Thursday, 31 December 2015

Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden

On 12th November 1611 a 16-year-old was crowned King of Sweden. This was Gustavus Adolphus, who did a huge amount to reform his country and, as a military general, was instrumental in saving the Protestant movement in Europe during the Thirty Years War.

He succeeded the tyrannical King Charles IX who, at his death, had left Sweden fighting three simultaneous wars. Gustavus settled these quickly, learning some of the arts of war in the process, before concentrating on domestic matters.

He persuaded the nobility of Sweden to forego some of their ancient privileges for the good of the country, and also introduced a modern education system that allowed talented people to rise to the top. The government of Sweden became one of the most efficient in Europe.

The Thirty Years War broke out in 1618 as an attempt by the Holy Roman Empire (a loose confederation of central European states) to turn back the tide of Protestantism in Europe. Gustavus Adolphus stayed on the sidelines until 1630, but his intervention was decisive.

He advanced rapidly through northern Germany and won a convincing victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld (near Leipzig) in September 1631. The Swedes then rampaged through southern Germany, capturing the cities of Munich, Nuremberg and Augsburg.

The Swedes had another major victory at Lützen, also near Leipzig, on 16th November 1632, but Gustavus Adolphus was killed while leading a cavalry charge during an early phase of the battle. His death was a setback for the Protestant cause and was a major reason why the war was to drag on for another 16 years.

© John Welford

Maximilian I, founder of the Habsburg Empire

Emperor Maximilian I died on 12th January 1519. He has a good claim to be awarded the title of founding father of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although he did so not by force of arms but by contracting successful dynastic marriages for his children and grandchildren, having been the beneficiary of one himself.

Maximilian was born in 1459, the son of Frederick III, a member of the Habsburg family and the Holy Roman Emperor. Although the title sounds grand enough it did not mean a great deal in practice, the “empire” being a loose association of mid-European states, their only strong feature of commonality being their opposition to the growth of Protestantism in northern Europe.

Frederick chief opponent was Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. In order to turn Charles into an ally, he engineered a marriage between Maximilian and Charles’s daughter Mary, which took place in 1477 after Charles had died in battle.

Mary was heiress to the vast territories of Burgundy in eastern France and also the lands occupied by much of modern Belgium and the Netherlands. She died in 1482 after a riding accident, leaving two young children, one of whom, Philip, was now the titular Duke of Burgundy.

Once Philip was old enough, he was married to Joanna of Castile, the heiress of most of the Iberian peninsula. However, he died at the age of 28 in 1506, having become King of Castile for a short time before so doing.

Philip left two sons, Charles and Ferdinand.  Their grandfather Maximilian got busy in the marriage market on their behalf, with the result that Ferdinand married Princess Anne of Hungary. Her brother should have inherited the thrones of Bohemia and Hungary but he was killed in battle in 1526, leaving Ferdinand to claim them.

Meanwhile, Charles was heir to all the Habsburg territories in Austria, Burgundy and Spain. After Maximilian’s death he married his cousin Isabella of Portugal while his sister married King John III, Isabella’s brother.

Between them, the Habsburgs therefore managed to rule much of Europe, the general aim being to keep the French in their place. At the height of his power, Charles’s empire encompassed most of modern Austria, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, parts of Italy, and vast swathes of the New World.

At the root of it all was grandfather Maximilian, who created an empire by marriage. The Habsburg empire only finally disintegrated at the end of World War I in 1918.

© John Welford

Lady Jane Grey, Queen for nine days

12th February 1554 saw one of the greatest injustices of English history, namely the execution by beheading of Lady Jane Grey, a 16-year-old girl who had been made queen by virtue of the machinations of powerful men but who had to pay the ultimate price when their plotting came to nothing.

Jane Grey was the daughter of Henry Grey, the Marquess of Dorset, and his wife Frances Brandon, whose own mother was the sister of King Henry VIII. This made Jane a cousin of Henry’s son Edward, who reigned as King Edward VI for only six years before dying in 1553 at the age of 15.

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had been the real power in the land during Edward’s reign, and he was determined to exclude Mary, Edward’s Catholic sister, from the throne when Edward died – an event that was long expected given his poor health.

There is, however, much conjecture over how much influence Edward himself had in this matter, as his will excluded both his sisters from the succession, including the Protestant Elizabeth. He regarded them both as being illegitimate, which left Jane as the next in line.

Northumberland was certainly all in favour of this plan, and he sought to cement his own position by marrying Jane to his son, Lord Guildford Dudley. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Jane was not at all happy with this arrangement, nor with Guildford’s demand that when she became queen he would be declared king.

Jane also had to be persuaded to accept the crown on Edward’s death. However, she was a 16-year-old girl who was honour bound to obey her parents, who, along with her father-in-law Northumberland, demanded that she become queen.

However, the plot fell apart mainly due to the attitude of the common people. It is often thought that the whole population of England switched allegiance from Catholic to Protestant during the reign of Henry VIII, but this is far from the truth. This meant that, even though mighty lords such as Northumberland and Dorset could not stomach the thought of a Catholic monarch, the same did not apply to those further down the social scale.

The net result was that Princess Mary was accepted by the vast majority of the people as the rightful queen and support for Lady Jane was very thin on the ground. Mary entered London in triumph and “Queen Jane” was deposed after only nine days.

At first, Mary was inclined to be lenient towards Jane, whom she saw, rightly enough, as having been merely a pawn who had been promoted to queen in a ruthless chess game being played out by others who were far more blameworthy.

