Monday, 30 December 2019

Albert Norman: a watchmaker who tricked the Japanese

Albert Norman was one of thousands of British soldiers in World War Two who became prisoners of war during the campaign against Japan in southeast Asia. Life for POWs was extremely harsh, and around a quarter of the men who were captured did not survive the war. 

However, Albert Norman had a particular skill that he used to his advantage, not only to ensure his survival but also to fight back aganist his captors, even if only in a very minor way. 

Before the War, Albert had been a watchmaker in his home city of Ely, in Cambridgeshire. Watches did not always work well in the tropical conditions of the Malay Peninsula, and the prison camp guards were glad to have found somebody who could mend their watches when they broke down. They were happy to send extra rations in Albert's direction when their watches were repaired. 

However, Albert, who had the nickname of Tick-Tock, not only knew how to make watches work properly, he also know how to do the opposite. He therefore fixed some of the watches so that they ran slightly slowly. It must have caused him and his fellow soldiers considerable amusement to see junior camp guards being shouted at by their superior officers for turning up late for duty. 

It was a good job that none of the Japanese ever worked out that Albert Norman was the cause of their timekeeping problems. Had they done so, things might have turned out very differently for the watchmaker from Ely.

 © John Welford

King Louis XI: The Universal Spider

The “Universal Spider” was the nickname given to King Louis XI of France, based on his ability to spin plots and entrap his enemies.

He was born on 3rd July 1423 in the town of Bourges and became the French king on 22nd July 1461, succeeding his father King Charles VII. He reigned for 22 years.

He was never going to be a popular monarch, being fat and ugly, and he was a devious and suspicious man, despite being shrewd and intelligent. He managed to make enemies of just about everyone in sight, which might have sounded like a recipe for an ultra-short reign, but he was able to worm his way out of trouble on every occasion.

King Edward IV of England invaded France in 1475, but instead of facing the English on the battlefield, Louis invited Edward and his army captains to a meeting that consisted of three days of sumptuous banquets and entertainment. He then proposed a peace treaty that offered Edward a pension in exchange for recognizing Louis’s claim to the whole of France.

Louis later said that he had chased the English out of France more easily than his father had been able to do, but instead of force of arms his weapons had been venison pies and good wine.

Louis thus made the French monarchy more powerful than it had been for around 150 years, and told his barons “I am France”. He once expressed this by saying “When I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself”.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

King Harold at Chester

A small building on top of a sandstone outcrop in Chester has an interesting – if unlikely – legend attached to it. This is known as the “Anchorite’s Cell” or “The Hermitage”, and it has that name because it was once occupied by reclusive monks who lived there cut off from the outside world so that they could devote their lives entirely to prayer.

The building seen today probably dates from the mid-14th century, although there is no definite information about this. It is, however, certain that if there was an anchorite cell here any earlier than this, it could not have been the current building.

There is a legend that the cell was occupied in the 11th century by a very well-known person. This was the former King Harold II, whom history relates lost his life at the Battle of Hastings, being replaced on the throne of England by William the Conqueror who then reigned, from 1066 to 1087, as King William I. Tradition has it that Harold died after being struck in the eye by an arrow that then pierced his brain

So how could Harold have been a hermit living in Chester after apparently being killed at Hastings? You may well ask!

The legend was originally put about by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) who lived from 1146 to 1223 (or thereabouts). It also appears in a document entitled “Vita Haroldi” from roughly the same time. There are real doubts over the trustworthiness of both sources, which flatly contradict accounts from much closer to the date of the Battle of Hastings.

The legend relates that Harold, despite being seriously wounded – including the loss of an eye! – was taken in by the monks of Waltham Abbey, healed of his injuries and allowed to wander far and wide until he ended up at Chester.

It is quite possible that that an elderly monk turned up much later at the same abbey and claimed to be the long-lost Anglo-Saxon king. The abbey authorities, being no friends of the Norman succession, might have welcomed the chance to spread some “fake news” and gleefully committed the hermit’s story to paper. The same might well be true of Gerald of Wales.

After Hastings, the Normans swept north in a brutal campaign to eliminate all opposition. This included building castles to show the locals that resistance was futile. One such castle was built in 1070 less than a mile from where – apparently – the former King Harold was living as a hermit. If this were so, could he really have escaped detection?

It does sound like a very tall story!

