagues who have become wary of her promise to go ‘on and on’ she decides according to her memoirs to make “more frequent visits to that fount of gossip, the Commons tea room." She also institutes a series of meetings with Tory MPs where everyone is invited to "speak their mind". However she has such a dominant, aggressive aura most are too terrified of her to do so.

An air of complacency also exists amongst her supporters. When Alan Clark pays Peter Morrison, her parliamentary private secretary, for an afternoon visit to see how the campaign is going he finds him asleep in his room. "For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost," he observes. He feels she does not realise how precarious her position is due to poor advice from her sycophantic advisors. He calls it ‘the Bunker syndrome. Everyone round you is clicking their heels. The saluting sentries have polished boots and beautiful creased uniforms. But out there at the Front it’s all disintegrating. The soldiers are starving in tatters and makeshift bandages. Whole units are mutinous and in flight’.

Those who do actually fight her corner don’t help her either. Many take an abrasive stance. Norman Tebbit describes all who oppose her as suffering from ‘mad bullock disease’. Margaret Thatcher herself seems to make a poor judgement too. Instead of canvassing for MP support she goes to Paris for a meeting that basically celebrates the end of the Cold War. Many Conservative MP’s see this as contempt. As Conservative MP, Kenneth Baker puts it ‘The plaudits are abroad but the votes are back home’.

When she fails to get a clear victory in the first contest (she is short by four votes) her great rival, Michael Heseltine steps forward to challenge her in the second round. By now opinion has hardened against her.  Norman Tebbit decides to take her round the Commons tearoom where she finds out how low she is now held in regard. ‘I had never experienced such an atmosphere before’ she notes. Repeatedly she hears the refrain ‘Michael has asked me two or three times for my vote already. This is the first time we have seen you’.

She knows that cabinet support is key so she organizes a series of one to one meetings with her cabinet members. With a good working majority in Parliament she hopes she will have the support of her colleagues. In public, she takes a steadfast view as she knows from her recollection of history that any news of her possible departure will undermine her authority. Thatcher recollects that ‘a complaint from Churchill, then Prime Minister, to his Chief Whip that talk of his resignation in the Parliamentary Party (he would shortly be succeeded by Anthony Eden) was undermining his authority. Without that authority, he could not be an effective Prime Minister.’

Michael Heseltine sees the situation differently. He feels ‘to anyone with the faintest knowledge of how Westminster politics work, her position was manifestly untenable. It says much for Mrs Thatcher’s capacity for self-delusion that at first she stubbornly refused to recognise this fact’. Her husband, Dennis see which way the wind blows and begs her not to continue saying ‘don’t go on love’ but to no avail.

The meetings take place in her House of Commons Room. What happens next knocks her back. ‘Almost to a man they used the same formula. This was that they themselves would back me, of course, but that regretfully they did not believe I could win.’ It is clear her own ministers have conspired against her beforehand to deliver a standard line and repeat it to her. Her position is untenable. Some of the men such as Ken Clarke are blunt that she needs to step aside. Others talk about the need for her to step down so that John Major can have a viable challenge against Michael Heseltine.

Distressed, betrayed and worn out, Thatcher has little left to give. As she puts it ‘what grieved me was the desertion of those I considered my friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they had transmitted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate… treachery with a smile on its face’.

Kenneth Clarke has a different take on this ‘desertion’. For him ‘as Prime Ministers go, she was a good butcher; that was part of her strength. But she could not complain when she was butchered in turn. She had only gained the leadership in the first place by boldly challenging Ted Heath when all his other colleagues were restrained by loyalty. She had lived by the sword and as always likely to perish by the sword’.

To give herself some respite and chance to gather her thoughts she decides to sleep on the matter. It makes no difference though and the next morning she decides to resign. She prepares a statement for her Cabinet Ministers, one for the media and makes the other necessary arrangements to leave.

On the day of reckoning, 28th November 1990 Thatcher resigns. She packs her belongings with her husband Dennis and walks out of Number 10 Downing Street to give one last farewell speech before huge throngs of reporters. Before  large crowds the whole enormity and sudden turn of events became too much for her. Unable to control her emotions she can not stop tears rolling down her cheek.

