Tuesday, 22 March 2016

John Wilkes, 18th century politician

John Wilkes was an 18th-century radical British journalist and politician whose activities paved the way for reform of the political system. He also played a small part in the events that led to American independence.

He was born in London on 17th October 1725, the second son of a distiller. He soon showed academic promise and was sent to the University of Leiden (in the Netherlands) in 1744. However, he was called back in 1747 to undertake an arranged marriage with a woman who was ten years older but came with a substantial dowry, namely the manor of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

The marriage was not a success, due to John Wilkes having picked up some bad habits in Leiden that were at odds with the strait-laced character of his wife, but it did produce a daughter, Polly, who was born in 1750 and to whom Wilkes was devoted throughout his life. However, when the marriage eventually broke up, in 1757, Wilkes was allowed to retain his estate and property in Buckinghamshire.

John Wilkes was clearly a man who enjoyed life to the full, despite being a local magistrate, and one product of this period was an obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Man” entitled “An Essay on Woman”. This was either written by Wilkes or his friend Thomas Potter, or both, but it was to play an important role in Wilkes’s later life.

Being addicted to women and wine as he was, Wilkes needed little encouragement to behave badly, but Potter appears to have provided plenty. He also suggested that the two of them should stand for the parliamentary seats of Aylesbury at the 1754 general election, but Potter cheated Wilkes out of his seat and the latter had to wait until 1757 for his chance to enter the House of Commons.

When he did so, Wilkes made little impression as a speaker and failed to gain any advancement with a government post. Indeed, at the next election, in 1761, he only retained his seat by offering large bribes to a majority of the Aylesbury voters.

However, what he lacked as an orator he more than made up for as a writer. In May 1762 King George III appointed his former tutor, the Earl of Bute, as Prime Minister and promulgated policies that were far from Wilkes’s liking. Soon after the appointment, Wilkes founded a weekly newspaper, the “North Briton” as a vehicle to attack and satirise Lord Bute and his government. The title was itself satirical, Bute being the first Scot since the Act of Union of 1707 to lead the British government.

The government could find no way to stop Wilkes publishing his newspaper, and he continued to do so until Bute resigned in April 1763, to be replaced by George Grenville. Wilkes briefly suspended the North Briton until Grenville revealed his hand as supporting policies (concerning Britain’s relationship with France) that were little different from those of Lord Bute. Wilkes then published issue 45 that strongly condemned Grenville’s stance, and a charge of seditious libel was then made against him.

The government made a mistake by issuing an arrest warrant that was phrased in general terms against the “authors, printers and publishers” of the North Briton without specifying anyone by name. Wilkes was in any case able to avoid arrest by claiming parliamentary privilege, and when he walked free from Westminster Hall the crowd outside chanted “Wilkes and Liberty”, a cry that was to become familiar on London’s street in the years to follow.

However, Wilkes had also made a mistake by printing a few copies of his earlier “Essay on Woman”, one of which was read out in the House of Lords on 15th November. This turned many parliamentarians against him and did not help his cause on the matter of the seditious libel charge. The House of Commons ruled that the North Briton issue 45 was indeed a seditious libel, and moreover that parliamentary privilege did not apply in such cases.

To make matters worse for Wilkes, a member of parliament, Samuel Martin, challenged him to a duel in Hyde Park which resulted in Wilkes receiving a serious bullet wound. However, this did at least give him a good excuse for not attending court, and he was later able to slip out of the country and away from British jurisdiction. He lived in France for the next four years.

Meanwhile, back in London, Wilkes was “tried” in his absence by the House of Commons and expelled. He was also declared an outlaw by the Court of King’s Bench. However, he did win one significant victory in that the use of general warrants for searching buildings or arresting individuals was ruled to be illegal.
John Wilkes had quite a pleasant time in France and Italy until his money ran out and he sought a means of returning to England. His applications for a pardon got him nowhere, but he returned anyway in February 1768 and lived quietly for a time under an assumed name although no efforts were made to arrest him.

He now planned to return to Parliament. He stood for a Middlesex seat in March 1768 and won convincingly. He had strong backing from the “Wilkites”, these being ordinary Londoners who followed him everywhere and cheered his every move, including freeing him from prison when he tried to give himself up as part of the process of clearing his name. He then had to enter the prison in disguise, in a somewhat farcical episode.

Although his outlawry was set aside, in June 1768 John Wilkes was sentenced to two years in prison on the original charges, although he was not expelled from Parliament until 3rd February 1769. Despite this, and while still in prison, he was returned unopposed at a by-election on 16th February but again declared to be incapable of election. The process was repeated at two further by-elections, even when the government put up a rival candidate whom Wilkes defeated with ease but who was declared as having won.

On his release from prison in April 1770, Wilkes sought a new power base in the City of London, where he and his supporters became aldermen and he eventually became Lord Mayor (in 1774).

Wilkes fought a campaign to overturn the ban on parliamentary proceedings being reported by the press. To do this he made use of the ancient privilege of the City of London that meant that only city officials could make arrests within the City boundaries. When printers were accused of breaking the no-reporting rule they were encouraged to seek sanctuary within the City, and this policy eventually led to the government having to back down. The reporting of parliamentary debates has ever since been regarded as a fundamental freedom and an important democratic safeguard.

Soon after becoming Lord Mayor, Wilkes also returned to Parliament, this time with no bar to him taking his seat. His parliamentary performances were much stronger than his previous efforts had been, as he now knew that his speeches would be reported by an unfettered press. He therefore spoke in favour of radical reforms that would eventually come to pass, such as abolition of the rotten boroughs. His greatest triumph was to overturn the motion that had barred him from election in 1769, thus establishing the right of voters to elect whom they wish.