© John Welford

Friday, 15 November 2019

John Hardyng: King Henry's V's spy

The name John Hardyng might perhaps be better known if one of his employers, King Henry V, had not died at the age of 35 and thus rendered much of Hardyng’s hard work useless.

John Hardyng was born in 1378 and educated in the Northumberland household of Sir Henry Percy, who was nicknamed “Hotspur”. This gave him plenty of experience of warfare, given the closeness of the Scottish border and the frequent raids that took place across it.

In 1399 the Percys supported the successful campaign of Henry Bolingbroke against the reigning King Richard II, and John Hardyng played a full part in the rebellion. However, relationships between the new king (Henry IV) and the Percys later broke down, leading to the Battle of Shrewsbury of 1403. Hotspur was killed but John Hardyng survived and was pardoned by King Henry.

Henry IV died in 1413 and was succeeded by his son, who reigned as King Henry V. John Hardyng served the new king faithfully in the latter’s campaign against France.

Henry planned to turn his attention to Scotland once he had finished with France, and in 1418 John Hardyng was given a special mission, namely to travel round Scotland and gather information that would be useful in a future invasion. He was also tasked with finding proof that Scotland’s claim to independence was without foundation.

Hardyng’s mission lasted for three and a half years. During that time he surveyed the routes into Scotland, the places on the coast that could be used by an invasion fleet, the strengths and weaknesses of various castles, and the agricultural resources that could be exploited by an invading army. He also acquired documents that supported England’s claims over Scotland.

In 1421 John Hardyng was forced to flee from Scotland, having made too many enemies, but the information he was able to present to King Henry would have been invaluable had an invasion ever taken place.

However, Henry’s early death put paid to any such ambition, and the new king, Henry VI, was never in any position to make use of John Hardyng’s work.

Hardyng was now in the unfortunate position of having done exactly what had been asked of him but without any reward for his efforts. He became a pensioner at an Augustinian Priory and continued to press King Henry VI to honour the promise made by his father. This eventually led, in 1440, to Hardyng being granted an annuity worth ten pounds a year.

Hardyng spent the next twenty years writing a history of Britain that made good use of his earlier career as a spy, as well as continuing to claim that England had every right to conquer Scotland.

He died in 1465 aged 87, which was a remarkably advanced age at that time. He would probably have made a much larger impact on British history had England actually subdued Scotland as a result of his work.

© John Welford

Monday, 23 September 2019

Sir Walter Raleigh and the over-zealous servant

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) is widely credited for having introduced tobacco to England, having played a leading role in establishing colonies in North America that were particularly suitable for growing the crop, despite the fact that he never set foot on North American soil himself.

Whether Raleigh was directly responsible for bringing tobacco to England is open to doubt, but it is certainly true that he popularized pipe-smoking and was a keen smoker himself.

On one occasion this habit appears to have led to Raleigh having an unpleasant shock. It is not entirely clear where the incident took place, but one strong candidate is Raleigh’s Dorset Home of Sherborne Castle.

One of Sir Walter’s man-servants – so it is said – saw smoke arising from behind a bush. Knowing that Sir Walter was there, he deduced that something terrible had happened and that his master must be on fire. He therefore poured of jug of ale over the bush to quench the flames. This certainly did the trick as far as extinguishing the fire was concerned, but was the servant “fired” for soaking Sir Walter in ale?

Your guess is as good as mine!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Franklin Pierce: 14th President of the United States

Franklin Pierce, who served as the 14th President of the United States from 1853 to 1857, is generally regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, his activities playing a part in the build-up to the Civil War. 

Pierce, born in 1804, was a lawyer from New Hampshire who had served in Army during the Mexican-American War, reaching the rank of Brigadier General. He had also been a Representative and Senator, resigning from the Senate in 1842. 

He was encouraged to stand as the Democratic nominee for the Presidency as a compromise between Northern and Southern interests. This was because he was a pro-slavery northerner who supported the 1850 Missouri Compromise that maintained the balance between slave and free states. Party unity was preserved by his nomination but he kept very quiet during the Presidential campaign, which meant that very few voters really knew that he stood for.

Pierce’s Presidency got off to bad start when his only surviving son was killed in a railway accident after Pierce had been elected but had not yet taken office. He consequently suffered from periods of depression during his Presidential term and tended to be a do-nothing President who did little to change the course of events.

The actions he did take were not all that wise or sensible. One was to allow the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act according to which new territories were able to decide the slave question for themselves, which was seen by abolitionists as forcing slavery onto new states.