Indeed, Jane may well have escaped the axe had it not been for her father’s foolish action in supporting the plot of Sir Thomas Wyatt to unseat Queen Mary by force of arms. Mary knew that she had to remove the focus of such rebellions from the scene, and this meant that Jane had to die to prevent anyone else trying to restore her to the throne.

All accounts state that Lady Jane went to her death courageously and refusing to blame anyone else for her downfall. However, it is still a tragedy that a beautiful and intelligent young woman had to die due to the accident of having been born into a situation that determined her fate.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Huldrych Zwingli, an early Protestant martyr

The name Huldrych Zwingli may not be one of the better known from European history, and it is certainly not one that trips easily off the tongue, but he was an important pioneer of the Protestant Reformation and a contemporary of Martin Luther. 11th October 1531 was the day on which he was killed in a battle between Protestants and Catholics.

Huldrych Zwingli was born in St Gall, Switzerland, on 1st January 1484 and was thus two months younger than Martin Luther. He became a priest at the age of 20 and acted as chaplain to a brigade of mercenary soldiers. In this capacity he fought on the losing side at the Battle of Marignano in September 1515 when the Swiss had been hired to help defend Milan against an attack from France.

As a churchman, Zwingli was anxious to institute reforms in what he saw as a corrupt Church, his basic tenet being that Christ, and not the Pope, was the head of the Church. As a soldier, he adopted a militant attitude to the task of cleaning up the Church, his activities including destroying organs and removing “graven images” from churches and then breaking them up.

Zwingli went further than Luther in that he objected to the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine of the Mass were the “real presence” of Christ), and in 1524 he demonstrated his rejection of priestly celibacy by getting married.

He gathered plenty of support for his views, and even incited revolts against such practices as religious fasting. He was particularly successful in the city and canton of Zurich.

In 1531 he set out with his band of soldiers to defend the Protestants of Zurich against the Catholics of five other cantons. At the monastery of Kappel, on the border between the cantons of Zurich and Zug, a fight broke out on 11th October in which Zwingli was fatally injured. His last words were: “What does it matter? They can kill the body but they cannot kill the soul.”

© John Welford

Thomas Edison, arguably the world's greatest inventor

Thomas Alva Edison was born on 11th February 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was arguably the greatest inventive genius of all time, with more than 1,000 United States patents to his name, but he was relatively modest about his achievements, once stating that: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.

At the heart of his work was the desire to create innovations that were of practical value in making peoples’ lives more productive and enjoyable. He said that he never wasted his time working on things that people would not want to buy.

He also stated that many of his inventions were not original in concept, but he took the concept forward so that it became a reality. The invention for which he is best remembered, namely the electric light bulb, was a case in point. The idea of heating platinum strips to incandescence by applying an electric current had been formulated in 1801 by the British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy. However, Edison turned this into a practical proposition, after considerable trial and error, 78 years later.

Edison’s first invention was an electric machine for recording votes, although this was rejected by the government of Massachusetts who realised that it would no longer be possible to rig votes if such a device became commonplace.

Later inventions included a dictaphone, a mimeograph and a practical electric storage battery. However, the “big three” inventions were undoubtedly the electric light bulb as mentioned above, the phonograph, and the “kinetiscope” which was the earliest device for viewing silent films although it did not project an image.

Edison lived to the age of 84, continuing to apply for patents until shortly before his death in October 1931.

© John Welford

King James II flees the country, 1688

On 11th December 1688 King James II of Great Britain fled the country in a bloodless coup known as the “Glorious Revolution” inspired by the supporters of his usurping son-in-law, William of Orange. His reign had only lasted for three years.

The people of Britain had made clear their views about absolute monarchs several decades earlier, when James’s father King Charles I had lost his head in 1649 and Britain became a republic under Oliver Cromwell. James’s brother, Charles II, had understood the lessons of that time and, on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, had been careful to govern with the sentiments of the people very much in mind, whatever his personal ambitions may have been.

However, James had no such qualms, being far more like his father in character than his brother had been. James believed unashamedly in the “divine right of kings” which held that it was the people’s duty to obey their king because God had put him there. Charles II may have thought this, but he would never have been so stupid as to say it.

James was also openly Catholic, at a time when the people of England were, in the main, happily Protestant. He took many actions that favoured Catholics and had married, after the death in 1671 of his first wife Anne Hyde, Mary of Modena who was a staunch Catholic and who looked certain to produce heirs who would also be Catholic – indeed, she gave birth to a healthy son in June 1688.

Parliament therefore saw the need to remove a Catholic king and replace him with a Protestant one, hence the invitation to James’s daughter Mary, by his first wife, and her husband William of Orange. They would reign jointly as Queen Mary II and King William III.

James had no choice but to flee London when news reached him that William had landed in Devon and was on his way to force him off the throne if need be. He therefore took a barge down the Thames and, in his anger, dropped the Great Seal of England overboard so that no-one else should have it. Even this act of defiance did not work, because it was later fished out of the river and handed to King William.

Incidentally, King James II did leave at least one indelible mark on the world. Before becoming king he had had the title Duke of York, and when British forces captured the city of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 it was renamed New York in his honour. The state capital city of Albany owes its name to James’s Scottish title of Duke of Albany.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Princess Alice of Battenburg, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh

Some people consider Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, Consort of Queen Elizabeth II, to be ever so slightly eccentric in his remarks and behaviour, but he is nothing in comparison to his late mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who married his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, in 1903. Many would say that Prince Philip looks remarkably like his late father but gets at least some of his personal characteristics from his mother.

It did not help that Alice, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was born with a serious hearing impediment that got steadily worse as she got older. She was certainly intelligent, and she was able, on occasion, to use her deafness to her advantage.

