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.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Grace Darling and her Heroism with a Rowing Boat in 1838

The 7th September 1838 is an unremarkable day in many ways and history records would not mention it except for the heroic efforts of Grace Darling.

A major catastrophe is in the making when the SS Forfarshire’s boilers stop working and it drifts, hitting some jagged rocks and tosses its occupants overboard as the ship is carrying 63 people. The vessel breaks in two almost immediately as it smashes into the Big Harcar rocks driven by strong gales. The weather is atrocious.

Fortunately nine of these Forfarshire passengers and crew do manage to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it sinks. Later that night they also happen to be picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into Shields.

Another group of survivors is not so lucky. They have been in the bow section of the vessel. The rocks holds them up long enough to escape before that section sinks but they still have to decide on what to do next.  All they can decide upon is to scramble over to the Big Harcar, a rocky island nearly one mile away from the lighthouse. Here surrounded on all sides by the devastating seas they wonder how on earth will they survive.

First light on the 8th, Grace spots the wreck of the Forfarshire from her bedroom window and immediately tells her family. As the morning light increases the family are able to see the survivors all huddled on the rocks.

The next problem though is how to rescue them. The father, William Darling wants to attempt a rescue with his sons but alas they are not at home so he decides he will reluctantly makes use of his 23 year old daughter, Grace Darling. Knowing the weather is too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), he instead takes a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-man Northumberland Coble) across to the survivors. To be on the safe side they take a long route that keeps to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. When they finally arrive Grace keeps the Coble steady in the water while her father helps four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat.

It is a difficult moment for Mrs Dawson as she faces the loss of her two children and having to leave them behind. Meantime Grace has to face the fear that at any moment her wooden craft might be smashed to pieces by the big tides. To keep it in one place, she takes both oars and rows backwards and forwards, trying to keep it from being smashed on the reef.

Once aboard, Grace and her father with the three rescued men row back to the lighthouse, while Grace and the fourth man comfort Mrs. Dawson. Here Grace remains while William Darling and three of the rescued crew members row back and recover the remaining survivors. Meanwhile, the lifeboat sets out from Seahouses, but arrives at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father. All they find are the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson's children and the body of a dead vicar. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they row to the lighthouse to take shelter. Their adventures do not end quickly either as the weather deteriorates so much that everyone is forced to stay at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.

When the newspapers hear this story they all publicise it and focus on the role of Grace. Her fame spreads so widely that men propose marriage to her, Queen Victoria gives her £50 and many people make requests for locks of her hair. Today however her fame rests with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who promote her achievements.

If you enjoy reading about brave women then check out

Mary Seacole - The Creole with a Teacup and the Crimean War, 1854-1856

Thursday, 3 September 2015

1878 SS Princess Alice Disaster along the River Thames

What happened to the Princess Alice passenger liner in 1878 is a tragic event very few people know about these days in spite of it being the biggest ever maritime disaster in British waters.

Back in 1878 the River Thames is a foul smelling, disgustingly unsanitary river that is deeply unhygienic. During the 1850’s efforts are made under the directions of the brilliant engineer, Bazelgette to sort out the sewage problem that is making a large amount of sludge at the mouth of the Thames. Even this though is only because the MP’s in Parliament were suffering from the noxious smell known as the Great Stink so much they had to put lime on their curtains. Progress is being made but the river remains something you would not want to swim in at any cost.
Never the less this does not stop passenger liners from ferrying people across the river and merchant ships from carrying valuable cargo. It is this combination of a busy Thames with an unregulated set of rules regarding ships passing one another that conspire on one balmy evening in 3rd September 1878 to create a cataclysmic event.

The exact circumstances of the event are unclear but somehow a fully laden passenger liner manages to crash straight into a merchant collier called ‘Bywell Castle’. Within minutes both ships capsize and all the crew and passengers on both ships fall straight into the river.

Quite apart from the horrifyingly scary moments of seeing their ship go over most of the working class people on board can not swim. A moving account of this disaster has been written by a newspaper man called Mr Vincent below.

