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  • Why do I collect bayonets? by Graham Priest

    As a post Second World child my first eight years of existence were spent without a television and largely without regular access to a motor car. Radio and cinema was a big influence, but real-life experience and the printed word were the vehicles for much information or imaginative entertainment. Life in a suburb of the City of Bath revolved around local affairs. Friends lived in the neighbourhood, attended the same schools, were restricted to distances that could be travelled by bicycle or on foot (rarely steam train or omnibus) and had more freedom to roam than children today. Most adults were known by name and knew you. The outside world did intrude greatly into daily life as demolished buildings and blackened walls were dotted all over the locality due to the actions of the war. Luxury goods and many foodstuffs required coupons as rationing was still in place. Exploring old cellars on bomb sites, climbing trees, building dens, cooking simple food on campfires, paddling in streams or swimming in the River Avon (and the wonderful thermal baths) were normal activities.

    Socket Bayonets pic 1 Shrapnel from a German bomb from the rear of ‘Glen Rosa’, St. Saviour’s Road, Larkhall, and Bath dropped April 25th 1942. (Priest)

    My father who was in the design team for HMS Vanguard, an uncle who had served in the RAF in Iraq, India & Afghanistan and another as an infantryman in Burma hinted at military events. German coins of curious zinc with Hitler’s face, brass regimental buttons & badges, playing cards with silhouettes of aircraft, tiny grey wooden recognition models of ships & war planes appeared as keepsakes. A large rusty piece of bomb-casing from an allotment was a treasure as it had formed part of the weapon that took the roof off our rented house, with my parents and sister inside, during the ‘Bath Blitz’ (24th-25th April 1942). Even better was a ‘tin hat’ issued to the Home Guard. A gnarled stick became a rifle and the ‘Axis Powers’ (friends without helmets!) were defeated regularly in the overgrown orchard of the Larkhall suburb! Even in the school playground a trade in artefacts was common. Coins, stamps, marbles, buttons, badges & cigarette cards were standard fare. Where is this leading?

    My point is that circumstances produced a generation of collectors. Without the distractions of the digital age actual interaction between individuals was face-to-face. Limited resources fomented trade. Especially true when many domestic items, pre-1939, were no longer manufactured. The one exception was military surplus. To haggle required stock (‘swaps’ i.e. duplicates), discernment (do I have or want the other item?), knowledge (is the offering genuine and what is it?), relativity (what is the real value compared with the proposed deal?) and desire (how far can I go to secure the piece?). Such characteristics remain essential for the modern collector, whether they focus on bayonets or any other series of objects.

    My first acquisition was a Danish Model 1899 cavalry sabre, negotiated for 5 shillings (25p) in my Secondary School playground in 1957. The spurious story that the seller’s uncle had carried it in the Crimean War (1854-56) had been taken into account (and discarded) as the chap would have been rather long-lived to have done so. With rust on the piece how was it to be treated? ‘Conservation’ began immediately when my father helped out (to ruin the original patina) with the buffing wheel on his lathe. A lesson to be later re-examined. To display them came next. A ‘pegboard’, neatly framed, was set up in my bedroom by the willing parent. Of course a single blade looked rather lost so the search began for a matched pair. Again adult help was gained when another sword was spotted in a Widcombe ‘junk shop’ on the journey to work. This time cost was £1-10s (£1.50) and all pocket-money was needed to gain it. It was ‘Number 21995’, a Pattern 1855 Wilkinson brass ‘Gothic’ hilted British infantry officer’s arm with steel scabbard. The symmetrical cross on the panel it made with the Danish version was (briefly) satisfying.

    Chance then took a hand. George Deverall an ‘Uncle’ (most male neighbours were then) offered a French épée-bayonet that he had kept to defend his wholesale confectionary shop during the war. On fetching it from the Bath Walcot Street store a traditional farthing was requested to secure the gift. Although a variety of edged weapons appeared in the collection from this time onwards, either ethnic types or bayonets appeared to be the most commonly seen. Sword and knife bayonets soon outnumbered the rest. Specialism was still some years away.

    A typed list was begun. Marks noted on the pieces stimulated enquiries. My French schoolmaster translated a rubbing from the back of the Épée-baïonnette modèle 1874. The inscription of Mre d’Armes de Ste Etienne Janvier 1878 became ‘Saint Etienne Arms Manufactory January 1878.’ This was my first research result. A few years later J.A. Clayton of Wilkinson Sword Ltd. confirmed that blade number 21995 had been sold at Pall Mall on 21st September 1877 as part of a batch of twenty-five examples.

    ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, higher education, job, marriage and family did not dim the search for extra edged weapons. A cedar wood panel was created in the hall of the new house. Street markets, antique shops, army surplus stores and similar emporia displayed numerous desirable blades so choice was only limited to a ready budget. The initial rule that no purchase would be made on credit was maintained.

    Socket Bayonets pic 2 A recreation of the Quinney’s socket bayonet shell case. All the pieces were bought there. (Priest)

    Focus appeared when passing Quinney’s antique shop in Park Row when studying at Bristol University. In the corner of the window was a brass shell case full of socket bayonets. [Fig.2] Although cheaper than most of the serried ranks of weapons inside, the container never seemed to empty. Closer study showed the objects to be subtly different and possibly well over 150 years old. A steady purchase began. Soon swords, Malayan kris, sword-bayonets etc. previously bought began to be sold off to raise funds.  This was the time when a wider search for socket bayonets started. Exchange & Mart listed mail-order bayonet sellers and through this medium contact with the established gurus of the bayonet world was at last fulfilled.

    An awareness now dawned that many more discerning individuals had been influenced by the increased availability of bayonets in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of this was the result of the business acumen of international arms dealers such as Sam Cummings who had seen the potential of the civilian market to boost sales. (Brogan, P., & Zarca: 1984)  He realised that North American shooters & huntsmen would buy up cheap military rifles for ‘sporterisation’ and the bayonets were therefore extra sources of revenue if sold separately. Those in the loop began general collections, others sought a particular country (Germany, Britain & USA especially) and a few became ‘middle men’ to supply the rest. Notable among the latter in England was John Anthony Carter (1943-2002) who had worked for Christie’s auction houses in London and Montreal. (Daily Telegraph: 6-7-2002)  His cyclostyled list of bayonets from August 1971 onwards created a regular clientele. Other pioneers included Gordon Hughes from Brighton, George Seymour from Southend and Bernard Marsh from Manchester. Elsewhere in the world John Denner of Lancaster, Ontario Canada also set up in business. Interest was encouraged through advertising in journals such a Guns Review or the above trade paper I had discovered. They integrated with established groups (focused on armour, firearms & swords) that created opportunities for meetings at venues such as Arms Fair ‘68 held at the Cumberland Hotel in London. Less emphasis on the bayonet field ensured that demand was in its infancy and therefore availability greater.

    A desire for knowledge at the time stimulated writers to publish data specifically about bayonets. In Britain Robert Wilkinson-Latham’s British Military Bayonets: From 1700-1945 (1967), Bert Walsh’s Bayonets Illustrated and Identified, Vol.1 (1968), Fred Stephen’s Bayonets: An Illustrated History and Reference Guide (1968) and John Walter & Gordon Hughes’ A Primer of World Bayonets: Common Knife & Sabre Bayonets, Part 1 (1969) set the scene. Al Hardin’s The American Bayonet 1776-1964 (1964) had already surpassed these academically with its amazing original research. Anthony Carter, Peter White, John Watts, Roger Evans, Ian Skennerton, Jerry Janzen, Robert Reilly and Paul Kiesling were soon to follow. Each more sophisticated study provided accurate background or explored a particular blade style.

