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  • Agincourt - June 1415: England prepares for war by W.B. Bartlett

    The plans were all in place, the invasion army was assembling, the ports of southern England were full of ships and sailors. Vast amounts of supplies had been collected, as the fleet looked south across the English Channel towards the beaches of Normandy. Everyone hoped that the June weather would hold, allowing the armada to make it safely across to France. Things were not so different in 1415 than they were in 1944.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2There had been various diplomatic missions to and fro for several years ever since the young, untried Henry V became king. He was determined from the start of his reign to stake a claim to France but the French ruler, Charles VI, had unsurprisingly rejected any such suggestions. Now the time for talking was over, or so Henry thought. Everything was ready until at the last moment there was an unwelcome complication.

    Towards the end of June a peace delegation from France arrived. They chased after Henry, who had already moved off to Winchester on his way to captain the invasion army. The French delegation caught him up and for a few days desultory negotiations took place. These were in all likelihood just an attempt to buy time by the French and Henry had no interest in further delay. His large army, some 11,000 men strong, had not come cheap; this was an army that was recruited, not conscripted. Delay could lead to desertion by the men and the chance to invade might never come again. The discussions got nowhere as they were doomed to do from the start.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2


    This was the scene in England in June 1415, 600 years ago. Men-at-arms and archers had been recruited from across England and Wales and there were some Europeans there too from the English-held land of Gascony and expert gunners from Germany. Ships had been impressed in their hundreds. The Hundred Years War as it later became known had been essentially dormant for decades with just the occasional flare-up in between. Now Henry was ready to renew the conflict and England prepared for a decisive confrontation with the armies of France. The journey to Agincourt had begun.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    Agincourt: Henry V, the Man at Arms & the Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Waterloo Anniversary by Martyn Beardsley

    Exactly two hundred years ago today, at the time I'm writing this - early on the morning of the 18th June - two armies just a few hundred yards apart were making the final preparations for a battle for the future of Europe. Weapons were cleaned, ammunition was checked, and horses were saddled and fed. British soldiers, stiff and sore from the overnight rain, their wet uniforms steaming in the morning sun, gazed anxiously at the glinting armour of the distant French cuirassiers as they galloped to their positions.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1The research for my book on Waterloo was a fascinating experience. To be able to 'see' the battle through the eyes of those who took part made it a much more personal thing than merely reading about military tactics and manoeuvres. In some cases, especially of the ordinary foot soldier like Gunner Edwards (I have the onner of waren a blue and red ribbon as a marke of that day…) I was drawn into the lives of those involved, and it felt like discovering long-lost letters from distant relatives.

    Certain things stood out, and one was the courage of the rank-and-file men like Gunner Edwards. It goes without saying that you need to be brave to fight in a battle, but the way of fighting in 1815 was completely unlike anything in modern warfare. In modern times, the fancy parades might look impressive but can also seem somehow pointless. But the way in which all that marching up and down and manoeuvring has its roots in the kind of fighting that took place at Waterloo became clearer to me as I read the stories.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1Soldiers had to be able to obey an instant command to form a line or a square, to face a particular direction, to keep formation with colleagues without leaving gaps, and to respond instantly to any change in formation or direction deemed necessary in response to the movements of the enemy.

    If the enemy infantry advanced, you would be ordered to form a line in order to bring maximum firepower to bear. The attack might seem overwhelming and there would be a temptation to retreat – but if you did you were lost. This is what happened many times when armies faced Napoleon and his feared armies, and it was the bravery and discipline of Wellington's men that saved them from being routed on many occasions as their comrades fell around them and their ranks were thinned out.

    Then if the cavalry attacked, upon a command you would be ordered to abandon your lines and form a square. It was said that a determined infantry square could withstand any cavalry charge as long as it stood firm, and so it proved at Waterloo. These squares had a 'hollow' centre where among others artillerymen who had to abandon their guns could take refuge till the storm had subsided. Again, perfect formation and discipline was paramount. Any wavering and the square would be overwhelmed, with men being cut down by the cuirassiers and their slashing swords.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1There is always a big debate whenever Waterloo is mentioned about whether Wellington would have lost if Blucher hadn't arrived. Only the other day I overheard someone declare, 'Of course, without Blucher we would have lost'. I think there is a peculiarly British attitude, whether it's to do with war, sport or whatever, along the lines of 'Well, we're really not very good and all of our victories were either lucky or tainted…'

    I stand to be corrected by people who know more about military history than I do, but to me, much of the 'Prussia saved us at Waterloo' debate is spurious. For one thing, Wellington without the Prussians was outnumbered yet still held his ground for the whole day despite attack after ferocious and increasingly desperate attacks by an army that was used to demoralising its opponents. My impression, based on the accounts of those who took part is that a stalemate was the worst that would have happened as darkness came on.


    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    But people seem to forget that the Prussians were part of the plan - they were supposed to be there! It wasn't as if they wandered along unexpectedly or had to be sent for as a desperate afterthought. It was always the arrangement that they would join up with Wellington, and in fact it would have happened earlier had not Napoleon worked so hard to keep the two allies apart. It's almost certainly true that their arrival allowed Wellington to finally, after having fought a brilliant defensive battle all day, launch a decisive counter-attack, but it's wrong to think of it as some sort of outsider coming along to dig the British out of a hole.



