Thursday, 29 March 2018

Vlad the Impaler

The legend of Dracula was inspired by the life and antics of Vlad III, a 15th century prince of Wallachia, but fiction was far excelled by reality in terms of savage cruelty and murderous sadism.

Vlad was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, Transylvania (part of modern Romania). His father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a secret organisation that had been created by the Holy Roman Emperor to resist incursions into Europe by the Muslim Ottomans. The younger Vlad became a member of the order at the age of five, and thus acquired the family name of Dracul.

Vlad II had been exiled from Wallachia (also in modern-day Romania) to Transylvania, and was also under severe pressure from the Ottomans. He was forced at one stage to send two of his sons into captivity, which meant that Vlad Junior spent four of his teenage years in Ottoman custody, where he developed a hatred of the Turks.

Vlad’s elder brother Mircea was murdered in 1447, as was Vlad Senior. The Ottomans invaded the region and installed Vlad Junior as a puppet ruler of Wallachia in 1448, but this did not please the Hungarians, who forced him to flee to Moldavia. However, Vlad was able to persuade the ruler of Hungary that he was a better bet to rule Wallachia than the boyars (nobles loyal to Hungary) who currently did so.

In 1456 Vlad took his opportunity to seize the Wallachian throne from the boyars. Having killed his rival, he invited the leading boyars to a banquet, ostensibly to make peace with them, but instead he forced them to become slaves in a programme of castle-building.

Vlad’s efforts to establish Wallachia as a powerful kingdom led to the elimination of anyone seen as a threat to this aim. That not only meant any noble who might challenge his rule but also anyone whom he regarded as a drain on the country’s resources. He began by inviting thousands of vagrants and people who were physically or mentally disabled to a feast, which was genuine, but after they had finished eating the hall was locked and set on fire.

Vlad also had a deep hatred for immoral women, who would have their breasts cut off and be skinned or boiled alive, with their remains being put on public display afterwards.

Another target were the “foreign parasites” who sought to get rich through unfair trading arrangements. He therefore had thousands of German and other merchants butchered in 1459.

The name Vlad the Impaler was well deserved, because impaling his victims on stakes was a preferred method of execution. Stakes would be arrayed in concentric circles around his castles and his victims forced down onto them, sometimes taking hours to die. Nobody was allowed to remove the dead bodies, which rotted where they were.

Skinning and boiling were also used as means of killing people, and on one occasion he hammered nails into the heads of foreign ambassadors whom he considered were being insufficiently polite to him. It is possible that he drank the blood of some of his victims, which filtered through to the Dracula legend.

In 1461 Vlad crossed the Danube to attack the Ottomans, capturing 20,000 Turkish prisoners in the process. When Sultan Mehmet II returned to the Danube for a counter-attack he was greeted by a forest of impaled bodies on stakes.

However, Vlad had underestimated the strength of his enemy and lost his throne. He was captured by the Hungarians and spent the next ten years as a prisoner, amusing himself by impaling birds and mice on tiny stakes. 

He was able to get back into favour with the Hungarians, even marrying a Hungarian princess (presumably with considerable reluctance on her part) and winning support for a fresh invasion of Wallachia.

However, his success was short-lived in that he was killed in 1476 when the Ottomans invaded yet again. It was perhaps fitting that his head was later stuck on a stake in Constantinople.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

William Radam and his marvelous medicine

William Radam well deserved the label of “snake oil salesman”. He operated in the United States during the late 19th century, selling his “Microbe Killer” for which he claimed amazing powers.

William Radam

For a pharmaceutical pioneer, Radam had an unconventional background. He was a gardener who had observed that it didn’t matter what weeds he treated with weedkiller, they all died. He reasoned that, since all diseases were caused by “microbes”, if you could kill the microbes you would cure the disease, whatever it was.

He therefore began to sell his miracle cure with the recommendation to take: “A wineglassful after meals and at bedtime … it will prevent and cure disease by destroying bacteria, the organic life that causes fermentation and decay of the blood, the tissues, and the vital organs”. By claiming to prevent disease as well as cure it, he therefore gained a marketplace among healthy people as well as sick ones. 

The diseases that Microbe Killer would prevent and cure were many and various – everything from the common cold and indigestion to syphilis and cancer. It proved to be highly popular, at three dollars a gallon, and Radam eventually set up 17 factories in countries around the world.

Needless to say, Radam was quick to rubbish the medical profession, accusing them of hoodwinking the public by pretending to know what caused a patient’s disease by diagnosing their symptoms. Clearly, applying scientific rigour to the study of medicine was all nonsense – what was needed was a hefty dose of Microbe Killer and nothing else!

Eventually, someone thought it would be a good idea to apply scientific rigour to William’s marvellous medicine. It turned out to be more than 99% water, with small quantities of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids plus a dash of red wine to add taste and colour. At least the former gardener did not think that weedkiller was an appropriate means of dealing with microbes!

Unfortunately, some people today do not seem to be any less gullible than the customers of William Radam. The market for homeopathic remedies seems to be as buoyant as ever, despite the fact that they contain nothing more in terms of clinically effective substances than did Microbe Killer. No doubt there were people in Radam’s day who swore blind that their regular dose of highly dilute and slightly acidic red wine was doing them the power of good, just as devotees of homeopathy claim today. However, apart from the beneficial placebo effect that comes from believing that something is doing you good, the old and new snake oils are no more than that – snake oil!

