Anne Boleyn Part Two: The Fallen Idol

Late in the afternoon of 31 May 1533, in what would be a great procession through the streets of the city, England’s new Queen, Anne Boleyn, left her temporary residence in the Tower of London for the place of her coronation at the Palace of Westminster.

Only two of Henry VIII’s six wives would be afforded he honour of a formal coronation, the other was Catherine of Aragon, but that had not been his doing. With Anne already heavily pregnant, a fact artfully disguised where possible, the event could have been seen as an occasion for much mirth and mockery even if the Queen’s condition did lend proof of the King’s virility, he had earlier been stung by the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys casting doubt upon whether, at his age, the King could still sire a son, prompting him to respond angrily – Am I not a man like any other)

Given the mood of the country Henry had, perhaps wisely, chosen to stay away though he would be present for the celebrations. Even so, determined to make a statement, no expense had been spared on the spectacle.

The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall, who was present, provides us with an account of the scene as he would also of Anne’s coronation the following day:

“And on Saturday, the last day of May, she rode from the Tower of London through the city with a goodly company of lords, knights, and gentlemen, richly apparelled. She  herself rode in a rich chariot covered with cloth of silver, and a rich canopy of cloth of silver borne over her head by the four Lords of the Ports, in gowns of scarlet, followed by four richly hung chariots of ladies, and also several other ladies and gentlewomen riding on horseback, all in gowns made of crimson velvet. And there were various pageant made on scaffolds in the city; and all the guilds were standing in their liveries, every- one in order, the mayor and aldermen standing in Cheapside. And when she came before them the Recorder of London made a goodly presentation to her, and then the mayor gave her a purse of cloth of gold with a thousand marks of angel nobles in it, as a present from the city; and so the lords brought her to the Palace of Westminster and left her there that night.”

The thousands of people who lined the route patiently waiting for the procession to pass eager to catch a glimpse of their new Queen were entertained by the many jugglers, acrobats, fire eaters and musicians present while young children, many in fancy dress, danced and made merry.

The procession paused briefly at St Martin’s Church on Ludgate Hill where prayers were said, recitations made, and a choir sang in the Queen’s honour but the carnival atmosphere, tempered by such moments of reverence and solemnity, was not all it seemed. The Queen’s reception was mixed at best, the crowds were enjoying the festivities no doubt but the cheers rang hollow often drowned out by reciprocal jeers and catcalls despite the many there who had been amply rewarded for their presence.

But the moments of discord did little to diminish the occasion and Anne took it all in good heart  her countenance remaining pleasant to gaze upon throughout- she knew the people would love her well enough when she provided the King with a son and heir.

The following day Anne “was brought to St Peter’s Church at Westminster, and there sat in her high royal seat which was made on a high platform before the altar. And there she was anointed and crowned Queen of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York.”

Upon being crowned Queen, Anne was immediately taken to nearby Westminster Hall  where the great and good of the land, with the notable exception of Sir Thomas More, had gathered for the lavish celebratory banquet in her honour. Sitting at high table accompanied only by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the King looked on, the clearly exhausted and heavily pregnant Anne did not wilt outperforming all present with her ease of presence, pleasant demeanour, eating heartily, and dancing late into the night with her new husband Henry, King of England.

The festivities continued for another two days with tournaments, further banquets, and other sundry entertainments. It was  a triumph for both Henry and Anne, the cup of goodwill runneth over and was imbibed with great relish, but the sound of dissenting voices were never far away and as long as as Catherine of Aragon’s shadow loomed large over events and the King remained without a male heir an atmosphere of uncertainty would prevail

By now exiled to Kimbolton Castle in remote Huntingdonshire far removed from the Royal Court in London and the centre of power, Catherine refused to be cowed by the King’s bullying and not very subtle acts of intimidation insisting that she was still the “King’s only lawful wedded wife and England’s rightful Queen.” Moreover, and much to Henry’s chagrin, she demanded her servants refer to her as such and she could still count among her friends many influential people none more so than the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester.

Since the annulment of the marriage Catherine had been relegated in status to Dowager, Princess of Wales, starved of funds, and seen her household reduced to the bare minimum required as Henry maintained the pressure on her to accept the divorce and his marriage to Anne Boleyn as the fait accompli it clearly was; but despite the promise of improved relations and conditions should she relent Catherine stubbornly refused to do so.  As a result, she was denied permission to meet or even communicate with their daughter Mary – they were in fact never to see one another other again.

On 7 September 1533, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a healthy baby girl she named Elizabeth. Henry went through the formalities of recognising her as his daughter but he could barely disguise his disappointment.  He had married Anne in the belief she would provide him with the son and heir he so craved now she had failed to deliver. She would soon be pregnant again Anne reassured him but he had divorced Catherine believing he had sinned in marrying his brother’s widow and so had been cursed to remain without male offspring.  He was still without male offspring – had she deceived him?  All celebrations were quietly put aside, the great joust that had been arranged in the baby prince’s honour was cancelled, and Henry did not call upon Anne again for some time.

Henry’s determination to divorce Catherine and marry Anne had also set in motion a series of events unforeseen and unimaginable just a few years before.

In order to secure the divorce denied him by the Vatican Henry had first to break with Rome, an issue that had acquired greater urgency since Pope Clement VII had declared his marriage to Catherine legal.

In May 1532, at the Convocation of Canterbury the clergy yielded to the King’s demand that it abandon its right to formulate Canon Law without his consent or in future seek instruction from or implement any policy emanating from Rome – the Pope’s jurisdiction would no longer run in England.

The Submission of the Clergy, as it became known, was not passed without opposition. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was particularly hostile urging fierce resistance but the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, who despite it seeming lukewarm at times had been a long-time supporter of Catherine of Aragon was now old, ailing, and his resolve weak – he would carp and complain but not resist the King who had made it clear in a speech before parliament how any such opposition would be regarded:

“Well beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of the realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects.”

This was soon followed by the Act of Supremacy which recognised King Henry VIII and his subsequent successors as Head of the Church in England. The Pope would in future be referred to as the Bishop of Rome.

Upon learning that the clergy had submitted to the will of the King and signed the Oath of Supremacy, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor. He would not take the Oath but neither would he speak against it, and Henry, though disappointed appeared at first willing to let his old friend and mentor be. Thomas Cromwell, in effect the King’s Chief Minister and master manipulator in a variety of roles was not, he would not let sleeping dogs lie. As long as Sir Thomas refused to publicly submit as others had he remained a threat to the religious reforms he was so assiduously working to impose; time and again Sir Thomas was interrogated whether it be over accusations of bribery while in office or over his association with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, who had prophesied against the King’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. There was little evidence of wrongdoing against the former Lord Chancellor as Cromwell knew full well but then it was about bringing pressure to bear, pressure to take the oath.  If he did so then the King’s generosity would know no bounds, if he did not then intimidation would suffice – and so it would prove.

In March 1534, the Act of Succession declared the King’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, the Princess Mary, a bastard and removed her from the line of succession. At the same time Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth was elevated to be next in line to the throne. Those required to take the Oath would in effect be recognising Anne Boleyn as the legitimate Queen while the Treason Act passed around the same time made not taking the Oath a crime punishable by death.

Despite the severity of the penalty imposed for not doing so Sir Thomas More could no more swear this Oath than he could the previous one. If there had been an opportunity for him to do so, if the wording of the text had been different, if a loophole had existed, he would have taken it for he had no desire to lose his life as he made plain many times, but he could not act in defiance of his conscience and perjure himself before God.

On 17 April 1534, Sir Thomas More was arrested on a charge of high treason and taken to the Tower of London where he would remain for over a year in the hope the reality of imprisonment and the prolonged separation from his family would in the eyes of most at least, bring him to his senses.

Soon after Sir Thomas’s incarceration his friend and fellow Oath resister Bishop John Fisher was likewise arrested and taken to the Tower. Both men had taken shelter behind the legal precedent that silence implies consent, if so their silence must have been the loudest in recorded history for it resounded throughout the Royal Courts of Europe. But whether spoken or otherwise, the wily Thomas Cromwell, acting on behalf of his master the King of England, had long ago decided that such dissent could not be tolerated.

In May 1535, the recently installed Pope Paul III made Bishop Fisher a Cardinal in the hope that his elevation to a Prince of the Church would, if not secure his freedom then at least save his life. Learning of this King Henry declared scornfully that should he receive his Cardinal’s hat in time he would gladly return it to Rome with the Primate’s head in it.

John Fisher was executed on 22 June 1535, not as a Cardinal or a Bishop but as a commoner and as a frightened, physically broken but stubborn old man.

Sir Thomas More could now be in no doubt as to his own fate and on 1 July was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death on the perjured evidence of a former acolyte, Richard Rich.

Returned to the Tower to await his execution it was even now hoped that there may be a last minute recantation and swearing of the Oath, anything that might allow the King to commute his sentence to something other than death; but he had already publicly condemned the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his usurpation of power in matters spiritual at his trial and so there was no acceptance now which might ever be thought true and sincere.

A final visit from his family who he had earlier ordered to swear the Oath for their own safety and during which emotions ran high could not sway him from his conviction. Not even the succinct and passionately argued reasonableness of his daughter Margaret, to whom he was particularly close, could change his mind.

Sir Thomas More met his fate that warm 6 July morning with all the calm resolution people had come to expect from one of the leading humanist thinkers of his day, though perhaps his spirit surpassed his body as ascending the steps to the scaffold he asked:

“I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

Before recompensing his executioner in assurance of a swift death, Sir Thomas addressed briefly those in attendance:

“I die the King’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”

Perhaps the man in greatest pain that fine July morning was the one responsible for the death of his former Lord Chancellor. Perhaps the person who should have been most nervous was the woman who had sealed his fate.

Henry, who cared little for Bishop Fisher was deeply conflicted over the execution of Sir Thomas More. He had been his guide and mentor, his close personal friend and confidante since boyhood, now he was dead, and he was dead as a result of Anne Boleyn. He expressed his regret in private often in tones of bitterness and recrimination – but at least Anne would soon be pregnant once more and he would be vindicated in the eyes of God.

On 8 January 1536, news reached the Royal Court at Greenwich that Catherine of Aragon had died and an overwhelming sense of relief swept through its environs as if caught in lightening and its dark corridors had been bathed in shafts of light. Both Henry and Anne were reportedly delighted though the proprieties of grief were respected and maintained even if some thought otherwise when the colour yellow (supposedly the colour of mourning in the late Queen’s native land) was ordered to be worn lending proceedings a more celebratory feel.

Aware that she was not long for this world Catherine had penned one final letter to her erstwhile husband:

My most dear lord, king, and husband

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer to all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that he will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also , on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants             i               solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katherine the Queen

Now Anne had all that she had ever wanted – she was married to the King, she was Queen, her daughter Elizabeth was in the line of succession, her opponents at Court and in the Church had been disposed of, and her great rival Catherine of Aragon was dead. All she had to do in return was provide her husband with a son and heir.

On the day of the former Queen’s funeral Anne’s pregnancy bore fruit in the form of a stillbirth – the child would have been a boy. The King’s ill-temper was evident, if his Queen expected sympathy she would get none from him. He now began to speak openly of being deceived and beguiled, bewitched even.

Henry and Anne’s love affair had rarely been less than tempestuous with the former driven by lust the latter by ambition. Anne’s natural vivacity, sharp intellect, independence of thought, and outspoken ways so admired in a mistress were less so in a Queen. The expected deference was not forthcoming, neither was the silence of a dutiful wife. Henry and Anne argued often, and loudly.

And she could never truly be Queen while Catherine lived, no matter how hard she tried, and she did try living ostentatiously with no expense spared and adopting the airs and graces of regality to the uttermost.  Even so, she remained an interloper, the King’s prostitute, that goggle-eyed whore.

It made her spiteful towards her household, her husband, even her own sister but the primary target of her vindictiveness would always be Catherine. She demanded that her retinue be reduced, that she not be allowed visitors, that she hand-over her jewels, and that the minimum only be spent on her maintenance. The Princess Mary she made work in her infant daughter Elizabeth’s household ordering that she be closely watched and if heard make mention of the succession be severely beaten.

Now Catherine of Aragon was dead she was losing the King’s affections.

The Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was no friend to Anne Boleyn referring to her in his correspondence as the King’s concubine remarked of the stillbirth – the Queen has miscarried of her saviour.  He could say this with some confidence as it was increasingly apparent that she was no longer in the King’s favour. He had earlier written:

“It is heard in France that Anne Boleyn has in some way or other incurred the Royal displeasure and that she is in disgrace with the King who is paying his court to another lady, and other people are uttering words of much indignation against her.”

Anne had begun to fear for her safety and that of her daughter, Elizabeth. Already embroiled in a power struggle with Thomas Cromwell for influence over the King especially in the area of foreign affairs where she favoured an alliance with France rather than the closer ties with the Protestant States of northern Europe sought by the Chief Minister. She was also aware that one of her ladies-in-waiting Jane Seymour had caught the King’s eye. Indeed, upon discovering that she was wearing a locket given her by Henry she tore it from her neck with such force that the violence involved frightened others present. But such temper tantrums were becoming increasingly commonplace. She felt increasingly isolated with her only salvation being her ability to provide the King with a son, and this she had been unable to do.