    Anthony Carter became an authority on German bayonets through his meticulous studies, and even opened up another branch of acquisition with his three-volume series entitled Bayonet Belt Frogs. More comprehensive general surveys supported those collecting principles that had interested me from an early age.

    The arrival of the internet, global auction sites and better communications has risen collecting to a new level. Although shops, arms fairs and gun shows provide numerous chances for collecting, specialist sellers with lists e.g. The Bayonet Connection and other computer links e.g. Otto’s Militaria Web Site, not to mention online auctions such as eBay, have revolutionised retail methods. Enthusiasts in numerous countries now avidly explore and collect weapons from their native lands. Particularly strong is an interest in Australian bayonets as well as Second World War issues from Central Europe. Soviet blades have a big following. North America remains the leading continent, with most aficionados.

    Information exchanges are also enhanced by organisations such as The Society of American Bayonet Collectors (1/1988), L’Association Française des Collectionneurs de Baïonnettes (1/1997), Bayonet Collectors’ Network (11/1996) and International Bayonet Association (1/2008). Publications with sections on bayonets, like Classic Arms & Militaria and The Armourer, also have a role to play. Fortunately the mercenary side of collecting, just to make a good investment, can be enhanced by the social interaction that a mutual hobby generates.

    As the years pass the incentive to share my knowledge with others strengthen, which resulted in publishing The Socket Bayonet, A History & Collector's Guide (Amberley Publications 2016). I am glad that I focused on bayonets. The principles gained in that tarmac playground still give as much pleasure now as they did then.

    They are:-

    1) Choose a range of objects with plenty of variation and price difference.

    2) Discover as much information about them as you can prior to purchase through literature, internet research, visits to museums, shows & collections, personal advice & plenty of ‘hands-on’.

    3) Buy from a reputable source (with a guarantee of authenticity) unless willing to risk disappointment.

    4) Record your acquisition (information & insurance purposes) and tag in some way.

    5) Only conserve if necessary. Better quality items need little attention.

    6) Display to enhance enjoyment.

    7) Share with others, either as individuals or through a suitable organisation.

    8) Enjoy!


    Graham Priest's new book Socket Bayonets: A History and Collector's Guide is available now.


    Useful References

    Brogan, P., & Zarca, A., Deadly Business, Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1984.

    Carter, A., World Bayonets 1800 to the Present: An Illustrated Guide to Collectors, 4 editions, Arms & Armour Press, London, 1984 with ‘price guide’ for 1984-85, 1987-88, 1990-91 & 1996-97.

    Evans, R.D.C., A Bibliography of the Bayonet, Bayonet Studies, Series No.1, Baildon, 2000 (with updates since)

    Janzen, J. Bayonets from Janzen’s Notebook, USA, 1987.

    Kiesling, P., Bayonets of the World, 4 Vols. Military Collectors Service, Holland, from 1974.

    Reilly, R.M., American Socket Bayonets and Scabbards, Mowbray, USA, 1990.

    Skennerton, I., & Richardson, R., British & Commonwealth Bayonets, Margate, Australia, 1986.

    Watts, J. & White, P., The Bayonet Book, Birmingham, 1975.

  • Dragon’s Blood - A Mystical Medieval Treatment or Natural Remedy?

    Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark (Amberley Publishing April 2015) was the title of my original medieval medicine book. I chose the title to illustrate and contrast the use of both mystical and natural treatments in the middle ages and to consider the efficacy of these remedies.

    Willow bark had been used since ancient times to relieve inflammation and reduce fevers. We now know that this plant-based remedy contains salicylic acid, an active constituent of aspirin, so modern science understands how and why this would have benefitted the patient.

    As well as medicines derived from plants, medieval doctors also included animal-based remedies in their pharmacopeia. Some of these would horrify us today, such as a treatment for gout that required boiling newborn puppies! But others are far less grim, such as snail slime, used in medieval times to treat minor burns and scalds and currently making a comeback. Marketed as ‘snail gel’, this natural remedy aids the healing of cuts, insect bites and even acne spots. If you think how vulnerable the underside of a snail must be as it travels over spiky plant material and gritty soil, an antiseptic lubricant that promotes the healing of minor nicks and abrasions is an evolutionary asset. Modern medical research is now also looking at the possibilities of substances like snake venom and leech saliva as possible sources of new treatments.

    But what of the dragon’s blood mentioned in my book title? An ingredient mentioned in many medieval remedies, as the name suggests, was this some mysterious magical potion obtained from mythical creatures? Of course not. Dragon’s blood is neither mystical nor even animal-related.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood A Dracaena draco tree in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Courtesy: Esculapio

    It is a red resin originally from the tree Dracaena draco, a native of the Canary Islands and Morocco. When the bark of the tree is damaged, it oozes a blood-red sap which hardens to form a resinous protective layer over the site of injury. Historically, it was sold by medieval merchants as either lumps of dark red resin or a bright red powder, its price hugely inflated by the incredible story told of its origins. According to these tales, trees were not involved at all; the resin was said to be the solidified blood of dragons.

    According to a thirteenth-century Bestiary[1] – the medieval equivalent of a zoology guide with Christian overtones – dragons and elephants were mortal enemies and any chance encounter between these creatures resulted in combat to the death. Apparently, the dragons weren’t as invincible as most legends suggested and the elephants were always victorious. This may explain why they are so much more common than dragons today.

    Dragon’s blood was used as a dye and a paint pigment as well as having medicinal properties. The first century Greek botanist-physician, Dioscorides, described its uses in his herbal, De Materia Medica, prescribing it as a treatment for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, particularly for diarrhoea. Trotula of Salerno – who may have been a female lecturer in medicine at the University of Salerno in the twelfth century – recommended it in a long list of ingredients to make a remedy for treating women who suffer menorrhagia (heavy bleeding during their periods):

    After eating or during meals, let there be given to them to drink... a powder of coral and gum arabic, pomegranate, myrtleberry seed and purslane... great plantain, knotgrass, dragon’s blood, burnt elephant bones and quince seed[2].

    Dragon 1 An elephant meets a dragon: British Library, an English bestiary, dated to between 1236 and c.1250, MS Harley 3244, f. 39v.

    By 1402, the myth about the elephants and dragons was no longer widely believed and dragon’s blood was now understood to come from a plant, but it was still used in medicine as a cure-all. It was applied to wounds as a coagulant to stop the bleeding; it was taken by mouth for reducing fevers, curing diarrhoea and dysentery, mouth ulcers, sore throat, intestinal and stomach disorders, as well as for chest problems and it was applied to the skin as an eczema treatment.

    But did this exotic substance have any beneficial effects? The answer is yes, it probably did. Today, alternative medicine uses dragon’s blood as an antiseptic wash for wounds and internally for chest pains, menstrual problems and post-partum bleeding after childbirth. More orthodox medical research has found that dragon’s blood has not only antibiotic properties, but one of its components, taspine, has antiviral and wound-healing effects[3]. Animal and laboratory tests have shown some promise for the use of dragon’s blood in modern medicine but, to date, there are no human clinical studies verifying these effects.

    Dragon 2 Dragon’s blood (Daemonorops draco). Courtesy: Andy Dingley

    These days, dragon’s blood resin is still imported – at one time it was used to varnish Stradivarius violins – but Dracaena draco is just one source. The resin can also be obtained from Dracaena cinnabari which is native to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and this may well have been another source available to Islamic medicine and to Europe via the Incense Road. Most supplies now come from various species of Daemonorops, native to Malaysia and Indonesia.