She still musters some defiance "We're leaving Downing Street for the last time after eleven-and-a-half wonderful years and we're happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here". She also gives her support to her successor. "Now it's time for a new chapter to open and I wish John Major all the luck in the world". She then goes to see the Queen to confirm her departure. Just fifteen minutes later, her successor John Major replaces her at the Queen’s residence at Buckingham Palace to become the new Prime Minister.

The once proud and seemingly unstoppable leader who at one time had promised to go ‘on and on’ leaves and brings about the end of a tumultuous and seminal era in British history. It has become defined and personified by her style of leadership so much so people still talk about the 1980’s as the decade of Thatcherism.  


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Jack the Ripper and his Last Terrible Murder in 1888

The macabre fascination with all things related to Jack the Ripper will continue for a long time. Much of it comes from the fact we still have little idea as to just who he was. We do however have some tantalising information about who he might have been based on an eyewitness who sees Mary Jane Kelly with a suspicious man on the night of her murder, 9th November 1888.

The most credible witness is George Hutchinson. He sees Mary on the night of the murder with a man he describes as being in his thirties with a pale complexion, dark hair, a heavy moustache, about 5 foot 6 inches tall, a waistcoat with a gold chain and a foreign appearance. He also happens to note rather sinisterly that the man ‘walked very softly’ and ‘he carried a small parcel in his hand about 8 inches long’. Could this really have been the murderer? Unfortunately we will probably never know.

What we do know though is that his savage murders shed a lot of light on the tough life of those who lived in the East End. At that time there are many people regularly living in congested slums and perhaps as many as one in three of all the women in London are prostitutes. George Bernard Shaw famously comments on the problem with a sarcastic letter to the Star newspaper in September 1888. He states ‘Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation and organisation, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling … women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.’

The life of Mary Jane Kelly offers us a good glimpse into the deprived lives of those who live in the inhospitable parts of the Victorian East End London. By some misfortune she ends up living in London without regular work and she feels she has no option but to make the most of her good looks and resort to prostitution. Such is the drudgery of her life she quickly succumbs to the temptation of alcohol. Whilst sober she is thought of highly. A neighbourhood friend says she is ‘a pleasant little woman, rather stout, fair complexion, and rather pale… she spoke with a kind of impediment’. However when drunk she frequently becomes abusive and as a result she is nicknamed ‘Dark Mary’. Her life is unfortunately typical of so many and would not be remembered had it not been for the gruesome manner of her death.

Her death is to be the last verifiable murder of Jack the Ripper and it manages to seal his infamous reputation in the most ghastly manner possible. It also goes a long way into explaining just how and why he manages to leave such a prominent mark on English criminal history.

The tragedy unfolds the very day after her death when a young man goes  to collect her rent and gets the shock of his life when he peers through an opening left by a broken window and sees ‘a lot of blood’. He quickly finds and tells his landlord who has a look too and then informs the police. When he arrives he is so scared he can not talk. Eventually the police coaxed him into saying ‘Another one, Jack the Ripper. Awful. Jack McCarthy sent me’ (the young man’s landlord).

Even the police themselves are shocked when they see what has happened. McCarthy himself describes the site as ‘the sight we saw I can not drive away from my mind. It looked more like the work of the devil than of a man. The poor woman’s body was lying on the bed, undressed. She had been completely disembowelled, and her entrails had been taken out and put on the table. It was those that I had seen when I had looked through the window and took to be lumps of flesh. The woman’s nose had been cut off, and her face gashed and mutilated so that she was quite beyond recognition. Both her breasts too had been cut away and placed by the side of the liver and other entrails on the table. I had heard a great deal about the Whitechapel murders, but I declare to God I had never expected to see a sight as this. The body was of course covered in blood and so was the bed. The whole scene is more than I can describe. I hope I may never see such a sight again’. 

All this happens on the day of the Mayor’s Show and quite over shadows it. The whole nation is left in shock and even Queen Victoria voices concern as to what is being done to find him. Alas the murderer is never found and his horrid nickname goes down in history as a way of describing him and his abhorrent behaviour.