Saturday, 28 May 2016

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer is believed to have been born on 2nd July 1489 at Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, into a family of minor gentry. His father died when he was only 12, after which he was sent to a grammar school, possibly at Southwell. At the age of 14 he was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, although he took eight years to gain his BA degree. His MA took less time, being awarded in 1515.

He married shortly after graduating, although little is known about his wife except that her name was Joan and that she died in childbirth. By marrying, he had to give up his fellowship at Jesus, but this was restored to him after her death.

By 1520 Cranmer had taken holy orders and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1526. This was a time when the Protestant Reformation was getting into full swing, and clerics were faced with the dilemma of whether to ally themselves with the reformers or the traditionalists. Cranmer shows every sign of having resisted the call of the evangelicals in his early years as a priest, even writing in condemnation of Luther and in support of the papacy.

King Henry and Queen Catherine

In 1517 Cranmer was recruited by Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to undergo a diplomatic mission to Spain, and on his return he was granted a half-hour audience with the king, Henry VIII. Henry was anxious to have his marriage to Queen Catherine annulled, and it is significant that, following this meeting, Cranmer began to advocate this outcome among his colleagues at Cambridge.

Henry’s efforts at persuading the Pope to allow an annulment became bogged down in all sorts of legal difficulties, but it was Cranmer who, in 1529, came up with the idea of approaching matters differently, namely by canvassing the views of theologians throughout Europe and building a consensus view in Henry’s favour, although this plan was not particularly original. However, when it was brought to King Henry’s attention it received royal approval and Cranmer was now seen by the king as a valuable ally. Cranmer was also in high favour with the family of Anne Boleyn, sometimes lodging at the home of her father.

Cranmer’s efforts in support of the king’s “great matter” were extensive and occupied him for several years. They included many diplomatic missions to Rome and elsewhere, and the translation and editing into plain English of documents that supported the cause. These focused on two main issues, namely whether it was lawful for a man to marry his brother’s widow (which is what Henry had done) and whether the Pope had the right to declaim on this matter.

For Cranmer personally, two important things were happening. One was that he was developing a remarkable skill in writing plain and effective English, and another was that he was gradually losing his theological conservatism. As he began questioning papal authority he made new contacts with the religious reformers.

In 1532 Cranmer was sent on a lengthy mission to Germany where he met some important Lutheran reformers and married a relative of one of them, thus showing his conversion to the Protestant view that priests need not be celibate. He left his wife behind in Nuremberg to travel to Italy, and while there he learned that King Henry had, much to his surprise and alarm, chosen him to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer returned to England in January 1533.

Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant, married Henry in a secret ceremony shortly after Cranmer’s return, although the latter was not involved.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Cranmer was duly appointed as Archbishop by the Pope, but he immediately stated that his first loyalty was to the king. As Archbishop, he set in train the legal process by which the annulment could be ratified. Everything was pushed through at speed so that Queen Anne could be crowned and her baby, when born, would be both legitimate and unchallenged as Henry’s heir, should it be a boy (which was not the case, the baby being the future Queen Elizabeth I).

Cranmer then got to work to put in place the institutions that signalled the split from Rome and the creation of the Church of England. There were all sorts of legal and political difficulties to be overcome, as well as theological ones, but Cranmer was happy to concentrate on the latter and leave the former to Thomas Cromwell, who had succeeded Wolsey as the king’s chief minister.

Cranmer was shocked when Anne Boleyn was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, especially as he had heard her confession and had no reason to suspect her of being guilty of anything, and he was personally on very good terms with the Boleyn family.  However, he had no choice but to go through the motions of declaring her marriage invalid and Elizabeth a bastard.

Cranmer’s relationship with the king was always an uneasy one, given that Henry had declared himself to be head of the Church of England but was, of course, not a theologian. Henry was surprisingly conservative in his religious views, which at times led to difficulties. One problem was over Henry’s “Act of Six Articles” of 1539, one of which re-affirmed that clergymen should be celibate. This led to Cranmer’s wife being forced to flee the country.

After the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer was thrust into the political maelstrom, and he had the unpleasant duty of informing the king that his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been unfaithful to him. Whereas the charges against Anne Boleyn had almost certainly been false, those against Queen Catherine seemed to be much more justified, and it was Cranmer who obtained her eventual confession.