In Kansas, pro- and anti-slavery factions flooded in from other states and resorted to violence in their efforts to influence the vote. The violence took the form of towns being raided and buildings set on fire, which led to the territory gaining the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas”.

There was also violence on the floor of the Senate, where one senator hit another with a cane and nearly killed him.

Franklin Pierce was seen as weak in his response to these events, and his pro-slavery attitude seemed to be confirmed when he proposed the incorporation of Cuba into the United States as a slave state.

Pierce lost the support of his party and was unable to contest the 1856 election. 

In later life, Franklin Pierce continued to comment on political matters and was horrified by the prospect of Civil War. He became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869 at the age of 64.
© John Welford

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Duke Ernst and his unwanted daughter-in-law

Duke Ernst of Bavaria-Munich was very worried about his son and heir, Albert. He wanted to make sure that Albert would make a good marriage, which meant, back in 1435, that his wife had to belong to another ducal or royal family with whom Bavaria-Munich sought an alliance. That was just the way that things were done.

However, Duke Ernst was hearing alarming tales about Albert’s close friendship with Agnes Bernauer, who most certainly did not belong to foreign royalty or aristocracy. She was the daughter of a baker, and she worked at a bathhouse in Munich. Her job was to carry jugs of hot water to the male clients of the establishment who spent time soaking in large wooden tubs. Did she provide any “extra services”? Maybe!

Duke Ernst was told that Albert was one of the bathhouse clients, and that he had struck up a friendship with Agnes. The reports became even more alarming when they suggested that the friendship had become particularly close. Could he actually have married the girl in a secret ceremony?

As it happened, Albert had indeed married Agnes, but Duke Ernst did not know this. Even so, he reckoned that something had to be done whether this was true or not. He therefore contrived a plot to get rid of Agnes.

This took the form of a tournament at which Albert would be able to show off his manly skills as a fighter and horseman, which were considerable. With his mind and body fully engaged on jousting and wrestling, he was in no position to look after Agnes, who mysteriously “disappeared” during the festivities.

Agnes was put on trial for witchcraft, found guilty, and drowned in the River Danube.

Duke Ernst did at least feel a pang of remorse for his action and paid for a fine church to be built over Agnes’s tomb. Albert fled Bavaria and thought about raising an army to challenge his father, but eventually made peace with his family.

In the end, Albert did make the sort of marriage that met with his father’s approval, marrying a rich and respectable princess from a powerful north German state.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Roald Amundsen: the first man to reach the South Pole

Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was a Norwegian explorer who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, which he did in December 1911. History tells far fewer stories about him than it does about Robert Falcon Scott, who reached the pole a month later to find a Norwegian flag stuck in the ice, and who perished on the return journey.

The problem with Amundsen’s expedition, from the point of view of romance and history, is that there were not many problems.

Amundsen did not make many of the mistakes that Scott made. For example, he did not use heavy woolen clothing but lightweight furred skins. He also relied on dog teams for hauling sledges and not ponies, as Scott did.

The venture was carefully planned, with supply depots established at strategic points along the route. One factor that led to disaster for Scott’s party was that the supply depots were wrongly placed, which was not a mistake that Amundsen made.

Amundsen’s expedition did have one setback, with the first group that tried to reach the Pole being forced to turn back, but the second party, including Amundsen himself, reached its objective and returned safely to base camp.

Amundsen announced his success when he reached Hobart (capital of Tasmania) in March 1912. Some people in the UK were not willing to credit him with having beaten Scott to the Pole, preferring to wait for Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, to return to the UK with the triumphant explorers aboard. Of course, this did not happen. The full horror of Scott’s failure was not discovered until November.

Roald Amundsen later carried out expeditions in the Arctic, including flying to the North Pole by flying boat. He disappeared in 1928 when on a rescue mission in the Arctic. His flying boat is believed to have crashed into the sea, with his remains, and those of the other crew members, never being found.
© John Welford

Monday, 8 July 2019

Frederick Barbarossa: his death and boiling

On 10th June 1190 Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor (i.e. the ruler of German-speaking Europe) died in a river in Turkey. The circumstances of his death have never been established with certainty.

Barbarossa had responded to calls from Rome for another Crusade to conquer Jerusalem and save the “holy places” for Christianity. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim armies, had recaptured the city three years previously, and Christendom felt obliged to put things right, as they saw it.