    For the most serious diseases, prevention was always better than cure, but some concoctions were reckoned to do both. The following was written by an anonymous chronicler, describing how the lives of the people of Winchester in England were saved when plague came to the city in 1471:

    The most sovereign medicine for the pestilence concluded by doctors of physic both beyond the sea and in England, also about the king in late days in the reign of King Edward the IV the tenth year [1471]. Take four spoonful of water and five spoonful of vinegar and treacle the size of a bean and mix all this together and drink it, fasting once a week or twice in a month and if you are not infected it will preserve you and if you are infected it will save your life with regular habits. This is proved and has saved 300 or 400 lives of men, women and children in the city of Winchester in the year of the king above said.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood Concocting Theriac, The Arcadian Library, Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus Sanitatis 1491 Nicolas of Poland

    This recipe sounds so cheap and easy. If “with regular habits” it prevented and cured plague why should anyone die of that dreaded disease? Water, vinegar and treacle sound simple enough. The trouble was this ‘treacle’ wasn’t just any old treacle. It was ‘theriac’. According to legend, theriac was invented by King Mithridates VI, King of Pantus (now in Turkey) in the second century BCE. The king had a great fear of being assassinated by poison[4]. To be certain of having the correct antidote, if anyone ever did succeed in poisoning him, he experimented on his prisoners with every known poison and all possible antidotes. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He then mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, which he called ‘mithridate’, naming this incredible cure-all after himself. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, castor oil and dragon’s blood, along with some forty other ingredients.

    When the Romans defeated Mithridates, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. The Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, improved upon mithridate and brought the total number of ingredients to sixty-four, including viper’s flesh, a mashed decoction of which, first roasted then well aged, has since proved the most constant ingredient. Crushed amber and pearls added to its cost and exotic appeal. Apparently, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis on the advice of his physician, Galen. After all, he was wealthy and could afford all those expensive ingredients.

    In the medieval period, the traditional name became corrupted and shortened to ‘theriac’ and this, the most elaborate of all medicaments, now with more than a hundred ingredients, was called Venice or Genoa treacle by the English, depending on which Italian city state the merchants imported it from. But even if you could afford this ‘sovereign medicine’ or ‘magic bullet’ the secret of success lay in those two words ‘regular habits’. What were one man’s perfect regular habits could be another man’s destruction, depending on his humoral complexion, so the outcome was still in doubt, even for the rich.

    As for the common folk, there was no chance of them getting hold of that ‘bean-sized’ amount of treacle, even enough for a single dose and, when it came to their ‘regular habits’, of course they were deplorably ‘irregular’ in every way. Especially irregular were the habits of women – ever unpredictable, according to medieval belief, but that’s another story.


    Toni Mount's new paperback edition of Dragon's Blood called Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science is available now.



    [1] British Library, English bestiary, MS Harley 3244, dated between 1236 and 1250

    [2] Green, M. H., The Trotula – An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, USA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.70.

    [3] (accessed 27 September 2014)

    [4] Pickover, C. A., The Medical Book – from Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012), p.44.

    © Toni Mount April 2016

  • Jutland – the most Decisive Battle of the First World War by Phil Carradice

    The Battle of Jutland, fought on 31 May 1916, has long been regarded as an indecisive stalemate with neither side willing to risk the safety of its capital ships. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Jutland 1 The Grand Fleet at sea, led by Admiral Jellicoe in the battleship Iron Duke - in Churchill's words, Jellicoe was 'the only man who could have lost the war in a single afternoon'. It was a responsibility that weighed heavily on the admiral's mind.

    Jutland was actually the most significant action fought during the four long years of war, either on land or on the ocean. It was a battle where both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and men but the German vessels suffered more crippling and long-lasting damage. The German High Seas Fleet managed to escape total destruction at the hands of Jellicoe’s battleships, leaving the scene of the action in the gloom of evening. However, the only question needing to be asked is: ‘Who retained control of the field at the end of the battle?’

    Jutland 3 Admiral Reinhard Scheer, mastermind of the German plan and commander-in-chief of the High Seas.

    The answer is simple – the British. After the battle Admiral Scheer retired to port and, with the exception of one tentative venture that ended without action or contact between the fleets, the next time the High Seas Fleet left port was to surrender in 1918.

    After 31 May 1916 the Royal Navy retained control of the North Sea, effectively bottling up the German capital ships and allowing them to play no further part in the war. It meant that the naval blockade of Germany became increasingly effective, so much so that by the spring and summer of 1918 there was starvation and destitution in many German cities.

    If the British blockade of Germany was a major factor in the Allied victory, Germany also nearly pulled off a similar coup. Following the failure of its surface fleet to destroy the Royal Navy, Germany turned in ever greater desperation to its submarine fleet. Not only did the sinking of Allied and Neutral cargo ships almost bring Britain to her knees in 1917 and 1918, the indiscriminate use of U-boats effectively brought the USA into the war.

    Once America entered the conflict it became essential to cripple Britain before supplies, weapons and troops from the New World began to arrive in huge numbers. This, of course, meant more submarine sinkings and a degree of terror on the Atlantic that was only really ended by the adoption of the convoy system. Arguably, the success of the U-boats in 1917 and 1918 spawned the creation of Dönitz’s U-boat fleet in the Second World War.

    Jutland 4 Admiral Beatty - hero or villain of Jutland, depending on your source.

    None of this would have come about had Admirals Scheer and Hipper managed to destroy the Grand Fleet at Jutland. They certainly had a good go at it, aided by the criminal laxity of Admiral Beatty, commander of the British battlecruiser squadron.

    Beatty and his commanders were obsessed with the concept of rapid fire. The battlecruisers were notoriously inaccurate with their gunnery – only a few weeks before Jutland the captain of the Tiger had been reprimanded for poor returns during gunnery practise. Consequently Beatty felt that the weight and quantity of shells fired in action would be a good alternative to accuracy.

    Jutland 5 At dawn on 1 June Admiral Jellicoe found his fleet spread out across the North Sea. But of the German High Seas Fleet, there was no sign. He had won the day and, with the threat of submarine attack growing more likely by the hour, he ordered a return to Scapa Flow and Rosyth.

    In order to facilitate this quick firing, cordite was removed from its protective casings before action began and unprotected charges were stacked on mess decks and in gun turrets all across the ships. In addition, the doors to the magazines were left permanently open so that charges and shells could be moved more quickly. What that meant was that the British battlecruisers were little more than floating bombs, waiting to go off once accurate German fire hit home.

    Two battlecruisers exploded and sank in the early stages of the battle, one more just before the end, causing Beatty to make his famous remark, ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ There was – it was Admiral David Beatty and his captains. Interestingly, the commander of the battlecruiser Princess Royal refused to have anything to do with the shoddy practise of the other ships. The Princess Royal was hit by dozens of German shells but the closed magazine doors saved lives and his ship.

    Jutland 6 The High Seas Fleet had lost fewer ships (eleven German compared to fourteen British) and with 2,545 men killed, compared to 6,097 British, they claimed a victory. However, their ships had sustained considerably more damage and several of them never sailed again. This shows the damage to Hipper's flagship Seydlitz.

    In the wake of the battle an enquiry, headed by Admiral Tudor, was held to determine the cause of the British losses. Tudor’s report was condemnatory of the ‘open doors’ policy employed on the battlecruisers but the Navy chose to suppress the report and blame, instead, the poor deck armour of the ships. Admiral Tudor was even forced to write a letter of apology to Beatty and was subsequently posted to the backwater of the China Fleet.

    Despite the higher British losses (6,097 men compared to just 2,545 German sailors) Jutland was a hugely decisive and effective battle, particularly for the Royal Navy. At the end of the day, as the High Seas Fleet retreated to its base, the war had been effectively won by the British. The conflict might drag on for another two years but naval commanders, planners and politicians on both sides were supremely aware that the outcome of the war was decided on 31 May 1916.