Rumours had long been circulating regarding the Queen, that she was the ‘King’s Whore’ just as her sister had been, and as the saying went – once a whore always a whore. Whether the charges that would be brought against her were then, entirely the invention of Thomas Cromwell or that he was merely exploiting these rumours it is difficult to say, but that they were readily believed is not.

Henry had already decided he was a victim of her witchcraft, that he had been seduced with evil intent. He too had heard the rumours and he wanted Thomas Cromwell to investigate them.

In April 1536, a young musician in Anne’s service Mark Smeaton was arrested and charged with being the Queen’s lover. To commit adultery with the Queen carried a sentence of death and so he at first frantically denied the charges but put to the rack soon confessed and implicated others.

On 1 May, Henry Norris, an old friend and jousting partner of the King’s, was likewise arrested. He was said to have expressed an unhealthy interest in the Queen visiting her often in her chambers and other arrests soon followed, a courtier Sir Francis Weston, a groom William Brereton, and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt but most damaging and hurtful was the detention of her brother George, Viscount Rochford on charges of committing incest with his sister.

Kept unaware of the details Anne was not heedless to the gossip and in desperation tried one last time to reconcile with her husband carrying the infant Elizabeth in her arms she pleaded her innocence and begged him not to forsake their daughter but Henry remained impassive, and unmoved dismissed her from his presence.

On 2 May, Anne Boleyn was arrested charged with adultery and high treason and taken by river to the Tower of London where she entered by the notorious Traitor’s Gate. She appeared frightened and a little disbelieving of the fate that had befallen her. She asked often for news and her mood it was said swung from a calm indifference to hysterical fits of tears.

On 6 May, she wrote what would prove a last letter to her husband, the King:


Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.

But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;

Your most loyal and ever faithful wife, Anne Boleyn”

Yet, even now she could not bring herself to believe that the King would truly do her harm; surely he would pardon her or banish her from Court, perhaps exile her to another country.  It wasn’t until her trial on 15 May before a tribunal of 27 of the most prominent peers of the realm one of whom was her old paramour Henry Percy now Duke of Northumberland, and presided over her own uncle the Duke of Norfolk that the implications of what was happening became truly apparent.

Anne defended herself as best she could knowing that the charges against herself and the others were false but there was little sympathy to be had and minds were closed and hearts cowed to judge other than the verdict predetermined:

“I am entirely innocent of all these accusations that I cannot ask pardon of God for them. I have always been a loyal and faithful wife to the King. I’ve not perhaps always shown him that humility and reverence that his goodness to me, and the honour to which he raised me, did deserve.

I confess I have had fancies and suspicions of him which I had not the strength, nor discretion to resist, and God knows and as my witness I have never failed otherwise towards him, and shall never confess any otherwise.”

It was an admission of sorts but of an entirely different guilt, perhaps.

The verdict was against her and unanimous as it could be no other and so found guilty of incest, adultery, and treason she was sentenced to death.  Finally, informed that Archbishop Cranmer had the previous day declared her marriage to Henry null and void she realised that death awaited her and that there would be no reprieve.

The final few days of Anne’s confinement in the Tower were a torment to her, she was in deep mourning for the fate of her brother, feared for the safety of her remaining family in particular her daughter, and repented for the behaviour that had lost her the affection of her husband the King, doomed the lives of others likewise accused with her on trumped up charges, and had brought her to this.

On 17 May, she may have seen but would certainly have heard the execution of her brother George and the other accused. She was due to be executed herself the following day but now there was a delay.

Henry had relented a little, Anne would be spared the indignity of the axe and instead an expert swordsman had been brought from Calais to ensure that the decapitation would be as swift and painless as possible, but the journey to London had taken longer than anticipated.

Anne’s final hours were spent reading the Bible in quiet contemplation of her fate, though her eyes were reddened and her cheeks rarely dry of tears. The Constable of the Tower Sir William Kingston who had warmed to the condemned Queen during the period of her confinement wrote of her final hours:

“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocence always to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and in my coming she said: “Mr Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.” I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. She said, “I heard say the executioner is very good and I have a little neck,” and then she put her hands around it, laughing heartily. I have seen so many men and women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death.”

Dressed in a dark grey fur trimmed gown and red petticoats and accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting it was said she went to the scaffold as a lady out for stroll, taking in the air and with a bounce in her step uncommon to those condemned to die. She then addressed those present in a clear and unhesitating voice:

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I have come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person should meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world, and of you all, and I heartily desire you all pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”

Many of those in attendance were reduced to tears by her humble demeanour and generous words for a King who had in truth shown her no mercy and people knelt to pray and there were cries of God save the Queen as Anne, blindfolded and on her knees before her executioner, her head held high, mumbled the words over and over “O sweet Jesus receive my soul. O Lord God, have pity on my soul.”

Little could Anne have anticipated the fate that awaited her when she coaxed and teased her way into the royal marriage bed, Queen’s were not executed, they might be banished, exiled, sent to a nunnery even, but they were not put to death; but then a royal marriage was a political event that lay within the purview of the diplomats and dynasts. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was one such arrangement; his relationship with Anne Boleyn however was not, she had little political cachet, rather  it was driven by passion and desire and as is often the case when such affairs cool they lead to bitterness, resentment, and suspicions of betrayal.

Anne Boleyn’s generous words upon the scaffold might suggest otherwise but maybe she understood her role in turning the romantic, lovelorn prince of those early years into the monstrous tyrant of a decade later. After all, he had divorced a devoted wife, executed his friends, and imperilled his soul for her, and she had not delivered on the promises she had made. Perhaps, she was merely seeking to protect her daughter Elizabeth from any further retribution and secure her place in the line of succession. Then again, she may have meant every word she said.

The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution Henry became betrothed to Jane Seymour (that empty headed harlot, according to Anne) and nine days later they married. On 12 October 1537, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the future Edward VI. On 27 October, Jane Seymour died from puerperal fever contracted during childbirth.

Henry was saddened by the loss but it mattered little – a Queen had done her duty, at last.








Anne Boleyn Part One: The Goggle-Eyed Whore

Anne Boleyn was born in Norfolk sometime in 1501, the second daughter of the diplomat Thomas Boleyn and his wife Anne Howard. As a result of her father’s profession, though born in England, she was raised mostly abroad.

She first came to the attention of Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, that lavish extravaganza of Kingly display and Royal authority that took place just outside Calais between 7 and 24 June, 1520. At the time Anne was serving as Maid of Honour to Queen Claude of France. Indeed, she was to spend seven years at the French Court which with its music, dancing, poetry, provocative fashions, and emphasis upon flirtation made for a sexually charged environment that simply wasn’t to be found at its more formal and deferential English counterpart.

It comes as little surprise then, to find French etiquette and courtly manners greatly admired – and the young Anne Boleyn had been well-schooled in both.

Having returned to England in 1522, Anne announced herself to the Royal Court when  wearing a white satin dress embroidered with gold thread she made a stunning appearance (alongside the King’s sister, Mary) as one of the dancers at the Green Castle Pageant held in honour of the Ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire – it did not go unnoticed.

But it was not merely her appearance that caught the eye and provoked the senses, her other attributes were no less evident; she was lively and playful, stayed up late into the night, played dice and cards, and was no less at home with the more masculine pursuits of archery, hunting, and falconry. Clever, witty, and fun to be around she was in other words good company and had no lack of suitors. Indeed, she enjoyed the chase playing the games of love with an expert hand. .

In March 1526, Henry began to actively pursue Anne, though it is likely he had expressed an interest much earlier for in 1523 her engagement to Henry Percy, heir to the Duchy of Northumberland, had been broken off following the intervention of Cardinal Wolsey. It had been love and so when Percy married another soon after, Anne was left distraught. Her enmity towards the Cardinal dates from this moment and never relented – she was not one to forgive and forget.

Even so, she continued to have affairs one of which was with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt who ended the relationship upon learning that the King shared his passion expressing his trepidation plaintively in the sonnet Who So Wish to Hunt:

“Graven in diamonds with letters plain there is written her fair neck roundabout. Noli me bangure (do not touch me) for Caesar’s I am.”

A King was expected to have mistresses and in this regard Henry did not disappoint but it was assumed that sharing the King’s bed was not the same as sharing his throne, and this was not his first pursuit of a Boleyn either, for he had been in a relationship with Anne’s sister Mary whom he had made his official mistress and the family had prospered as a result, even if it meant Mary being referred to as the ‘King’s Whore.’ But she had since been rejected and their star had waned as a result. The lesson had been learned however, Mary had given herself too freely and now he had resumed his interest in the other Boleyn girl Anne, she would not make the same mistake – the King would have to earn her affection: when he offered to make her his official mistress she refused outright, his letters went unanswered, his gifts were returned unopened, and when his presence became overbearing she dismissed herself from the Royal Court and returned home to Hever Castle in Kent. Her refusal to be seduced drove Henry to distraction but he had to learn – if he wanted her for his bed he would have to marry her. She would never be his mistress she would only ever be his Queen.

Henry’s determination to win the hand of Anne Boleyn might surprise us now for she was far from conventionally beautiful but then similar to a previous femme fatale, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, her powers of seduction lay mostly elsewhere.

The Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto who encountered Anne on a royal visit to France in October 1532, described her as:

“Not one of the handsomest women in the world being of middling stature with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, with a bosom not much raised but with eyes that are black and beautiful.”  

Nicholas Sanders, a Catholic propagandist who had little reason to admire Anne Boleyn and every reason not to was even less flattering:

“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature with black hair and an oval face of a sallow complexion as if troubled by jaundice.”

She was perhaps wisely referred to as beautiful in most contemporary accounts but descriptions drawn from the secrecy of the diplomatic bag declare her attractive at best and rarely strikingly so. It was in Anne’s skilful use of her feminine wiles that her charm lay and never more so than when contrasted to Henry’s pious, dignified, courtly and deferential Queen Catherine of Aragon, a goodly wife but a dull mistress.

Atypically Spanish in appearance with her red hair, pale skin, and blue eyes Catherine had once been described as the ‘most beautiful creature in the world’ but she had few of Anne Boleyn’s charms and despite such a fervent admirer as Thomas More declaring there to be ‘few women in the world comparable to our Queen’ in middle age she had become plump and increasingly dowdy in appearance.

Despite his later behaviour suggesting otherwise Henry VIII was a devout Catholic and a regular Bible reader who not only wanted a divorce from his wife but also sought God’s sanction for having done so.

Catherine had not borne him a surviving son and heir and Henry now doubted she ever would for he believed he had been cursed with childlessness for marrying the widow of his deceased older brother, Arthur. Catherine was barren because they had sinned (the birth of a daughter Mary, the death of an infant son and the many still born counted for nothing) and he found evidence for his belief in a passage from Leviticus:

“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing, he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness and they shall remain childless.”

But Catherine had sworn under oath and before God that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated and that she remained virgo intacta, and a Papal Dispensation had been received for her to marry Henry on these grounds. Should she now retract, or at least cast doubt upon the accuracy of her previous statement, then her marriage to the King could be dissolved as illegitimate and he would be free to wed Anne Boleyn. But when it was suggested to Catherine that she do as His Majesty wished and simply retire from public life, perhaps to a nunnery, she remained steadfastly defiant replying:

“God never called me to a nunnery I am instead the King’s true and legitimate wife.”

Henry appealed to the Vatican to grant an annulment of his marriage regardless of the Queen’s wishes and placed the affair of the’ King’s Great Matter’ in the safe hands of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey confident that his ever-reliable Lord Chancellor would secure the divorce. Even so, he also made a secret approach to Pope Clement VII requesting he simply waive the divorce through as the Dispensing Bull of his predecessor but one, Julius II, had been procured under false pretences; but events in Rome took a turn for the worse when on 6 May 1527, the city was sacked by the forces of Charles V who was not only the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor but the nephew and therefore protector of Catherine of Aragon. Now a virtual prisoner within the confines of the Vatican it would not be possible for Pope Clement to grant Henry his divorce even if he had chosen to do so.

In the meantime, Wolsey presented the King’s case to Pope Clement, it rested upon three key points; firstly, that the original Dispensation was illegal as it contravened Biblical teaching as clearly laid out in the Book of Leviticus; secondly, that the original document had been incorrectly worded thereby making it void; thirdly, that the divorce of an English King should be tried in an English Court over which he as Papal Legate should preside.

The second claim was withdrawn when a correctly worded copy of the Dispensation was discovered in Spain but then it little mattered for everyone knew that the validity of the marriage rested upon whether or not Catherine’s earlier marriage to Prince Arthur had been consummated, and its outcome upon whether or not Cardinal Wolsey could control proceedings.

Thomas Wolsey had been King Henry’s Lord Chancellor and a Prince of the Church for more than a decade, he was a politician without peer, a statesman of renown, and in religious affairs a virtual law unto himself. Henry VIII may have been the final arbiter on all affairs domestic and foreign but Wolsey was their architect. There was no scheme adopted, no document signed, no legislation passed that did not have his fingerprints on them. More than anyone else he had been responsible for legitimising the Tudor regime and establishing England as a major player on the European scene. He was confident of concluding the issue of the divorce to the King’s satisfaction, he told him so, and there were few who would argue with him. But this was an issue that went beyond the mere governance of the realm, it was personal to the King, and there were powerful forces at play.