‘Tuesday, the 3rd day of September, 1878, had been sultry, and the evening was warm and  "muggy." Weary with a troublesome days work I was preparing for an early rest when a message came that there had been a collision on the river, and that a big steamer had gone down with an untold freight of precious lives. Casting off fatigue with my slippers, I made all haste to reach Roff's Pier, enquiring of such acquaintances as I chanced to meet, a few of whom had heard "something" of a wreck on the river, others who had heard nothing, and laughed at the "old woman's tale." Too soon the matchless horror was revealed.

On the wharf and pier a small crowd had collected, not more than fifty as yet, and among them were several well—known townsmen who, from that moment to the end of the long and heavy strain, devoted themselves day and night without pause, without thanks, and without reward, to do all that was in the power of humanity, if not to lessen the evil, at least to fulfil its sacred obligations, to bear a share of it burdens, and to bring lasting honour and renown for its humanity and public spirit upon the town of Woolwich.

‘Soon policemen and watermen were seen by the feeble light bearing ghastly objects into the offices of the Steampacket Company, for a boat had just arrived with the first consignment of the dead, mostly little children whose light bodies and ample drapery had kept them afloat even while they were smothered in the festering Thames. I followed into the steamboat office, marvelling at the fate which had brought the earliest harvest of victims to the headquarters of the doomed ship, and, entering the board-room, the first of the martyrs was pointed out to me as one of the company's own servants, a man employed on the 'Princess Alice', and brought here thus soon to attest by his silent presence the ship's identity. The lifeless frames of men and women lay about, and out on the balcony, from which the directors had so often looked upon their fleet through the fragrant smoke of the evening cigar, there was a sight to wring out tears of blood from the eyes of any beholder. A row of little innocents, plump and pretty, well-dressed children, all dead and cold, some with life's ruddy tinge still in their cheeks and lips, the lips from which the merry prattle had gone for ever.

Callous as one may grow from frequent contact with terrors and afflictions, one could never be inured to this. It was a spectacle to move the most hardened official and dwell forever in his dreams. Then to think what was beyond out there in the river. It was madness!’

On horror's head horrors accumulate’.

Due to the appalling levels of sewage in this stretch of the river (by the Beckton North Outfall Sewer) many of the desperate survivors who gulp in water consequently end up poisoned and die. Dead floating bodies are everywhere and because of the chemicals in the water an odd slime oozes out from their pores long after their death.

This disaster is the Titanic of its day. Over 640 people die making it the largest maritime disaster in British history. By contrast the Titanic suffers around 1523 deaths but these are outside British waters.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 2

For Part One check here.

It seems that Buckingham is untouchable. Clearly protected by the king, Buckingham heads off to Portsmouth to start organizing another sea-going venture. It is here though that events take a turn for the unexpected.

What he does not appreciate is the degree of anger amongst the navy’s sailors. One in particular, the 40 year old John Felton is particularly aggrieved. He is owed 80 pounds in back pay and is angry about having been passed over for promotion twice. Parliament issuing an Act of Grievances is the final spur for him to set in motion his own solution for dealing with Buckingham, murder. Before leaving home Felton writes and sews into his hatband two apologies for his planned murder. In them, he insists that he has acted as a patriot, a gentleman and a soldier. 

Felton finds Buckingham in Captain Mason's Greyhound Inn house on the morning of 23 August 1628. As Buckingham leaves the breakfast room, John Felton appears suddenly, leaps forward and manages to stab him in the breast. In a scarcely audible voice Buckingham mumbles "The villain hath killed me!" pulls the dagger out of the wound, lurches forward a few paces, collapses in the hall, with blood gushing from the wound and from his mouth and dies.

In the confusion that immediately follows the stabbing, Felton makes his way through the building and into the kitchen area. At the point of successfully escaping he thinks he will be celebrated as a hero so he returns to the scene of the murder and gives himself up.

News of his death provokes markedly different reactions. When Charles I hears it he retires to his room stricken with grief. However when Buckingham’s funeral is held at Westminster Abbey several soldiers have to form an armed guard to protect the coffin from the cheering crowds who are glad to hear of his demise.