    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    Be that as it may, my thoughts today will be with the ordinary British soldier who stood and faced up to the onslaught, and with the many who fell. For me there couldn't be a better tribute than the British Waterloo Monument in Evere. It features Britannia and three lions surrounding a tomb of fallen British officers, but far from being a triumphal monument, when you study it closer it is actually very poignant – because this was a battle won at enormous cost. Britannia looks distraught, and her helmet and trident are lowered. There is a disorderly pile of weapons, looking almost as if they were abandoned in death. And the lions aren't the proud, roaring beasts we are so used to seeing. They lie like spent, shattered soldiers – in fact one seems to be licking its wounds. But still in their pain and exhaustion they remain there, watching over the fallen. The monument is not so much about victory, but about the price to be paid for victory.


    Waterloo - 9781445619828

    Waterloo Voices 1815 by Martyn Beardsley is available for purchase now.

  • What Did Cambronne Say at Waterloo? by Mark Simner

    There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815. Indeed, a number of books have been written that solely focus on these fascinating, yet sometimes frustrating, aspects of the Hundred Days campaign. Some of these myths have since been proved false or otherwise finally laid to rest, but many persist, with military history experts still no nearer to the truth than at any time in the past 200 years. One, which continues to be debated by professional and amateur historians alike, is the alleged words of Pierre Cambronne during the final stages of the battle. But who was Cambronne and what did or didn’t he say at Waterloo?

    Waterloo - CambronneBorn in 1770 at Nantes, France, Cambronne enlisted into the French army in 1791 shortly before the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition. He would rise rapidly through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1893, and took part in the campaigns in the Vendée, the Rhine and in Switzerland. More promotions would follow, including chef de batallion in 1805, and he was present at the battles of Austerlitz and Jena before being sent to Spain. However, he was recalled to France in order to assist with the enlargement of the Garde Impériale, later participating in the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram before returning to the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps luckily, he did not take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia in 1812, but he did play an important part in the rebuilding of the French army the following year. After the Battle of Hanau, fought in October 1813, he was again promoted, to général de brigade, and placed in command of the 1st Chasseurs of the Old Guard. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, he faithfully accompanied his emperor in his exile to the island of Elba as head of the Guard Grenadiers.

    With Napoleon’s subsequent escape from exile and return to France in early 1815, Cambronne was again offered promotion, but this time he refused the honour, insisting that he would stay with his men. However, he would, as colonel-major, take command of the two battalions of the 1st Chasseurs during the Hundred Days campaign, seeing action at both Ligny and Waterloo. Thus, the somewhat incredible and long military career of Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne was about to reach its climatic end and become firmly entwined with the Waterloo legend.

    Waterloo - Garde ImperialeThere is little room within this brief article to offer any detailed description of the advance of the Garde Impériale late in the Battle of Waterloo. Countless books have already dealt with the subject and many different interpretations of the assault exist. Suffice to say, the attack was repulsed by Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army and Napoleon’s last throw of the dice ultimately failed. However, it was following the repulse of the Guard that Cambronne was later alleged to have said, when invited to surrender, ‘la Garde meurt mais ne se rends pas!’, which translates into English as ‘the Guard dies but does not surrender!’ Other eyewitnesses claimed that he simply said ‘Merde!’, meaning ‘Shit!’. Both, particularly the former, quickly became one of the Waterloo myths that were readily believed by so many in the years following the battle. However, these words were later denied by Cambronne himself who, according to the French historian Henry Houssaye, stated ‘I did not say what is attributed to me, I replied with something else.’

    Following such a denial, it, therefore, might seem odd why the myth of what Cambronne said during his capture at Waterloo persisted for so long. However, looking back from the distance of 200 years, we should remember that Waterloo was an embarrassing defeat for France, and nothing short of a humiliation for the men of Napoleon’s elite Old Guard to be taken prisoner in battle. To counter this, what followed was an attempt by some to portray the defeat in a glorious light, or as an act of courageous defiance in the face of the enemy. Houssaye himself believed the whole thing was made up by a French journalist who worked for the Journal général de France. To further muddy the waters, those, on the Anglo-Allied side, who did witness the capture of Cambronne and his Old Guard comrades do not always agree on the details, some accounts even proving to be completely unreliable. All of which acted to merely perpetuate the myth.

    Whatever the actual circumstances of Cambronne’s capture, we do know he suffered a serious head wound at Waterloo and was later attended to by a British doctor. Following the battle, he was taken to England but longed to return to France, which he did in late 1815, where he was arrested on allegations of treason. Later cleared of the charges, Cambronne would resume his military duties for a short period before retiring and spending the last two decades of his life helping veterans of the Garde Impériale. On 29 January 1842, aged 71, Cambronne died, and, in 1848, a statue of him was erected in his honour in his home city of Nantes, where it still stands today.