Wilkes is often regarded as having been a strong advocate of American independence, but this view is not entirely accurate. Although he supported the colonists over many of their grievances, and condemned the use of force to suppress them, he did not, at first, want them to leave the Empire. His hope was that, if their complaints were dealt with in a sensible way, the Americans would not seek independence because they would realise that staying loyal was in their best interests.

However, as the crisis escalated Wilkes changed his mind and appreciated that independence was the only feasible outcome. He was essentially pragmatic in his attitude and knew that governments cannot keep people loyal at the point of a bayonet.

As he grew older, John Wilkes became less radical in his behaviour, and the constant cries of “Wilkes and Liberty” became tiresome to him. He became much less active as a politician and eventually lost his House of Commons seat at the 1790 general election. He died on 26th December 1797, aged 72.

John Wilkes remains a fascinating character from 18th century politics, being such a contrast to the aristocracy that ran things at the time. Further radical voices would be heard in later years, and fundamental changes would follow, but John Wilkes laid the foundations for what was to come.

© John Welford

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Clovis, first King of France

Clovis, the first king of a united France, died on 27th November 511. Born in about 466, he was 15 or thereabouts when his father, king of the Salian Franks, died. This was a small kingdom centred on the town of Tournai, which is now in western Belgium. Clovis must therefore be included on the select list of “famous Belgians”.

King Clovis of France

Clovis was determined to expand the borders of his realm, and he did so in no uncertain style. By the time of his death, some 30 years later, his kingdom resembled an inverted “L” that incorporated much of present-day France, Belgium and northwest Germany.

His methods of conquest included cunning and brutality. He persuaded a prince named Chlodoric to murder his father, the king of the Rhineland Franks, with the promise that he would support Chlodoric as king. However, Chlodoric was immediately murdered on Clovis’s orders and the Rhineland became incorporated into Clovis’s empire.

When Clovis conquered his cousin Ragnacaire, the King of Cambrai, he executed the latter in person, on the grounds that Ragnacaire had tainted the family’s blood by allowing himself to be captured. Ragnacaire’s brother suffered the same fate for not coming to his brother’s rescue.

At the age of 30 Clovis married Clothilde, the daughter of the King of Burgundy. She was a Catholic who tried to convert Clovis to Christianity and only succeeded when Clovis uttered a swift prayer to get him out of a tight spot during a battle and it appeared to do the trick. Clovis then insisted that 3,000 of his troops should be baptized as well as himself.

The fact that he was now a Christian did not seem to make much difference to his ruthlessness. On one occasion a knight stole a vase from a church and refused to return it, even when Clovis demanded it on behalf of the local bishop. Instead, the knight smashed the vase with his axe. A year later, Clovis spotted the knight on a military parade and, in front of the assembled troops, smashed the knight’s head with an axe as payment for the vase.

It was Clovis who decided to make Paris the capital of his territories, as it was a good central location for his empire as it then stood. A derivation of his name, “Louis” was subsequently chosen by 18 later French kings.

© John Welford

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee was the first British Labour Prime Minister to have an overall majority in the House of Commons. His two governments, from 1945 to 1951, saw the creation of the National Health Service and major strides forward in the creation of the welfare state.

His early life

Clement Richard Attlee was born on 3rd August 1883 in Putney, London, the seventh of eight children born to solicitor Henry Attlee and his wife Ellen. It is somewhat ironic that the future leader of Britain’s most left-wing government should have come from a prosperous middle-class family that offered no hint of deprivation, but that was indeed the case.

He was educated at Haileybury College and moved on to University College Oxford in 1901, leaving in 1904 with a second-class degree in history.

He had no firm conviction about a career, but entered a law firm and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1906. He had no real enthusiasm for the law, or indeed for anything else, and might have continued in this way had he not become involved with an East End boys’ club in October 1905.

This experience appealed to his latent militarism and he took a commission in the Territorial Army so that he could lead the boys in drilling and camping, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He was also brought into contact with people from a completely different social stratum and was thus introduced to the social and economic problems faced by huge numbers of Londoners.

The death of his father in 1908 meant that Attlee no longer felt himself to be under an obligation to pursue a legal career, and he gave up practice at the bar in 1909, turning instead to lecturing as a way of earning an income. In 1912 he was appointed to a post in the Social Services department of the London School of Economics.

A political career

He realised that the only way to make a real difference in improving the lives of deprived people was through politics and he therefore joined the Stepney branch of the Independent Labour Party. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he had made a name for himself in left-wing politics.

Attlee had a distinguished and action-packed career in the Army during the War, rising to the rank of major and being wounded twice. Although he hated the war and the miseries it caused, it gave him some valuable leadership insights.

After the war Attlee was co-opted as mayor of Stepney in 1919, after which he continued as an alderman for a further five years. He was elected to the House of Commons, for the Limehouse constituency, in November 1922 and he was to hold this seat until February 1950.

Attlee became parliamentary private secretary to the Labour leader, Ramsay Macdonald, and subsequently Under-Secretary of State for War during the minority Labour government of January to November 1924.

He was appointed to the cross-party Simon Commission in 1927 that travelled to India to investigate how its constitution could be reformed. This work, which lasted until 1930, kept Attlee out of front-line Labour politics and ministerial office, to which he only returned in the spring of 1930 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The general election of October 1931 was a disaster for Labour, whose MPs were reduced from 287 to 46. Many able MPs lost their seats, including the party leader Arthur Henderson, but Attlee clung on in Limehouse and found himself as virtual leader alongside George Lansbury and Stafford Cripps.

In opposition, Attlee set about “preaching the word” by advancing the cause of Socialism, his basic ideas being published in 1937 in his book “The Labour Party in Perspective”. At the heart of his philosophy was the need for widespread nationalization to keep the worst excesses of capitalism at bay and produce social justice.

