Henry VII: The Forgotten Tudor

He killed the tyrant, usurped the throne and in doing so ended the Wars of the Roses changing England forever, yet, unlike the Dynasty he spawned, he remains largely forgotten.

The future King Henry VII was born on 28 January 1457 in Pembroke Castle the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and his wife Lady Margaret Beaufort, his birth both difficult and protracted only less traumatic perhaps, than his conception.

Lady Margaret, small and delicate, had been made pregnant by her husband less than a year after marrying him aged just twelve in an act of child rape deemed unacceptable even then.  Indeed, so damaged was she by the assault that despite the safe delivery of a son she would never conceive again. That was the price she paid for her husband’s amorous attentions in an age when a woman’s fecundity was both her value as a bride and her security against harm. That he would never again darken her door, he was dead within a few months of the plague, was scant recompense for his behaviour but the son he had sired so brutally, would be.

It was only through his mother that the young Henry had any claim to the throne at all, tenuous as it was. She was the daughter of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset the third (and bastard) son of John of Gaunt who was in turn the fourth son of King Edward III.  Her marriage to a Tudor, servants of the Crown rather than implicit in the Royal line of succession may have appeared to some a sign of diminished status but not in her eyes. She knew the value of her son to the House of Lancaster and that it would only increase over time. If nothing else, her unceasing work on his behalf would see to that for she never doubted her son’s right to the Throne even if few others for now at least agreed.

With Edward IV securely on the throne it appeared the family squabble between the Houses of Lancaster and York had been settled once and for in the latter’s favour, and maybe it would have been had events taken their expected course but years of idleness and over-indulgence had taken their toll on the once physically impressive King. Even so, his death on the 9 April, 1483, at the age of just 40, was both sudden and unexpected.

Perhaps aware of his failing health Edward fretted over the fate of his sons, the 12 year old heir to the throne Edward, Prince of Wales and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Who could he trust to do right by them? Little had been forgotten and even less forgiven from the decades of conflict that had blighted the country; neither had ambition been tempered by humiliation and defeat with many a villainy hidden behind the mask of acquiescence and subordination.  Who then, in the event of his death who would protect his family and preserve the dynasty?

 

The one man he believed he could trust was his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had never been less than loyal and had indeed harmed his own reputation by his willingness to do the King’s dirty work. He was also a good uncle to his nephews, or so it seemed. It gave Edward peace of mind to know that in case of his death his son’s would be given over to his brother’s care.

With little reason to doubt his sibling Edward named him Lord Protector of England in the event of his passing but unknown to him Richard had long suspected his brother to be illegitimate, the result of a liaison between his mother and a common soldier. He had kept his suspicions secret but if his brother was indeed only his illegitimate half-brother then his sons were illegitimate also, and the throne his by right as next in line.

With the King dead he now acted on his suspicions seizing the young Prince of Wales as he made his procession south to London for his coronation executing those who had been assigned to escort him. Learning of this Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth Woodville, or the ‘sorceress’, as Richard referred to her, fearing for her own life and those of her remaining children sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.

Upon reaching London, Richard had the young King in-waiting confined to the Tower for his own protection where he was soon joined by his younger brother whom he had bulled his mother into handing over to his dubious care.

 

For a time at least, the young princes were seen to play regularly in the grounds of the Tower but soon nothing was seen of them at all. Rumours surfaced suggesting they had been murdered, and they were readily believed.  After all, had not Richard been his brother’s loyal henchman and willing executioner – few doubted his ruthlessness.

Unable to prove that the former King was his mother’s bastard son Richard instead focussed on the illegitimacy of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville producing evidence of a contract he had signed to instead marry Eleanor Butler, the future Lady Talbot, insisting it still had legal force. If so, Richard would be justified in removing their children from the line of succession thereby making him the rightful heir.  It was enough for him to cancel the young Edward’s coronation intended for 22 June, instead a sermon was preached outside St Paul’s Cathedral declaring the son’s of Edward IV and his whore illegitimate that “bastard slips shall not take deep root” and that Richard, Duke of Gloucester would be King. It was intended that Richard would then emerge to receive the acclamation of the people but he was delayed and by the time he arrived the crowd had dispersed.

Richard III’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 6 July, 1483. Few could deny that he was now King but they could question his right to be so – where were the Princes and if they were still alive why did he not produce them? The fact of his coronation could not conceal the fiction leading up to it nor the blood that had been shed in its pursuit. Had he murdered the Princes so as to insert himself in the royal line of succession, many believed he had, that he had stolen the crown, and that he was a tyrant.

The paranoia that would come to dominate Richard’s thinking was not unfounded, he had made many enemies and now he saw them all around. When his former ally Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham was implicated in a plot against him Richard had him, hunted down and summarily executed. There wasn’t a nobleman in England who didn’t now fear for his life and many, among them previously loyal Yorkists, now looked to Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian exiled in France as their saviour.

If Henry had any doubts regarding his right to seize the crown and in his ability to confront such a seasoned warrior as Richard on the field of battle his mother soon quashed them. She had worked her entire life for this moment and wasn’t about to allow her son to throw it away; with the money provided to purchase arms and ships she would ensure he would return to his ancestral home not as a supplicant but at the head of an army prepared to fight..

Upon landing at Milford Haven on 7 August, 1485, Henry Tudor fell to his knees, clasped his hands together and looking to the heavens prayed, “Judge me O Lord, and favour my cause.”

He would need his prayers for despite pledges of support the English nobility did not exactly rally to his cause but then neither would they to the King’s with any enthusiasm. Even so, when the two armies encountered one another at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22 August, 1485, Henry’s small force of 5,000 men would be outnumbered almost two-to-one.

Yet despite his numerical advantage it was the King who was on edge.  He did not trust the loyalty of his own troops while nearby looking on were the armies of Lord Thomas Stanley and his brother William. Once allies of the House of York their support could no longer be taken for granted especially as since 1472 Lord Thomas had been married to Margaret Beaufort and so was Henry’s step-father.  He had also rowed furiously with the King and so for now at least they would stand aside from the fray their presence a looming and very real menace.

Richard knew that the Stanley’s would not commit to his cause unless victory was assured but might to Henry’s regardless. On the eve of battle he informed Lord Stanley that his son George was held hostage and that his life would become forfeit should he betray his King. Stanley refused to be intimidated replying, “I have other sons.” It did not augur well.

Fearing his army would not fight Richard decided to act; seeing Henry’s personal standard fluttering in the distance and accompanied by a small body of loyal knights he charged straight for it – if he could not defeat his army then he would kill the man they fought for.

It was a furious assault that cut a swath through the Lancastrian ranks but as Henry flinched and was hastened away from harm Richard could see Sir William Stanley’s army advancing against his own. It only served to spur him on but unhorsed and fighting alone he was eventually surrounded and brutally hacked down; and there was to be no dignity in death for the late King, no courtesy of rank, no homage paid to his courage instead he was stripped naked, thrown onto a horse and paraded through the streets of Leicester for all to see.

In the meantime, Lord Stanley finding the crown Richard had worn into battle hanging from a thorn bush presented it to Henry – a new dynasty had been born.

Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII at Westminster Abbey on 30 October ,1485, without opposition and to great acclaim but he knew that as long as the Princes remained unaccounted for the question of legitimacy would dog his reign just as it had the man he’d deposed. He acted quickly to cement his position. First he declared his reign to have begun on 21 August 1485, the day before the Battle of Bosworth making Richard the usurper and those who had supported and fought for him liable to the accusation of treason. Parliament agreed to this rewriting of history though not entirely without dissent. Also, to secure the support of those who might otherwise have opposed him he agreed to marry Edward IV’s youngest daughter Elizabeth thereby uniting the House of Lancaster with that of York and bringing to an end the dynastic war that had raged between them, or so it was hoped – hence, the emblem for the new regime of the White Rose of York emblazoned upon the larger Red Rose of Lancaster – the Tudor Rose.

The visual acknowledgement of reconciliation aside however, Henry both feared and anticipated rebellion and would do so for the rest of his life. It fuelled a paranoia not unfounded that would prove wearying both on mind and body – the first of these rebellions would be swift in coming.

Organised by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a devoted servant to and loyal ally of Richard III who claimed he had been named the King’s successor in the event of his death it would have as its figurehead a boy, Lambert Simnel, who it was said was the son of Edward IV’s executed brother George, Duke of Clarence who with the Princes in the Tower presumed dead would be the closest surviving blood relative to the old King.

It wasn’t true of course and so despite a coronation of sorts taking place in Ireland the English nobility did not rally to his standard. Nonetheless, his army was a substantial and it took a series of prolonged and bitterly fought encounters before it was finally defeated at the Battle of Stoke Field on 16 June, 1487, where the Earl of Lincoln was killed and Simnel captured.

Realising that Lambert Simnel was just a boy ignorant of the treasonable action he had undertaken Henry chose to be merciful and so rather than subject him to the gruesome fate that would normally await traitors he granted a full pardon and employed him in the Royal Household first as a lowly kitchen scullion and later as a falconer. He would survive well into the reign of Henry VIII.

In the meantime, the demonization of Richard III continued apace with Tudor propaganda portraying him as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower (though no bodies had been discovered) while depictions of him were distorted to stress his hunchback and physical deformity at a time when such things were thought a visible sign of evil, of the corruption of the soul, and the manifestation of God’s displeasure.

Such propaganda would continue throughout the reign of the Tudor’s from Sir Thomas More’s seminal History of Richard III in 1513 to William Shakespeare’s eponymous play of the same name written in 1593.  Henry VII was under no illusions as to the fluctuating nature of his grip on power and neither would be his successors.

A more serious threat to Henry’s reign and a sustained and prolonged one was that posed by Perkin Warbeck, a man about whom we know little other than that he later revealed himself.  He claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, and it was said he had an uncanny resemblance to the younger of the missing Princes. He also had an explanation for his sudden re-appearance after ten years unheard and unseen. His brother, he said, had been murdered in the Tower on Richard’s orders but his life had been spared by those who had taken pity upon him for his youth and innocence and spirited him away to the Continent where he lived in seclusion under the protection of Sir Edward Brampton. Now he had come of age he as determined to seize what was rightfully his.

Perkin Warbeck it seemed was plausible and he quickly gathered support both in England and abroad. Henry was swift to act, those nobles he didn’t trust or was aware had expressed sympathy for Warbeck were arrested and put on trial for their lives. Many of the death penalties passed were later commuted to terms of imprisonment but not that of his Lord Chamberlain Sir William Stanley, the man who had come to his rescue at Bosworth, who was executed for treason. A fate that perhaps had been a long time coming.

Warbeck’s first attempt to land in England had to be aborted when meeting stiff local resistance at Deal in Kent his army were forced to flee back to their ships. Like Lambert Simnel before him he now sailed for Ireland where he could be assured a warmer welcome. Despite the initial enthusiasm however, he was unable to raise sufficient support to compensate for the losses incurred at Deal and so set sail once more, this time for Scotland.

It appeared that the Scots King James IV was prepared to provide Warbeck with all he required for an attack upon the Auld Enemy to the south, not just money and weapons but also an army.

On 21 September 1496, their combined force with banners unfurled and to great fanfare crossed the River Tweed into England. They met little resistance but the people did not rally to Warbeck neither to the disappointment of James did his crossing the border prompt an invasion from France.

Upon learning an English Army blocked any further advance south and that another was approaching from the west James decided discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back cross the border. Abandoned by his Scots allies Warbeck sailed for Ireland once more where he laid siege to the town of Waterford without success.

Warbeck had twice been vanquished but Henry knew as long as he was loose he remained a threat and would return. He was right. On 7 September, 1497, Warbeck landed in England this time near Land’s End in Cornwall. Remote and far from London Cornwall has always had a unique sense of itself and it had never accepted Henry VII as its King having already once risen in revolt. Promising to alleviate the heavy burden of taxation levied upon them while also attending to their other grievances the people of Cornwall rallied to Warbeck and before a host of supporters on Bodmin Moor he was proclaimed King Richard IV of England.

With his small army reinforced by some 6,000 poorly armed and untrained Cornish volunteers Warbeck began his march on London but he was hesitant and progress was slow. Many unimpressed by his leadership began to abandon his cause and he had got no further east than Taunton where confronted by the army of Henry’s ally Baron Daubney and with his army already beginning to disintegrate he lost his nerve and fled to Beaulieu House in Hampshire where he hoped to find sanctuary. It wasn’t to be and taken prisoner he was sent to London in chains.

Henry VII evinced a leniency towards his enemies that would never have been countenanced by his predecessor and so it would prove with Perkin Warbeck who like Lambert Simnel before him would avoid any immediate assignation with the block while many of his supporters would have their death sentences commuted to terms of imprisonment upon the payment of a hefty Fine.

Rather than face death Perkin Warbeck would be subject to interrogation first with a smile of sorts but then under duress, or at least the threat of it. It was enough to force a confession. He wasn’t the missing Prince after all, but an impostor, the son of a collector of taxes from the Flemish town of Tournai. His resemblance to the missing Duke of York, family connections, and ability to speak English brought him to the attention of Yorkist exiles at the Burgundian Court where the Duchess was the sister of Richard III. With her assistance and that of others at Court, Warbeck was able to embark upon his campaign for the English throne.

His full and frank confession would spare Warbeck the fate of most traitors. Indeed, Henry appeared quite taken by the young man and not wishing to punish further for the sake of it he was released from the Tower of London, provided with rooms, and permitted to attend Court. But it was a partial freedom only. He was kept under constant guard, not allowed visitors, and locked in at night. Even so, it was remarkably lenient treatment for a man who had tried to violently seize the throne.

It wasn’t enough for Warbeck however, who complained constantly of boredom and begged to be allowed to return to his wife in Tournai. When his request was refused he tried to escape not once but twice. It sealed his fate – Perkin Warbeck was executed at Tyburn on 25 November, 1499.

Henry VII’s reign may have been forged in the heat of battle but he was no warrior King, burning villages and territorial conquest had little interest for him but neither was he merely the dull accountant of historical imagination. Rather he was a shrewd politician and a sly man who knew that if his dynasty was to survive it had to govern according to the law and not by the sword alone. Its finances had to be sound, its taxes had to be fair, and it must take its place among the other great powers of Europe. These things he worked for tirelessly and though it didn’t always make for great history it laid the foundations for a century of remarkable achievement in all spheres of life under his family’s reign.

Determined his dynasty should last Henry governed through the Star Chamber which he used to circumvent the regular Law Courts to rule in his favour and the King’s Council, a body of his closest advisers who laboured on his behalf and were richly rewarded for doing so.

The men Henry appointed to his Council reflected his mind-set, they were not of the nobility as one might normally expect  but for the most part men of lowly origin, merchants and tradesmen, the men who knew where the money was and how to get it. People like the grocer John Stille, Richard Empson the son of a sieve-maker, Edmund Dudley who had made his fortune in the wool trade and Richard Fox who had started his career as a schoolmaster. These were men the King could work with and they acted with impunity in the name of the law unimpeded by the law. The nobility who Henry so distrusted were less likely to serve on the King’s Council than they were to become its victim and Empson, Dudley and others who had no affection for their social betters were ruthless in their pursuit of the King’s desires as on often trumped up charges and under the threat of imprisonment or worse they squeezed every penny from those who could afford to pay.

In his inner-sanctum behind heavy oak doors locked and bolted with guards posted Henry Tudor really was the King in his counting house counting out his money as surrounded by clerks and accountants he admired the jewels, totted up the gold and weighed the silver while annotating the ledgers and auditing the books. In this way the wealth of England passed through his hands and there was barely a sovereign received or a penny spent that he was not aware of.

It was hardly surprising then that Henry’s character should divide opinion; the Italian diplomat and historian Polydore Vergil who was resident in London working as an agent of Peter’s Pence and met the King on a number of occasions wrote of him:

“His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and even at moments of the greatest danger deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile.”

He also provides us with a physical description:

“His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking, his eye were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow”

But not all were as admiring, Sir Francis Bacon writing during the reign of Elizabeth referred to him as the ‘Dark Prince’ and thought him a duplicitous and ‘infinitely suspicious’ man while the visiting Spaniard Juan de Ayala was even more dismissive:

“He likes to be much spoken of and admired by the world but he fails in this because he is not a great man. He spends all his time not in public but with his Council writing the accounts of his expenses with his own hand.”

