Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Winston Churchill's terrifying car accident

Winston Churchill almost died in a car accident in 1931. 

The early 1930s were a tough time for the future Prime Minster, Winston Churchill. In 1929 he lost his status as Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Conservatives lost the General Election and in the same year the Great Wall Street Crash on the stock market meant he lost a great deal of money.

With this in mind Winston decided to travel to New York to earn some much needed income via a North American tour. On the 13th December 1931 he found himself in the midst of a lecture tour for this very purpose. During the evening, Winston originally planned to go to bed early at the Waldorf Astoria, his Manhattan hotel. However at around 9pm Bernard Baruch called him by telephone and invited him to his home on Fifth Avenue to meet with two mutual friends.

Unfortunately for Churchill he was unfamiliar with New York and exactly where he needed to go despite the fact he had already been to Baruch’s home before. He spent an hour fruitlessly trying to locate his friend’s home. In desperation he decided it would be easier to go on foot for a short while to get his sense of bearings as he was sure he would recognize the home when he saw it.

He got out of the cab he was in and decided to cross the road and walk along the houses nearby. Half way along the road he looked left as in Britain the cars come from the left hand side. This was a cataclysmic error or judgement but an easy one to do as being used to the cars driving on the left in Britain he had ignored that in America they drive on the right. As a consequence he did not notice a car approaching from his right as he did not look in that direction.

Winston walked across. Meantime one Edward F. Cantasano (known as Mario) saw Winston crossing but too late to brake his car in time. Winston at the last moment recognised what was happening and according to an account he wrote later he thought ‘I am going to be run down and probably killed’. Straight afterward Churchill was hit hard. 

“A man has been killed!” someone cried. Lots of bystanders quickly gather around and a police officer came along to see what help he could offer. Winston describes the impact as being similar to when he was hit by an artillery explosion in Flanders during World War One, such was the power of the incoming force.

Fortunately Winston was alive but as he says ‘I do not understand why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry’. Perhaps some of it might have been down to his heavy fur-lined coat cushioning some of the blow. An alternative explanation was that at 200 pounds in weight Churchill had some extra padding. Indeed much later after the incident when Winston asked a Professor Lindemann for a possible physics explanation he was given the following witty reply.

‘Assume average one inch your body transferred during impact at rate eight thousand horsepower. Congratulations on preparing suitable cushion and skill in taking bump. Greetings to all’.

Never the less Churchill suffered great physical pain. When the policeman came over to ask him ‘What is your name? he was given the reply  ‘Winston Churchill”. Churchill then felt a compulsion to add “The Right Honourable Winston Churchill from England”. The policeman asked for some details and enquired if he wanted to blame anyone but Winston stated ‘I exonerate everyone”. A taxi driver then came up to the gathering and said “Take him in my cab. There’s the Lennox Hill Hospital on 76th Street”.

Along the way Winston fear he might be crippled for life however he started to feel pangs of pain and realised this meant he could not be paralysed. He arrived and then after informing his wife of his situation by telephone he was put under sedation to deal with his head wound. Afterward Baruch and Clementine, his wife were by his bedside. Afterwards out of curiosity and mischief Winston asked “Tell me, Baruch, what is the number of your house?”. "1055" came the reply so Winston followed up with "How near was I to it when I was smashed up?". Baruch then probably knocked his Churchill's ego as much as his body when he stated "Not within ten blocks" (about a half of a mile). 

Four days later Churchill received a visit from Constasino who was terribly upset about what he had done. Churchill though put him at ease and also managed to plug himself by presenting him with a signed copy of The Unknown War, the final volume of The World Crisis that he had written.

Winston’s recovery was slow. Whilst inside hospital he caught pleurisy (tissue between lungs becomes inflamed). To deal with the pain he was suffering Winston was caught in a bind as alcohol was not allowed under Prohibition laws at the time. Never one to give up though he managed to get his American doctor, Otto C. Pickhardt, to write the following note for him:

“…the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters”.

Perhaps such a ‘medicinal approach might surprise some but not others. Famously Field Marshall Montgomery once said to him ‘I neither drink nor smoke and I am one hundred per cent fit.’ To which Churchill retorted ‘I drink and smoke and am two hundred per cent fit’.

