Category Archives: British History

Further thoughts on John I

Angry John signs while elderly Marshal supervises / britishromanticism.wikispaces

Angry John signs while elderly Marshal supervises / britishromanticism.wikispaces

King John has the worst reputation of any English king, and there is plenty of competition. He was a crooked legislator, greedy, consumed with ambition of the despicable kind; he is proved to have murdered his nephew Arthur (son of Geoffrey) with his own hands in the boy’s prison cell. The boy was still in his teens, and after strangling him John tied a stone to the body and threw it in the River Seine. He brought constitutional crisis to England before and during his reign. Robin Hood was a mythical figure, but it is no coincidence that stories about the legendary outlaw proliferated during the reign of King John. Continue reading

The father of Winston

Lord Randolph Churchill /lifedaily.com

Lord Randolph Churchill /lifedaily.com

Few people have any other mind’s eye image of Winston Churchill than that of a very old man, with a big cigar and perhaps an even bigger ego.

Young Winston / winston churchillfoundation.org

Young Winston / winston churchillfoundation.org

But Winston too had a father, and not an insignificant one either. He was Lord Randolph Henry Spencer, third son of the Duke of Marlborough, who lived in the great palace of Blenheim, given to the family ‘by a grateful nation’ of the first Duke, with grateful thanks for his outstanding military qualities, shown across Europe in battles at Donnauwórth, Blenheim, Ramillies, and Oudenarde. John Churchill won all these, after defeated the rebellious bastard son of Charles II – The Duke of Monmouth. He had a split personality too, which he demonstrated by betraying his one-time friend, the brother of King Charles II – James II. It was Marlborough and others who orchestrated the de-throning and voluntary banishment of James, who had pronounced Catholic tendencies disliked by Marborough and other magnates. Continue reading

Regicides, family murders & mysteries

The regiside of King Charles I / lookandlearn.com

The regicide of King Charles I / lookandlearn.com

Regicide, or the killing of a reigning monarch by his own people has always been believed (though not by republicans) to be among the worst of all crimes. In British history the best known regicide is that of Charles I: there are other not so celebrated perhaps, but regicides nonetheless. Murders committed within the royal family itself are also numerous. Mysteries never yet solved abound too. Here is an easily remembered account of these criminal actions.

Norman Dynasty

William II (Rufus) Family murder and mystery: The unpopular king, a son of William I the Conquerer was fatally shot with an arrow while hunting in the south of England in the year 1100. He was around 44 years old, and was succeeded by Henry I (his brother) who may or may not have arranged the killing. Henry reigned for 35 years.

Angevins

King John, an immensely unpopular man and king, murdered by strangulation his own nephew Arthur, imprisoned by him, probably in Calais.

Plantagenet

Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle, Gloucs, by order of his own wife, known as ‘the she-wolf of France’ and her lover, Mortimer, who had his eye on the throne. It was September, 1327. Tradition has it that red-hot pokers were introduced into the king’s body via the anus and rectum, using a horn funnel so that no marks of violence could be seen on the body after death. Mortimer was foiled by Edward’s eighteen-year old son, who became King Edward III and reigned well for fifty years. Mortimer was executed at his order, and he sent his mother the she-wolf to a nunnery which she was not allowed to leave.

Richard II was born in 1367, and deposed in September, 1399. Five months later he was murdered in prison by order of Bolingbroke, who had usurped his throne and become King Henry IV (‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ William Shakespeare).

Henry VI founder of Eton and Kings College. Weak, often ill and semi-deranged, he was the son of popular Henry V (winner at Agincourt). He was deposed in March, 1461 during the Wars of the Roses, restored to the throne in 1470 as the battles between York and Lancaster raged, deposed again in April, 1471, and finally disposed of in prison in May of that year, presumably by order of the new king, Yorkist usurper Edward IV. Henry VI was the last Lancastrian king.