Frederick I (Barbarossa was a nickname meaning “red beard”) was born in 1122 and became King of Germany in 1152 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. As a young man he had distinguished himself on the Second Crusade of 1147-49, and the call to arms in 1188 for a Third Crusade had a ready response from a man who, although now in his late sixties, presumably saw this as just one more campaign after a lifetime of military adventures.

Barbarossa headed an army of probably around 15,000 men, which marched overland towards Turkey. The Crusade was also joined in 1189 by the new English King, Richard I, who took the sea route.

On 18th May 1190 Barbarossa defeated the Turks at Iconium and the route towards Jerusalem was wide open. However, things went terribly wrong when Barbarossa reached Silifke in southern Turkey.

There are various accounts of what actually happened in the River Saleph (known as the Goksu River today). One story is that Barbarossa took a dip in the river at the end of a hot day. Another is that his horse slipped as he was crossing the river and threw him into the water. Did he drown after hitting his head on a rock? Did he suffer a heart attack as a result of shock from plunging into very cold water? We shall never know for certain.

What is known is that the army proceeded on its journey, led by Barbarossa’s son, also named Frederick, but with little enthusiasm for the task. Many soldiers deserted and turned for home, while others fell victim to disease.

Barbarossa`s body was given an unusual, not to say revolting, treatment. At Antioch it was boiled so that all the flesh fell off the bones. The flesh was buried in the Cathedral of St Peter, with the idea that the bones would find their final resting place in Jerusalem when the Crusade reached its goal and defeated Saladin.

However, this did not happen, so the bones were buried at Tyre instead.

© John Welford

Thursday, 23 May 2019

The poor health of King Henry VIII

It is well known that King Henry VIII had no luck in trying to father a male heir until he married the third of his six wives, with Prince Edward being born to Jane Seymour in 1537, 28 years after Henry had come to the throne in 1509.

Henry was quite ready to place the blame for his misfortune on his first two wives, divorcing Catherine of Aragon after 24 years of marriage and having Anne Boleyn executed after being married to her for three years. However, it is entirely possible that it was his own health condition that was the cause of the problem all along.

Kell blood

It has been suggested (by researchers Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer) that Henry had what is known as Kell blood, caused by a genetic abnormality. When a Kell-positive man fathers a child, so they assert, the mother’s antibodies will attack the foetus during pregnancy, leading to stillbirth or miscarriage.

This does not happen on every occasion, which is why three of the ten pregnancies of Henry’s first three wives led to the birth of live children, namely Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. However, the other seven pregnancies failed.

McLeod Syndrome

There is another condition that is known to be suffered by Kell-positive individuals, and only by them, namely McLeod Syndrome. The symptoms are both physical and mental, the latter including paranoia, depression and socially inappropriate conduct. The disease usually becomes apparent only after the victim has reached their 30s or 40s.

This pattern seems to fit Henry VIII quite well. As a young man he was very much an outgoing and fun-loving person who was greatly admired. However, things went downhill after he reached his 40s, which was when he divorced Catherine of Argon, executed Anne Boleyn and created the Church of England by rejecting the authority of the Pope.

The deterioration in Henry’s character led to him becoming a suspicious and ruthless tyrant with a quick temper. This is perfectly consistent with a diagnosis of McLeod Syndrome.

A fascinating "what if"

It should surprise no-one that this analysis is not accepted universally, with some objectors questioning the assertion - mentioned above – that a father’s Kell blood would affect a foetus. Apart from that, the theory might seem to have much to recommend it.

However, if the theory is correct, it could be the fact that an inherited gene had huge consequences for the later history of England.

If Henry had been able to father a healthy male heir with Catherine of Aragon, early in his reign, not only would his marital life have been very different – Catherine died in 1536, so he might well have remarried, but who to? – but there would have been no need to break with Rome or dissolve the monasteries.

The later history of England would therefore have been very different. Princess Elizabeth (the daughter of Anne Boleyn) would never have been born and so there not have been an “Elizabethan Age”, with all that that entailed.

History is full of “what ifs” – that posed by King Henry VIII’s health is just one of many!
© John Welford

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Dagmar, a Danish princess who became a remarkable Tsarina

One problem with being born as a royal princess in past centuries was that you rarely had much choice as to who your life partner would turn out to be. In the case of Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she did not even get the royal prince that had originally been chosen for her, but his far less desirable younger brother.