    031589 1916 at Sea CVR.indd

    Phil Carradice's book 1916 The First World War at Sea in Photographs, along with the rest in the series, is available now.

  • British Steam Fire Engines by Ronald Henderson

    35 Shand, Mason’s double vertical fire engine

    Whenever one reads stories about the fire brigade in children’s books and comics, and indeed in some historical books on the subject there was invariably mention of the romance of the steam fire engine. There was the  thrill of seeing  two powerful fire brigade horses galloping along the streets with the firemen hanging on for dear life and shouting the traditional 'Hi Hi Hi' to warn the public and other traffic of the fire engines approach. The descriptions often went on to describe the clatter of horse’s hooves on the cobbles and the sparks and flames shooting skywards from the engines chimney. In the big cities and towns this was probably a true description but not so in the smaller towns and rural areas. Here, horses were usually hired from outside contractors that were required to repair to the fire station on the sounding of the alarm, unhitch the horses from their usual scavenging or delivery mans cart and hitch them to the fire engine before it could leave the station. In other districts, firemen had to go and seek the horses or would refuse to turn out unless the caller supplied the horses. What was not always mentioned was that on long distance journeys in rural areas the horses often had to be regularly rested as they could not sustain pulling the weight of the fire engine and its six man crew at fast speeds for long durations and on approaching steep gradients, the crews often had to dismount and assist the horses by pushing the fire engine. The era was certainly romantic and exciting whilst the engines were spectacular with their varnished vermillion red livery and polished brass and copper pipes and chimneys.

    Steam fire engines were slow to be accepted into Britain's fire service and whilst one engine could do the work of several manually operated pumps with only a handful of men compared to the many teams of men needed to work the handles of the manual engines the firemen felt threatened and fearful for their jobs. Initially the London Fire Brigade was dead set against them accusing them of causing too much damage because of the amount of water they could project and conversely claiming that the water mains in the Capital were not large enough to supply the new fangled engines. Eventually common sense prevailed and progress won. Steam fire engines gradually became the most efficient fire engines of the era.

    22 Shand, Mason’s small Volunteer fire engine

    Ronald Henderson's new book, British Steam Fire Engines is the first one that covers the fascinating subject in its entirety since Charles F.T. Young published his book, A History of Manual and Steam Fire Engines in 1866. The first steam fire engine was constructed in 1829 but it took another 30 years before steam fire engines started to be introduced into Britain's fire service. The new fangled equipment was subject to many public trials and competitions devised to identify the most efficient type of fire engine with many designers submitting exhibits including some from the United States of America. Throughout the history of steam fire engine construction, two British firms dominated, Merryweather & Sons of Greenwich and Shand, Mason & Co. Ltd., of London although later newcomers, the Fire Appliances Manufacturing Company of London and William Rose of Manchester also contributed, albeit for only a short period.  The new book describes the early trials and novel designs of steam fire engines and then goes on to describe and illustrate with period photographs, mostly taken from the archives of the builders the individual models and the improvements that occurred during the years of steam fire engine construction and the intense rivalry that occurred between the different manufacturers. In 1899 Merryweather & Sons introduced a new self-propelled Fire King Steam fire engine on which the engine powered both the road wheels and the main pump. Around about the same time, increasing developments occurred with the internal combustion engine and petrol driven road vehicles which would eventually see the demise of the glory days of horse drawn steam fire engines and other horse drawn road vehicles. These new self-propelled steam fire engines are also described and whilst Merryweather's pursued their developments of both steam and petrol driven fire engines Shand, Mason failed to develop successful motor driven fire engines and was ignominiously bought out by Merrweather's.

    75 Hitchen in Hertfordshire was one of many authorities that dispensed with horses and attached their fire engine, in this case a Shand, Mason London Brigade vertical to a motor vehicle.

    Steam fire engines were relatively simple machines that consisted of a pump, an engine to drive it, all mounted on a four wheeled carriage with a large equipment box on which the crew sat and a seat at the front for the coachman. Water had to come from external sources. Construction of them lasted until the mid 1920's, after which improvements in the design of the petrol engine rendered the type increasingly obsolete. The two horse power traction sources had been replaced by petrol engines although the type soldiered on, especially in rural fire brigades where there was little use for them and therefore no requirement to update the equipment. World War Two and the nationalisation of Britain's fire brigades saw the last operational steam fire engines quickly withdrawn.

    Some 250 British made steam fire engines survive, carefully maintained in museums and private collections, not only in Britain but throughout the world. As well as those on public exhibition in Britain preserved examples survive in many overseas countries from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, North and South America, India, Russia and several European countries;  a lasting tribute to an era when Britain's manufacturing expertise and quality of workmanship was at one time recognised throughout the globe.


    British Steam Fire Engines by Ronald Henderson is available for purchase now.

  • How 'No More Soldiering' began by Stephen Wade

    Objector A popular postcard showing the common view of the weak and effeminate CO. (Author’s collection)

    I was researching in the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull, digging into the background for a biography I was writing on George Grossmith, the singer and writer, when there was a large folder of photographs and I could see from the front cover that it was intriguingly entitled: 'Prison Photographs.' As I am primarily a crime historian, how could I resist taking a peek at that?  It's hard to explain the shock. There were images of the frame used for flogging men; solitary cells, and even a monstrosity called an 'insanity box.' What was the context for all this? It was regarding the treatment dished out to some of the so-called 'Absolutists' in the ranks of the conscientious objectors in the Great War. These were the people who not only would not fight, but also refused to do anything in support of the war with the Kaiser and his allies.

    I knew at that moment that I had to tell the story of some of those men, and as with any historical enquiry, like Topsy, it grew and grew. Of course, I still regard this book as an account of something partly criminal, though the government of the day created legislation and acted accordingly. But when it came to reading out death sentences to men standing in line and then cancelling them, then that was surely some kind of cruelty beyond all reason. I brought to mind the story of Fyodor Dostoievski and his friends - a group of young radicals, who were rounded up and blindfolded, ready to face the firing squad, and were then reprieved and sent to Siberia.

    Conscript Cartoon A CO cartoon sympathetic to the cause. (Author’s collection)

    Oh yes, No More Soldiering is the one book among all my books that was written with a sense of indignant rage. Most works of history of course are expected to give a balanced view of past events, and I was always aware of that, but I think that my feelings kept showing through the narrative.

    The other perspective on this subject is the alarming tendency for people today, in some areas and groups at least, to want to erase these men who did not take up arms; their stories are often eclipsed from the family record.

    But I must finish with my own dilemma. Should I have been a young man in 1914, I would have joined up. After all, the Germans were using Zeppelins to bomb my home county of Yorkshire, along with Hartlepool and Cleethorpes. I would have wanted to hit back. But of one thing I am certain: I would have respected the objectors. There would have been no smug smile from me when a white feather was posted.

    In the end, I felt that I had made a small contribution to the persistent debate about pacifism and the forms it tends to take at different points in time, and my respect for the courage of those non-combatants was something I felt I had to explain to myself, as well as to my readers.


    No More Soldiering: Conscientious Objectors of the First World War by Stephen Wade is available for purchase now.

  • Sir Henry Neville was Shakespeare: The Evidence by John Casson & William D. Rubinstein

    In science knowledge develops through experiment and evidence. Starting with questions and doubts, new hypotheses are developed and their predictions are tested against experimental experience. This research approach often generates new evidence that corroborates or refutes previous ideas and so increases the probability that a new hypothesis is correct or indicates it must be modified. In this way is knowledge advanced. In literature and the arts this procedure may be followed (for example in authenticating a newly discovered painting by Rembrandt), but another process is also at work: the accretion of academic opinion. Careful study leads to opinions being formed. These may be based on available evidence and develop authority because of the status of the academic and their institution. Aristotle and Galen developed great authority in previous times though their ideas were later superseded.  Opinion can harden into “facts” that become the basis for belief. Belief can then influence practice and a quasi-religious orthodoxy develops. The theory that human health was the result of a balance between four humors is an example: this belief lasted for hundreds of years.

