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General History

  • Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives by John S. Croucher

    International Day of Women and Girls in Science took place on 11 February, it is timely to recognise the extraordinary achievements of women in a wide range of scientific disciplines. A glimpse into women’s lives that is indeed inspirational. There are common themes across the lives of these women – often an early passion for the subject that became their life’s work, and an abiding curiosity. This hunger to learn, and to solve problems, was essential for scientific pursuit, which requires patience, observation and application, the essence of empirical work, often repeated many, many times to test sometimes fragile, and bold, hypotheses. For every one of the women, we see a story of incredible, persistent, even stubborn, determination and courage.

    Agnes Pockels. (Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives, Amberley Publishing)

    The example of Italian chemist Agnes Pockels, born in 1862 in Venice, is illustrative. Agnes had a passionate interest in natural science, especially physics, but in her day, women were not allowed to enter universities. Her younger brother was, and he passed on what he could, giving access to his textbooks. Through curiosity and application, Agnes measured the surface tension of water by devising an apparatus known as the ‘slide trough’, a key instrument in the emerging discipline of ‘surface science’. Consider also the story of Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner. With the chemist Otto Hahn, she discovered several new isotopes and, in 1918, while studying radioactivity, they discovered the element ‘protactinium’. In 1926, Lise became the first woman in Germany to assume a post of full professor in physics, at the University of Berlin.

    Where British astronomer Caroline Herschell, born in 1750, was credited with discoveries of eight comets and locating a number of new nebulae and star clusters, German astronomer Maria Kirch was not so lucky. On 21 April 1702, Maria discovered the so-called ‘Comet of 1702’, but her husband took the credit for it. It was not until 1710, the year that he died, that he finally admitted the truth, and Maria was then deemed to be the first woman to have discovered a comet.

    US geologist Florence Bascom spoke of the motivating force in scientific inquiry, that is seen in the stories of many scientific women, ‘The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment … but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind are absorbed in the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite, and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets of the infinite mind.’

    In honour of all women mathematicians, ‘Women in Mathematics Day’ has been celebrated since 2018 on 12 May, marking the birthday of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani on 12 May 1977, while ‘Ada Lovelace Day’, on the second Tuesday in October since 2009, has celebrated achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some have local days in their honour, like ‘Alice Ball Day’, 29 February, in Hawaii; and ‘Katharine Blodgett Day’, 13 June, in Schenectady.

    Other ways of honouring the women in this volume include their being selected for stamps and banknotes. Maria Göppert Mayer and Virginia Apgar, both had US postage stamps in their honour; and while biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin was honoured in British postage stamps, astronomer Mary Somerville had a Scottish banknote in her honour.

    Rita Levi-Montalcini. (Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives, Amberley Publishing)

    The cameos also include a few quotes that may be seen, perhaps, to represent the lived experience of the women included here. A particular issue was how, if at all, to identify their gender and their professional pathways. While engineer Olive Dennis, one of the most remarkable women in US railroad industry history, said that, ‘No matter how successful a business may seem to be, it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman’s viewpoint’, US engineer Betty Hugle resisted the elision of her professional identity with her gender, stating, ‘I am a woman and an engineer; I am not a woman engineer’, and resented the notion that her gender defined the type of engineer she was.

    While gender may have been resisted as a categorisation of the women scientists in this volume, marriage and motherhood had to be managed, somehow. Speaking in 1996, when she was in her early fifties, Jocelyn Bell Burnell spoke about the differences of life experiences for women from those of men, ‘Although we are now much more conscious about equal opportunities I think there are still a number of inbuilt structural disadvantages for women. I am very conscious that having worked part-time, having had a rather disrupted career, my research record is a good deal patchier than any man’s of comparable age … The life experience of a woman is rather different from that of the male.’

    Reflecting on the larger driving force in her intellectual quests, Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, wrote in her autobiography, ‘It is imperfection – not perfection – that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment, and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.’ In a letter she wrote in 1890, Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya observed that, ‘It seems to me that the poet must see what others do not see, must see more deeply than other people. And the mathematician must do the same.’ 

    Woman of Science: 100 inspirational lives outlines the wonderful stories of one hundred such women, spanning five centuries. And for each woman included the cameo is but a short snippet of a rich, lived life, chasing a hunger from their youth in pursuit of answers. This volume is an example of, and an inspiration for, the thousands upon thousands of women in science yet to have their stories.

    John S. Croucher's book Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives is available for purchase now.

  • Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons by Gareth Winrow

    One of the main, general observations of my book is that history is constantly being rewritten. This is certainly the case regarding the Robinson family. Further research, contacts with members of the extended family, and exchanges with individuals who knew of particular members of the family, has enabled me to tap into new sources of information.

    A key character in my book is Hannah Robinson, one of the first female converts to Islam in late Victorian England. In late 1891 she was married to a supposed Afghan warlord in the mosque at Liverpool, before the couple went off in the hope of beginning a new life in Constantinople. Presumably, the founder of the mosque, the lawyer William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam, officiated at the wedding ceremony.

    (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    I have lately discovered that Hannah made use of her ties with Quilliam, who was a close confidante of Sultan Abdulhamid II, to secure financial support from the Ottoman court when her marriage was in tatters and Hannah sought a divorce. Her pleading letter penned to the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Cevat Pasha, in June 1892, can be found in the Ottoman archives. In this letter, Hannah mentioned how she was on good terms with Quilliam, who was by this time establishing a close relationship with the sultan. Connections between the Robinson family and Quilliam, not picked up by other commentators, is one recurring theme in the book which I do believe needs to be explored further. Amazingly, according to the Ottoman archives, Quilliam was the father of Hannah’s children! This is clearly wrong. But how, and perhaps why, the archives came to this conclusion and pedalled this story does need to be examined.

    Hannah would continue to benefit from the generosity of the Ottoman court after her divorce and then marriage to the military officer, Ahmed Bahri. I knew that the couple were given rent-free accommodation on Akaratler, a well-heeled neighbourhood very close to the Dolmabahce palace. What I did not know, until recently, was that the Ottoman authorities at one time attempted to claim rent payment of 90,750 kuruş from the Bahris. This was a substantial sum. Hannah immediately notified officials that the accommodation at 107 Akaratler had been provided to her and her family free of charge. The authorities swiftly backed down. The chastened Ottoman Minister of Finance, himself, addressed a letter of apology to Hannah on 12 February 1907. This incident provided a further illustration of the extraordinary strength of character of Hannah, the one-time domestic housemaid from London’s impoverished East End.