© John Welford

Who was Ned Ludd?

General Ned Ludd never existed, but his followers wreaked havoc in the factories of early 19th-century Britain and provoked strong reprisals from the government of the day. The Luddites played a role in the development of the working-class movement that led eventually to the formation of legal trade unions.

The origin of the Luddites

The name probably originates with Lud, a mythical king of early Britain who was said to have built the first walls of London and after whom Ludgate Hill is named. The Luddites saw themselves as invoking the spirit of free-born British people from a past age. By claiming to be based in Sherwood Forest they also saw themselves as latter-day followers of Robin Hood, striking a blow for the ordinary working man against the forces of power and capitalism.

Their actions began in 1811 with the sending of letters to mill owners in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire who had recently installed steam-engine powered machines (known as frames) that increased production in the hosiery and knitwear industries but needed fewer people to do the work. The factory system was also making it uneconomic for people to work on hand-powered frames in their own homes, as had been the traditional pattern in these areas.

War with France had given the mill owners more incentive to install powered knitting frames, given that Napoleon Bonaparte’s “Continental System” had effectively sealed the continent of Europe against exports from Britain. In order to cut their costs, and thus make it feasible for exports to be sent to other markets, the industrialists of Britain had no option but to produce more by using fewer workers, on lower wages, and that meant installing large, steam-driven machines.

A series of poor harvests during the period from 1808 to 1812 had caused food prices to rise, so there was genuine hardship in the general population. Many people felt that they had to do something to fight against the forces that were oppressing them, and they saw the machines in the factories as the root cause of their distress.

The spread of Luddite discontent

The above-mentioned letters, signed by “Enoch”, were threats to the mill owners to remove the machines, or see them destroyed, and the actions that followed served to carry out those threats. Bands of men broke into the factories at night and smashed the machines with sledge-hammers. The “General’s Army” sometimes consisted of hundreds or even thousands of men marching in disciplined order through the streets on their way to the factories. Even if there was no actual “Ned Ludd”, somebody was hard at work organising these events.

The Luddites soon spread their activities northwards to the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the woollen and cotton garment industries were based.  Government troops had to be brought in to protect the factories and arrest the demonstrators, one estimate being that 12,000 soldiers had to be diverted from the war effor

Needless to say, some Luddite activities did spill over into more general mayhem, with food riots riding on the back of the organised machine-breaking. There was, for example, a riot in Manchester in April 1812 in which desperate women raided the stocks of potatoes held by dealers who were charging extortionate prices for them.

Force met with force

The government’s response was to meet force with force, and a Frame-Breaking Bill was passed by Parliament in 1812. This made the destruction of machinery punishable by hanging. One opponent of the bill was Lord Byron, whose speech in the House of Lords included the words:

“Nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their family and their community.”

This statement made the case that it is wrong to regard the Luddite movement as that of an undisciplined mob, despite its excesses. On the one hand, it could be said that, by destroying the new machines, they were depriving the operators of those machines of their living, but it was also true that the goods produced in the factories were often of much lower quality than those of the handloom weavers, who were craftsmen with a real pride in their work.

Ultimately, the actions of the Luddites were futile, because economic necessity was driving the movement of industrialisation, and the machine-smashing could only delay the changes, not prevent them for ever.

The Luddite cause was not helped by the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, on 11th May 1812. Although it soon became clear that his assassin, John Bellingham, was motivated by purely private motives, many people felt that anything that threatened violence against the establishment had to be resisted strongly, whatever the provocation. Memories of the French Revolution were vivid in many peoples’ minds, and the connection between mob violence and the murder of political leaders was an easy one to make.

The suppression of the Luddites was carried out by means of the punishment of a number of their leaders, including hangings and transportation to Australia, although none of those leaders answered to the name of Ned Ludd.

The legacy of the Luddites

The textile workers of the time had no recourse to a trade union to represent their grievances to factory owners, so there was no safety valve when problems arose. The “Combination Acts” of 1799 and 1800 made trade unions illegal, so any such activity was driven underground. Although these laws were repealed in 1824-5 the process of collective bargaining was illegal until 1860. The Luddite movement was seen by some as a good reason for suppressing trade unions, but ultimately it showed that working people needed to be able to deal with their problems in a constructive way, around a negotiating table, without being forced to take extreme measures.

The word “Luddite” is used today to describe someone who sets their face against progress and stubbornly refuses to accept change. In terms of the original Luddites this charge has some force, in that change was inevitable and breaking the machines was never going to work as a means of reversing the trend towards mechanisation in the garment industry. However, there are occasions when the Luddite mentality has its place, in that craftsmanship should be protected and preserved when under threat. Once certain skills are lost they will be lost for ever, and actions that remind people of that fact should not always be rejected on the grounds that they are anti-progressive.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Three favourite quotes from Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was not only one of the greatest scientists of all time but he also had a “way with words” that he used to express deep truths in memorable ways. Here are three quotations from him (sorry that I don’t know the circumstances under which they were written or said) that I find to be particularly appealing:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.

This is similar to his assertion that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits, and one can see that a life lived through the first half of the 20th century, when the world tried twice to tear itself apart through war, would naturally tend to this point of view.

Einstein described himself as a “militant pacifist” who would fight for peace, and would no doubt have agreed 100% with his near-contemporary and fellow pacifist Bertrand Russell who said that “War does not determine who is right, only who is left”. What could be more stupid than behaviour that costs so much and produces so little?

