Thursday, 22 December 2016

Frances Howard, a 17th-century murderer

Frances Howard was a 17th century murderer who was lucky to escape the ultimate penalty for her crime but who caused other people to lose their lives on her behalf.


Frances Howard was born on 31st May 1590, the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard and therefore a member of a highly-respected aristocratic family. Famous Howards included Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, who had commanded the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, and Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

Frances was married at the age of 14, her husband being Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was then aged 13. However, due to their youth they were not allowed to live together as husband and wife. Robert was sent off to complete his education, followed by various missions abroad.

Frances was therefore left alone in her aristocratic world to ensnare whoever she wanted as a potential replacement for the role of bedmate. Her eye fell on Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, who had been part of the Scottish coterie of aristocrats who had accompanied King James when he added the throne of England to that of Scotland in 1603.


Rochester was not averse to forming a liaison, but he was wary of offending King James, who had Robert Devereux’s best interests at heart, and he was also not a skilled letter writer. He therefore asked his friend Thomas Overbury to act as his secretary in writing love letters to Frances.

All went well until Devereux returned from Europe with every expectation of enjoying married life with Frances, who was then aged 18. However, she was far more interested in Lord Rochester and refused to yield to her husband’s nightly entreaties.

Frances now had two objectives, namely to depress her husband’s desire for her while at the same time increasing that of Lord Rochester. She therefore employed the services of Mrs Anne Turner, who was known to be able to provide various potions and powders and who worked alongside a somewhat sinister gentleman named Dr Simon Forman.

Mrs Turner duly supplied Frances with what she needed, but the “anti-lust” potion for Robert Devereux did not seem to have much effect. Frances then decided on a different tactic – she wanted to be a widow rather than a wife. However, although the wish was strong, the poisons were never strong enough.

Meanwhile, Frances was worried about Rochester, who was clearly the darling of the Court and surrounded by beautiful women. Rochester made a very good show of not showing affection for Frances, a married woman, because to do so might jeopardise his position. Frances underwent various black magic ceremonies, orchestrated by Dr Forman, to force Rochester to be more forthcoming.

Frances must have believed that the magic was working , because Rochester became infatuated with her. The couple had to keep their affair secret and met at Mrs Turner’s lodgings and a house that Frances bought specially for this purpose. Their secret was known to only one other person, namely Thomas Overbury.

Overbury was unhappy with the relationship, as he believed that it would ultimately destroy his friend, and he told him so. He also started to drop hints at Court that Frances Howard was an adulteress. When Frances got wind of this she realised that Overbury presented a real danger to her and had to be silenced.


Her opportunity came when Overbury was ordered by King James to become his Ambassador to the Low Countries. Overbury refused – being anxious not to allow Frances a free hand with Rochester – and this was interpreted as a matter of “high contempt” by the King. Overbury was duly sent to the Tower of London.

This could not have worked out better for Frances. She now employed a man named Robert Weston who got himself a position in the Tower as Overbury’s personal assistant and the man who handed him his food. Slipping him doses of poison was therefore going to be easy.

Or it would have been if Weston had not been caught in the act by Sir Gervase Elwes, the Lieutenant of the Tower. Sir Gervase now had a problem, because he knew that Weston was trying to smuggle poisoned food through to his prisoner but did not know on whose orders. For all he knew, the attempt to kill Overbury might have been initiated by King James himself. Elwes therefore stayed silent, but did not allow any more poison to reach Thomas Overbury.

Frances came to realise that her plan was not working, so she removed Weston from the scene and tried a different tactic. This was to contact William Reeve, who was an assistant to the Tower’s physician. She paid him to steal a quantity of mercury sublimate from the prison’s dispensary and administer it to Overbury as a medicine. It did not take long for him to die.

For Frances, everything now seemed perfect. Overbury was dead and she was able to obtain a divorce from Robert Devereux and marry Lord Rochester, who had no idea that his wife had murdered his former best friend.


But married bliss did not last long. Frances’s problem was that too many people knew about her activities, mainly because they had been bit-players in her schemes and were therefore able to call upon her to buy their silence. Frances gained little pleasure from the marriage she had schemed so hard to bring about, having instead a constant fear of being found out.

The first crack in the wall came courtesy of William Reeve, whose hands had actually killed Thomas Overbury. Two years after Frances had married Rochester, Reeve fell dangerously ill and decided to tell what he knew in the hope of saving his soul from perdition. Before long King James was told and the house of cards tumbled around Frances’s ears.

Both Frances and Rochester were sentenced to death, as was nearly everybody who had played a part in the Overbury murder. Those sentences were carried out as far as Anne Turner, Robert Weston and Sir Gervase Elwes were concerned, but Frances and Rochester were able to escape the hangman’s noose by virtue of royal pardons. In Frances’s case, this was in recognition of the high service that her family and ancestors had given to the Crown.

They were also able to escape incarceration in the Tower of London, because the King allowed them to stay at the Oxfordshire home of Lord Wallingford, who was Frances’s brother-in-law. The sentence was therefore commuted to house arrest for life. Rochester now had nothing but utter loathing for his wife, who had caused his downfall despite him being completely innocent of any wrongdoing concerning the murder.

Frances died in August 1632, aged 42, from what was described as a “terrible wasting disease”. One just wonders if this was not another way of saying that her husband was eventually able to do to her what she had done to Thomas Overbury, namely cause her death by ingesting poison. It would have been a fitting end to the story.