Having spent so much o his early life in exile abroad Henry understood that for his dynasty to survive and prosper it had to reach out beyond the borders of England and take its place among the great Monarchies of Europe; to this effect he created an intricate network of envoys, spies, and paid informers who reported directly to the King who in turn would personally authorise any payments due. It was further proof of Henry’s grasp of politics and it would reap its rewards.

Since Spain’s unification under the joint rule of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile the Moors had been expelled from the south and much of the New World had been laid claim to. Even the successor to Saint Peter in Rome, Rodrigo Borgia, was a Spaniard. It was the emerging power in Europe and Henry was eager to take advantage. His eldest son, Arthur, named after England’s greatest Prince was a vigorous, energetic and physically impressive youth in need of a bride and at the age of 11 he had been betrothed to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Katherine two years his senior. Further complex negotiations would need to be undertaken before the marriage became a reality but Henry was to prove as assured in foreign affairs as he had been astute at home.

Arthur and Katherine were married at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 1 November 1501, in what was a diplomatic coup for Henry who at a single stroke had made England a player on the wider European scene. But his triumph was to be short-lived. On 2 April 1502, after barely five months of marriage Arthur died of the sweating sickness. It came as a complete shock and Henry was devastated, so much had been expected of the young Prince of Wales and now he was gone. Frantic negotiations began almost immediately to limit the damage. It was decided that the recently widowed Katherine should marry instead Arthur’s younger brother Henry but a Papal dispensation would be required for her to do so based on the non-consummation of her original marriage. Katherine subjected herself to examination and declared under oath that she had never had sexual intercourse with Arthur. The dispensation was duly received and all breathed a sigh of relief but the consequences which remained dormant would prove both significant and profound in the years to come.

Henry may have preserved the Spanish marriage but his personal anguish was to continue. On 11 February 1503, his beloved wife Elizabeth died in childbirth aged just 37. By no means an affectionate man few realised how deeply the King had loved his Queen as for days on end he locked himself in his chambers refusing to see or speak to anyone other than his mother.

The final years of Henry’s reign were grim, he was lonely no doubt after his wife’s death and did consider re-marrying but the inclination was forced and the desire fleeting; and he was ailing his face haggard and drawn, his body frail and stooped. Juan de Ayala wrote:

“The King looks old for his years and young only for the sorrowful life he has led.”

He had achieved a great deal bringing peace and stability to England, a level of prosperity not known for years, a place at the table of European affairs, and established a dynasty that would survive the test of time but he had done so via a relentless process of threats and intimidation, by micro-managing the economy to a painful excess, and creating in England a form of police state that would become increasingly familiar throughout the years of Tudor rule to come – Henry VII’s reign had been a joyless one.

The first Tudor King died on 21 April 1509 aged 52, exhausted and physically depleted from years of tireless labour. His son Henry VIII  was crowned with hope renewed and much enthusiasm, the old King was little mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nestor Makhno: The Forgotten Revolutionary

He is barely remembered now even in radical circles and perhaps only mentioned in passing but Nestor Ivanovich Makhno, the poor peasant from Ukraine, established one of the few anarchist entities in history, maybe it’s only state. It was forged in war, had little formal structure as one might expect, was recognised by no one, flickered only briefly, and much like the anarchist collectives formed in Catalonia and Aragon during the Spanish Civil War it had little time in which to succeed or fail before it succumbed to the weight of its enemies and was crushed by force.

He was born on 28 October 1888 the youngest of five children in the south-eastern Ukrainian village of Hulyai Pole to parents who like most in that region of the Russian Empire struggled to make ends meet. Indeed, it was a life of poverty, of often grinding poverty, and the young Nestor was forced to work from the age of seven often as a shepherd boy on one or other of the large estates that dotted the landscape.

Toiling long days in the fields left him little time for play or to attend school making him resentful of those he blamed for his own and his family’s plight, the Kulaks, or wealthy landowners who he believed leeched off the poor and treated them cruelly. He knew this because he had witnessed it for himself, he had seen peasants arbitrarily beaten and being badly injured at work for which they were fired and received no compensation. He had seen how their land was stolen from them and how they were paid a pittance for their many hours of hard and relentless toil. It was something he simply could not forgive and so he became involved in radical politics though it was more as an angry young man than it was a committed revolutionary. Nonetheless he attended meetings and carried out robberies on behalf of various groups even if he was to prove more adept at escaping justice than he was the scene of his crimes being both twice arrested and twice acquitted in Court.

His luck ran out however when in the summer of 1910, arrested once more he was at last convicted and sentenced to hang. The fact that no one had been killed in the robbery would see his sentence commuted to life imprisonment though he did not again expect to see the light of day; but like many so confined his prison was to be his university and under the influence of the anarchist intellectual Piotr Arshinov he learned the wherewithal of grievance, its causes, and who was responsible – if he wasn’t overtly political when he entered prison he soon would be.

He was released from his incarceration in the amnesty for prisoners that followed the revolution of February 1917, and returning to the Ukraine helped form the Peasant’s Party. Its influence was soon felt and their policy of taking land from the wealthy Kulaks and redistributing it among the poor saw its popularity grow rapidly and none was more popular than the charismatic Nestor Makhno, who was soon being hailed as the Ukrainian Robin Hood.

In March 1918, after almost four years of disastrous war that had witnessed the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Russia’s now Bolshevik Government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. It had followed torturous negotiations prolonged by subterfuge and delay yet despite Leon Trotsky’s best efforts  it was in the end nothing short of an abject surrender and vast areas of Russian territory were ceded to the Germans including the Ukraine.

Ukrainian grain made it the bread basket not only of Russia but also much of Europe and its possession would, it was hoped, enable the Germans to circumvent the British blockade of its ports that was slowly starving its people to death.

It was vital then that the harvest be gathered and transported to Germany and its Austrian ally as quickly as possible. As such, a puppet Government was hastily installed in Kiev under a former Tsarist General Pavlo Skoropadsky known as the Hetmanate, but unwilling to support a former agent of imperialism backed by a foreign occupying army the people rebelled and his weak, ineffective and irredeemably corrupt regime soon lost control of the province of Yekatorinislav.

As the rebellion spread so the Hetmanate began to disintegrate. It also became clear that it was anarchist inspired and that its leader was the bold, audacious peasant from Hulyai Pole, Nestor Makhno.

Riding at the head of his Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army, the so-called Makhnovistas, beneath the large black flag of anarchy emblazoned with the skull and crossbones and embroidered with the words “Liberty or Death” and “All Land to the Peasants” his irregular cavalry swift and elusive raided deep behind enemy lines preferring ambush to pitched battle; they attacked at night, cut lines of communication, seized supplies and in the towns they occupied the landlords were dispossessed, the land redistributed, the factories collectivised, and self-governing communities known as Mir established.

Greeted for the most part as heroes any resistance was nevertheless brutally suppressed and dissent not tolerated.

The Hetman Skoropadsky had lost control and driven from Kiev the Central Powers ceased to support him. They would now seek to regain control by military force but they would not be the only ones. Nestor Makhno would resist them all, and he would defeat them all, for a time at least.

Victor Serge, the Bolshevik revolutionary who would later flee Stalin’s purges, wrote of him:

“Nestor Makhno, boozing, swashbuckling, disorderly and idealistic proved himself a born strategist of unsurpassed ability. The soldiers under his command sometimes numbered in the hundreds at other times in the tens of thousands would steal their arms and supplies from the enemy.”

By late 1918, Makhno’s Black Army had won victories over Austro-Hungarian and Ukrainian Nationalist forces leaving him in control of vast swathes of territory. His insurrection was also entirely Ukrainian in origin and he was soon being referred to as Batko or Father of his People. In those areas he controlled he set about establishing a State founded on anarchist principles and centred on local community control backed by military force.

At its First Congress known as the Nabat, or Bell, his Anarchist State, the Makovschina, declared itself against the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia before adopting five guiding principles:

1/ All forms of Dictatorship are rejected including the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

2/ There is to be no transition period as exists in Marxist ideology.

3/ Free communities of peasants and workers are the highest form of social justice.

4/ Education is to be founded upon the principles espoused by the anarchist intellectual Francisco        Ferrer.

5/ The economy is to be based upon the free exchange of goods between rural and urban communities.

It wouldn’t last. The forces reined against them would prove too great.

On 11th November 1918, the Great War ended in Germany’s defeat long before they had the opportunity to fully exploit the gains secured in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk but no sooner had their forces withdrawn from Ukraine those of the Tsarist General Anton Denikin moved in. They would soon be joined by the White Russian Army of General Piotr Wrangel. Both were already locked in mortal combat with Leon Trotsky’s Red Army – the Russian Civil War had reached Ukrainian soil.

Formed with the intention of restoring the Romanov Dynasty to power they were riven from the outset by division, personal ambition and factional in-fighting that prevented any strategic cooperation or effective command structure from emerging. Even so, led by experienced Tsarist commanders and supported by the Western Powers (even if more in word than deed) they remained a threat, and the one thing they could unify over was their deep hatred of, and absolute opposition to, the Bolshevik Government in Moscow and their supposed allies – those cackling bloodthirsty beasts determined to sacrifice Mother Russia on the altar of their Godless Marxist ideology. As indicated in the poster below:

Out of necessity Makhno would ally with Trotsky to defeat the White Russian forces. It wasn’t the first time the two men had cooperated but Makhno’s earlier meeting with Lenin when the Bolshevik leader expressed little opposition to the establishment of an independent anarchist Ukraine was not repeated in his negotiations with the Red Army commander. He would not countenance an Anarchist State on the border of Bolshevik Russia and their relationship was one of mutual mistrust. Makhno had already captured and executed 2 Cheka (Bolshevik Secret Police) operatives sent to assassinate him. Even so, the two men would work together to defeat a common foe.

In a series of engagements Nestor Makhno would outmanoeuvre and defeat much larger and better equipped White Russian Armies and by November 1920 he had forced General Wrangel to abandon the Crimea Peninsula thereby liberating all of Southern Ukraine and though the Red Army had provided logistical support it was the Makhnovistas who had borne the brunt of the fighting.

But no sooner had one enemy been vanquished than another emerged.

 

Trotsky saw anarchism as a dangerous counter-revolutionary force which if left alone would like a cancer spread across the whole of Russia. He would eradicate it in Ukraine as he would later at the Naval Base of Kronstadt and an attack by the Red Army upon Makhno’s Headquarters at Hulyai Pole saw most of his senior commanders seized and executed.

Makhno himself had evaded capture much to Trotsky’s frustration who now in a fit of pique ordered that he be shot on sight. He would later justify his actions:

“Nestor Makhno was a mixture of fanatic and adventurer. He created a cavalry of peasants who provided their own horses. They were not the downtrodden village poor that the October Revolution had first reawakened. They were the strong, well-fed peasants who were afraid of losing what they had. The anarchist ideas of Makhno corresponded with and appealed to the spirit and desires of the Kulak like nothing else could.”   

Makhno fought on for almost a year often with success but with scant resources and no allies to call upon the end was inevitable. In August 1921 he fled Ukraine and with the help of the anarchist underground finally, if not without mishap, made it safely to Paris.

Missing the open spaces of the Ukraine he did not take kindly to city life believing it poisonous to both mind and body but there would be no way back. At least he remained prominent in anarchist circles, the hero of the hour so to speak, becoming a regular contributor to the journal Diela Truda (The Cause of Labour) but when in partnership with his old mentor Piotr Arshinov he published the controversial Organisational Platform calling upon anarchists the world over to unite in one body with a strict hierarchy and centralised command structure the other leading anarchists broke with him – his time had passed.

Ignored by those who had once praised him, Nestor Makhno, Liberator of Ukraine and the Father of his People was reduced to working as a handyman at the Paris Opera and later on the production line at Renault – he had become the forgotten revolutionary.

Suffering from a tubercular condition made worse by an excess of alcohol and tobacco Nestor Makhno died on 6 June 1935 aged just 46.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Peter Lely: A Court Painter

He was born  Pieter van der Faes on 14 September 1618 in Soest, Germany, but his parents were Dutch and he was raised in Haarlem where he studied art at the Guild of St Luke becoming both a master painter and teacher; but Haarlem offered scant opportunity for an artist of ambition so in 1643, despite it being convulsed by Civil War he travelled to England and the Court of Charles I thereby following in the footsteps of his more illustrious compatriots Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens both of whom had found fame and fortune there – they were big shoes to fill.

Adopting the more English sounding name of Lely the new ‘Dutch Master’ was well received by those at Court earning him a great many commissions and the attention of the King who chose him as his preferred portrait artist replacing Van Dyck who had died two years earlier. Indeed, such was his popularity that he was able to continue work virtually uninterrupted even after the trial and execution of his former employer, the fall of the Stuart Monarchy, and its replacement by the Commonwealth.

Following the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II appointed him ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary,’ or official Court Painter. One of the more prolific in the role one of his most famous projects was the so-called Windsor Beauties, or Ladies of the Royal Court (both Duchess and Courtesan) that are currently housed at Hampton Court Palace in London.

But there were few people of note either at the Royal Court or beyond who did not come under the enhancing influence of Sir Peter’s brush. His willingness to portray his subjects as they wished to be seen, most famously in his ‘warts and all’ portrait of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, ensured his popularity remained high.

He was no Goya it is true, and the limitations he placed upon his own art can make it appear a little regimented at times yet the beauty and majesty of his brush remains and there few complaints.

Sir Peter Lely died at his home in Covent Garden, a little more than a year after he was knighted and granted a pension for life, on 7 December 1680. He was 62 years of age.

He was replaced as Court Painter by another German born Dutch artist, Sir Godfrey Kneller.

King Charles II

King James II

James Duke of York and his wife Anne Hyde

James Duke of York, Anne Hyde, and their children

Catherine of Braganza, Queen to Charles II

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, long-time mistress of  King Charles II described by the diarist John Evelyn as the ‘Curse of the Nation.’

Queen Mary II

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, Warts and All

Sir William Ashburnham

Sir Philip Sydney

Lady Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford

The Earl and Countess of Oxford

Sir John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Lady Mary Fane

Margaret Hughes first actress to appear on an English stage.

Lady Diana Strickland

Nell Gwynne without her oranges

Sir Robert Worsley

Madonna and Child

A Boy

Unknown

 

Sir Thomas Allin

Sir Jeremiah Smith

Sir William Berkeley

Admiral Thomas Teddiman

 

 

Queen Henrietta Maria

Charles I married Princess Henrietta Maria of France by proxy on 1 May, 1625, just weeks after he ascended to the throne of England. He was 25 years old, she just 15 and a Catholic. In staunchly Protestant England this posed a problem but it could have been worse, for she was not his first choice. He had originally intended to woo the Spanish Infanta but his somewhat ham-fisted attempts at courtship among which included dressing up in disguise, scaling walls in the dead of night, and trying to break into the Royal Apartments came to nothing when the Spanish demanded he convert to Catholicism before any betrothal could even be contemplated. This he would never do and so he would remain the frustrated bachelor for a little longer (though in hindsight it could perhaps be seen as politically wise not to have seduced a royal scion of his country’s arch-enemy). So, Henrietta Maria, whom he had met briefly before, was very much acquired on the rebound. Even so, their union would barely be less controversial or any more popular for that.

Young though she was Henrietta Maria was no wall flower who would allow herself to be bullied or coerced into remaining silent or concealing her Catholicism. Rather she would flaunt it, and not long after their formal marriage ceremony in July 1626, she and her entourage very publicly visited Tyburn to pray for the souls of the many Catholic martyrs who had been executed there. She also brought with her a 40 strong retinue of priests, ladies-in-waiting and sundry court officials all of whom were French and Catholic. None of this was lost on the largely Puritan populace of London who would regularly subject her processions through the city to jeers and cat-calls something she actually seemed to enjoy and would respond to accordingly. Charles was less amused, he did not like doubt being cast upon his own faith, he was a devout Anglican, or upon his role as Head of the Church of England. He was also aware that French influence was causing resentment at Court. Eventually, while the Queen would remain her retinue would be sent back to France.

Charles taking a firm hand with his wife did not make the newly-weds any more compatible, however. He was a reserved man, courteous and polite who kept his own council and chose his words carefully. Henrietta Maria by contrast was loud, outspoken, and flirtatious – it was not a match made in heaven.

She had after all been raised in the French Court, always less formal than it English counterpart, and a certain latitude in behaviour was often granted to those who had been exposed to it. Even so, the wife’s role, whether a Queen or not, was to be the devoted and compliant help-mate of her husband and to venture far beyond this was unacceptable. A woman was not expected to speak out of turn and certainly not on matters that did not concern her such as politics and the affairs of state. Henrietta Maria did both and often.