Pope Clement acceded to Wolsey’s demand that the trial be held in England far away it was assumed from interference by Charles V but with caveats – the Court would be presided over by his trusted factotum Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and the final decision was to be made in Rome based upon his recommendations.

But unsure of his own position since the sack of Rome, the Pope did not want a decision made rather he wanted a decision delayed, and Campeggio was to fulfil his remit to the letter – he would arrive late for meetings, feign illness at every opportunity, and hold proceedings up while he awaited instructions from the Vatican.

In October 1528, Wolsey established his Ecclesiastical Court to rule upon the validity of the King’s marriage to Queen Catherine at Blackfriars in London. Campeggio, who was already in England, delayed travelling to Blackfriars for almost two months not arriving until 3rd December. He then engaged in a series of meetings with Wolsey, often in the presence of the King, where he outlined the position of the Vatican while taking testimony from leading theologians and evidence gathered by legal scholars.

Well schooled in the art of diplomacy the silver-tongued cleric was able to convince both Wolsey and the King of the sincerity of his endeavours and those of the Pope but frustration soon began to set in as one difficulty after another delayed the process.

After months of hearing evidence and taking legal advice on 21 July, King Henry VIII appeared before the Court to argue in person his case for a divorce. Also due to testify was Queen Catherine while watching from the wings but hidden from view was Anne Boleyn.

The King spoke first, he remarked upon his love for the Queen, of his devotion to her person, and that he was seeking an annulment of his marriage not for reasons of lust or because he desired a younger woman but rather that the consummation of her previous marriage to his older brother Arthur had rendered their union unclean, a sin before God, and therefore unlawful.

There had been murmurings of discontent throughout the King’s address from the many clerics present, sotto voce perhaps, but evident nonetheless. As he returned to his seat so Catherine was called to speak and a deathly hush descended upon the Court as she threaded her way past the many ushers and guards present towards where the King was sitting. Then in a moment of high drama she threw herself down in supplication before him.  Henry was so taken aback he tried to raise her up only for Catherine to throw herself down once more this time even more emphatically.

Then with tears in her eyes she spoke clearly and plainly, her voice strong and only occasionally faltering:

“Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman, and a stranger born out of your dominion. I have no assured friends, and much less impartial counsel. Alas! Sir, wherein I have offended you, or what occasion of displeasure have I deserved! I have been to you a true, humble and obedient  wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure, that never said or did anything to the contrary thereof, being always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance, whether it were in little or much. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a visage or spark of discontent. I loved all those who ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This twenty years or more I have been your true wife and by me you had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which hath been no default in me.

When ye had me at first, and I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man. And whether it, be true or not, I put it to your conscience. If there be any just cause by the law that ye can allege against me either of dishonesty or any other impediment to banish and put me from you, I am well content to depart to my great shame and dishonour. And if there be none, then here, I most lowly beseech you let me remain in my former estate. Therefore, I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God – who is the just judge – to spare me the extremity of this new court, until I may be advised what way and order my friends in Spain will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me such impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause!”

With that she rose to her feet and briefly curtsied before turning on her heels and walking out. Three times she was ordered to return but staring straight ahead refused to do so. When one of her attendants breathlessly informed her, “Madam, they wish you to return” she replied, “It matters not, this is no indifferent Court for me. I will not tarry.” As she emerged from the building it was to the cheers of the people gathered outside, particularly the many women in the crowd.

Catherine had earlier denied the right of the Court to rule on the validity of her marriage to the King and as such had appealed directly to the Pope for a decision. In light of this and the unsatisfactory conclusion to the day’s events Cardinal Campeggio suspended further proceedings until October when Pope Clement could be expected to declare his verdict – the Court would never meet again.

The events at Blackfriars had not only seen the King humbled in sight of his subjects but had ended in farce with Queen Catherine more popular than ever and her intended replacement Anne Boleyn demonised far and wide as that Goggle-Eyed Whore. Indeed, the prevailing mood was that with the Court suspended, the Papal Legate returning to Rome, and the case no nearer a resolution the King of England had been led up the garden path and down a blind alley.

Henry VIII was not a man, and even less so a King, who looked kindly upon failure and his Lord Chancellor, had failed him. That Wolsey had never done so before was his defence but with few friends willing to speak on his behalf and a great many enemies wanting to see the ‘Butcher’s Son’ brought to heel, once would prove enough.  Henry would never forgive him for betraying his trust and making promises he could not keep but mindful of his past service there would be no further punishment for now. Yet in truth, the anger he felt towards his confidante, sometime friend, and devoted servant could only ever be transient. It would take others to make it permanent.

Anne Boleyn had hated Wolsey ever since he had forced her to break off the engagement to Sir Thomas Percy. She was also aware that he would often refer to her as that ‘foolish little girl’, now she believed that he had conspired with Cardinal Campeggio to delay the proceedings of the Ecclesiastical Court long enough for the King to fall out of love with her.

Not long after the case for the annulment had been referred back to Rome she witnessed Henry and Wolsey sharing a convivial moment together. That night at dinner with the King she made reference to it:

“What things hath he wrought to your great slander and dishonour, there is never a nobleman within this realm that had he done but half what he hath done, he were well worthy to lose his head.”

Henry appeared dismissive at first, “Why then I perceive you are not the Cardinal’s friend.”

But he would act on her words.

Not long after this exchange between the King and his mistress Wolsey was removed from office, stripped of his wealth and property, banished from Court, and exiled to the provinces but he remained a Cardinal, Papal Legate and Archbishop of York so could not yet be considered a broken man. He remained determined to resurrect his career but his enemies, prominent among them the Boleyn family, were no less determined to prevent him.

The rumour soon began to circulate that he was involved in a plot to kidnap Anne Boleyn and have her smuggled abroad. Ordered to return to London to explain himself on 29 November 1530, while resting in Leicester he died. Although he had been ill for sometime his death was still unexpected but it had perhaps been timely for it almost certainly saved him from a charge of treason and a less dignified and peaceful end.

As he lay upon his sick bed the once most powerful man in England aside from the King who had been brought low by that ‘foolish little girl’ remarked somewhat despairingly:

“If only I had served God as diligently as I served the King he would never have brought me to this.”

Any jubilation felt on Anne’s part at Wolsey’s downfall was tempered somewhat by Henry’s choice of Sir Thomas More as his successor.

A lawyer by profession Sir Thomas More was one of the leading intellectuals of his day, a renaissance man, a humanist, and a theologian of international renown but he was also religiously orthodox, a believer in the primacy of the Church, and a firm, if not always explicit and vocal, opponent of the divorce. He had been both a friend and mentor to Henry since he was a young man and they spent many an hour together staring at the heavens and discussing God, astronomy, and philosophy.  Indeed, he had tutored the young King on governance and helped him write the book that would earn him the title Fedei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, from a grateful Pope. They had a special bond but if Henry thought that their relationship would see Sir Thomas lend him his support regarding the divorce then he was to be sorely mistaken. It was however agreed between them that if Sir Thomas would remain silent on the issue of the divorce then Henry would not involve him. His silence however, would prove to be deafening.

While Lord Chancellor More turned a blind eye to the divorce in favour of eradicating the Lutheran heresy from England the King’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell was busying himself unpicking the very fabric of Papal authority in the country.

The ambitious Cromwell who had learned the dark arts of good governance as secretary to the master himself Cardinal Wolsey, was in fact one of those very heretics whom Sir Thomas More was burning at the stake. He was a Protestant and denied the authority of the Pope but he was cynical and pragmatic enough to remain circumspect about such things, for now. It was he who put it to Henry that as the divinely appointed King of England he need not seek permission of the Vatican to annul his marriage – he could award himself the divorce. Henry, nervous of excommunication and of imperilling his soul had yet to be convinced but he did little to impede Cromwell in his endeavours.

Working closely with the Boleyn family chaplain Thomas Cranmer and with the support of Anne herself, who had earlier presented Henry with a copy of the Protestant reformer William Tyndale’s ‘Obedience of a Christian Man’ which advocated for the Divine Right of King’s over and above the authority of the Pope, Cromwell was bit by bit legitimising the future break with Rome.

Anne, who kept a copy of a Tyndale Bible on a lectern in her Bedchamber and insisted her ladies-in- waiting read aloud a passage from it every day, formed, along with both Cromwell and Cranmer, an influential triumvirate of Protestant reformers at the heart of English governance – just how influential was yet to be seen.

In the meantime, Henry’s attitude towards Catherine hardened no doubt encouraged by Anne who didn’t merely consider the Queen an impediment to her own ambitions but had learned to dislike her intensely ever since serving as her Maid of Honour. She considered her proud, obstinate, dull, and resented her piety. She wanted her out of the way and cajoled Henry night and day into breaking completely with his Queen forcing him to deprive Catherine of her rooms at Greenwich Palace before in the winter of 1531 notifying her that she was no longer to attend Court. Instead, she was to remain at More Manor House in Rickmansworth some twenty miles from London.

Catherine wrote of her despair to Charles V in Vienna:

“My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the King’s wicked intention, the surprises which the King gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine.”

With Catherine removed from his presence Henry declared himself separated from his Queen and began to live openly with Anne.

On 1 September 1532, Henry made Anne Marquess of Pembroke while her father became Earl of Wiltshire, her brother George, Viscount Rochford, her sister Mary was provided with a pension, and other members of the Boleyn family were similarly rewarded.

That autumn, in what could be considered her first official engagement alongside the King she accompanied Henry to Calais for a meeting with the French King Francis I. She performed her role impeccably, she was elegant, gracious, conversed with nobles, debated with clerics, met with ambassadors, and King Francis was happy to call her Majesty.

She was every inch the Queen, except she wasn’t Queen – but that would soon change.

Soon after their return to England, Henry and Anne were married in secret. Upon discovering she was pregnant Anne insisted that the marriage service be repeated and so on 23 January 1533, a second wedding ceremony took place in London as revealed by Thomas Cranmer in a letter to his friend Archdeacon William Hawkins just prior to the coronation:

“But now, Sir, you may not imagine that this coronation was before her marriage; for she was married much around St Paul’s Day last, as the condition thereof doth well appear, by reason she is now somewhat big with child.”


On 23 May 1533, a special Court was convened at Dunstable Priory under the auspices of the recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer to pronounce upon the validity of the King’s marriage to Queen Catherine. Henry would not on this occasion make the case for the divorce himself, although Catherine was summoned to attend as the old arguments were trundled out once again even if this time the testimony taken wasn’t intended to lay bare the facts but merely to prove that due process had been undertaken.

Little time was required to pass a verdict that had long been pre-determined – the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled on the grounds that it was contrary to the law of God and the law of the land. Three days later Cranmer made public the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and declared it legal.

After seven long years of fraught courtship and interminable legal wrangling Henry had at last triumphed and Anne Boleyn was his Queen, but what had taken so long to put together would prove much easier to tear asunder.











Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On the morning of 19 February 1945, men of the United States Marine Corps landed on the small island of Iwo Jima, an eerie place, flat and almost featureless, of hard basalt and volcanic ash 750 miles south-east of mainland Japan which as part of the Home Islands defensive perimeter had become a honeycomb of tunnels, underground lairs, and deeply entrenched gun emplacements.

It was dominated at its southern end by Mount Suribachi, 528 feet at its highest elevation and from where the Japanese could observe everything for miles around.  As such, it became an early target for U.S Forces; but Iwo Jima would prove a tough nut to crack and the fight for its possession would soon descend into another of the attritional and bloody battles that marked the war in the Pacific out from other campaigns. Unlike those that went before however, it would provide one of the most iconic and enduring images of warfare the world had ever seen.

As a result of a daring raid by 40 men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment led by Lt Harold Schrier, on 23 February, just four days after the battle for the island had begun the summit of Mount Suribachi was taken.

Despite its slopes having yet to be cleared of the Japanese and it being far from secure when at around 10.20 am the Stars and Stripes was raised by Schrier and Sergeants Oliver Hanson and Ernest Thomas along with the assistance of others it was to the cheers of those Marines already on the island and a discordant cacophony of wailing sirens from the ships offshore.

Although there were photographers present they had not captured the moment in quite the right way and the flag was also too small to add the drama required so these were not the men who were to be lionised in the press, immortalised on the silver screen, or cast in bronze at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It was not their image that would circulate around the world.

The flag used wasn’t clearly visible from every part of the island, and it was in any case rumoured that the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal who witnessing events had been so fired by patriotic zeal that he not only agreed to the flag being replaced with a larger one but wished to keep the original as a souvenir.

The Commanding Officer present Colonel Chandler Johnson ordered a more suitable flag be found and one was quickly retrieved from a destroyer moored offshore. Taken to the summit of Mount Suribachi the new flag replaced the old as the process of raising it was replayed. It was no big deal, when the Stars and Stripes had first been seen fluttering in the breeze and dominating the skyline of the yet to be conquered island fortress it was of profound significance, this was merely a cosmetic exercise, a tidying up, or so it seemed, but war brutal and savage though it be is accompanied by a nobility and glory that also cannot be denied and in which symbolism plays a pivotal role, and so it would prove.

As the second flag was being raised it was captured in the lens of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal who was standing nearby. The image that emerged was so striking it has been rumoured ever since that the event was staged, something he always denied:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera around and shot the scene. That’s how the picture was taken.” 