Dagmar was born in 1847 as the second daughter of Prince Christian, who became King of Denmark in 1863. Christian had made an excellent match for his eldest daughter Alexandra, who in 1861 became engaged to the British heir to the throne, Prince Edward, and in 1864 he landed another prestigious prize by offering Dagmar as the prospective bride of the Russian Tsarevitch, Nicholas, and their engagement was duly announced. 

However, this did not last long due to the death of Nicholas from meningitis in April the following year. He was only 21.

On his deathbed, Nicholas expressed a wish that Dagmar should marry Alexander, his younger brother who was then aged 19. Dagmar therefore acquired a second prospective husband, whom she duly married on 9th November 1866, shortly before her 19th birthday.

The couple might have expected to enjoy a much longer period as crown prince and princess than they did, given that Alexander’s father, then reigning as Tsar Alexander II, was in excellent health and not yet 50 years old at the time of the younger Alexander’s and Dagmar’s wedding. However, tragedy intervened in 1881 when the Tsar was assassinated by bombs that were thrown into his carriage as he drove through the streets.

The crown prince was now Tsar Alexander III, and Dagmar, who had taken the names Maria Feodorovna on her marriage, was now the Tsarina. By this time she had had six of her seven children, although one had died in infancy. Her eldest son would become the last Tsar of Russia as Nicholas II.

With her husband Alexander as the nation’s ruler, the atmosphere of social and political life in Russia underwent a marked change. His father’s assassination had not been the first attempt on his life, and the new Tsar was determined to avoid becoming the next victim of the revolutionary mood that was building in the country. He therefore did everything he could to suppress all opposition to his autocratic rule, and to use whatever methods were needed to this end.

This attitude to politics suited his temperament, which was nothing like that of his somewhat mild-mannered father. He was a large, unwieldy man with gruff manners and a fierce temper. The Tsar’s word was law. The story is told that he was consulted about the route that a section of the proposed Trans-Siberian Railway should take. He took a ruler and drew a line on the map in front of him. However, his fingers projected over the top of the ruler and the line was straight with two small bumps on it. These were translated into two completely unnecessary diversions to nowhere that the railway was thus forced to take.

Physically, Alexander dwarfed his wife Maria, who was a small woman with delicate features. As a couple, the Tsar and Tsarina were completely mismatched. Maria had gone out of her way to understand the Russian people, not only learning their language but engaging in charitable and social events and becoming very popular as a result. Alexander had nothing but contempt for ordinary Russians, all of whom he regarded as potential assassins.

Alexander therefore spent much of his time listening to reports from his secret police about plots and threats, and passing judgment on the fate of people who were arrested as suspected terrorists. His worries were no means always baseless. One plot that failed involved a group of students who were hanged in 1887, one among their number being Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother would prove to be a far more successful revolutionary in later years, having assumed the nom de guerre of Lenin.

So what qualifies the former Princess Dagmar for the title of “great woman”? Perhaps nothing, but if one story is true – and it may well not be – there is certainly an element of greatness about her.

As mentioned before, Alexander gave much thought to the fate of potential suspects. His officials would produce lists of these and ask for decisions on what should happen to them. Occasionally, it might be thought that a relatively minor offence did not deserve the sanction of exile to the wilds of Siberia, where prisoners were often worked to death in terrible conditions. A piece of paper bearing the suspect’s name, with a recommendation for a pardon, would therefore land on Alexander’s desk to await his comment and signature.

The Tsarina took very little interest in politics, and she knew better than to challenge her husband in such matters. Nonetheless, she knew well what exile to Siberia meant, and she could relate to the heartbreak that such a fate would mean to the family of the person involved if the victim simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

On one occasion she walked into Alexander’s office to ask him a question, but he was not there. However, in his out-tray of signed papers she spotted a command concerning a prisoner for whom a pardon had been sought. Under the name of the man Alexander had written “Pardon impossible” on one line, and underneath “to send to Siberia”. Quick as a flash, Maria grabbed a pen and simply inserted a comma on the sheet, which now read:

“Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

This is one of those stories that one wishes was true, even if it isn’t!

Alexander died of natural causes in 1894 at the age of 49, leaving the throne to his son Nicholas, who was eventually unable to prevent the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When this happened and the Bolsheviks took over, Maria left Russia, eventually ending her days back in Denmark and resuming her old name of Dagmar. She died in 1928 at the age of 80.

There is an interesting parallel between Dagmar’s story and that of a much earlier royal bride in another country. Catherine of Aragon was a foreign princess who was due to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, who unfortunately died at a young age before the marriage had been consummated. Catherine was then passed on to Arthur’s younger brother, who became King Henry VIII. It might also be thought that there were some similarities, both physical and temperamental, between Henry and Alexander, both of whom were absolute monarchs who would demand obedience and accept no opposition.