 

For much of the early years of their marriage Charles and Henrietta Maria were barely on speaking terms. Indeed, he spent more time in the company of his father’s former lover George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham than he did his wife prompting rumours that a similar relationship had developed between them; rumours that Henrietta Maria, who loathed Buckingham, was not shy of repeating. In his turn, Charles let it be known that he could not bear to be in his wife’s presence but all this was to change, when on 23 August, 1628, Buckingham was assassinated. He had long been a divisive figure, the cause of friction not only at the Royal Court but also between the King and his Parliament.  Now without Buckingham to advise him Charles took the momentous decision to dissolve Parliament and govern without it.

As a man who demanded loyalty from his subjects Charles now found that in troubled times there were few people he could rely upon. It resulted in a closeness developing between him and his Queen that had previously been absent. When it came to loyalty she would not disappoint.

On 29 May, 1630, she gave birth to a son and heir and their relationship began to blossom. Five further children would follow. In love with his Queen at last Charles would now seek to sell her to his people who were not.

Charles I, like his father before him was in no doubt that all earthly power emanated from a heavenly source and that he as the King was the recipient of it. It was important that his subjects were aware of this too and at a time when art was propaganda where the Church preached obedience it was intended to inspire awe; but whereas Catholic Europe used art to empathise the Greater Glory of God in Protestant England it raised up his Divinely Appointed Representative on Earth.

Similar to the future Queen Victoria who guided by her husband Prince Albert would use the new technology of photography to create the image of the Royal Family as respectable and bourgeois, Charles I would use art, or more specifically portraiture to enhance the awe of His Majesty and glamorise the person of his Queen.

The materials the artist had to work with were not promising, the King barely 5’4” tall was thin, drawn, had a softness of skin and a delicacy of appearance that it was difficult to hide. But if Charles was no Warrior King then his Queen was even less a Helen of Troy. Her niece Sophia of Hanover seeing her aunt for the first time described how: “the beautiful portraits of Van Dyck had given me such a fine idea of all the ladies of England I was surprised to see that the Queen, who I had seen as beautiful and lean, was a woman well past her prime. Her arms were long and thin, her shoulders uneven, and some of her teeth were coming out of her mouth like tusks. She did, however, have pretty eyes, nose, and a good complexion.”

Any difficulties however, would be overcome.

It appeared to any outside observer during the period of the King’s personal rule that all was set fair; the country was at peace, it was prosperous and the opposition had been silenced but rarely are old disputes so easily put to bed and when the King required money he needed Parliament to provide it and they in their turn would demand their outstanding concerns were addressed.

In the meantime, the glorification of the Stuart Dynasty continued apace but while the image of them as God’s representatives on earth so unwaveringly depicted in the work of Van Dyck, Rubens, and others may have remained untarnished the reality was very different. Charles was in a fight with his own Parliament over who governed and with the many among its ranks, who while believing he should reign demanded that he should not rule. His attempt to quash the opposition by arresting its leading members (a policy strongly advocated for by the Queen) ended in farce when they escaped the House of Commons by boat while he sat disconsolately in the Speaker’s Chair impotent and humiliated, and it was likely Henrietta Maria was responsible.

Her isolation from much of the Royal Court had seen her develop a close relationship with Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, and that unaware of her sympathy for the Puritan cause or that she was a former lover of John Pym the primary target of the King’s arrest warrant had spoken openly of the King’s plan with her. It was she who revealed the intended assault upon Parliament to her cousin the Earl of Essex, future Commander of the Parliamentary Army. Forewarned, Pym and the others had fled by boat down the Thames. Now with London in tumult and his authority much diminished Charles chose to abandon the capital for the sake of his family – conflict seemed inevitable.

In August 1642, as the King raised his Standard in Nottingham thereby declaring war upon a Parliament he was ill-equipped to fight Henrietta Maria was already in the Netherlands using the Crown Jewels as collateral to raise money and purchase arms. She did so to great effect but the materiel she acquired was only job half done, the return journey would be fraught with danger.

Her first attempt was abandoned when caught in a fierce storm her ship was almost shipwrecked and all aboard drowned. Undeterred she would try again this with greater success although her tiny armada was pursued all the way to the port of Bridlington by enemy warships which then proceeded to bombard the harbour while her ships were being unloaded. Indeed, so severe was the bombardment they were forced to flee to nearby woods, though she would return briefly to retrieve her pet dog which they had left behind in their haste.

It was typical Henrietta Maria who appeared at all times to be more excited by than fearful of war, a war in which she would stand alongside her husband and not flinch. Indeed, she never ceased to display the loyalty the King demanded but so often didn’t receive. There were others of course, but it was a conflict where changing sides, often more than once, was commonplace and none more so than among the nobility.

Travelling in convoy across hostile territory the Queen safely delivered her cargo of arms, supplies, and a number of volunteer soldiers recruited in the Low Countries to the King’s capital at Oxford entering the city to much fanfare and celebratory cannon fire.  Here she would remain for most of the next two years making life in the over-crowded and disease ridden city more tolerable for the King by overseeing the resumption of Court life and ensuring that the niceties of Monarchy were maintained.

By the spring of 1644 the tide of the war had turned against the Royalists and it was decided that Henrietta Maria should leave Oxford with the younger children (the Princes would remain with the King) for her own and their safety. Charles accompanied her as far as Abingdon before a tearful farewell saw her depart under armed escort for the West Country and a ship to the Continent. It was the last time they would ever see each other.

Whether in France or the Netherlands Henrietta Maria continued to work assiduously on the King’s behalf using all her powers of persuasion, and making promises she could not hope to keep, to purchase weapons and supplies for a cause she must have known was doomed with most of the war materiel procured either captured at sea or intercepted and seized on the overland journey to Oxford. At the same time the volunteer troops promised by the many Princes and Dukes who fell at her feet and graced her presence with fine words and brave intentions never materialised.

On 14 June 1645, the main Royalist Field Army was to all-intents-and-purposes destroyed at the Battle of Naseby and in the ensuing rout the King’s Baggage Train overrun and his court papers and private correspondence captured. While the former revealed a duplicitous nature and attempts to persuade the Irish Catholic Confederation to send troops in his support the latter expressed a slavish devotion to his Queen, both sentimental and mawkish, that only confirmed a view widely held that she was a familiar of the devil who had cast her evil eye upon and bewitched him. The letters when published were to prove a great propaganda coup for the King’s enemies.

The Civil War was as good as lost to the King in the aftermath of Naseby but it would take time to seal the victory, there were still pockets of resistance and stoutly defended Royalist strongholds to overcome. One of these of course was the King’s capital at Oxford which had already been under siege for some time. Charles had intended to break the siege with the help of an army recruited in Ireland but his negotiations, with the Catholic Church in particular, had broken down – it left him bereft of options.

With all hope of relief gone in the early hours of the 27 April 1646 with nothing to guide them but a solitary lantern and the camp fires of the enemy King Charles I of England dressed in the clothes of a common servant and with his hair cut short, accompanied by his priest and a faithful retainer, fled the city. His hope was to find a ship that would take him to France but when this proved impossible rather than prostrate himself before his own Parliament he surrendered to the Scottish Covenanter Army.

If Charles had a notion he would find solace among those from the country of his birth he was soon disabused of it as after lengthy negotiations they handed him over to the English Parliament upon payment of £100,000 prompting the King to remark sardonically that he had been bartered rather cheaply.

Henrietta Maria did not take kindly to the endless barrage of bad news from England, she did not possess the quiet stoicism of her husband, and instead displayed an anger bordering on the hysterical denouncing all those who had ever opposed the King as traitors while being unsparing with those who put their own welfare before that of their Monarch. It made no difference of course it is what it is, but she had not given up hope.

Now a supplicant in the hands of a Parliament he had once sought to confront Charles discussed with its leading members, Oliver Cromwell prominent among them, the terms whereby he could be restored to the throne. This he did this with scant sincerity however, for he was already in secret negotiations with his former Scottish adversaries to resume the war in return for the establishment of Presbyterian Church governance the length and breadth of the British Isles. In this he was encouraged by Henrietta Maria who had by now established a Court-in-Exile just outside Paris where joined by the heir to the throne she remained a powerful figure.

With little enthusiasm for a renewal of hostilities in the country beyond the more fanatical elements any hope of success lay with the Scots Army and so when it fell to defeat at the Battle of Preston in August 1648 resistance elsewhere quickly crumbled. The King’s gamble had failed and no longer the reluctant guest of his Parliament but a prisoner of the New Model Army he was in the hands of powerful men who were quite literally willing to wield the axe.

King Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649, in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall that had earlier been decorated by the artist Rubens to the greater glory of his reign and that of the Stuart Monarchy he represented.  That he died well believing to the end in the Divine Providence of his rule while bequeathing the Crown to his son did little to alleviate Henrietta Maria’s grief as she succumbed to depression and a long period of deep mourning.

With the King’s demise Henrietta Maria’s influence began to wane and she was no longer able to control a fractious Court whose members increasingly sought to cast blame for their predicament upon each other; that responsibility now fell to her eldest son Charles who could unite them in his desire to reverse the decision of earlier wars and reclaim the throne that left vacant saw England without a Monarch and therefore naked before God.

 

Henrietta Maria supported her son’s attempts to regain the throne while fretting continuously over his safety particularly during the disastrous campaign of 1651 that saw him put to flight and reduced to hiding in the hollowed out trunk of the Boscobel Oak to evade capture before finding a ship that would take him to safety.

Marginalised and no longer listened to at the Court she had created Henrietta Maria turned her attention to raising her younger children paying particular attention to their religious education.

Everything changed when on 3 September 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. As Lord Protector he had been King in all but name, now with his passing England underwent a crisis of identity – did it wish to be a Republic or not?

Before his death Cromwell had nominated his son Richard to succeed him but with little support in the country ‘Tumbledown Dick’ as he was derisively known was forced to stand down after just 256 days at the helm. A power vacuum now existed at the heart of government but it was one that General George Monck for one, was willing to fill. A former Royalist who had changed sides during the Civil War and become one of Cromwell’s most loyal supporters Monck had no desire to seize power for himself but with Parliament having proven itself unfit to rule without instruction on more than one occasion he was not willing to see it plunge the country once more into chaos and bloodshed.  On behalf of Parliament, with or without their permission, his representatives opened negotiations with those of Charles II for the terms by which the Stuart’s could be restored to the throne. Concessions made by both parties saw Charles depart the Netherlands for England arriving in London on 29 May 1660, to a rapturous reception. After eleven years in exile he had been restored to the throne that had been so brutally torn from his father’s grasp.

Henrietta Maria was delighted by the Restoration but disappointed her son had signed the Declaration of Breda that had accompanied it. He had pledged in the Declaration not to seek vengeance upon those who had deposed his father and with the exception of the Regicides, those who had signed the King’s Death Warrant, he would be as good as his word; but with so many of them already dead or having fled the country she saw the persecution of the remaining Regicides alone as scant justice.

She nonetheless returned to England in October 1660, to very little fanfare with far fewer following her procession through the streets of London than would once have been the case. Indeed, so dismissive was the diarist Samuel Pepys of her return he remarked upon how few bonfires had been lit in her honour and described her as: “a very plain little old woman, and nothing more in her presence or in any respect or garb than any ordinary woman.”

She had intended to remain in England both to support her son and in honour of her husband but England was a country that had brought her only pain and one which she had long ago fallen out of love with; a truth there seemed no reason to doubt when her son Henry, Duke of Gloucester died of smallpox to be followed only a few months later by her youngest daughter, Mary.

In declining health and suffering a melancholia brought on by the isolation she felt at Court in 1665 Henrietta Maria returned to France where she could be comforted by friends and commit more time to her religious devotions. Her mental health improved and fleeting glimpses of her old ebullience remained but her physical condition continued to decline.

On 10 September 1669 suffering from a bronchial condition she simply couldn’t shake off she died, aged 59.

During her years as Queen she had never secured the affection of her people or even the respect of her peers but she had won the love of a King, a King who she served faithfully until the end and at great personal risk to herself. It was something for which she received little credit but over time some vindication, perhaps.

Her later years were consumed by the desire to see her eldest sons convert to the Catholic faith: James did so publicly just prior to her death, Charles as King was more circumspect and only converted on his deathbed. Yet even this victory for Henrietta Maria would prove a pyrrhic one for when James succeeded his brother as King it was his Catholicism that would prove his downfall and herald the end of the Stuart Dynasty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beau Brummell: Dandy

He was a fashion icon, the first of his kind, a man known for little more than the clothes he wore and the manner of his being – fragrant, polished, charming and stylish but with a rapier wit and a sharp tongue. He was Beau Brummell, man about town and dandy. Famous in his own lifetime he would become even more so after his death, though it would take time.

He was born George Bryan Brummell on 7 July, 1778, in Downing Street, London, where his father was employed as Private Secretary to the Prime Minister Lord North. His family then, were wealthy and respected but they were not of noble blood.  Even so, William Brummell was determined that his son’s would be raised as if they were – they would be gentlemen.

In the case of his younger son George he needn’t have worried for if he had anything at all it was a high self-regard and the air of superiority that comes from being raised within the corridors of power. He also had an overwhelming desire not to go unnoticed and both the poise and self-confidence to ensure that he wasn’t.  Aware that few can know you but all can see you image was important and his time at Eton Public School, which he attended as a fee paying student, was a great success. There were few who met him even as a child who forgot the experience but his was not merely the triumph of style over substance, he was also an intelligent young man who early on had perceived a clear path to success.

After Eton he briefly attended Oxford University where he likely met George, Prince of Wales for the first time. The future Prince Regent and King George IV was impressed by this young man with such style, wit and self-regard, enamoured even – the young George Brummell had hooked a big fish.

When his father died in June 1794, leaving him £20,000 in his Will he abandoned his studies at Oxford in favour of purchasing a commission in the Royal Hussars, the Prince’s Own Regiment, so he could remain close to the man who would provide his meal ticket to fame and fortune; but to do so wasn’t cheap and he could only afford the rank of Cornet not nearly exalted enough to gain him access to the Prince but at a time when such things were not earned but lay in the gift of family and friends Brummell was promoted first to Lieutenant and then to Captain. His access to the Prince was assured but when the Regiment was transferred to Manchester he resigned his commission so he could remain in London declaring that he could not bear to dwell among the destitute and unwashed in a place of, “undistinguished ambience with such a want of civility and culture.”

He also begged the Executors of his father’s Will (he had still not yet come of age) to buy for him a house in Mayfair which they did but at great cost- Brummell cared little, it was money well spent.

Prince George who cared more for his image than he did his crown and craved the admiration of his peers more than he did the love of his people was both vain and easily flattered.  His critics might paint him as a lazy, gluttonous dolt rightly lampooned in the press and jeered at on the streets but he saw himself very differently. He was the most handsome man in Europe, the best dressed man, and the epitome of good taste. He knew this because the by now ‘Beau’ Brummell told him so.

 

By the early 1800’s Brummell’s Mayfair home at 4 Chesterfield Street had become the point of contact for the wealthy and the fashionable. His immaculate but understated style of dress at a time when the gaudy and the garish was de rigueur caused quite a stir. One did not need to be vulgar to be noticed it seemed, and Brummell’s dark blue jackets, silk and linen shirts, spotless white breeches, elaborately knotted neck cloths and knee high leather boots it was said he had polished in champagne became a familiar sight at Rotten Row and in the salons and ballrooms of Old London Town.

Never less than immaculately dressed his personal regimen was no less exacting and he bathed daily at a time when such was rare, gargled and brushed his teeth regularly in champagne and perfumed his hair. It was rumoured it took him five hours to dress and that the Prince would often be present when he did so.

But being a Dandy and the most fashionable man in England was an expensive business made more so perhaps by his association with the Prince, as also was the need to be seen and  Brummell was a regular attendee of the racecourse and at the gaming tables while no elegant salon or grand ball was complete without his presence. Once when asked how much it cost to keep a gentleman in clothes he responded “Why with tolerable economy, I think it might b done with £800 more or less.” This was at a time when the average wage for a skilled craftsman was only around £50 a year.

Brummell was perhaps being flippant but then he was almost as famous for the sharpness of his wit as he was the elegance of his apparel. When a woman shouted down to him from a balcony he was passing beneath whether he would take tea with her he replied:

“Madam, you take medicine, you take a walk, you take a liberty, but you drink tea.”