    Casson58 An example of Henry Neville’s annotations in books that offer evidence of his authorship of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar is a note about Mark Anthony’s speech (epitaph) to the crowd after Caesar’s death: “λογοs επιταφιοs M. Antonii in G. Julium Caesarem” in the Greek volume of Appian (Dionysius section), page 170. It is suggested by Casson that this annotation dates from Neville’s student days at Merton College, Oxford, long before the play was written. Another annotation in the same volume on the same subject but possibly written later, shows Neville was especially interested in this speech over Caesar’s dead body. (See Chapter 5)

    The Shakespeare Authorship is such a case where orthodoxy has developed that has been accepted by generations. Questioning the authorship of William Shakespeare, the actor/theatre sharer from Stratford-upon-Avon, has been labeled by senior figures in the field as “heresy”. Yet doubts about the authorship date back centuries, indeed to the playwright’s life time (Hall and Marston in 16th century satires named the author as “Labeo” and in 1611 John Davies named Will Shake-speare “our English Terence” in his Scourge of Folly. Terence was a Roman actor who passed off other people’s plays as his own). These doubts and questions about the Stratford man’s authorship have led recently to a number of researchers checking all available facts and finding that the case for his authorship is indeed very weak and owes more to opinion, hearsay and myth developed after his death than to any documented evidence during his lifetime.

    One reason why the Stratford man has remained in place as the author is the weakness and eccentricity of other proposed candidates who either died too soon or lived too long or for whom the evidence is just not convincing. The Stratfordian establishment has also been an impediment to enquiry into the authorship as their scholars have ridiculed rival claimants and denied there is any problem. However substantial recent research has illuminated the field and shown there are new reasons for doubting the Stratford William Shakespeare’s authorship.

    Casson222 One of the portraits of Henry Neville at Audley End House is the uppermost picture on the pillar. The “Incomparable pair” of William and Philip Herbert, the 3rd and 4th Earls of Pembroke, are diagonally opposite looking across at Neville. These brothers were the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio and became patron and mentors of Henry Neville’s oldest son Henry and grandson Richard.

    As stated above science proceeds through gathering of evidence, testing and modifying hypotheses until eventually the truth emerges. In the case of the Shakespeare Authorship the latest evidence points to Sir Henry Neville (1562-1615). Ten years of research and nine books have now established a strong case backed by more documentary evidence than is available for any other candidate, including notebooks, letters, annotated library books relevant to the Shakespeare plays and the facts of Neville’s life and experience which exactly match what we would expect for the writer of these works. Neville knew the key people, used rare vocabulary employed by Shakespeare, had a documented interest in theatre, hid his authorship of documents put before parliament and was described as “discreet”. However Neville left tell tale traces of his authorship. Neville’s authorship is a testable hypothesis: new evidence continues to emerge. He was in the right places at the right times. He visited France, Italy and Scotland. He was a member of the Mermaid Club, a friend of Southampton, the Sidneys, Jonson, Fletcher and Beaumont. Above all it is his annotated library books which provide startling new evidence of his authorship as he made notes on Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Brutus, Claudius and the rapist Tarquin. He left notes in books relevant to The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline. Other notebooks and manuscripts contain marginal notes on every reign covered by the history plays and include rare vocabulary and even spellings that the Bard used. An avalanche of documentary evidence is now available in support of Henry Neville as the answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Neville’s life matches the evolutionary trajectory of Shakespeare’s works written between about 1590 and 1613, and always explains why he wrote a particular play at that time, especially why there was a great break in the writing around 1601, after which he wrote the great Tragedies, starting with Hamlet.

    More discoveries are to come as three more books are in preparation. Sir Henry Neville was Shakespeare: The Evidence is a comprehensive summation of the evidence so far.


    Sir Henry Neville Was Shakespeare: The Evidence by John Casson and William D. Rubinstein is available for purchase now.

  • Forgotten Science by S.D. Tucker

    They tried to make a Monkey out of you

    In an extract from his new book Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History, SD Tucker explores some of the strangest tales from Soviet science, including Stalin’s alleged attempts to create a race of invincible monkey-soldiers to serve in the Red Army.

    The phrase ‘human guinea-pig’ is often used these days to describe the way that science sometimes makes use of human beings as convenient test-subjects during trials of new medical procedures and so forth. The very idea of human-experimentation can seem off-putting and disturbing to many people, but these days such trials are strictly regulated and often performed only as a last resort, and for the greater social good. However, this state of affairs has not always been the case, as can be seen by the sometimes horrible, sometimes comic – and always highly unethical – abuse of human guinea-pigs in the name of science during the early days of the old Soviet Union.

    Take the disturbing history of Soviet research into toxins. Various secret laboratories-cum-prisons were established in Russia, where convenient inmates were taken to be poisoned in the ‘noble’ cause of advancing the State’s ability to carry out assassinations more efficiently. One of the main men to pursue such research was Grigory Mairanovsky (1899-1964), a biochemist who ran his own lab in Moscow to which were attached several cells whose doors were fitted with peepholes for observational purposes. Each day, new consignments of prisoners were shipped in and fed poisons in the guise of medicine, or hidden within food. Then, Mairanovsky’s men would time how long it took them to die. Sometimes it took minutes, sometimes weeks. To test out all variables, Mairanovsky got hold of any and all physical types to murder; tall people, short people, thin people, fat people, those who were already ill, and those in perfect health. To block out the screams of agony, the lab assistants bought a radio and played it full-blast. These trials were considered to be justified and ‘not illegal’ by those behind them on the grounds that they were ‘being performed on people sentenced to execution as enemies of the Soviet government’. In other words, they were expendable lab-rats – literal ‘non-persons’, as the old saying went.

    Such thinking had existed for some time prior to Mairanovsky setting up his lab, though; in 1933, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), celebrating the creation of Stalin’s new Institute of Experimental Medicine, commented that ‘hundreds of human units’ would be required to be experimented upon within. By describing them as ‘units’, Gorky reduced such people down to a status even lower than animals.


    Incredibly, so prevalent did the idea of using human beings as experimental animals become in the USSR that at one point attempts were made by scientists to actually cross people with apes, supposedly in order to create a race of man-monkey super-soldiers for enlistment in the Red Army, a story partly true and partly exaggerated. Its origins lie with the work of a genuine Russian scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870-1932), who gained great success artificially-inseminating horses around the year 1900, then moved on to cross-breeding various closely-related species, such as zebras and donkeys. In 1910, he speculated it might even be possible to cross-breed humans with apes, but in 1917 came the Revolution, and Ivanov fell from favour. In the 1920s, though, the atheistic Soviets finally gave Ivanov the go-ahead to try out his proposed scheme – reputedly in order to prove Darwin right and the Church wrong. By 1926 Ivanov was in Guinea, where he made three separate attempts to inseminate native female chimpanzees with human sperm (not his own). This failed, so Ivanov tried a different tactic; rather than men impregnating female monkeys, maybe women could be impregnated by male apes instead? Making the astonishing suggestion that he just try and squirt some monkey-sperm inside female patients at a nearby hospital without their knowledge or consent, Ivanov found little local favour for his plan. Returning to the Soviet Union, Ivanov set up a primate-lab in the Black Sea port of Sukhumi, where most of his specimens died from cold. Only one ape survived, an orang-utan named ‘Tarzan’. Ivanov found a woman willing to have Tarzan’s baby, but before fertilisation could take place, Tarzan died too. After he asked a Cuban ape-breeder to sell him some monkey-semen, the American Press got hold of the story and Ivanov again lost support from the Soviet authorities, being exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died in 1932. Ivanov’s primate-lab survived him, though, later becoming the prime source of monkeys for Russia’s space-programme.