However, Einstein might also have been influenced by his great predecessor Isaac Newton, whose theories inspired his own re-interpretation of them. Newton once wrote: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” Those two great minds clearly both recognized that science had its limits, and working out what their fellow humans would do with the discoveries made by scientists was clearly one of those limits.

Those who seek to deny what science says now about climate change and man-made global warming would surely be on the “stupid” list of both Newton and Einstein were they alive today.

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

My desk is always cluttered! That is because I like to have everything I need close at hand and not have to be constantly getting up and either fetching things or putting them away. Librarians are supposed – in theory – to be tidy people who always know where everything is, but tidiness has never been my number one priority!

I once worked for a company in which a decree went around from “upstairs” that nobody was allowed to have more than two pieces of paper on their desk at any one time.  Needless to say, I took absolutely no notice of this edict! Nothing came of it – possibly because the manager who issued this command was too empty-minded to ever think of visiting the library!

It was good to know that – should I have ever been challenged to defend my desk clutter – I would have had Albert Einstein on my side!

The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.

Again – it’s good to know that one’s efforts have the support of one of the greatest minds ever to have existed!

The company I mentioned above did not agree with this sentiment towards the end of my time with them. It was a major UK player in the telecommunications industry, with offices and factories in towns and cities throughout the country. I was the chief librarian, with responsibility for coordinating the company’s four libraries (in Coventry, Liverpool, Poole and Nottingham). As time went by, each library was closed in turn, and the staff made redundant, leaving me with just the Coventry library from which to serve the needs of a 50,000 strong workforce with just one library assistant as my support staff. The fact that this was plainly impossible was all that management needed to declare that the job did not need to be done at all, so the final library was closed as well. The whole company went to the wall six months later.

The thinking was that libraries were not necessary because “it’s all on the Internet”. Somebody once said that the Internet was the world’s largest library, in which all the books had been thrown on the floor. In other words, in order to get the best value from the undoubted benefits that the Internet can provide, you need somebody who can help you to find what you need, and what you can trust, in the shortest possible time. Can I suggest that a professional fully-trained librarian might be just that person?

Libraries have moved on since Einstein’s time, but the principle enshrined in the above quotation still applies. Perhaps it needs a slight rewording – the only thing you absolutely have to know is who you can call upon to help you when you come to a grinding halt in your search for information!

© John Welford

Thomas Clarkson and the fight against the slave trade


The story of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain is always linked with the name of William Wilberforce, and rightly so, but he was not the only person who deserves credit for this. One person who should be remembered alongside Wilberforce is Thomas Clarkson.

Thomas Clarkson was born on 28th March 1760 at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, where his father was headmaster of the grammar school. Thomas was educated in his father’s school and went up to Cambridge University in 1779. He took a degree in mathematics in 1783. His intention was to take holy orders, so he stayed on at Cambridge for that purpose. In 1785 he entered a competition for an essay in Latin, and this was the key to his life taking a completely different direction.

The title set for the competition was “Anne liceat invitos in servitutum?” which translates as “Is it lawful to make men slaves against their will?” Clarkson decided to develop the theme in terms of the Atlantic slave trade, although at first he regarded the topic as a purely academic exercise. In order to write the essay he needed to do a bit of research, and the works he read, such as Anthony Benezet’s “Historical Account of Guinea” affected him deeply.

The slave trade, which began in the mid 17th century, was a brilliant device for making a lot of people very rich. It worked by ships making three voyages. They left British ports (such as Bristol and Liverpool) loaded with cheap manufactured goods such as pots and pans as well as guns and alcoholic beverages. These were taken to the coast of West Africa where native chiefs were happy to do deals, their payment being prisoners of war and other undesirables. The traders were also not averse to capturing “free” natives on their own account. The ships then headed west with their human cargoes, who were sold as slaves in the West Indies and the American colonies. With the proceeds, the traders then bought products such as sugar, rum and tobacco, all of which would find a ready market back in England.

As far as the British people were concerned, one set of products was exported and another set was imported. They had no need to know about the “middle passage” which was where the real damage was done in terms of human misery. Some slaves did make their way to Britain, where they were often used as domestic servants and regarded by their employers as exotic status symbols. These were the fortunate few.

Thomas Clarkson read his essay aloud in the Senate House at Cambridge and won his prize. However, when making his homeward journey on horseback (he was now living in London) he gave thought to the contents of what he had written. He later wrote: “I frequently tried to persuade myself that the contents of my essay could not be true”. However, his conclusion was that: “if the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end”.

He now abandoned all thoughts of a clerical career and started work on a campaign to eradicate the slave trade. In 1786 he published his essay in an English translation and in 1787 founded a “Committee for Advocating the Abolition of the Slave Trade”. One of their first acts was to get Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer, to design and produce a campaign badge that showed a manacled slave with the slogan: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

William Wilberforce, an MP from Hull, was recruited by the Committee in 1787 as their voice in Parliament, and the long process began of trying to change the law. Wilberforce made many speeches and produced copious evidence to support the cause, but what is not generally known is that it was Thomas Clarkson who gathered much of that material.

For example, he rode his horse to Bristol where he talked to off-duty sailors about their experiences on the slave ships and collected various pieces of equipment that were used on the ships to subdue their unwilling passengers. These included whips, branding irons, thumbscrews and mouth-openers.