During the rest of Henry’s reign, Cranmer was in almost constant conflict with the conservatives in the Church, with various plots being hatched against him. However, when Henry died, on 28th January 1547, Cranmer was there to ensure that no Romish last rites were performed.

King Edward VI

Cranmer was closely allied with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who now became the real power in the land as Lord Protector of the boy king, Edward VI. Cranmer was now able to push ahead with reforming the Church of England without fear of royal opposition. He also needed to ensure that the Anglican Church did not follow the Lutheran pattern. He had already worked on producing elements of a new liturgy during Henry’s reign, but he now felt free to develop a complete “Book of Common Prayer”, first issued in March 1549 and revised in 1552, that would set the seal on the shape of Anglicanism for centuries to come. Apart from its religious importance, the Book is a masterpiece of English literature, containing many passages of great beauty that are clearly derived from Cranmer’s skill as a writer of prose.

Cranmer also worked hard to establish the principles of canon law, resulting in the publication of the “forty-two articles” of Anglican belief in 1553 (later amended, in 1563, to the “thirty-nine articles” that still apply today).

Needless to say, he also attracted much opposition, both from those of the Catholic persuasion and those who wanted the reforms to go much further. These latter included some Anabaptists and Unitarians whom Cranmer condemned as heretics and who were burned at the stake.

Queen Mary I

Edward VI only reigned for six years, dying on 6th July 1553 at the age of 15. Cranmer was involved in the plot to prevent his Catholic sister, Mary, from becoming queen, the plan being for the protestant Lady Jane Grey to be declared queen. However, on Edward’s death the people rallied behind Mary, and the protestant reformation was halted, at least for the time being.

Cranmer was soon arrested, and a long period of imprisonment and trial followed, with Cranmer at first refusing to recant his protestant views, then doing so. His trial for heresy took place at Oxford, alongside those of fellow bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. On 16th October 1555 Cranmer was forced to watch the execution, by burning, of Ridley and Latimer.

His own execution took place on 21st March 1556, after he had been forced to sign a recantation of all his protestant beliefs. However, it was clear that he was deeply troubled by this, and one of his final acts was to declare that his recantation was false and that his right hand, which had signed the document, would be the first part of him to burn. Witnesses stated that this was what actually happened.

Thomas Cranmer is one of the three “martyrs” commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, but his lasting legacy is the Church of England that was largely his design, and the Book of Common Prayer which, whatever one’s beliefs, is still one of the abiding treasures of 16th century writing in English.

© John Welford

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sir Henry Bessemer

Henry Bessemer was a Victorian engineer who made important discoveries in the production of steel, and who therefore laid the foundation for much of Great Britain’s later success in industry and manufacturing.

He was born on 19th January 1813 at Charlton, a village near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. His father Anthony had been trained in engineering and operated a typefounding business.

Henry only had an elementary education and spent much of his childhood watching his father at work and carrying out experiments of his own. When he was 17 his father moved his business to London and Henry found himself in the capital with no trade or profession but an inventive turn of mind that he hoped to put to productive use.

He carried out a range of experiments in several fields, including electroplating and the development of a machine for sugar refining.

In 1833 he developed a die stamp that could be used on official documents to prevent fraud. The idea was that the stamp perforated the document with hundreds of tiny holes, thus making the document virtually impossible to counterfeit. Although this invention was enthusiastically taken up by the Government Stamp Office, Bessemer was never rewarded for it.

He had more success with his development of bronze powder which was used to give the appearance of gold in the decoration of various objects. He devised a manufacturing process that was much more efficient than what had previously been available, and set up a workshop for its production. This venture was highly successful and gave him the funds he needed for his later work, such that he was never dependent on bank loans to pay for the many patents that he would register during his career.

He was also able to buy a house in Highgate and an office in the City of London, as well as maintaining his factory. In April 1834 he got married, his wife Ann being the daughter of a friend.

The Bessemer Converter

The Crimean War turned Bessemer’s attention to the work for which he is best known, namely a way of producing a metal that was strong enough to withstand the forces involved in artillery weapons. He had already developed the idea of a revolving shot, which could be fired with greater accuracy, but existing gun barrels were too weak to take the pressure.

Bessemer’s solution was to blow air through molten iron within an egg-shaped furnace – the “Bessemer Converter”. This had the effect of reducing the carbon content and creating mild steel that was far stronger than wrought iron and was also cheap to produce.