    This much is apparently true. However, in 2005 The Scotsman, citing certain unnamed ‘secret documents’ supposedly just found in Moscow, sensationally reported that Josef Stalin himself had personally ordered Ivanov to make a race of unconquerable monkey-men to serve as slave-labour shock-troops in his army. According to the article, Stalin desired ‘a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat’. It’s an incredible story ... but it appears untrue. No Russian-language newspapers reported the tale prior to The Scotsman’s revelation, and nobody seems to know what these alleged ‘secret documents’ actually were, or where they came from. There is no evidence that Stalin ever met or spoke to Ivanov, nor that he even knew specifically what he was up to. In 1980 The Times had reported that the Chinese Communist Party had allegedly tried and failed to inseminate chimps with human sperm in order to ‘found a race of helots for economic and technical purposes’, and it would seem that the story of Stalin’s ape-soldiers is really just an updated variant of that old yarn. The people really being made monkeys out of here were gullible members of the public who believe everything they read in newspapers, not 1920s Russian soldiers.


    Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History by S.D. Tucker is available for purchase now.

  • The Defeat of the Luftwaffe by Jonathan Trigg

    What’s the best thing about writing history? For me that’s easy. Stepping back in time into the shoes of another generation and looking around at the world through their eyes, and as you look around you can read what they read, touch what they touched, and try to understand why they did what they did. A lot of the time you can only achieve this through what they left behind; artefacts, buildings (more likely ruins), papers, etc. These are all powerful tools in a historian’s armoury and can be utterly fascinating. Probably my favourite example of this is a crude carving in a balcony rail high in the magnificent Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul (now the Aya Sofia mosque). It simply reads: ‘Halfdan made these runes’, or to put it another way, ‘Halfdan was here’. We don’t know for sure who Halfdan was, but the evidence suggests he was a Viking member of the Byzantine Emperor’s famous Varangian Guard. So, Halfdan was a soldier, he could read and write and like all soldiers he got bored on guard duty – some things never change.

    How amazing would it be to speak to Halfdan? To hear him tell of his time, tell his story, in his own words - that for me is still the draw to writing about the Second World War, people who lived through it are still alive – although time marches on. Over the last decade of writing about the most terrible conflict our world has ever known I have seen so many voices go silent – except in Scandinavia where people seem to live forever! So, I take every chance I can get to write down peoples words. Those stories are all around us, often in the most unlikely places. I was once asked by an old friend to come up to Durham and be the after-lunch speaker at his local Rotary Club. I chose as my subject the exploits of the Waffen-SS during the War. I had written several times on the topic and hoped I could make it interesting for the audience. I mean no criticism of them at all, but they were mainly an ‘older’ crowd if I can put it like that, and I was worried that me droning on after a good lunch, and with the afternoon sun streaming in through the hotel windows, it would all be a bit much for some of them and a few might drift quietly off. How amazed was I then when the self-proclaimed oldest member of the Club asked to speak as soon as I had finished my little talk. He sat there and said, ‘The first member of the Waffen-SS I met was the chap that took me prisoner when I was on a night patrol in Italy….’ Brilliant! Just a few yards away, living history.

    Then there are the stories that got away. One of my neighbours is a consultant anaesthetist in the NHS, his family is Anglo-Polish, the Polish side coming from a daring escape to the West through snow-covered pine forests before the Iron Curtain snapped shut. His grandmother was the family’s matriarch, their totem, and she was over 100 years old. Standing around his barbecue one summer evening he was telling me a bit about her when he dropped in that when she was a little girl in 1917 she lived with her family in a very smart house in St Petersburg. On one occasion, hearing a lot of commotion, she, her family and their servants, all rushed to the windows to watch a crowd of armed men storm the building across the way. Those were desperate, troubled times, and the event may have gone unremarked, except the building was the Tsar’s Winter Palace, and the armed men were Bolshevik Red Guards. She had just witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace and a giant step in the Russian Revolution. Unsurprisingly I was desperate to talk to her and get it all down on paper, but she was adamant – the past was the past and it should stay there. Sadly she passed away soon after and her story went with her.

    Vitaly VVS pilot Vitaly I. Klimenko

    Missed opportunities like that spur me on to seek out tales from those that were there, and so I was determined to include as many as I could in my history of the victory of the Soviet Red Air Force over the Nazi Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front – and there were some gems. Surprise was so total when the Luftwaffe first attacked on the morning of the 22nd of June 1941, that no-one on the Soviet side expected it. The fighter pilot, Vitaly Klimenko, was planning to take his pretty Lithuanian girlfriend to a local lake for some swimming and sunbathing, but instead he was rudely awakened by the sounds of an air-raid. He threw open the flap of his tent to hear a neighbour shout, ‘Guys the war has started!’, and Vitaly’s response was, ‘F**k you, what war?’ On that day alone the Soviets lost close to 2,000 aircraft. Two thousand! The numbers involved are hard to credit. The entire German Air Force today numbers around two hundred planes, and the British RAF only around 230. But, as ever, numbers are only part of the story. As I researched the book one of the most harrowing accounts I read was from a German soldier talking to one of his comrades about his experiences on the ‘Russian Front’;

    Müller: “When I was at Kharkov the whole place had been destroyed, except the centre of town. It was a delightful town, a delightful memory! Everyone spoke a little German – they’d learnt it at school. Taganrog was the same. We did a lot of flying near the junction of the Don and Donets. Its’ beautiful country…everywhere we saw women doing compulsory labour service.”

    Faust: “How frightful!”

    Müller: “They were employed on road making – extraordinarily lovely girls; we drove past, simply pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again, and did they curse!”


    The Defeat of the Luftwaffe: The Eastern Front 1941-45, A Strategy for Disaster by Jonathan Trigg is available for purchase now.

  • The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine Nerdalicious feature with Toni Mount

    Toni Mount is back with another fascinating look at everyday life in the middle ages. Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine takes you on a journey through centuries of medical progress, from the ancient to the modern era. Packed full of intriguing anecdotes you’ll discover the elusive female physicians of the middle ages, medicine and the church, surprisingly modern ideas about medicine, wonderfully wacky cures, diseases that have disappeared and treatments that have endured for centuries and are still used to this day. Toni joins us today to discuss the amazing world of medieval medicine.

    Can you tell our readers how someone would train to become a doctor in medieval times?

    To be a physician, they would attend a university and learn medicine from the ancient Greek and Roman texts written by Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen and others. To be a surgeon, they would have had practical training on the job,serving a seven-year apprenticeship to a master surgeon.

    And were there were various specialised jobs in the medical profession as there are now?

    Physicians and surgeons could be known for their particular skills in some area of their profession. Some physicians specialised in drawing up horoscopes, then regarded as a vital part of medicine. Not only were they checking the stars to see if it was an auspicious day to treat a particular ailment but they could determine whether a young couple were suitable marriage partners, how many children they would have and even in business matters, the best day to sign a contract. Some surgeons, like John Bradmore, specialised in battlefield surgery. He treated the future king Henry V, successfully removing an arrow from the young man’s face after the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. There was also the possibility of specialising in making medicines – the apothecaries were the pharmacists of the day.

    Dragon’s Blood 1 Pregnant woman with possible positions of the foetus – The Apocalypse of St John, Germany, 1420 | Wellcombe Library MS 49

    How did midwives remain so integral in a profession completely dominated by males?