    Another leading personality in my book is Ahmet “Robenson”, one of Hannah’s sons. Much is already known about Ahmet Robenson. Indeed, in today’s Turkey he is almost a living legend because of his sporting prowess and his achievements with the Galatasaray Sports Club. However, I do believe that there is still a lot more to learn about this celebrated sportsman, who introduced basketball and founded the Scouting movement in the late Ottoman Empire.

    Ahmet Robenson and members of family at the Lyndhurst estate, Tarrytown, New York. (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    After emigrating to the US in the late 1920s, Ahmet Robenson spent his last years working at the famous Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown in New York state. I have written a small piece for one of the local newspapers which covers the Tarrytown district, pointing out how nobody in the area knew that the elderly groundskeeper who had worked at the Lyndhurst estate in the 1950s and 1960s had been such a well-known sporting celebrity.

    Little is still known about the life of Ahmet Robenson, and of his wife Nina, after they had emigrated to the US. I am fascinated to learn what really happened to Ahmet and his wife. Were the couple forced to abandon Turkey in the face of criticism from hard-line Turkish nationalists who were opposed to Ahmet’s work with the Americans on social and educational projects? Or were there other factors at play? And, how were they able to adjust to living a life of relative obscurity in New York after having been so well-known in Turkey – in the 1920s Ahmet had also played an instrumental role in the construction of the Taksim sports stadium, and had briefly served as President of the Galatasaray Sports Club.

    I am hoping to re-trace the lives of Ahmet and Nina in the US. A visit to the Lyndhurst mansion is a must. My study of Ahmet Robenson remains a work in progress.

    Who knows what other stories about the Robinsons may come to light in the months ahead? Perhaps, I may also uncover new information about Ahmet Robenson’s father, Spencer – the tenant farmer from Lincolnshire who began a second life as a tea planter in Darjeeling. And, may be, further details about Gertrude Eisenmann, the intrepid motoring amazon of late Wilhelmine Germany, who was an illegitimate daughter of Hannah, may come to my attention.

    Will there be a sequel to Whispers Across Continents?! It is too early to say. What I am sure of, though, is that my work with the extraordinary Robinson family is still far from complete.

    Gareth Winrow's book Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons is available for purchase now.

  • Queen Victoria and The Romanovs by Coryne Hall

    Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust

    Much to my surprise, no previous author has ever looked in depth at Queen Victoria’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and its ruling family. Armed with permission from the Royal Archives at Windsor to quote from the Queen’s Journals, I decided to put this to rights.

    Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg (Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia) as a young woman. Stories about her treatment in Russia greatly influenced her niece Queen Victoria. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The reasons for her dislike and distrust were both political and personal. The political centred on the historic British distrust of Russian aims since the expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. The personal reasons centred on the bad treatment of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by her Romanov husband Grand Duke Constantine, Catherine the Great’s grandson.

    As I worked through the Queen’s Journals, I found that there were a lot more communications between Victoria and the Romanovs than I had thought. So many of them visited the Queen at Windsor, Osborne or Balmoral.

    The first to arrive was the future Tsar Alexander II in 1839. Alexander and Victoria were almost the same age. Victoria described him as tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose, and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile.’ His impression of her was less complimentary: ‘[She] is very small, her figure is bad, her face plain, but she’s very agreeable to talk to.’ Nevertheless, when he whirled her giddily around the ballroom she was soon completely bowled over. The feeling (at the time) was mutual. Years later Victoria’s granddaughter described Alexander as ‘Grandmama’s first beau.’

    Tsarevich Alexander (later Alexander II) who completely bowled over the young Queen Victoria when he visited England in 1839. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Nicholas I came to Buckingham Palace and Windsor in 1844. He refused a comfortable bed in favour of his own camp bed from St Petersburg and asked for straw to stuff the mattress. He was an autocrat to his fingertips but Victoria found that ‘his sternness is less remarkable, when one gets to know him better.’  Ten years later the Crimean War broke out and they were enemies.

    On his death in 1855 Victoria’s former ‘beau’ Alexander II came to the throne. Nevertheless, at least once during his reign Britain and Russia were brought to the brink of war.

    What Victoria did not foresee was the Romanovs marrying into her own family. Her son Alfred married Alexander II’s daughter Marie in 1874 after long and tortuous negotiations, when both the Tsar and the Queen proved reluctant to give way on any issue. When Marie arrived in England after the wedding she insisted on being treated as a Russian Grand Duchess. Not only was she autocratic but her jewels dazzled the court and made the Queen and her daughters rather jealous. Marie was soon complaining about the Queen and life in England in letters home.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. To the annoyance of the tsar, Victoria married her Coburg cousin in 1840. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The only Tsar who did not visit during his reign was Alexander III. His wife, Marie Feodorovna, was a sister to Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales. Tsarevich Alexander and his wife came on a visit to her sister in 1873, when the Queen also invited them to Windsor and Osborne but, when he became Tsar after Alexander II’s assassination by terrorists in 1881, he and Victoria did not get on at all. ‘A sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman’ was her comment about Alexander III.  In return, he described her as a ‘pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.’

    The differences in language and culture, as well as the unstable political situation in Russia, explained the Queen’s horror when two of her favourite Hesse granddaughters, Ella and Alix, married into the Russian Imperial family – Ella to Alexander III’s brother Grand Duke Sergei, and Alix to Tsar Nicholas II. The Queen did her best to discourage both young women from going to what she called ‘horrid Russia’ but to no avail.

    Victoria gave an especially warm welcome to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna when they stayed at Balmoral in 1896, but although the Queen liked Nicholas as a person, she didn’t like or trust his country. Her Empire always came before family connections.

    ‘Russia,’ the Queen Victoria once wrote, ‘is not to be trusted.’ It is fortunate that she didn’t live long enough to know that she would be proved right. Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their children and Ella were all killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    Coryne Hall's book Queen Victoria and The Romanovs is available for purchase now.

  • The Austen Girls by Helen Amy

    The Story of Jane & Cassandra Austen, the Closest of Sisters

    The Austen Girls is a joint biography of Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra. It traces their exceptionally close and mutually sustaining relationship throughout Jane’s life and literary career. Cassandra has always been a rather shadowy figure in the background of her famous sister’s life but, as this book reveals, she was central to Jane’s achievement as a novelist.

    Steventon Rectory, a sketch by Anna Lefroy. (Colouring by the author, The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    Cassandra and Jane, who were the daughters of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra, were born and grew up in their father’s rectory in Steventon in Hampshire. Their deep love for each other was evident very early in their lives. Jane always looked up to and adored her older sister. Cassandra, who adored Jane in return, mothered and protected her. The sisters spent most of their time together as children and developed a secret life of their own.