It soon became clear that Rosenthal had captured a moment that would echo down the ages for it was more, much more, than the mere depiction of weary and bedraggled troops engaged in a morale boosting exercise, the flag  was a symbol of liberation planted firmly upon the soil of the oppressor, it was liberty triumphant and tyranny vanquished, it was the reason they were fighting; and as the image which appeared in the American newspapers over the next few days circulated more widely the world sat up and took notice. But while Rosenthal would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his endeavour three of the men who had raised the flag, U.S Marines Harlan Block, Michael Strank, and Franklin Sousley would be killed in action.

The surviving members of the flag raising team identified as U.S Marines Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and Navy Corpsman John Bradley were ordered back to the United States where hailed as heroes and feted by the great and the good they were to help with the War Bonds Drive.

Upon their return to America, Rene Gagnon, who had been instrumental in finding a replacement flag but had arrived fairly late at its actual raising and so could not be absolutely certain who was present, misidentified one of those who appeared in the photo as Hank Hansen who had indeed helped raise the original flag, rather than Harlan Block.  It was a genuine mistake but one that greatly angered Ira Hayes who disliked Gagnon and did not trust his motives.  When he reported the mistake to the military authorities however, he was told to remain silent on the issue as the names had already been released to the public. When he confronted Gagnon hoping to elicit his support in correcting the error his apparent indifference only angered him further.

Differences in character alone would have perhaps been enough to engender a degree of antagonism but it may have been made worse by a broken promise from Gagnon not to reveal Hayes as one of the men who had raised the flag, though under pressure he would have had little choice but to do so. Regardless, it did little to cement a bond of trust between the two men.

No doubt Hayes was genuine in his desire that due credit be given to those who deserved it but there is little doubt that his personal animosity towards Gagnon also played a role.

But in the midst of war people care little for  minutiae preferring instead the broad narrative sweep and to the American people the survivors  of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the men in the picture, were everything their country epitomised and stood for, and they wanted to join in and celebrate their heroism.

On 20 April, to great fanfare Gagnon, Hayes, and Bradley met with the recently installed President Truman at the White House before being sent on a carefully orchestrated whistle-stop tour of the country to raise morale and more importantly sell war bonds making public appearances aplenty, shaking hands, signing autographs, and giving speeches. They even re-staged the flag-raising first for the cameras in Washington DC on 9th May and later on in sold out football stadiums along with a papier-mache mountain accompanied by dramatic music, flashing lights, and fake explosions.  Doing so did not always sit easily with them but men are different and they respond to the same things in different ways. Rene Gagnon appeared to enjoy himself while, John Bradley quietly went about his business. Ira Hayes on the other hand, found all the adulation hard to bear.

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian raised on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona who upon volunteering to fight had been told by a Tribal Elder to be a noble warrior and he was proud of his service as a United States Marine, for him that was enough and he struggled to understand why he should be singled out for praise having merely raised a flag where others had died. He had just been in the right place at the right time that was all. He found the attention intrusive, the praise undeserved, and the cheers rang hollow when he thought of those still fighting.

“I was sick I guess. I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back, much less going to the White House like me.”

He turned to drink to assuage his sense of guilt or at least deaden the pain but it did neither instead becoming such a problem that in late May it saw him removed from the tour and returned to his unit.

Although he may not have considered himself a hero he could still not accept that Harlan Block had been misidentified in the photo as Hank Hansen and remained determined to rectify the matter if only for the sake of his family, and so following his discharge from the Marines in 1946 he journeyed the thousand miles or more from his Reservation to the Block parents home in Texas to inform them that it was indeed their son in the photo.  They were able to use the information he provided to get their son’s participation recognised.

His time away from home did him good in more ways than one for as he complained:

“I kept getting hundreds of letters. And people would drive through the Reservation, walk up to me and ask, are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.” 

In the meantime, his addiction to alcohol worsened and it was only with great reluctance that he attended the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial on 10 November 1954, at which President Eisenhower and leading members of the military would be present. It was further evidence if any were needed, that the flag raising was part of his life now, that it had become folklore, and that it could only be ignored at best but never avoided.

Pictured sitting uncomfortably between Bradley and Gagnon he appeared bored by the proceedings and following a brief, somewhat faltering conversation with Vice- President Richard Nixon he declined to attend the reception held in their honour and left.

On the morning of 24 January 1955, barely two months after his last public appearance, Ira Hayes was found dead on a patch of frosted waste ground near his home. It seemed that he had collapsed and died of exposure after a night of heavy drinking. He was just 32 years of age.

Ira Hayes had never reconciled himself to his fame or indeed his good fortune. As he remarked:

“How could I feel like a hero when only 5 men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250, managed to escape death or injury.”

Rene Gagnon, an extrovert by nature appeared to have far less of a problem adapting to circumstances and was appreciative of the opportunity to be withdrawn from the front-line and returned home to visit the White House and be lauded and applauded wherever he went.  This was no bad thing but as he was soon to discover celebrity whether borne of trivia or matters of some substance is fickle at best and often fleeting.

He had been buoyed during the War Bonds Tour by all the thanks he had received, promises of assistance should he ever require it, a level of interest from girls that he had never previously known, and the many job offers that came his way. It seemed that he would be well set once the war was over. But it is an eternal truth of conflict that upon its conclusion the first reaction is to flee from its reality and to leave its horrors behind, remembrance comes only later.

The immediate post-war years were to prove tough, the promises made to him weren’t kept, the job offers never materialised. He did in the end find work (if not of the type he had been led to expect) married and raised a family. There is some dispute as to whether he in the end became embittered about the whole affair or thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie but as the years passed he became less inclined to talk about it. He may have done so in time but the reminiscences of an old man were to be denied him. Rene Gagnon dropped dead of a heart attack on 12 October 1979, aged 54.

The third surviving member of the flag raising team, Navy Corpsman John Bradley, hadn’t been in the photograph at all, though this was only verified following a Marine Corps investigation in 2016. He had helped raise the original flag and was present at the raising of the second but as a spectator not a participant. The actual final member of the party misidentified as Bradley was Corporal Harold Schultz who died in 1985 long before his presence was formally acknowledged.

A quiet and reserved man Bradley had proven himself a devoted and brave soldier who had been decorated many times and now he saw it as his duty to promote the War Bonds Drive as one of the flag raisers. After all, if the War Department said he was in that photo then he was in it even if he knew he wasn’t. But it would seem unfair to attach any blame here, none of the participants benefited much from their fleeting brush with fame.

It is likely that both John Bradley and Ira Hayes were suffering from some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which cannot be entirely ruled out for Rene Gagnon either.  In the case of Bradley, he was haunted all his life by the fate of his best friend Ralph Ignatowski who had been captured by the Japanese and brutally tortured to death; the thought that had he been there for his friend it may not have happened never left him.

Having married and raised a large family he also became a successful businessman and respected member of the community in his hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin.  His exploits were well known but he nonetheless declined to speak of his wartime experiences despite repeated requests to do so, which was perhaps understandable.

Navy Corpsman John Bradley died on 11th January 1990, aged 70, following a stroke.

The image of the Stars and Stripes being raised atop Mount Suribachi has a resonance that endures, perhaps it always will; but those who were its inspiration were flesh and blood infused with the spirit of humanity that for all its flaws make such things possible.










Galileo: An Inquisitive Mind

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, then part of the Florentine Republic, on 15 February, 1564, the eldest of six children. Raised a devout Catholic (he was to remain one for the rest of his life) he briefly considered joining the priesthood but it provided little opportunity for self-expression, and none at all for the inquiring mind; and so, in part to satisfy his father, in 1581 he enrolled at the University of Pisa to study medicine but this was a profession that had barely advanced since the days of Hippocrates. Its study bored him and his mind often strayed to other things, things that he saw and wanted to explain. Once, witnessing a chandelier swaying in the breeze he noticed that it took the same time to complete its course regardless of whether it travelled on a wide or narrow arc. It intrigued him and he persuaded his somewhat reluctant father to allow him to study mathematics and natural philosophy instead.

Galileo flourished in academia, despite the curriculum at most Italian Universities restricted to that considered acceptable by the Jesuits with study contrary to their prohibitions being unwise and ill-considered; nonetheless he didn’t feel over inhibited and while at Pisa invented a forerunner of the thermometer and published a number of scholarly works on the dynamics of motion.

In 1592, he moved to Padua, a place less under the influence of the Jesuits and where appointed chair of mathematics he was able to discourse on a wide range of subjects free of interference.

He soon established himself as a man of letters but he was no mere theorists or book bound academic, he was a practical man who believed in practical experiment and observable fact.  In Galileo’s world something which could be understood should be known about. If the mind was his weapon of choice then society was his battleground and of uneven temper and lively personality he became animated in the company of others, often unbearably so.  Intelligent conversation sustained him, good food and wine were a constant companion, and argument an object of pursuit not avoidance.

In one of his frequent visits to Venice he met a young woman, Marina Gamba with whom he soon formed a relationship that saw her move into his house and bear him three children out of wedlock, two daughters and a son. His name did not appear on their baptismal records, the eldest child, Virginia, being described as: “daughter of the fornication of Marina of Venice.”

Following Marina’s death in 1612, Galileo chose not to secure his daughters future himself, but instead commit them both to a convent, their illegitimacy making the dowry he would have to provide upon marriage an expense he wasn’t willing to bear. Whether or not this was an entirely harsh and arbitrary decision it is difficult to ascertain, great honour was attached to those who devoted their lives to God and he may have been influenced by the young women themselves. If so, they had pledged themselves to a hard life, one of toil and prayer.

Yet, and despite, the isolation of convent life Virginia, now Sister Maria Celeste remained close to her father and they corresponded regularly. He does not appear to have been so close to his younger daughter Livia, who became Sister Arcangela, as no record of any discourse between them exists.

In 1608, the Dutch maker of spectacles Hans Lippershey applied for a patent to secure the protection of his ‘perspective glass’ which had a three-fold magnification. The patent was declined but the details of it soon became public leading to further experimentation in its development. Even so, it remained little more than a novelty item but by the following year it had come to the attention of Galilieo:

“During reports of a new invention by a lens maker in Holland, I determined to fashion a device for myself, and was to make a considerable improvement.”

Indeed he did increasing its magnification ten-fold causing a sensation and at the same time making his fortune.

He demonstrated his ‘telescope’ from the top of St Mark’s Tower in Venice and those invited to use it were impressed. It was now possible to see ships on the horizon long before they came within view of the naked eye. For Venice, then one of the leading sea powers in the world and desperate to protect its trade routes, it was a weapon of war, and they not only purchased hundreds of the new eye glass but rewarded its inventor with a life-long pension for his services to the Republic.

It wouldn’t be long before he turned his new telescope to the heavens but first with his financial future secure and his reputation enhanced he would seek the patronage of a great man, and that man was Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence, to whom he wrote repeatedly receiving little in response despite naming the four moons of Jupiter after him and his brothers.

He remained undeterred however, and tried once more this time ensuring his letter was delivered with gifts including one of his famed telescopes:

“It is up to our Sovereign whether I spend the rest of my days here in Venice or return to Florence. If I am to return I desire that Your Highness will give me leave and leisure without my being occupied in teaching. Finally, I desire of His Highness that in addition to the Little Mathematician he will annexe the Little Philosopher.”

But it was more his own research and growing reputation as a man of intellect to compare with any found in Protestant Europe that convinced the Medici family, who considered themselves among the avant-garde in all things cultural and likewise, to embrace him than any special pleading on his part. Having developed a telescope so powerful  that he could study the stars in detail he had made a number of discoveries, not only the four largest moons of Jupiter, but sunspots, and the mountains and valleys that dotted the lunar landscape. Indeed, it was his work in astronomy that made famous, or at least notorious, and for which he was well-rewarded being appointed chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Court of the Medici in Florence. It would also precursor his fall from grace.


The Catholic Church was at war and had been ever since 31 October 1517, when the German theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Church door in Wittenberg. The schism within Christianity that ensued as a result would see Catholic and Protestant in conflict for centuries to come, not just on matters of religion but militarily, culturally and in the realm of science and ideas.

Culturally the Catholic Church flourished, its art and architecture, the propaganda of its day, had no parallel anywhere in the civilised world but in matters of scientific endeavour and advancement it was seen as dogmatic and unenlightened. Religious orthodoxy was to be its chosen weapon of choice not intellectual inquiry, and the Inquisition was to be its enforcer.

Rumours of heresy would dog Galileo all his professional life, as it would anyone who expressed an interest in the heavens and drew conclusions counter to those already determined by the Church.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) had made clear the Vatican’s position regarding dissent:

“To check unbridled spirits the Holy Council decrees that no one relying on his own judgement shall in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions , presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother church, has held or holds.”

The Catholic Church, along with most educated people held to the Aristotelian geocentric view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe something that was proven daily by the rising and the setting of the Sun. Further proof of this was provided by Scripture:

“The Lord set the earth and its foundations, it cannot be moved.” (Psalm 104)

“And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” (Ecclesiastes)

Galileo thought otherwise and shared the opinion of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun which lay at the heart of the universe.

To share the heliocentric view was considered at best an eccentricity common to the untamed mind or at worst a great heresy that denied the veracity of the Bible..