Lady Hester Stanhope recalled in her memoirs how on another occasion he told her:

“My Lady Hester, it is my folly that is the making of me. If I did not impertinently stare Duchesses out of countenance, and nod over my shoulder to a Prince, I should be forgotten in a week.”

In this latter remark at least he was being prescient.

He also flirted outrageously with just about any attractive woman of substance who crossed his path. His most significant relationship was with Frederica, Duchess of York, and he kept a painted miniature of her left eye on his person indicating a high degree of intimacy and he once presented her with a pet dog he named Fidelity as a gift  but for the most part his courtships were short and inconsequential . He was known to frequent the bedchambers of prostitutes the most famous of whom was Miss Julia Storer, a high-class courtesan who did not sell herself cheaply.

With a fortune long spent and no discernible income to speak of Brummell nonetheless absented himself from few events on the social calendar aware that if one cannot be seen one may as well be naked. Heavily in debt and with an expensive lifestyle to maintain Brummell’s credit remained good as long as his friendship with the Prince continued but their relationship came under strain when in 1811 due to his father’s mental incapacity he was elevated to Prince Regent or King in all but name.

Both Brummell and the Prince mixed in fashionable Whig circles, the former because he believed in the free trade policies they advocated and the Republican sentiments they often expressed; the latter as a deliberate snub to his father. Now that George was Prince Regent his allegiance switched to the pro-Monarchy Tory Party, an unforgiveable betrayal as far as Brummell was concerned and he told him so.

The Prince who was used to the flattery and sycophancy of the Royal Court did not take kindly to home truths and so it proved with Beau Brummell and no longer would he seek his advice on where to be seen and how to dress. Their worsening relationship came to a head in July 1813, at the Masquerade Ball at Watiers Private Club (also known as the Dandy Club) in Mayfair organised by Brummell’s close friends Lord Alvanley and Sir Henry Mildmay. The Prince Regent was honoured guest but upon his arrival and after warmly greeting both Alvanley and Mildmay he deliberately ignored Brummell but in a manner that made it plain to all those present that he had done so. The affronted Brummell, never shy to turn to his friend and say in a loud voice, “So Alvanley, who is your fat friend?” The room fell silent and the Prince left soon after -the two men would never speak again.

At first it seemed that Brummell might be able to weather the storm of royal disfavour but without the Prince’s patronage the credit dried up and his friends began to abandon him. No longer welcome in the homes of the great and the good and pursued by his creditors one of whom, Richard Meyler, demanded satisfaction in the form of a duel, in May 1816 believing discretion to be the better part of valour he departed from Dover for the Continent.

Once in France those influential friends who had remained loyal secured for him a post at the British Consulate in Calais. It was rumoured that the Prince Regent had intervened on his behalf but as they never publicly reconciled this seems unlikely though it appears clear he did not stand in the way of his appointment.

It would be wrong to suggest that the once infamous Beau Brummell settled easily into a life of relative obscurity. He missed the limelight and was resentful towards those who had deprived him of it and had abandoned him in such haste. It was a resentment that would only increase as the years passed and he was already showing signs of the syphilis that would take a toll on both his body and his mind. With his behaviour becoming increasingly erratic visits from friends became less frequent. Indeed, so insufferable did he become he even managed to talk himself out of his job at the Consulate by arguing his post be abolished.

Despite his increasingly dire circumstances he refused repeated requests to return to England afraid more of the mockery and ridicule he might receive than he was his creditors. Neither would he write his memoirs as a means of relieving his financial difficulties.

By 1835, he was in Debtors Prison and reliant once more upon friends to liberate him, which they did paying for his release, renting for him a house and even providing him with a modest income of sorts; but by this time his health was in sharp decline and he was a shadow of the man he once was. Shabbily dressed and unkempt there was the merest glimmer of the old Beau Brummell in his air of grandeur and the cast of his eye but shuffling and bowed with his speech rambling and incoherent it was a glimmer only. Confined to an Insane Asylum in Caen he refused any further help and so there he remained his fast diminishing grip on reality subsumed in the bitter imaginings of better times and the mischaracterisation of other inmates as the Lords and Ladies he once knew.

Beau Brummell, once the most talked about man in England died on 30 March 1840, aged 61, his passing barely remarked upon in the society pages of a press he once dominated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highwaymen: ‘Stand and Deliver!’

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

   The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

   The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

   And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

   The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. *

Eighteenth century England was a violent place and a country of extremes; of great wealth but greater poverty still with a politics shorn of scruple and a law without justice. In such a world even heroes are often more to be feared than admired – pickpockets and thieves, fraudsters and robbers on the highway – as long as they stole from the rich regardless of whether they gave to the poor they were to be honoured in the darker recesses of the human soul.

In this brutal world and with their trademark address beloved by generations of children, ‘Stand and deliver. Your money or your life’, ­none was more admired than the highwayman who terrorised with impunity by night those who governed with an iron fist by day.

Portrayed in popular ballad and verse as both dashing and brave they infested the main arteries of England making travel a perilous pursuit undertaken with trepidation, and for good reason. Most highwaymen made no pretence of gallantry but were violent thugs who would kill without compunction. But there were exceptions and James Hind was one. Indeed, he was to become the first criminal as folk hero since perhaps the time of Robin Hood.

Born in the small town of Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire the humble son of a saddler, he would rise in status to become an Officer in the King’s Army during the war with Parliament where his devotion to duty was acknowledged, but he could do little to alter the tide of a war that had turned decisively in Parliaments favour. Following the Royalist defeat he briefly returned home but fearing retribution soon fled to London, a Republican city, but one upon whose teeming streets he could easily disappear and did into its many brothels and taverns, and it was in one such tavern that he met Thomas Allen, a career criminal who had already committed a number of robberies on the highway and was looking for a partner.

Lucrative though it was highway robbery was fraught with danger and not just for its victims. Few coach passengers travelled unarmed and the coachman himself would often carry a blunderbuss, a scattergun with a flared nozzle that fired a multitude of musket ball that could kill both a horse and its rider with a single shot. It was important then for one man to keep the passengers covered while the other would deprive them of their goods and money.

Hind, who had remained a vocal critic of the new regime, a dangerous preoccupation, was eager to be that man but unlike many others who had also shed a tear at the King’s execution his grief turned to anger and he desired their partnership to be more than a mere criminal enterprise, he wanted it to be a continuation of the war by other means. Allen, whose sympathies likewise lay with the Cavalier cause, did not object – they would target the Regicides when the opportunity arose.

Those they stopped who could prove their loyalty to the King would be permitted to continue on their way unmolested but not so the Commonwealth Men whose lives they would threaten, their valuables they would steal, sometimes even their clothes. Many a wealthy Republican would fall foul of James Hind and Thomas Allen much to the delight of the public at large but an attack upon the arch-Regicide himself, Oliver Cromwell, would prove a step too far when they found the Lord Protector to be very well protected indeed.

Cromwell travelled nowhere without an armed escort and it appears unlikely that Hind and Allen would have been unaware of this. They probably blundered then into the Lord Protector’s entourage rather than targeted it specifically. If so, they soon wished they hadn’t.

In the gloom of an early evening Thomas Allen’s sudden appearance and demand that they ‘stand and deliver’ seemed palpably absurd and he was quickly seized and overpowered. In the meantime, Hind fought desperately with those trying to grab the reins of his horse and pull him from the saddle. He barely escaped their clutches and with no prospect of helping his friend galloped off in the direction of London with Cromwell’s men in hot pursuit. He had been fortunate indeed, Thomas Allen less so, and he would shortly pay with his life for his audacity.

Hind may only just have eluded justice but his attack upon Cromwell made him a hero among all those who loathed the new Puritanism, and there were many, or simply had a disdain for authority, of which there were even more. Hind revelled in his new fame and now without Allen he could act without restraint and so it was on the road to Salisbury that he intercepted the carriage of John Bradshaw, the Chief Justice who had presided at the trial of the King. Notorious for having sat on the bench wearing a breastplate under his judicial robes and a helmet to protect against assassination he seemingly took no such precautions when on his travels. It was an astonishing arrogance on his part and it very nearly cost him his life as with an ill-grace and a curse upon his lips he handed over all he had.

The next high-profile Commonwealth Man to fall victim to the Cavalier Thief was Hugh Peters, the firebrand preacher to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army who in his eagerness to see the King executed had fulminated from the pulpit:

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for the blood it defileth the land:  and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”

Having similarly admonished his current assailant with verses from the Bible it soon became Peters turn to be on the end of a sharp tongue as Hind accused him of humbug and hypocrisy, of treason and of sanctioning the murder of his divinely anointed King. If he did not comply with his demands then a similar fate awaited him. The old preacher for all his bluster did not need to be told twice – his life would be spared but not his cloak and purse.

With each robbery of a Republican, a Regicide, or a Puritan Divine, Hind’s popularity soared and his reputation along with it. It seemed there was nothing he wouldn’t do in the Royalist cause, that he was not only a confidante of the exiled heir to the throne but had helped him escape the clutches of Cromwell’s Ironsides following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.  It was even rumoured that he led a secret countrywide organisation dedicated to the Restoration of the Monarchy.

Hind revelled in the attention that came his way and would openly toast the King’s health and damn the King killing Republicans whenever the opportunity arose but he was to engage in the drunken ribaldry of a crowded tavern once too often – overheard boasting of his exploits he was reported to the authorities and arrested.

James Hind acted in a higher cause or so he claimed, a fact not lost on the Authorities. As such he was tried not for robbery or murder but treason. An example would be made of him and speaking from the scaffold he made plain why:

“The robberies I committed were upon the Republican Party of whom I have an utter abhorrence. It troubles me greatly that I shall not live to see my royal master established upon the throne  from which he has been so unjustly and illegally excluded by rebellious and disloyal men who deserve to hang more than I.”

Having died a traitor’s death, hung, drawn, and quartered, his severed head was put on public display as a warning to others.

If the Cavalier Thief had stirred the blood of young men it was an émigré French aristocrat who stole the heart of the young ladies.

The very model of the gallant highwayman Claude Duval had been born in Paris in 1643, to an impoverished noble family that had been stripped of its land and titles. With no future for him in France he moved to England where his aristocratic connections at least ensured him gainful employment; but It was never enough, and so he turned to crime to maintain a lifestyle that was otherwise beyond his means and where his courteous behaviour and dignified manner was to see the image of the highwayman romanticised as never before.

Stalking the remoter byways of North London between Islington and Highgate it was said that no one was ever harmed in a Duval robbery; that he would rather charm his victims into handing over their valuables than demand they do so, though the very notion that charm alone could induce someone to comply without the corresponding threat of a pistol to the head or a sword thrust to the chest seems unlikely. Nonetheless charm prevailed in most cases as removing his hat he would quote verse or wax lyrical upon the vicissitudes of fortune before bowing before the lady who would curtsey in return. Then kissing her by the hand he would ask her to dance, should she agree to do so it was said he would take only half of her husband’s purse.

It was the stuff of legend and so popular did he become that many a lady of quality expressed a desire to be waylaid by the charming French aristocrat, not something likely to endear him to a jealous husband or a timorous fiancée in fear of his life. Personal enmity aside, a popular criminal dashing or otherwise could not be tolerated and the authorities were willing to pay to secure his arrest.

Sensing it was no longer safe for him in England he fled briefly to France and there he should have remained but the lure of London’s riches proved too great. If he believed his Gallic charm and aristocratic connections would protect him he was mistaken for not long after his return he was arrested while drinking at the Hole-in-the-Wall Tavern in Covent Garden.

Despite a public appeal for clemency Claude Duval was hanged at Tyburn on 21 January 1671, before, regardless of the great many women weeping into their silk handkerchiefs, a cheerful crowd for a cold day.

In a brief criminal career that lasted barely six months Plunkett and MacLaine made quite a name for themselves and one that far surpassed their deeds; but then it was always their intention to make an impression. That at least remained a shared ambition for two otherwise very different men.

James MacLaine was born in Ireland, the son of a Scots Presbyterian Minister but there any nod towards sobriety ended. He was a young man on the make, flamboyant and gregarious, who openly defied his father while also burdening the old man with his many debts. Forced to marry early in the hope that the responsibility of family life might restrain him he instead moved to London where having set himself up as a grocer in name only, he proceeded to squander his wife’s inheritance on a lifestyle he believed was his by right, if not necessarily by birth.

William Plunkett was an earnest but failed businessman whose penurious situation was hardly improved on account of his association with MacLaine to whom he loaned money with little prospect of it ever being repaid.  Indeed, it was MacLaine who suggested crime may be the way out of their predicament. Plunkett, who had an equally high opinion of himself agreed, but they would do so as gentlemen; and so it was wearing fancy clothes, their faces hidden by Venetian masks and with the exaggerated mannerisms they believed appropriate for men of their station they embarked upon a life of crime.

Operating for the most part in the wasteland that was then Hyde Park they committed robbery after robbery stopping carriages almost at will; so much so that one of their more high profile victims the  Gothic novelist and son of a former Prime Minister Horace Walpole would write:

“One is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one is going into battle.”

The thunder and fury of war may have been an exaggeration but no robbery was unworthy of a theatrical gesture and so while MacLaine wooed the ladies with a silver tongued charm the more morose Plunkett stripped them and their male companions of everything of value with a grimly determined but always polite menace.

Indeed, so conscious were they of their public image that when it was reported shots had been fired at Walpole’s carriage MacLaine wrote a letter of apology along with a corresponding demand for money:

“Sir, seeing an advertisement in the papers of today of you being robbed by two highwaymen on Wednesday last in Hyde Park and during the time a pistol was fired intended or accidental obliges us to take this method of assuring you it was the latter and was designed by no means to frighten or hurt you for we are reduced by the misfortunes of the world to have recourse to this method of getting money. Yet we have humanity enough not to take anybody’s life where there is not a necessity.

We have likewise seen the advertisement offering a reward of 20 guineas for your watch and seals which are very safe and which you shall have along with your sword and the coachman’s watch for 40 guineas and not a shilling less.”

The missive then provided for the delivery of the money before once again burnishing their image as latter day Robin Hood’s by promising to return the few pennies and scant belongings they had stolen from Walpole’s poor footman.

Such apparent generosity did little to deflect from their avarice but no matter how valuable their haul MacLaine in particular, never failed to spend it. Residing In expensive lodgings with a wardrobe of fine clothes and a live-in mistress bought and paid for, he even now struggled to make ends meet and it was his pawning of some expensive lace that lead to their downfall.  In attempting to sell the lace the pawnbroker inadvertently approached the tailor who had made the original waistcoat from which it had been unpicked. Aware that the waistcoat had been stolen in a robbery he reported it to the relevant authorities and MacLaine was subsequently arrested.

There is of course no honour among thieves and MacLaine immediately revealed Plunkett’s whereabouts and declared he was willing to turn King’s Evidence against him for a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. But it was the dashing MacLaine they wanted to make an example of not the dour Plunkett and it was the latter not the former who would ultimately betray his friend.

Hundreds of well-wishers visited MacLaine while he was in prison awaiting trial but his popularity was to prove no defence and he was hanged at Tyburn on 3 October, 1750. William Plunkett meanwhile, remained free to spend his ill-gotten gains and disappear into well-earned obscurity on the other side of the Atlantic..

Plunkett and MacLaine’s notoriety as highwaymen was fleeting as was that of others such as John Nevinson referred to as ‘Swift Nicks’ by no less than the King himself and ‘Sixteen String’ Jack Rann so named because of the colourful silk stripes he had elaborately sewn into his breeches. None however acquired a fame as enduring as Dick Turpin’s, his was a legend that grew largely after his death the result of William Ainsworth Harrison’s popular 1830 novel Rookwood in which he appeared as a peripheral but particularly vivid character.

Richard Turpin was born in the Bluebell Inn, Hempstead, Essex, in September 1705, the son of a butcher in whose trade he followed and it was in fencing stolen livestock and poached meat that he became part of the local crime scene. It was after all easier money that the long hours and hard graft of butchery and by 1734 he was operating as a member of the Essex Gang led by the brothers Samuel and Jeremiah Gregory. So it was not as a highwayman that Dick Turpin cut his teeth as a career criminal but in street robbery and burglary, and as part of a large organised gang.