    Waterloo - 9781445646664

    An Illustrated Introduction to The Battle of Waterloo by Mark Simner is available for purchase now.

  • The Suffrage movement in WWI by Mavis Curtis

    When I started writing my book about the Women’s Institute I did a lot of reading about the suffrage movement. I was surprised to find that many of the women who had been active suffragists, such as Grace Hadow, were among the first people to set up and run branches of the WI. Generally speaking, they were suffragists, not suffragettes; suffragettes being the ones who bolted themselves to railings and set fire to buildings. The suffragists thought reasoned argument would get them further.

    What surprised me even more when I read about the suffragists was that they played a very important part in the First World War, not as soldiers but as doctors, ambulance drivers, organisers of canteens for soldiers and settlements of refugees, as well as the more usual nursing orderlies and VADs. They didn’t just travel to the Western Front in Belgium and northern France. They undertook long and arduous journeys to Salonika, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Because they couldn’t get to Eastern Europe through Germany, they sometimes sailed from Liverpool, travelling across the North Sea and approached Russia via Sweden and the Baltic. They would then either stay in Russia and Poland, or travel south through Russia to Odessa on the Black Sea, from where they could sail to Salonika in Northern Greece, and thence to Serbia. Sometimes they went to France, travelling down to Marseilles from where they could get a boat to Salonika or one of the refugee settlements and hospitals in the Mediterranean.

    Suffrage - Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon

    That is what Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon did. They first met on the boat taking them from Marseilles to Salonika, and stayed together for the rest of their lives. They wanted to nurse in the typhus epidemic that was sweeping Serbia at the time. Typhus is spread by bed bugs and body lice, and though the epidemic was on the wane by the time they got there, there was no shortage of lice. Elsie records that visitors were not allowed in the wards unless children were very ill, because ‘we already had more lice than we needed.’ One child with diphtheria was admitted, not crawling with lice, because, as Elsie said, there was no room for them to crawl. They made a neat grey lining to her vest.

    The two girls were captured by the Austrians who overran Serbia but were repatriated through the Red Cross. They returned to England for a short rest, but then trained as ambulance drivers. They were given a short course of instruction in London on how to drive the heavy Ford trucks and returned to Salonika.

    Suffrage - Suffragists in WWI. Suffragists in WWI.

    By this time the Austrians were retreating before the Serbian army and Katherine and Elsie were following behind the troops, collecting the wounded and taking them back to hospital. Windscreens were taken out of the ambulances, as were the side curtains, because of the danger from splintered glass, so the driver was exposed to rain and snow alike and could consequently get very wet. ‘The easiest way to dry out is to go to bed in your wet clothes and let them dry overnight,’ wrote Elsie.

    The land was mountainous so the drivers drove everywhere in low gear and Elsie had to fill up the radiator at every opportunity because her vehicle boiled fiercely. They only had two stretchers in the ambulance and any journey back from the front line took a long time so moving the wounded was necessarily long and drawn out. After one battle they could fit in only three journeys as the return journey, though only sixteen miles, took four hours. It was a dreadful road, not made easier by the fact that while most of the traffic was going forward, the ambulances were going in the opposite direction. The Serbs said the road was part of the Via Ignacia which had connected the Roman Empire with that of Byzantium. It still had its original stones, but was very steep and narrow and the drivers of the ox carts were in the habit of levering a stone out of the surface to stop the cart slipping when they had to stop to rest their animals. Unfortunately they didn’t put them back when they moved on.

    Suffrage - Ambulance during wartime. Ambulance during wartime.

    At the end of the war the ambulance crews and nursing personnel were paraded in Belgrade and given the Officer’s Gold medal for Zealous Service. Katherine, as organiser of the ambulance service was awarded the Order of St Sava. Elsie wryly notes that the four Serb mechanics who had worked so hard and shared their hardships and triumphs were not even allowed in to the cathedral to the service.

    The two women returned to Oxfordshire, to Katherine’s home village of Spilbury, joined the WI and lived there for the rest of their lives, though they did from time to time have trips abroad in their motor car.




    Suffrage - The WI: A Centenary History

    Mavis's book The WI: A Centenary History is available now.

  • Gillian Polack & Katrin Kania - How they got interested in the Middle Ages

    Middle Ages - Gillian PolackGillian Polack

    I often tell people that I fell into the Middle Ages almost by mistake. I had a question I wanted to answer and the Middle Ages held that answer. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The sad truth is that life is more complicated than that.

    Here’s what really happened.

    When I was in primary school, I knew I wanted to study history. I also knew I wanted to write fiction. How I became a fiction writer is another story, for another time. The important thing is that I knew - when my age could still be measured in one digit - that history was one of the keys to my existence. When I was nine I started scrolling through all the possible history professions one by one and I flirted with them all. It annoyed me when adults teased me “Oh, so you want to be a museum curator” or “Have you given up on old bones yet?” because none of them thought that a child could actually know what they wanted to do as an adult and all they saw was the job I was thinking about at that moment. None of them seemed to see that I was thinking about those jobs because they would enable me to do what I dreamed of. I didn’t want a particular job: I wanted a career that gave me time and space to understand human beings both past and present. I have part of that job now, but I’m still trying to turn it into a life package. I love writing and teaching and researching history. I love learning and understand and sharing. When I looked back, I realised that this was always the case.