© John Welford

Monday, 19 December 2016

George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury

George Abbot was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633, during the reigns of King James I and King Charles I.

He was born in Guildford, Surrey, the son of a cloth worker. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and became a fellow in 1583. He became the master of University College in 1597, dean of Winchester in 1600 and was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University three times between 1600 and 1605.

He was appointed to the bishopric of Lichfield in 1609 and London in 1610 before gaining the see of Canterbury in 1611. A noted scholar, he worked on translating the New Testament section of the King James Bible which was published in 1611.

As Archbishop, he performed the consecration of King Charles I but did not always see eye-to-eye with the new monarch, at one time being deprived of his position but later reinstated.

George Abbot has the dubious honour of being the only Archbishop of Canterbury to have killed someone, although this was an accidental crossbow shooting during a deer hunt.

© John Welford

Friday, 16 December 2016

Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher (1539-94) was an adventurer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who made a name for himself both as an explorer and a military commander.

He came from a wealthy background but preferred a career at sea rather than that of a businessman. At the age of 14 he joined an expedition to West Africa but was soon involved in what must be regarded as piracy.

He became obsessed by the notion that there was a “quick” route to the Far East by sailing to the north of North America - the famed “Northwest Passage”. After several years of fundraising, Frobisher set off in 1576 and got as far as Baffin Island. He returned to England having collected some samples of local rock that were suggestive of gold ore, although the evidence was slight.

Even so, the possibility that there was gold to be found in the far north was enough to allow Frobisher to raise the funds for a much larger expedition, which set sail in 1577. He brought back 200 tons of the supposed gold ore, and the Queen was also interested in the possibility of extending her realm to the new – supposedly rich – lands that Frobisher had discovered.

In 1578 Martin Frobisher set off on a third expedition, this time with the intention of establishing a colony on Baffin Island. However, this came to nothing, and so did the intended gold-exporting business when it was proved beyond doubt that all he had discovered was a vein of iron pyrites, or “fool’s gold”.

Martin Frobisher now turned his attention to aiding Francis Drake in the latter’s state-sponsored harassment of Spanish ships and ports. In 1588 he served under Lord Howard as the commander of one of the four naval divisions that defeated the Spanish Armada. It was for this service that he received his knighthood.

After a short time managing his estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire he found the call of the sea and adventure to be too strong and in 1592 he joined Sir Walter Raleigh in a military expedition to the Azores. In 1594 he led a squadron of ships that took part in the Siege of Morlais during the French “War of The Three Henrys”. However, during the siege of Brest, shortly afterwards, he received a gunshot wound from which he died after his return to England.

Sir Martin Frobisher has a deserved place on the list of “sea dogs” who did much to make the reign of Queen Elizabethan I a golden age for England.

© John Welford

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Thomas Hooker

Thomas Hooker was an important figure in the history of colonial America, and not just in Hartford, Connecticut, the city with which he is most closely connected. It is therefore surprising that a school building in a village close to where I live should bear a plaque that declares that the “Reputed Father of American Democracy” was once a pupil there.

Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire, gave its name to the battle in which King Richard III lost his life in 1485, but it was also the seat of the Dixie Family. The Grammar School was founded in 1601 under the will of Sir Wolstan Dixie, and is still running to this day.

Thomas Hooker as a Puritan Clergyman

Thomas Hooker was born in 1586 at Markfield, some ten miles from Market Bosworth.  He was the son of a farmer and would have been one of the first pupils of the new Dixie school, from where he proceeded to Cambridge, taking a BA degree in 1608. He was granted a fellowship, endowed by the Dixie family, and remained at Emmanuel College until 1618.

Emmanuel was a distinctly Puritan college, and Thomas Hooker became a clergyman with a very Puritan outlook, meaning that he believed more in personal spiritual growth than adherence to Church dogma.

Hooker became rector of St George’s, Esher, Surrey. In 1621 he married Susannah Garbrand and they soon had two daughters, both of whom were eventually to become the wives of clergymen in America.

As a puritan, Thomas Hooker objected to the marriage of Prince Charles (later to become King Charles I) to a Catholic Spanish princess, and this marked him out as a potential troublemaker. This reputation grew when he moved to Chelmsford in Essex and he preached many sermons in favour of the nonconformist cause, emphasising individual salvation and castigating the established Church for its oppression and its laxity in spiritual matters. His sermons appealed to a wide swathe of the population, being direct and lively and free of classical allusions. A number of them were published.

He opened a school in Essex, where his family grew further with two more children being born who survived to adulthood. However, his puritan, anti-establishment views were becoming known in high places, and he eventually fell foul of the conformist Bishop of London, William Laud. In 1630 he was summoned to the Bishop’s court but chose to go into hiding, and then exile, rather than fight a case that he knew he could not win.

Thomas Hooker’s Escape to America

In June 1631 Thomas Hooker escaped to the Netherlands, returning only in 1633 to collect his family and take ship for Boston, which they reached on 4th September.

Hooker became the pastor of a church at Newtown (which is now Cambridge, MA), where he found a number of former friends from Essex who had preceded him to the colony. He stayed at Newtown until May 1636, when the decision was made to move further south and west, mainly because of the need to find better grazing land.

The place chosen for the new settlement was known by the natives as Suckiaug, on the banks of the Connecticut River, but was renamed Hartford after the English town of Hertford.