However, her interest in spiritualism and religion led her to indulge in increasingly bizarre behaviour. It was one thing to play the Ouija board and believe that packs of cards were conveying messages from the dead, but quite another to say that she was going out to dinner with Jesus, with whom she was apparently having an extra-marital affair, or to believe that she had her own group of disciples in Bedfordshire.

In 1930, when her son Philip was only nine years old, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and removed from her family to be lodged in a series of psychiatric institutions. Philip was sent to England to live with his uncles, Louis and George Mountbatten (the name change from Battenberg had been done to make the name sound less German during World War I).

Contact between Alice and her family only resumed in 1937 when they met at the funeral of one of her daughters, Cecilie, who had been killed, together with her husband and two of her three children, in a plane crash. After the funeral Alice returned to Athens to work among the poor.

It is understandable that she would have been confused by the war that broke out in 1939, given that all her four daughters had married into German nobility, who fought on the German side and at least one of whom was a member of the SS, whereas her son was fighting on the British side as a member of the Royal Navy (which was where he met Princess Elizabeth).  When Philip married Elizabeth in 1947 none of the surviving daughters were invited to the wedding, due to the German connections.

Alice’s husband, Prince Andrew, had died in 1944, after which she devoted herself to founding an order of nuns, although she was never ordained as one herself. She took to dressing in a nun’s habit, including at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

She lived out her final years in Buckingham Palace, still dressed as a nun. The Palace staff described her as “strange but likeable”. She died in 1969, have declared her wish to be buried in Jerusalem. When one of her daughters objected that her family would find it difficult to visit her grave, her reply was that there was “a perfectly good bus service”.

There does not appear to have been an ounce of ill-will in her, except to the German army that occupied Greece. There is plenty of evidence that she endured many personal hardships during the war years and performed many good deeds at personal risk, including sheltering Jews and distributing rations during the curfew.

It is hardly surprising, though, that her son, having had such a disturbed upbringing, has been notable for trying to instil the values of self-discipline in his own family, with varying degrees of success. It is also notable that he has always had a strong independent streak that has got him into trouble at various times. This would seem to have been inherited from his mother.

© John Welford

The marriage of Victoria and Albert

10th February 1840 was the wedding day of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a small principality in Germany. It was a rare thing in royal politics, namely a true love match in which dynastic considerations played an insignificant part – a union between Great Britain and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha made no difference to the balance of power in Europe, although the marriages of the couple’s children would prove to have extremely important outcomes.

Victoria had already been Queen for more than two years when she first met Albert in October 1839. She was instantly smitten by him and proposed marriage after only four days – royal protocol demanded that a queen had to propose to a mere prince and not the other way round.

A fruitful marriage

Albert may have had other motives than pure love – he was, after all, only second-in-line to a very small duchy – but, once married, he became as besotted with Victoria as she was with him. The couple were to have nine children in all, the first (Princess Victoria) being born barely nine months after the wedding and the last (Princess Beatrice) coming along in April 1857. Up to this point there were not many months in which Victoria was not pregnant.

Husband of a queen

Albert had assumed that he would play a larger role in government than Victoria was prepared to give him, and this led to tension between them in the early years of their marriage. He had to develop a different sort of role for himself in which he became a patron of the arts and industry, as typified by his sterling work in promoting the Great Exhibition of 1851. It is also thanks to Albert that a number of customs associated with the celebration of Christmas became established in Britain, such as the Christmas tree.

There is a story that demonstrates how Albert came to see himself as husband and consort to the Queen of England. Having been excluded from a state meeting he stormed off to his room and locked the door. Victoria went after him and knocked on the door. “Who’s there?” he asked.

“The Queen of England”, said the Queen of England. He refused to answer and the same happened again when Victoria knocked for a second time. However, at the third knock and “Who’s there” she replied “It is Victoria, your wife”. That is when he opened the door.

The death of Albert

The marriage ended in 1861 with Albert’s death from typhoid fever following several months of illness from a stomach disorder. He was only 42 years old. Victoria’s grief was profound and, most would say, excessive, in that she withdrew completely from public life for several years, being mocked in some quarters as “the widow at Windsor”. She lived for another 39 years but never again wore anything other than black in mourning for Albert.

© John Welford

Sunday, 27 December 2015

King Edward VIII becomes the Duke of Windsor, 1936

On 10th December 1936 the shortest reign by a British monarch in modern times came to an end when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in favour of his younger brother, who reigned as King George VI.

The events surrounding the abdication have been debated ever since, with opinion still being divided over whether Edward did the right thing. Was his placing of “the woman I love” above the duties of kingship an act of selfless (and romantic) devotion, or a betrayal of his country and an example of gross dereliction of duty?

The facts were clear enough. Edward had come to the throne on 20th January 1936 on the death of King George V. He was already infatuated with a woman he had met at a house party in Leicestershire in 1931. This was Wallis Simpson, an American who had been divorced once before and whose second marriage was on the skids. She became Edward’s mistress and the couple were often seen together during the following years. 

It was made clear to Edward that Wallis was far from suitable as a potential queen, mainly because of her marital status. As king, Edward would be the head of the Church of England, and the Church did not sanction the remarriage of divorced people. There was also the very real possibility that the British people would not accept an American divorcée as queen and that embarrassing scenes would result whenever the pair appeared in public.

Edward therefore had no choice but to abdicate. On 10th December he made a final broadcast from Windsor Castle then travelled to Portsmouth where a Royal Navy ship was waiting to take him to France where Wallis Simpson was waiting for him.