Although George Lansbury was Labour’s official leader, he suffered from poor health and Attlee deputised for him in 1933-4. When Lansbury resigned in October 1935 Attlee was elected to replace him, his main rival being Herbert Morrison.

During the coalition government that ruled during most of World War II, Attlee served as Winston Churchill’s deputy (from 1942 to 1945) and held other important posts that supported the war effort by maintaining the civil side of things on the home front.

Attlee was never a charismatic figure, in obvious contrast to Churchill, and there were fears among senior Labour figures that his lacklustre performance in Parliament and the country would hand the post-war general election to the Conservatives on a plate.

Prime Minister

However, to the surprise of many people, himself included, the Labour Party under Attlee swept to power in the July 1945 election with a majority of 147 seats. Doubtless this was helped by Churchill’s over-reliance on believing that a grateful nation would want him to lead the peace as well as the war. However, the mood in the country was for rebuilding and reform along socialist lines.

Attlee was greatly supported, during the war and afterwards, by Ernest Bevin, who provided the dynamism that Attlee lacked, but who appreciated the value of having an utterly trustworthy figure as the party’s leader. As Foreign Secretary in the new government, Bevin was able to promote Britain’s interests far more forcefully than Attlee could. As the latter famously said, “If you’ve got a good dog, you don’t bark yourself”.

Attlee’s government was beset throughout by the aftermath of the war in terms of austerity and rationing of basic items. The country was nearly bankrupt and dependent on loans and aid from the United States to keep going. Even so, financial pressures during this period led to the pound sterling having to be devalued in 1949.

Despite these pressures, Attlee was able to lead a hard-working and talented team of ministers to introduce major changes, not least the birth of the National Health Service, guaranteeing free medical care for all at the point of delivery, in 1948. This was coupled with a scheme for national insurance (the Act was passed in 1946) to ensure that everyone could obtain a flat-rate pension and benefits to cover sickness and unemployment, in exchange for modest regular payments deducted from income. These were the two pillars of Britain’s “cradle to grave” welfare state.

The Attlee government nationalized large areas of British industry, including the mines, railways, steel, electricity and gas. About 20% of the British economy was in public hands by 1951.

A massive house-building programme was introduced, and the reforms of the 1944 Education Act were enforced, with free secondary education becoming a right for all.

However, by 1950 all this work was taking its toll on the government and many of its leading figures suffered from poor health or felt that they could no longer continue in office. At the 1950 general election Labour’s majority was reduced to five, and Attlee’s second government was greatly hampered as a result.

Defeat and retirement

Following major resignations in April 1951, notably of Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, Attlee sought a fresh mandate in October 1951 but lost to the Conservatives, who would then stay in power until 1964.

Attlee continued as party leader in opposition, but a further Labour defeat in May 1955 led to him stepping down in December of that year. He accepted a peerage, as Earl Attlee, and moved to the House of Lords.

In his retirement he wrote articles and reviews, travelled extensively, and continued to support the Labour Party, by whom he was always highly respected. His wife Violet, who, despite not sharing his political views, had supported him tirelessly throughout his career, not least by acting as his driver during election campaigns, died suddenly in June 1964.

Lord Attlee died of pneumonia on 8th October 1967, at the age of 84, and his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

Winston Churchill is often misquoted as having said that Clement Attlee was a modest man who had much to be modest about. Only the first part of this statement is true, as Churchill had a huge amount of respect for his wartime deputy. He was certainly a quiet man who was uncertain in company and preferred the society of close friends to that of large gatherings.

What he did have in large measure, though, was a profound sense of self-belief, based on careful introspection. Everything he did was thought out in detail and, when he knew that his proposed actions were the right ones, he would proceed to see them through with quiet determination and complete trust in his judgment. He was once asked how he coped under such a heavy workload. His reply was:

“By not worrying. Clearing off every day's job before the end of the day. You take a decision and have done with it. No good keeping on asking yourself if you've done the right thing. It gets you nowhere.”

© John Welford

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Sir Joseph Bazalgette

London owes a huge debt to Joseph Bazalgette for solving the problem of how to dispose of the sewage produced by a rapidly growing population during the 19th century. The infrastructure designed by him still serves the capital to the present day.

Joseph William Bazalgette was born on 28th March 1819 at Enfield. His parents were a naval officer and his wife. His grandfather was a Frenchman who had emigrated to Great Britain in 1775.

Joseph was articled to a civil engineer in 1836 and set up his own practice in Westminster in 1842. He married in 1845 and eventually became the father of ten children.

His career in public health engineering began in 1849 when he was appointed to the post of assistant surveyor to the metropolitan commission that was looking at ways of solving London’s appalling sewerage problem. At the time, most of London’s human waste was discharged straight into the River Thames, which therefore became a massive stinking sewer. It was a problem that had the full attention of the country’s legislators because the Houses of Parliament were directly affected, being alongside the river.

The solution was to build interceptor sewers that would divert the sewage from the Thames and take it to remote outfalls on the east side of the city. The chief engineer of the project was Frank Forster, but when he died in 1852 Joseph Bazalgette was appointed to take over. The commission was replaced by the Metropolitan Board of Works, of which Bazalgette remained the chief engineer until 1889.

Bazalgette’s first task was to complete the plan that Forster that instituted, which was in effect two separate systems, one for each side of the Thames. Parliament passed the required Enabling Act in 1858 and work started soon afterwards. The South London system was relatively straightforward, and the work was completed in 1865. The northern system was more complicated, partly due to the presence of the Metropolitan District Railway, and this work did not finish until 1868.