    When Jane started to write as a young girl Cassandra immediately became involved. Jane read her stories to her sister who expressed her opinion on them and, no doubt, made constructive suggestions. By the age of sixteen Jane had filled three copy-books with the work now known as her Juvenilia. Some of these early pieces were dedicated to Cassandra.

    The sisters had their own private sitting-room at the rectory. It was here that they enjoyed shared pastimes as well as pursuing their separate interests. While Jane wrote, Cassandra, a talented amateur artist, drew and painted water-colour pictures, which included the illustrations for a spoof history of England written by Jane.

    It was in this sitting-room that Jane wrote her first three novels. In two of these – Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – she drew on her close relationship with Cassandra when she created the Dashwood and Bennet sisters. Jane’s early novels were written to amuse and entertain herself and her family, who enjoyed reading novels aloud together. These novels were first shared with Cassandra who knew the characters from their conception in Jane’s mind until their appearance on the pages of the finished manuscript. These characters were as real to Cassandra as they were to Jane.

    Jane Austen, painted by her sister in 1804. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    When Cassandra and Jane were separated, usually when they went to stay with one of their brothers, they kept in touch by letter. There was a continual exchange of letters when they were apart because each wanted to know, in minute detail, what the other was doing.

    The Austen’s, like most families, experienced difficult times. The sisters’ close emotional bond enabled them to support and sustain each other at times of crisis. Jane comforted Cassandra when her fiancé died and, with her sister’s help, she was able to endure her sorrow and carry on with her life. Cassandra similarly supported Jane, when a man she met and fell in love with one summer died before they could meet again.

    The sisters supported each other when in 1801 their father retired and they moved with their parents to Bath. They were both unsettled by being suddenly uprooted from their childhood home and the Hampshire countryside which they both loved. According to her nephew it was the beautiful countryside around Steventon which first inspired Jane to write and she was unhappy about the move. With Cassandra’s help, however, she came to terms with it and made the best of her time in Bath. Nevertheless, she only managed to write a few chapters of an unfinished novel while living there.

    It was not until she moved back to rural Hampshire in 1809 that Jane was able to write again. In her new home, and with her beloved sister by her side, Jane wrote her last three novels. The importance of the emotional stability provided by Cassandra cannot be over-estimated. Cassandra helped to create the peaceful and happy atmosphere Jane needed for her creativity to flourish. Jane was often lost in her imaginary world – a world only Cassandra was allowed to enter.

    Jane was always modest about her achievements and was not confident about her writing ability. She had to be encouraged by Cassandra and others to seek publication and always insisted on remaining anonymous. Jane was also surprised that she made a profit from her writing. Needless to say, Cassandra was immensely proud of her sister’s success and noted when each novel was started, finished and published.

    Chawton Cottage, home of Cassandra and Jane from 1809. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    When Jane’s health began to fail at the beginning of 1816 her dependence on Cassandra increased. As her illness – believed to have been either Addison’s Disease, a disorder of the adrenal system, or some kind of lymphoma – progressed, Cassandra hardly left her side. She did all she could to help Jane, including taking her to the spa town of Cheltenham in search of a cure.

    Cassandra accompanied Jane to Winchester a few weeks before she died, so that she could be near her doctor. She nursed Jane devotedly until her death on 18th July 1817, at the age of forty-one. Shortly afterwards Cassandra wrote “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed – it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

    The Austen Girls traces Cassandra’s life after she lost Jane. Her strong Christian faith and her belief that she would one day be reunited with her sister helped to sustain her. Cassandra did her best to keep Jane’s memory alive for her nephews and nieces. These memories were used in family biographies and memoirs of Jane.

    This book also follows the growth of Jane’s literary reputation and fame following her death. She was never more than a minor novelist during her lifetime. It was not until the 1860s that she was finally recognised as a great writer and readers became curious about her life and works. Sadly, Cassandra did not live to witness this. Jane herself would have been astonished at the worldwide acclaim she has achieved. She would have been the first to acknowledge the vital role played by her sister, whose love, support and belief in her helped to bring this about.

    Helen Amy's book The Austen Girls is available for purchase now.

  • Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile by Julie Sarpy

    Who was Joanna of Flanders and how did I stumble upon her?

    Joanna of Flanders, Countess de Montfort and Duchess of Brittany, abruptly vanished from public life after 1343 amidst the Breton Wars of Succession during the Hundred Years’ War.  As wife of the late Duke John de Montfort, Joanna’s rightful place was in Brittany as regent of the duchy for their five-year-old son and heir John of Brittany.  Despite her fame for the defense of Hennebont in 1342 during her husband’s imprisonment, she along with her children had accompanied Edward III of England to Britain in February 1343 and seemingly never departed.  She resided in England in Tickell Castle, Yorkshire, in comfortable obscurity until her death around 1374.  What happened to her and why?  Her extended absence should have provoked more suspicion, but it did not.  Nevertheless, as one delves deeper into her story the answers to those two questions belie the core complexities of medieval social structures, the care of the vulnerable, and the custody of women.

    Titled Jeanne la Flamande. From a miniature in a Froissart manuscript in the Royal Library. Handcoloured copperplate drawn and engraved by Leopold Massard from "French Costumes from King Clovis to Our Days," Massard, Mifliez, Paris, 1834. (Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, Amberley Publishing)

    My new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile seeks to uncover the mysterious circumstances of Joanna of Flanders’ untimely sequester in England.  For certain, Edward III orchestrated her relocation from London to Yorkshire in the summer of 1344. He likely engineered her indefinite detention, following the untimely death of her husband in September 1345 to prevent Joanna’s interference with his plans for conquering Brittany.  Joanna of Flanders’ conservatorship stands out for its rariety, a non-judicial fiduciary guardianship of an adult foreign-born noblewoman and widow with no English dower. Joanna’s case offers modern historical scholarship a window into the medieval cosmology of incompetency and legal jurisdiction and a chance to reappraise when protection becomes forced incarceration. Even if Joanna were mad, her indefinite confinement without adjudication was illegal.

    I would have to say that the mystery of Joanna of Flanders drew me to her.  I have always been fascinated by Fourteenth-Century England. What can I say? Plague and warfare are my passions. I can’t get enough of reading about the Black Death and particularly the Edwardian Phase of the Hundred Years War. I came across Joanna of Flanders doing some research on medieval captivity and confinement. I read a passage about her success at Hennebont and her presumed madness, against the backdrop of the late Middle Ages I was hooked.  Her story intrinsically intrigued and compelled me to learn more.