In February 1735, Turpin along with four other members of the Essex Gang broke into the isolated farmhouse of 70 year old Joseph Lawrence who, while his two maidservants were bound and gagged and made to look on, was and severely beaten and forced to strip. Even so, he stubbornly refused to reveal where he had hidden his money. A furious Turpin pistol-whipped the old man before the other members of the gang took him and began roasting his bare buttocks over the open fire. They even poured a kettle of boiling water over his head but even in great pain and in fear of his life he would not give up his fortune. In their fury the Gang ransacked the house while the Gregory brothers took the maidservants to an upstairs room and raped them.

Later that same month the Gang broke into another isolated house, this time belonging to an elderly widow Elizabeth Shelley who they again brutalised before escaping with £100 and her silver plate.

This is not the popular image of Dick Turpin the highwayman we have today but the Lawrence and Shelley robberies were just two of a series of violent such incidents that occurred in fairly quick succession. Indeed, the fear they spread forced the Authorities to act and using paid informers and Government spies the Gang was infiltrated, broken up, its members arrested, and in the case of the Gregory brothers hanged. Only Dick Turpin of the dozen or so gang members escaped justice but e was now a marked man. While the Duke of Newcastle offered a substantial reward for his arrest his description was circulated to the press. This one appeared in the London Gazette:

“A butcher by trade about 26 years of age, a tall fresh coloured man very much marked with the smallpox. Lived some time ago in Whitechapel and wears a blue grey coat and natural wig.”  

Turpin had indeed fled to the anonymity of the smog-bound city but he did not lie low for long before turning once more to crime, this time highway robbery but it wasn’t for the most part well-armed carriages he targeted but lone travellers vulnerable and defenceless amid the woodland and bleak moors that still surrounded much of London. He also rarely worked alone his most regular accomplice being Matthew King with whom he carried out a great many robberies, but a partner in crime is not necessarily a friend as he was soon to discover.  Cornered while attempting to steal some horses King was overpowered and called upon Turpin who had initially fled the scene to return and save him. Turpin did return and drawing his pistol shot King dead.  It may have been unintentional the result of a confused melee, but with his partner’s death Turpin’s whereabouts for now remained secret. Even so, he took the precaution of moving to Epping Forest an area he knew well but with a £200 reward on his head familiarity alone provided little cover and on 4 May 1737 he killed Thomas Morris, a servant to one of the Keepers of the Forest, who having recognised the notorious highwayman had attempted to apprehend him.

The cold blooded murder of Thomas Morris, a respected public servant who had been shot without warning in a cowardly attack was widely reported the length and breadth of the country making Turpin for a time at least the most wanted man in England. One such report appeared in the Gentleman’s Quarterly of June, 1737:

“It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did on Wednesday the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, Servant to Henry Tomson, one of the Keepers of Epping Forest and commit other notorious felonies and robberies near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of £200 to any person or persons that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted. He is by trade and butcher , about 5 feet and 9 inches high with a brown complexion very much marked by the smallpox, his cheek bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.”

Turpin was forced to flee once more this time in haste and it was now that according to legend he rode his trusty mare Black Bess through the night on an epic 11 hour 200 mile race to York pausing only briefly to cool her down with a mixture of water and brandy. It did prove enough to save her life and no sooner had they reached their destination than her heart burst and with blood pouring from her nostrils she dropped dead of exhaustion.

It was a great story and it almost certainly wasn’t true. A similar journey had been undertaken by John Nevinson many years before when he sought an alibi for a vicious robbery committed in London by being seen to play a game of bowls with the Mayor of York not long after but it was at least true that Turpin had fled to the city where he lived under the alias of John Palmer.

Throughout Yorkshire and neighbouring Lincolnshire Turpin embarked upon a crime spree teaming up with others to commit robberies but more often than not he engaged in poaching and particularly lucrative horse theft but he had also taken to drinking heavily and his behaviour had become increasingly erratic as a result. It would land him in a heap of trouble.

On 2 October 1738, having returned from a hunting trip with friends the worse for wear and in a foul mood he shot dead another man’s expensive cockerel  in what appears to have been an act of malice. Reported to the local Magistrates, John Palmer as he was known was arrested. Although he was able to pay the fine that was imposed upon him he instead refused to do so pleading his innocence. Detained in prison an investigation was now undertaken into the true identity of this man who lived the high life in York’s taverns and brothels while seemingly having no gainful employment. He was certainly not the simple butcher he claimed to be and was suspected of being a horse thief, poacher, and rustler of sheep and cattle but not yet the notorious Dick Turpin.

Following his arrest Turpin was also accused of stealing a horse which had been a capital offence since 1545 and though it was by now rare for such a harsh penalty to be imposed it might have been wise at this point to plead guilty and pay the subsequent penalty but still he stubbornly refused to do so – his case would come to trial.

With no Defence Counsel provided for the accused he would be expected to represent himself and Turpin was to prove a particularly poor advocate in his own defence. Indeed, it was his ham-fisted attempt to find character witnesses willing to testify on his behalf that was to prove his undoing.

One of those he approached was his brother-in-law who not wanting to get involved refused even to open the letter he had received but neither did he choose to destroy or conceal it. James Smith who had taught the young Richard Turpin how to write and was still in contact with the family saw the envelope and recognising his distinctive style wrote to the Court in York to inform them that it was not John Palmer they had under arrest but the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Judge presiding at the trial Sir William Chapple was determined that Turpin should hang and now charged with horse theft he had the crime with whch to do so. There was no need to seek further proof of his true identity or charge him with further felonious acts the capital crime had already been committed. In its haste to conclude the trial became a farce with incorrect dates, doubtful eyewitness accounts, and tainted evidence. Any competent Defence Counsel would have seen the case thrown out of court but Turpin had none – he was sentenced to hang.

The most notorious criminal in England hundreds of people visited Dick Turpin while he was in jail and thousands would attend his execution to see how he died – he would not disappoint. He bought a new frock coat and shoes for the occasion, paid for mourners to accompany his cart as it took him through the streets of York to his place of execution. He even joined in the carnival atmosphere:

“Turpin behaved himself with amazing assurance and bowed to spectators as he passed.”

 But for all the bravado Dick Turpin was no less fearful of imminent death than anybody else and as he ascended the ladder to the scaffold his right leg trembled, so much so that he had to pause and stamp his foot to bring it under control and regain his composure. Perhaps he could sense his nerve was failing him or maybe it was to avoid the short drop that ensured slow strangulation that compelled him to jump with force before reaching his destination. If he thought his leap into eternity would snap his neck then he was mistaken and he would dangle from the rope struggling for breath for a full five minutes before he finally died.

Dick Turpin’s notoriety like others before was fleeting but would be revived in William Ainsworth Harrison’s novel and become legend. Yet the day of the highwayman had already passed.  Indeed, it was only a year after the novels publication that the last such recorded incident occurred. It had been then, a crime of a very specific period and there was already a nostalgia for it long before one era had evolved into another. For those who were never its victim and were in little danger of ever becoming so the highwayman was a folk hero, a man to be admired by the many who would never dare trespass the law of their own volition. It was not the first time the criminal has been elevated to a status unbecoming his profession, there is perhaps just something in the human condition restrained by a common decency that seeks validation in the activities of those who have no such qualms, as long as they do so in a manner otherwise acceptable to polite society. So those like John Hind who had the noble cause, Claude Duval the charm, and Plunkett and MacLaine the daring, would be idolised.  Yet it would fall to Dick Turpin, a man who could lay claim to few redeeming features who would live on in time and space and come to epitomise the highwayman as something other than a common criminal in the historical narrative.

 

 

  

  

  

     

 

 

 

 

 

Tolpuddle Martyrs

The fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs has long formed a central plank of socialist propaganda, a cause celebre around which all factions of the Left no matter how moderate or extreme could unite in condemnation. It was the moment when the thin veneer of respectability was torn from those in authority who claimed to know best and do right in all good conscience. Instead the mask slipped and they revealed themselves to be the martinets of a cruel indifference concerned merely with the preservation of their own wealth and power.

There is more than an element of truth to this of course, but nothing occurs in a vacuum.

Decades of social upheaval and rural unrest had seen a deep mutual mistrust develop between factory owner and hand, tenant and landlord, not easily overcome.  The increased use of machine technology such as the Spinning Jenny, a multi-spindle frame with which one operator could do the work of eight men and the Threshing Machine which had a similar impact on the land, had seen the workplace environment change irrevocably and the value of labour diminish. As a result thousands were left without work or forced to do so for reduced wages.

Times then were harsh and made worse still by the imposition of the Corn Laws in 1815 which kept the price of bread artificially high, and the enclosure of the Common Land which deprived the labourers of an alternative means of subsistence. There was also no mechanism for the redress of their grievances other than to petition parliament and hope for a favourable response which despite the occasional voice raised in their defence such as that of Lord Byron below, were far and few between:

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return to the heart of a Christian country,”

The discordant voice of a charitable poet who rejected the well-rehearsed protocols of acceptable behaviour and had a penchant for bedding the wives of his fellow peers elicited little sympathy and carried even less weight, and so it was with other Radicals tainted by the stigma of extremism who likewise aired their concerns – the poverty and starvation remained.

Where goodwill was absent loathing filled the void, where reason had failed intimidation became the preferred weapon of both sides. The landowners would use the full force of the law, the workers threats of violence with those they considered most responsible for their plight specifically targeted for retribution:

”Sir, your name is down amongst the black hearts in the black book and this is to advise you and the likes of you, the Parson and the Justice, to make your wills. You have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. You have not done as you ought.”

 

A refusal to meet with a delegation of workers one day could result in the destruction of the, landowners property the next. An attack on your home or even upon your person might follow and the countryside at night became a fearful place with isolated homes vulnerable to robbery and arson often plunged into darkness as candles were snuffed out at the first sound of the unexpected on the still air or the glimmer of an unsolicited light in the distance.

The towns were barely any safer with large gatherings often turning violent and even when the worst of the disturbances appeared over communities remained divided and the atmosphere tense.

The governing class, the nobility and landowners, did not take kindly to threats and there was no desire on their part to reach an accommodation – they would meet force with force. Their suppression of the Luddites had been brutal and the Magistrates would be kept no less busy when confronting the Captain Swing riots twenty years later.

During the years of rural unrest over a thousand men, women, and children had been imprisoned or transported to Australia, and 19 had been hanged. More still had lost both their livelihoods and their homes. It was in this atmosphere of mutual loathing and mistrust that the events at Tolpuddle would unravel.

Tolpuddle is a small village barely distinguishable from those others around it somnolent among the rolling hills, green pastures, and lush meadows of the Dorsetshire countryside but the beauty of the surroundings belied the squalor in which most lived; dilapidated cottages with broken roofs, shutters for windows, and little insulation against the harsh winter climate. Farming provided the only means of subsistence for most and working the land was hard, the soil difficult to till and plant, and the days long, twelve hours or more in the summer spent at the plough or at work with the scythe. Yet for this they were paid little and the landowners sought to pay them even less.

In the autumn of 1831, at the height of the disturbances in Dorset a 37 year old ploughman and Methodist lay preacher George Loveless, formed part of a delegation of agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle and elsewhere who having seen their wages reduced from 12 to 9 shillings a week met with employers to demand it rise to 10 shillings a week in line with that in neighbouring counties.

The man who presided over the meeting was James Frampton, a local landowner, magistrate, and former commander of the Dorset Yeomanry not known to be sympathetic towards the labourers and so it proved. In no uncertain terms he told them:

“There is no law which compels masters to give anything extra to their servants. You must work for whatever your employers think fit to give you.”

Rather than a pay rise over the coming months and years the farm labourers of Tolpuddle would experience further reductions in their income down to as little as 7 shillings a week. It was difficult enough for anyone to survive on such meagre scraps but it was to prove an intolerable burden for those with families to support.

With 20 shillings to a pound and the shilling itself divided into 12 pennies (or 24 half-pennies) what follows is a list of staple household items of the time and their cost. It is worth bearing in mind that George Loveless for example, had a wife, Betsy, and three children to provide for:

Rent 1/2d, Potatoes 1s, Coal 9d, Salt 5d, Butter 5d, Cheese 3d, Soap 3d, Candles 3d, Tea 3d, Thread 3d.  A loaf of bread, that staple of most diets would often cost more than the farm worker made in a week while meat was only available if bought from a local poacher which was itself a criminal offence.

The six men who would soon become the notorious Tolpuddle Martyrs were for the most part related to one another or close friends. They were:

George Loveless mentioned previously was a self-taught man well known to the local magistrates and treated with suspicion.

James Loveless, the younger brother of George and also a Methodist lay preacher he had already been singled out as a troublemaker following riots in the nearby village of Piddleton.

Thomas Standfield, aged 42 who was married to the Loveless’s sister, Diana.

John Standfield, his son

James Brine, who at just 20 years of age was the youngest of the group and the close friend of John Standfield.

James Hammett was the outsider of the group neither a Methodist nor a close friend he was a convicted felon who had seen the inside of a prison cell more often than he had a church.

Rumours circulating that their employers intended to reduce wages even further to just 6s a week caused some despair among the agricultural labourers of Tolpuddle that George Loveless was eager to exploit.  Meeting regularly beneath the Sycamore Tree in the centre of the village they shared their woes and pondered what to do about them.  Loveless knew what they needed to do, they needed to organise. Trade Unions had been de facto legal ever since the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 since when there had been a proliferation of so-called Friendly Societies. Looking to form just such a society George Loveless contacted the socialist factory owner Robert Owen who was seeking to bring all such societies under the umbrella of his Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) for how to do so.  He had committed no crime by his actions and he was encouraged to proceed but was also warned of the possible consequences of doing so.

Trade Unions may have been permitted but they were not welcome and those who were members of or sought to form one would be threatened, spied upon, and ostracised from their local community. As Methodists most of the Martyrs were used to being thought outsiders. The Church of England might be mocked as the Tory Party at prayer but it was still central to the life of every village community and dissenters such as the Methodists who did not attend Anglican Church Service were thought suspect and unreliable. With its Biblical mantra, “in all labour there is profit but the talk of the lips leadeth only to penury,” the Established Church may have been in the pocket of the ruling class but the order, deference, and obedience it preached was widely accepted even if the labour was hard, the profit slight, and the penury great.

In October 1834, George Loveless and the other five men who met regularly and in public beneath that old Sycamore Tree formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. It would be 1 shilling to join and 1penny a week subscription thereafter and the men would meet in the upper room of John Standfield’s cottage where an initiation ceremony would take place and an oath of allegiance sworn.

On 9 December just such a ceremony occurred where all present agreed to abide by the societies rules and to keep its secrets.  Then kneeling before a copy of the Bible and the picture of a skeleton they swore the oath.

One of those in attendance that night was a labourer named Edward Legg who whether or not he was already a paid spy or was simply looking to make a little money reported events to Squire Frampton and agreed to provide testimony to any preliminary court proceedings that might occur.

Squire Frampton wasn’t one to turn a blind eye to such events and swearing an oath of allegiance to anyone other than the Monarch had been illegal ever since the passage of the Illegal Oaths Act that followed in the wake of the Nore and Spithead Naval Mutinies of 1797. Yet the swearing of oaths was hardly uncommon whether it be to join a guild, a literary society or even the Freemasons.

Armed with evidence of illegal activity Squire Frampton now wrote to his old friend the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne:

“Sir, it is with extreme regret  that I feel myself obliged to communicate to your Lordship so unfavourable a report on the state of the agricultural population of this part of Dorsetshire but our earnest desire for the welfare of these labourers whose manners have undergone a significant change and who becoming remarkably restless and unsettled since unions have been established begs us most anxious that some measures should be adopted that will restore their good sense and order.”

Lord Melbourne urged caution he had no desire to stir up trouble where none existed but Squire Frampton was insistent telling him, “dangerous and alarming combinations are being entered into to which they are bound by oaths administered in secret.” His Lordship did not require much persuading and would not stand in his friend’s way should he choose to pursue the miscreants.

On the morning of 24 February 1834, George Loveless was served with a warrant for his arrest and taken into custody. The other five members of the Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers were likewise arrested – their crime, the administering and swearing of an illegal oath.

Any prospect of a fair trial appeared slight, Squire Frampton sat on the jury while its chairman John Ponsonby the local M.P and brother-in-law of Lord Melbourne had it seemed already made up his mind:

“A conviction is essential the working class have attached great importance to this trial. The sentence passed must serve as a warning to others then we will put an end to his growing restlessness which is exceedingly disgusting.”