As for John Felton the authorities feel unsure of his motives and want to know if he is part of a wider conspiracy. He is taken under armed guard from Portsmouth to the Tower of London, where he is repeatedly interrogated, possibly under torture, about his motives and accomplices. For three months the authorities attempt to uncover the conspiracy they are sure lie behind the Duke’s murder, but the Felton insists he acted alone. The King asks for torture to be used but is refused. By late November, the investigation is over and Felton is put on trial for Buckingham’s murder. He is soon convicted and sentenced to death. Two days later, at Tyburn on 28th October 1628 he is put before the gallows and perhaps because he seeks remission he confesses before a crowd of onlookers, and openly repents his crime. It makes no difference and he is hanged.

Afterwards his body is cut down, carried to Portsmouth and then strung up again to rot in chains. This is a mistake. Large numbers treat his body with respect as Portsmouth is a sailing community and many have suffered loss at the hands of Buckingham. This explains how a victim is seen as a villain and a murderer as a hero.


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 1

For Part One check Here

The Duke of Buckingham is one of the most despised people alive in the era of King James I. His Majesty’s decision to allow the Duke to get involved in policy matters and decision-making he is ill suited to proves to be ruinous for the nation. In the process he also manages to alienate powerful groups in Parliament who feel more and more alienated from both the king and decision-making.

A good example of Buckingham’s ineptitude is his attempt to seize Cadiz, a Spanish port in 1625 with his army. Unfortunately his army is composed of troops who are so ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and ill-trained that when they come upon a warehouse filled with wine, they simply get drunk, and rather embarrassingly the attack has to be called off.

None of this seems to matter though because Buckingham has the all important ear of the King even all the way through to his Majesty’s final months of life. In one of the last letters written by James to Buckingham in December 1624, James signs off with:

“And so God bless you my sweet child and wife and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”

For all those who suppose that the death of King James on March 27th, 1625 will mark the end of Buckingham there is great disappointment. The reason is that the Duke has anticipated this possible loss of status and got around it by cultivating a friendship with his successor, Prince Charles, since the time the future ruler was but a boy. This is why the new ruler is more than happy to have him by his side and the Duke becomes his new chief minister.

For many people this is simply too much. They had hoped that Buckingham would disappear from the political scene but now he seems as strong as ever. Parliament in particular is very angry. When Buckingham signs treaties with Denmark and Holland for English participation in the Danish phase of the Thirty Years War he involves the nation in a costly affair. Eventually 12,000 men set sail. Astonishingly  8,000 manage to die on board their ships without even landing in the Netherlands due to disastrous organisation. Blame is laid squarely on Buckingham.

In 1626, Parliament, led by radicals such as Sir Edward Coke, start impeachment proceedings against him. Charles escalates the crisis by dissolving Parliament. Buckingham desperately tries to turn around the situation. In July 1627 he leads 6,000 men to the Isle de Rhé in support of the Huguenot defenders at La Rochelle. Once again though calamity strikes and he leaves in November 1627 having achieved nothing except the loss of nearly half his force. “Since England was England, it received not so dishonourable a blow.” says one contemporary chronicler called Denzil Holles.

The attacks by Parliament mount. In 1628 Coke calls him the “grievance of grievances”. One seditious ballad of the time even sneers 'Who rules the Kingdom? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devil.' Parliament sends a remonstrance to Charles with this resentment in mind declaring that they fear for England’s religion, her standing in Europe and her success in the Thirty Years War if Buckingham continues in power. Charles merely absolves Parliament.

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 2

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part 2

(Check out Part 1 here)

The charges against the women are very serious. Whilst the Pendle witches are accused of maleficium (harm by witchcraft) the Salmesbury women are instead charged with the child murder and even cannibalism. Fourteen-year-old Grace Sowerbutts begins proceedings with her testimony. She alleges that that both her grandmother and aunt, Jennet and Ellen Bierley, are able to transform themselves into dogs and that they have "haunted and vexed her" for years. Even more bizarrely she claims that on one occasion her relatives have taken her to the house of Thomas Walshman and his wife, stolen a baby and driven a nail into its navel through which they sucked its blood. According to Grace, the child died the following night and that, after its burial at Samlesbury Church, Ellen and Jennet dig up the body, take it home, cook and eat some of it and use the rest to make an ointment that enables them to change themselves into anything they wanted to be.