    Although the basis for Joanna of Flanders’ detention through royal prerogative wardship was invalid, her confinement was not out of bounds. In fact, the constraint of aristocratic women during the Middle Ages was not atypical.   As patriarchy was the cornerstone of medieval society, medieval women were subject to the protection and custody of fathers and lords until marriage and their husbands after that.  Thus it was not extraordinary for these men to periodically confine them, but social arrangements were more complex and hardly one-dimensional.   Despite the advantages of station and rank, medieval noblewomen remained sexual and reproductive pawns of men where their power was tethered to the female life cycle.  This manifest itself most blatantly in the system of feudal land tenure that sought to protect widows, wards, the incompetent, and anyone else considered incapable in administrating their estates.

    Joanna of Flanders and Hennebont defenders joyously greeting the English ships, most likely the expeditionary forces under Sir Walter de Mauny, by Jean de Wavrin. (Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, Amberley Publishing)

    Historic scholarship on Joanna of Flanders is limited. Undoubtedly, chronicler Jean Froissart shaped initial impressions and took a favorable view of Joanna. From his privileged position as scholar and historiographer to Queen Philippa and King Edward III, he observed and recorded events first-hand.  He professed Joanna to have the “heart of a lion” and he alluded stated that she orchestrated her husband’s expedient acclamation as Duke of Brittany in late May 1341.  Froissart contended that she returned France to fight for Brittany and frequently traveled back forth, although no corroborating evidence exists.

    Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is divided into two parts, with the first devoted to introducing Joanna of Flanders, her family and the mechanics of feudal protection worked. Particularly during the Breton Civil War and the Hundred Years’ War.  Besides warfare, the classical and medieval cosmologies of religion, medicine, women, and the law shaped the realities of Joanna’s life. Accordingly, the book’s first half draws attention to the politics of madness and the use of insanity as a political tool from its earliest legal foundations in Jewish and Roman law to its application in feudal society as custodia and garde.

    In its second half this study analyzes the consequences of Joanna of Flanders’ confinement.  The omission of Joanna of Flanders competency determination is the lynchpin for Joanna’s unlawful detention.  Comparative analysis of other noblewomen’s custody, in wardship and as political hostages, reveals Joanna’s confinement to be even more strange, not for the confinement itself, but for its lack of justification.  All guardianships were adjudicated and administrated publicly; Joanna’s was not.  As historian Gerda Lerner stated, “We can best express the complexity of women’s various levels of dependency and freedom by comparing each woman with her brother and considering how the sister’s and brother’s lives and opportunities would differ.”  Joanna’s life took place against the backdrop of Hundred Years’ War and the political interests and machinations of kings of England and France and all of Europe irreparably shaped her life.

    Julie Sarpy's new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is available for purchase now.

  • Owen Tudor by Terry Breverton

    Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty

    An Alternative Britain

    Over the last two decades there have been many books positing an alternative history of Britain, if a fictional event had occurred, e.g. if Hitler had invaded, if the Cold War had boiled over, and the like. But do we need these scenarios? For instance, with the surfacing of the obscure Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur after centuries of Welsh rebellion, we see an almost fictional turn of events leading to the nation’s conversion to Protestantism.

    The coat of arms of Owen Tudor (c. 1400-1461) is almost identical to that of Ednyfed Fychan, but probably included martlets (heraldic swallows), like the arms of his son Jasper. (Courtesy of Sodacon, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    His first biography discovers one of the longest and strangest stories in British history, and accounts for the success of his grandson in gaining the throne of England. The tale begins with the Roman departure from Britain around 410, when it seems that the Christianised British expelled their officials – interpretations vary on this matter. The British were constantly attacked by pagan Irish, Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. Eventually, Saxons, Angles and Jutes pushed the British westwards into Strathclyde, Cumbria, what is now Wales and the West Country. Many escaped to Brittany [Bretagne], where the Breton language is very similar to Welsh, and which explains the origin of the term Grande Bretagne, Great Britain.

    Slowly the British parts of England were taken over, with Cornwall, where the British/Welsh language survived until the late eighteenth century, being the last to succumb. The remaining British, in Wales and Brittany, fought off many attempts at invasion. Their hope for a mab darogan, a son of prophecy, to retake England from the Saes [Saxons] with their pagan language [Saesneg], was never extinguished, perpetuated by generations of bards. To add insult to injury, ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ are Germanic terms from this time, meaning foreign. The real names are Cymru and Cymraeg. The British/Welsh were named ‘foreigners’ in their own land. From 1066 the Franco-Danish Normans, led by William the Bastard, quickly took over England, but Wales held its border. Many of the border counties, the English Marches, had large Welsh-speaking populations up to the late fifteenth century, and many of their population supported the Glyndŵr War of 1400-1415.

    Cymru [Wales] struggled to retain independence against a succession of French kings of England, with many invasions into the land, destroying churches, burning crops and taking slaves. Resentment grew, spurred on by the bards, alongside hopes of a promised deliverer to take back British lands and throw the invaders out. In 1282, however, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, was lured into a trap by the Mortimers, killed and his army slaughtered after they surrendered. His successor, his brother Dafydd, was captured in 1283 and Edward I personally invented his gruesome torture of hanging, drawing and quartering while alive. Previously victims had been hung until dead and then disembowelled and quartered, with the parts being despatched for display. Edward I borrowed heavily for foreign troops and to build the Iron Ring of castles around Gwynedd, reneging upon his massive debts to Italian bankers.

    Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V, mother of Henry VI (1421-71), who secretly married Owen Tudor and was the grandmother of Henry VII. (Author's collection, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    However, there was still constant revolt across Wales, with a succession of meibion darogan [sons of prophecy]. In 1400, an English army was sent across North Wales to deal with the Tudur brothers of Anglesey. They belonged to one of the noble houses of Wales, directly descended from Llywelyn the Great’s seneschal Ednyfed Fychan. They rose in favour of their employer, the deposed Richard II against his murderer Henry IV. Their rising came to be led by a new ‘son of prophecy’, their relation Owain Glyndŵr, and the Welsh fought off ten armies in six invasions of Wales from 1400-1415. The Welsh even invaded England as far as Worcester once, with French help. Ednyfed Fychan’s line had fought the English for centuries, but three of the Tudur brothers were killed, one by hanging, drawing and quartering. Maredudd ap Tudur left a son Owain, born at the start of the war, in 1400. He was probably brought up by the Scudamores of Kentchurch, kinsmen of Philip Scudamore of Troy, who was executed for his part in supporting Glyndŵr.