The Judge presiding Baron Williams agreed:

“The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves. It is also for the sake of offering an example and a warning.”

Regardless of the animus evident in the preliminary hearings the trial itself was conducted with all due respect to the law. The Defence argued that the Oath administered, if that is what it was, could not be judged illegal as in forming a Union the defendants were not engaged in an illegal pursuit. Also, the Act under which they were charged was specific to mutiny and seditious activity within the Armed Forces. Judge Williams thought otherwise and surmising it had a wider application declared that if the jury found an oath had been taken then it was an illegal oath and that therefore a crime had been committed. This remains a matter of conjecture and the jury in passing a guilty verdict could perhaps be exonerated of bias but the sentence then passed is much more difficult to justify. Though there had been no withdrawal of labour, no threats made, or acts of violence committed the men were given seven years hard labour in the Australian Colonies. With little possibility of being able to return it was in effect a life sentence – a moving statement delivered by George Loveless from the dock did little to alleviate the pain.

The sentence passed was clearly disproportionate to the crime committed, if any crime had been committed at all, and it was widely assumed that Lord Melbourne would commute it. When he did not but instead proceeded to confirm it the outrage was manifest even among the reliably partisan press:

“This sentence seems to us too severe, but it may be useful if it spreads alarm among those powerful disturbers of the town populations who combine in spite of high wages and whose combinations are so destructive.” (The Times)

“Trade Unions are bad things, they are bad in principle and lead to bad consequences, but let those who have sinned in ignorance have the benefit of that ignorance. Let the six poor Dorsetshire fellows be restored to their cottages.” (Morning Herald)

“The whole nation has been surprised at the sentence, not one man in the whole community appearing to know there was any law to punish men for taking oaths.” (Cobbett’s Register)

Upon sentencing five of the six men were taken from the cells beneath Dorchester Assizes in chains to the prison hulks York and Leviathan moored in Portsmouth Harbour. Condemned ships of multiple decks overcrowded and damp where prisoner’s awaited transportation the prison hulks were a grim portent of what was to come. George Loveless who was too sick to be moved would join them later.

Taken deep into the hold of the ship the hatches overhead shut tight and locked the prisoners would often remain manacled and chained to their bunks for the entirety of a voyage that could take up to six months. Sea sickness was ever present and disease rife particularly cholera and dysentery and some already weakened by time spent aboard the Prison Hulks would not survive the journey.  By the time of the Martyrs transportation the payment of bonuses and rewards for the safe delivery of prisoners had improved conditions somewhat. The surgeons were more diligent and the food adequate if uninspiring. On occasion they might be permitted on deck for fresh air and exercise but that remained at the discretion of the ship’s Captain.

Even aboard those ships that adopted a more tolerant regime the gloom, stench, damp, heat, and sheer boredom made conditions intolerable and conditions barely improved upon their arrival where sent to camps they were put to work for up to twelve hours a day in the most appalling and unimaginable heat barefoot and in threadbare clothes, cut, bruised, sunburnt, with heatstroke a constant threat. Poorly fed and frequently dehydrated they received little sympathy from their overseers who saw them not just as indentured slaves to be worked but criminals to be punished as the law required.

James Brine, who like all Tolpuddle Martyrs with the exception of James Hammett left a detailed account of their experiences, described how he had to walk miles every day to dig post holes for hours end and was made to spend seventeen consecutive days up to his waist in water washing sheep. Having earlier been robbed and stripped of the few possessions he had by Aborigines he was forced to sleep at night on the hard ground without so much as a blanket to cover him. When he requested one he was told he had been provided for and would receive no further help – he was there to be punished, after all.

It was a servitude for which it seemed they would never be redeemed and they could have had no knowledge of the campaign already underway in their homeland to secure their return.

The fledgling trade union movement had been quick to act displaying an ability to organise that surprised many.  Under the guidance of Robert Owen’s  GNCTU and supported by a number of radical MP’s among the most prominent of whom were William Cobbett, Joseph Hume and Thomas Wakeley who maintained the pressure in Parliament they campaigned relentlessly on the men’s behalf.

On 24 March 1834 a rally was held in London which addressed by Robert Owen attracted 10,000 people. Soon after Owen along with other leading trade unionists and social reformers formed the London Dorchester Committee to raise funds to fight the legal case and secure the men’s return.

Their most immediate concern however, would be the welfare of the Martyr’s families.

Having no income with which to support themselves and their children the women had little option but to apply for poor relief but it was Squire Frampton who was responsible for its distribution and he did not look kindly upon them. Holding them to blame for their own distress he refused any help whatsoever, stating bluntly that if they could afford to pay the union dues then they could afford to feed themselves.

They begged him to reconsider but he would not, and so when no help from church or charity materialised they wrote with some urgency to the London Dorchester Committee:

“Tolpuddle has for many years been noticed for its tyranny and oppression and cruelty and now the union is broke up here. They mean us to suffer for the offences of our husbands.”

The Dorchester Committee responded with haste supporting the families from funds raised. They responded with a collective letter of thanks:

“Sir, on Tuesday last a gentleman came from London and relieved us £2.3s each, all equal alike, had it not been for this I cannot tell you what we should have done.”

On 21 April, a grand procession threaded its way through the streets of London to Copenhagen Fields where more than 100,000 people attended a rally carrying placards and where trade union banners were unfurled in open defiance of a government that had ordered the army be present and for thousands of Special Constables to line the route.

It was a show of strength and a tense stand-off ensued while the latest petition (one of sixteen in total) which Lord Melbourne refused to accept in person was delivered to Parliament.

The future mentor to the young Queen Victoria knew full well that the sentence passed upon the men from Tolpuddle could not be justified but he had tacitly approved the actions of the Dorchester Magistrates and was not inclined towards a mea culpa or to admitting his mistakes – as long as he remained in Office the protests would fall on deaf ears.

However, called upon by the King to form a minority Whig Administration by July 1834 Lord Melbourne had stood down as Home Secretary to become Prime Minister. The task of keeping unified an increasingly fractious Whig Party was difficult enough and he was glad to wash his hands of the Tolpuddle nonsense. His replacement at the Home Office was John William Ponsonby, Lord Duncannon, who as we have already seen was no friend to those he deemed outside the law.

By November however, he too had gone to be replaced by Lord John Russell, a more sympathetic character who was unwilling to take ownership of his predecessor’s mistakes.

In June 1835, he bowed to pressure and pardoned the six men but there were conditions attached one of which insisted that the convictions remain in place. The men who continued to maintain their innocence refused to accept any pardon that did not exonerate them of all wrongdoing.

It was a fight Russell was unwilling to engage in despite being counselled to the contrary on the grounds that bowing to the mob set a dangerous precedent. So, on 14 March 1836, King William IV acting on the recommendation of the Home Secretary granted the Tolpuddle Martyrs a full and absolute pardon – they could return home as free men.

It is easy to paint Squire Frampton as the villain of the peace, and indeed he was, but it was never as straightforward as mere contempt for his social inferiors.  He believed in the old verse, “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. He made them high and lowly, He ordered their estate,” But with that belief came a responsibility, to maintain order and secure the status quo that benefited all and made England a country governed according to the rule of law and the home of free men. It was a responsibility he took seriously, and having witnessed from afar the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution and the lack of respect shown for private property which had been such a central feature of Luddism he was determined that no such thing should ever occur in that small part of the English countryside which fell under his jurisdiction. Even so, no one was hanged during the Captain Swing riots while he was a Magistrate. Neither was he negligent of the needs of ordinary people building a schoolhouse for the village children and paying for the repair of workers cottages out of his own pocket, but such largesse came at a price – deference to the social order and obedience to the law of the land.

The campaign for the release and return of the Tolpuddle Martyrs had proven a resounding success and the first to arrive back in England on 13 June 1837 was George Loveless who was soon putting pen to paper to give his account of events. The others returned over the coming months but to surprisingly little fanfare given their role in the cause that had dominated the public discourse for so long. Events had moved on and Chartism, the campaign for an extension of the franchise and greater working class representation in Parliament, had trumped trade union rights as the burning issue of the day. Robert Owen’s GNCTU had already collapsed and it might be said a little intimidation goes a long way for many unions now drew up the drawbridge, ceased to work with others, kept their secrets and secured their finances.

The Martyrs weren’t expected to return to Tolpuddle and the London Dorchester Committee had used the funds raised to purchase the lease on a number of farms in Essex for their use. Only James Hammett among them refused any help and instead did return home and resume work as an agricultural labourer. The others soon showed themselves not to be the innocents so often portrayed but committed radicals and trade union activists who not long after arriving in the village of Greensted established a branch of the Chartist Association. It did not make them popular in their new homes. The Essex Standard wrote of George Loveless:

“Instead of quietly fulfilling the duties of his station he is still dabbling in the dirty waters of radicalism and publishing pamphlets to keep up the old game.”

 

Preached against by the Church and ostracised by their local community once more, it soon became clear that the Martyrs would never be free of suspicion or indeed pressure from their friends to keep up the good fight. They also struggled make a success of running their own farms in a hostile and unsupportive environment. So over the next few years with the help of benefactors they all ,with the exception of James Hammett, made a new life for themselves in Ontario, Canada, where they remained what they had always been, a close knit community of friends.

It falls to few Martyrs to live long and prosper but for the most part those from Tolpuddle did:

George Loveless farmed his own land and became a respected Minister and Church Elder. He died in 1874, aged 77.

James Loveless, as he had most his life followed in his older brothers footsteps becoming both a farmer and a Sexton in the Methodist Church. He died in 1873, aged 65.

Thomas Standfield also purchased land with the money provided to him. He died in 1864, aged 74.

John Standfield ran a hotel, was elected Mayor, and later become a Justice of the Peace. He died in 1896, aged 83.

James Brine married Thomas Standfield’s daughter Elizabeth with whom he sired 11 children.  In between times he was a successful businessman. He died in 1902, aged 90.

James Hammett who as we have seen returned to Tolpuddle found gainful employment for a time as a building labourer but often fell into penury. In old age he committed himself to the Dorchester Workhouse to avoid becoming a burden to his family. He died in 1891, aged 80.

The events at Tolpuddle are now commemorated in the third week of July with a rally and festival in the village attended by leading trade unionists, representatives of the Labour Party, and other non-affiliated left-wing groups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha Beach

Tuesday, 6th June, 1944 would be D.Day, start of Operation Overlord the Allied invasion of Nazi Occupied Europe. It had originally been intended for the day before but storm conditions at sea, high winds and poor visibility had forced a postponement but it could not be delayed indefinitely however, with the Armada ready to sail and the required high tides and full moon imminent any further delay could only lead to outright cancellation.

The atmosphere at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) was then understandably tense and opinions as to a course of action sharply divided, so it was with some relief that General Dwight David Eisenhower, the man burdened with the responsibility received the report of his Chief Meteorologist that the coming few days would present a brief window of improved conditions, but improved did not suggest good and it certainly did not mean calm.

The plan was for a massive Armada of 5,000 vessels with 11,000 planes providing aerial support to land 156,000 men on 5 designated beaches along the Normandy coast. One of these landing sites was codenamed Omaha, a five mile stretch of crescent shaped beach situated between the villages of Vierville-sur-Mere and Coleville-sur-Mer with sheer cliffs to both its left and right and high bluffs in front. It was by far the least promising of the landing sites but it had to be taken to link up with the British at Gold Beach and with their fellow Americans on Utah Beach.

An Allied invasion of Fortress Europe was hardly unexpected so the possibility of gaining any strategic advantage from the assault was already lost but there was still the opportunity for operational surprise – where would the invasion come, where exactly would the landings be made?

The most obvious place was the Pas de Calais the shortest distance across the Channel from England and great efforts of deception were undertaken to convince the Germans that this was indeed the case. Certainly Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, and man responsible for fortifying the so-called Atlantic Wall thought so and he focussed his attention on just that region but never to the level of neglect elsewhere that had been anticipated and planned for.

Despite his frustration at being denied a battlefield command since his return from North Africa, Rommel approached his new remit with gusto trawling over maps, studying blueprints, and making regular tours of inspection. He also pondered at length the best strategy to be adopted in the event of any invasion and was convinced that it had to be confronted where it landed, on the beaches, and when the enemy would be at his most vulnerable.

The German Commander in the West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed however, preferring instead a defence in depth. The argument between two of the most respected Senior Officers in the German High Command would fester and prove increasingly divisive particularly over the distribution of the Panzer Divisions which were held under Hitler’s personal command, and though a compromise would eventually be reached it did little to smooth relations or create a coordinated response.

With his plans to drive the enemy back into the sea thwarted Rommel remained determined instead to create killing zones on the shoreline too costly in human flesh and blood for the Allies to endure.

The troops assigned the task of storming Omaha Beach were men of the 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, veterans of the campaigns in North Arica and Sicily and the 29th Infantry Division men barely out of their teens as yet untried and untested – a deliberate fusion of the old and the new, the careworn and the cynical with the young and the enthusiastic.

Now after months of intense training and preparation the moment of decision had come; their precise destination remained a mystery to most and rumours were rife but pledged to silence they were whispered rather than shouted. So aboard the ships many had already been on for some days time was spent reading, writing letters home, attending church service, playing cards or simply resting and thinking of what lay ahead.

Before they departed they heard a message from General Eisenhower:

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air defences have seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory.”

What they didn’t hear was the other short note the General had penned and kept about his person:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the Air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

In the event it never had to be broadcast.

Amazingly the 5,000 ship Armada, the largest sea-borne operation in the history of the world went virtually undetected in the narrow straight that separated England from mainland Europe. Field Marshal von Rundstedt was far away at his Headquarter in Koblenz on the Rhine oblivious to the invasion that was imminent while Rommel had returned to Germany to attend his wife’s birthday party. It seemed then, that the many acts of deception had worked beyond the protagonists wildest dreams and little, if any, attempt was made to hinder the Armada’s deployment off the French coast, so as the sun rose and the mists cleared that dreary summer morning the surprise was almost total.

At 05.50 on 6 June 1944, after 1,738 days of war 138 Allied ships of various types some 13 miles out to sea began to bombard German coastal defences. Around the same time bombers of the Royal Air Force followed soon after by those of the United States Army Air Force began flying the first of some 13,688 sorties against enemy communications, transport hubs, and rear areas.

Meanwhile, in a heavy swirl, buffeted by six foot waves, 18 mph winds, and weighed down by 60 pounds and more of equipment troops began descending scrambling nets into waiting landing craft where tightly packed, weakened by fear, tormented by thoughts of death and distracted by memories of home the squally damp conditions only added to the sense of foreboding.

Many of the men green to the gills were violently sick vomiting into their helmets while others more able to keep their breakfast where it belonged used theirs to bail out the craft just to keep it afloat. Even so, ten landing craft in that First Wave would be abandoned at sea swamped, holed below the water-line, or destroyed by enemy fire.

Forced to take a circuitous route to avoid the six 155 mm guns located atop Pointe du Hoc a few miles further down the coast that could target the landing craft as they approached the shore the troops hunkered down  cold and wet for what seemed an eternity. In the meantime, a  Ranger Battalion undertook the perilous task of scaling the cliffs with rope ladders and grappling hooks to eliminate the threat only to find no guns (they had in fact been moved further inland the previous month) only telegraph poles. The 500 men still in their boats who had not participated in the initial ascent would later be landed elsewhere on Omaha Beach to telling effect.

The Pointe du Hoc fiasco would not prove the only failure of intelligence that day, the defences at Omaha were believed to be manned by just 1,000 troops many of whom were barely motivated Russian volunteers and aged Reservists but these had in fact been reinforced the previous March by 352nd Infantry Division veterans of the Eastern Front; and they were well dug-in behind barbed wire and minefields in 15 separate strong points or Resistance Nests with 35 pill boxes connected by tunnels and defended by heavy machine guns, light artillery pieces and anti-tank weapons.

And at Omaha, as elsewhere, there would be no free ride to the beach – the Desert Fox had been thorough:

Four lines of obstacles had been constructed in the inner-tidal zone, the area of shore that is under water at high tide; 270 yards out from the high water line were 200 Belgian Gates, heavy steel fences some 2 metres high with mines attached; at 235 yards out was a continuous line of sharpened logs pointing seaward each third one armed with a mine; at 202 yards out were a series of ramps also armed with mines which were designed to tip over and capsize those landing craft that ran onto them; at 160 yards out were numerous hedgehogs, X-shaped anti-tank obstacles with explosives attached – all this had to be encountered and overcome before the troops even disembarked.