Was Dagmar a great woman? She was certainly a woman of compassion who may just possibly have saved a life thanks to a piece of quick thinking and the stroke of a pen.

© John Welford

Monday, 28 January 2019

King Edward VII

Born in 1841 as the eldest son of Queen Victoria, who was to have the longest reign of any British monarch up to that point, Edward spent many years as Prince of Wales before becoming king in 1901. 
Edward and his mother did not get on well, due largely to his playboy lifestyle as a rich young man with little to do apart from enjoy himself. Victoria blamed Edward for hastening the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861. This came about when Albert, already ill with typhoid, journeyed to Cambridge, where Edward was studying at Trinity College, to remonstrate with him after an affair involving an actress. Albert’s health worsened after the trip and he died two weeks later.
As a result, Victoria would not involve Edward in matters of state and he therefore had even more free time in which to indulge his passions for horseracing, shooting, gambling and women. His marriage to a Danish princess (Alexandra) in 1863 did nothing to slow him down in these respects.
However, although Edward’s many dalliances with women other than his wife could be glossed over in Victorian society, his involvement in an illegal game of cards in 1890 was a scandal that shocked many people.
This was the Tranby Croft affair that concerned an action for slander brought by Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming in July 1891. He had been accused of cheating during a game of baccarat (a gambling card game that was illegal at the time) held during a house party, of which Edward was a member, at Tranby Croft in Yorkshire the previous September. Gordon-Cumming sought to clear his name by bringing an action for slander against his accusers and Edward was called as a witness during the ensuing court case. 
Edward was exposed as not only having taken part in an illegal activity but – as an Army Field-Marshall – not having reported Gordon-Cumming to his commanding officer for the same offence, and for being a cheat. Indeed, he did everything he could to persuade the Colonel to drop the case and thus hush everything up.
However, when Edward eventually became king in 1901, at the age of 59, everything changed. He carried out his royal duties with full responsibility and was very popular with the British people. The short “Edwardian Age” was one of relative prosperity and liberality that people would later look back on with fond nostalgia.
Edward was also very active as an ambassador for his country, both in Europe and the British Empire. 
However, Edward’s late arrival on the throne meant that his reign was unlikely to last long. He died in 1910 at the age of 68.
© John Welford

Thursday, 24 January 2019

King Edward VI

Born in 1537, the son of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Edward was only nine years old when his father died in 1547.
Effective power was exercised firstly by Edward’s maternal uncle Edward Seymour, Earl of Somerset, and then by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. 
Edward was studious (he was learning Latin and Greek at the age of five) and unemotional, and far more fervently Protestant than his father, although the influence of Protector Somerset in this regard cannot be ignored. 
He endorsed the Church of England prayer books written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and 1552 and took steps to remove signs of Roman Catholic influence from English churches.
Somerset’s other main aim was to continue the wars against France and Scotland that had been instigated by King Henry VIII. One of Somerset’s objectives was to force a marriage between Edward and Mary Queen of Scots, who was five years younger than Edward. However, Somerset’s policy only served to strengthen the alliance between Scotland and France, as a result of which Mary married the heir to the French throne.

When Somerset was overthrown in 1549 he was succeeded by the Earl of Warwick who was later declared Duke of Northumberland. He was able to extricate England from the French and Scottish wars and then turned his attention to the question of who would reign after Edward. 
When Edward fell ill with tuberculosis in February 1553 it soon became clear that his illness was terminal and there was clearly no prospect of him producing an heir. Northumberland was determined that Edward’s Catholic sister Mary should not become Queen and so hatched a plot to make Lady Jane Grey (a great-niece of Henry VIII and Edward’s cousin) the next monarch. Northumberland sought to advance his own position by marrying his son Guildford Dudley to Lady Jane, much to the latter’s disgust.
However, after Edward’s death in July 1553 (aged 15) the plot fell apart and Mary did indeed become Queen and tried her hardest to undo Edward’s work in promoting Protestantism in England. Among the many victims of her reign were 17-year-old Lady Jane and her husband and father-in-law.
© John Welford

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Richard Trevithick and the first rail locomotive

The credit for inventing the first workable steam rail locomotive must go to Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), but that is not to say that he was responsible for all the elements that comprise a rail loco, or that his invention was particularly successful. However, within the long history of the steam rail locomotive, his name deserves a prominent place.