Finally on the 28th January Winston was even well enough to give a lecture in Brooklyn and during February he completed a shortened series of lectures across the United States. His close friends were very happy for him and decided to buy him a Rolls-Royce “to celebrate his recovery” and deliverance from oblivion. “We think there is a certain appropriateness in the presentation of a motor car to a man who has been knocked down by a taxi-cab!” wrote Brendan Bracken to Baruch.

His wife said he told her that he was not sure he would recover from the Wall Street Crash, loss of political status and his injury. In many ways this marked the beginning of his wilderness years. Some American journalists wondered how he felt about the USA and considering his American ancestry asked him if he might ever run for American President. Ever the joker he said “I have been treated so splendidly in the United States that I should be disposed, if you can amend the Constitution, seriously to consider the matter”.

Winston Churchill as he know went on the become Prime Minister and remarkably this was not his only brush with death. He managed to survive one house fire, two plane crashes, three car crashes, four bouts of pneumonia during World War II, five wars as a soldier and a prison break in South Africa. 

He also apparently was a short distance away from Adolf Hitler at one point during World War One when both were in the trenches and in the same month of December 1931 Hitler also had a nasty car crash. Apparently he was returning home following the wedding of Dr. Goebbels, his trusted aide. He was sitting in a car with General Von Epp when it crashed into another red Fiat car used by an 18 year old John Scott Ellis (later known as Lord Howard de Walden). 

At the time Ellis was just learning his way around Munich and he apparently took a right turn and bumped into a pedestrian man in his 40s. Of course this story comes from Ellis and differs from newspaper accounts of the time of two cars hitting one another. Scott Ellis was shaken by the incident but was unaware of who he had hit until his passenger remarked 'Don't you know you just knocked down Adolf Hitler?'.

In later life he used to say '‘For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands. He was only shaken up, but had I killed him, it would have changed the history of the world.’ 

The impact of the crash on Adolf Hitler was enough to shove into the car window and break his finger and make him suffer bruising but as we know he recovered and unfortunately went on to cause World War Two.

Three years later the two once again met. This time Ellis had recently married and by now Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany and de facto dictator of it all and they happen to meet in Munich for an opera where they are sat in boxes side by side. During the interval Ellis leaned across the boxes and spoke to Hitler and asked him if he remembered the car accident and Hitler did and despite his murderous reign having started by now was apparently 'quite charming to me for a few moments' to Ellis.

History will always have many what if questions such as what might have happened if Hitler had died that day but I am afraid will never be able to full answer.

Read 'Secret English History' and learn about the greatest English history stories you have never heard of. 

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Monday, 13 April 2020

Prime Minister David Lloyd George's brush with death from flu in 1918

Prime Minister David Lloyd George almost died from flu in September 1918 just when he was celebrating winning World War One.

At the time the war is at a critical phase requiring important decisions to be taken so it is most unfortunate timing for David Lloyd George. By the autumn the Allies are finally starting to dominate. The German Spring offensive has petered out and the growing intervention of the Americans mean the Allies have a growing numerical superiority over Germany in troop numbers. By September the Allies are winning a succession of battles in France and the German Army is struggling to get new recruits to replace their heavy losses. 

However the ‘Spanish Flu’ (contrary to most people’s beliefs the flu was most probably due to American or British troops travelling around France in origin) as it became known in 1918 is causing great damage to British society and the Allied armed forces. According to the American War Department influenza has an impact on at least 26% of the Army, more than a million men. The German army fare little better. Their generals are using it as an excuse for why they ran out of attacking momentum in their 1918 Spring Offensive. The British Minister of State, Bonar Law says at the time that ‘there is intelligence that the Germany Army is being swept by Bolshevism as well as Spanish Influenza, a lack of munitions and general sloppiness’.

Just when this first wave starts to die down in the Autumn a second wave that is more virulent than the first and seems to attack the youngest and healthiest more, begins to emerge. It soon appears on the Allied lines and causes a great deal of worry judging by the confidential correspondence between the Medical Research Council, the War Office and the Army Medical Service due to the perceived possible impact it might have on all the fit and healthy soldiers at a critical moment in the war. The Local Government Board Chief Medical Officer put it that the war took priority over all other considerations and the military authorities could not afford to allow doctors and nurses to leave the war front to help those struggling at home.