Neither was it ever intended for the troops to storm Omaha Beach unsupported but few of the amphibious tanks assigned to provide fire support made it ashore, the rest were swamped in the heavy seas and their crews drowned while those that did with no radio communication and unable to coordinate their fire proved largely ineffective.

As the ramps came down on the landing craft many men, aware they would be targeted, chose instead to exit over the sides. Some craft also stopped too far out to sea forcing the shorter men to inflate their life preservers merely to stay afloat while some who had fitted them incorrectly tipped upside down, were submerged, and drowned.

Raked by machine gun fire the landing craft quickly became death traps as the men who abandoned them in haste blundered into minefields or were shattered by the shellfire that now peppered the beach. Many did not make it out of the sea their bodies left to bob in the water or washed up with the surf. Others lay wounded on the beach unable to move waiting to be drowned as the tide came in. Army medics did what they could but they were no less vulnerable to enemy fire than anybody else.

The survivors who made it across the almost 400 yards of open beach huddled behind a low shingle wall where wet, cold and uncertain what to do some nervously lit cigarettes while others tried to unclog the sand from their rifles. In the meantime, engineers worked to clear the beach of mines and any other obstacles incurring almost 50% casualties as they did so.

The Second Wave that landed fared better but only by comparison with the First and to General Omar Bradley, commanding U.S ground troops witnessing events on Omaha from a destroyer moored offshore it appeared the landing had failed and he more than once considered cancelling any further attempt.

Seeing little on the beach other than the detritus of war and dead Americans the Germans felt victory was already theirs and had they counter-attacked at that moment they would almost certainly have driven the invaders back into the sea and been proved right, a  vindication perhaps of Rommel’s preferred strategy; but regardless of the carnage no hands had yet been raised, no white flag was visible and those Americans who had taken shelter behind the shingle wall were beginning to fire back.

Bradley taking his cue from a number of vessels which had already done so ordered others to risk mines and the fire of shore batteries to close within a few miles of the beach and provide big gun support. It was gratefully received if not by those who were their target.

Among those who landed with the Second Wave was Brigadier-General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota the highest ranking Officer to engage in combat on D.Day who immediately began to bring some order to the chaos. Finding himself amongst a unit of Rangers relocated from Pointe de Hoc he ordered an advance from the shingle wall. Upon learning that some troops were refusing to budge he shouted:

“God damn it then Rangers, lead the way!”

It was a sentiment echoed elsewhere on the beach by Colonel George A. Taylor in command of the 16th Infantry Regiment who rallied his men with:

“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”  

Using Bangalore Torpedoes (an explosive charge set within a series of interconnected tubes) to blast through the defences they began to leave the relative safety of the shingle wall and advance up the bluffs first in small groups, then by the dozen, and finally by the hundred. Now forced to defend their own positions the Germans could no longer target the beach area with impunity as before and with ammunition running low their rate of fire began to slow. With the fresh troops being landed now able to cross the beach at pace through lanes cleared of mines  and tanks able to provide the fire support so lacking earlier the tide of battle began to turn as one by one the pill boxes and machine gun nests fell or were abandoned in haste.

As the pressure intensified the German will to resist began to wilt and those who had not already surrendered were withdrawn further inland. By mid-afternoon the worst of the fighting was over and a beachhead secured, but barely.  The Americans had advanced little more than a mile from the beach but it was enough.  When reinforcements were landed the following morning (D.Day+1) it was so peaceful the troops could barely believe the rumours circulating of the intensity of fighting the day before. That is except for the discarded equipment, abandoned craft, burned out vehicles, and bodies that still floated in the water.

Accurate figures for the dead and wounded at Omaha Beach are difficult to ascertain with any accuracy on both sides but it is believed at least 1,300 Americans were killed and 4,500 wounded including 80% of the First Wave. German losses though fewer were not too dissimilar and were mostly the result of ship to shore bombardment.

Yet the Allied casualties on D.Day as a whole were far lighter than had been anticipated only 4,414 killed in all operations and 10,000 wounded. It was only on that slither of elongated sand known as Omaha Beach that the Allied High Command’s worst fears appeared about to be realised. That they were not was the result of German failure to exploit the opportunity presented to them and the raw courage and perseverance of those American troops who held on amid the carnage that threatened to engulf and overwhelm them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pilgrim Fathers

By the time of her death on 24 March 1603, the glory days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were well and truly over. The defeat of the Armada all those years before may have been a blessed deliverance but the ruinously expensive war against Spain continued, overseas trade was in decline and a series of failed harvests saw unemployment increase and poverty stalk the land; with an aged and childless Queen on the throne who would come after her dominated discussion in the corridors of power, whispered though it was. Her refusal to name a successor had led to great uncertainty and no little paranoia on the part of those responsible for ensuring a smooth and orderly transition of power. The obvious successor was her nephew James VI of Scotland but he would not be a popular choice and rumours of unrest and usurpation were rife, and which, with enemies both at home and abroad were not without foundation. It was little surprise then, that the Tudor Police State encouraged denunciation with bribes, demanded compliance with menaces and kept the magistrates busy in hunting Jesuits, persecuting non-conformists,, whipping paupers from the parish, silencing dissent, and suppressing enemies of the state – so busy in fact that gibbets blighting the skyline became a morose and familiar sight.

Yet it had not always been so, Elizabeth’s reign had ushered in an unprecedented flourishing of the arts along with the spread of English power and influence around the globe as never before. A remarkable woman in so many ways, a star that shone bright beloved of a people who saw her as their own, Henry VIII’s bastard daughter had proven her worth.  Good Queen Bess would be sorely missed but the years had not been kind and few were sorry to see her go.

The twilight of the Elizabethan Era had seen all pretence to religious toleration cease, the very idea “I will not open windows into men’s souls,” now merely a quote for the ages. Refusing to conform to the 1559 Act of Uniformity, the legal requirement to attend Church of England services was no longer mere aberrant behaviour to be rectified by force if necessary but a treasonable act that could be punishable by death.

Referred to as Recusants they were for the most part Catholics who refused to relinquish their ties to the old religion but there were also Calvinists who advocated a rigid interpretation of their own faith no less hostile to the Anglican Church of England.  Known as Puritans they were few in number and unlike Catholics could not be accused of owing allegiance to a foreign potentate based in Rome but they were nonetheless treated with suspicion and liable to both persecution and prosecution.

Genuine hope was expressed however, that with the Virgin Queen’s passing her successor James VI of Scotland would bring relief to those religious minorities subject to persecution and conciliatory words early in his reign had suggested as much. He was after all, both the son of the Catholic martyr Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and a strict Protestant. Even so, he was no Puritan and though he revered his mother it was as the Divinely Appointed Monarch he believed her to be not for her Catholicism.

The Guardians of Scotland responsible for the future King’s upbringing following the execution of his mother were determined to eradicate any trace of Catholicism in her son and he remembered all too well the harsh treatment he had endured at the hands of his tutors and others – the deprivations and humiliations, the verbal and physical abuse, the regular beatings. He had no love for the stricter kind of Protestantism and would come to hate all religious extremism in whatever form it chose to manifest itself. Even so, some believed that his mother’s milk and Biblical teaching would combine to create the toleration that had been so lacking.

But it wasn’t to be, any hopes  for greater compassion and a reconciliation of understanding were dashed at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604, when it was made clear that religious toleration would not be extended to Roman Catholics and that the Puritans would be made to adhere to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.

It was perhaps testament to the King’s subtlety of approach and powers of persuasion that most left the Conference satisfied with its outcome for though James had conceded little he had at least appeared willing to listen and had also resisted demands from the Church to impose even heavier penalties upon Recusants. But this would all change the following year when a Catholic plot to blow up the entire English Establishment at the State Opening of Parliament along with the King and his immediate family was uncovered.

The Gunpowder Plot as it became known was not the first attempt on James Stuart’s life (fanatics had come close to assassinating him in Scotland also) and so despite it being an exclusively Catholic affair it effectively put all religious dissenters in the dock much to the anger of those who had played no part including most Catholics. But it should have come as no surprise that a King, or indeed a man, might be inclined to punish those who seek to murder him, and to restrain others whose beliefs are so irreconcilable as to incite such drastic a solution to the differences between them.

The English would never fall in love with their Scottish King in the way they had the Virgin Queen before him but in the immediate aftermath of the treasonous plot to assassinate him and the royal children James would for a short period at least bask in the warm sunlight of popular approval. It wouldn’t last of course, his character would see to that; his clumsy demeanour, coarse language, frequent drunkenness, open homosexuality, constant demands on the public purse, and barely disguised contempt for parliament may have belied an acute political instinct and not inconsiderable diplomatic skill but it caused great offence to the Godly – the King was corrupt as his Church was corrupt. That runt child of Papist idolatry the Church of England with all its splendour and display, its stained glass, crucifix laden altar tables, tapestries, icons, worship of graven images and Latin Mass was an abomination. It’s Episcopacy and it’s Bishops simply intolerable – if the Puritans could find no relief in England then they would go elsewhere for solace and redemption and the freedom to worship as they pleased – but where exactly?

Many of those who would later become the Pilgrim Fathers were from Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands one of whose leading members was William Brewster, Postmaster in the village of Scrooby who permitted the local Puritan congregation to meet in his home. It was indicative of how few they were that it was possible to do so. It was also no secret to the Bishop of Durham Matthew Hutton under whose religious jurisdiction Scrooby fell. Fortunately, Bishop Hutton was sympathetic to the Puritans plight believing that unlike the Catholics they could be persuaded to return to the Church of England and he would write to the King in their defence, but when he died in 1606 to be replaced by Bishop Tobias Matthew attitudes hardened.  He was determined to force these so-called ‘Separatists’ into line and the more outspoken among them were imprisoned while many others were penalised financially among them Brewster himself who was fined so heavily it brought him to the brink of ruin. His experience became an increasingly common one. It was written:

“They could not continue in any peaceable condition but were instead hunted and persecuted on every side, so much that their former afflictions were as flea bites. Some were clapped in prison while others had their houses watched day and night. Many were forced to flee.”

In 1607 they decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands a thriving commercial centre where they would not be hounded by the Authorities. Here they prospered at least in respect of work being readily available even if it was often menial and low-paid; but no longer liable to fines they were at least able to keep their money while being free to practice their faith and both publish and disseminate their teachings. As their later chronicler William Bradford would write:

Such was the true piety, a humble and fervent love of this people. Whilst they thus live together towards God and his ways they come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any churches of this latter time have come.”

Yet they remained very much a community within a community unable to break out into wider Dutch society even if they had chosen to do so which they did not. They found the morals of the Dutch to be even looser than those of the English they had so often complained about. It was an alien environment they would come to believe threatened their English identity and would overtime contaminate their faith. They feared for their children sensing they may be tempted away from the path of righteousness by as one of their number warned “evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.”

It was also the time of the ‘Twelve Year Truce’ an extended period of peace in the Dutch Provinces War of Independence against Spanish rule and the Puritans quite rightly feared their treatment should the truce end and Leiden fall into the hands of Catholic Spain.

They had to move on and soon, some had already abandoned the community to return to England.

The New World was an obvious destination; it was far away and largely uninhabited except for native Indians with no recourse to civilisation:

“The place they thought of was one of the vast and un-peopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for living. There are only savage and brutal men present, just like wild beasts.”

There was also an English colony already established in the Americas at Jamestown in Virginia, a place of business and profit both profane and licentious that may have professed the Anglican faith but little more.  The Puritans were possessed of a higher calling than mere vulgar commerce and any settlement they established would belong to God, a place where they could live a virtuous life for the benefit of their soul not the frivolous blandishments of physical well-being. It was, they believed, the yearning of all God’s people to live in freedom according to their own lights so Jamestown then, was perhaps a place best avoided, but they were comforted by the fact it was English nonetheless.

It would however, be an expensive venture and a long perilous voyage that would be the cause of trepidation even in the hardiest of souls.

William Brewster would work hard over the next few years raising money for the planned migration and in trying to negotiate a land grant and charter from the King that would legitimise it and provide guarantees that would otherwise leave them vulnerable to exploitation from the more unscrupulous and powerful. In this he would fail but in 1617 one of his close associates John Carver did acquire a land grant from the Virginia Company based in London. Permission still needed to be sought from the King however, James who had no fondness for the strict Calvinism that had so blighted his youth was not inclined to do them any favours but despite adopting a hostile attitude he would not stand in their way on condition they recognised the Royal Supremacy and that of the Church of England while not seeking to formally establish a separatist Calvinist Church.

Raising the money for the voyage wasn’t easy however, the Puritans in Leiden may have prospered but they were far from rich and theirs was a small community with few friends. It appeared that their best laid plans would bear little fruit when in the early spring of 1620, Thomas Weston, a cloth merchant representing a number of businessmen seeking to break into the trans-Atlantic trade in fish and furs visited Leiden with a suggestion – would the Puritans be willing to engage in a commercial venture? Serving as agents of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London was less than ideal but without the businessmen’s financial support their voyage could not be undertaken. They had little choice but to agree.

Brewster spent much of the year before departure in hiding having published a series of pamphlets critical of the King’s religious policies and the final preparations for the voyage were done by others.

Two ships were chartered for the voyage the smaller of which, the Speedwell, was hardly fit for purpose. It was already 45 years old, spent more time in dry dock than it did at sea, and was more suited to coastal waters than it was an arduous Atlantic crossing. The other, the Mayflower, was a much larger and sturdier vessel, a three-masted merchant ship approximately 100 feet in length and 25 feet wide with three decks and a cargo capacity of 180 tons. She was also heavily armed with more than a dozen cannon of both light and heavy calibre with a fully stocked armoury of muskets, swords, pikes, breastplates, powder and ball. The threat posed by pirates, particularly Barbary Corsairs was a very real one and every precaution was taken against boarding and night attack.

In July 1620, those chosen for the voyage to the New World departed the Netherlands aboard the small cargo vessel Speedwell bound for Southampton in England. The tendency of the Speedwell to leak did little to inspire confidence in a community where the reluctance to embark upon any sea-crossing was evident and the excuses not to do so manifest and many.

In Southampton they met for the first time Christopher Jones, co-owner and Captain of the Mayflower, a rugged, straight-talking married man in his early fifties who was an experienced mariner having plied the trade routes of northern Europe and the Mediterranean for many years. He had never sailed to America before, he told them, but knew the Atlantic well from his time deep sea fishing and his many whaling expeditions.

Despite the little they had in common Brewster, Bradford, Carver and the other leading Puritans were to strike up a good working relationship with Captain Jones, the indispensable man if they were to have any chance of success in their great adventure.

They first set sail for the New World on 5 August 1520, but did not get far before the Speedwell sprung a leak, began taking on water and had to return to port for repairs. When a second attempt had likewise to be abandoned the decision was taken to leave her behind along with many of her passengers and crew.

On 6 September they set sail once more, a day one of the congregation Edward Winslow travelling with his wife Mary later recalled:

“Wednesday, 6th September, the wind coming east north-east, a fine small gale, released from Plymouth having been kindly entertained and courteously used by diverse friends there dwelling.”

The Mayflower had a crew of 30 while of the 102 passengers aboard only around half were Puritans with 28 male members of the congregation (many aged and past their prime) 20 women (3 of whom were pregnant) and a number of children. The rest were representatives of the company referred to by the Puritans as ‘Strangers’ and treated with suspicion.

 It was the worst possible time of the year to be embarking upon such a voyage, progress was slow and with the sea rough sickness was rarely absent. In the meantime, huddled below decks in cramped and unsanitary conditions surrounded by damp discarded clothes, chamber pots and no little vomit where privacy was at a premium the Puritans made the best of a bad situation. Yet for all its unpleasantness it was for the most part an uneventful voyage; at one point a mast snapped and had to be replaced, a child was born they named Oceanus, and four people died of disease but there had been no life or death struggle against a raging sea, no attack by pirates, no seething resentment below decks that threatened mutiny.

On 9 November, after 65 days of sea land was at last sighted, but it was not the land they were looking for. Captain Jones soon ascertained they were off the coast of Cape Cod still some hundreds of miles from the Hudson Bay area and their intended destination. He was eager to move on but first some kind of agreement had to found between the Puritans and the Strangers as to what form any future settlement might take. Tensions had been mounting between the two groups for some time with both equally determined to assert their rights and freedom to do as they pleased.