Edward V was born, a son of Edward IV in 1470. He actually became a very young king on the early death of his father. He was shut in the Tower of London accompanied by his younger brother the Duke of York, by order of king Richard III, who was their uncle. Richard usurped the throne, and the two young boys never left the Tower. Londoners believed Richard had had them murdered, but there is no evidence. The boys had been declared officially illegitimate, and could therefore pose no threat to Richard’s kingship. Two other men, the Duke of Buckingham, a royal cousin, and Henry Tudor himself, stand out as more likely suspects, for a multitude of reasons and motives revealed in countless scholarly books.

Richard III was killed on the battlefield by soldiers supposedly serving him. Kings killed in battle by the common soldiery are not seen as the subject of regicide.

Tudor

Henry VIII judicially murdered two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but these unfortunate women are only two in a very long list of those who died because they offended Henry or disagreed with him. He was about to kill Cardinal Wolsey, and actually executed Thomas Cromwell, both men having served him faithfully and well.

Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537, promoted as queen by a relative, a Dudley Duke of Northumberland, acceded in 1553, and executed with her teenaged husband Guildford at the order of Mary I (a Tudor) after a reign so brief it was hardly noticeable.

Elizabeth I last of the Tudors, signed the death warrant of her cousin Mary Queen of France and Scotland, whom she had imprisoned. She later claimed that she had been pressured to do so by her courtiers. This is not regicide as such, merely a significant murder in the family.

Stuart

Charles I, son of James I of England and IV of Scotland, declared war on his own parliament, causing the English Civil War. A gentle, indecisive man, his is the best-known regicide in British history. He was beheaded in 1649 on a cold, blustery day, and it is said that a loud groan from the huge crowd was heard all round Whitehall. He died at the behest of ‘the Regicides’, some, but not all of whom would pay with their lives for their signatures on the death warrant, at the Restoration of Charles’ son, king Charles II.

More thoughts on that Yalta Conference

The 'Big Three' from l. to r. 'Exhausted', 'Dying', and 'Exuberant' / spartacus.educational.com

The ‘Big Three’ from l. to r. ‘Exhausted’, ‘Dying’, and ‘Exuberant’ / spartacus.educational.com

In February, 1945, the second ‘Big Three’ conference took place at Yalta in the Crimea. The first had been in Teheran in Persia. What was agreed at Yalta changed the face of Europe, prepared the ground for the Cold War, and put millions of ordinary people into a condition of near-slavery. The three major protagonists were the respective leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and Russia – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. The first was dying slowly but certainly, the second was old and exhausted, and the third was younger, fitter, and unable to see any point of view that was not his. He was also a fully-qualified dictator. Continue reading

The Dominions, and the Statute of Westminster

A part of New Zealand / airnewzealand.ar.com

A part of New Zealand / airnewzealand.ar.com

Readers become confused by the essential differences between dominions and colonies and protectorates. The British Empire, when it existed, embraced all three. ‘Dominions’ was the name used for countries in the Empire that had a certain degree of self-government, but owed allegiance to the British Crown. The first country to be called a Dominion was Canada (1867), followed by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and, at last, the Irish Free State in 1921. Their new independence was officially recognised at the Imperial Conference in 1926. Actual power to pass legislation independently of the Government was confirmed by the Statute of Westminster.

In 1931 this Statute gave freedom to the Dominions. Following the Great War these Dominions had been accepted as national states in their own right, though they were still part of the Empire. They joined the ill-fated League of Nations (q.v.) but it was seen (by them) as if their ‘freedom’ was still limited. Continue reading

The real Sir William Wallace

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland / en.wikipedia.org

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland / en.wikipedia.org

Some years ago the anglophobe film star and director Gibson made a Hollywood-backed movie called Braveheart. This tasteful work of art purports to be the story of a Scot called Wallace who led his (kilted) warriors to victory against a dastardly English king and won a major battle at Stirling in the cause of independence for Scotland from domineering, untrustworthy England. The film is so full of historical errors as to make it extremely funny, and therefore worth watching on your video machine at least once a year.