Can Thomas Hooker’s Reputation be Justified?

Thomas Hooker’s reputation as the “Father of American Democracy” comes from his activity during the formation of a colonial confederation of Connecticut towns in 1638. He preached a sermon in which he reminded the citizens that the authority of the leaders of the people depended on the consent of the people to be governed by those leaders. He merely extended to civil society the principle that pertained to church governance within the nonconformist tradition.

The resulting document became known as the “Fundamental Orders” (adopted in January 1639), which set out the conditions under which the Connecticut colony would be run as an entity distinct from that of Massachusetts Bay. It was what might be termed a “proto-Constitution”, in that it contained elements that were to be repeated in later constitutions, and eventually found their way into the Constitution of the United States.

In particular, the Fundamental Orders established the principle of magistrates being elected by secret ballot. It stressed the rights of the individual and set limits on the power of government. The Connecticut colony differed from Massachusetts in that non-members of the church were eligible to stand for office, thus enshrining the principle of the separation of church and state.

The claim that this was the world’s first written constitution was accepted for many years, although modern historians dispute this. It has however led to Connecticut becoming known as the “Constitution State”. Thomas Hooker’s role in this development would seem to have been elevated beyond its rightful place, and to call him the “Father of American Democracy” is somewhat exaggerated. All he did, in reality, was to point out how an Independent church managed its affairs, with the implication that a civic community could do the same.

Thomas Hooker’s role was not in government but in the church. He continued to lead his church in Hartford for the rest of his life, which ended on 7th July 1647. The link between the wall of a school in a Leicestershire market town and the American Constitution is a fascinating one, although the word “reputed” on Thomas Hooker’s blue plaque should not be ignored.

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Edward The Black Prince

Edward the Black Prince should have become King of England but died before his father (King Edward III), so the throne passed to his less worthy son, Richard II. Edward represents many people’s idea of a knight from the period when chivalry was at its height. Indeed, Chaucer’s “perfect gentle knight”, from the Canterbury Tales, written not long after Edward’s death, could have been a nostalgic (and doubtless sanitised) portrait of the Black Prince.

Prince Edward

Edward’s life, from 1330 to 1376, fell at the start of the period of English history known as the “Hundred Years War”. This was a series of conflicts between England and France that were fought over the right to rule large areas of territory in France that had formerly belonged to William I and Henry II. Edward III also had a claim to the throne of France. The War alternated between campaigns waged by English kings (from Edward III to Henry VI) and periods of truce.

Prince Edward was born on 15th June 1330 at the royal palace of Woodstock, being the first child born to the young King Edward III and Queen Philippa. When only six he was declared Duke of Cornwall, a title that brought him considerable wealth, as it does for the eldest son of the monarch down to the present day.

Edward’s military career

From 1340 onwards he took an active part in public life, being “guardian of England” (despite his youth) while his father was out of the country for much of the period up to 1346, but his first military experience came when he joined his father on the campaign in 1346-7 that included the Battle of Crecy.

Edward was knighted by his father and put in command of a division that played a major part in the victory at Crecy. Edward was in mortal danger at times during the battle but displayed great courage. In honour of the defeated and killed King of Bohemia, Edward adopted the latter’s device of an ostrich feather, which still forms part of the coat of arms of Princes of Wales.

Back in England in 1348, Edward created the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order that survives to this day. The order was designed to create a close bond between the knights who fought at Crecy and who would doubtless be called on again to serve the king. Team spirit was also fostered by a series of tournaments, featuring “war games” such as jousting, on which Edward spent lavishly.

Edward and his father were again called upon to fight in 1350, when they fought a sea battle in the English Channel, but the truce with France lasted until 1355, the interim being spent by Edward in running his various estates in England. It would appear that he could be somewhat heavy-handed in the administration of his lands, and petitions were presented to the king to appeal against the oppressive governance that he exerted.

Following growing hostile activity by the new French King, Jean, Edward landed at Bordeaux in September 1355 and put together an army that set off into the lands that were in dispute between the English and French crowns. Edward’s aim was to raid and pillage French territory with the hope of bringing the French regent, Jean d'Armagnac, to battle. However, d’Armagnac refused to be drawn from his citadel at Toulouse, and Edward eventually returned to Bordeaux, where he spent the winter.

During much of 1356 the English and French armies kept each other at arms’ length, but battle was eventually joined on 19th September at Poitiers in west central France. Despite being greatly outnumbered, English tactics and quick thinking won the day, with massive casualties on the French side. The great bonus from Edward’s perspective was the capture of the French king, who was then taken back to England to be held for ransom.

A three-year peace treaty was eventually agreed, although another military campaign was needed before the French King’s ransom was eventually paid. However, the original amount was greatly reduced, in exchange for Edward being recognised as virtual King of Aquitaine (the region of south-west France to which England had always laid claim).


Edward had had little time in his busy life to consider marriage (although he had fathered a number of illegitimate children), but now he was able to do so, his bride being Joan, Countess of Kent. Unusually for the time, this was a partnership of mutual attraction with no dynastic element being involved. Joan was a young widow, although a certain amount of scandal attached to her as it appeared that she had been married bigamously. Joan was also a first cousin of Edward, so papal dispensation was needed before the marriage could take place.

The marriage was a happy one, spent mostly in Aquitaine where their two sons were born. Young Prince Edward died at the age of six but Richard survived, becoming King Richard II at the age of ten.