    Every year my family travelled around south-eastern Australia, a caravan in tow. We were looking for rocks. My mother taught geology at high school and our brains were so filled with rocks that we joked that there was no room for anything else.

    One year we went to Naracoorte, on the Victorian/South Australian border. It’s a somewhat red part of Australia. Big and burnt-red and a long way from the Melbourne suburbs where I grew up and the murky Yarra River and its green banks. Visiting Naracoorte was wildly exciting for a young child in a big family car with a caravan drifting behind.

    The scientists there had just discovered megafauna in the limestone caves near the town. My sisters and I saw bones of ancient giant animals, and we walked through the same limestone caves they had walked. When we emerged above ground again, our eyes were wide and staring. My parents wanted us to be scientists, and at that moment, it looked as if that is what we would all become.

    Naracoorte itself had a museum. We had just an hour and a half before it closed and I begged and begged to visit and finally, my father said “Yes, Gillian, you can.” At dinner the others were still full of megafaunal wonder. Me, I was trying to explain an exhibit of old irons and how they’d changed over time and what clothes toddlers wore in the 1890s. I still become wide-eyed about megafauna (and even own a piece of one) but how people lived their lives and what their lives have done to shape ours is what I love and will love forever. I have two doctorates, and neither of them is in geology.

    That’s how I came to be a historian. I’m a historian for the same reason that I’m a fiction writer: because they’re the right things for me to be.

    How I came to be a Medievalist is different.

    I studied historiography. All the different ways people write about history fascinated me. I studied Old French because I wanted to be able to read literature in that language. Then, in my Honours year, I realised that my perfect thesis topic was about the Middle Ages. I went to the Departmental chair to have it approved.

    Geoffrey Blainey (a famous Australian historian) sat me on the rug on the middle of his floor because all the chairs were full of paper and we talked my topic through. He decided that it was a daring thing that ought to be done, and he found me excellent supervisors and I won the thesis prize for it. This got me scholarships to the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and the University of Sydney, and it was at these universities that I really discovered the Middle Ages.

    After all this study, something funny happened. I love teaching and I am a fiction writer. Friends who were also writers started asking me questions about the Middle Ages.

    I became an expert in things writers needed to know. I totally recommend this as a way for historians to rethink what they know, where they know it from and how to explain it. Since I’ve worked with other writers, I’ve seen a much more complex and broader Middle Ages. I still have my special areas (all historians do) and I’m very popular at science fiction conventions when food or literature or popular insults come up as topics, but I now see how legal systems work and how landscape changes over time, and how the work of archaeologists is absolutely crucial to the work of historians.

    All of this led to The Middle Ages Unlocked, as night follows day. When I was at primary school, however, I had no idea that I had this book in my future. All I knew then was that I wanted to understand humans through time. I wanted to know what it felt like to use those old irons and walk in those streets holding the hand of that 1890s toddler.

    Middle Ages - Katrin KaniaKatrin Kania

    It all started with a little old castle, about 15 kilometres from where I grew up. There, every year, a group of people got together to have a "Ritterfest" - a little medieval-ish festivity with some music, some food, and some fighting. I was sixteen or seventeen when I went there, dressed up in what I now know was about as medieval as a bicycle helmet, and met a friend from school who was demonstrating how to felt. I joined her, doing some felting myself, and wandered around and talked and sang and had a wonderful time. I stayed until late in the night, sitting around a fire with all the others, and some of my new friends asked me if I would like to go to another festival with them...

    This was the start of my fascination with the Middle Ages. Obviously, I needed something to wear, and that is how I started to get involved with medieval textiles. I made all the beginner's mistakes, such as using the wrong fabrics, trying to use modern patterns, and happily using fantasy elements in the clothing or mixing several time spans into one outfit. I was hooked, though, and when the time came to choose something to study, I found that it was possible to study medieval archaeology. That, the books told me, was a mix of reading and researching plus going outside and getting dirty digging things. It sounded perfect - and for me, it was. I went on to study at Bamberg, one of the few places in Germany where medieval archaeology is a focus topic. I still went to Living History events; I got involved with experimental archaeology; and my interest in textiles and clothing grew ever stronger. In the end, I wrote my PhD thesis about medieval tailoring and surviving medieval garments. Today, I have exchanged the shovel and trowel for needles and scissors, concentrating on historical textile techniques. I do reconstructions, workshops and courses, plus some experimental archaeology, all with a strong focus on textiles. The combination of theroretical knowledge and practical crafts experience that my work developed has also strongly influenced parts of "The Middle Ages Unlocked" that have nothing to do with textiles, such as the chapter about crafts.