They married in 1937 when Wallis’s second divorce became final, and lived together, mainly in France, as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were largely shunned by the royal family, who did their best to forget all about the Windsors. Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George, was particularly bitter about the burden that Edward had laid on his brother, who had never imagined that he would be king and was in several ways unsuited to the role. Elizabeth always blamed Edward for George’s early death in 1952 at the age of only 56.

Another interesting aspect of the affair is that Wallis Simpson was not the driving force behind the abdication, as some have assumed. She would have accepted the situation if Edward had ditched her and retained the throne, because the infatuation in the relationship was much more on Edward’s part than on hers. She had been through two failed marriages and plenty of other relationships, and would not have been destroyed had the same thing happened again. The assumption that she was determined to be queen is not sustainable, especially as it soon became obvious to her that this could never be. The blame for the abdication surely falls squarely on the shoulders of Edward himself.

© John Welford

The death of King William I, 1087

William the Conqueror, King William I of England, died on 9th September 1087 at the age of 59.

King William of England and Duke of Normandy

William had changed British history for ever by successfully invading the country and defeating King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. He was thus the monarch of two countries, namely England and his own Dukedom of Normandy. Although he spent twenty years consolidating his power in England, he never forgot his other realm, which was why he was in Normandy at the time of his death.

In the summer of 1087 Normandy was coming under pressure from its neighbour, the Kingdom of France, so William reversed his famous invasion of 1066 by crossing the English Channel with an army to deal with the new threat.

William’s death

Battle was joined at Mantes, northwest of Paris, which the Normans besieged and then captured. However, during the siege William’s horse stumbled and William was thrown against the pommel of his saddle, causing a severe rupture. It was five weeks later, in his palace at Rouen, that William died from his injuries on 9th September.

Deciding on the succession

William therefore had plenty of time to reflect on his past life and to make decisions about how his realms should be governed in future. On the former point, William expressed regrets about how he had gone about his conquest of England and the cruelties that he had inflicted on the Anglo-Saxon population.

As to the succession, William had no wish to continue a dual Anglo-Norman kingdom. Instead he split his realms between two of his three surviving sons, Robert and William. It is noticeable that it was the elder son, Robert, who was given Normandy, with William to reign as King William II of England. William was in turn succeeded, in 1100, by the youngest son, Henry.

Another indication that William the Conqueror saw himself primarily as the Duke of Normandy is that he was buried there rather than being returned to England. He was laid to rest in the Abbaye aux Hommes at Caen. Unfortunately, William’s body was too big for the hole in the abbey floor that had been dug to receive it. As the monks pushed it in it burst, and the resulting stench pervaded the whole church. This was an unedifying end for the last foreign king to conquer the land of England.

© John Welford

Josephine de Beauharnais becomes Josephine Bonaparte, 1796

9th March 1796 was the day on which Napoleon Bonaparte, rapidly rising through the ranks of the French military, married Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie in a civil ceremony. She was the widow of a victim of the guillotine and had retained his name of de Beauharnais.

Napoleon was very conscious of the age disparity between them in that she was 32 and he was 26. However, they got round the difficulty, and stopped tongues wagging, by lying about their ages. Josephine trimmed three years off her age and Napoleon increased his by two, by the simple expedient of borrowing his brother’s birth certificate for the occasion. Presumably nobody needed proof for Josephine’s claim – if she said she was 29 she was 29 and that was the end of it!

It is common practice in France for weddings to be in two parts, with the legally necessary civil ceremony often followed by one blessed by the Church. However, Josephine had to wait a long time to walk up the aisle – it happened only in December 1804, shortly before Napoleon was due to be crowned Emperor by the pope.

© John Welford

William Ewart Gladstone, a sanctimonious Prime Minister

On 9th December 1868 William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) became Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the first time. He would have four terms in total, of 15 years combined duration, and he would hold the record for being the oldest Prime Minster when he entered his final term in 1892 at the age of 82.

Gladstone had an excellent record as a politician with an impressive list of achievements that included Irish home rule, free elementary education, secret ballots at elections and the extension of the franchise to working-class men.

However, he was a man with virtually no sense of humour and a moralistic attitude that most people found to be insufferable. Many stories were told about his sanctimonious air and his conviction that, as one person said, he not only had the right card up his sleeve but was certain that God had put it there.

During the early part of his political career his chief rival was the much more socially acceptable Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli, who had all the wit and social grace that Gladstone lacked. 

On one occasion a lady happened to find herself seated next to Gladstone at dinner on one evening and next to Disraeli the next. Her comment after the two dinners was: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr Gladstone I thought he was the cleverest man in England, but sitting next to Mr Disraeli I thought I was the cleverest woman in England”.

© John Welford

Huey Pierce Long, an assassinated senator

On 8th September 1935 one of the most colourful characters in 20th century US politics was hit by an assassin’s bullet – he died two days later. This was Huey Pierce Long, a senator from Louisiana who was running for President against F D Roosevelt.

Huey Long was a remarkable politician who divided opinion very strongly between staunch supporters and implacable enemies. As Governor of Louisiana his policy had been to raise taxes from the wealthy and from big corporations and to spend the proceeds on public works and on such measures as providing free schoolbooks and free medical care at the state hospital.

Such projects do not seem at all out of place in many parts of the world – they are what citizens of the United Kingdom, for example, take for granted – but in 1920s Louisiana they were seen by many as the mad policies of a dangerous socialist.

Huey Long ran against Roosevelt as a third party candidate, with a view to extending the Louisiana reforms to the whole country. This was a time of severe economic depression, and Long’s solution was, in the words of his campaign slogan, to “Share Our Wealth” in order to produce a more just and equal society.