Of more concern to the British public is how deadly and quickly it is spreading across their own country. Official advice is not very helpful. The main advice is to gargle with salt water and to isolate yourself until the fever has passed. By the time the epidemic is over it is estimated that over 228,000 civilians have died from it.

One of the epicentres in England for this outbreak is Manchester. Over the course of the summer of 1918 over 100,000 Mancunians catch the influenza and 322 die from it. Remarkably it is to this city that Prime Minister David Lloyd George decides to visit on 11th September 1918.

Why you might ask does he go to this city given the obvious risks? Well he was in fact born in Manchester and even though he was raised in Wales he has a strong affinity for it no doubt in part because as a Liberal Party member he feels close to the city due to it's  strong Liberal leaning. In contrast to now the flu disease was not a notifiable disease so it was not well reported either officially or in the newspapers. Anything thought to have a negative impact on morale was censored. However perhaps the biggest factor is that he is invited to receive the Freedom of the City as a recognition for his wartime leadership. For a man with his enormous ego it is just too much to ignore.

When he arrives he is given a massive welcome. His short journey to get to Albert Square where he is staying overnight becomes a one hour journey due to the huge crowds desperate to catch a glimpse of him. Crowds of soldiers and munitions workers Unfortunately it is also a typical day in Manchester full of rain so many people end up soaked in rain including the Prime Minister.  

The next day on the 12th September David Lloyd George gives a rousing 90 minute speech at the Manchester Hippodrome. He touches on many issues but a couple of statements have a certain irony given what happens next. Namely his remarks that ‘you cannot maintain an A1 Empire with a C3 population’ (A1 is a military reference to being in very good health whilst C1 is a military term for poor health) and also that ‘nothing but heart failure’ can prevent a British victory.

Not content with one performance for the day Lloyd George then decides to have a civic lunch at Midland Hotel with a gathering of the local Welsh community. Shortly afterwards he falls ill in the afternoon. As a consequence he is too ill to attend the Reform Club in the evening to give a further speech.

One of the little known facts is how easily this whole situation could have been prevented. Back in July 1918, Sir Arthur Newsholme, Chief Medical Officer of the Local Government Board was considering various nationwide measures to deal with the pandemic. Notable ideas he was looking at making use of included stopping large crowds from gathering and also preventing over crowding on public transport. However he changed his mind in August and he did not revive them until October 1918 by which time David Lloyd George had contracted and recovered from the flu. 

As a consequence the national response was markedly different from today. For instance pubs were allowed to remain open and although men's football stopped the women's league was allowed to carry on. Several factories also allowed smoking to carry on in the belief that it helped prevent the flu. Eating porridge was recommended by the News of the World newspaper as a possible preventative measure. Even MP's were not always dependable for useful information. During one parliamentary debate the Conservative MP, Claude Lowther asked "Is it a fact that a sure preventative against influenza is cocoa taken three times a day?"

Any hope that this flu is just the ordinary one are dashed and Lloyd George has to spend nine days in the committee room at the front of Manchester Town Hall. According to the recollections of the Secretary of State for War Sir Maurice Hankey, Lloyd George’s illness is very serious indeed and his valet mentions that at one point it is ‘touch and go’.

The situation is desperate and as David Lloyd George looks out of his window to see the John Bright statue it drips with Manchester’s all too frequent rain. Who can blame him if he feels gloomy at this point. If news breaks out that the Prime Minister is gravely ill many fear it will dampen morale and weaken the war effort. Lloyd George himself states in December 1917 to C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, that if people really knew the truth about the war it would be stopped tomorrow. However the Prime Minister is fortunate at the time in that the media barons are willing to underplay the severity of his condition for fear of presenting the Germans with a propaganda coup.

Instead with the help of the attending physician, Sir William Milligan, and friendly newspaper barons such as C.P. Scott, the true gravity of his illness is kept out of the public prints. The Manchester Guardian jokes that Lloyd George had caught a ‘severe chill’ when he had accidentally been soaked in a downpour in Albert Square and that he had since become ‘a prisoner of [Manchester’s] not too kindly climate’. 