In any case the very idea that the Earth moved was absurd, and certainly at the speeds Copernicus suggested. If that was the case people would not be able to stand up, it wouldn’t be possible to breathe, towers would topple over, bridges would fall down, the seas would swamp the land, and objects would be flying through the air like the rain falls from clouds.

But Galileo knew this wasn’t so and he conducted an experiment to prove it: if one sits upon a horse and drops a ball, it falls straight to the ground but if one rides that horse at a gallop and drops a ball it still falls straight to the ground. It was a ‘thought experiment’ only, he did not have to carry it out, he knew it to be true.

In December 1613, in a discussion with Cosimo de Medici’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, the philosopher Cosimo Boscaglia suggested that even if Galileo’s theory of the Earth’s motion had some validity in science it was still obviously contrary to Holy Scripture. When Benedetto Castelli, who was also present, rushed to his friend Galileo’s defence the Grand Duchess cast doubt on the authenticity of her Court Philosopher’s views by quoting passages from the Bible, in particular the account of Joshua at the Battle of Gibeon when the Lord commanded the Sun, and not the Earth, to remain still.  Surely then, his theory that it was the Earth that moved was contrary to Scriptural teaching not only contradicting the Bible but also by necessity the Word of God.

Although the discussion had been conducted amicably enough and had in no way been accusatory Castelli felt obliged to inform his friend of its content. Galileo incapable of letting sleeping dogs lie in matters of intellectual discourse responded by letter. He agreed that the Scriptures did not err arguing instead that it was they who interpreted them who erred; and that if the science appeared to contradict the Bible then it wasn’t because the science was mistaken but that the Holy Scripture had been wrongly understood, and that all great men of science, their work would not permit them to do otherwise, questioned the literalness of Holy Scripture but this wasn’t to cast doubt upon its validity or dispute as to the existence of God – but to dispute at all with the Church on matters of theology even when it was dressed up as scientific method was a perilous business.

A copy of his letter to Castelli found its way into the hands of the Dominican Friar Niccolo Lorini, a long-time critic of the scientist who now used it to openly attack Galileo finding a willing audience among colleagues who despised his arrogance and the Jesuits who feared his unorthodoxy.

Preached against from the pulpit of Churches the length and breadth of Italy the demand in religious circles that he be investigated for heresy could no longer be ignored.

Under the protection of the Medici the disputatious Galileo felt confident that he could convince the doubters in Rome of the veracity of the Copernican theory and he looked forward to meeting with the Grand Inquisitor Roberto Bellarmine, who sixteen years earlier had presided at the trial of Giordano Bruno.

Despite his reputation as an unworldly man of cloth and cloister Galileo had heard that the Grand Inquisitor was also a man of great intellect with a keen interest in astronomy. He looked forward to a lively discussion that would put to rest once and for all the ridiculous allegations of heresy being made against him and had been encouraged in this view by the many positive meetings he’d had with other Cardinals and leading religious and political figures during his stay in Rome.

Galileo was naive in his assumptions however, for whatever the Cardinal’s personal passions in matters of religion he was orthodoxy itself, and there were others who also doubted Galileo’s own powers of persuasion among them the Tuscan Ambassador who wrote to the Medici in Florence:

“Galileo is passionately involved in this fight of his, and he may well get himself into serious trouble along with anyone who shares his views. This business not a joke and the man is staying here under our protection.”

Just three days before he was due to meet with the Cardinal the Holy Office of the Inquisition gathered in the Collegio Romano and voted 11 to 0 to ban the teachings of Copernicus and denounce the theory that the Sun was the centre of the universe as contrary to Biblical teaching and that as a consequence the espousal or repetition of such was an act of heresy.

All of the Polish astronomer’s works were then placed on the Prohibited Books Index.

There was no longer any discussion to be had and when Cardinal Bellarmine, on Pope Paul V’s instruction met with Galileo it was merely to be told of the Inquisitions earlier decision and that he was not to defend Copernicus’s position but to remain silent on the issue and  “to abandon completely the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

In private conversation however, Cardinal Bellarmine had made it clear that the Church was not averse to change but to do so it needed proof, not theory, but physical proof – Galileo was determined to provide that proof.

He believed that he could validate the Copernican view by showing that the tides of the sea were caused by the earth’s rotation, that he failed to do this even to his own satisfaction let alone anyone else’s was not only a personal humiliation for a man who had previously considered himself flawless in such matters but also heaped further suspicion upon his motives for pursuing such research.

Following the failure of his experiments into the mechanics of tidal movements he wisely steered clear of further controversy.

On 8 July 1623, the brief papacy of Gregory XV ended and with it, Galileo hoped, the Vatican’s hostility towards him for the following month the Conclave of Cardinals elected his friend and long-time admirer Maffeo Barberini  as Pope Urban VIII.

Galileo’s daughter Maria Celeste, writing from her convent of San Matteo in Arcetri expressed her delight at the elevation of Barberini and that her father and the new Pope remained friends and were still corresponding:

“Father, the happiness I derived from the letter written to you by the Supreme Pontiff was indescribable. His note so clearly expressed the affection this great man has for you.”

Galileo met with his friend the Pope in the Vatican and it was while strolling through its grounds, admiring its garden, and pointing to the heavens that he sought his permission to write his great book on cosmology. Urban declared that he would not stand in the way of its publication nor would he inhibit the debate on its findings, and as an old friend he assured Galileo that he need not fear of persecution as long as he remained Pope.  But there were caveats; he must write only hypothetically of Copernicus while making clear that his was a theory and no more.  He also demanded that his views as Pope, and therefore those of the Church, were given equal weight and consideration in the text.

Galileo’s dialogue ‘Concerning the Two World Systems’ took five years to write and wasn’t completed until Christmas Eve 1629 but even then he remained wary of making it public despite the Pope’s assurances, and it wasn’t made available until 1632.

Galileo’s reluctance to publish became clear when he was found to have hidden his scientific discourse beneath the thin veneer of a social satire in which the views of the Catholic Church were spoken by a character named Simplicio, or the Simpleton.

To place the words of the Pope in the mouth of an idiot was a step too far and Urban, personally affronted, now came under renewed pressure to prosecute the incorrigible old heretic. Already engaged in the Counter-Reformation, threatened by the Turks in the East and embroiled in the Thirty Years War in the West, he now abandoned his old friend.

In September 1632, Galileo was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani to explain himself. He could either come to Rome of his own volition or be brought to the city in chains. He chose the former but even so delayed his arrival until February of the following year.

Galileo vehemently denied that he had sought to defend Copernicus in his book and had in any way mocked the Church.  He was, he said, a faithful and devout Catholic who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. His book was merely a summation of the geocentric and heliocentric view of the heavens as already expressed, and no more. But it was clear to anyone who had read it that he advocated for the latter and mocked the former.  Galileo declared that if this was so then it was unintentional and regretted that he had written it in such a way that it could be so misunderstood; but at 70 years old, in poor health and threatened with torture he caved in completely.

On 22 June 1633, Galileo appeared before the Inquisition to learn his fate and he cut a sorry figure, aged and stooped his movements were slow and deliberate, his voice weak and faltering, his eyes moist.  He even at times seemed a little confused but if this was exaggerated to elicit sympathy he received none.

Informed that he was ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and guilty of advocating for a theory already found to be contrary to Holy Scripture and in violation of a previous agreement not to do so he was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment in the dungeons  of the Inquisition in Rome. Following intensive lobbying on his behalf by the Medici family he was released into house arrest where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

It had not come easy to the Catholic Church to openly condemn their great man of science and it was perhaps for this reason, and this reason alone that he had avoided torture and a sentence of death, but with his works past, present, and future placed on the banned list (where they would remain for the next 250 years) his career was effectively over.

On 2 April 1634, Maria Celeste died aged 33, she had been her father’s rock in hard times and her loss was a heavy blow for the old man to bear.  Restricted to the confines of his home and receiving few guests he revisited his early work on the laws of motion writing up his notes that had lain dormant for so many years.

Using his invention of the ‘Inclined Plane’ he judged how fast a ball would roll over varying distances as timed by the swing of a pendulum. He measured how in 1 unit of time it would roll 1 unit of distance but in the next unit of time it would roll 3, and then 5, and then 7, and so on.

At the age of 74, by means of his ‘Odd Number Rule’ and resuming the research he had begun as long ago as 1592 when it was said he dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotle’s theory that objects of the same material fell, or travelled through the air at different speeds according to their weight and mass, he had uncovered the rules of acceleration and established a universal law for accurately predicting the motion of objects in the real world. But proscribed throughout Catholic Europe his book ‘The Two New Sciences’ could only find a printer in the Protestant Netherlands where it was published to very little fanfare and achieved only a meagre distribution.

Galileo, who had always enjoyed being the centre of attention, spent his final years in isolation from the literary salons and intellectual soirees he had so often lit up by his presence instead under house arrest complaining to his servants of the cold and the aches and pains of old age.

That was the price he paid for his notoriety, many would rather he’d have paid with his life.

Galileo Galilei died on 8 January 1642, aged 77, repentant only that he may have imperilled his soul.












Churchill’s Darkest Hour

On 9 April 1940, after seven months of inertia referred to disparagingly as the ‘Phoney War’, German forces invaded Norway. In doing so they pre-empted by days Allied plans to do the same, their campaign having been delayed by an unwillingness to breach Norwegian neutrality; the Germans had displayed no such scruples and now those plans had been thrown into turmoil.

Despite some isolated successes bad organisation, poor coordination, and a lack of will soon saw the Allied campaign descend into a chaotic, if deadly, farce. It was still stumbling towards its inevitable denouement  when on 8 May after two days of tense debate in the House of Commons the Labour opposition called for a ‘Division,’ effectively a vote of No Confidence in the Government.

The Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain called upon “my friends in this House to support me” but despite this plea and the comfortable majority he enjoyed he left nothing to chance and imposed a ‘three line whip’ compelling his fellow Conservatives to support him. He was perhaps wise to do so for the previous two days had seen his Government and their handling not just of the Norwegian campaign but the war in general, savaged from every corner of the House.

The military analysts first had their say, now it was the turn of the politicians.

David Lloyd George, the former Prime Minister who had been at the helm for much of the Great War and been such a dominant figure at the Versailles Peace Conference but at 77 years of age was now too often a silent backbencher, was called upon to speak. He did not disappoint:

“This nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of that sacrifice, because there is nothing that can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.”

The Conservative Leo Amery, who had previously been in Cabinet, was no less scathing when looking Chamberlain in the eye and  quoting Oliver Cromwell  he told  him:

“You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

To frequent interruptions and at times howls of derision Winston Churchill wound up the debate with a robust defence of the Government and the person of the Prime Minister denying accusations of timidity and incompetence.

The Chamber had been boisterous and unruly throughout but when it came to the vote the Government won comfortably enough by 281 to 200 but this was misleading and a breakdown of the figures told a very different story with, despite the imposition of the three line whip, 41 Conservative MP’s voting with the opposition and a further 60 abstaining.

As Chamberlain made his way from the House following the vote, still Prime Minister, it was to shouts of – Go, Go Now! Indeed, the criticism of him had been so sustained and so personal that it had made any prospect of his continuing untenable. Yet even with his authority so undermined he remained reluctant to resign and it was only when the Labour Party leadership refused to participate in a Coalition Cabinet led by him that he felt obliged to do so – but who would succeed him?

It was expected to be Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, Lord Halifax, his Foreign Secretary and de facto deputy, but as an architect of Chamberlain’s pre-war policy of appeasement it was rumoured that if appointed the Labour Party would be no more willing to work under him than it had been his predecessor. Halifax also had doubts of his own and was reluctant to take up the reins of power. Indeed, it was said that he would turn pale at the very suggestion, and he was to later remark himself that the thought of it made him feel sick in the stomach.

The only realistic alternative to Halifax however, was First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, a controversial figure who could prove divisive at a time when unity was required above all else; to some he was an insightful early critic of Adolf Hitler who had been right in demanding Britain re-arm in the face of the Nazi threat; to others he was a dangerous maverick, a reckless gambler, and a warmonger who had never been forgiven for his role in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during the previous conflict.

On the evening of the 9th May, Chamberlain met with the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee and his deputy Arthur Greenwood who confirmed they were unwilling to serve in any Cabinet as long as he remained Prime Minister but might consider doing so under another Conservative.

Upon their departure Chamberlain summoned Churchill and Halifax to tell them of his intention to resign. It was clear that the latter was his preferred choice to succeed him and as he spoke to Halifax about doing so Churchill declined to intervene and instead, remaining silent he turned his back on proceedings and stared out of the window.

Halifax’s lack of enthusiasm for the role soon became clear however, and fishing for a reason to rule himself out declared that he could not govern effectively from the House of Lords.

The following morning the 10th May, Neville Chamberlain journeyed to Buckingham Palace to inform a startled King George VI that not only would he publicly announce his resignation that night but that he should invite Winston Churchill to form a new Government.

That same day German forces invaded France and the Lowlands – the Blitzkrieg had begun.

The Allied response to the German attack was both leaden and predictable and there appeared to be a reluctance on the part of the French High Command to commit to battle with the same vigour as they had in the Great War; and so as the German panzers by-passing the Maginot Line swept through the seemingly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, across the Meuse River, and onto Sedan threatening to cut-off the Anglo-French army still entrenched on the Belgium/Dutch border, their response remained confused and uncertain – time was not on the side of the Allies and the situation depreciated rapidly.