Huey Long’s killer was an ear, nose and throat medical specialist named Dr Carl Austin Weiss. His precise motives for drawing a gun on Huey Long in the capitol building in Baton Rouge were never made clear, but Long’s death would have been welcomed by many people with vested interests and mourned by millions of poor Americans who saw this man as a potential saviour.

© John Welford

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Corporal Alvin York, a hero from World War One

On 8th October 1918 an American soldier, Corporal Alvin C York from Tennessee, carried out one of the most remarkable acts of single-handed bravery in the whole of World War One, or possibly any war, come to that.

The bravery of Corporal York

At dawn on 8th October 1918, Corporal York’s platoon of the 328th Infantry Battalion was in trouble during an operation in the Argonne Forest of north-eastern France. They were under heavy machine-gun fire and taking casualties. A detachment of 17 men, including York, were determined to do something about it and found a way of getting to the rear of the machine-gun nest from which all the fire was coming.

However, once the Germans were aware of what the Americans were doing they swung round to attack York’s detachment, and six of the Americans were quickly killed. York was now the most senior man left and he took it upon himself to make use of his sharpshooting skills and save the situation.

With more than 30 machine guns in the nest, York had to be accurate with his shots, and he was. Every time a gun swung in his direction a German head was exposed for a brief moment, and York fired at it, never missing once.

The Germans then tried a different move, namely jumping out of their trench and charging at him with fixed bayonets. York used his automatic pistol to take the Germans out one at a time, making sure that he shot the man nearest to him, so that each man leaving the trench would not be aware of the danger he faced until it was too late – he wanted them to keep charging rather than dropping down and shooting at him.

Eventually the Germans gave up and all the remaining soldiers surrendered to him. In one morning Corporal York had killed 20 German machine-gunners, put 35 of their guns out of action and captured 132 men.

For his action he was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honour (the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross), which he received from the hands of General Pershing.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The execution of William Tyndale, 1536

On 6th October 1536 William Tyndale was executed in what is now Belgium but at the time was part of the Spanish Netherlands. William Tyndale is renowned for being an early translator of the Bible into English, and for making a substantial contribution to the richness of the English language.

As a clergyman, Tyndale was bound to obey the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church, but found himself at odds with the Church over the matter of the Bible not being available in English. The people were required to attend Mass, but this was always said in Latin (which was true well into the 20th century) and readings from the Bible were also in Latin, in the translation known as the “Vulgate”.

Tyndale once had an angry exchange with a traditionalist in which the former swore that he would “cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do”. Being a gifted linguist, Tyndale made it his life’s work to translate the Bible into English.

The atmosphere in England was so antagonistic to his thinking that Tyndale left for the Continent in 1524, settling first at Wittenberg (probably – there is some doubt about his actual location at this time) where he began work on translating the New Testament from Greek into English.

Tyndale was a fast worker, and the task was completed a year later although it was not until 1526 that copies were printed and started to be smuggled into England and Scotland. Within a decade 50,000 copies were in circulation in the British Isles.

Tyndale’s unpopularity with the religious and political establishment in Britain was compounded in 1530 when he published a pamphlet that condemned King Henry VIII’s divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. He therefore made some very powerful enemies, namely the Catholic Church and the King of England.

Undaunted, William Tyndale started work on translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into English. Being in Germany was essential for this task, because speakers of Hebrew were non-existent in England due to the 14th century expulsion of the Jews under King Edward III. Many of these had fled to Germany, where their descendants still lived and were able to teach the language to Tyndale.

With King Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, making steps to have Tyndale arrested in Germany, he fled to Antwerp which was even more dangerous in that, being in the Spanish Netherlands, it was subject to the activities of the Spanish Inquisition. Tyndale was betrayed and accused of being a heretic, for which the punishment was execution by burning at the stake.

The execution duly took place on 6th October 1536, with Tyndale first being strangled then burned. His last words were reputed to have been: “Lord, open thou the King of England’s eyes”. This prayer was granted only four years later, when King Henry, who had by now declared himself to be the head of the Church of England, authorised the “Great Bible” to be read in church. This was largely based on Tyndale’s work, with the Old Testament completed by Miles Coverdale.

The “King James Version” of the Bible, published in 1611, was the work of a team of translators, but it is noticeable that many of them relied heavily on Tyndale’s work. Many of the ringing phrases of the 1611 Bible, which have entered the English language surreptitiously, were actually written by William Tyndale. Here are two examples from Tyndale’s translation, from the Old and New Testaments respectively:

“In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie, and darcknesse was vpon the depe …”

“In the begynnynge was the worde, and the worde was with God: and the worde was God. The same was in the begynnynge with God.”

© John Welford

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, died on 6th November 1796 at the age of 67, having reigned as the absolute monarch of Russia for 34 years.

Catherine did not have a single drop of Russian blood in her, having been born a German princess in 1729, but she married, at the age of 14, her second cousin Peter. Peter was also German by ancestry but had been declared heir presumptive of Russia by his maternal aunt, Empress Elizabeth I.

Thus, when Peter became Tsar Peter III in 1762, Catherine became Empress Consort. However, she had come to thoroughly dislike Peter as a husband and was living apart from him at the time of his accession. She joined a plot to overthrow him, which succeeded sixth months later. Peter was murdered during the coup, but whether Catherine had ordered this is a matter for debate. At all events, Alexei Orlov, the man who committed the crime either directly or otherwise, became a court favourite of Catherine’s and was heaped with honours.