    Somehow, now known as Owen Meredith, Owain joined the retinue of Baron Hungerford, Steward of the King’s Household in 1420-1421. Nearly all his direct ancestors had fought the English. He may well have fought at Agincourt in 1415, and certainly, growing to manhood during the Glyndŵr War, will have been experienced in arms. In 1422 Owen was appointed as the head of household for Henry V’s 21-year-old widow Catherine of Valois. There is a detailed description in the book of the queen’s upbringing and her brief marriage to Henry V, a man in part of unheroic tendencies. Being not allowed to marry, Catherine clandestinely married Owen in 1428. In secrecy, at the bishops’ palaces of Much Hadham and Hatfield, Catherine gave birth to Edmund Tudor in 1430 and Jasper in 1431. Another son became a monk, but Catherine died in childbirth in 1437. Owen was thrown into prison, escaped, and was captured again.

    However, in 1439 he was released, pardoned by his stepson Henry VI, granted a pension and a place at court and his lands restored. Catherine’s young son Henry VI had no immediate family and ennobled his half-brothers Edmund and Jasper as the earls of Richmond and Pembroke in 1452. Owen Tudor served his stepson Henry VI as a captain in the defence of Normandy, before fighting with his sons on the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses [1455-1487 – they did not end at Bosworth]. Edmund Tudor was captured and died in 1456, and his son Henry was born a few months later to Margaret Beaufort. His father and brother fought on, but at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, Owen and Jasper were defeated by Edward, Duke of York. Jasper escaped to fight again but Owen was captured and executed.

    The impressive Carreg Cennen Castle stands on a rocky crag in Carmarthenshire, and was taken by Owen's son Edmund, Earl of Richmond, from the Yorkists in 1456. (Author's Collection, Owen Tudor, Amberley Publishing)

    As well as this first biography of Owen Tudor, I also wrote the first biography of Jasper, a man who fought from the first to the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, 32 years in total, without whom Henry Tudor could never have taken the crown. Which neatly brings us back to alternative histories. Edmund and Jasper Tudor were successively great hopes for the British-Welsh, lauded as inheritors of the age-old prophecy that the Welsh would drive the English back out of the country. Upon Henry Tudor’s adulthood, spent in Brittany and France to escape death by Yorkists, Henry assumed the mantle of mab darogan.

    Henry and Jasper invaded through Wales, support growing all the way, and many, many of Edward IV’s Yorkist followers joined him [including most of the late king’s bodyguard]. Richard III was deserted by nearly all the English nobility at Bosworth in 1485. The mother and sister of the princes he killed [Edward IV’s sons] threw their support behind Henry, which led to Henry marring Elizabeth of York, beginning the Tudor Dynasty. [My books on Richard III and Henry VII make the case for a cathedral interment of Richard’s bones as being quite astounding]. And here we come to ‘real’ alternative history – a man from a long line of nationalists secretly marries the queen of one of England’s greatest heroes. His son fights through the Wars of the Roses. The other son posthumously has a son who takes the crown of England. In turn, his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I turn England and Wales away from Catholicism. And, of course, without Owain’s intervention in history, we would have no Gunpowder Treason Day, which became Guy Fawkes’ Night. Who needs historical fiction when facts are much more interesting?

    Terry Breverton's new paperback edition of Owen Tudor: Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty is available for purchase now.

  • Brexit, King Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

    When I look for something in history that is like Brexit, I find the Scottish prayer-book rebellion against Charles I.

    Charles I - poised and withdrawn. Daniel Mytens. (c. Private collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    In summer 1637 the Scots in their thousands rejected the religious liturgy which the king wanted to impose on them. The year before he had introduced new Canons (church law) and now asked his northern kingdom to accept and use a new prayer-book. It was drafted largely by Englishmen under the guidance of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury. The Scots had not objected to the Canons. They said no to the prayer-book.

    On 28 February 1638 the rebel Scottish leaders produced their manifesto: the National Covenant. It was signed throughout Scotland and is one of the great documents of history. The Covenant proclaimed loyalty to the king but said no to the changes he wanted.

    This was the Brexit moment. A nationalist response to foreign imposition. That was then, this is now. The National Covenant of 1638 was an agreement not only with the other subscribers but with God.

    The prayer-book rebellion was not secession. Scotland was a separate and independent country. It just happened to have the same king as England. The Scots had their own Privy Council, their own parliament, their own laws, their own church (the Kirk). They wanted to keep it that way.

    On the path to war

    It began with a riot in church after the congregation pelted the Dean of Edinburgh, when he started to read from the new prayer-book, with whatever came to hand, including the stools on which they sat (23 July 1637). According to legend the first to attack was Jenny Geddes who rose to her feet yelling ‘Daur ye say Masse in my lug (ear)?’ To Jenny the project seemed ‘Romisch superstition.’ The Bishop of Edinburgh was attacked in the street after the service (but survived).

    The Covenanting movement led to war. First the two Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640, between the Scots and their monarch.

    They were Bishops Wars because the Scots wanted to get rid, not just of the new prayer-book, but of their bishops. In the first Bishops War not a blow was struck. In the second, contrary to the king’s plan, a Scottish army invaded northern England and occupied Newcastle. Incidentally this army was led for a time by the subject of the book I am now writing, James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose.

    More dramatically the Scottish prayer-book rebellion led to the outbreak of civil war in England. There are a hundred twists and turns on the way. But there is no doubt that it was trouble in Scotland that opened the floodgates in England (also in Ireland, the third Stuart kingdom).

    Henriette Marie and Charles I. Engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1634. (c. Rijksmuseum, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast and loose…

    My feeling, when I wrote my biography of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was that Henrietta Maria would have made a better king than her husband, and it remains my feeling. She certainly did what she could for Charles I and the Stuart family, including literally standing in the line of parliamentary fire. As thing were, could she have prevented the Scottish collapse? It seems unlikely.

    Not that I wish to deny the king’s qualities. He was an admirable person, much more so than some of his predecessors and successors on the throne. He was energetic, high-principled, a devoted family man, aesthetically discerning, a stickler for the law up to a point. His eleven years of personal rule in England (1630-1641), the period when he dispensed with parliaments, were unpopular with many influential people. But they were years of legalistic government.

    Still one cannot deny that Charles I played fast and loose with that delicate animal, the English constitution. He imprisoned a number of the men who refused to pay or assist in the collection of his forced loan of 1628. He imprisoned Members of Parliament after undignified scenes in the House of Commons in the last days of the 1628-1629 parliament. One, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower.

    Those undignified scenes included physical assault. The Speaker, Sir John Finch, when he tried to adjourn the session by leaving the House, was wrestled and held in his chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine. Finch was held down to allow a protestation to be read (by Sir John Eliot) against royal policy in religion and finance.