On 17 May, just a week after the Blitzkrieg had begun the Netherlands surrendered further undermining Allied plans.

Having lost faith in his French Superiors direction of operations on 25 May Lord John Gort, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, ignored orders to participate in an intended Allied counter-attack south and instead ordered the B.E.F north towards the Channel Ports and possible embarkation on ships provided by the Royal Navy.

To the French his decision was little short of outright betrayal but it had paved the way for the implementation of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France.

Restricted to a narrow corridor leading to Dunkirk, which following the fall of Calais remained the only possible port of embarkation the B.E.F and the French Second Army were hemmed in on all sides and a German breakthrough appeared imminent, hours perhaps, rather than days.

On 28 May, Belgium surrendered creating a gap in the Allied perimeter that had to be hastily filled by the small British rearguard. As the Germans closed in frantic efforts were being made to evacuate as many troops as possible but it was proving painfully slow and no more than 40,000 were expected to be saved.

As events in France unfolded and the prospect of a humiliating defeat loomed large thoughts of how to respond dominated Whitehall – with the bulk of the British Army left to rot in German prisoner-of-war camps surely an armistice and some kind of agreement was the only option, and soon.

On 25 May, Lord Halifax had met with the Italian Ambassador Giuseppe Bastianini in London to discuss the possibility of Italy mediating a settlement to the conflict. Surely Signor Mussolini would want to be seen as peacemaker, once he had secured his own slice of the collapsing French pie, of course.

Halifax certainly wanted him to be so but didn’t commit to anything instead bringing his suggestion before the War Cabinet where he presented it with his wholehearted endorsement. Churchill did not dismiss out-of-hand though he doubted that Mussolini could be anything but Hitler’s stooge.

But then Churchill was in no position to dismiss anything, he had a fight on his hands in France not just with the Germans but his ally to keep them from making a separate peace, and at home merely to preserve his premiership.

Halifax continued to advocate for mediation in a situation that could only end badly for Britain and its Empire, he insisted. If her liberty and independence could be guaranteed then a settlement on the Continent would be acceptable to British interests. Churchill disagreed, a German dominated Europe could never be in British interests, and that to prevent such an outcome had been a primary reason for Britain’s engagement in the Great War.

Churchill adjourned the meeting without a decision to meet with the French Premier Paul Reynaud, the news was not good.  Reynaud was despondent, the military situation was hopeless and there was little desire among the French High Command to fight on. He would never sign a separate peace he told Churchill, but there were those in his Government who would and he doubted he could survive in his post much longer. Churchill, who similarly feared being undermined, did his best to boost Reynaud’s moral:

“We would rather go down fighting than ever be enslaved by Germany.”

But a pledge of ever greater resolve rings a little hollow when your army, its equipment and transportation scattered and strewn for miles around, is being evacuated in some haste from the beaches of a battered and burning coastal town.

A further War Cabinet meeting took place on 27 May, a day that saw only 7,669 men evacuated from Dunkirk and with the likelihood of the perimeter being closed at any moment. But Hitler had already issued the order to halt his panzers preventing the Wehrmacht from pressing home its attack. It would provide the breathing space the B.E.F required to withdraw its troops and get them aboard the ships.

There were 9 Inner and Outer Cabinet meetings between the 26th and 28th May, and with the news from France unremittingly bad the pressure upon Churchill increased with each one.

The Inner Cabinet consisting of Churchill, Attlee, Greenwood, Chamberlain, and Halifax was where the issues were first aired. Churchill could rely upon the support of the Labour members and for the meeting on the 27th he breached protocol by inviting the Liberal Party Leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, a long-term opponent of appeasement, to attend; but he knew their opinions carried little weight within Conservative Party ranks where his real problems lay. There were many still vehemently opposed to him and he knew sought his removal and that if the rejection of Lord Halifax’s proposal  to seek an Italian mediated end to the war compelled him to resign, and if Chamberlain who supported it did likewise, then his premiership was likely to be a very short one indeed – his Government would fall , and Chamberlain for certain remained willing to re-take the reins of power;  and personal ambition aside, the policy pursued in such an event Churchill felt sure, would be a catastrophe not only for Britain and its Empire overseas but also the future of Europe and beyond – the freedom of the world hung in the balance.

It was 4.30 in the afternoon, and the second time the Inner Cabinet had met that day. The first had been to discuss the military situation and had broken up having reluctantly agreed that it was bleak and likely irretrievable. Now they would discuss what to do in the likelihood of defeat and the abandonment in France of most of the B.E.F and almost all of its heavy guns and motorised transport.  Churchill was for continuing the war whether in alliance with France or not and regardless of events. Halifax thought such an option foolhardy at best and again advocated for an armistice to be sought as quickly as possible via a third party (in this case the Italians) and the opening of peace negotiations.  He again put before Cabinet the proposals contained in his Reynaud Memorandum, so-called because it was hoped a settlement could be reached in time to prevent the fall of the French Premier’s Administration.

“If Signor Mussolini will co-operate with us in securing a settlement we will undertake at once to discuss finding a solution to the matters which are of primary concern to Signor Mussolini. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions. If he will state which these are, France and Great Britain will at once do their best to meet those wishes.”

It was appeasement all over again.

Churchill vigorously opposed Halifax’s memorandum – it would be better if France quit the fight altogether than for us to be dragged down with them, and any suggestion that Britain should go cap in hand to the Italians and the tin-pot Mussolini for help would be greeted with scorn by people of every class and from every sphere of public life. In any case, he doubted that the Germans, poised as they were on the cusp of a great victor, would be prepared to listen to any proposal the terms of which might deprive them in any part of its full magnitude.

“Even if we should be beaten, we should be no worse off than if we were to now abandon the struggle.”

Attlee, Greenwood, and Sinclair all spoke in Churchill’s defence indicating their approval of his stance but Halifax reacted angrily:

“The Prime Minister seems to suggest that under no conditions will we contemplate any course of action other than fighting to the finish.”

He then made clear his own position:

“I doubt I will be able to accept the view put forward by the Prime Minister.”

The implication was clear – if the memorandum was rejected then his resignation would almost certainly follow.

Chamberlain, who had remained silent for much of the meeting, now weighed in on Halifax’s side – it was true that with Germany so close to victory any peace proposal would be unlikely to make much headway at this time, but a settlement would eventually have to be found and a lot can change in a week.  All options should therefore be left on the table and as he believed negotiations were still possible the memorandum set forth by the Foreign Secretary was well worth pursuing.

His words too implied resignation and if that were to happen then the next would be his own. He was losing the argument and under this threat backed away a little:

“I will not join with France in asking for terms but if I find terms have been offered I will, of course, consider them.”

It was said with scant sincerity and Halifax suspected such but he clung to the belief that reality would eventually overcome Churchill’s more fantastical visions of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat  or of leading a last ditch defence of British liberties from the steps of 10 Downing Street.

The atmosphere had been tense, the exchanges heated, and voices raised to a level that belied the polite decorum of their surroundings. Churchill remained adamant that the fight must go on while Halifax was both bemused and dismayed by his failure to see that a settlement was the only means to avoid a military catastrophe and possible invasion.

The Inner Cabinet met again the following morning, a day that would see only 17,804 troops rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk. They would meet again that afternoon and tensions remained high as the argument raged back and forth, but still no agreement had been reached. Churchill made his position clear:

“Nations that go down fighting rise again, but those which surrender tamely are finished.”

Both Halifax and Chamberlain wearied of Churchill’s constant references to history, his appeals to past glories, and his emotional rhetoric. If only he would use his brain and think, let his head rule his heart for once.

It failed to break the deadlock, and still a decision had to be made.

But Churchill’s forty years in politics had taught him a thing or two, if you cannot determine you can delay, where you cannot persuade seek to do so elsewhere.

At 7 pm he adjourned the proceedings of the Inner War Cabinet to address a pre-arranged meeting of the Full Cabinet where he appealed directly to feelings of patriotism and in doing so taking their resolve for granted:

“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with that man (Hitler). But it was idle to think, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our disarmament, our fleet, our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up – under Mosley or some such person. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have immense reserves and advantages.

I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long Island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

His peroration complete spontaneous applause broke out, many rose to their feet and cheered others patted him on the back and some would later claim that the National Anthem was sung. Even Churchill, who had intended to manipulate the passions, was astonished by the response. He would later write:

“There occurred a demonstration  which considered the character of the gathering – 25 experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table  and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in those coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.”

Halifax and Chamberlain’s resistance had been broken. Even if they were to resign now, the impact could only be minimal. Churchill, doubting that Halifax could ever live down his reputation as an appeaser considered his political career over and in December 1940, he was replaced as Foreign Secretary by Anthony Eden. Soon after, he was sent to Washington as British Ambassador to the United States where his diplomatic skills could be best utilised while at the same time diminishing his influence at home.

Neville Chamberlain remained in the Cabinet until his death from cancer in October, 1940.

On the 4th June the evacuation from Dunkirk, which had begun with such low expectations, ended in triumph with some 375,000 troops rescued from its harbour and beaches including 228,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force, but this ‘Miracle of Deliverance’ could not conceal what had been a crushing defeat, and neither did Churchill try to do so.

On 4thJune he addressed the House of Commons in a speech that would later be broadcast to the nation:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . .”

He had set Britain on a course of hard graft, blood sacrifice, and great moral integrity that would change the trajectory of world history forever.








Gordon Riots: No Popery!

In 1778, the Whig politician Sir George Savile moved in Parliament his Bill intended to remove some of the penalties imposed upon Catholics still outstanding from previous legislation. For the most part any reforms were insignificant except for the one that would see Catholics who wished to join the army exempt from the requirement to take an oath that was little short of a renunciation of their faith.

Britain was at this time trying to suppress its rebellious American subjects who along with their allies in France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic were threatening to turn a local conflict into a global war. As a result, the nation’s resources were overstretched and it was hoped that Sir George’s planned legislation would provide a much needed boost to recruitment; for this reason alone it was supported by the Ministry of Lord North which saw it passed into law as the Catholic Relief Act.

The passage of the Bill was expected to be controversial, it being so easy to stir up anti- Catholic sentiment in England, but any opposition to it was anticipated to be brief and little more than the usual bellicose hot air. After all, the Jacobite menace had long since been laid to rest and Catholicism in general no longer posed a threat in staunchly Protestant England.

Even so, for an Administration as deeply unpopular as Lord North’s, so regularly criticised and lampooned in the press for its, mishandling of the American Affair, it presented an element of risk.

Sir George had little care for Lord North’s priorities in passing the Bill he was seeking to ease the restrictions placed upon Catholics that prevented them from fully participating in the life of the nation; but for many this was a step too far and set a dangerous precedent which if repeated would see Rome once again with its hands on the throat of English liberty, for all know what Catholicism means – a return to absolutism, the Inquisition, superstition, and auto-da-fe on the streets of English towns and cities. It could not and would not be tolerated and the new legislation would see the revival of the Protestant Association under the leadership of its charismatic if somewhat eccentric new President, Lord George Gordon. He had already fought successfully to prevent the Catholic Relief Act becoming law in mostly Calvinist Scotland and now he would seek to do so in England by bringing his campaign south to London and to the doors of Parliament itself.

Although he was born in London on 26 December 1751, and educated at Eton, Lord George was a Scots nobleman of the Gordon Clan who as a third son and unlikely to inherit chose the Royal Navy for his career, and had already enlisted by the age of 12.

Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant he was never popular with his fellow Officers who thought him not only a little odd but too close to the men to be fully trusted. When in 1773, the First Lord of the Admiralty the Earl of Sandwich refused him command of his own ship he resigned his Commission having received a number of endorsements that suggested a political career beckoned – he was right.

In the General Election of 1774, he was returned as the Member of Parliament for the Constituency of Ludgershall, one of the notorious Pocket Boroughs that were available either for purchase or in the gift of the local landowner or peer.

To suggest that Lord George was a maverick would be to understate it, temperamental and outspoken he was highly critical of the Prime Minister Lord North but no less so of his great rival the Radical leader Charles James Fox. Needless to say it made him beloved of no one a situation little improved by his vocal support for the American Colonists in their struggle against the British Crown.

But by now he had found a cause closer to home.

Popular with the people, whom he was never shy of addressing, as much for his colourful use of the vernacular and unusual demeanour as his views the Authorities always wary of the next charlatan or demagogue attempted to placate Sir George and he was to have several private meetings with the King, that was until George III could bear it no longer and (with some irony given future events) declared him completely mad and banned him from the Royal Court.

London by the 1780’s was already a teeming metropolis, the commercial and financial centre of the world, a place of grandeur and display where a man could make his mark and his fortune; but with over a million people increasing daily its dark alleys and narrow streets were overcrowded, filthy,  and rife with disease.  Drunkenness and licentious behaviour were commonplace and with a thriving criminal underworld violence and disorder only ever simmered beneath the surface.

With little law and order to speak of (there were of course Magistrates, Watchmen, and the recently instituted Bow Street Runners to make arrests but no police presence on the streets)  London was a place of riot waiting to happen, never a case of if but when – it was a city on a knife edge.