    Middle Ages - 9781445645834‘Wise, entertaining and crammed with historical knowledge. This one’s a keeper.’ Elizabeth Chadwick

    ‘Factual, fascinating, educational and entertaining.’ Helen Hollick

    ‘A fascinating insight into all things medieval.’ Felicity Pulman

    ‘Listen up, writers! The Middle Ages Unlocked is the go-to book for information on the Middle Ages.’ Jack Dann

    ‘This well-researched, accessible and absorbing compendium provides rich, precise and often surprising information for anyone wanting to know more about this period of history.’ Sophie Masson

    Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania new book The Middle Ages Unlocked is available for purchase now.

  • The Battle of Lewes, 14th May 1264, by Darren Baker author of With All for All: The Life of Simon de Montfort

    The Battle of Lewes The Battle of Lewes

    14th May marks the anniversary of one of those events which most people in England have probably never heard of and yet which has influenced how they live their lives today. On this day in 1264 an army under Simon de Montfort defeated and captured King Henry III in and around the town of Lewes, Sussex. Under the resulting peace treaty, Henry agreed to abide by the Provisions of Oxford, the reforms that had been enacted as a reaction to his personal rule and a court packed with foreign favourites. It was Henry’s disregard of these Provisions that ultimately led to the armed conflict. Now, with the King under his control, Montfort summoned Parliament in the aftermath of Lewes to make these reforms a permanent fixture of government. England thus became, for all intents and purposes, a constitutional monarchy, the first of its kind in Western Europe. Montfort took this political evolution a step further when he expanded the representational base of his next Parliament six months later. A year later Henry’s son, the future Edward I, escaped from custody, raised an army, and had the Montfortian leadership massacred at Evesham, but there was no undoing their work. From that point on, Parliament would not only be the national forum for matters of state, but would have the final word on all taxation.


    Lewes monument Lewes monument

    That’s just the historical perspective of why Lewes is such an important, if neglected, event in British history. If a battle can be said to have endearing features, Lewes is certainly one of the few: there was the exchange of letters between both camps as they tried to find a way out of what had become a bitter standoff; there was Edward himself, who cost his father the battle by going off on a murderous joyride against the London contingent because they had pelted and insulted his mother the queen the year before; and there was the windmill, where Henry’s brother Richard sought shelter after his line crumbled. Richard took great pride in the fact that he was the titular 'King of the Romans' and the Montfortian soldiers had a merry ole time parading him through the streets of Lewes afterwards covered in the dirt and grime of the windmill.


    Windmill plaque Windmill plaque

    The place where the windmill stood is marked today, as are many other parts of the battlefield. The impressive memorial to the battle can be found near the ruins of the priory, where Henry and Edward holed up after the battle. The castle is still standing and commands the best view of the South Downs, where Montfort assembled his troops for their advance on the town. There is no statue or marker on the ridge of the Downs denoting, for example, Montfort addressing his men (‘Today we fight for the sake of the realm of England’), but it’s just as well, for it better re-creates the atmosphere of that momentous day 751 years ago.




    9781445645742For more on Simon de Montfort have a look at Darren Baker's biography With All for All: The Life of Simon de Montfort.

  • England’s Reigning Queens, by Elizabeth Norton


    Some of England’s (and later, Britain’s) most memorable monarchs have been queens. It is therefore surprising that only eight women can claim to have ruled as reigning queen in the post-Conquest period and, then, only six effectively. As our current queen approaches Queen Victoria’s record of longest reigning monarch, let’s look at some of the key female rulers who came before her.

    Matilda Matilda

    Matilda, who was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, has a claim to being England’s first ruling queen. She was named as her father’s heir, with his leading nobles swearing oaths to uphold her claim. Most prominent amongst these was Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois. Nonetheless, on hearing of his uncle’s death in 1135, he hurriedly crossed the channel and seized the crown. The two cousins vied for the crown for nearly twenty years, but Matilda’s ‘reign’ proved a brief one. After capturing Stephen in 1141, she was declared ‘Lady of the English’ and travelled to London to await her coronation. Soon afterwards, she was driven out of the capital and forced to release her cousin. It was Matilda’s son, Henry II, who eventually won the English crown.

    Matilda’s ‘reign’ was an unhappy precedent. Although both the House of York and House of Tudor claimed the throne through women, it was only with the death of Edward VI in 1553 that a ruling queen became inevitable. His teenaged cousin, Jane Grey, was proclaimed queen in a bid to keep England Protestant. Yet, her ‘reign’ lasted just over a week, with Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Mary I, sweeping to power as England’s first effective queen regnant.

    Mary I Mary I

    Mary was determined to return the English church to adherence to Rome which, coupled with her marriage to Philip of Spain, caused controversy. Her finest moment came in 1554, when rebel troops entered London. When urged to flee, the queen instead urged those around her to ‘fall to prayer and I warrant you, we shall hear better news anon’. She kept her crown but, following an embarrassing phantom pregnancy, the loss of English-held Calais and a campaign of burning Protestants, her death in 1558 was met with rejoicing.

    Mary’s successor was her twenty-five year old half-sister, Elizabeth I, who was expected to quickly marry and provide England with a king. She surprised everyone by resolutely refusing to marry, although she was close to male favourites, such as Robert Dudley. Her reign saw great advances in technology, exploration and the theatre while her navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Although the myth of ‘Gloriana’ began to tarnish towards the end of her long reign, the Elizabethan era is remembered as a golden age in English history. On her death, she was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland, heralding the union of the two crowns.