He went to Liverpool, another slave trade port, where he got hold of a diagram showing how the slave ship “Brookes” was loaded to contain the maximum number of slaves. More than 600 slaves could be laid down side by side and head to toe so as to leave hardly any space unused in the cargo hold. Under these conditions, with no sanitation, disease was rife and many Africans died during the passage (as did a disproportionate number of the sailors). Other ships knew not to steer downwind of slave ships, to avoid the stench.

Clarkson continued his travels and campaigning for seven years, riding about 35,000 miles in all. He set up many anti-slavery societies and organised petitions which gathered around 400,000 signatures. Some 300,000 people agreed to give up using sugar when they were told how it had been obtained.

His work was not without its dangers, as he was up against some very powerful vested interests which stood to lose huge fortunes if the slave trade ended. He had good cause to fear for his life, for example when he was thrown into a dock at Liverpool by some slavers.

In 1794 he retired from the campaign, being physically exhausted and running out of money, as he had financed himself from his private means during this time. It was also becoming difficult to keep people interested in the campaign, given that Parliament constantly refused to pass Wilberforce’s bill, plus the fact that war with Revolutionary France had broken out in 1793.

However, he returned to the cause in 1804 and continued to help Wilberforce until 1807, when the Slave Trade Act was finally passed.

The cause now was the complete abolition of slavery itself within the British Empire. Wilberforce and Clarkson again worked together to drum up support, and Clarkson rode another 10,000 miles as he organised hundreds of petitions to Parliament. Wilberforce’s health began to fail in the 1820s and he left the House of Commons in 1825, passing the abolitionist mantle to Thomas Buxton. Clarkson continued his work, helping to found the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823 and acting as an international ambassador for the cause as well as writing copiously. One of his aims was to end slavery in the United States.

Success finally came in 1833, with the Slavery Abolition Act being passed, although Wilberforce had died a month before this happened. Thomas Clarkson, who was 73 at the time of the triumph he had devoted his life to accomplishing, lived for another 13 years during which he continued to write in support of worldwide abolition.

It is unfortunate that such a high proportion of the credit for abolishing slavery has been given to Wilberforce, because it was truly a team effort. Many people worked for this cause, with Thomas Clarkson being one of the most effective and important.

© John Welford

The three wives of King Henry VIII

That’s right – three wives, not six as is popularly believed!

Surely not, you might say. Everyone knows the list - Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr - and the manner in which they ceased to be Henry’s wives (all but the last): divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

The problem, albeit a technical one, is that Henry did not divorce wives one and four. He had the marriages annulled, and the same applies to Anne Boleyn who was separated from Henry by these means just before her head was separated from the rest of her.

So what’s the difference? It’s quite an important one, because an annulled marriage is one that is recognized as never having existed. Divorce as we know it today is a relatively modern invention, dating from the 18th century, and simply wasn’t available as an option to King Henry.

The first annulment was a huge problem, because Pope Clement VII refused to grant it. Henry took the extraordinary step of giving himself the power to declare his marriage annulled, by declaring himself to be the head of the Church in England, and not the pope.

He used this power again to annul his marriage to Anne Boleyn when it was pointed out to him that she had previously been engaged to someone else. Her execution does therefore seem to have been founded on somewhat shaky ground in that she was accused of committing adultery at a time when she and Henry had not been legally married!

That means that King Henry’s first marriage was with Jane Seymour, the wife who gave him his long-wanted son but died shortly after giving birth.

The third annulment was the only one that would be recognized as valid today, as there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the marriage to Anne of Cleves was never consummated.

Catherine Howard’s short reign as Henry’s queen might have gone exactly the same way as that of Anne Boleyn – annulment followed by execution - were it not that she refused to agree to the charge that she had been engaged prior to her marriage to Henry, although she almost certainly had been. Had she admitted this it would have made no difference to her fate, but the net result was that she has to count as official wife number two.

Catherine Parr was definitely married to Henry, as wife number three, and she was his only widow.

So there we are. King Henry VIII officially had only three wives, not six!
© John Welford

Sunday, 25 March 2018

The king who rode over a cliff

In 1286 King Alexander III of Scotland came to an unfortunate and unusual end. Born in 1241, he became king in 1249 when aged only seven. In 1251, aged ten, he was married to 11-year-old Margaret, the daughter of King Henry III of England. When he reached the age of 18 in 1259 and took up the reins of kingship in his own right, all seemed well for a long and successful reign and the production of suitable heirs.

However, things started to go awry when Queen Margaret died in 1275. This tragedy was followed by the deaths of her two sons, Alexander’s heirs, in 1281 and 1284. He also lost his only daughter in childbirth in 1283, although her child, a daughter, survived and was therefore Alexander’s sole heir.

In order for the royal succession to continue in the preferred male line, the king needed a new wife who could bear him more sons. He was therefore delighted to make a match with a French heiress, Yolande de Dreux, whom he married on 14th October 1285.

By the following March there was no sign of the new queen being pregnant, but that did not cause Alexander undue concern. There appeared to be plenty of time for that to change, given that both Alexander and Yolande were still young and healthy.

On 18th March 1286 Alexander was in Edinburgh while his wife was at the royal castle of Kinghorn, on the opposite side of the Firth of Forth. When his business was concluded Alexander decided to proceed straight to Kinghorn, despite the late hour and the fact that the journey involved crossing the Firth in bad weather and riding along the north shore in pitch darkness.