The dread of the mob in London was acutely felt and not dissimilar to that expressed by the elite of Rome a thousand years before.  There was a genuine fear that a demagogic figure would rouse the people to such a pitch of venom and hatred, that violence and destruction would be so intense as to be uncontrollable, and would turn its rage not upon property but the Institutions of State and the owners of that property.

Had that figure arrived in the person of Lord George Gordon? It seemed so to some, but not to others.

The Protestant Association had been propagandising for some months with the sermons of popular preachers such as Rowland Hill and Erasmus Middleton well attended and influential. The ground had been well laid, and Lord George now exhorted the people to follow him on a march the centre of power and he demanded they come in their tens of thousands, if not then he wouldn’t march at all and the Jesuits can return with their rosary beads and the rack.

Having assembled at St George’s Fields in Southwark on 2 June 1780, with Lord George at their head some 50,000 people, described as ‘the better kind of tradesperson’ set off in procession for the Houses of Parliament in Westminster intending to lend their support to Lord George as he delivered in person their petition demanding the immediate repeal of the Catholic Relief Act and an assurance from the Government that there would be no further moves towards Catholic Emancipation.

Many of the marchers wore the blue cockade of the Protestant Association in their hats  while others carried flags and banners emblazoned with the words ‘No Popery’ and such like. The mood was boisterous rather than violent but this would change as tens of thousands of ordinary Londoners swelled its ranks and soon it would not be flags waved but effigies being burned that dominated the London skyline.

By the time the marchers neared their destination the column stretched back four miles.

A local storekeeper Ignatius Sancho left us a description:

“At least 100,000 were miserable, ragged rabble from 12 to 60 years of age, besides half as many women and children all parading in the streets, the park, on the bridge, ready for any and every mischief.”

The Parliament Building was largely undefended other than for a few elderly doormen and some of the more aggressive younger Members and so had little choice but to allow Lord George to deliver his petition:

“Lord George came into the House of Commons with an unembarrassed countenance and a blue cockade in his hat, but finding it gave offence he took it and put it in his pocket, but not before a Captain Herbert, one of the Members threatened to pull it out, while Colonel Murray, another Member warned him that should the mob break into the House hr would be the first victim.”

But the crowd increasingly threatening and still swarming around the building did not disperse, neither did Lord George request they should. It was not within his power to do so he would later say, that authority lay elsewhere.

It was in fact the responsibility of Brackley Kennet, the Lord Mayor of London, to read the crowd the Riot Act which declared any assembly of 12 or more people to be unlawful and when called upon must disperse or face punishment. That he did not do so was remiss of him and his negligible grasp of the situation barely improved thereafter.

No doubt fuelled by alcohol (several Gin Houses had already been broken into) the mob now tried to force its way into the Parliament Building and a number of MP’s either trying to enter or exit were dragged from their carriages and roughed up.

The Times Newspaper reported on events:

“They attempted in like manner to force their way into the House of Peers but by the good management of Sir Francis Molyneux and the proper exertion of the doorkeepers the passages from the street door and around the House were kept open.

About ten o’clock the mob made a parade in different directions from the Palace Yard where part of them went to the Roman Chapel in Lincolns-in-Field  where they began to break down the doors, and then pulled down the rails, seats, pews, communion table brought them into the street, laid them against the doors and set fire to them. About eleven o’clock the Guards came and much rioting ensued. They took several of the ringleaders prisoner but with the assistance of the mob they may good their escape.”

The rioting spread rapidly and though much of the violence was random the homes of the rich and powerful soon became targets with those of leading politicians such as the former and future Prime Minister the Marquis of Rockingham, the Duke of Devonshire, the hated Chief Magistrate, the Earl of Mansfield, and indeed Sir George Savile himself, being stoned and having their windows smashed. Some were even burned.

And the violence would not relent over the coming days, if anything it became even more intense with anything that could be identified as Catholic likely to be attacked with more than 100 Chapels and Churches trashed, looted, and torched. Even foreign Embassies such as the Sardinian and Bavarian were besieged as their residents cowered behind their walls in fear of their lives.

The absence of any visible authority on the streets (a small number of arrests were made by the thinly stretched and over-burdened Bow Street Runners but most soon eluded their captors) allowed the mob to act with impunity and 36 major conflagrations were reported to have broken out in London many at the same time with little attempt to douse the flames other than by locals whose own homes were threatened by them.

Some of the worst rioting and incidents of violence occurred in the Moorfields district, one of the few areas of open land in London and home to a great many Catholic Irish immigrants and a place notorious for its brothels, taverns, and as a hiding place for highwaymen and those eluding justice.

Aware they would serve as a magnet for the rioters leading Catholics approached the Lord Mayor pleading for protection but none was forthcoming and as the mob descended many fled leaving their homes to be broken into and ransacked – those who remained were likely to be beaten or subjected to public humiliation.

The city’s prisons, symbols of authority and repression, were also prime targets  and the gates of the King’s Bench Prison, the Clink, and Newgate Gaols  were forced open with more than 300 inmates in Newgate alone being released onto the streets, many of them capital offenders awaiting execution. The building was then virtually demolished and its keys paraded on the end of a pole while scrawled on its walls were the words:

“You have been freed on the authority of His Majesty King Mob.”

The mob rampaged through the streets of London virtually unchecked for five days and it wasn’t until 7 June when they converged upon and threatened to break into the Bank of England that following consultations with the King, Lord North at last ordered troops onto the streets to restore order. They could only do so by opening fire on the crowds and around 450 people were killed and 700 wounded.

The Militia sent to defend the Bank of England was commanded by John Wilkes, the famous Radical MP who had himself ten years earlier been the darling of the mob, now he too ordered his troops to open fire. His popularity never recovered.

The crowds dispersed over the next few days leaving carnage behind them – shops looted, churches burned, homes ransacked, streets in ruins. Some returned home nursing sore heads, others with broken bones and gunshot wounds. Others disappeared back into the London fog laden with booty, some of course never returned home at all.

In the immediate aftermath the Government dismissed the rioters as being the refuse of society and not true Englishmen, they were foreigners, gypsies, vagabonds, beggars, and thieves. Hundreds were arrested and 25 executed, people such as the Jew Samuel Solomon from Whitechapel and the black washerwoman Charlotte Gardiner both hanged for demolishing a house; the street thug William Taplin who extorted money with menaces in the name of the Protestant Association he said, but in truth to line his own pockets; and the ex-soldier William MacDonald who had lost his arm in service to the Crown but was now hanged for damaging property.

But many of those subject to fines, deportation, terms of imprisonment, and worse were respectable in their daily lives and as such less worthy of reporting.

Lord George Gordon, who had not participated in the riots even if some believed he had instigated them, was also arrested and arraigned at the Old Bailey charged with treason.

Incarcerated in the Tower of London  he was shown all the respect due his rank, his cell was furnished to his liking, he ate regularly and well, and he was permitted visitors among them the leading Methodist preacher John Wesley. His connections also ensured that he had the best possible Defense Counsel, a close family friend Lord Erskine who successfully argued during the trial that in delivering a petition to Parliament for the consideration of its Members he could hardly be accused of committing a treasonable act nor could he be held responsible for people whose behaviour he had had at no time incited or encouraged – he was acquitted of all charges.

The man who would be blamed was Brackley Kennet, the Lord Mayor of London who had failed to respond sufficiently to events and was fined £1,000 for criminal negligence.

The riots had to all intents-and-purposes ended Lord George’s political career and over the next few years his behaviour became increasingly erratic. In 1786 he was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his refusal to appear as a witness before an Ecclesiastical Court and a year later fled abroad to avoid arrest for alleged defamation. He was to return but “apprehended in Birmingham in the garb of a Jew with a long beard and having undergone circumcision he had embraced the religion of the unbelievers.”

Lord George was to be sentenced to five years imprisonment, not for his conversion but the charge of defamation outstanding against him which he strenuously denied.

Despite his erratic, some would later say insane behaviour, it still came as a surprise to discover that the former President of the Protestant Association and the man who had been sparked the most serious anti-Catholic riots ever seen in England had converted to Judaism, old friends and colleagues were genuinely shocked:

“Unknown to every class of man but those of the Jewish religion, among whom he has passed his time in the greatest cordiality and friendship . . . he also appears with a beard of extraordinary length, and the usual raiment of a Jew.”

He had not done so on a whim (he was never less than earnest) and in gaol he lived as an Orthodox Jew does following the Dietary Laws as best he could, often without success.

Many of those disappointed that they had lost their champion claimed that he had been bewitched by a Jewess he lived with while abroad, but for all his faults he was never less than sincere.

In January 1793, he was considered for release but the Court would not accept the testimony of the two Jews he had chosen to bear witness on his behalf. His family then offered to pay his bail but Lord George refused their help insisting that to pay for his release would be to admit his guilt, and this he wouldn’t do.

As a result he remained in prison where soon after he contracted typhoid fever.

On 1 November 1793 aged 42, Lord George Gordon still professing the faith of his conversion died.

“Such was the end of a man, once, perhaps, the most popular idol of the mob, and, for some days, the terror of all London.”























Pilgrimage of Grace

By the autumn of 1536 it appeared that the great crises of Henry VIII’s reign were at an end, Katherine of Aragon was dead, Anne Boleyn had gone to the scaffold, the break with Rome had been made, the dissolution of the monasteries was well underway, and his pretty young wife was carrying his future son and heir – but things are not always as they seem.

Henry may have broken with Rome but many of his subjects had not, and certainly not those in the more isolated north of England far removed from the centre of power in London.

Discontent had been growing for sometime, a series of poor harvests had seen prices rise while the passage into law of the Statute of Uses had abolished the device whereby landowners could avoid payments to the Crown by giving away their property to another on behalf of a third party (often the landowner himself or his immediate heir) which had dismayed much of the local gentry.

But hardship in the rural north was hardly unknown and but would rarely lead to the people rising in revolt against their Sovereign Lord. It was the King’s religious policy, and in particular his dissolution of the monasteries, that would prove the final straw.

The Act of Supremacy of 3 November 1534 had declared Henry VIII, Supreme Head of the Church of England and was followed shortly after by the Treason Act which made denial of the Royal Supremacy punishable by death. Although he remained conventionally Catholic in his own religious belief and practice Henry exalted in being Supreme Head of the Church in England as he also did in the policy of his Chancellor Thomas More to dissolve the Monasteries and sell Church property which saw money flood into the royal coffers.

In the 1530’s there were more than 900 Religious Establishments besides Churches and Cathedrals employing around 1 in 50 of the total population and  owning a quarter of all the landed wealth in the country . Much of that wealth would soon belong to the Crown and during Henry’s reign 625 monastic communities would be dissolved.

But many monasteries were central to the everyday life of local people providing a place of refuge, herbal medicines with which to treat a variety of ailments and alms to the poor aside from tending to the spiritual needs of their flock.

It has been suggested that Henry’s religious reforms had been too recent to have had much of an impact but to see their monastery stripped of its silver plate, its holy relics destroyed and its monks cast out before being closed down was a visceral and very real attack upon their way of life; the fact that the men who carried out these acts of vandalism were often reliably Protestant Huguenot refugees from the religious wars in France only alienated the locals further.

Henry would not countenance opposition to his religious reforms however, and when his Queen, the pregnant Jane Seymour, a devout Catholic fell to her knees and protested the closure of the Abbeys he referenced her recently departed predecessor, the beheaded Anne Boleyn, in response:

“Get up, and do not presume to meddle in my affairs. Remember Anne.”  

She never mentioned it again and neither did anyone else in the Royal Court or on his Council.

The discontent of the people found its voice in the figure of a charismatic 36 year old lawyer and Yorkshire landowner Robert Aske, recently returned from the Inns of Court in London who had at last found a cause worth defending in the religion of his youth.

The first indication of trouble occurred further south however, in Lincolnshire, when on 1 October 1536 people protested the dissolution of Louth Park Abbey preventing the Government Commissioners from carrying out their assignment. Encouraged by their success they now issued a series of demands including a return to the Old Faith, the protection of their Churches, the execution of heretics, and that ever-present in any protest, no new taxes in peacetime.

The response when it came was in the form of a proclamation demanding that they disperse or be made to do so by the forces of Sir Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. It is doubtful if Sir Charles had the means to enforce such an order but as it turned out the threat alone proved enough.

The disturbance in Lincolnshire may have passed off peacefully (though its leaders were later executed) but the discontent that had caused it remained, and a week later a more substantial rising erupted in Yorkshire that would not only continue to gather support but appeared to have an agenda that went beyond merely demanding that the religious reforms be reversed for they also threatened to march on London, purge the Royal Court of evil counsellors, and perhaps in time even depose the King himself – it became known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ and it could not be tolerated.

On 13 October, with Robert Aske at their head a crowd of some 10,000 people marched upon York and occupied it. In no time at all, the entire county and for miles around had rallied to his cause and he could soon call upon an army of 50,000 men all armed and willing to follow his lead. He also had the support of many local gentry some of whom had military experience and were to take positions of command.

But it was Robert Aske who led, it was he who provided the revolt with its ceremonial name the Pilgrimage of Grace and its banner of the ‘Five Wounds of Christ’ which the rebels not only carried before them but wore as patches on their clothes.

In Durham Cathedral he addressed his followers:

“We intend to go to London on pilgrimage to the King, to have all the vile blood put from his Council and noble blood set up again, to have the faith of Christ  and all God’s laws kept, and to have restitution for all the wrongs done to the Church.”