    Childbirth was seen as a women-only affair so, until the 18th century, men were more than willing to let midwives be in charge so they could remain aloof from the messy and – to them – mysterious business.

    How well did male doctors and surgeons understand the female body?

    Not very well. In the late 16th century, William Harvey – he who proved that blood circulated – did detailed studies of the development of chick embryos in birds’ eggs, so they had some idea of how babies grew. But into Victorian times it was still thought that the womb wasn’t fixed in place and could wander round the body. Hysteria – a word coming from the Greek/Latin word for womb – occurred if the womb reached the brain!

    And were there females practising in medical professions other than midwifery?

    Yes, there were certainly female surgeons and apothecaries, usually serving apprenticeships with their fathers or elder brothers. We know of Katherine, trained in surgery by her father, and Joan who tended the monks at Westminster Abbey and made medicines for them. Otherwise, few women are known to us by name. However, the wardens of the barber-surgeons’ company in London had to swear to oversee the standard of work ‘of all men and women practising the art of surgery’, so there must have been many others. A medical manuscript, Sloane 6 at the British Library, has a series of images showing a fashionable woman letting blood and tending a patient. In theory, there couldn’t be any female physicians because women couldn’t go to university, yet there is a case from 1350 when a female physician, Pernell de Rasyn, was accused of causing the death of a miller in Devon. She disputed the accusation and eventually received a royal pardon.

    Dragon’s Blood 2 Female physician blood-letting | British Libtrary British Library Sloane 6 f. 177v

    What role did religion play in medicine?

    It was because of religion that physicians and surgeons had such separate professions. Before 1215, most medical doctors were monks and priests who diagnosed illness, made medicines and carried out surgical procedures, like cataract operations and dentistry. But in 1215, Pope Innocent III forbade churchmen from shedding blood. That seemed reasonable and the intention was to stop them fighting in battle or passing a death sentence in court, but it also put an end to their practising surgery. Everyone who went to university had to take minor holy orders at least; hence, physicians who studied at uni could no longer do surgery. Now laymen had to fill the gap, completing apprenticeships instead. Also, religion came first and last in any medical treatment. Prayer was always the first resort if you fell ill because sickness was a punishment for sin. If your case looked hopeless, a priest was summoned before a doctor and hospitals were more concerned with preparing your soul for the next life, than restoring your body in this one.

    Did religious superstition interfere with medical procedures?

    As well as the answer given above, there was a big debate about treating the sick: if illness was a punishment from God, wasn’t any attempt at treating it flouting the will of God? There were those who believed physicians and surgeons not only put their patients’ souls at risk, but their own souls as well. Luckily, others had a quite different view: if a treatment for an ailment existed, then it must have been created by God. Therefore, not to make use of it went against God’s will. What a dilemma! To be on the safe side, medicines were often given to patients accompanied by prayers or in the name of the Trinity. Various herbs ‘belonged’ to specific saints and even the cooking instructions for potions might include ‘boil for the time it takes to say five Lord’s Prayers’. After all, you didn’t have a watch or clock in those days.

    Dragon’s Blood 3 The Four Humours – from the Guild Book of the Barber Surgeons of York | British Library Egerton 2572 f. 51v


    What other factors hindered medical progress? And why was the early modern/Tudor period one of so many advances?

    To answer these two questions together, it was the universities’ insistence that men like Aristotle and Galen were absolute authorities on science of any kind that held back progress. It was believed that when God had created Adam around 4,000 years before Christ, He had given Adam a complete knowledge of the whole world. After Adam fell from grace, his memory was no longer perfect and every generation since had forgotten a bit more of Adam’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Logically, to medieval thinking, the further back in history you went, closer to Adam’s time, the more knowledge men had, so Aristotle and co. knew far more and scholars couldn’t do better than learn from the ancient texts. However, from the 15th century, explorers were travelling to distant lands, discovering America, finding new plants, animals and peoples not mentioned by Aristotle and co. Could it be that the ancients didn’t know everything? Also, technology was advancing; telescopes and microscopes were revealing unknown worlds, both huge and minute. Remember I mentioned William Harvey who was sure that blood circulated? Within just a few years of his death, the microscope revealed the existence of blood capillaries – too fine to see with the naked eye but vital in completing the circuit of blood around the body. By the 17th century, men were finally prepared to think outside the box of ancient knowledge, prepared to experiment and discover new facts for themselves.

    Cancer is one of our biggest killers now, what sorts of diseases were medieval people at most risk from?

    Cancer did exist – cases of ‘canker’ of the breast are found occasionally. The big difference though was probably that diseases we treat today with antibiotics had no cure. Even the dreaded plague, still around today, is cured by antibiotics. Septicaemia or blood-poisoning was a big killer in that a small cut or splinter could be a death sentence if it became infected. Measles could be deadly, although it was sometimes confused with smallpox so the death rate is hard to guess. This confusion suggests that smallpox was less virulent before the 17th century. Queen Elizabeth I recovered from smallpox; a hundred years later, Queen Mary [of William & Mary] died of a more virulent strain which killed thousands.

    What diseases have disappeared over the centuries?

    Leprosy was on the wane in the Middle Ages and plague disappeared from England almost completely from the mid-17th century. Smallpox has been eradicated by vaccination and terminal conditions like renal failure can be managed by modern medicine. However, obesity wasn’t much of a problem then, smoking didn’t exist in Tudor times and modern addictive drugs were almost unknown. The problems of old age weren’t so prevalent either with life expectancy being much reduced.

    Dragon’s Blood 4 Run mouse, run! Cat and mouse from Peraldus’s Theological miscellany | British Library Harley 3244

    And, for fun, what were some of the stranger remedies you came across in your research?

    Not sure about fun but burnt, powdered owl was a treatment for gout. A Tudor cure for whooping cough was to pass the child under and over a braying donkey. Powdered mouse bones, mixed with honey and oil of roses, was believed to cure earache. Fried or roasted mice with onions were another cure for whooping cough or, if burnt to a cinder and mixed with jam would prevent bed-wetting. Mouse skin, rubbed on a wart then buried, would ensure the wart disappeared as the skin rotted away. Useful things mice! Spiders’ webs were used like sticking plasters or Band-Aid, to cover minor wounds. Believe it or not, cobwebs do help stop the bleeding and contain a powerful antiseptic.

    What new projects are you working on now?

    A new factual book for Amberley, ‘A Year in the Life of Medieval England’ – a sort of diary with 366 entries covering major events, battles, births, deaths, weather, fashion, gardening, cookery, remedies, divorces, murders, etc. is nearing its deadline of 15 January 2016, due for publication next July. My first novel, a medieval murder mystery set in 15-century London, has been accepted by MadeGlobal and is due for publication probably in May, with the title ‘TheColour of Poison’. On-line history courses are another new venture which it is hoped will be available before Christmas this year, again with MadeGlobal. I’m now working on a sequel to ‘Poison’, beginning a wills transcription project with the Richard III Society, plus the usual classes, talks, writing groups, magazine articles, etc.

    Written by Olga Hughes for Nerdalicious on November 27, 2015


    Toni Mount's Dragon's Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine is available for purchase now.

  • Charles Brandon by Steven Gunn

    Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, won’t go away, but we always see him out of the corner of our eye. In panoramic sixteenth-century paintings like those showing the Field of Cloth of Gold and the sinking of the Mary Rose he is usually somewhere just behind the king. Seventeenth-century sight-seers in the Tower of London were shown two great jousting lances among the collections of royal armour: one, they were told, was Henry VIII’s, the other Charles Brandon’s. In 1953, as Disney tried to tap the market for swashbuckling historical epics, they made The Sword and the Rose about Brandon’s shocking love-match with Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, the newly widowed queen of France; but Richard Todd’s solid Brandon was outshone by Glynis Johns’ charming princess and James Robertson Justice’s booming king. In our own age a rather dim-witted Brandon has cropped up in Wolf Hall, while in The Tudors he was a more rakish and athletic friend for Henry, as befitted the casting of Henry Cavill, who went on to play Superman.