The origins of the railway

The idea of using rails to guide a vehicle goes back a very long way. Indeed, it could be said that the grooves worn by carts on Roman roads were a form of railway. It is widely assumed that the reason why the standard rail gauge is four feet eight and a half inches is that this was the gauge of Roman war chariots, and it was sensible for all other vehicles to set their wheels at the same distance apart.

Be that as it may, horse-drawn vehicles had used flanged railways for centuries before locomotives were invented. These were used mainly in mines and quarries as a way of moving heavy loads safely, and were made of either wood or cast iron.

Steam engines

Steam engines were also developed for use in mines, particularly for the purpose of pumping out water. Here the main credit must go to James Watt (1736-1819), who improved earlier designs (particular that of Thomas Newcomen) to achieve greater efficiency in mine pumping and also to make steam engines feasible for use in driving factory machines. However, Watt did not favour the development of steam engines for locomotion, as he believed that they could not be operated in safety.

Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick was a Cornishman who worked in the local tin mines, particularly on the steam engines then in use, and he made improvements so that they could be used as winding engines for lifting loads to the surface. His particular contribution was to develop a high-pressure engine that was more efficient than its predecessors. It was only by using high-pressure steam that a self-propelling engine would be made feasible.

The first locomotive

His first locomotive, built in 1796, was little more than a toy, but it used steam power to propel a miniature machine. However, by the end of 1801 he had built something that was far more substantial, namely a steam-driven road carriage that could carry up to seven people. His “Puffing Devil” had a single horizontal cylinder and incorporated a large flywheel to keep momentum going between each stroke of the piston. However, it could only go for short distances before literally running out of steam. It came to an unfortunate end when it broke down and the boiler overheated and exploded – fortunately after everyone had abandoned it and gone to the pub.

Undaunted, Trevithick was able to interest another Cornish engineer, Sir Humphrey Davy, and his cousin Andrew Vivian, which enabled him to gain a patent and build a new road engine, which he took to London and exhibited. However, when the frame of the engine became twisted, his supporters backed off.

On to the rails

Richard Trevithick then moved his operations to an ironworks in South Wales, where the first rail locomotive was built with the first demonstration run taking place on 21st February 1804. Five wagons, containing 70 men and 10 tons of iron, were hauled for more than nine miles at a speed of five miles an hour. However, the quality of the locomotive was not matched by the rails on which it ran, and a derailment on a later run meant that the engine had subsequently to be used as a stationary rather than a mobile machine.

Four years later, in 1808, Trevithick demonstrated “Catch Me Who Can” on a circular track in London. This was designed purely as a fairground attraction, with passengers being offered rides at a shilling a time, which was quite a lot of money in those days. However, it was again the track quality that proved to be inadequate, with a broken rail leading to its downfall as a commercial enterprise.

After that, Trevithick lost interest in further developing his invention and applied his skills in other areas, such as a mining venture in South America which came to nothing. He was, like many engineering geniuses, less adept at business and ended his life in poverty with his friends having to club together to pay for his funeral when he died in 1833.

The idea lives on

However, in 1805 a colleague of Trevithick’s, John Steele, had taken his designs to the north of England and built a locomotive for a coal mine at Wylam, near Newcastle, which was where George Stephenson lived. Stephenson developed the Trevithick engine into something that was far more powerful and reliable, and also had the business acumen that Trevithick lacked.

George Stephenson is rightly credited as being the “father of the railway”, and is famed as the builder of “Rocket”, the locomotive that won the Rainhill trials in 1829, but credit for being the inventor of the railway locomotive belongs to Richard Trevithick.

© John Welford

King Edward IV

Born in 1442 as the son of Richard, Duke of York, Edward gained the crown in 1461 through conquest and spent most of the early part of his reign in a bitter struggle with the opposing dynasty of the House of Lancaster, the conflict being known to history as the Wars of the Roses.

Victories at Mortimer’s Cross and Towton led to Edward becoming king, helped in large measure by his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The Lancastrian monarch, King Henry VI, was captured and held in the Tower of London. Edward confiscated the possessions of many Lancastrian supporters and lavished them on his own cronies, with the Earl of Warwick being a main benefactor.

Edward was a skilled politician who also knew the advantages of a sound economy for boosting his popularity, especially as the boosting of trade meant that he had no need to impose heavy taxes on his subjects.