Edward and Joan arrived in their new kingdom in June 1363. Edward was clearly a better soldier than administrator, and his efforts to raise revenue from his new territory led to resentment. He was not skilled in winning people over. His autocratic manner made him far more enemies than allies.

Another campaign

A further opportunity for military action came in 1366, when Pedro of Castile (northern Spain) appealed to Edward for help in regaining his throne after he had been usurped by his half-brother Enrique da Trastamara, with French support. Edward was at first reluctant to help, but early in 1367 he set off across the Pyrenees.

One difficulty to be overcome was the fact that the Kingdom of Navarre lay between Aquitaine and Castile, and Charles of Navarre levied a large fee for the passage of Edward’s army. In return, Edward demanded from Pedro control of the coastal region of Castile.

Edward eventually met the Castilians, under Trastamara, in battle at Najera on 3rd April 1367, and achieved a victory. Pedro was restored, but was unable to pay Edward the agreed fee for the campaign. Edward remained in Castile until August, waiting for payment, but it eventually became clear that Pedro was in no position to pay. Edward therefore left and returned to Bordeaux. Pedro was murdered by his half-brother two years later.

Edward had fallen ill while in Castile, possibly with malaria or dysentery. On his return he faced dissent from a number of local lords, encouraged by the French king, and his inability to pay for the services of the lords who had accompanied him to Castile also caused resentment. Edward’s only recourse was to raise taxes, which naturally increased his unpopularity.

The French were now emboldened to encroach on the territory of Aquitaine, with several cities changing their allegiance, and Edward was forced back into the field to defend his borders. The city of Limoges, which had been taken back into French hands, was recaptured and sacked after a siege of five days’ duration, in the summer of 1370. Despite this action, no other city was inspired to return to English control.

His final years and legacy

Edward was now too ill to be an effective commander in the field, and in January 1371 he returned to England for the last time. During the remaining years of his life he played little part in the affairs of state, rarely travelling more than 50 miles from London. He attended the opening of Parliament in April 1376 but that was his last public appearance. He died on 8th June 1376, a week short of his 46th birthday, and was buried at Canterbury. He therefore failed to become King of England by one year.

The name “The Black Prince” was a Tudor invention, but it has stuck. It is not clear why it was given; it could possibly have been a reference to the colour of his armour, or even his temper.

As a heroic figure of distant English history, Edward the Black Prince will always be part of the romance of a chivalric past, especially as his legacy survives in the Order of the Garter. As one of a long list of great English and British military commanders, he deserves his place in history. However, how successful he might have been as a peace-time monarch must remain in doubt.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Nurse Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a nurse who was executed by the Germans during World War I. Her death did much to excite anti-German feelings in Great Britain and make the British more determined to win the War.

A notable statue

This statue stands in St Martin’s Place in central London, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery and facing towards Trafalgar Square. It is therefore seen by thousands of people every day, many of whom may not know the story behind it.

The woman portrayed is Edith Cavell, a nurse who died during the First World War, shot by a German firing squad. The wording on the statue gives the details of her death: “Brussels Dawn October 12th 1915” but not her birth, which was in 1865. Below this is a quotation of words she spoke shortly before her execution: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.

Behind the statue is a high stone plinth, twice the height of the statue, with the words “For King and Country” at the top and four words around the sides of the plinth: Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion and Sacrifice.

The statue, by Sir George Frampton, was erected in 1920 and unveiled by Queen Alexandra. The quotation mentioned above was added in 1924.

Edith Cavell

So who was Edith Cavell? She was a London-trained nurse who established a clinic and nursing school in Brussels, Belgium, in 1910. On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 she had been in England but returned to Brussels to continue her work there. Belgium was quickly overrun by the German army and Nurse Cavell was kept very busy treating wounded soldiers of several nationalities, including Germans.

She became involved in a scheme to smuggle British and French soldiers out of Belgium to neutral Holland, from where they could be repatriated rather than taken prisoner. She allowed her house to be part of the chain of safe houses through which the scheme was conducted, and for this reason she was arrested by the Germans in August 1915. The total number of British and French prisoners of war, and Belgian civilians, that she helped to escape was probably around 200.

Despite representations made from many quarters, including the still neutral United States, Edith Cavell and another conspirator faced the firing squad. She died instantly from four bullet wounds. Her body was initially buried in Brussels but was later (after the end of the war) repatriated to Britain where she was finally laid to rest in Norwich Cathedral, not far from her home village.

A spy or a traitor?

It is sometimes implied that Edith Cavell was executed for espionage, but this is not so. Her activities counted as treason according to the German military law that now applied to Belgium, and the law made no distinction between German nationals and those of other countries who happened to be living in German-occupied territories.

Whether or not Germany was legally justified in executing Edith Cavell, and the facts do seem to point in that direction, doing so was probably unwise because the event became something of a recruitment poster in Great Britain at a time before conscription was introduced. Much play was made of the fact that Edith Cavell’s actions had been entirely humanitarian and that she made no distinction between nationalities when it came to treating wounded soldiers.

On the other hand, Germany could be painted in the British press as a source of evil and a regime that condemned women to death, which was something that Britain never did during World War I, whatever the circumstances. Not much was needed to cast Germany in the role of monster, and to persuade young men to join the army to prevent more such horrors taking place, but the death of Edith Cavell was one such happening.