    The Scottish Stuart Dynasty proved to be unlucky in England, with the seventeenth century troubled by Civil War and religious conflict. The Catholic James II succeeded to the throne in 1685, with many in England looking forward instead to the reign of his Protestant daughter, Mary, who had married her cousin, William of Orange.

    On 10 June 1688, however, James’s second wife gave birth to a healthy son, with forty-two people present in the room. This did not stop rumours quickly spreading that the baby was an imposter, smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan. Indeed, James’s daughter, Anne, was one of the main rumourmongers, writing to her sister that ‘I shall never now be satisfied whether the child be true or false’. Isolated in the Netherlands, Mary agreed. In late June, her husband received an invitation to invade England. William complied, arriving in November with 300 ships. James fled, leaving the way clear for William and Mary to take the throne as joint sovereigns. Mary II largely served the role of queen consort during her reign, before dying of smallpox in 1694.

    Queen Anne in 1705 Queen Anne

    Mary’s younger sister, Anne, supported her brother-in-law’s invasion, but was disconcerted to find her place in the succession usurped by William. She looked forward to her eventual accession as her ‘sunshine day’ and modelled herself on Elizabeth I when she finally took the throne in 1702. By then Anne, who had endured seventeen pregnancies but had no living child, was an invalid and grossly overweight. She was dominated by her female favourites, although she presided over a period of international success for her country. She was the first monarch of Great Britain, with the throne then passing to her German cousin, George I, after her death in 1714.

    Disaster struck the royal family just over a century after Anne’s death when Princess Charlotte, George III’s only legitimate grandchild, died in childbirth. Her death led to a race by her middle aged uncles to marry and beget an heir, with Edward, Duke of Kent, emerging the victor. His eighteen year old daughter, Victoria, became queen in 1837, ruling for over sixty-three years. Personally, the queen’s life was blighted by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Yet, she presided over a remarkable period in Britain’s history, with invention, industry, exploration and conquest.

    Just over fifty years after Victoria’s death, her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, came to the throne. The current queen was not born to reign, with her father only the second son of George V. Nonetheless, she has devoted her life to her role and, at nearly eighty-nine years old, will soon become England’s longest reigning monarch.

    England’s reigning queens have left fascinating legacies. You can read more about them, as well as queen consorts and king’s wives in England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England’s Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, which are available now.

    Find out more about Elizabeth Norton on her author page:


  • The Lusitania: Remembering A Legend, by J. Kent Layton


    Saturday, 1 May 1915 dawned in New York City depressingly overcast, drizzly, and decidedly not like the spring weather the calendar indicated it should have been. At the Lower West Side of Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, partially obscured by yet towering over the blocks-long face of the pier buildings, stood a quartet of dark smokestacks. Locals knew better than anyone else what liner they belonged to: the mighty British speedster Lusitania. The great liner, the largest and fastest then in service on the North Atlantic, had arrived the previous Saturday, having sailed across the Atlantic from her home port in Liverpool, England just as she had one hundred times before.

    The Lusitania had become a fixture in New York during the preceding seven-and-a-half years, dependably spending several days at a stretch at one of the Cunard piers once every three weeks. She had entered service in September of 1907, and in the intervening months and years, she had always seemed to come through whatever the capricious North Atlantic could throw at her. At times, she had come through a little bruised and battered, but nevertheless, she had always come through. She had become like an old and reliable friend not only to passengers – many of whom were repeat customers and took passage on her time and again – but to the populations of her primary ports, New York and Liverpool, England.

    Images credited to J Kent Layton. Image credited to J Kent Layton.

    The waterfront was busy that morning, for the Lusitania was scheduled to sail on her 202nd crossing, the return leg of her 101st round-trip voyage, at 10:00 a.m. Passengers for her upcoming trip were beginning to arrive, slowly at first, and then in growing numbers. There was the sound of automobiles driving in over the cobblestone street, pulling up out front of the pier, discharging their passengers and all of the accompanying luggage—this was a sign of changed times, for when the Lusitania made her earliest arrivals and departures from the port, the passengers had arrived and departed the scene in horse-drawn carriages. But the porters were still there to help the passengers get aboard. Cab drivers also still needed to be paid, regardless of whether they held the reins of a horse in their hand or the steering wheel of an automobile.

    It might have seemed to be a typical sailing day to the average observer who had not stuck his nose into a newspaper during the last nine months. However, it was to prove anything but ordinary. The Great War had been raging in Europe since the previous August. Hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced soldiers had already met a grisly end on the battlefields; new technology was being employed as it never had been before, making armies into far more effective killing machines. Old rules of warfare were being cast aside by both sides as they become increasingly restrictive and inconvenient.

    The Europe that the Lusitania was returning to was a very different place than it had been the previous spring. The world had changed, even though few liked to admit it. And on this morning, a new – if disembodied – threat hung menacingly over the Lusitania as surely as the damp drizzle and gray mists: the threat of German U-boats.