As if these charges were not enough Grace produces further spectacular revelations. She alleges her grandmother and aunt, with Jane Southworth, attend sabbats held every Thursday and Sunday night at Red Bank, on the north shore of the River Ribble. At these secret meetings they meet with "foure black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face", with whom they eat, dance, and have sex with. Grace even suggests there are more witches involved that she knows of.

Any chance that the evidence from Grace will be dismissed is dashed when others line up to undermine the defendants. Thomas Walshman, the father of the baby allegedly killed and eaten by the accused sets the tone when he offers his evidence next. He confirms that his child has died of unknown causes at about one-year-old. He adds that Grace Sowerbutts was discovered lying as if dead in his father's barn on about 15 April, and did not recover until the following day. Two other witnesses, John Singleton and William Alker, confirm that Sir John Southworth, Jane Southworth's father-in-law, has been reluctant to pass the house where his son lived, as he believes Jane to be an "evil woman, and a Witch". It is clear to some that personal grudges are now being waged but all the same it is still mounting evidence against the accused. 

When the judge asks the accused how they will reply to these charges many felt the trial will soon finish. What they do not expect is for the women to fall on their knees, plead with him and with weeping tears request that the trial judge, Sir Edward Bromley cross-examine Grace Sowerbutts.

This is a defining moment in the trial. The court recorder, Thomas Potts notes that immediately "the countenance of this Grace Sowerbutts changed". The judge sees this as evidence “a priest or Jesuit” has coached the child making her "the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest". Soon after the prosecution witnesses "began to quarrel and accuse one another", and eventually admit that Grace has been coached in her story by a Catholic priest called Thompson.

With this in mind, Bromley commits the girl to be examined by two Justices of the Peace called William Leigh and Edward Chisnal. Under questioning Grace readily admits that her story is untrue, and said she has been told what to say by Jane Southworth's uncle, Christopher Southworth aka Thompson, a Jesuit priest who is in hiding in the Samlesbury area. Leigh and Chisnal question the three accused women in an attempt to discover why Southworth might have fabricate evidence against them, but none can offer any reason other than that each of them goes to the Anglican Church.

Next the judge ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty after the statements have been read out in court. Potts then goes on to praise the judge for his “great care” in rooting out a wicked Papist plot that would have seen three innocent (Protestant) women sent to their deaths. The judge also warns those in the court that they need to be constantly on their guard against manipulative people who had no respect for “kindred or friendship.” With this the court case finishes and unfortunately little is known about what happens next to the individuals concerned.

The Salmesbury case is a fascinating study in medieval court life and their outlook on witchcraft. It illustrates how easily people make accusations about witchcraft that play havoc with the lives of those who accused. Paranoia and opportunism then allow for these situations to rapidly escalate in gravity and scope. Fortunately common sense eventually prevails. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part One

It scarcely seems believable that people were genuinely afraid of witches during the medieval ages. Common beliefs held that witches cause untold distress. A lot of these fears inform people’s expectations and as paranoia increases so do the charges. 

Examples of this include calling for Satan's aid using a cat as a medium; causing financial ruin, death as revenge on an unwilling suitor and rather euphemistically ‘causing lameness to her husband’. No wonder then today we say when accusations are running wild that accusers are pursuing a ‘witch hunt’.