The project comprised the building of 1300 miles of sewers, 82 miles of the main intercepting sewers running alongside the river, and four huge pumping stations. Bazalgette also “tidied” the river by building the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, which extended for a total of 3.5 miles and included the reclamation of 52 acres of land. The Victoria Embabnkment is particularly impressive in that it that incorporates part of what is now the District Line of the Lonodon Underground, including four stations.

In 1877 the Metropolitan Board of Works was empowered to buy the twelve bridges that crossed the Thames in London, which meant that they ceased to be owned privately and could no longer charge tolls. Bazalgette had to survey all the bridges and, as a result, considerable maintenance work was undertaken. He decided that three of the bridges needed to be replaced in their entirety, so he designed and built the bridges that can now be seen at Battersea, Putney, and Hammersmith.

At the time there was no river crossing down-river of London Bridge, and Bazalgette became involved in planning for three schemes to solve this problem, namely Tower Bridge, Blackwall Tunnel, and the ferry crossing at Woolwich. However, his designs for Tower Bridge and Blackwall Tunnel were not the ones that were eventually adopted.

He was credited with improving traffic flow in London by designing and building several new thoroughfares, notably Northumberland Avenue, Shaftesbury Avenue, Queen Victoria Street and Charing Cross Road.

Joseph Bazalgette advised authorities in many towns and cities outside London as to the best way to solve their own drainage and sewerage systems. These included Oxford, Northampton and Margate, and several cities in continental Europe.

He was knighted in 1874 and elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1884. He retired from public service in 1889 and died on 15th March 1891 at the age of 71. He can be said to have pioneered the profession of civil engineering insofar as it served the health and convenience of the inhabitants of large cities.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain might have been an excellent peacetime Prime Minister, but unfortunately he did not get the opportunity. Instead, he is remembered as the Prime minister who made the mistake of trusting Hitler to keep his word and ended up having to take Great Britain to war in 1939.

Arthur Neville Chamberlain was born on 18th March 1869 in Birmingham, being the only son of the industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, who had served as a minister under Gladstone and Salisbury, and his second wife Florence Kenrick. Austen Chamberlain, who also had a distinguished government career, was Neville’s half-brother, and there were also four sisters from the two marriages.

Early life

Neville’s mother died in childbirth when he was only six years old. He was brought up to have a strong social conscience and he always retained his Liberal leanings despite becoming leader of the Conservative Party in later life.

Neville followed his brother to Rugby School but not to Cambridge University as his father had marked him out for a career in business. Neville therefore went to Mason College (now Birmingham University) to study science, metallurgy and engineering, but was not greatly interested in the latter two subjects.

On leaving college he joined a firm of accountants, but in 1890 he was sent by his father to the Bahamas with a view to establishing a sisal-growing business.  However, this proved to be a failure and by 1896 the venture had to be abandoned at a huge loss.

Neville Chamberlain did however make a success of his next foray into business, which was with the Elliot’s Metal Company, followed by his purchase in 1897 of Hoskins and Son, a Birmingham firm that made ship’s berths. He took a keen interest in all aspects of the business, including the welfare of the workforce and encouragement of active trade unions.

By the time of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Chamberlain was one of the leading lights of Birmingham’s commerce and industry and he also took an active role in local affairs, chairing the management board of Birmingham General Hospital and raising funds for the new University of Birmingham.
Politics in Birmingham

In January 1911 he married Anne Vere, who became a huge support to him during his political career. In November that year he was elected to Birmingham City Council. His rise in local politics was rapid and he became Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1915. His many achievements in this role included the establishment of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Municipal Bank, as well as many improvements to help the poorest members of society.

It was not long before his efforts became noticed on the national stage and he was invited in 1916 to become Director General of National Service, responsible for recruiting volunteers for the war effort. However, he found this job to be impossible to do, partly due to a clash of personalities with the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Chamberlain resigned from his post in August 1917.

Parliamentary career

Chamberlain realised that he needed a seat in Parliament in order to be able to achieve anything worthwhile and he was elected for Birmingham Ladywood in 1918 as a Conservative and Liberal Unionist, supporting Lloyd George’s coalition government while still being a political radical. He immediately became active in formulating plans for a post-war welfare state that included proper pensions and state-aided housebuilding.

However, it was only when the Lloyd George government fell in 1922 that Chamberlain became a minister, serving in Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative administration, firstly as Postmaster General and then as Minister of Health, in which role he sponsored the 1923 Housing Act that provided for slum clearance and new building.

When Bonar Law resigned on health grounds in May 1923 Chamberlain served under Stanley Baldwin, becoming the Prime Minister’s right-hand man as Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the Baldwin government fell in October 1923 and was only re-elected in October 1924, when the post of Chancellor was offered to Winston Churchill.

Instead, Chamberlain served as Minister of Health for nearly five years, during which time he worked hard for social reform and placed 21 new acts on the statute book, including the Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Pensions Act of 1925 that was an important foundation of the post-1945 welfare state.

The Baldwin government fell at the general election of May 1929, at which Chamberlain switched seats to the much safer Birmingham Edgbaston. In 1930 he became chairman of the Conservative Party and was urged by many to replace Baldwin as party leader, but remained loyal.

Chamberlain served as Chancellor in the National Government, led by Labour’s Ramsay Macdonald, from 1931 to 1937. He increasingly became the real power in Government, acting as Prime Minister in all but name.

The National Government, now led by Baldwin, won the general election of May 1935 with Conservative MPs having a large majority of seats. Baldwin was faced with the Abdication Crisis of 1936 and this had a marked effect on his health. He therefore resigned in May 1937 and Chamberlain was his obvious successor.