    A 'friendly warning', as the German Ambassador would call it, had been placed in the shipping pages of American newspapers; although it had been intended to print the previous week, it had been held up and had only run this very morning. In many cases, it appeared uncomfortably close to the Cunard listings advertising this sailing of the Lusitania, and it openly discussed the dangers of traveling on a liner flying the flag of an Allied nation due to the possibility of an attack. A number of passengers, or their friends and relatives, began to show signs of nervousness.

    Image credit to artist Tom Lear. Image credit to artist Tom Lear.

    The Germans had been 'blockading' England for a couple of months now, but it was not really proving terribly effective. Their unterseeboots were picking off some small- to medium-sized ships, mostly ones steaming very slowly, and they had encountered a few seeming 'strokes of luck' beyond that. The Lusitania, however, was the largest, fastest liner on the Atlantic, and was also touted as the safest. She had a sterling reputation as a great passenger liner, and many felt that the Germans wouldn't have the unmitigated gall to attack her.

    Cunard's New York Manager, C. P. Sumner, arrived on the pierside and reassured passengers. He faced the growing number of reporters, and even the relative novelty of a camera crew, who had suddenly appeared to document what some were joking might be the Lusitania's last voyage. Her skipper, Captain William Thomas Turner, laughed: “I wonder what the Germans will do next. Well, it doesn't seem as if they had scared many people from going on the ship by the look of the pier and the passenger list.”

    Indeed, the Lusitania's passenger list was going to be the longest east-bound list since the war's outbreak. Her First and Third Class spaces were well booked, and Second Class was actually booked to over capacity. Despite all of the rumors and the nerves, Cunard personnel assured reporters that no one actually canceled their passage because of the German warning. The long passenger list had been aided somewhat when another liner in New York, the Cameronia, was requisitioned by the British Government. As a result, some of her passengers were transferred to the Lusitania, delaying the sailing by over two hours.

    Yet eventually, as the sun just began to peek out from behind the clouds and dry the morning drizzle, the Lusitania cast off from Pier 54 for the 101st time. Captain Turner eased himself into the inner curve of the starboard Bridge wing and glanced over his left shoulder; he seemed surprised to see the camera crew had come out onto the roof of Pier 54, and were filming the departure from a unique perspective—actually slightly above his own very high perch. Then he continued to carefully watch his ship glide out into the North River. She was turned, and steamed past the interred German behemoth Vaterland at her Hoboken pier across the river.

    The Lusitania towers over New York’s Pier 54 immediately after her maiden arrival. Copyright Stuart Williams 2011. The Lusitania towers over New York’s Pier 54 immediately after her maiden arrival.
    Copyright Stuart Williams 2011.

    What no one knew as the liner steamed toward the open sea, leaving behind an emptier waterfront scene, was that it really had been the last departure of the Lusitania. She would be sunk on Friday, 7 May, off the coast of Ireland—a victim of a German torpedo. 1,198 innocent men, women and children would go with her.

    The Lusitania had been one of the greatest liners of the 20th Century; she was already legendary as she started out on her 202nd crossing. Yet in the future, her history would be synonymous with tragedy. She would be remembered as a victim, a symbol of lost innocence. She would be used as a political football, and the fallout from her sinking, and the American lives lost in the disaster, would become a single stepping stone – one of many – on the path to American involvement in the Great War, which would then truly become a World War.

    One hundred years have now passed since the Lusitania's last departure. This week, on both sides of the Atlantic, commemorations will be held in honor of the memory of the Lusitania. This week, we remember a very human, and very preventable, tragedy: a tragedy that goes beyond the loss of 1,198 lives, but goes to the very core of how people can be moved to justify foolish, even dastardly, things in the heat of war. It is a lesson that the world has never truly learned.

    The stern of the Lusitania rises from the sea as her bow plunges beneath the waves. Copyright Stuart Williamson 2011. The stern of the Lusitania rises from the sea as her bow plunges beneath the waves.
    Copyright Stuart Williamson 2011.

    In the months after the sinking, the Lusitania was used as a rallying cry: “Remember the Lusitania” could be seen on posters for recruitment into the armed forces. Today we also remember the Lusitania, but we do so for different reasons. This week, as we celebrate the centennial of the Lusitania's last voyage and sinking, we pause to honor those who died that awful spring day, the seventh of May. We pause to reflect and to hope that we never repeat the mistakes of those involved in the Lusitania's last, tragic story.

    We pause and reflect on a world that has never recovered from that four-year, but wholly unprecedented, war. And we hope that, instead of viewing the Lusitania as a veritable candy store of conspiracy theories, half-researched books, documentaries, and sensationalised news stories, we can remember the good times of her seven-and-a-half-year career along with those last and awful 18 minutes … and that we can learn from the horrors of what happened that sad day, and never repeat those mistakes.


    J Kent Layton

    Author of 'Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography'

    Available for purchase here:

  • Manchester City Have No History, by Mike Devlin


    It matters not that they were created from the ashes on the 16th of April 1894, or that they were in fact around as early as 1880 in some form or another (not that the media of the day could remember what the club was called) – or indeed earlier if we include cricket, but that isn’t a real sport so we can ignore that bit. Neither does it matter that they were the first club in Manchester to get their grubby hands on a major piece of silverware, or be legally (yes, legally) the ‘official football team of Manchester’ as stated by the Football Association. Manchester City, evidently, have no history.