Technically, Catherine ruled as regent for her young son Paul, who was eight years old at the time and was almost certainly not fathered by Peter III. However, he had to wait until his mother’s death before he became Tsar in his own right. In the meantime, Catherine was most definitely in charge.

Catherine was certainly one of the strongest monarchs that Russia has had in modern times. She expanded the borders of Russia to the south and west, thus ensuring Russia’s highly influential place in European power politics. During her reign some 200,000 square miles were added to the Russian Empire.

She saw herself as a liberal in internal affairs, but that is a strange definition of “liberal”. She increased the power of nobles and landowners at the expense of the serfs, who were little more than slaves who worked the land but had no rights to it.

She did not re-marry, but instead took on a succession of lovers. It was said that the young men who attended to her needs had been “market tested” by the ladies of her court in advance, but the promotion to the royal bedchamber cannot have been one to fill the candidates’, hearts with joy, given that she continued to require a succession of young men as she grew older and fatter. Her final lover, aged 22, was taken on when she was 60.

Catherine’s death was not particularly pleasant for those around her, if such things ever are. She suffered a stroke on 5th November while sitting on the toilet and it took six strong men to carry her unconscious body to her bedroom. Even they could not lift her on to her bed, so she had to lie on a mattress on the floor, where she expired late the following day.

Her son Paul insisted that Catherine be accompanied by her late husband at her funeral. Two bodies therefore lay side by side in their coffins during the ceremony at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – the dried-up remains of long-dead Tsar Peter and the massive corpse of Catherine the Great. It must have been a bizarre and somewhat nauseating event.

© John Welford

Cnut, England's first Danish king

On 6th January 1017 England entered a period of Danish rule when Cnut (otherwise spelled Canute) was crowned King in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. He was to reign until 1035 and in the meantime also became King of Denmark in 1019 and of Norway in 1028, thus making England part of a North Sea empire.

The reign of King Cnut

Life during Cnut’s reign was not easy, as he was a stern ruler who countered any opposition with extreme ruthlessness. He also enforced his laws strictly and punishments for misdemeanours were severe. For example, an adulterous wife would have her nose and ears cut off; presumably adulterous men were treated very differently!

That said, Cnut was also scrupulously fair and hated injustice. He recognised talent where he saw it and gradually eased out his Danish ministers in favour of English ones.

Cnut versus the sea

The story that is always told about Cnut is that he commanded the sea to turn back but got his feet wet. The story is largely true, but the point of it is often missed. It was not that Cnut thought himself to be almighty – rather the opposite, because he was seeking to show that he was not.

Cnut had a palace at Bosham, a small village on an inlet of Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. Visitors today will note that the inlet is completely dry at low tide and it is possible to drive or walk from one side to the other. However, when the tide comes in it does so very quickly and it is easy to get caught by it or find that you were unwise in your choice of parking place!

Cnut knew this very well (apart from the bit about car parking, that is), and so when some of his courtiers started saying silly things along the lines of how powerful he was and that even the wind and waves would obey him, he ordered that he be carried on his throne down to the shore just as the tide was coming in at its usual speed.

The words he used were: “Ocean! The land where I sit is mine, and you are part of my dominion. Therefore rise not – obey my command and do not dare to wet the edge of my robe”. Needless to say the inevitable happened, after which Cnut addressed his courtiers with the words: “Confess now how frivolous and vain is the might of an earthly king compared to that great Power who rules the elements”.

Let’s hope that one of the courtiers had the good sense to have a towel handy!

© John Welford

The death of King Charles II, 1685

The death of King Charles II, on 6th February 1685, was a blessed release for a man who went through all sorts of tortures at the hands of what passed for the medical profession at the time.

King Charles II

Charles had been a popular king, especially after the Puritan years of the Cromwell regime when just about every public activity that gave people pleasure was banned. When Charles returned from exile in 1660 the theatres re-opened, music was allowed in public places, and people once again appreciated that life could be enjoyed as well as endured.

Charles was a fit and active man who participated in many sports including hunting, tennis, sailing and rowing. He took a daily walk, often quite a long one, and continued the practice until the day he fell ill, despite suffering from gout and a running sore on his leg.

However, he seemed to get plenty of private exercise as well, being credited with at least fourteen bastards by several mistresses, these including the delightful Nell Gwyn. Despite this track record he was never able to father a legitimate heir although, as Samuel Pepys noted, he never spent a night away from the Queen. She must have been relieved that Charles did not have the same attitude as Henry VIII when it came to queens who could not produce heirs.

A painful and protracted death

Charles, who was aged 54, first felt unwell on Sunday 1st February and the following day he collapsed with symptoms that suggest a stroke, such as slurred speech, but accompanied by convulsions and fever.

He was then assailed by a phalanx of doctors, each of whom believed that they had the answer and was given the opportunity to show that they did not. Over a period of four days Charles was subjected to 58 different treatments administered by 14 doctors.

As well as bleeding, including from the jugular vein, he was given purgatives, emetics and enemas, had his head and feet branded with hot irons, and made to drink a spirit distilled from the bones of someone who had died a violent death. If these treatments were applied to someone today it might be thought that they were being tortured rather than being given medical care! It appears that nobody suggested “bed rest” as an appropriate treatment for a sick man.

Charles had been notably non-committal on religious matters, and permitted considerable tolerance to his people as to the variety of Christianity they wished to follow. However, his brother James, who succeeded Charles as King James II, was anything but tolerant and, although only a convert to Catholicism, was utterly convinced that England must return to the Catholic fold. As Charles lay dying, James smuggled a Catholic priest into the royal bedchamber so that Charles would receive the last rites and die as a Catholic. It is unlikely that Charles had much idea of what was going on.