The impressive statue will continue to remind passers-by of the brave and remarkable woman who displayed those qualities of humanity, fortitude, devotion and sacrifice in equal measure.

© John Welford

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Do meet my husband - he's in this bag

Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in 1618. His widow had an extraordinary way of grieving for her loss.

The demise of Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), explorer, poet, and much else besides, was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I but was loathed by her successor, King James I, who came to the throne in 1603. Raleigh, who was the governor of Jersey at the time of James’s accession, was soon implicated in a plot against James, the charge being that he had handled a large sum of money raised by the plotters.

Whatever the right and wrongs of the case, the accusation was enough to send Raleigh to the Tower of London. He was sentenced to death, on highly dubious evidence and after a poorly conducted trial, but James commuted the sentence, preferring to let Raleigh rot in jail instead, which he did for the next thirteen years.

In 1616 Raleigh was released from the Tower and sent on a mission to find the fabled city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” which was supposed to exist in the forests of South America. Raleigh had searched for it during a much earlier expedition, not surprisingly without success given its non-existence. James, however, was a greedy man who was not prepared to overlook an opportunity to seize a vast amount of treasure, but he also knew that sending Raleigh was his best hope of success.

Raleigh was no longer a swashbuckling youth but an old man (for those times) in his sixties. He no doubt relished the prospect of freedom from the Tower, but did not much care for the idea of hacking his way through a tropical jungle on a wild-goose chase. He therefore stopped off on the island of Trinidad and sent his men on ahead, including his son Wat. They were under strict orders not to do anything to annoy the Spanish.

However, the orders were not obeyed and, in an attack on the fort of San Thome, Wat was killed.

The expedition then returned to London, not only without any gold but with the Spanish ambassador being extremely annoyed and demanding that Raleigh be punished.

King James did not take much persuading to re-instate Raleigh’s original death sentence, by beheading, which was duly carried out on 29th October 1618.

Bess Raleigh’s red velvet bag

As was customary with beheadings at this time, Raleigh’s body was buried but his head was embalmed and presented to his wife, Bess. This might sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it did not seem to displease her. At least she had something of her husband to remember him by.

Bess found a red velvet bag, popped Sir Walter’s head in it, and carried it with her wherever she went. When people came to visit she would get the head out of the bag to show her visitors. She did this for the next thirty years or so, until her own death in 1647.

When her surviving son acquired the head he also kept it, and it was not buried until his own death in 1668, half a century after it last been attached to the rest of Sir Walter.

We English are renowned for being eccentric in our habits, but sometimes we go just a little bit too far.

© John Welford

Thursday, 27 October 2016

King Charles VII of France

Charles VII (1403-61) was the French king who could have saved Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake but refused to do so.

Charles VII of France

The story of Joan of Arc is a well-known one.  She was a young peasant girl who became convinced that she could turn the tide of the war against the English to ensure that Charles would be crowned king. She claimed to have had visions that made it clear that God was on the side of France and would ensure that the English would be expelled.

Charles took some convincing, but Joan’s insistence gave him the courage that he lacked. He lent her an army of 3,500 men and sent her to lift the siege of Orleans, which she did. She then proceeded to win a series of victories that opened the way to Rheims, which was the traditional coronation site for French kings.

Charles was duly crowned in Rheims Cathedral on 17th July 1429, with Joan standing at his side.

One might have thought that Charles would have done everything he could to show his gratitude to Joan, but this did not turn out to be the case. When the Duke of Burgundy, who was Charles’s arch-enemy and an ally of the English, offered a truce, Charles accepted it as an alternative to continuing the fight that Joan had started. If Joan had visions of sweeping the English out of France, Charles appeared to have stopped believing in those same visions.

Not long afterwards the Burgundians captured Joan and demanded a ransom for her release. Charles made no moves to raise the necessary funds, so Joan was handed over the English who proceeded to put her on trial for witchcraft and heresy, then condemn her to death by burning.

Charles’s weakness in this matter did his reputation no good at all, either at the time or in retrospect. Having used Joan to get what he wanted, namely a crown on his head, she was expendable. It did not look good for a king to be indebted to a peasant girl – at least, that appears to have been his thinking. Charles did, 25 years later, support an appeal to the pope to reconsider the case against Joan and nullify the verdict, but that was far too late for the girl who, at the age of 19, had been reduced to ashes that were then sent floating down the River Seine.

© John Welford

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott

During the 19th century large areas of what is now the Irish Republic were owned by English landlords, many of whom did not live there but employed land agents to administer their estates on their behalf and ensure that tenants paid their rents on time. One such landlord was Lord Erne, who held 12,000 acres in County Mayo and whose agent was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott.

The system of land tenure was such that tenants only held their land on one-year leases and could be evicted even if they paid their rents on time. An eviction might be made because a landowner wanted to amalgamate two or more small farms into one, or if he wished to offer a tenancy to somebody he believed would be able to pay a higher rent.

The Irish Land League had been formed in 1879 to campaign for a fairer system, and ultimately for Irish ownership of the land. In the short term its members demanded lower rents and fixed tenure.

One weapon they had available to them was outlined in a speech by Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Land League. This was designed to apply to a tenant farmer who took over the farm of someone who had been evicted. The action was to shun that person “by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old”. However, the technique was to prove very useful in a somewhat different circumstance.