    PrintThat phrase has been bandied about for quite some time. Well, since 1992 that is, as that was the year, as we all know, that football in England was invented, and seeing as though City dropped into the third tier of English football during the 1990s, it must be true.

    So no history. None. Whatsoever. Really?

    Did you know Pope John-Paul II was a follower?
    Was Anna Connell really a pain in the arse?
    If Billie Gillespie is the FA’s 2nd most wanted man, who is #1?
    Why should the City board of directors have kept up-to-date with the goings on of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria?
    Plastic bananas? Pah! I’ve got a dead chicken.
    Who was almost stripped naked and forced to pull a #168 bus down the road by way of their own testicles?
    Billy, or Billie?
    Who was going down faster? City or a two-bit hooker?
    Why Manchester City needed another World War.
    And how they almost started World War III.
    What is the George Town derby?
    Who was Manchester City’s 472nd manager?
    Who supports 艾 ?
    Who was the Maltese Falcon?
    Was Abe Lincoln a Manchester City fan?
    Just how many Big Macs can ADUG afford to buy?

    And it doesn’t stop there. Oh, no Sir (and ma’am), it does not. Major players from every decade, prominent managers, the grounds the club called home, conspiracies, English wars, fans' thoughts, and … umm … threats to Bovril consumption.

    With, Manchester City: The Secret History Of A Club That Has No History you can go on the roller-coaster ride that fans of the club have gone through for over 130 years. Find out when ‘Typical City’ actually became a thing and how Manchester City have continually tried to buy their way out of trouble (and usually failed). Discover the first goalkeeper to ever score a goal, and the league’s very first none-British player who played for the Blues. Read about City’s chairman, Frank Johnson, and his attempts to dissolve the club and remove it from existence, and that Manchester City came to the rescue of Manchester United on more than one occasion.

    This book was born from an official season long blog for Manchester City FC in 2013-14, and the club was happy to laugh at itself, as their fans have done so for decades (and let’s face it, still do). And whilst it is not an all encompassing tome covering everything in minute detail it is a history book that covers all the major happenings at the club and then goes on to attempt to predict the future.

    9781445648101Manchester City: The Secret History Of A Club That Has No History is now available here, elsewhere and possibly somewhere else.

  • What the Railways Did for Us: The Making of Modern Britain, by Stuart Hylton


    Railways - St Pancras Station

    When the first locomotives made their lumbering appearance at the start of the nineteenth century, few people could have guessed at the differences they and their successors would make to our lives. First, our whole notions of time and distance were transformed. Until then, our boundaries had been limited to the speed at which a horse could gallop and the duration of that gallop. Suddenly we had machines that were four or more times faster than any horse and with ten times the stamina. New, wider choices about where we lived, worked and took our leisure suddenly presented themselves.

    This in turn changed how we perceived time. The old system, based on the rising and setting of the sun – God’s time – no longer worked, since the sun rose twenty minutes sooner in London than it did in Plymouth. Someone relying on a watch set to Plymouth time to travel from a London station would miss their train. Uniformity was needed, and (after some battles) the railways gave us Greenwich Mean Time.

    The railways helped to give us the Victorian equivalent of e-mail. The newly-invented telegraph needed unbroken corridors of land, along which to erect their telegraph lines, and the railways were ideal for the purpose. The railways housed most of the telegraph network and suddenly one end of the land could talk to the other almost instantly. Provincial newspapers found themselves on a level playing field with their London counterparts, and the railways ensured that a national press could develop, and be distributed to the furthest corners of the nation while the news was still fresh.

    RailwaysAs fresh as the food that was now available in our cities. The railways could quickly and cheaply deliver perishable foods like fish, fruit and milk to distant cities, vastly improving the diets of most urban dwellers.

    The railways changed how the authorities maintained the peace and waged war. The Government could now summon help and move troops to the seat of any civil unrest within hours, rather than days or weeks. In the event of war, vast numbers of troops could be moved swiftly to wherever they were required and, equally important, could be supplied with all they needed to remain there. This also made it easier for defending troops to hold their positions than it was for the opposing armies to advance, generally across a no-man’s-land without working railways to support them. This helps to explain the years of stalemate in the trench warfare of the First World War’s western front.

    There is also the geography of our towns and cities. Before the railways, the elite lived much more cheek by jowl with the ordinary working people. The railways helped them to move out to suburbs and countryside, for better or worse denuding the inner cities of those who had traditionally been the communities’ leaders. Sometimes the railways themselves were the active agents in developing these new suburbs – London’s Metroland being a prime example.

    There are many other ways in which the railways made the world a very different – and for the most part better - place. These are just a few of the things the railways did for us.

    What the Railways Did for Us: The Making of Modern BritainStuart Hylton's book What the Railways Did for Us: The Making of Modern Britain is out now!

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