    Charles I, at St Margaret's Westminster. (c. Author's collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature of the king

    Scholars have gone almost mad trying to pin down what went wrong in the seventeenth century. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Civil War. It scared the life out of the ruling classes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and led to the parliamentary system which distinguishes British history.

    In the nineteenth century the Civil War became a romantic dream of cavaliers and roundheads. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish nationalism was reborn and is growing up fast helped by the Brexit vote of 2016. This blog is not the time to explore the history of Ireland but that country above all bears the marks of those struggles four centuries ago.

    On the whole historians agree that the character of Charles I was at the heart of the matter. If he was dealt a difficult hand, he played the wrong cards. However it is hard to challenge the proposal that the king, if perhaps he succeeded as a martyr, was a failure as king.

    The failure of Charles I was not the iron fist of autocracy. His failure was political clumsiness. He could not read minds. He could not, until very late in the day, read situations. He did not judge loyalty well. Unlike his father and his eldest son he could not see that even a king must embrace, from time to time, the art of compromise, perhaps a king most of all. And, far from being his wife’s lapdog, as his enemies proclaimed, it could be said he did not listen to her enough.

    Dominic Pearce's new paperback edition of Henrietta Maria is available for purchase now.

  • The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England by Teresa Cole

    One amazing year of Anarchy

    Before he died in December 1135, King Henry I of England had all the nobility of England and Normandy swear to accept his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor. Before he was buried in January 1136, his nephew Stephen of Blois had been crowned as the new king. There followed a struggle for the crown between Stephen and Matilda, that lasted nearly nineteen years and was later known as the Anarchy. The strangest year of all that period, however, was the twelvemonth of 1141, when each side in turn came within touching distance of total victory over the other.

    Four Kings: This fanciful medieval representation of the four Norman kings shows, from left, William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    This ‘mazy labyrinth of events,’ as the chronicler William of Malmesbury called it, was set in train at the end of the previous year, when Earl Ranulf of Chester and his half-brother William of Roumare, took possession of Lincoln Castle. They claimed, with some justification that one of the two keeps there, known as Lucy’s Tower, was theirs by right of inheritance from their mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke. At first King Stephen seemed to accept this, but in the middle of the Christmas festivities he abruptly changed his mind, marched a relatively small army to Lincoln and put the castle under siege.

    Before the encirclement was complete, Ranulf of Chester had slipped away, and, having remained aloof from the struggle for the crown before this time, he came down firmly on the side of Matilda. His father-in-law was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and most substantial backer, and when Robert received an appeal for help from Ranulf, he called up all the forces he could assemble, including a strong contingent of the Welsh, and marched to Lincoln to confront the king.

    Henry I's castle at Caen. This was inherited by his son, Robert of Gloucester, who eventually sided with Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou against King Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Stephen was advised to retreat but refused to do so. On Candlemas Day, 2nd February 1141, the battle of Lincoln was fought and the king was soundly defeated and taken prisoner. For most of the rest of the year he would be held, sometimes in chains, in Robert of Gloucester’s strongest castle at Bristol.

    Stephen’s passage to the throne had been greatly helped by his brother Henry, bishop of Winchester, who, among other things, was by now the papal legate – the pope’s representative in England. Negotiations were now opened between Matilda and Henry, and soon the bishop was announcing that Stephen had broken the promises he had made to the church at the time of his coronation, and that therefore he should be deposed and replaced on the throne by the Empress Matilda.

    The church accepted Matilda. Many of the nobility in England and Normandy accepted her. London, however, did not accept her, and nor did Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda. The queen now set about raising an army of opposition, ably assisted by the mercenary leader William of Ypres. Over a period of months, as the empress slowly negotiated her way to an impressive entry into Westminster, Queen Matilda brought up her own army from Kent to threaten London from the other side. Then, on 24th June, just as it seemed that the empress had finally won her crown, the Londoners rose up and drove her away. So sudden was this uprising that she and her supporters had just sat down to eat when they were forced to flee, leaving the food behind them on the table.

    Wolvesey Castle. This was the palace and stronghold of Bishop Henry of Winchester. It was besieged by Matilda and her supporters in 1141. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Matilda and Robert of Gloucester made for Oxford, but Bishop Henry went instead to Winchester, where he decided he had been too hasty in abandoning his brother. Re-opening communications with the queen, he also took steps to strengthen and provision Wolvesey Castle, his fortified palace close to the cathedral. As soon as the empress got wind of this, she gathered her forces, moved to her royal castle at Winchester and put Wolvesey Castle under siege.

    Henry himself had already escaped to summon help from the queen. She now brought up her own forces – including a thousand-strong London militia – to encircle the entire city of Winchester. From being a besieger, the empress now found herself besieged, and in severe danger of falling into the hands of her namesake.

    By September the situation was desperate, and in the middle of that month Empress Matilda and her supporters made a break for freedom. The priority, of course, was to get her safely away, and she and a picked bodyguard set off at a gallop, first for Ludgershall, then Devizes and finally Gloucester. For some of the way, notes the chronicler John of Worcester, she even rode astride, ‘male fashion’, though whether he admired or disapproved is hard to tell.

    Rochester Castle. Rochester was held for King Stephen by William of Ypres. It was here that Robert of Gloucester was kept a prisoner while negotiations proceeded between the Empress Matilda and Stephen's queen, also named Matilda, for an exchange of captives. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile, the weight of the queen’s army fell upon the empress’s forces. Many simply fled, leaving weapons, armour and costly possessions abandoned behind them. Robert of Gloucester, though, fought a determined rear-guard action at the Stockbridge crossing of the River Test, thus enabling his sister to escape.

    Eventually he was overcome by simple weight of numbers, taken before the queen, and handed over to William of Ypres to be imprisoned in his mighty keep at Rochester Castle. While he was there, inducements were offered to persuade him to change sides, but he remained loyal to his sister.

    Now, however, each side had a significant prisoner – Stephen at Bristol and Robert at Rochester. Many hoped a permanent peace could be negotiated, but instead all that was arranged was a prisoner swap, ‘an exchange of the king for the earl, one for the other.’ This was carried out early in November with great care, hostages and guarantors being given for each side, including the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury and Robert’s own son William.

    When all was complete, both sides were in exactly the same position as they had been at the start of the year, and all the triumph and tragedy in between had achieved precisely nothing. Another dozen years would pass before the Anarchy finally came to an end, and a little while longer than that before England once more had a single, undisputed king.

    Teresa Cole's new book The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is available for purchase now.

  • Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen by Michael Harrison

    The inspiration for Mr Charming, my account of the life and crimes of a Ponzi-style fraudster, came from an unlikely source: one of his victims. Over the years, a very dear and old acquaintance had often remarked that I really must meet her new best friend: a wonderful German chap by the name of Felix Vossen. He was great company – funny, well-read, emotionally sensitive and highly intelligent. In his spare time, he was a film producer. But his day job was financial trading. He was an investment guru who ran a fund worth £250 million from his offices in London and Zurich. Much of my friend’s money was invested in that fund.

    Felix the film producer: with Charlotte Rampling and his fellow producers from Embargo Films at the premiere of I, Anna at the Berlindale Film Festival in 2012. Vossen claimed he could raise a £10 million fund to help Embargo produce a series of movies. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine then her utter shell-shock and despair – and my own surprise – when he also turned out to be a fake and a compulsive liar. A cheat and a charlatan who had run off, not only with my friend’s money, but also the life savings of scores of other victims. Some £45 million in all.

    In the days and weeks that followed Vossen’s abrupt disappearance, I reflected on my own narrow escape: how often I had been due to meet Felix at various dinner parties and birthday celebrations that he had failed at the last minute to turn up to. And whether I too would have been drawn into his web of deceit by his easy charm and absolute plausibility. Inevitably, I also spoke regularly and at length to my friend and her husband about the case. How were they coping? Had they traced any of the money? Had anyone discovered his whereabouts? What were the police doing?

    Felix in one of his various guises. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    And then one day, during a long walk in the country, my friend said: ‘Why don’t you write a book about it? It’s right up your street.’

     

    I didn’t need a second invitation. The name alone, FELIX VOSSEN, conjured up an image of a James Bond villain. Although we had never actually met, I could picture him in my mind’s eye, reclining in a Parker Knoll chair stroking a white cat.

    During a career in financial journalism, I had written about a great many crooks, fraudsters, chancers and psychopaths – a few of whom had also been the CEOs of FTSE100 companies. The story of Felix Vossen was not only a tale of financial skulduggery. It was also about personal betrayal and regulatory failure and the woefulness of banking supervision, even in these modern, sophisticated and inter-connected times.

    In order to tell his story, however, I needed to tell the stories of his victims. And that meant gaining the trust and confidence of a fractious and vulnerable group of individuals for whom trust was at a very low ebb. They had believed in something that had proved too good to be true and been left financially ruined, emotionally bereft, and psychologically-damaged by someone they too had grown to regard as their best friend. Why should they trust an outsider, and a journalist to boot, to recount their experiences in a balanced, sympathetic and non-judgemental way?

    What followed was several months of negotiation to re-assure his victims that although they might feel guilty for the plight that had befallen them, there was only one real villain of the piece: Felix Vossen. Some were happy to co-operate, others declined. Some would only take part with a guarantee of anonymity.

    Cash, false passports, laptops and mobiles seized by Spanish police from Vossne's apartment in Valencia after his chance arrest in February 2016. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    A short way into the researching of the book, the dynamic changed dramatically. Felix Vossen had been found. He had been arrested by chance in the Spanish city of Valencia after arousing the suspicion of a passing police motorcycle patrol and extradited to Switzerland, where he was wanted on charges of fraud, money laundering and forgery. Not only would he face justice, but his victims might achieve some form of closure, even if it might take a bit longer to recover their stolen money. To this day, only £100,000 or so of the £45 million he stole has ever been recovered.

    Their best chance of being made financially whole again is to apply pressure to the banks that Vossen deposited their money with and hope that compensation is forthcoming. To succeed, they will probably need to do more than rely on the corporate altruism of those banks or embarrass them into coughing up. Instead, they will need to demonstrate negligence in the way that Vossen was supervised and his accounts were monitored.

    In the spring of 2020, Vossen himself will walk free from prison in Switzerland, where he was eventually tried and convicted. Perhaps he can help.

    Michael Harrison's new book Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen is available for purchase now.

  • The Wild East by Ian Hernon

    Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier

    I love America. I love the sweep of its history and the speed of change. But all great nations are built of myths. As a child of the 1950s, my early years were spent in front of a black and white TV watching Rawhide, The Rifleman, Wells Fargo, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and many, many more. Even at a tender age I knew that the reality wasn’t so black and white. The essential truth is that often terrible things were done for understandable reasons and good things emerged from evil acts. But expanding literacy, the movies and TV skewed the stories towards the Western frontier of romance, leaving behind the tales of the even more violent East during the same period.

    Or at least, that is what I argue in this book: that the scale of violence was far greater east of the Mississippi/Missouri during the period when the West was won, yet the opposite appears true in the popular, and populist, imagination and recollection.

    An 1890s poster advertising a circus bearing the Buffalo Bill name, evidence that by this time the myth-building of the West was in full swing. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    This book has never been intended in any way to denigrate the Western pioneer ethos, rather to help understand the contradictions inherent in attitudes which downplay the historic role of the East as a hotbed of violent struggle. Those contradictions played a part in the election of the ‘outsider’ Donald Trump, an Eastern billionaire who inherited huge wealth but who purported to be on the side of the working man. An outsider, in other words, who was part of the pampered and moneyed elite rather than the political and intellectual elite.

    In April 2016, while Trump was battling Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination and Hilary Clinton was slugging it out with Bernie Saunders on the Democrat side, I travelled through the cowboy states of Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. I received nothing but hospitality and easy friendship in poor towns where the pioneer spirit remains the culture of ongoing choice. A 30-year-old bartender in a Billings, Montana, micro-brewery summed up the Wild West appeal of both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat/socialist Bernie Sanders: “They’re outsiders. They have a populist message which goes down well in rural areas where folk feel their voice goes unheard amongst the political elite.” That was a view repeated constantly. Such states in the heart of the “real” America provide answers to those in Britain puzzled by the appeal of the clownish Trump.  America’s “rim” is the Washington-central east coast, the west coast and the southern Bible belt, but the vast tract of the mid-west regards itself as the real soul of America and its people felt disenfranchised.