Bessemer clearly felt that he had solved all the problems involved in steel production and he delivered a paper (entitled “On the Manufacture of Iron and Steel without Fuel”) at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1856, confident that his fortune was made and that other manufacturers would also grow rich from using his method.

However, problems soon arose due to Bessemer’s lack of basic metallurgical knowledge. He had failed to appreciate that not all samples of wrought iron would react in the same way to his conversion process, due to their chemical composition. For example, a high phosphorous content led to steel that was brittle at low temperatures.

Improvements to the conversion process were made thanks to the work of Robert Mushet, who suggested the use of a compound of iron, carbon and manganese to prevent over-oxidation, and a Swede, Göran Göransson, who redesigned the airflow system of the converter. After these refinements were made it became possible to manufacture high-grade steel reliably and in bulk.

The Bessemer Steel Works

In 1858 Henry Bessemer opened the Bessemer Steel Works in Sheffield, together with three partners. Other Sheffield steelmakers came to appreciate the value of the Bessemer process and applied for licences to adopt it in their own factories.

Steel production now increased by leaps and bounds. By 1870 some 200,000 tons of Bessemer steel were being produced annually by fifteen Sheffield companies. However, by 1880 the tonnage had increased to one million and by 1890 to two million, this being two-thirds of all steel production in the United Kingdom. Much of this steel was used in the rapidly growing railway system and in shipbuilding, with large quantities being exported for use in Britain’s overseas colonies.

The Bessemer process also proved highly popular in the United States, where production reached six million tons a year by 1900.

One black mark against Henry Bessemer was his reluctance to acknowledge his debts to fellow inventors, particularly Robert Mushet and Göran Göransson. He granted Mushet a small pension for his contribution, but only after personal pleas from Mushet’s daughter and friends, and his autobiography (published posthumously in 1905) never mentioned Göransson at all. Bessemer was the sort of man who was happy to claim credit for all the success that came his way but to overlook his mistakes, of which there many throughout his career.

Bessemer was knighted in 1879, having retired from active business in 1873. He died at his London home in 1898 at the age of 85. His wife had died the previous year, and he was survived by two sons and a daughter.

© John Welford

Monday, 16 May 2016

Hereward the Wake

England after the Norman Conquest

After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Duke William of Normandy knew that he would not be a popular King of England. He had no real claim to the throne other than by force, so he could hardly have expected to be welcomed with open arms.

At first, William did try to win hearts and minds by conciliation and by appointing Anglo-Saxons to important offices of state, but as soon as his back was turned – he went across to Normandy in 1067 to deal with matters back home – large areas of the country rose in revolt.

It was then “no more Mr Nice Guy” as William responded with a show of considerable force. Villages that had risen in opposition were burned to the ground and their inhabitants killed or driven into starvation. Fields were laid waste and rendered unproductive for years to come. Many thousands of people died in the ethnic cleansing that became known as “the harrowing of the north”.

This policy of extreme violence seemed to do the trick, and only a few pockets of resistance remained. One of these was in the fenland around Peterborough in the east of England, led by a mysterious figure who is known to history as Hereward the Wake.

Who was Hereward?

Hereward had been a landowner before the conquest, but he lost his lands to the Normans. Rather than knuckle under to the new regime, Hereward gathered a band of fellow outlaws and retreated to the Fens, an area of swamps and lagoons in which it was easy to get lost if you did not know your way around. Hereward relied on his superior knowledge of the area to outwit the Normans and carry out a series of guerrilla raids on their strongholds.

Hereward’s campaign

Hereward joined forces with local Danish raiders to attack the abbey at Peterborough and plunder its treasure, but then had to go it alone after the Normans bought the Danes off. The sacrilege of attacking an abbey did not endear Hereward to all his fellow Englishmen, but enough stayed loyal to create a formidable guerrilla unit.

William’s response was to hunt Hereward down in the Fens, using enforced labour to build causeways that allowed troops to move in and flush out the rebels. Remains of these earthworks can still be seen to this day.

Although the Normans were able to capture most of Hereward’s men, there is no evidence that they ever found Hereward himself, and what happened to him is a mystery. He may have been betrayed and met a grisly end, or he could simply have withdrawn from combat and lived out his days in peace, possibly with a changed identity.