Chamberlain as Prime Minister

Chamberlain was faced almost immediately with the issue of what to do about the ambitions of Nazi Germany. The policy of appeasement had been developed throughout the 1930s and Chamberlain was keen to maintain it. The thinking was that Hitler would be satisfied with a revised Versailles Treaty that did not punish German so severely for its defeat in World War I. It was a policy that sought to bring about genuine peace in Europe by removing all sources of grievance in a Europe-wide agreement to which Germany would also make appropriate contributions, although it has popularly been regarded as a cowardly policy of surrender to the Nazis.

At the same time as seeking to negotiate peace in Europe, Chamberlain was conscious that Britain was ill-prepared for war and took steps to re-arm, including increasing income tax to pay for a programme of arms and munitions manufacture.

The name of Neville Chamberlain is always associated with the “piece of paper” that he waved as he stepped from an aeroplane at Heston Airport having returned from meeting Adolf Hitler in Munich in September 1938. By this time the Germans had already annexed Austria and seized control of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s signature on the Munich Agreement was, Chamberlain fervently hoped, a guarantee of peace in Europe, although personally he had his doubts as to whether Hitler could be trusted.

The British people certainly believed that the Munich Agreement marked the end of the German threat, and, had Chamberlain called an immediate general election, he would have had an overwhelming victory.

However, Hitler’s actions in the spring and summer of 1939 made it very clear that he had no intention of sticking to his side of the Munich Agreement and that the independence of Czechoslovakia could not be assured.

Things got worse when Germany started to threaten Poland, in March 1939, prompting the British government to offer a guarantee of support to Poland and other European nations. It was these guarantees that forced Chamberlain to declare war on 3rd September.


As a war leader Chamberlain was clearly out of his depth and it was the right move for him to resign in May 1940 and for Winston Churchill to take his place. There was no personal animosity between the two men and both had every respect for the other, although Chamberlain’s first choice for the post had been Lord Halifax.

Chamberlain continued to serve in the War Cabinet as Lord President of the Council and offered loyal support to Churchill, in effect co-ordinating internal policy and leaving Churchill free to concentrate on the war effort.

However, Chamberlain was not destined to continue in this role for long. On 24th July 1940 he learned that he had terminal bowel cancer, from which he died on 9th November, at the age of 71.

His reputation

Had Adolf Hitler not come to power and dominated much of Europe, it is possible that Neville Chamberlain’s reputation as a reforming Chancellor and Prime Minister might have been much higher than it was. Unfortunately, much of the good work that he did to set Great Britain’s finances straight after the Depression years and his tireless efforts on behalf of the poorest people in society have been subsumed by the image of that “piece of paper” and the stigma of Appeasement.

© John Welford

Monday, 14 March 2016

Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII is remembered for one reason only, namely his reform of the calendar which has subsequently borne his name. Had it not been for that, he would only have gone down in history for his vigorous attacks on Protestantism and for virtually bankrupting the Papacy.

Pope Gregory XIII

Ugo Boncompagni was born in Bologna in 1502 and was nearly 70 when he was elected to the papacy in 1572. His immediate goal was to turn back the Protestant tide and to promote the counter-Reformation that was initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-63).

One consequence of the counter-Reformation was violence meted out to Protestants throughout Catholic Europe, and one of the worst atrocities was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in August 1572, when as many as 30,000 French Huguenot Protestants may have been killed. Pope Gregory celebrated this event by attending a mass of thanksgiving.

In order to further the reforms agreed at the Council of Trent, Pope Gregory needed a well-educated priesthood, and to this end he established several colleges, including an English seminary in Rome, from which priests were sent to England on the dangerous mission of supporting Catholics during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Jesuit College at Rome was enlarged to become the Gregorian University. This extensive building programme, together with Gregory’s generous subsidies to Catholic rulers to bolster their anti-Protestant activities, was what led to the coffers being emptied.

A new calendar for the Catholic world

Gregory’s reform of the calendar came about in 1582. The old calendar had been instigated by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, and the problem was that the length of the year as measured by the calendar was not the same as the time taken for Planet Earth to complete one orbit of the Sun. Indeed, by 1582 it was ten days out. The solution declared by Pope Gregory was simply to cut ten days out of October in that year, so that the 4th was followed by the 15th. The error would have recurred in time had not Gregory also made it known that leap years (of 366 days) would not take place in the years that marked the turn of a century, so that 1700, which should have been a leap year, would not be. A further adjustment was that every fourth centenary year would still be a leap year. This is why the year 2000 was a leap year, although 2100 will not be.

Although this reform was timely and necessary, it was hardly going to go down well in those countries that had embraced Protestantism, or in those that practiced Orthodox Christianity. The result was that Europe was split for centuries to come. Great Britain and her colonies only adopted the new calendar in 1752, when there were vigorous protests about the “ten lost days” (it was actually eleven by the time of the change), and Russia only did so after the 1917 Revolution (which is why the “October Revolution” actually took place in November!)

Pope Gregory reigned for thirteen years and died in 1585 at the age of 83. Towards the end of his reign he had tried to restore the Papacy’s fortunes by confiscating property in the Papal territories for which the owners could not provide cast-iron title. This led to considerable unrest and, at his death, Rome was not only broke but in a state of near-anarchy. But at least the date was correct.

© John Welford

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Augustus Pugin

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who was a leading light in the Gothic Revival in early Victorian England, is particularly known for his work on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

He was born in 1812 in London and had very little formal education, but his father ran a school of architectural draughtsmanship from the family home and he absorbed a huge amount of knowledge as a result, especially as regards medieval architecture. He also travelled widely in Europe, where he greatly impressed by the great cathedrals that dated from the Gothic period.

After undertaking a number of commissions, including for the design of furniture at Windsor Castle, Pugin got to know Charles Barry and James Gillespie Graham, both of whom showed interest in the competition to design the new Houses of Parliament following a disastrous fire in 1834 that had destroyed most of the old complex of buildings that had served this purpose previously.