When harvests were poor it became extremely difficult for tenants to pay their rents, and they were likely to appeal to their landlords for rent reductions. In September 1880 Lord Erne agreed to a 10 per cent reduction for his tenants but this did not satisfy those who were seeking a 25 per cent reduction. When a number of tenants refused to pay unless this concession was made, Lord Erne issued eviction notices, which were served by Captain Boycott.

The action suggested by Parnell then came into play. All Captain Boycott’s estate staff left, so that he had to do all the work himself. Nobody would dig the potato harvest. The shunning became personal in that nobody would talk to him, serve him in the local shops or sit near him in church. In order not to starve he had to have provisions sent directly to him from England.

When news spread about Captain Boycott’s fate there was indignation in England and in the nearby province of Ulster. Fifty men marched to the estate to dig the potatoes and they had to be guarded by 900 soldiers. The Land League was delighted with this action as it showed just how effective their tactic had been if nearly 1,000 men were going to be needed to harvest a crop from a single farm.

Captain Boycott stuck with the task for as long as he could, but eventually he left the country to seek a quieter life in England. Somewhat surprisingly he did not harbour any personal grudges against his former Irish tenants and frequently returned to Ireland to take holiday breaks in later years.

However, his name has lived on in that whenever comparable action is taken against a person or organisation they are always said to have been “boycotted”.

© John Welford

Friday, 21 October 2016

Bishop Foxe's hot dinners

As Bishop of Durham from 1494 to 1501 Richard Foxe held a very important position. For one thing, Durham was a very important and wealthy diocese, and anyone who became Bishop could expect to add considerably to his personal fortune. For another, the medieval Bishops of Durham were “Prince Bishops” who ruled the northern counties of England virtually as monarchs, on condition that they kept the Scots at bay.

However, Bishop Foxe had a problem when it came to formal banquets in the Great Hall of Durham Castle, which was the home of the Prince Bishops. This was that he always got cold dinners.

As Bishop, Foxe had the privilege of being served first. However, as Bishop, he also had the duty of blessing the food before anyone was allowed to start eating it. If the Hall was full, with more than 100 diners to be served, it could take quite some time before everyone had their plate filled and the food could be blessed. The result? Bishop Foxe’s food was cold before he could start eating it!

The solution? Not plate-warmers or anything technical in that sense, but a logical loophole in that the Bishop reckoned that if the food had already been blessed before it reached his plate, he had no need to wait. He therefore had the blessing written above the door through which all the food had to pass on the short journey from the kitchen to the Great Hall.

Merely being passed beneath the blessing was enough, in Bishop Foxe’s opinion, for the food to be sanctified, so as soon as he was served he could tuck in with a clear conscience! 

© John Welford

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Anton van Leeuwenhoek: the father of microbiology

Anton van Leeuwenhoek is often credited as being the inventor of the microscope, but that is not actually the case. It would also be unfair to remember him for that and that alone, because his contributions to microbiology were far more extensive and important.

He was born on 24th October 1632 in Delft, Holland, and had an adequate, although by no means advanced, education. He started in business as a linen draper, and was clearly a success at his trade. He was a contemporary of the painter Vermeer, and may well have been a friend of his. His interests clearly extended well beyond the linen trade, because he learned how to grind glass magnifying lenses, and was exceptionally good at so doing, helped by his acute eyesight. Many of his lenses were extremely small, and were made from glass strings that then formed spherical globules as they cooled.

He made more than 500 simple microscopes in his lifetime, although these used single lenses, as opposed to the double-lens compound microscopes that were already in use at the time. However, what distinguished his instruments was the quality of the lenses, which gave up to 200 times magnification, which was considerably better than that of the compound microscopes then available. It has also been suggested that some of his instruments achieved far better magnifications, possibly as much as 500 times. He also experimented with many different designs of microscope, although only a handful have survived to the present day.

Leeuwenhoek’s real contributions to microbiology came not just from his microscopes but, even more, from the uses to which he put them. He made observations of anything that took his interest, had drawings made of what he saw, and sent details of his observations to the Royal Society in London. His letters, which had to be translated from Dutch into English before the London scientists could understand them, spanned 50 years, from 1673 until his death in 1723 at the remarkable age, for his time, of 90.

He had little understanding of what he was seeing, having had no scientific training, but that was part of his value to science, because his descriptions were made entirely free of assumptions. For example, he observed “an unbelievably great company of living animalcules” in tooth plaque, without appreciating that these were bacteria. Of course, nobody else knew their significance in causing disease either, as he was the first person to observe and describe them.

His other discoveries included algae, blood cells, sperm cells, foraminifera, nematodes and rotifers. He observed blood flow in capillaries and the pattern of muscle fibres. Aside from microbiology, he also examined mineral crystals and fossils.

His discoveries helped to dispel many myths that were then current as explanations of natural phenomena, such as that grain weevils were spontaneously created, and that mussels and other shellfish were produced by sand.

Many of his early discoveries were doubted by the people who read his papers, and a delegation was sent to Delft by the Royal Society to see how van Leeuwenhoek was producing all this material. However, once he was able to demonstrate his methods at first hand, his subsequent work was eagerly awaited, and he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1680, although he never attended a meeting. His lasting contribution to microbiology was therefore the conviction that observation, rather than guesswork and theory, must lie at the heart of science in this field.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

King Alfred and the cakes

Every schoolchild knows the story about how King Alfred burned the cakes he was supposed to be minding and got a severe telling off from a peasant woman who did not know who he was. At least, every British schoolchild used to know this, as it was one of the stories that was ingrained in the British psyche almost from birth, along with King Harold getting an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings and Nelson being kissed by Hardy.