The legacy of Hereward

It is no surprise that all sorts of stories arose about Hereward’s deeds, most of them probably having little basis in truth. There were so many such stories that a book of them appeared with the title “The Exploits of Hereward the Celebrated Outlaw and Soldier”. He was therefore a latter-day King Arthur and a prototype for Robin Hood - an icon for anyone who wanted a hero-figure to give hope to people under oppression.

The name “Wake” is part of the myth. This was a man who was constantly alert and ready to strike when and where the opportunity arose. The cause of Anglo-Saxon resistance needed a hero who never slept, but it was always going to be a lost cause. The heavy hand of Norman domination was not going to be removed by a few fighters hiding in the Fens, however charismatic their leader.

© John Welford

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury

Sigeric, who was the 27th person to be elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, has gone down in history as “Sigeric the Serious”, which suggests that there might have been another Sigeric around at the time who deserved the nickname “Sigeric the Barrel of Laughs” or something similar. However, there is no evidence that this was the case, and “Serious” probably means nothing more in this case than that he was a particularly learned man or even that his name could be transliterated in Latin as “Serio”.

Little is known about his early life, including when he was born, but it is known that he was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey and became abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, in 980. He was consecrated as Bishop of Ramsbury in 985 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 990.

A new Catholic Archbishop can only exercise his full authority after he has received his pallium from the Pope. This is a narrow band of cloth that is worn across the shoulders and down the chest, forming a Y shape (this was the shape in Sigeric’s time but it has since changed). It was expected that the new Archbishop would journey to Rome in person to meet the pope and receive the pallium.

Sigeric kept a meticulous record of his journey to Rome and back, his route being the traditional pilgrim route that passes through France, Switzerland and Italy and is known as the Via Francigena (see map, above). His journal included details of each of the 79 stages between Calais and Rome and the 23 churches that he visited en route.

Sigeric’s time as Archbishop coincided with the struggle for control of England between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, which generally meant that the Danes had to be paid off in order to prevent them from causing trouble. There is a record of Sigeric being one of the group of advisers who persuaded King Ethelred to buy off the Danes in 991, and there is also evidence that Sigeric had to take similar action himself in 994 to prevent Canterbury Cathedral from being burned down.

Another record states that Sigeric installed monks in Christ Church Priory (which was an addition to the Cathedral proper), having dismissed the secular clerks who had lived there previously.

He died in 994 at an advanced age and was buried in the crypt of Christ Church. His devotion to “serious” scholarship can be deduced from the fact that he left a valuable collection of books to Canterbury Cathedral.

© John Welford

Friday, 13 May 2016

Napoleon Bonaparte's height

There is a general belief that Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually short, and that he is therefore part of the common perception that dictators tend to be short people who make up for it by being particularly unpleasant to everybody else and conquering as many countries as they can. But, in Napoleon’s case, is this true?

Short dictators

Dictators are short people, aren’t they? Joseph Stalin was 5 foot 5 inches, as was Vladimir Lenin. Mussolini was 5 foot 6, Adolf Hitler was 5 foot 8 (not particularly short, but only average for a German of his time) and Kim Jong Il was a mere 5 foot 3 (perhaps an unfair comparison, given that Koreans are not particularly tall people anyway).

By contrast, democratic western leaders are tall and well-built, and thus so assured of their stature that they don’t have to get nasty and start invading their neighbours just to get their own back on the unfairness of life. Hence you have General de Gaulle at 6 foot 5, Abraham Lincoln at 6 foot 4 and F D Roosevelt at 6 foot 2.

However, the many exceptions to these trends would seem to cast a dampener on the general theory. There have been many tall dictators, including Fidel Castro at 6 foot 3, Saddam Hussein at 6 foot 2 and Idi Amin at 6 foot 4. There have also been some notable short non-dictators, such as Winston Churchill at 5 foot 6.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon has certainly been part of the “lack of height equals dictatorial tendencies” myth. The story that has gained common currency is that he was only 5 foot 2 inches tall, and that he wore thick-soled boots to make himself look taller. But was this true?

The idea that Napoleon was on the small side derives from a 1910 French biography of Napoleon that contained the statement: “Napoleon was of mediocre stature (about 5 foot 2 inches) and well built”. This implies that he was short and tubby.

However, this statement does not agree with British accounts that give his height as 5 foot 6 or 5 foot 7. These include the opinions of contemporaries who were in regular contact with Napoleon during his exile on St Helena after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. That said, his official height at his death in 1821 was given in French sources as being 5 foot 2.