However, Edward’s main failing was his strong sexual appetite, which led to his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, who refused his advances until he agreed to marry her. The problem was that Elizabeth was a Lancastrian who insisted on bringing many of her relatives with her to court. This undermined the Earl of Warwick’s position, causing him to switch sides.

Warwick, who became known to history as “the kingmaker”, allied himself with Louis XI of France and Margaret of Anjou in a successful plot to unseat Edward, who sought refuge in Burgundy in 1470 while King Henry VI was able to return to the throne, albeit briefly.

Edward was far from finished. He fought back and defeated and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471. His final victory was secured against the forces of King Henry at Tewkesbury the following month, after which Henry was murdered and Edward resumed his reign.

The rest of Edward’s reign was relatively peaceful and English commerce was promoted, helped by a truce with France that lasted for seven years. Edward was even able to mount a successful invasion of
Scotland in 1482 that led to Berwick-upon-Tweed returning to English control.

Edward died suddenly from natural causes in 1483, leaving his 13-year-old son and heir Edward in the guardianship of his brother Richard, who would soon afterwards seize the throne as King Richard III. Queen Elizabeth’s intense dislike of Richard was, however, going to prove disastrous for the future of her sons.

© John Welford

Thursday, 17 January 2019

King Edward III

Born in 1312, Edward succeeded his father in 1327, at the age of 15, and reigned for 50 years. At first, Edward was subject to the controlling influence of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. However, in 1330 Edward asserted his authority and began reigning for himself. Mortimer was executed and Isabella was forced out of public life. 
Edward’s reign was marked by the outbreak of the Hundred Years War with France in 1337 with Edward claiming sovereignty over France as well as England and Scotland. Victories at Sluys in 1340 and Crecy in 1346, were followed by a period of truce. Hostilities resumed in 1355, with victory at Poitiers achieved by Edward’s son Edward, known as the Black Prince. 
The Europe-wide plague known as the Black Death reached England in 1348, with devastating consequences for people of all social classes.
The Black Prince pre-deceased his father, so Edward was succeeded by his 10-year-old grandson Richard II. 
Edward had four other sons who survived him, and their progeny would form royal lines – those of the Houses of York and Lancaster - that would clash in later years in the so-called Wars of the Roses.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

King Edward I

Born in 1239, he reigned from 1272 until his death in 1307. He was the eldest son of King Henry III (reigned 1216-72) and supported him on the battlefield during the “Barons War” of 1264-7. His most notable success was the defeat of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

After becoming king, Edward subdued the Welsh princes during conflicts lasting from 1277 to 1284 and emphasized his overlordship of Wales by building a series of strong castles that included Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech.

He then turned his attention to Scotland, firstly by supporting the claim of John de Balliol to become King of Scotland in 1292 and then launching a full invasion in 1296, which provoked a fierce response. Edward was on his way to do battle with King Robert I (Robert the Bruce) when he died in 1307.

© John Welford

Monday, 7 January 2019

King Philip Augustus of France

14th July is the National Day of France, chosen because of the outbreak of the French Revolution on that date in 1789. However, it was also the day on which one of France’s greatest medieval monarchs, King Philip Augustus (Philip II), died in 1223.
Philip Augustus was born on 21st August 1165, the only son of King Louis VII. He came to the throne in 1180, aged only 15, but was to have a reign lasting 43 years.
For much of that time he was engaged in wars against the English, led at first by King Henry II and then by King Richard I (the Lionheart). Philip’s relationship with Richard was harmonious at first, in that they joined forces on the Third Crusade, but Philip fell ill during the journey to the Holy Land and turned back to France. Once there, he set about conquering Richard’s territories (at that time the English crown ruled over much of what is now France).
Philip was greatly aided by the fact that Richard was captured in Austria on his return journey and spent a whole year in prison while his ransom was being raised in England.
However, after Richard’s release he was able to set about the task of repairing the damage, with the result that the years 1194 to 1198 were marked by an almost constant war between the two monarchs.
Richard died in 1199, the result of a wound received when besieging a castle, and Philip’s task became very much easier due the military incompetence of Richard's successor as king, his brother John. Over the next 14 years Philip was able to deprive England of nearly all her possessions in France.
Philip also enjoyed military success against the German Emperor Otto IV, notably at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.
Apart from his prowess on the battlefield, Philip Augustus had two other claims to fame – he paved the main streets of Paris and built a large palace that is known today as the Louvre.
© John Welford