The ferryman tried to dissuade him from making the two-mile crossing, but Alexander insisted on doing so and the boat did in fact get across safely. Further efforts were made to hold him back when he reached Inverkeithing, with offers to put him up for the night so that he could travel further the next day in daylight and better weather, but Alexander would not be dissuaded from reaching his wife as soon as possible.

He therefore set off along the coast on horseback with two companions, but he never reached his destination. The king became separated from the other two horsemen in the darkness and he blundered on without knowing where he was going.

The following morning the bodies of horse and rider were found on the seashore at the foot of a cliff, over which they had stumbled in the dark. The point is still known to this day as “King’s Crag”.

With Alexander dead, and Queen Yolande not with child, the throne now technically belonged to Alexander’s 3-year-old grandchild, another Margaret. Guardians were appointed to look after matters, and it was widely expected that one of these would emerge as the true power in the land and be appointed as the new king, especially after young Margaret died at the age of six. However, King Edward I of England (Margaret’s great-uncle) now showed his hand and it soon became clear that no solution would be found that did not have his approval.

The net result of Alexander’s foolish decision to ride along a clifftop at night was that the throne of Scotland stayed empty for six years and when the next king, John Balliol, took his seat in 1292 it was only as a puppet of the much more powerful monarch in the southern kingdom.
© John Welford

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The fall of Prince Metternich, 1848

On 13th March 1848 Prince Klemens von Metternich was forced to relinquish his post as Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and flee to exile in England. One of the greatest statesmen of 19th Century Europe had been toppled at last, after nearly 40 years of high office (Foreign Minister from 1809 to 1821 before becoming Chancellor in addition to his former role).

1848 is often termed the “Year of Revolutions”. Only a few weeks previously, the French King Louis-Philippe had been chased from the throne and replaced by Napoleon III. Now the spirit of revolution moved to Vienna.

Seizing their chance, a large group of students marched on the Hofburg imperial palace, to be met with gunfire at first but then realization on the part of the Austrian royal family that change had to come.

A deal was struck whereby the Habsburgs clung to their throne but Metternich was figuratively thrown to the wolves.

From the point of the view of the revolutionaries, this was what they really wanted. Their demands were for liberty for the people and an end to absolutism, and Metternich had been the main obstacle to achieving those aims.

Metternich had been the right man for the job when the job had been rebuilding Europe after the defeat of Napoleon I. He had been one of the chief architects of the New Europe that was instituted at the 1814 Congress of Vienna, at which he usually got his own way.

However, 30 years of relative stability were now coming to an end, and Metternich was no able longer to pull all the strings.

He was also hated in his country for his arch-conservatism and the secret police that he employed to keep dissenters at bay. He once boasted that he kept an eye on everything and that nothing happened of which he was unaware. He also claimed that he had never made a mistake in his whole life.

But even with his network of spies and agents keeping him posted, Metternich could not withstand the power of the people when it turned against him. At the age of 74 he had to leave Austria and head for England, where the political situation was more stable.

Metternich was eventually allowed to return to Austria, but on condition that he did not re-enter the political scene. He died in 1859 at the age of 86.
© John Welford

Friday, 23 March 2018

The assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, 1934

The monarchy of Yugoslavia was a short-lived affair, with only two kings, namely Alexander (1929-34 and Peter II (1934-45). Prior to 1929 (i.e. from 1921) Alexander’s title had been King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a status that he had inherited from his father, King Peter I.

Yugoslavia was an invention of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 that settled the political shape of Europe after World War I. It was an uncomfortable union of several small nations that was destined to fall apart again after the fall of Communism in 1992.

Yugoslavia only enjoyed a settled existence under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito between 1953 and 1980. At other times it was subject to strong nationalist feelings within its constituent parts, and the violence that erupted in the Balkans in the 1990s was not the only time when this was apparent. The assassination of King Alexander in 1934 was a case in point in that he fell victim to an assassin from the right-wing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.

Alexander was deeply superstitious. He refused to undertake public duties on a Tuesday because three members of his family had met violent ends on Tuesdays. However, a state visit to France in October 1934 meant that he had no choice but to appear in public in Marseilles alongside the French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou, on a Tuesday. The visit had been organized to strengthen the two countries’ alliance against Nazi Germany.

As the two men were being driven across the city, their car was attacked by Vlado Chernozemski, who fired at point-blank range. Alexander, Barthou and the chauffeur were all killed.

The event was the first of its kind to be captured in its entirety on a newsreel camera, which kept running as the car came to rest only a few feet from where the cameraman was standing. He was therefore also able to film the aftermath of the attack as Chernozemski was cut down by a mounted swordsman and then beaten to death by an angry crowd.

Alexander was succeeded as King of Yugoslavia by his son Peter, who was only aged 11 at the time. His father’s cousin Paul acted as regent until Peter was able to assume full powers in 1941, aged 17. Within weeks of taking office Peter was forced to leave the country when the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia, and he was not allowed to return when the war ended in 1945. Had Alexander lived, there is little chance that he would have fared any better.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Mary Rose: the woman who got her way with King Henry VIII

The name Mary Rose brings to most minds (British ones at least) the famous warship that belonged to King Henry VIII’s navy and was so badly designed that when fully laden with cannons it flipped over and sank in the Solent, only to be recovered from the sea bed in 1982. Less well known is the person after whom the ship was named.