In the meantime, The Times censors several of Milligan’s medical bulletins. Finally the Prime Minister's health recovers and perhaps one specific piece of news goes some way to improve his countenance. It is that British troops at the Salonika bridgehead have finally defeated the Turks and Bulgarians. 

It is not until the 18th that The Times reports that the Prime Minister is on his way to recovery. Fortunately he is given good advice unlike some of the more dubious ideas put out at the time such as to eat lots of porridge, wash your teeth. Unfortunately just when things begin to look up for the Prime Minister his wife ends up with the flu too (another similarity with Boris Johnson and his fiancĂ© Carrie Symonds). Those close to him are worried that if he finds out it might strain him too much and wreck his recovery so they decide to hold back on this information.  

Three days later on the 21st of September he finally returns to London still wearing a respirator and then moves on to rest at the home of his friend, Danny Park. Meantime his wife slowly recovers.

Eventually the couple, Frances Lloyd George and David are well enough to meet again. He walks into her room on his return holding the Freedom of the City – a silver coffer with enamel plaques, containing the elaborate scroll of the Freedom. Obviously he is very happy to see her but as she looks at his appearance she is aghast at what the illness has done to him. Later she writes ‘He must I fear have been very near death’s door. But he was exhilarated by the turn which events in the war had taken, and this helped his convalescence’.

David Lloyd George’s recovery is slow. Even as late as the 4th of October 1918 he writes ‘I am off by the 8am train from Charing X. My temperature is still very low and my pulse too feeble’ to his wife. No doubt this will also be true for our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson as he recovers this month.
If you want to read another similar story to this then purchase my book ‘Secret English History' to learn what happened to Winston Churchill in 1953 when he suffered a heart attack whilst Prime Minister. Hear how he struggled to survive and to keep his illness secret from Parliament and from the press in the most trying of circumstances.

'Secret English History' - learn about the greatest English history stories you have never heard of. 

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Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Paperback 'Secret English History' Book Released

Yes, it's finally happened, a paperback version of my 'Secret English History' book has been released. It is packed full of exciting stories that you can now read where ever and when ever you want. Go ahead and buy it now!

'Secret English History' - learn about the greatest English history stories you have never heard of. 

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Monday, 27 May 2019

The Unbelievable Story of how Alfred the Great got his Name

Alfred the Great deserves his name due to his magnificent reign. Here is one of the many exciting stories I have included in my 'Secret English History' book. Enjoy!

In all English history there has only ever been one leader called Great and his name is Alfred. Quite why this came about owes much to the character of Alfred, the way he handles the terrifying Vikings rampaging throughout England during the 870s and the legacy he leaves behind. 

To understand Alfred it is necessary to know about his tough, tumultuous upbringing. From an early age his life is dedicated to survival and war against the relentless onslaught from the Vikings. In 871 when he is just a young man he fights eight battles, killing one King and nine dukes. To add to the responsibilities and pressure he feels he also has to contend with being anointed as King in 871 when he is only 22. As a consequence he now forces himself to make life and death decisions on a regular basis on behalf of others too. Undoubtedly this harsh upbringing has a bearing on him and probably accounts for his firm, resolute character and military prowess. 

In 877 after seven years of rule and almost continuous warfare, King Alfred looks to be managing the impossible and bringing peace at long last. This is a testament to the success of Alfred as a military tactician. It is also due to a slice of good luck. Whilst he deserves credit for creating our nation’s first naval fleet it is also the case that good fortune plays a role. This has the effect of wrecking a great Viking army that has set sail for England with 120 ships and 5,000 men. Such is the storm’s ferocity few survive to land ashore. As a consequence their Viking leader Guthrum signs a treaty of peace in return for him and his men being allowed to stay in Mercia (modern day Wessex).

At this point King Alfred probably believes that he has earned a well deserved rest. He retires back to his Chippenham villa fortress and lets his nobles go back to their estates. If the story ended here then his reign would still go down in history as very successful. Unfortunately for him his good luck runs out.

What he has not counted on is the duplicity and treachery of Guthrum. Alfred makes a critical error in failing to appreciate the character of his Viking opponent for not only is Guthrum very slippery and conniving but he is also a proud and ferociously violent man with the will to gain more land by any means.