Fear of witchcraft during the Middle Ages is widespread. Even the King himself, James I has a purient interest in these matters. He reads many witch books and appoints himself expert enough to explain his views in a book called ‘Daemononlogie’. This fear can even be traced back as far as 1441, when Eleanor, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V is accused of using sorcery to attempt murder of the new King, Henry VI. These charges are so serious that two of her ‘accomplices’ are executed and she has to divorce her husband. Paranoia even exists well into the 1640’s when Mathew Hopkins infamously becomes a notorious witchfinder general and starts to rounds up, torture and executes suspects. Estimates suggest he murders hundreds of ‘witches’ in this manner and also uses the famous torture of drowning suspects on the basis that the innocent go to heaven and the guilty will not drown.

One of the most famous examples of this fear in our country to ever happen begins in 1612 in Salmesbury. The case of the Salmesbury Witches is very interesting in its own right and neatly contrasts with the Pendle Witch trial that happens at the same time, in the same location in Lancashire but has a different outcome. In this later saga two families fall out with each other and ended up implicating one another in witchcraft. The prosecution rely upon one main source of evidence for all this, Jennet Device, a nine year old daughter of one of the two families. As flimsy as it sounds it is still enough in the eyes of the law for ten people to be executed for their ‘crimes’ based on her evidence.

The Samlesbury witches involves three women from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley. They are accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft. Their trial at Lancaster Assizes in England on 19 August 1612 is one of the few recordings we have left of how witches are dealt with and so it offers us lots of insight into how others think at that time.

How the saga develops also sheds some light on why prosecutions happen. Back on 21st March 1612 Alizon Device meets John Law and a petty disagreement ensues. A few minutes later he suffers a stroke. The local magistrate, Roger Nowell investigates the case and after some heavy-handed interrogation he manages to extract evidence and confessions out of Alice and ten others. They are sent to Lancaster jail for sentencing at the next court hearings.

News of this large scale witch prosecution spreads rapidly and other Lancashire magistrates become aware of it and either out of fear or trying to leverage cynical advantage (by obtaining a large number of successful prosecutions) decide to seek out witches in their own area. One such investigator is Robert Holden. On 15 April 1612 he begins investigations in his own area of Samlesbury. Sure enough he finds eight individuals who are then committed to Lancaster Assizes. 

A trial is held for them at Lancashire castle on 19 August 1612 in front of Sir Edward Bromley, a judge seeking promotion to a circuit nearer London. As the trial begins Bromley orders the release of five of the eight defendants from Samlesbury, with a warning about their future conduct. For the remainder though there is no let up. The three women left (Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley) are accused of using "diverse devillish and wicked Arts” on Grace Sowerbutts (Jennet's grand-daughter and Ellen's niece) for which they plead not guilty.

Part two can be found here

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part Two

Friday, 10 July 2015

How Henry VIII Helped the Astronauts Land on the Moon in 1969

On the face of it the idea of a link sounds implausible and far-fetched and yet when NASA engineers were at a loose end on how to create a strong yet flexible astronaut space suit for a trip to the moon they decide the best option is to look at the King Henry VIII suit of armour.

Throughout the 1950’s they experiment with a variety of designs that will allow astronauts to move unhindered so they can travel around the moon whilst being protected from the atmosphere. The problem they come up against is that the existing options are either very cumbersome or just slightly modified versions of fighter pilot clothing that offer little flexibility. Suddenly in a moment of inspiration one of the engineers argues that perhaps a workable solution already exists if they will only examine the best medieval armour that has been made. So the NASA engineers head off on a mission to find the best examples of medieval armour to assist them in finding a solution to their problem.

Naturally one site they are very interested in looking at is the Tower of London as it is well known for its excellent collection of armour. In 1962 a team arrives in England and examines a suit of armour designed for Henry VIII that was created for 1520 Festival of Cloth the and is held in the Tower of London.

They are astonished at what they find. Looking at it carefully they can see that the layers of armour completely cover the whole body down to the millimetre without restricting flexibility. The solution hit upon hundreds of years ago is to use overlapping layers carefully designed to allow movement without the plates rubbing against one another. When one of the team has a moment to reflect upon this he says that if only they had known this earlier they might have saved themselves years of wasted effort.