However, as with many “everyone knows” stories, there is every possibility that the truth has been greatly enhanced over the centuries and the actual facts might not be as related.

What cannot be doubted is that England during the late 9th century was a very dangerous place for English leaders in the face of constant raids by Danish invaders. Not only did they appear on the coasts of England every year to take whatever they wanted and destroy what they did not, but they had started to settle in northern and eastern England and established a colony of their own (known to history as the Danelaw). By the year 878 all the English kingdoms, with one exception, had fallen to Danish armies.

The exception was Wessex, the land of the West Saxons in south and west England. However, their king, Alfred, was on the run and under severe pressure. He had been forced, together with a small band of followers, to seek refuge in the area known today as the Somerset Levels, which in those days was a land of bogs and marshes with the occasional piece of higher land protruding as an island.

The cakes story is that Alfred had sought refuge in the home of a peasant woman who set him the task of looking after the baking bread (the loaves became cakes in later retelling) while she got on with other things. However, Alfred was so wrapped up in his worries about how he was to defeat the Danes that he forgot the loaves and they were duly burned. When she gave the king a piece of her mind he could only apologise and be more attentive with the next batch.

The problem with the story is that it only appeared in writing more than a century after it apparently took place, and must be regarded as an illustration of Alfred’s character rather than an actual event. After all, only two people would have known about it at the time – the peasant woman would have had no idea of its significance, as she did not know who her guest was, and Alfred who, had he told the story himself, would have guaranteed that it was written down immediately rather than be handed down by word of mouth for another hundred years.

At all events, Alfred’s retreat to Somerset did seem to give him fresh resolve. In May 878 he led an army that defeated the Danish King Guthrum and forced him to withdraw to the Danelaw.

Alfred then reorganised his kingdom in order to make it less susceptible to future Danish incursions. He established fortified towns known as “burhs” that became “boroughs” in later centuries. He also encouraged the building of a fleet of boats that were similar to the Danish longships, thus laying the foundation of the Royal Navy, and organised his army so that, at any one time, half the men were on active service while the other half were at home on their farms. He also encouraged the growth of education because he hated the thought that his people were wallowing in ignorance.

It is not for nothing that King Alfred has always been known as Alfred the Great, the only British monarch to the given this honour.

© John Welford

Monday, 3 October 2016

Alain Resnais: film director

Alain Resnais was one of the more notable “Left Bank” directors of the French “New Wave” that emerged in the 1950s. He outlived most of his contemporaries and was still producing films in the second decade of the 21st century, having had his first artistic success (the Oscar-winning short film “Van Gogh”) as far back as 1948.

Alain Resnais was born in Vannes, Brittany, on 3rd June 1922, the son of a pharmacist. He was given an 8mm cine camera at the age of ten and began making short films for his own amusement, also being fascinated by the ideas of surrealism.

He wanted to be an actor, but soon joined IDHEC, the Paris-based film school, to learn the basics of film editing. He left without completing a course and started making short films that recorded visits to artists’ studios. This interest developed into biopics, such as the film about Van Gogh mentioned above, and documentaries including “Night and Fog” (1955) which examined the horrors of Nazi concentration camps by incorporating monochrome footage taken when they were in use,  intercut with scenes in colour of the camps as they were in the mid 1950s.

Resnais’ first feature film was “Hiroshima mon amour” that appeared in 1959. He differed from other New Wave filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard by beginning with a detailed and literate script rather than relying on spontaneity and improvisation. Although most of his films were not adaptations of novels, he did employ novelists to write his scripts, and “Hiroshima mon amour” was such an example, the script being by the French novelist Marguerite Dumas.  In the film, a French woman and a Japanese man meet and become lovers, but each is haunted by past horrors that create an emotional gulf between them.

The interplay of past, present and future was a consistent theme in Resnais’ work. This is seen very clearly in “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) in which time and space are intermingled in ways that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Everything one sees is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations.  Even the main characters are only known as letters of the alphabet: X, A and M.

The theme continued in “Muriel” (1963), in which the romantically attached characters are forced to deal with past truths and lies, both romantic and political.  This was his first film shot entirely in colour, although he would return to using monochrome in later films.

“Providence” (1977) was his first film in English, using English actors including John Gielgud in one of his best film acting roles. A dying novelist is haunted by his memories, dreams, and the characters in the novel he is writing.

One of Resnais’s most remarkable creations was “Smoking / No Smoking” (1993), based on a series of plays by Alan Ayckbourn. They are two separate but complementary films that present twelve possible outcomes, these depending on which of the films ones chooses to see first, there being no “right” or “wrong” choice. There are nine characters in the films, but no more than two are ever seen on the screen at the same time. All the male characters are played by the same actor (Pierre Arditi), likewise all the female characters (Sabine Azema). The narrative branches out and doubles back on itself as alternative consequences of possible actions are presented. Along with the complexity is a great deal of humour.

As mentioned above, Resnais produced films throughout his long life, although sometimes with gaps of three or more years between them. His final film (“Life of Riley”, another film based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn) was premiered only three weeks before he died on 1st March 2014.