The real William Wallace was born around 1294. His was a knightly family, not a collection of crofters. Still young, he began the impossible task of gathering the Picts and Scots together – not the clans, they came later. Most northern Scots spoke Gaelic and nothing else, except some relics of their Norse ancestry. All lowland Scots spoke what went for English in the 13th century, a heady mixture of French and Saxon tongues. One thing bound these fighters together, their joint hatred of the English, and of each other. William Wallace, who was born a knight, did indeed manage this tricky task, and the English were trounced at the battle of Stirling in 1297 when William was only twenty-three. Continue reading

The American Federation of Labor

Samuel Gompers / britannica.com

Samuel Gompers / britannica.com

‘Socialism’ or ‘Socialist’ are unclean words in the United States. This is why the other part of their two-party political system is called ‘The Democratic Party’ as opposed to ‘The American Labour (labor) Party’ or the ‘US Social Democratic Party’. Socialism has always been regarded by loyal Americans as ‘un-American’. And yet the divisive word ‘labor’ crept into mainstream language when the craft unions got together in 1881 to found the AFL, and then re-organized it in 1886. Continue reading

What was Laissez-faire?

/ words on images.com

/ words on images.com

Some writers have incorrectly translated this French phrase as Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, and attributed it (among others) to Prime Minister Walpole. But this doctrine means much more: it maintains that free trade is preferable to ‘protected’ trade, and that the state should not, without reason, interfere in economic affairs. It is a great pity that it is merely an eighteenth century doctrine, hardly thought of today. Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, that constitutional date for the United States; Smith wrote that tariffs prevented or slowed down world trade, and therefore good living standards in all countries. Free trade, he insisted, provided competition and thus made certain cheaper goods of high quality. This equation would benefit both consumers and manufacturers, the latter becoming more efficient. Workers would be trained to do fewer jobs, to better effect. This could only happen, Smith claimed, in a free market. Continue reading

Three battles at Ypres (1914, 1915 & 1917)

/ the guardian.co.uk

/ the guardian.co.uk

Ypres is a place in Belgium, known mainly by Great War enthusiasts who are taken on guided tours. In October and November of the first year of the war a major German offensive to outflank the British Expeditionary Force had to be stopped – and it was – but the battle area was left still dominated on three sides by German armies, commanding the heights. This was the first Battle of Ypres.

The second took place in April and May 1915, and was notable for the first use of poison gas by the Kaiser’s armies. This gas was chlorine-based, and gas masks on the heads of allied soldiers were also seen for the first time. They did not work as efficiently as the boffins had predicted. Thousands of troops had to be invalided back into France and Britain, suffering from the gas, which left them crippled in mind and body. In terms of strategy, this second battle at Ypres forced the British to shorten their line of defence in what was called ‘The Ypres Salient’. Continue reading

Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela & Archbishop Makarios

Archbishop Makarios /en.wikipedia.org

Archbishop Makarios / en.wikipedia.org

These three names (and the persons themselves) are connected by the historical fact that each was imprisoned as penalty for their nationalism, and each became President of their country. In the case of Kenyatta, he alone of the three did something not tried by the other two: he acted in a Hollywood film made in Africa – Sanders of the river (1935) as a young black tribal chief and troublemaker. Nelson Mandela as a character has appeared in another Hollywood film, played by a black actor, a movie about South African rugby starring a white American, Matt Damon. As far as I know Makarios only appears in newsreels of his period.

Kenyatta was born in 1891 in Kenya, then a British colony. He was well educated by Scottish missionaries who could not, however, persuade him against politics. He joined the Young Kikuyu Association in 1922, and edited a news-sheet with the difficult name of Mwigwithania, representing progressive black opinion in the 30s. He visited London a few times, trying to make lobbies, but went to the USSR more often. Continue reading