If you would like to read more about King Henry VIII then check out

Henry VIII and his infamous Festival of the Cloth of Gold Meeting, 1520.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventures in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 2

The German land forces take Narvik during the early stages of World War Two without much difficulty and 3,000 troops are soon stationed there. Then British ships arrive and their infantry move eastwards and retake Narvik. Patrick then flouts orders and goes on a motorcycle straight into the town to meet the Mayor and warn him of the need to evacuate within the next 24 hours before the town is bombed by the Germans .

Patrick endures great hardship with unflagging spirits despite having barely any sleep at all. He is helped by some French Legionnaries. Patrick notes many are often half-drunk and willing to steal but they also have a tough character and are generous to a fault. One in particular sticks in his mind. He is a wounded man and yet shows his gentle nature despite his obvious pain and gives Patrick a cigarette to help him. Patrick does not even smoke but is so overwhelmed with gratitude he smokes his first and last ever cigarette .

Times runs out and the Germans strike hard. Two Norwegian coastal defence ships are sunk with only eight men surviving out of a crew of 182 on the ‘Eidsvoll’ ship. Such is the speed and shock of the attack on Narvik, the local garrison commander mistakenly assumes the German ships are actually British ships and the troops landing are there to help the Norwegians. When he finds that the troops are German, Colonel Sundlo, warns the Germans that he will order an attack in 30 minutes if they do not re-embark. However the German commander, Dietl holds firm and tells him this will only lead to needless bloodshed .

A standoff ensues but eventually Sundlo decides to capitulate and surrender the port. In so doing he takes a risk as he knows it might look cowardly. As soon as this happens Dalziel-Job’s particular role becomes evacuating the allied soldiers from the town as quick as possible. However he feels deeply troubled with his conscience at the thought of leaving behind all the civilians. It is at this point he shows his brave character by deciding to disobey orders to ‘not repeat not’ help the civilians .

Instead he makes use of his knowledge of the Norwegian coastline to facilitate the evacuation of the civilians too. On 2nd of June the Germans begin bombing with 23 bombers who proceed to set the town ablaze. When the Mayor and Patrick leave the town on to the last fishing boat on the harbour quay one Friday evening on the 7th June less than one hundred people remain in the town .

Far from this being the end of this particular adventure Patrick then has to deal with the aftermath of disobeying his orders. Not to be outdone though he next displays his cunning. According to his son Iain "He made sure he took the Major of Narvik back with him. He got the Norwegian King, who was based in London then, to present him with a medal, so he really couldn't be court marshalled after that .”

As if that did he would still be a war hero and yet afterward he still went on to do so much more. He learnt how to parachute, navigate using a miniature submarine and ski backwards and most excitingly get involved with the clandestine undercover 30AU unit . It is here he is introduced to Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels and takes on various missions deep within Nazi held territory. One of the commanders in the unit, Rear-Admiral Jan Aylen, later described Dalzel-Job as "one of the most enterprising, plucky and resourceful" people he had encountered during the war . Who knows what other great stories have been hidden away from us that were carried out whilst on ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.

If you liked this story then you will also enjoy reading about 

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventures in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 1

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventure in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 1

Every war brings out brave characters and World War Two is no exception. What many people do not know is that the inspiration for James Bond, the spy created by Ian Fleming was based on real people that he met during that conflict. One of the more exciting and likely sources for Ian Fleming’s iconic character is Patrick Dalziel – Job. Indeed it is fair to say that his adventures during the Second World War are every bit as exciting and dangerous as his fictional counter part.

Born in Scotland he travels widely during his youth including spending two years in Norway from 1937 to 1939. He also happens to be the son of a distinguished army officer who dies in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. As a result of these formative experiences he develops a tough, independent, rugged character with a very firm resolve.

All of this proves to be good use when war breaks out. Right away he joins the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Soon he is serving as Navigating Officer on a Fleet Tug operating from Scapa Flow in Norway from January to March 1940 and then from April until June as part of the Allied North-West Expeditionary Force.