A difference of measurement

There is every reason to believe that both the French and British measurements of Napoleon’s height were correct. How was this possible? The answer is that the French and British foot were not the same, with the French foot being slightly longer than the British foot. A height of 5 foot 2 in France would be equivalent to 5 foot 6 in Britain.

The system of weights and measures in France was reformed in 1799 with the introduction of the metric system. Napoleon would have been 30 years old at the time, so it is not surprising that his early contemporaries would have estimated his height in the old style.

There was also a hiatus from about 1812 to 1837 during which the new system fell out of favour and people reverted to the old measurements. When Napoleon died in 1821 it would therefore have been natural to give his height in French feet and inches.

So there we have it. At a British height of 5 foot 6 Napoleon would not have appeared to be particularly short, especially as the average height of a Frenchman at that time was around 5 foot 5.

He would, however, have fitted in well as a member of the short dictators club as mentioned above. Had they been contemporaries, he would have been able to look Lenin and Stalin in the eye and only been slightly overshadowed by Hitler!

© John Welford

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Wan Hoo's abortive Moon mission

Mankind has long had the ambition to fly, and throughout the centuries various adventurers have tried to get off the ground and stay there for a reasonable period of time before returning safely to terra firma. Some have had much loftier ambitions; one such was the Chinese daredevil Wan Hoo.

Chinese firepower

It is often thought that the Chinese, who had invented “black powder” as early as the 9th century, only used it for making fireworks and inefficient firearms that were as likely to kill their possessor as the intended victim. However, by the 14th century their rocket science had advanced to the point of developing multi-stage rockets that could deliver multiple warheads at a considerable distance. The principles that they had developed are very similar to those used to this day in missiles and space rockets.

However, they were nowhere near ready to launch a manned mission to the Moon in the year 1500, but that was what Wan Hoo had in mind!

Wan Hoo (sometimes transliterated as Wan Hu) was an official of the Chinese Ming dynasty who believed that developments in rocketry had reached a stage of development that justified an attempt at manned space flight. To be precise, he believed that he could fly to the Moon.

Wan Hoo’s space mission

Wan Hoo’s idea was that he would sit in a wicker chair to which 47 rockets had been attached. The rockets would be lit by 47 servants so that they would all fire at the same time, and the force would be sufficient to send him to the Moon. Whether he had thought of how he was going to get back again is another matter, but, as things turned out, this was not going to be a problem he would have to solve.

On the appointed day, Wan Hoo walked to his chair dressed in all his finery. He clearly had not got the faintest idea about conditions between the Earth and the Moon, hence the lack of any “space suit”, and he probably imagined that the distance involved was only a few miles. He waved to his servants to light the fuses, which they duly did, and everyone waited for “take off”.

What they got was a massive explosion as all the 47 rockets ignited simultaneously. When the smoke cleared there was no sign of the wicker chair or Wan Hoo, neither of which was ever seen again. No doubt there were people present who imagined that the experiment had worked and that Wan Hoo was now sitting, in his chair, on the Moon.

Buster gets busted

In 2004 an attempt was made to replicate Wan Hoo’s “space flight”. This was filmed by the Discovery Channel for their “Myth Busters” programme. Everything was done to copy the circumstances as closely as could be managed, based on the written records from 1500 and modern knowledge of Chinese technology at the time. The only volunteer willing to take the place of Wan Hoo was a crash-test dummy called Buster.

The result of this fresh experiment was remarkably similar to what contemporary accounts say happened the first time round. There was a huge explosion after which there was no sign of the chair or Buster. However, a closer look around the site revealed small pieces of charred wood, metal and plastic that had once belonged to the chair and the late lamented Buster.

The unsurprising conclusion was therefore that Wan Hoo did not end his days on the Moon but in very small pieces deposited around his Chinese launch site. It is not thought that anyone else, in China or elsewhere, was ever tempted to repeat Wan Hoo’s attempt.

Was Wan Hoo a pioneer of something else?

However, although this was clearly not the right way to get to the Moon, Wan Hoo might have been on to something in terms of developing the “jet pack”, or a means of taking off from the ground with rocket or jet engines strapped to one’s back. This has been proved to be possible in recent years, although there are still huge problems with the technology. Had Wan Hoo’s ambitions been somewhat less extreme, and had he decided on igniting a much smaller quantity of explosive material close to his person, he might even have lived to tell the tale.

© John Welford