Mary Rose Tudor was the younger of King Henry’s two sisters. She was born in March 1496 and was therefore five years younger than Henry. She was given an excellent education and grew up to be strikingly attractive. Not surprisingly, given her status after her brother became King in 1509, she was much sought after as a bride who would be able to cement an international alliance.

She must have known that she would not have much choice in the matter, and that politics would be the sole factor that would determine her future. However, the husband that her brother chose for her, when she was aged 19, was not someone that she would have chosen in a million years, had she been allowed a choice.

This was the twice-widowed King of France, Louis XII, who was 52 years old and in very poor physical condition. He suffered from painful gout, had terrible skin, and quite possibly had a sexually transmitted disease. He was hardly love’s young dream as a marriage prospect.

But on the other hand, he was the King of France, Europe’s richest country at the time, and his wife would be guaranteed every luxury as Queen. Mary Rose also knew that Louis was not a bad man in terms of his general behaviour and – more to the point – that his life expectancy could not be all that great.

So she agreed to the plan, on one condition – that she would be free to choose her own husband when her stint as Queen of France was over. Henry agreed, but he could not have foreseen that he would be forced to carry out the terms of his promise as soon as was actually the case.

Mary Rose became a widow only 82 days after her wedding day, and she soon made clear her intention to marry a non-royal, namely Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Henry was not happy about this, but he had made his sister a promise and there was no way he could back out of it – especially given the fact that Mary Rose was a typical Tudor woman who was every bit as strong-willed as any Tudor man.

Mary Rose therefore retired from royal duties to live the life of a Suffolk countrywoman with the man she loved. She had three children who survived infancy, with one of her daughters growing up to become the mother of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days Queen”, but that’s another story.

The only sad aspect of Mary Rose’s life, apart from the fate of the ship named after her, was that she only lived to the age of 37, possibly succumbing to cancer.
© John Welford

Lady Charlotte Guest

The role of upper-class ladies in Victorian times was to make a good marriage and be the mother of another generation of aristocratic empire-builders. If they chose to indulge in genteel pursuits such as being a patroness of the arts, that was entirely up to them, as long as they did not interfere too much in what their menfolk were up to.

There were, however, some notable exceptions to this format, and Lady Charlotte Guest was one of these, although her name is not one that comes readily to mind in this context. Her accomplishments were modest by comparison to those of Florence Nightingale or Emmeline Pankhurst, for example.

Charlotte Bertie was born at Uffington, Lincolnshire, in 1812, her father being the 9th Earl of Lindsey, who died when Charlotte was six. Her mother remarried, and Charlotte’s stepfather – a clergyman – disapproved of the notion that girls should be educated beyond the basics.

Charlotte was made of sterner stuff and educated herself, not only in the classics but in a variety of languages that included Hebrew, Persian and Welsh.

She did what was expected of her in terms of marrying when young (in 1833), her husband being a Welsh industrialist, Josiah John Guest, who was created a baronet in 1838, thus giving Charlotte the courtesy title of “Lady”. She also became a dutiful mother, giving birth to ten healthy children including four sons who became noted politicians in the Edwardian era.

However, her interest in the Welsh language led to her translation and editing of a collection of 14th-century Celtic tales known as the Mabinogion, which are the earliest prose stories in British literature. The first part of the translation (published as a dual text in both Welsh and English) appeared in 1838, and the seventh and final part in 1845. The importance of the translation was that it brought to public attention the existence of stories from Britain’s Celtic past, which included several legends relating to King Arthur.

Josiah Guest died in 1852, at which point Charlotte revealed another side to her character, which was the ability to do what only men were supposed to be able to do, namely run a company. She took over the management of the Dowlais Ironworks, which would eventually become part of a large industrial complex that survives to this day (GKN – Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds).

This was clearly not what Charlotte really wanted to do, and she was happy to give up being a businesswoman in 1855 when she remarried, her second husband being Charles Schreiber who had been her eldest son’s tutor. She then spent the rest of her life travelling and assembling an impressive collection of ceramics.

Lady Charlotte Guest died in 1895 at Canford Manor, near Poole, which had been built by her first husband and inherited by her eldest son who was created Baron Wimborne in 1880. The house is now Canford School.

© John Welford

King Louis XIX, the holder of a remarkable record

When Andy Warhol spoke about everyone having 15 minutes of fame, he might have had King Louis XIX of France in mind, seeing that his “reign” in 1830 lasted for just about that length of time (to be absolutely accurate it was more like 20 minutes, although it is unlikely that anyone was standing by with a stopwatch at the time!

Not surprisingly, not many people have heard of Louis XIX. Indeed, many people might think that the long line of Bourbon Louis’s ended in 1793 when Louis XVI lost his head during the French Revolution. However, there was Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI, who died in prison at the age of 10, and Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, who was restored to the French throne on the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte. But Louis XIX?

When Louis XVIII died in 1824 he was succeeded by his younger brother, who reigned as Charles X. Charles attempted to restore the monarchy to what it had been before the Revolution, and this led to a second Revolution in July 1830. Charles was luckier than his eldest brother in that he only lost his throne, not his head, and he abdicated in favour of his grandson, who was to reign only very briefly as Henri V.

However, although the father of Henri had died (murdered) back in 1820, Charles had a son who was still alive, namely his elder son Louis, who had supported his father loyally throughout his reign. On 2nd August 1830 Charles signed the abdication document, and the moment his name was on the paper, the royal baton passed to his successor, namely Louis.