Barry and Graham both asked Pugin to supply designs for internal decorations and furnishings in the Gothic style. When Barry was awarded the commission in January 1836 Pugin continued to provide drawings as Barry prepared his estimate for the task.

By September 1844 the structures were largely in place, and Pugin was invited by Charles Barry to work on the internal fittings of the new House of Lords. This work was to occupy him for much of the rest of his life, especially as the commissions he had been receiving for working on churches and other religious buildings started to fall off at around this time.

Pugin and Barry had an excellent working relationship and the net result is a fusion of their ideas. Pugin designed furnishings, tiles, metalwork, wallpaper and stained glass, and oversaw their production by trusted allies. All the fittings, apart from the frescoes and statues, are Pugin’s work. It is unfortunate that the original stained glass was lost during World War II, but the remainder, which forms the backdrop to the annual Queen’s speech to Parliament, is as designed by Pugin. The illustration above is of the royal throne and surrounds in the House of Lords

Pugin continued to work on other parts of the Palace of Westminster, including the House of Commons, including designing items, such as gas lamps and umbrella stands, for which no medieval examples could serve as a model. It is thought likely that the design of the “Big Ben” clock tower was based by Barry on that designed by Pugin for Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.

Pugin was only 40 years old when he died in 1852. The cause of death may have been mercury poisoning, especially as Pugin suffered a complete mental breakdown in the months before his death and this is a common symptom of over-exposure to mercury. A possible source of mercury was the wallpaper with which he had close contact during his work at Westminster and elsewhere.

© John Welford

Friday, 11 March 2016

Lady Godiva

The legend of Lady Godiva may have an element of truth to it, but it is almost certainly a story that has grown in the telling.

The story as popularly understood is that Godiva, the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, rode naked through the streets of Coventry as a protest against her husband’s extortionate taxation of the people. This action shamed Leofric into reducing the taxes and turned her into a folk heroine.

Godiva and Leofric were certainly real people, and Leofric was one of England’s most powerful barons, wielding considerable power over the Midlands counties of England in the 11th century during the reign of Edward the Confessor.

Godiva (or Godgifu to give her more correct Anglo-Saxon name) was a major landowner in her own right who gave generous endowments to the abbey at Coventry. She was, however, annoyed at her husband’s attitude towards the people of the town and asked him to be less severe. He agreed, on condition that she “mount [her] horse, and ride naked before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other”. She let down her long hair, which covered the essentials, completed the ride, and Leofric was as good as his word in repealing the taxes.

At least, this was the account as given by Roger of Wendover. However, he was alive and writing in the 13th century, some 200 years after the events he recounts, and there are no known earlier sources covering the lives of Leofric and Godiva that mention this ride.

It may well be that Roger came across a manuscript in Latin in the abbey at Coventry and the account he gives is his translation. If that is so, he could have mistranslated the word “denudata” which means “stripped” and does not necessarily imply complete nudity. She may have ridden in a plain costume stripped of all jewellery and adornment. If her hair had been kept in place with jewelled hairpins, removing them would certainly have caused it to hang free about her person.

This scenario does seem more probable for a high-born lady. By riding in a plain dress she would have been showing herself to be at one with the people, which was surely her intention. What good would stripping off completely have done that could not be achieved by riding as a common person?

However, Coventry got to like the idea that something saucy had happened in its distant past, and Lady Godiva’s ride was re-enacted many times in later centuries. It was something that set Coventry apart from other towns and cities and became a source of civic pride. The event could be presented with all due good taste if “Godiva’s” hair was luxuriant enough and especially if she wore a flesh-coloured body stocking!

In the 17th century the legend was enhanced with the idea that the townsfolk had stayed indoors during the original ride and refused to look at Godiva as she rode past. There was only one citizen who could not restrain himself, namely a tailor called Thomas who was promptly struck blind for his presumption. And that is where the name “peeping Tom” comes from.

However it is told it’s a good story, but the real event was probably less titillating than later tellers of it might have wished!

© John Welford

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The legend of Pope Joan

Was there ever a female pope? Many people used to believe that there had been one, and no doubt there are still some today who prefer to accept ancient legends to modern evidence – or the lack of it.

The story of Pope Joan

A monk called Martin wrote in 1265 about a pope called John who was elected in the year 855 and died in 857. However, this apparently male pope turned out to be female when she unexpectedly gave birth when riding through the streets of Rome near the Colosseum. Thus was born the legend of Pope Joan.

Martin may have got this idea from earlier writers, although mentions in sources apparently written before Martin’s time have only survived in manuscripts that were copied later, and are therefore suspect for that reason. The legend is recounted in plenty of other mediaeval sources, but nearly all of them are clearly glosses on Martin’s work and some of them add extra details that are almost certainly inventions by those later writers.

There is one other source that recounts the legend somewhat differently, this having been written by another 13th century monk, namely Jean de Mailly. He talks about the supposed childbirth being followed immediately by Joan’s stoning to death by the shocked populace. The main difference in Jean’s account is that he places it in the early 12th century, although this seems perverse given that the sequence of popes during that period is well established in other sources and there is no gap into which “Pope Joan” could fall.

How the legend could have arisen

What seems to have happened is that an “old wives’ tale” started the rounds during a poorly documented period of Roman history, possibly occasioned by there being a pope who acted in a somewhat effeminate manner. As we all know, stories grow in the telling, especially when somebody writes it down and it gains the status of being on paper “in black and white”.

To add to the confusion, two customs evolved that seemed to confirm the truth of the legend. One was that popes refused to travel along the road in which Joan was supposed to have given birth. This was on the direct route that newly elected popes used to gain access to the church of St John Lateran which is the cathedral church of the city of Rome and where popes are traditionally enthroned as “Bishop of Rome”. A statue of Joan (also called Agnes in some sources) and her son stood at the spot until the late 15th century.

