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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 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