The revolutionaries had demanded that Charles abdicate on behalf of himself and his immediate family, thus excluding Louis, but Louis was also required to sign. He hesitated to so do, and for 20 minutes he listened to the entreaties of his wife, who was now technically the Queen of France and rather liked the idea. However, with the whole of France against him, Louis had no choice but to sign and so ended the shortest royal reign ever recorded, anywhere.

The next reign, that of Henri V, did not last a great deal longer, as seven days later the National Assembly declared in favour of the Duke of Orleans who, although a member of the House of Bourbon, had supported the 1789 Revolution and was prepared to rule as a constitutional monarch (King Louis Philippe).

Louis XIX left France for ever and died in Austria in 1844 at the age of 69. For the rest of his life there were a number of ultra-Royalists, known as “Legitimists”, who continued to regard him as the true King of France, but he took no active steps to regain the throne, and therefore goes down as one the more bizarre footnotes of history.

© John Welford

Monday, 19 March 2018

John Rogers: the first Protestant victim of Bloody Mary

John Rogers’s claim to fame is that he was the first victim of Queen Mary I’s campaign against Protestants.

The break from Rome that was launched by King Henry VIII when he divorced Katherine of Aragon in 1533 did not result in a huge change in the way religion was practiced in England – at least, not until Henry died and he was succeeded by his son, King Edward VI. Protestantism then got going in no uncertain way, and John Rogers was one of many preachers who spoke out openly against “pestilent popery, idolatry and superstition”.

John Rogers had been educated at Cambridge University and was a friend of William Tyndale, who had translated the Bible into English but been executed in Belgium in 1536. Rogers was himself an editor of what became known as the “Matthew Bible”.

Edward’s reign was short – he died at the age of 15 in 1553 – and he was succeeded by his sister Mary, who was the Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Mary promptly did everything she could to reverse the English Reformation and turn the country back to Roman Catholicism.

For many people, this was a welcome move. Protestantism had turned out to be far less colourful and dramatic than what had preceded it. For example, it has been estimated that more than 90% of the artworks in England – most of which had decorated its churches – were destroyed during the early years of the Reformation. Ordinary people were far less interested in theology than in having their drab lives enlivened by the “bells and smells” of Sunday worship.

This was also true of many clergymen, who were perfectly content to convert back to Catholicism once Mary arrived on the throne.

It was not true, however, of a die-hard group of Protestants of whom John Rogers was one. He continued to preach against “popery” and was arrested after he destroyed an image of a saint in a parish church.

His arrest took place in January 1554 and he was given several opportunities to “revoke his abominable doctrine”, which he steadfastly refused to do. On being condemned to death he stated “that which I have preached I will seal with my blood”.

His execution took place at Smithfield on 4th February 1555. He was burned to death in front of a large crowd, which included his wife and 11 children.

His was only the first of many such executions that would took place during the reign of “Bloody Mary”. There would be nearly 300 more during the next three years, to be followed by persecutions of Catholics when Mary’s Protestant sister Elizabeth succeeded her in 1558.

England’s religious turmoil would make many victims out of people who refused to change their beliefs.

© John Welford

Sunday, 18 March 2018

His name is mud: the origin of the phrase

When we say that somebody’s name is “mud” we mean that he or she is completely out of favour for one reason or another. On the face of it, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable word to use, given that mud is that nasty, sticky or slippery stuff that we don’t like treading in if we can avoid it.

However, the term has a much more interesting derivation, concerning a tale of a miscarriage of justice and a name that just happened to fit the use to which it was put.

The story begins with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in a box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on 14th April 1865. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, fired the fatal shot then jumped down on to the stage of the theatre. This proved to be too great a height for safety, because Booth broke his leg when he landed and it was only with some difficulty that he was able to leave the theatre, mount his horse and escape.

Once safely outside Washington, Booth found a doctor to treat his injury. This was Dr Samuel Mudd, who did what he was asked, after which Booth rode away.

Dr Mudd only realized who his patient had been when news of the assassination reached everyone the following day. He promptly informed the authorities that he had seen and treated the assassin, but the response he got was far from what he expected. Instead of being thanked for providing valuable information, he was arrested and charged for apparently being a friend of Booth and part of a conspiracy to kill the President.

Giving aid to the man who killed Abraham Lincoln was reckoned by the general public, and the court that tried Dr Mudd, as being a heinous crime that deserved a heavy punishment, and a sentence of life imprisonment was what he got, despite his claim that he had no idea who Booth was at the time he had treated his injury.

It was not until 1869 that Dr Mudd was pardoned and released from jail, but there were still plenty of people who did not believe his protestations of innocence. His name therefore continued to be “mud” for the rest of his life, and “mud” has stuck to many other people in later years whose reputation has been seriously tarnished.

© John Welford

Gruoch, Queen of the Scots

The name Gruoch may not mean much to you, but you may well recognize the title she gained through her second marriage. There is absolutely no reason to believe what you may have heard about her subsequent reputation, though!

Gruoch was a granddaughter of Cinead III, who was King of the Scots from 997 to his death in 1005. She was married to Gille Comgain, Mormaer (Earl) of Moray, who died in 1032. She then married Gille Comgain’s cousin, and it is at this point that pennies start to drop and recognition dawns, because the cousin’s name was Macbeth!