The Puritans and Strangers had little in common other than self-preservation, which of course was no small thing, but if that were to be secured then some accord would have to be reached.

On 11 November an agreement was signed by 41 male passengers and on behalf of the 29 women aboard that declared in the name of the King they would work collectively for the common good and in the best interests of the colony they would establish. The Mayflower Compact, as it became known, would be a document of governance, a founding document – ten days later they elected the wealthiest among them, John Carver, to be their first Governor.

After a week spent undergoing repairs and a few brief forays ashore, after one of which William Bradshaw returned to discover his wife had fallen overboard and drowned, the Mayflower sailed north but hidden shoals, dangerous tides, adverse weather, and inadequate charts soon saw Captain Jones turn south once more.

As they sailed along the coast landing parties under the command of Myles Standish, an experienced soldier who had been appointed military commander were sent ashore to survey the land for possible settlement. Certain criteria had first to be met: the land had to be arable, the location easily defendable, and it must have a harbour for ships to dock. Finding such a place was easier said than done however, but there was evidence of previous settlement including rudimentary dwellings and burial grounds while abandoned foodstuffs were retrieved and taken back to the ship with a promissory note of future payment being left in its place.

Having heard many lurid tales of a violent and savage Indian not subject to God’s Beneficence the landing parties were well armed, and a first encounter with the Indians where arrows rained down and shots were fired in exchange only confirmed them in their worst fears – as a result they did not remain in any one place for too long.

On 17 December the Mayflower docked in Plymouth Harbour by which time weakened by hunger sickness had spread throughout and Captain Jones was desperate to land his cargo before it got any worse. Explorations continued then, but with even greater urgency.

On 21 December they stumbled across an Indian village that had been abandoned four years earlier when most of its inhabitants had been wiped out by plague. It was a Godsend, once called Petuxet, they would name it Plymouth, and here they would remain.

They immediately began constructing what buildings they could but the shelter provided was barely adequate for the inclement weather and already weakened by disease more than half were to die during that first terrible winter. William Bradford was to write of their despair:

“It was a time of great cold and deprivation the foulness of which affected us all. It had pleased God to visit us then with death daily with so general a disease the living were scarce able to bury the dead and the well no measure sufficient to tend the sick.” 

With starvation imminent a hill overlooking the settlement became the last resting place for many. Indeed, it appeared that Burial Hill as it became known would be the only permanent memorial to their presence.

This would change in ways unimagined when on 16 March a tall, well-set scantily clad Indian strolled boldly into their camp greeted them in his broken English and demanded that beer and bread be brought. His name was Samoset he told them and he was there on behalf of the Pakonet tribal leader Massasoit Ousamequin.

Encounters between the Indian and the white man were not uncommon, the English and the French had been trapping and fishing in the Cape Cod area for many years and Samoset had learned their language trading with them. But that isn’t to suggest relations were good and violent clashes were common with massacres committed by both sides. But fighting with the white man was as nothing compared to the warfare waged between the tribes and when they weren’t stealing each other’s land, women, and killing each other then they were seeking to do so, and having been decimated by the plague the Pakonoket were particularly vulnerable.  Massasoit was no friend of the English but with their weapons, tools and know-how he recognised the value of being so. Under threat from both the Narragansett and in particular the warlike Abenaki, he sought them as an ally.

Samoset departed the camp telling the settlers that he would return soon with his tribal leader and that they would talk together.

Samoset was to prove as good as his word for Massasoit had already decided how best to deal with these trespassers upon his land.  Some had wanted him to attack them forthwith, to wipe them out, but he instead chose the path of peace even if it had taken him sometime and had been a close run thing.

When Samoset did return four days later accompanied by Massasoit it was with a large retinue of warriors among whom was a man of Petuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto as he would soon be known.

He had been abducted by an English raiding party some tears earlier, taken to Europe and sold into slavery. It would appear his captivity was less restricted than one might imagine for he was able to travel from a monastery in Spain to London from where he later took ship back to North America.

In the meantime, he had not only become fluent in English but believed he understood them as no other Indian could and with the settlers for the most part being artisans and tradesmen with little farming experience it was he more than any other who would save the Plymouth Colony from extinction. He showed then what seeds to sow and how to cultivate them, where to hunt and fish, and how to build homes more weather resistant.  He also helped make and maintain the peace but his role as chief interlocutor between the English and the Indians also fuelled his own ambitions and it was not without justification that Massasoit believed he was conspiring with his English friends to replace him. Indeed, he was to imperil that peace when the English refused Massasoit’s demand that they hand him over for summary justice.

Before the crisis could escalate any further however, Massasoit fell ill and appeared near death. All tribal remedies had failed and it fell to Edward Winslow with a mixture of common sense, concoctions from home and no little prayer to nurse him back to health. For this the Pakonoket Chieftain would be eternally grateful declaring “the English are my friends, they love me, and I shall never forget the kindness they have showed me.”

As long as Massasoit lived the peace would be maintained.

In the autumn of 1621 the settlers gathered in celebration of their first harvest. Joined by Massasoit and other Indians who brought along five deer for the table food was ample and the atmosphere one of amity and optimism. Plymouth colony, the first established on the North American Continent for a higher purpose than that of mere commerce alone, had survived against all the odds. It had been a miracle of sorts, and though the Puritans might disavow such interventions they remained firm believers in God’s Providence; as also in time would others as that first Thanksgiving Feast took on a significance unimagined by those who had been in attendance. It would become a founding myth even if the details of its conception have become blurred in the mists of time; but then the reality of any myth lies not in its truth but its meaning, and more importantly its legacy.

The Pilgrim Father’s as they had been known since 1820 when the preacher Daniel Webster first coined the term were that myth, and the community created by his handful of persecuted religious malcontents from the heart of rural England while never the ‘shining house on the hill’ later described  was nevertheless to prove one built on solid foundations.

The founding of America was not the founding of the United States of course (that would come later) but it was a seminal moment nonetheless; and it was to be in celebration of that first harvest that President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a civil war to preserve the Union would declare the fourth Thursday in November a day of national unity – Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate?

The story is told how many years ago a young Russian Jew was paid a rouble a month by the local Mayor to stand on the outskirts of his town so that should the Messiah return there would always be someone there to greet him. When a friend of the young man complained that the pay was too low and that he should ask for more, he replied:  “I know the pay is poor but at least the work is permanent.”

But whereas the Coming of the Messiah remains a matter of dispute among Jews for one breakaway sect it long ago ceased to be the subject of intellectual debate for the Christians declared Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who lived and preached in the land of Israel, to be their Messiah – the Son of God subject to a Virgin Birth who died upon the Cross for the remission of their sins.

 

But who killed Jesus, who was responsible for the death of the Messiah? Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea? Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jewish Temple? Or was it the Jewish people who had themselves demanded it?

It is written that Pontius Pilate only reluctantly ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, and upon this the Gospels, which otherwise vary in their accounts, agree.  But did he, would he, could he have been so ambivalent and indecisive? If so, then he was a strange choice as Governor of the most turbulent and fractious of all the Roman provinces? If so, then it would appear to have been out of character.

According to Philo of Alexandria, Pilate was a vindictive man of violent temper who was wilful, inflexible, and relentless in pursuit of his aims. He likewise criticised “his corruption and acts of insolence, his rapine and habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his murder of people untried and un-condemned, and his never ending, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”

Indeed, it was his cruel and arbitrary behaviour that the Jewish historian Josephus tells us was the reason behind his recall to Rome. He does not then, seem a character who would demur at the execution of a heretic preacher.

He had been born a Roman citizen but was not of Roman ancestry, rather he was a Samnite, a member of a hardy tribe from the mountain country of south-central Italy that had fought long and hard to resist Roman rule. By the time he reached adulthood the Samnites had only been fully assimilated into Roman society for a hundred years or less and they were still not entirely trusted.  They were considered outsiders still and sensing the need to prove and reaffirm his loyalty constantly Pilate would have had to try harder than most to succeed.

Even though he was of noble blood, a member of the Pontii clan, as a Samnite he could not rise above the rank of Equestrian, the lowest strata of Roman nobility making political advancement on the basis of status alone difficult and unlikely, so he instead chose a more traditional route for an ambitious young man of limited opportunities, he enlisted in the army.

In the Legions Pilate would have learned to be ruthless and hard but as an outsider would he not also have felt an empathy with, perhaps even sympathy for, others similarly marginalised. Who knows, but he was good soldier and rose rapidly through the ranks displaying a flair for leadership and administration as he did so.

In AD 26 his hard work was rewarded when he was appointed Prefect, or Governor, of Judea – his remit a simple one, to maintain order and collect taxes.

Caiaphas as High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Rome presided over the Sahnredin, the Supreme Council that administered to Jewish affairs religious and otherwise. He could be high handed in the delivery of his duties and lived in conspicuous luxury courtesy of his willingness to co-operate with the Roman occupiers. It was not something that had gone unnoticed by those who sought a change to the status quo but then his task was to ensure that the Jewish people remained compliant and that no serious threat emerged to Roman rule.

Religious preachers were not uncommon in Judea and Roman policy (such as it was) towards them was one of indifference as long as they did not advocate for rebellion and posed no threat. One such man was John the Baptist who had been practising his ministry along the banks of the River Jordan for a number of years. But Roman toleration of such activities was not necessarily mirrored by the Sahnredin who saw all such preachers as a direct challenge to their authority and were particularly concerned by all the constant chatter of a coming Messiah.

A preacher, Joshua Bar-Joseph, known as Jesus, had been gathering disciples for only a short time but his popularity had been noted and his growing reputation as a healer and miracle worker saw his name spoken of in the same breath as that of the Messiah.

Caiaphas felt threatened by this Jesus  whom he not only thought was preaching against him but showing great disrespect by his repeated attacks upon the Temple, the very hub of Jewish life and commerce, where, it barely needed saying, the blasphemy committed was both  stark and absolute.

Before entering the Temple a Jew had to be ritually cleansed in a mikveh, or bathtub, for which the priests charged a fee and once inside the Temple there were business transactions to be seen aplenty – it had, or so it seemed, ceased to be a place of worship and had instead become a centre of corruption, graft, and greed.  Jesus was furious and storming into the Temple, overturned the tables, and drove out the money-changers, “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves,” he said.  His behaviour was scandalous.

To verbally attack the Jewish Religious Establishment was one thing but to assail their holiest shrine and threaten their wealth was another. Caiaphas was unequivocal in his condemnation. Such behaviour could not be tolerated even if this meant the preachers death. Others among the priesthood were not so sure. His criticism was not without foundation, after all. He had condemned the money changers for defiling the sanctity of the Temple which was self-evidently true. But Caiaphas was adamant – by physically attacking the Temple he had committed a crime against God?

Even if his blasphemy could be proved to commit an offence under Jewish law was not to commit one under Roman law and Caiaphas who did not want the responsibility for condemning Jesus wanted Pilate to do it, but would he? There was someone who who was willing to betray this so-called Messiah.

Pilate may have had the reputation of a man who trampled upon the religious sensibilities of those he governed but he was no fool. As far as he was concerned Jesus had committed no crime under Roman law. His priority was to maintain order and collect taxes not launder the Jews dirty linen for them. But the Sahnredin having already condemned Jesus under Mosaic Law and taking their instructions from Caiaphas now accused him of openly opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and to Rome even though he had already declared “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Words that are to be plainly understood but tax resistance could not be tolerated and was a capital offence. Pilate knew this and so did Caiaphas.

Four days after raising Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives to ride through Jerusalem on a donkey. It was Passover and the city was teeming with people who in anticipation of his arrival had strewn flowers and palms along his path.

Aware that tensions were often high during Passover, Pilate who resided in Caesaria and rarely visited Jerusalem was in the city for the festivities, his presence a reminder, should anyone be inclined towards dissent, who still governed in Judea.

A short time after events in the Temple, Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples and a close associate of Jesus approached the Jewish Authorities and agreed to betray him for the payment of 30 pieces of silver. Later at what became known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers that despite their assertions to the contrary one of their number would betray him. The following day he was arrested as he walked in the Garden of Gethsemane after Judas had identified him with a kiss on the cheek.

As the priests and the guards who accompanied them moved in to seize Jesus a scuffle broke out, weapons were drawn, and blows struck. To prevent further violence Jesus intervened telling his disciples: “Return your swords to their place, they who take up the sword will die by the sword.”

Judas, distraught at what he had done would later hang himself.

Taken before the Sahnredin Jesus angered Caiaphas by refusing to be cowed in his presence and infuriated him further by remaining silent under questioning spurring the High Priest to cry out in frustration: Will thou answer me nothing! At last to the question: are you Christ the son of the Blessed? He replied: I am, causing an increasingly agitated Caiaphas to tear at his cloak and demand “Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus, who had in contrast to his interlocutor remained calm, replied cryptically, “You say that I am.”

It was enough for Caiaphas, there was no need for witnesses the accused had declared himself King of the Jews and admitted his guilt. He ordered that he be taken to Pilate.

Pilate couldn’t care less that some itinerant preacher had declared himself King of the Jews – it wasn’t his affair. He sent him to Herod Antipas in Galilee under whose jurisdiction he fell.

Herod, who drunk and amorous had only recently succumbed to the wiles of his step-daughter Salome and her Dance of the Seven Veils presenting her with the head of John the Baptist as a reward was disinclined to offend God any further. It was his want to mock, humiliate and belittle Jesus demanding that he perform miracles for his entertainment but he would not take responsibility for his execution – he returned him to Pilate.

It came as no surprise to Pilate that the idiot Herod had returned Jesus to his care but it was unwelcome nonetheless especially as Caiaphas and the Sahnredin weren’t about to let the matter lie.  They continued to harangue the Governor until at last he determined to meet the preacher, the holy man, who was causing him such grief.

Their meeting would be brief but deeply profound in its simplicity. There would be little to add, all that could be said would be said.

Pilate asked the preacher:

Do you consider yourself to be King of the Jews?

Jesus replied:

“If you say it is so, but my Kingdom is not of this world. I came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

Pilate paused for a moment before replying:

What is truth?

It is the question of eternal memory the resolution of which lies in the redemption of man but even as the answer stood erect before him Pilate could see nothing. But he had been disturbed by the exchange, moved even. His verdict: I find no fault in this man. Caiaphas disagreed, and he was quick to remind Pilate that to declare oneself King of the Jews was to declare oneself against Caesar – how would the Emperor in Rome react to such an assertion going unpunished?  Pilate could only say once again, I find no guilt in this man. His wife Claudia Procula agreed, she whispered in his ear of a dream she’d had. It was a warning she told him: “Have nothing to do with this righteous, innocent man for I have suffered many things this day because of a dream I had.” Caiaphas whispered in his other ear: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s.”

Jesus would be condemned. It could not be otherwise but what should be his punishment?

It was the custom during Passover for the Prefect to release a condemned man according to public acclamation. Pilate put the question to the crowd – should the preacher be set free? They responded,  “Let his blood be upon our heads, and the heads of our children,” and chose instead a common thief named Barrabbas.  But why, asked Pilate, “what evil has he done?” They chanted “crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate yields to their demand but then washes his hands in full view of the crowd before saying to those accompanying him: “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see you to it.”

Made to wear a crown of thorns in mockery of his claim to Kingship, Jesus, relentlessly scourged and beaten as he did so was forced to carry the Cross to which he would be nailed upon his back along the Via Dolorosa to his place of crucifixion on the hill of Calvary overlooking the city.

The many women who lined the route hearing the jeers and seeing the blood and torn flesh wept at the torture he was forced to endure but he told them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children.

Nailed to the Cross with his arms outstretched Jesus did not cry out or beg for mercy much to the irritation of Caiaphas and many of those looking on, no doubt.  Meanwhile, Pilate had pinned above his head a sign which read: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When Caiaphas complained that he was not King of the Jews only claimed to be and that the sign should be taken down Pilate refused saying: “I have written what I have written.”

Jesus died on the Cross for the remission of man’s sins, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven. Pilate too would die, but in Rome, made to account for his actions, condemned, and ordered to take his own life by the man he served, the Emperor Caligula.

Few ponder much upon the fate of Pontius Pilate, and fewer still that of Caiaphas, but the death of Jesus remains forever etched in the heart and soul of man whether one wishes so or not, that is the truth of eternal memory; but that it was meant to be surely negates the requirement for blame and all then are guilty and innocent in equal measure? Maybe, maybe not, it falls to man to find the imponderable intolerable.