This force is in Norway because for the Allies and the Nazis it is seen as being of great strategic value. Most notably it has considerable mineral resources. In addition control of Norway’s extensive coastline is very important in the battle for control of the North Sea and easing the passage of German warships and submarines into the Atlantic. Lastly control of Norway also aids Germany’s ability to import iron ore from Sweden. In fact at the start of the war, Germany imported about 10 million tons of iron ore from Sweden, much of it through Narvik during the cold winter months.

Both sides desperately wanted Norway but prevarication on the part of the British means that just as the Allied forces are about to invade the Germans rush ahead and get there before them.

This is the grave situation Dalziel-Job thrusts himself into and yet it is in this role that his talent is first displayed as time and time again he shows great guile, daring and determination to succeed against all odds. The first task he is involved with is helping to organise the landing of the Allied North-West Expeditionary Force in Norway, using mainly small local craft.

He quickly proved his worth. Not a single life is lost despite German bombing throughout. After this task is completed, Dalzel-Job is congratulated by "Ginger" Boyle (the 12th Earl of Cork and Orrery), Flag Officer Norway, with the words: "You are a lad after my own heart." For the next task Dalziel-Job helps out at the port of Narvik when it comes under attack from the Germans.

This is a big responsibility. Many civilians live there. Narvik also holds  great strategic value. Whilst nine million tons of iron ore comes from north Sweden via the port of Luleå during the winter months it freezes over whilst the Norwegian port of Narvik does not. Therefore control of Narvik, in the north of Norway, will ensure continuous transportation of iron ore into Germany.

If you liked that story then you will also enjoy reading about

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventures in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 2

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Henry VIII and his infamous Festival of the Cloth of Gold Meeting in 1520

King Henry VIII’s ego is rather large even when he is a young King so much so that when he comes up against the proud King of France, Francis I during the magnificent Festival of Cloth it is inevitable that tensions will mount. What no one can predict is how far they will go to prove who is greater.

To understand the reasons for the clash it is important to understand their characters. Both want to make a favourable impression on their own nation and hence their prestige. For instance we know that Francis I is the first French king to insist on being called ‘Your Majesty’. To this end each becomes a patron of the burgeoning Renaissance movement and Francis in particular is famous for building a large art collection we can now see in the Louvre collection and for using his influence to persuade Leonardo da Vinci to live in France. At the same time they both want to be seen as heroic fighters and in Henry’s case he wants to be thought of as a ‘Medieval Warrior King’ in the same mould as legendary Henry V. It is for these reasons that a clash becomes inevitable. 

The origins of their enmity toward one another begin with the 1518 treaty between England and France. Following this agreement both Kings decide that a special festival will be a good way to tighten their diplomatic ties still further whilst also being an excuse to flaunt their renaissance style.

A meeting place is arranged at the very edge of Calais. The site is carefully chosen as England still has a claim to France and holds land near to Calais.  At the same time to sooth both Kings’ egos everything is arranged to provide equality between the two sides. For instance the valley where the first meeting takes place is also carefully chosen and landscaped to provide areas of equal elevation for the two national parties. Such a grand event takes meticulous planning so it is only to be expected that it is planned and executed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s leading advisor.

Whilst talking of equality in practice right from the start both Kings seek to out do the other with incredible displays of ostentatiousness that have never been seen before. King Henry pitches his marque using an elaborate cloth of gold. Built beside the Guides castle for the English this temporary palace covers an area of nearly 10,000 square meters for the reception of the English king. The palace itself is in four blocks with a central courtyard; each side is about 300 feet long. The only solid part is the brick base about 8 feet high. Above the brickwork, stand the 30-foot high walls made of cloth or canvas on timber frames that are painted to look like stone or brick. The slanting roof itself are made of oiled cloth painted to give the colour of lead and the illusion of slates. Contemporaries comment especially on the huge expanse of glass, which makes visitors feel they are in the open air. It is decorated in the most sumptuous fashion and is furnished with a profusion of golden ornaments. Red wine flows from the two fountains outside. Pavilions are set up made with cloth of gold (real filaments of gold sewn with silk to make the fabric) The chapel alone is served by 35 priests. As if that is not enough Henry VIII has 500 horsemen and 3,000 foot soldiers accompany him into the valley of the Golden Dale. Not to be outdone France’s King, Francis I uses a similar number for himself.