On 12th January 878 the folly of letting his guard down is cruelly exposed. Guthrum joins up with a separate marauding force from South Wales and carries out a lightning attack by night on the kingdom of King Alfred. Caught by surprise, Alfred and his men have no chance and lose their land to the marauding Vikings. Soon after Guthrum decides to call himself the King of Mercia.

Almost as surprising as the attack is the fact that Alfred somehow manages to escape to fight another day. Never the less by the time of 878 the Viking hordes are all over southern England and Alfred’s prospects look very poor. Forced to beat a retreat to the Isle of Athelney tidal marshes in Somerset he has only his royal bodyguard and a small army of followers. Isolated and left standing as the only West Saxon leader who has not submitted to the marauding Vikings he is in no position to take on any foreign army.

In fact just surviving and evading capture is all Alfred can manage. Whilst in these marshes he is often forced on the move ‘under difficulties through woods and into inaccessible places’. It is from here that he takes shelter during the winter. To survive he has to rely on his good reputation to rally the men in the surrounding region and to encourage them to join his cause. This proves not to be a problem as he is held in such high esteem that men flock to join him from all over the areas we now know as Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. For them Alfred is a source of uplifting joy as many thought he was dead.

It is during this time that the story of King Alfred being confused with a soldier by a woman and being asked to look after some cakes. When she returned apparently he had either fallen asleep or been in such deep thought that the cakes were burnt so she scolded him. This shook Alfred out of his lethargy and he started his comeback. Unfortunately this story is probably fictional. Cakes did not exist at that time, only loaves and it appears this story was borrowed from an earlier story about the Viking warlord, Ragnar Hairybreeks.  

Alfred uses his winter productively. He builds up his military strength, practices fighting drills, creates a fortified base and develops a campaign of guerrilla warfare much like the Dane Vikings have used before against him. Eventually during the Spring he has enough confidence in his men to come out of hiding in the Athelney marshes and rally his soldiers at Egbert Stone near Selwood forest. Here he speaks passionately to all the men in an eloquent rousing speech that inspires his men into a fervour.

The next day Alfred moves to Okely and prepares for war. All the time more and more men flock to join his army. The day after is the crucial day as it is this day that he moves with his army to Edington in Wiltshire. This catches the Danes under Guthrum completely unaware as they have no idea that a mighty threat exists on their doorstep.

Battle is inevitable. Just before the great battle commences, Alfred reminds his men that it is their duty to rescue themselves and their country from the intolerable oppression of a horde of pagan idolaters; that God is on their side and that he has promised victory. Finally he urges them to act like men, so as reap the rewards of victory.

Alfred then quickly puts his men into position and begins advancing. For their part the Danish Vikings are not ready for battle and so are not in formation when they are attacked. This also put them at another crucial tactical disadvantage to add to the psychological momentum against them. Alfred’s strong leadership also inspires his men to fight very hard too. According to early chronicles he is supposed to be someone who ‘fought like a wild boar’ and in turn his own army fights with matching spirit. Further motivation comes from the knowledge that this is their last chance to avoid defeat and a lifetime of degrading servitude and humiliation under the Vikings.

Alfred's fyrd (army) give themselves a further chance as they used a tactic familiar to the Roman infantry, called a shield wall. This means placing shields side by side to create a solid wall and attacking in dense order. Spears are then thrusted through small openings in the shield wall. Even so a fierce battle ensues and lasts all day as it is so bitterly contested.

Finally Alfred's men wear down the Danes so much so they break apart and flee. Guthrum and the remnants of his army are forced to race back to their base at Chippenham, an ironic turn of fate. Whilst here they are besieged for two weeks all the time desperately hoping for a rescue that will never come. Eventually the starving Guthrum accepts his fate and surrenders. He agrees to retreat from the Kingdom of Wessex ruled by Alfred, accept baptism as a Christian and become Alfred’s godson. This means that he is also now bound by personal honour to follow the peace treaty. The baptism is solemnized at Wedmore, in Somerset, some weeks later, giving us what is known as the Peace of Wedmore. Then following this agreement the Danes retreat to East Anglia.