The other custom, which is even stranger, was that newly elected popes had to be physically examined to ensure that they were actually men! This was done during the ceremony in the Lateran when the pope would sit or recline on a special seat that had a hole underneath through which a cardinal would insert a hand to feel the pope’s testicles, afterwards declaring (in Latin) “He has testicles” to which all present would respond “God be praised!”

This idea seems so extraordinary, not to mention revolting, that it is hard to believe. However, two “poping chairs”, made of marble, are known to have existed and one may indeed still do so, although kept well away from public view in the depths of the Vatican. It certainly seems probable that these chairs were used for papal examination for about 400 years, and belief in the legend of Pope Joan seems to be a likely explanation for that use.

However, modern scholarship does seem to have scotched the idea that Pope Joan ever existed. This is partly because of the unlikelihood of the events having taken place as described – could a woman in such a prominent public office really have concealed her sex for a matter of years, not to mention a pregnancy carried to full term? However, the most convincing evidence comes from the fact that the original dating for Joan’s “reign” was impossible, given that coins from the period make it clear that there was no gap between the preceding and succeeding popes into which Pope Joan would fit.

Much as one might like to believe the legend, a legend it must remain!

© John Welford

Macbeth, King of Scotland

It cannot be denied that the 11th century Scottish King Macbeth has had a bad press, not least from William Shakespeare, but how much of his bad reputation is deserved?

He was the son of Findlaech mac Ruaidri, the king of Moray, who was killed in 1020 by his nephews (Macbeth’s cousins) Gille Comgain and Mael Coluim. Macbeth took his revenge in 1032 by killing Gille Comgain, seizing the throne, and marrying Gille’s widow Gruoch.

According to Shakespeare, Macbeth seized the throne of Scotland after murdering King Duncan. This is true in part, although Duncan’s death was in battle rather than as a result of treachery. Duncan had led a campaign against Moray and lost his life at the Battle of Pitgaveny in August 1040.

Macbeth’s reign was somewhat longer than is implied by Shakespeare’s play. He had to fight to defend his throne, for example against Duncan’s father Crinan, whom he killed in battle in 1045. However, things were sufficiently settled to allow him to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 – he was the only reigning King of Scotland ever to do this.

A greater threat to Macbeth’s throne came from Duncan’s son Malcolm, who was backed by a strong army from Northumbria. Battle was joined at Dunsinane (in what is now Perthshire) in July 1054, at which Malcolm gained the upper hand and was able to force Macbeth to surrender a considerable tract of land. A second battle was fought in August 1057 at Lumphanan (Aberdeenshire) at which Macbeth was killed.

He was succeeded by his stepson Lulach, whose father Gille Comgain had been killed by Macbeth. Despite Malcolm’s victory at Lumphanan, it appears that it was not decisive enough to allow him to seize the throne at this stage.

There is no indication in the historical record that Macbeth’s behaviour as king justifies the impression given in Shakespeare’s play. Medieval warlords had to be strong to survive, and their actions were unlikely to be particularly “liberal”. That said, any description of Macbeth as a bloodthirsty tyrant seems to be far from the mark.

In Shakespeare’s defence, he used sources that were not entirely trustworthy and which relied on material dating from the early 14th century. Even modern historians, with better access to contemporary sources, cannot be certain that they have all the facts about Macbeth correct. The above summary is probably about as good as it gets in terms of accuracy!

© John Welford

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Anthony Babington

This portrait may be a representation of Antony Babington, who played an important role in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. There is some doubt about this, however, because the links between the known owners of the portrait and the family of Antony Babington are not particularly strong.

Antony Babington was born in Dethick, Derbyshire, in 1561. His family was staunchly Catholic, and Anthony served as a page to Mary Queen of Scots during the latter’s imprisonment at various places in and near Derbyshire.

He became devoted to Queen Mary and was therefore very willing to become involved in schemes to free her and place her on the throne of England in place of Queen Elizabeth.

In 1586 Babington became the leader of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, but he did not appreciate that his every move was being watched by spies in the pay of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s secretary of state.

Walsingham’s chief aim was to implicate Mary in the plotting, and it was the interception of letters between Babington and Mary that were her eventual undoing. At least, that is the official version – whether the letters were genuine or forgeries is another question altogether.

Whatever Mary’s measure of guilt, Babington’s was beyond doubt. He tried to escape justice but was pursued and captured, later suffering the traitor’s punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

© John Welford

Monday, 7 March 2016

Athelstan, first king of a united England

King Alfred of Wessex, who died in 899, is the only English king to whom is accorded the title “Great”, but perhaps his grandson Athelstan was equally deserving of that honour, given that that he was the first king of what is recognisable as modern England.

Athelstan’s early life

Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, who ruled Wessex from 899 until his death in 924. Athelstan was born in about the year 894 (this is uncertain) and he was regarded from an early age as a potential king.

It has to be remembered that the Anglo-Saxon monarchies did not adopt the custom of primogeniture that is typical of most modern monarchies. Kings were elected to office by the nobility, and simply being the eldest son of a king did not guarantee that one would succeed as the next king.

However, Alfred decided to give his grandson a training in kingship by sending him to the court of his daughter Aethelflaed, who was married to Ethelred, the king of West Mercia, which was in any case a puppet regime under the control of Wessex.

This arrangement paid dividends for Athelstan who was elected king of the Anglo-Saxons in 924 thanks in part to the votes of the Mercian lords who had got used to the idea of Athelstan being “one of them”.

Athelstan as king

Athelstan saw no need to bother with the business of providing an heir, as he had three younger brothers. He also had four sisters who could be married off to supply useful links with the crowned heads of Europe.