    Charles Brandon 2 Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Amberley Publishing)

    What is true in popular culture is also true in the historical record. Brandon is always there, with the king at court, sitting on the council, commanding armies, in every decade of Henry’s reign. But he is always just out of focus. When Henry came to the throne, Brandon was just one in a gaggle of athletic young men around the king. His friends died in Henry’s first French war or faded from the scene, but no sooner had he reached the top with creation as duke of Suffolk than Cardinal Wolsey established his suffocating primacy as Henry’s chief minister. Wolsey’s fall brought noblemen like Brandon back to the centre of politics, but the rise of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell edged him aside again. In the five years before his death in 1545 he served the king in a more collective, conciliar regime, but it was bureaucrats like William Paget and younger generals like Edward Seymour and John Dudley who rose to the top, as they planned for the reign of Henry’s son Edward.

    Brandon was always a supporting actor, but we can learn a lot from him. No-one survived as long at Henry’s bloody court or rose so far and so fast, from esquire to duke in just five years. If he lived today, airport bookshops would sell bulky paperbacks promising lessons for success drawn straight from his life. Such a book would have, I think, seven chapters.

    The first lesson would the importance in a personal monarchy of one’s relationship with the king. Brandon’s family were courtiers under Henry VII and that gave him a good start, but it was the interests and pleasures he shared with Henry VIII, from jousting, dancing and romantic dalliance to building great houses and invading France, that built a lasting relationship of confidence between them, making Brandon, as Henry once put it, ‘the man in all the world he loved and trusted best’. That relationship was tested at various points, by his unauthorised marriage to the king’s sister, by accusations that he was compromised by his promotion of Anglo-French amity to secure her dower income from France, by various military failures and by his difficult relationship with Anne Boleyn, but it always survived.

    Charles Brandon 3 Henry VIII jousting at the tournament to celebrate the birth of a prince, February 1511. It was at this tournament that Henry and Brandon fought one of their most dashing combats. (Amberley Publishing)

    One reason for his survival, and material for lesson two, was that he could protest to the king that his aim had always been to serve him rather than to do down his colleagues: as he once put it to Henry, ‘there was never none of them in trouble but I was glad to help them to my power, and that Your Grace knows best’. He worked well with Wolsey early in his career, cooperated more readily than other noblemen with Cromwell, and late in life managed, remarkably, to collaborate closely not only with the moderate core of Henry’s council, older men like John, lord Russell and younger like the earl of Arundel, but also with the reformists like Edward Seymour who would dominate Edward VI’s reign and the conservatives, like Thomas Wriothesley, whom they would push aside. His own ambiguous, not to say confused, attitude to religious change was probably no disadvantage in keeping contemporaries on both sides of the Reformation debate happy.

    A third chapter would have to point out that long careers under Henry rested not only on amiability but also on talent. The young Brandon was good at jousting, good enough to fight the king well but make sure he won, but more important in the long term was his ability in military command. Ellis Gruffudd, the Welsh soldier of the Calais garrison who served under the duke in 1523 and did not mince his words about incompetent commanders, called him ‘the flower of all the captains of the realm’. He played an important part in the capture of Tournai in 1513 and that of Boulogne in 1544, the two great conquests of Henry’s reign. In between he led English troops closer to Paris in 1523 than they had ever been since the loss of English France in the Hundred Years War, suppressed the Lincolnshire rising in 1536 and helped plan Seymour’s lightning attack on Edinburgh in 1544. No wonder Henry entrusted him with the defence of southern England in 1545 as French invasion threatened.

    Charles Brandon 1 Double portrait of May and Charles Brandon, by an unknown artist. (Amberley Publishing)

    Another chapter would have to deal with marriage, an area in which Brandon’s record was ambitious but unscrupulous. As a young man he flirted with bigamy, marrying one lady for love and another for her money in a tangle that had later to be sorted out by papal authority. He then contracted to marry a youthful ward to get control of her lands and apparently made overtures on the 1513 campaign to the widowed but vivacious Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, in an affair which probably started as an embarrassing joke of Henry’s, but turned into a diplomatic incident. The marriage to Henry’s sister Mary followed, bringing with it wealth from her French dowry and a powerful position in the royal family as well, it seems, as romantic fulfilment. After her death came another lucrative but controversial match, to Katherine Willoughby, heiress to large lands in Lincolnshire, but originally intended as a bride for Brandon’s probably sickly son Henry.

    The fifth lesson to draw from Brandon’s life is that for a nobleman, as for the king, the overriding aim of marriage was to have sons to continue his line. His two sons by Mary, each called Henry, died in his lifetime but two by Katherine Willoughby, Henry and Charles, survived him. They would doubtless have played a significant part in the reign of an adult Edward VI had they not succumbed to the sweating sickness in 1551.

    The landed power and local following Brandon built up for himself and his sons would make for another chapter. He started in East Anglia, Oxfordshire and Berkshire, trying to replace the previous dukes of Suffolk, the De la Pole family, but his success was mixed. He never gained control of all the De la Pole lands, he relied too heavily on his own relatives in local affairs and his relationship with the other great lords of East Anglia, the Howards dukes of Norfolk, was tense. He managed to serve the king locally in raising troops in 1523 and calming down the Amicable Grant risings in 1525, but he was never as comfortably in command of local affairs as he was in his last years, when the king gave him monastic land in Lincolnshire in exchange for his earlier estates. Together with the Willoughby inheritance of his last wife, this built a solid base for local power which he consolidated in building a following among the county gentry and settling Lincolnshire after the revolt of 1536.

    516,Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk,by Unknown artist Charles Brandon late in life by an unknown artist, perhaps after Holbein, c. 1540-45. (Amberley Publishing)

    The last lesson of Brandon’s career was that power had to be displayed to be effective. Throughout his life he was active as a patron who could ask the king for favours for those who sought his help. Poets praised him, picking on the virtues closest to his heart: Robert Whittinton likened him to Achilles, John Parkhurst to Mars. He built or extended great houses, Suffolk Place in Southwark, Westhorpe in Suffolk, Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. He decorated them with fashionable turrets and terracottas, fitted them out with luxurious tapestries and Turkey carpets, and filled their stables with fine horses. He made his greatness visible in ways acceptable to his contemporaries, suggesting open-handed magnificence rather than self-seeking pride.

    As a graduate student I hit on Charles Brandon as the subject of my doctoral thesis rather on the rebound. I had wanted to write a study of Henry VIII’s wars and their effects on his people, but as I set to work it seemed much too ambitious and I was wisely advised by my supervisor, C.S.L. Davies, to find a project that would make more easily for a focused and original piece of research. In a sense my original idea hatched many years later as this year’s James Ford Lectures in British History, ‘The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII’. Meanwhile the study of Charles Brandon enabled me to investigate many areas of Henry’s reign – court politics, diplomacy, warfare, Welsh government, art patronage, noble power at county level, the exploitation of landed estates – and see how they all fitted together in one man’s career. The study became my thesis and my first book. Years after it went out of print people were emailing me asking if I knew how they could get copies, as originals were selling on the internet for hundreds of pounds. It was clear that Charles Brandon would not go away. So I was pleased when Amberley Publishing asked if I would like to produce a second edition. Charles Brandon has come back, and I hope others will find his career as fascinating a way into the world of Henry VIII and his people as I have done.


    Steven Gunn's book Charles Brandon: Henry VIII's Closest Friend is available for purchase now.

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