On the morning of Friday 6th February Charles woke and asked to have the curtains opened. However, these were among the last words he spoke because he soon lost the power of speech then slipped into a coma. He died at around noon.

It has never been established with certainty what it was that killed King Charles II. As noted above, some of the symptoms suggest a stroke, although kidney failure is also a strong contender. There have been conspiracy theories suggesting that he was poisoned, but those four days of weird and wonderful quasi-medical treatments cannot have helped.

Incidentally, 6th February was also the day in 1952 when King George VI died of lung cancer and the current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, who was on a visit to Kenya at the time, came to the throne.

© John Welford

Mrs Quantrill waves a flag, 1862

On 6th September 1862 a symbolic act was carried out in a town in Maryland that, much hyped, led to a famous poem.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E Lee, had had a notable victory at the second Battle of Bull Run. Lee had a notion that, if he took his army on a sweep through Maryland and on into Pennsylvania, he would bring many local people on to his side. He believed that the people of Maryland, which was a Union state, were secret admirers of the Confederacy who would support his army with generous donations from the harvest they were now gathering, and their men of fighting age would rally to his cause.

The incident in Frederick, Maryland, was proof that Lee had miscalculated. It was not much, in that Mrs Quantrill and her daughter simply stood outside their house and waved a union flag at the troops as they marched past, but it was a demonstration that the support Lee had counted on did not exist. Instead of farmers showering the army with gifts of freshly harvested corn, they left the fields unharvested and drove their cattle to safety so that Lee’s men could not seize them. There was no hospitality from the locals for the Army of Northern Virginia, which actually lost some 15,000 men (out of an original 55,000) due to desertion as they marched through Maryland.

However, a good poet cannot let a story get away if there is patriotic sentiment to be wrung out of it. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) transferred the actions of Mrs Quantrill into those of 95-year-old Barbara Frietchie who, according the Whittier, brandished the flag with the words: “Shoot if you must this old grey head, but spare your country’s flag”. Whittier’s poem “Barbara Frietchie” was written in 1864 and became an instant hit.

Although Whittier did somewhat twist the facts to suit his cause – there was a real Barbara Frietchie but her house was on a different street to that which the troops marched down – it was the symbolism of the gesture that mattered and which caught the public’s imagination.

As it happened, Lee’s bedraggled and weakened army never made it out of Maryland and into Pennsylvania. They were halted by a much larger Union force at Sharpsburg and forced to retire to Virginia.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The rise and fall of Marshall Ney

On 6th December 1815 Marshal Michel Ney was executed by firing squad in the courtyard of the Palais Luxembourg, Paris. He refused to wear a blindfold and gave the order in person for the soldiers to shoot.

The rise of Marshall Ney

Michel Ney, born in 1769, had been a provincial civil servant of lowly origins until he decided to join the army, through which he made rapid promotion during the French Revolutionary Wars, displaying considerable personal bravery at a number of major engagements. Indeed, Napoleon Bonaparte was to call him “the bravest of the brave”.

Ney received his marshal’s baton in 1804 and was a loyal general to Napoleon. He commanded the rearguard during the 1812 retreat from Moscow and was popularly regarded as the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil.

However, it was Ney who led the “revolt of the Marshals” in 1814 when it became clear that Napoleon’s reign was over. Ney demanded that Napoleon should abdicate, which he did.

Marshal Ney’s reward was to be given promotion by the incoming restored king, Louis XVIII, who clearly recognised Ney’s genius as a general, despite his previous loyalty to Napoleon. When Napoleon escaped from his exile on Elba and began his march towards Paris, Ney set off with a force to counter the threat.

The fall of Marshall Ney

However, when Ney met Napoleon at Auxerre he switched sides again and supported Napoleon’s return to power.

Ney was an important commander at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815, although he made a fatal mistake in not ordering captured cannon to be “spiked” so that they could not be used if recaptured, which is in fact what happened.

Ney was subsequently arrested and tried by the victorious royalists for the offence of treason, and his execution swiftly followed the guilty verdict.

However, there is a twist to the story because rumours circulated that the troops of the firing squad only fired blanks and Marshal Ney faked his death and escaped to the United States, where he worked for many years as a schoolmaster named Peter Stuart Ney. As with all conspiracy theories, this one must be taken with a large dose of salt!

© John Welford

Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel’s early years

Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the modern Conservative Party, was born on 5th February 1788 at Bury in Lancashire but grew up at Drayton Manor near Tamworth in Staffordshire. This is known today as the site of a popular theme park, although the original house no longer exists. The estate was bought by Robert Peel’s father who had made a fortune in the textiles industry and used his money to buy his way into the social and political establishment.

Robert Peel benefitted from his father’s endeavours in several ways, not only inheriting his baronetcy in 1830 (hence the title Sir Robert Peel) but gaining an expensive education and his first seat in Parliament via a “pocket” Irish borough.

However, although his career was launched by family money and influence, Peel was undoubtedly a brilliant man (he gained a “double first” at Oxford) and a natural Parliamentarian.

He became Home Secretary in 1822 at the age of 34 and made a number of important and lasting reforms. These included reducing the number of offences that carried the death penalty and instituting a properly regulated police force for London. This latter initiative, which became the pattern for policing in many parts of the world as well as the whole of Great Britain, led to policemen becoming known as “bobbies” or “peelers” in his honour.