Not content and concerned not to be caught out again King Alfred further stabilises affairs for his Wessex Kingdom by creating a more stable law and order in his kingdom through a change of our laws that come to be known as the Book of Dooms (Book of Laws). In addition he follows up these measures by encouraging the emergence of burhs, or fortified towns that were looked after groups of soldiers on a rota basis. His people are then persuaded to settle in each collection of towns (that are built in a row to act as a string of border fortresses) so as to ensure their protection. Each burh is also armed and kept in a continuous state of alert to deal with any possible Danish incursions.

This system does much to stabilize the political situation and bring a measure of peace to the ravaged islands. It is not until 895 that the Dane Vikings finally leaves following a succession of defeats due once again to King Alfred. It is because of all these tremendous achievements that he is rightly praised so highly and here on ever after known as Alfred the Great.

For more exciting stories like this go ahead and read my book 'Secret English History'

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Monday, 13 May 2019

The Latest Secret English History Ebook News

At long last I have published my ebook 'Secret English History' with Amazon.

It is now available for purchase at the link below.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Queen Elizabeth and the 1579 river barge 'assassination attempt'

Queen Elizabeth was mighty lucky to survive a gun repeatedly firing at her river barge in 1579. For the man responsible, Thomas Applegate, his fate hangs by a thin thread. 

The story begins on 17th July 1579 when Thomas Applegate decides to lark around with his friends along the River Thames between Greenwich and Deptford. At the same time her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I is cruising along the river in her regal barge with the French Ambassador, Jean de Simier, the Earl of Lincoln, and her Vice Chamberlain, Christopher Hatton, discussing the prospect of her marrying the Duke of Anjou. Nothing more would have been said and this event would have passed unnoticed in history had Thomas not fire his Caliver or Harquebush pistol wildly with enjoyment around three or four times.

It’s a foolish gesture. Whilst it amuses his party it also results in a bullet that shatters the glass side of Elizabeth’s barge and hits her helmsman who is only six feet away from her. The first reaction of the Queen is to think that the bullet is meant her and fear for her life as there have been many plots recently to topple her from the throne. The bullet itself passes through both of the helmsman’s arms and causes him to cry out in anguish with great pain.

It is at this point that the Queen displays her regal airs and wonderfully myopic perspective. She comforts him with a scarf to wrap around his arms and says ‘be of good cheer, for you will never want. For the bullet was meant for me’. Small cause to celebrate when you feel you are dying in a pool of your own blood but one has to remember that royalty is treated with great deference in medieval times.

A major investigation quickly ensues as the fear of an assassination attempt gives a sense of urgency that dark forces are at work and may soon strike again. The culprit, Thomas Applegate is found soon after, sentenced to death by the Privy Council and the following Tuesday paraded through the city, out to Blackwall and finally to a gibbet beside the river. His prospects look bleak. In desperation he pleads “God is my judge, I never in my life intended to hurt to the Queen’s most excellent Majesty… I am penitent and sorry for my good master, Mr Henry Carey, who hath been so grieved for my fault, suffering rebuke for the same”.

No mercy is granted. Tears pour from his eyes and the executioner fastens a noose around his neck and the young man prepares to die a quick, painful death. The crowds who are milling around feel he has been foolish but accept that it was an accident and not deliberate so they side with him and shout ‘Stay, stay, stay!’.

Right at the last moment, Sir Christopher Hatton, the Vice Chamberlain steps forward and announces that what Thomas Applegate has done is foolish and wicked but the Queen has decided to grant mercy on his life. At this he is taken down from his ladder and at once gives praise to God and to Sir Christopher Hatton.

Quite why he is saved is open to debate. Applegate’s master, Henry Carey is a member of the Privy Council and may have used his high position to influence the Queen. Then again it might have been that the Queen only sought to know that Thomas Applegate was sorry for his behaviour and once Hatton knew this he was able to grant mercy. A further reason for the Queen’s action might have been that she sought to display her magnamity and thereby win over the crowds. Whatever the real reason it is probably of little consequence to Thomas Applegate who must have felt mightily lucky to escape death and no doubt dined out on this story for the rest of his life.

Read 'Secret English History' and learn about the greatest English history stories you have never heard of. 

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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 like Princess Joan. 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.

Winston Churchill's terrifying car accident

Winston Churchill almost died in a car accident in 1931.  The early 1930s were a tough time for the future Prime Minster, Winston Chur...