A deeply religious man, Athelstan was free to pursue his hobby of collecting religious relics which in turn gave him great credit with the Church. This may in turn have something to do with the generally favourable accounts given of him by contemporary scribes, most of whom would have been churchmen!

One of Athelstan’s sisters, Eadgyth, married King Sihtric of the Kingdom of York which was in the hands of Irish Norsemen at the time. The move for this match came from Sihtric, who was willing to convert to Christianity in order to secure good relations with his southern neighbours. The marriage took place in 926.

Athelstan no doubt saw this marriage as a convenient way of bringing York into his sphere of influence, if not immediately. After all, the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia had been united as the result of a marriage, so why should the same not apply in the case of York?

Forced to fight

However, things did not work as smoothly as might have been hoped. Sihtric’s move was not popular with his fellow Norsemen, who forced him to renounce his new religion. He was then overthrown and had died within a year of the marriage – possibly murdered.

The leaders in York elected a new king, this being Olaf, the son of Sihtric’s kinsman Guthfrith who promptly arrived from Ireland with an army to support Olaf against any threats from the south.

Athelstan had no choice but to counter this move, and he marched on York.

The campaign was a huge success, with the result that Guthfrith was sent packing northwards into Scotland, where he sought sanctuary, and Olaf was forced to flee to Ireland.

Domination of the north

Athelstan continued northwards to launch an invasion of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, which extended into what is now northern England.

Athelstan summoned the kings of the north to a conference at Eamont, near Penrith (in modern Cumbria). He also summoned King Constantine of Scotland to meet him there and to bring Guthfrith with him. However, Guthfrith managed to escape (possibly with Constantine’s connivance) and made his way back to York.

At Eamont, on 12th July 927, Athelstan received submissions from Constantine, Owain of Gwent and Hywel of Strathclyde, as well as Ealdred who ruled the Northumbrians from his stronghold at Bamburgh. They all recognised Athelstan as sole ruler of the English kingdoms.

Securing the kingdom

Despite the submissions referred to above, Athelstan was far from secure as overlord of England. There was much work still to be done.

In 928 Athelstan once again attacked the Kingdom of York and again found it easy to defeat Guthfrith. However, Athelstan showed clemency to his enemy and allowed him to return to Ireland. Large quantities of treasure were discovered in York, but Athelstan shared the booty between the victorious soldiers.

He then turned his attention westwards and subdued the kings of Wales. He called them to a conference at Hereford, where they were required to agree to pay him large annual tributes.

Another source of trouble was Cornwall, where the “west Welsh” (who were Celts who spoke a language related to Welsh) had infiltrated Devon and settled in Exeter on equal terms with the English. Athelstan drove them out and forced them back across the Tamar.

Athelstan’s government

Athelstan made absolutely sure that the whole of his united kingdom would be treated fairly and according to laws that applied to everyone, whether from Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, and whether native English, Dane or Norseman.

He established his rule by means of granting charters that made it clear that he saw himself as God’s emissary and that his power to punish breakers of the terms of such charters had divine sanction.

His most important charters were witnessed by all the highest people in the land, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York and representatives of all the nationalities that were now incorporated in his kingdom.

Local administration was devolved to English ealdormen (nobles) in Essex, East Anglia and West Mercia, but to Danish earls in the former Danelaw. All the land, however, was subject to English law.

Athelstan’s laws recognised the equality of all his subjects. These laws sought to crack down on crimes such as theft, perjury and non-observance of the Sabbath.

English towns (the “burghs” founded during Alfred’s reign) flourished under Athelstan’s rule, as he decreed that no trade could be carried out except within their walls, which were required to be maintained. Many market towns of the present day can trace their origin to this period of history.

Keeping the peace

Athelstan still faced challenges to his overlordship of the former English kingdoms, particular those in the north.

In 934 he marched north to face a challenge from King Constantine of Scotland. His army and fleet caused considerable havoc in Scotland, and no doubt he hoped that – by showing who was boss – he would dissuade any other challengers to his authority from flexing their muscles.

However, this proved to be a forlorn hope. In 937 Constantine joined forces with the King of Strathclyde and an expeditionary force of Norsemen from Ireland. Olaf, the former Norse King of York, was anxious to reclaim his throne and saw an alliance with Athelstan’s other northern enemies as his best means of so doing.

The Battle of Brunanburh

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the forces joined battle at Brunanburh, although it is not clear exactly where this was. It might have been somewhere in Cumbria, or possibly on the Wirral peninsula where the town of Bromborough is a contender for the battle site. Another candidate is Burnswark Hill in Annandale, southern Scotland.

Athelstan fought alongside his half-brother Edmund and was completely victorious. The battle was commemorated in an epic poem that gave details of the casualties that included “five young kings” and numerous Norse and Scots noblemen.  The main contenders all escaped with their lives, with Olaf having to flee to Dublin yet again.

The battle was the defining moment of Athelstan’s reign in that it showed where the real power lay. However, that dominance was entirely dependent on Athelstan’s skills as a battle commander, because his successors would not find things so easy. Olaf was still waiting in the wings, and was destined for better success after Athelstan’s death.

Athelstan’s legacy

Athelstan died at Gloucester on 27th October 939, at the age of about 45, to be succeeded by his young half-brother Edmund who had fought with him at Brunanburh.

Athelstan’s claim to be the first king of a united England is a strong one, although, as mentioned above, this was not to be a permanent state of affairs given the continuing threats from Danes and Norsemen that would continue for much of the Anglo-Saxon period.

What Athelstan did was to show that it was possible for England to be defended and ruled with justice and efficiency. His successors therefore had a benchmark and a standard to aim for, even if they found it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to follow where Athelstan had led.

© John Welford