The Tamworth Manifesto

It was in 1834, in his “Tamworth Manifesto” that Peel laid down the general principles that underlie modern Conservatism. In effect, these liberalised the hard-line approach of the old Tory party that was based on aristocratic rule funded by “old money”. Peel represented a new class, namely that of people who had achieved success by their own efforts – albeit one generation removed in Peel’s own case. The basic tenet of the new Conservatism would be that change would be embraced when it was the best thing to do, but would not be undertaken merely for the sake of so doing.

Prime Minister

Peel became Prime Minister of a minority administration in 1835, but it did last long due to the opposition parties ganging up to defeat most of his proposed measures.

Peel’s main stint as Prime Minister began in 1841 and lasted until 1846. The outstanding success of this government was the Factory Act of 1844 which, among other things, restricted the hours that children could be made to work in factories. The idea that children as young as nine could still be forced to do dangerous work in cotton mills for nine hours a day might strike us today as barbaric, but it was a distinct improvement on what had gone before.

However, it was the repeal of the Corn Laws that showed Peel at his most courageous, because he knew that repeal was essential but would put his own political future in jeopardy. The Corn Laws were import tariffs that kept the price of imported corn artificially high and caused real distress to ordinary people who could not afford to buy enough bread to prevent hunger. This was especially true of Britain’s Irish subjects who had suffered the devastation of potato blight in the 1840s.

Peel eventually got the repeal through Parliament, but at the expense of splitting his party, which divided between “old Tory” and “new Conservative”, the latter being generally known at the time as “Peelites”.  Peel was forced to resign as Prime Minister in June 1846.

Sir Robert Peel died in June 1850 at the age of 62, following a fall from his horse in central London. He is remembered as one of the great peacetime Prime Ministers and also as one of the most influential.

© John Welford

Monday, 21 December 2015

The death of Saladin, 1193

The Saracen leader and general Saladin died on 4th March 1193. He is renowned as being the leader who opposed England’s King Richard the Lionheart during the latter’s campaign to capture Jerusalem during the 3rd Crusade.

Indeed, it was because Saladin had defeated the Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 that Richard was persuaded to “take the Cross” and become a Crusader.

Despite many encounters between the armies of the two leaders, neither was able to get the better of the other, although Richard eventually saw that he was never going to succeed in his quest and withdrew in October 1192.

Saladin was renowned for being an honourable general who never resorted to “dirty tricks”. He even sent Richard and his captains gifts of wine and fruit to ease their life when encamped during a siege. On one occasion Richard’s horse was killed underneath him and the king could easily have been finished off by Saladin’s troops. However, Saladin gave orders that a fresh horse should be sent to Richard so that he could continue the battle.

By an odd coincidence, Saladin came from the city of Tikrit, which was also the birthplace of a much later Arab leader, Saddam Hussein. However, the gulf between the characters of these two men was about as wide as could be imagined.

As he lay dying, from a fever at the age of 55, he gave instructions that his funeral shroud should be shown to the people as a statement that, despite all his conquests, this was all that he would be taking with him.

© John Welford

James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender

On 4th February 1716 James Francis Edward Stuart abandoned his attempt to seize the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland from the Hanoverian King George I. He is less well-known than his son (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) although history knows them as the Old Pretender and Young Pretender, respectively.

The Two Pretenders

The 1716 event was the second abortive mission by James Francis Edward Stuart to restore the Stuart line, but it would be another thirty years or so before his son, Charles Edward Stuart, would try again (and also fail) on his behalf.

“Bonnie Prince Charlie” is better known than his father, partly because he posed a much greater threat to the Hanoverian establishment but also because of the stories that have grown up around the “Young Chevalier” and songs such as the “Skye Boat Song” that tell of his adventures. By contrast, the story of the Old Pretender is not often told. One very good reason for this is that there is not much to tell!

The Stuart succession

James Edward Stuart was only six months old when his father, King James II, was forced into exile in France during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The throne was offered by Parliament to James’s daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, although the rules of succession should have preferred James Edward, as he was his father’s only male heir.

However, the big difference was that Mary and her sister Anne (who would later rule as Queen Anne) were the daughters of James II’s Protestant wife Anne Hyde, but James Edward’s mother was Mary of Modena, a staunch Catholic who became King James’s second wife after the death of Anne Hyde. It was James Edward’s Catholic religion that barred him from the throne, even after the deaths of both his half-sisters, neither of whom produced heirs.

James Edward’s bids for the throne

James Edward’s first attempt to invade Britain was in 1708 when he sailed from France to the Firth of Forth, but he never even made it to shore because his flotilla was intercepted by a British fleet and the French admiral, much to James’s disgust, preferred to head back to France rather than risk a naval battle.

James did slightly better the second time around, in that he did at least manage to set foot in Scotland. He landed at Peterhead (near Aberdeen) on 22nd December 1715 in the hope of rallying the whole of Scotland to his cause and leading a mighty army to sweep south and send King George fleeing back to Hanover much as his own father had been forced into exile 27 years previously.

However, he must have been sadly disappointed when it became clear to him that the expected support simply was not there. The Scots were more interested in getting on with their lives and settling their own more local disputes than risking all by joining a rebellion. James Edward, despite being a perfectly respectable man, was no rabble-rouser or leader of men and had no military experience worth speaking of. The revolution was stymied before it even began.

After 44 days of getting nowhere, James Edward got back on board his ship and headed back to France. The rest of his life was a somewhat sad one, lived entirely in exile (mostly in Rome after the French royals got tired of having him around) but also in a fantasy world in which he was a king who deserved all the respect due to one of royal birth. He died on 1st January 1766 at the age of 77, having “reigned” for more than 64 years.

© John Welford