Alain Resnais’ films are not easy viewing, as they demand a considerable degree of concentration and a willingness to question one’s own preconceptions.  They are tightly structured and formally perfect, and can strike one as cold and intellectual, with philosophy getting in the way of drama. His attempts to portray romance and warm feelings do not always succeed and sometimes lapse into banality.  That said, the viewer is always aware of a fierce intelligence at work behind the camera that is challenging him or her to examine their perceptions.

There can be little doubt that Alain Resnais was one the world’s greatest filmmakers.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Aethelbald, the king of Wessex who married his step-mother

Scandals in high places are nothing new. This is King Aethelbald of Wessex (western and southern England), who shocked 9th century society by marrying his step-mother.

Aethelbald was the eldest of the four sons of King Aethelwulf (reigned 839 to 858) – the youngest son is much better known to history because he would later become King Alfred the Great. Aethelwulf’s first wife, and the mother of all his sons, was Osburh. However, when Osburh died (probably in the year 854) Aethelwulf took a new bride, a European princess named Judith.

Aethelwulf died in 858, to be succeeded by Aethelbald, who promptly married Judith.

Alfred’s friend and later biographer, Asser, wrote that this was ‘contrary to God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. Given that Aethelbald had also mounted a revolt against his father two years previously, this act of incest (as it would have been interpreted at the time) did not go down well with the people of Wessex, and there was general relief when he died only two years later.

The throne then passed down the line of the other brothers, ending with Alfred who brought a much-needed restoration of power and dignity to the affairs of England’s most powerful kingdom.

© John Welford

Monday, 29 August 2016

Sam Maverick: a rancher who entered the dictionary

The word “maverick” is often used to describe someone who doesn’t fit in with everyone else, or is something of a nonconformist whose behaviour cannot be predicted. The expression “a maverick politician” means one who can’t be expected to vote the way the rest of his party votes. But where does the term “maverick” come from?

Sam Maverick

Samuel Augustus Maverick was a rancher in Texas during the early 19th century. He displayed his independent streak by being one of those who fought for the independence of Texas against the government of Mexico, to which it then belonged. He had been at the siege of the Alamo in 1836 before Santa Anna killed all the occupants, but had left in order to be a signatory of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

However, that was not why the name Maverick is best remembered today. Instead, it was his lack of attention to detail when it came to managing his cattle that got his name into the dictionary.

Maverick came to own a huge amount of land, amounting to more than 300,000 acres by the time he died in 1870. In 1844 he bought land at Decrows Point near the Gulf of Mexico coast and also a herd of cattle to graze it. He stopped living there in 1847, but left the herd in the care of his slaves.

What they should have done was brand each season’s new calves so that they could be identified from those of other ranchers when it came to round-up time. However, this was not always done, so there were some unbranded cattle wandering about and getting mixed up with those of other ranchers. Those other ranchers, who were far more careful about these things, always knew that a cow without a brand was a “Maverick”, and the name stuck.

Sam Maverick got away with it for a number of years, but in 1854 he responded to complaints by taking personal charge of his herd and making sure that every beast was properly branded.

As is often the case in such matters, the person who was blamed for the oversight was not really the guilty party. If Sam had gone away in 1847 having left instructions that branding should be done, but his people had failed to do so, was it really his fault? Or should he have made sure that the job was done properly? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, to this day a wayward politician is not a smith or a jones or a robinson but a maverick!

© John Welford

Friday, 29 July 2016

Sampson Gideon, 18th-century financier

Sampson Gideon was a Jewish financier who gave valuable service to the British Government during the 18th century and helped to break through the anti-Jewish glass ceiling prevailing at the time.

He was born in London in February 1699, a descendant on his father’s side of Portuguese immigrants. Jews had been prevented from living in England for 300 years before they were allowed back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656 but by the mid-18th century there were still only around 8,000 Jews in the country.

Sampson made his early fortune through wise investment and lucky speculation; for example, he was one of the relatively small number of people who profited from owning shares in the South Sea Company. He then directed his attention towards foreign funds and marine insurance and came to the notice of Horace Walpole and Henry Pelham (respectively Britain’s first and third Prime Ministers).

His main service to the Government was given during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). This was in the form of raising loans from his fellow wealthy Jewish financiers. In this he was extremely successful – it is estimated that during a single year (1759) he raised as much as £350,000, which was a staggeringly large amount at that time. Given that the latter war laid the foundations of Britain’s overseas empire, the money was well spent, and Sampson Gideon’s contribution should therefore not be overlooked.

Gideon could have expected the highest rewards that his country had to offer, but this was not to be. The problem was his Jewishness at a time when Jews were not entitled to British citizenship.

He had been active in the campaign for a law entitling Jews to apply for citizenship, which led to the passing of a Jewish Naturalization Act in 1753. However, public pressure forced the Government to repeal the Act the following year and Jewish emancipation would have to wait for another 100 years to come and go.

Sampson Gideon could only obtain preferment by becoming a Christian, and this is what he did. He bought a large mansion in Kent, had estates in several counties, and was granted a coat of arms. He was, however, refused a peerage because he was still seen as a Jew by most people. He died on 17th October 1762 at the age of 63.

Sampson Gideon married a Christian and had a son who was also called Sampson. The younger Sampson was educated in a thoroughly “establishment” way at Eton and Oxford and was an evangelical Christian. He found it much easier than his father to get ahead in Society and was granted the baronetcy that his father had been refused. It is from the younger Sampson Gideon that the Gideons International Bible Society takes its name, this being the organization that leaves Bibles in hotel bedrooms.

© John Welford