    There the stereotypes repeated in New York, Los Angeles and London are either simplistic or untrue. The three states I visited have a complicated social history which constantly confounds analysts of the Right. Take Wyoming, for example.  Steeped in conservative cowboy culture, with the Republicans dominating the state senate for 80 years, it is proud of being the first state to grant women the right to vote – suffrage for women aged 21 and over was agreed in 1869, 50 years before Britain, while Montana followed in 1916. The reason, according to a grizzled 71-year-old Vietnam vet, was “folk knew it was unfair, and they did something about it.” The veteran, who fitted the cinematic stereotype of a prospector or mountain man but had been fluent in seven languages as a military interpreter, pointed out that Democrat Nellie Taylor Ross was the country’s first state governor in 1924 and was the first female director of the US Mint, serving from 1933 to 1953. “Mind you,” the veteran added, “it wasn’t until 1952 that Native Americans got the vote.” The truck-stop town of Hardin, Montana, on the edge of the Crow reservation, demonstrated the poverty endemic across former native lands and beyond. Here, and in much of the three states, families have a hardscrabble life far distant from the salons of Washington and New York and the studios of Hollywood. Here poverty has given common cause to old enemies, uniting them in contempt for the Establishment. Respect for common traditions, a strong sense of local community, and a distaste for welfare are other unifying themes. “We believe in work, not welfare,” said a motor mechanic in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, “and if Hilary Clinton had her way we would all either get it or pay for it.” A gambler in Deadwood, South Dakota, said: “These are the last three states left where if you break down on the road, the next car will stop. We help each other out here.” Such self-reliance is a matter of pride – if you don’t believe in big government, you shouldn’t claim the benefits of big government. The same is true of attitudes to the environment – this is the territory of Yellowstone National Park, the Bighorns, the Black Hills – and people want to protect their natural heritage to a degree unheard of in most of the US, and in Britain. Although a cynic might say that they want to save animals so they can shoot them.

    New York's Bowery neighbourhood in Manhattan, a notorious den of gangsters at the turn of the twentieth century and proud home of the Bowery Boys. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    Myths and downright fantasies have deep roots across America. Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation had to create its own history. Hence, the adventurer and all-round dodgy character Christopher Columbus was first popularized by Washington Irving in his 1829 biography, a book constructed almost entirely out of romance rather than history. It spun a fable of an individual who challenged the unknown sea, as Americans confronted the promise of their own wilderness, creating a land free of kings and class prejudice. Captain John Smith’s 1624 account of the Jamestown colony was devoured not because of its description of hardship and colonial greed, but because of his fabled rescue by the Red Indian princess Pocahontas, a legend that has persisted ever since. There is no evidence that the Mayflower’s pilgrim father ever disembarked on any rock, never mind Plymouth Rock, and the first written reference was penned 121 years later. And before they arrived, the Thanksgiving holiday had been widely practiced in Protestant Netherlands.

    And there’s much more. The tale that the young George Washington admitted to his father that he had chopped down a prized cherry tree "I cannot tell a lie" was invented by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his 1806 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, and further spread by Mark Twain, the novelist. The politician/planter Patrick Henry is best known for his 1775 speech kick starting the war for independence, saying: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me Liberty, or give me Death!" That was written 42 years later by another “historian”, William Wirt. There is also no evidence that Betty Ross sewed the first American flag – which attribution was first made during the 1876 centennial celebrations.  Add into the mix apocryphal exploits of such invented or exaggerated characters as the New England lumberjack Jigger Johnson, the Massachusetts clipper skipper and giant Captain Stormalong, and the Jersey Devil, and we can see that Easterners have no reason to feel superior or to sneer too much at Western mythologies.

    Little Italy in Manhattan, circa 1900. Italian enclaves such as this popped up in numerous cities and saw the steady growth of organised crime centred on Sicilian families. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    At the opening of the 19th century, 94 per cent of Americans lived in rural settings – by 1900 almost half lived in towns or cities. The population had grown 14 times as large, and the economy 70 times. The concentration was still east of the Mississippi/Missouri, and it is no wonder that the real frontier was by then in the battles between burgeoning capitalism and organised labour, between white supremacists and growing racial minorities, between fathers, sons and brothers to a degree not seen since the wars between the states. These are inconvenient truths. Mass strikes and insurrections in the East have been too often ignored in favour of fantasies going back to the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers. Jeremy Brecher wrote: “It is at such times that the veil of stasis is rent and the opposing forces maintain and undermining the existing forms of society revealed.”

    The author Mike Duncan has drawn explicit parallels between ancient Rome before its fall and modern America: “Rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarisation, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct…” and “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” Robert Harris, the author of a trilogy of novels about the Roman orator Cicero, saw much the same: “Unscrupulous millionaires whipping up the mob to attack the elite and the whole democratic structure crumbling under that pressure…”

    America claims to be a “classless” society, but the momentous upheavals of race, capital and organised labour have been airbrushed out of popular history by vested interests, resulting in a subsequent ignorance of the relatively recent past which leads in turn to aberrations such as misunderstood “populism” and a denigration of hard-won civil and social rights. Trumpism, some might say.

    The docks in New Orleans. A great deal of goods were trafficked through her, making it a key battleground for various organised crime groups. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    It was not always so. In 1900 The New York Post argued that the biggest threat to the American Dream was the upsurge in the number of millionaires which were seen as an affront to the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Americans dreamt of social justice and looked to government to regulate and control rampant greed, while presidents such as Woodrow Wilson wanted America to be a beacon for democracy across the world. The various “America First” movements corrupted such visions into isolationism, a modern form of nativism and a narrow American identity in the most ethnically-divided nation on earth. Gerard DeGroot pointed to Warren Harding’s campaign to encourage only white immigration, writing: “His supporters complained about fake news and hyphenated Americans. The similarities are hard to ignore.”

    And it is in the success of Donald Trump that we can see an illustration of self-delusion which again goes some way to explain the airbrushing out of popular consciousness of the Wild, Wild East. Many, including Trump’s own sister, have compared the President with the 19th Century huckster impresario P.T. Barnum who grew rich several times over with his freak shows, museums of curiosities, snake oil salesmanship and downright fraud. Both recognised that audiences are less interested in reality than spectacle. Historian David McCullough said that “Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked – the ultimate, delightful phoney from a delightfully phoney era.” And Ben Macintyre wrote: “The similarities are striking. Both Trump and Barnum exhibit the skills of born salesmen, more concerned with profitable entertainment than strict truth. Barnum said he did not care what people thought of him so long as they talked about him, a principle Trump lives by. Both men became more famous and popular with every fresh gust of notoriety.” Audiences – and voters – can be “willingly deceived” and the taming of the West provides a better, clearer, more simplistic narrative than the long, messy, sordid and brutal industrial and racial warfare which created the world’s most successful capitalist economy.

    For the liberal Left, also, that story can make uncomfortable reading. Impoverished Irish immigrants lynched blacks from lamp-posts, trade unionists did their best to enforce colour bars, and socialist ‘heroes’ took back-handers. But overall, the history of the Eastern half of the nation is a story of heroism, fortitude and stamina which more than matches the pioneer spirit demonstrated on the frontier.

    Ian Hernon's new book The Wild East: Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier is available for purchase now.

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