It was through Gruoch that the Moray dynasty inherited both a claim to the kingship and a role in the long-standing feud between rival branches of the Scottish royal house to control the kingdom. Macbeth won that struggle and ruled Scotland from 1040 until his death in battle in 1057.

But was Gruoch, as Lady Macbeth, really the ruthlessly ambitious woman who pushed her husband into committing a series of murders to gain and retain the Scottish crown? That part of the story would appear to have come from the fertile brain of a certain William Shakespeare – but it’s a darned good story nonetheless!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

And What Rough Beast? A possible link between Yeats and Lenin

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
That is the conclusion of W B Yeats’s famous poem “The Second Coming”, written in 1919. This was a time when the future of Ireland was uncertain and violence seemed to be the only recourse for establishing independence from the United Kingdom. World War One was over, but a state of war existed in Ireland as the British desperately tried to exert control. 
Seen in this context, Yeats’s poem expresses fear for the future, seen in the visionary form of a terrible monster coming from the desert and emerging as a monstrous parody of the Christian hope for the return of Christ. There is an echo of a repeated line from Yeats’s earlier poem “Easter 1916”, namely “A terrible beauty is born”.
However, I wonder if Yeats might not have had another event in mind when he wrote about his “rough beast” with “A gaze blank and pitiless as the Sun”. This was the journey made by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin, from Switzerland to St Petersburg in 1917. Lenin’s arrival is generally regarded as the spark that lit the fuse of the October Revolution and the birth of Communism in Russia.
Lenin had spent many years honing Marx’s philosophy and working out how a Communist Revolution could be prompted in Europe. Russia, which was primarily a backward agricultural country, did not appear to be prime territory for the overthrow of capitalism, which Marx had envisaged would happen when the mass of workers in industry realized that they were being exploited by the bourgeoisie and took over the factories. However, Lenin’s version of Marxism showed that a Russian Revolution was feasible, as were revolutions throughout Europe.
Lenin therefore spent much of his time travelling in Western Europe and involving himself in the international socialist movement. That was why he found himself in Switzerland in 1916. Meanwhile, events were moving towards revolution in his home country, although the February 1917 Revolution that overthrew the Tsar had not been organized by the Bolsheviks and did not lead to a Socialist government. 
Lenin desperately wanted to be back in Russia, but his problem was that Russia was at war with Germany and the most obvious route from from neutral Switzerland to Russia was through Germany.
The German government knew all about Lenin, and they also knew that a revolution in St Petersburg, led by Lenin, might be just what was needed to take Russia out of the war and enable Germany to concentrate on its western front at a very difficult time for them now that the United States had joined the Allies. It was therefore in Germany’s best interest to give safe passage through their territory to this particular enemy alien.
However, the imperialist Germans, led by Kaiser Wilhelm, were also terrified of Socialist revolution taking place in their own country. Just suppose that Lenin was able to use his journey through Germany to make stirring speeches at every station the train stopped at and light the revolutionary fuse there before doing so in Russia? 
The solution was the “sealed train”. Lenin and his entourage were conveyed in locked carriages from which they could not leave nor could anyone else enter. This applied for the whole journey from the Swiss border to the Baltic Sea port of Sassnitz, from where they took a ferry to Sweden. Not only did Lenin and his party get across Germany in safety, but they also took with them a gift from Germany in the form of a consignment of gold bars. The Russian Revolution was financed at least in part by the German Kaiser.
Winston Churchill was later to describe this event as Germany turning upon Russia “the most grisly of all weapons”. It was one that worked. In March 1918 the new Bolshevik government, led by Lenin, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that took Russia out of the war. However, this was too late for Germany to do much about the outcome of the war, which was now going very much in the Allies’ favour.
So where does this leave Yeats and his “rough beast” line? The poem “The Second Coming” is highly symbolic, but how do the symbols relate to Lenin? He could hardly have been described as a “rough beast” – certainly not in his appearance and general behavior, and the bestiality of his political actions in ordering the killing of his opponents had not become apparent by the time that Yeats was writing his poem.
However, suppose the rough beast is Communism itself? Yeats might well have regarded this political philosophy as rough, and been aware that it was never going to become the guiding ethos of a nation without exciting considerable opposition that would inevitably lead to bloodshed. The Irish revolution, then in full swing, was not dominated by socialists – although they played their part – and there was never any danger that Ireland would become a people’s republic in the sense that Russia was becoming.
But had Communism’s hour come round at last as Lenin made his way towards St Petersburg? It could be seen as “slouching” in that the journey was hardly a rapid one – Lenin’s party, once in Sweden, had to journey north right round the Baltic Sea and enter Russia from Finland. And once in St Petersburg Lenin did not find things at all easy – he had to escape back into Finland at one stage before the second Revolution in November 1917.
Given the state of Europe in 1919, with Yeats’s Ireland and Lenin’s Russia both in upheaval and uncertain how things would pan out, it does not seem fanciful to regard Lenin’s arrival in St Petersburg as a second coming. And could Yeats have been thinking of the journey in the sealed train as being a form of delivery down a birth canal? Perhaps that is taking the symbolism a bit too far, but if the notion of Communism does have a certain beauty about it, in terms of the recognition of the worth of ordinary people and the value of common purpose, it should also be seen as a “terrible beauty”, as more recent history has shown all too clearly.
© John Welford