Some idea of the size of Henry's following may be gathered from the fact that in one month 2200 sheep and other viands (exquisite dishes) in a similar proportion are consumed. In the fields beyond the castle another 2800 tents are also erected for less distinguished visitors and the whole panorama is littered with conspicuous wealth. Ladies and knights try to demonstrate their bearing through the use of their ornate dress and revive the mythological age of chivalry.

King Henry arrives at his headquarters at Guînes with his wife Catherine of Aragon on 4 June 1520 whilst his counterpart Francis take up his residence at Ardres. Cardinal Wolsey then visits the French king using his own long train to arrange a meeting between the two monarchs at the Val d'Or, a spot midway between the two places on the 7th.

Their first meeting is a portent of things to come. When the two Kings meet declarations are made by the heralds and officers-of-arms of both parties. Each one declares that the 7,000 soldiers should stand absolutely still on either side of the valley. The matter is treated so serious that the soldiers are ordered to stand completely still whilst the two kings ride down the valley or they will suffer the pain of death.

When finally they reach the bottom of the valley they embrace each other in great friendship and then, dismounting, embrace each other again, taking off their hats. Henry’s sword is held, unsheathed, by the Marquess of Dorset whilst the Duc de Bourbon retains the French king’s sword.

After this remarkable meeting a series of tournaments and banquets take place soon after. Incredibly both kings take part in the tournaments themselves. Whilst at the banquets the kings entertain each other's queens. For instance when Francis I finishes his dinner he spends some time dancing in the banqueting hall. Before he starts to dance, the French king goes from one end of the room to the other, carrying his hat in his hand and kissing all the ladies on both sides – except for four or five who are too old and ugly. He then returns to the Queen and speaks with her for a while before spending the rest of the day dancing.

At the same time there are many other entertainments included archery displays and wrestling between French Breton and English wrestlers. All the time the Kings seek every opportunity to show off. A classic example takes place on Saturday 17 June when both kings enter the field. King Henry’s armour-skirt and horse-trapper are decorated with an incredible 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 huge pearls.

Not to be out done the French king seeks to display his chivalrous might and battles with Earl of Devonshire in a tournament joust. They both charge at each other. The Earl himself is particularly well adorned. He appears that day wearing cloth of gold, tissue-cloth and cloth of silver, all elaborately embroidered, with his retinue wearing the exact same uniform. Neither is keen to act cowardly and so they race head on and when they meet they strike so aggressively their lances break. In all they charge each other eight times, during which the French king breaks three lances while the earl breaks two lances and the French king’s nose.

The climax comes when Henry asks for a wrestling session after he has  entered the French Kings tent. To refuse this offer will appear weak and yet the French King knows in a contest of strength he stands little chance against the 6 foot 3 inch tall Henry. Rather than fight Henry on his own terms Philip decides it will be best to surprise him with sly tactics. When Henry VIII pushes with all his considerable might, Francis unexpectedly gives way making Henry lose some of his balance. He then follows this up with a sneeky leg trip manoeuvre that topples Henry and results in Francis victory. According to one French account following Henry’s loss the mood sours and soon after the event finishes. 

So what became of this meeting from June 7th to June 24th, 1520. Well for all its flaunting very little. It nearly bankrupts the treasuries of both France and England and yet no treaties are signed. Indeed only a few weeks later Henry signs a treaty of alliance with the French King’s rival, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and just two years later England is back at war with France. The event is however notable for one particular event that is to have seismic impact on the English nation for it is at this the venue that King Henry VIII meets Anne Boleyn, his future wife and the immediate cause of the religious upheaval known as the Reformation.

Sadly for the Tudors and fortunately for us history fans Henry VIII is not the only vain Tudor. His daughter Elizabeth I is even worse and if you want to find out more about her then check out my History Book and also read more about him at 

How Henry VIII Helped the Astronauts Land on the Moon, in 1969