It was the most serious crisis of Henry VIII’s reign and he reacted to it with firmness ordering Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, to suppress the revolt immediately – but this was easier said than done.

Even with the support of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, the Duke of Norfolk was only able to muster around 10,000 men and many of these had been drawn from the area now in revolt and could not be relied upon. He was unwilling to confront Aske under these circumstances and wrote to the King detailing his plight.

Henry broiled with frustration but unable to provide any immediate support he granted Norfolk permission to at least play for time and open negotiations with Aske. In the meantime, he would write in person to the rebels, first admonishing them for their disloyalty before adopting a more conciliatory tone and addressing some of their grievances:

“First, as touching on the maintenance of the faith we declare and protest our self to be he that always do and have minded to die and live in the purity of the same. Marvelling not a little that ignorant people will take upon them to instruct us, which something have been learn to be noted, what the right faith should be.

Concerning choosing of Counsellors I have never read, learned, heard, nor known, that a Prince’s Counsellors and Prelates should be appointed by rude and ignorant common people.

Wherefore we let you whit, ye our subjects of Yorkshire, to the intent that you all shall know what our princely heart rather embraces pity and compassion of his offending subjects than will to be avenged for their naughty deeds. That we are contented , if we may see all a sorrowfulness for your offences and will henceforth to do no more so, to grant until you all our letters patent of pardon for this rebellion.”

Following the receipt of the King’s letter on 13 November 1536, negotiations opened between Robert Aske and the Duke of Norfolk who repeated the promise of pardon to all who participated in the rebellion before agreeing that a parliament would be held in York to settle all grievances.  He then presented Aske with the King’s invitation to spend Christmas with him and the Royal Court at Greenwich Palace.  Flattered, he readily agreed.

During his brief stay in London Robert Aske was wined, dined, pampered and praised for both his sincerity and his resolve. He even received gifts from his host. In return he swore unswerving loyalty to the person of His Majesty the King.

Aske returned north convinced of the King’s good grace and understanding. He reassured his followers that all would be well and that they could return home confident England would once again embrace the old ways.

In February 1537, a rebellion similar to that in Yorkshire and led by Sir Francis Bigod erupted in Cumberland and elsewhere in the north-west. They petitioned Aske for support but instead received a letter urging restraint:

“Neighbours, I do much marvel that you would assemble yourselves with Bigod seeing how earnestly the King’s Highness extended general pardon to all in this north. I hear you were forced to assemble by his threats and menaces, I shall declare this to the King, and fear not but that you will have his Grace’s pardon notwithstanding.”

Without Aske’s support Bigod’s insurrection in Cumberland was easily crushed and the repression that followed harsh regardless of promises made to the contrary; a lesson that seems to have been lost on Aske for when soon after he was once more invited to London he again agreed, whether he did so with trepidation we do not know but it seems not just foolish but reckless to have done so.

Seized upon his arrival he was taken to the Tower of London to await trial charged of treason.

The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and Aske knew it, but whereas he could make his peace with God and reconcile himself to his fate the means by which it was to be carried out filled him with dread. He wrote to the King begging to be spared the punishment reserved for traitors of being hung, drawn, and quartered. Henry, perhaps disturbed by his own duplicity relented but the means of execution devised in its stead was no less harsh.

Robert Aske was returned to York where on 12 July 1537, dressed in rags he was tightly bound in chains, hanged from a scaffold on Clifford’s Tower, and left to die an agonising death.

Having used the time bought by negotiating with the rebels to build up his own forces the King’s vengeance would have no mercy. He wrote to the Duke of Norfolk:

“Our pleasure is that dreadful execution be done on a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet that have offended in this rebellion, as well as by the hanging of them up on trees as by the quartering of them, and the setting of their heads and quarters in every town great and small as there may be as a fearful spectacle to all others thereafter that may practice any like matter, which we require you to do without pity or respect.”

The Duke of Norfolk followed the King’s instructions to the letter and although exact figures of those who fell victim to the King’s vengeance remains unknown (in Bigod’s much smaller rebellion 216 people are recorded to have been executed) gibbets littered the Yorkshire landscape for many months to come.

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547, to be succeeded by his nine year old son Edward VI under whom the Protestant Reformation continued apace and which even under the brief reign of his Catholic sister Mary, could not be reversed.









Francisco Pizarro and the Conquest of the Incas

Francisco Pizarro was born in 1474, in the town of Trujillo Caceres in Spain, the illegitimate son of an Army Officer and a woman of no background;  likely an unwanted child scant attention was paid to him and he had no formal education to speak of remaining barely literate for the rest of his life.

As a boy he worked tending to the swineherd and was later taken to the Italian wars by his father who though a Colonel did nothing to promote his son’s interests. He returned home no doubt better for the experience, but with nothing else to show for it other than the reputation as a good soldier.

Uneducated, landless, and always short of money his prospects in the inhospitable and barren wastes of Extremadura were bleak indeed yet despite the lack of opportunity and the hard scrabble just to get by, it wasn’t until November 1509 that he volunteered for an expedition to the New World by which time he was already in his mid-thirties – he had decided late in life to make his fortune. It wouldn’t come easy but loyal, capable, and diligent he laboured day and night to succeed and by 1519 was both Mayor and Chief Magistrate of Panama City.

He had also worked hard to amass a small fortune in partnership with long-time associate Diego de Almagro who unfortunately spent money as earnestly as he tried to save it, but first and foremost a soldier Francisco needed his business partner.

Like many others Pizarro had been excited by the exploits of his cousin Hernan Cortes who in 1521 had overcome the Aztec Empire. He believed he could emulate him at the very least, and he knew where.

The fabulous riches of the Incas had long been rumoured but it was a remote place, the terrain difficult, and its people many and warlike. Even so, Pizarro would do as he cousin had done and conquer these Incas and their fabled land of treasure and gold. But such things are always easier said than done, first he required permission to do so and then he had to raise an army and provide for that army.

His partner Diego de Almagro would be responsible for recruitment while the priest Hernando de Luque would raise funds and purchase provisions. Pizarro would lead the expedition once he had received approval from the Governor of Panama Pedro Arias Davila.

In November 1524, with 80 men and 40 horses he set off to conquer the Inca Empire. It was not a success and they did not get far. Battered by storms, harassed by the natives, and close to starvation they never even reached Peru before returning to Panama somewhat shamefaced but nonetheless undaunted.

On 10 March 1526, he set sail from Panama once more this time with fewer horses but twice the number of men but though this Second Expedition would range far and wide and lay much of the groundwork for what was to come as far as conquest and plunder were concerned it was barely more successful than before except for the seizure of a small craft carrying a little gold and some jewels.

The new Governor of Panama Pedro de los Rios was unimpressed and refused to re-supply the expedition as promised and despairing of Pizarro instead sent ships under the command of Juan Tafur to bring them back.

With Pizarro no nearer reaching his objective and frightened by lurid stories of the vast and savage Inca Army that awaited them, most of his soldiers many of whom were little better than thieves and vagabonds wanted nothing to do with it. When Tafur arrived declaring his intention to return them to Panama they gathered on the beach in anticipation of doing so but Pizarro stood aside from them and drawing a line in the sand pointed at it with his sword telling them:

“On this side lies Peru with its riches. Here Panama with its poverty. Choose each man what becomes a brave Castilian, choose whether to return to Tafur or remain with me, for I go south”

Pizarro’s words failed to inspire for only thirteen of his men chose to remain but they would soon become known as the ‘Famous Thirteen’ for each one of them would be with him on the day he conquered the Inca Empire.

In the meantime, Pizarro continued on his way reaching Peru for the first time in April 1528 and though he didn’t penetrate far he was surprised by the welcome he received. The people were friendly, they presented him with gifts, they afforded the strangers hospitality, and they regaled them with tales of the rich land that lay beyond and the great city of Cuzco ruled by its mighty Emperor. He learned a great deal and did not see in these people the fierce warriors he had been told about, they were soft they could be bullied and intimidated. He returned to Panama enthused and determined to try again convinced that he would succeed a third time. It was not a view widely shared.

Pizarro’s aspirations suffered a setback when Pedro de los Rios refused to sanction a Third Expedition – his plans to conquer Peru were a private business venture and not one he was undertaking either for the Greater Glory of God or in the name of the King. But Pizarro was a grizzled old campaigner, as tough as old boots, and wasn’t about to give up now. His time might not come again. It was agreed with his business partners that he should return to Spain and approach the King directly.

His ship docked in Seville in the early summer and arrangements were made for a meeting with King Charles V at the Royal Court in Toledo. He arrived prepared with gifts of the fine cloth and gold that had been seized earlier from the Inca craft and a Llama for its novelty value. Cortes was also present to put in a good word for his cousin and remind all concerned of what was possible.

Little of the above was required for Charles could not have been more enthused at the prospect of more gold and more land, and so on 6 July 1529 the Capitulation of Toledo granting Pizarro the rights to conquer Peru was signed by Queen Isabella in the King’s absence.

Pizarro had been appointed Governor of any territory he might conquer with full authority to act as he thought proper which displeased his business partner Almagro, as also did his recruitment of his brothers and other assorted relatives to positions of command creating a close knit family unit to the exclusion of others.

Despite Royal endorsement the money did not exactly flood in and when the expedition sailed from Spain for the New World it consisted of just three small ships, 180 men, and 27 horses.  He had however, been provided with the funds to recruit a further 100 men along with arms and provisions upon arrival.

On 27 December 1530, Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama bound for Peru but as the Conquistadores dreamed their dreams and made slow progress the Incas were engaged in a vicious civil war between the Emperor Huascar and his younger brother Atahualpa.  By the summer of 1532 Atahualpa had emerged victorious and with Huascar dead and most of his army advancing on Cuzco, Atahualpa along with 6,000 men celebrated his triumph by taking the waters at the spring town of Cajamarca.

In September 1532, Pizarro, who had established the first Spanish settlement in Peru just a few months earlier, set out with 168 men and 62 horses to find him.

Atahualpa was aware of the Spanish presence and appeared little bothered by it sending couriers to Pizarro inviting him to visit his camp. Fearing a trap, on 15 November he sent his brother Hernando and 35 horsemen with greetings for the Inca Emperor.

When Hernando met with Atahualpa he was sat upon a litter fanned by servants and surrounded by a great many warriors, nervous and on edge he refused to dismount and instead addressed the Inca Emperor from the saddle:

“We have come O Mighty Prince in the name of a still Mightier Monarch across the great waters who having heard of you and your magnificent country has been moved to send this embassy in order to cultivate your friendship and to impart too you the doctrines of the only true faith which we profess and without which you and your subjects will be condemned to flames everlasting. We also come with an invitation from our Commander who would be pleased to have you visit him. We await your orders.”

Atahualpa declined to catch the Spaniards eye and a long silence followed before Hernando added – we await your reply. Eventually Atahualpa did reply:

“This is a fast day and I must keep it but tomorrow I will visit your Commander and let him know of my pleasure, meanwhile let him occupy the buildings on the plaza until I come.”

No doubt having been told by his cousin Cortes of the Aztec fear of horses the finest horseman among them rode at pace towards the Incas making his horse rear and snort in a deliberate act of intimidation but Atahualpa did not flinch and in an act no less intended to intimidate he ordered that a number of those from his entourage who had displayed fear to be executed on the spot before the Spaniards eyes.

Atahualpa was not afraid of the strangers and unlike the Aztecs he did not believe them to be Gods. His Ambassador who had spent two days in the Spanish camp had witnessed both them and their animals sicken and die – and they were so few. He had a vast and victorious army that would crush, kill, and enslave them all, except for the three who would be singled out for castration first because they were possessed by evil spirits that had to be freed: the man who made their weapons, the man who cared for their horses, and the barber for he made their faces shine and revived them.

But that night Pizarro was also making plans of his own; the few small cannon he had and his musketeers would be concealed in the buildings and aimed at the Inca army. His cavalry, the horses necks draped with bells to increase their terrible aspect would charge from the front, the infantry from both flanks, and they would attack with fury, no lives would be spared. Pizarro would head straight for Atahualpa.

But the atmosphere that night was tense and as darkness fell they prayed together, many thought for the last time:

“Fear lies on the men like a black blanket, everyone can now see the madness of this enterprise, all know only a miracle can save us, and we doubted Heaven thought us worthy of a miracle.”

Atahualpa arrived at the Spanish encampment shortly before dusk carried on a litter with four other Lords also carried on litters accompanying him. They were all dressed in ceremonial robes adorned with gold and jewels. The Inca army vastly outnumbered the Spaniards but they were poorly armed with wooden clubs, stone hatchets, slings, and bows the arrows of which though often tipped with poison, were made of flint or even fish scales that could not penetrate Spanish armour.

As Atahualpa entered the plaza of Cajamarca there was no one present to greet him and it seemed for a moment that the strangers had fled but soon a lone man advanced towards them accompanied by an interpreter. It was the Dominican Friar Vicente de Valverde carrying his Bible.

In plain robes he made a poor impression as he invited Atahualpa to enter one of the houses to meet with Pizarro. This was not how you greet an Emperor and so Atahualpa declined demanding instead that the strangers must present themselves before him. Moreover, he had received reports they had taken things that did not belong to them, they must return these things.

Ignoring Atahualpa’s request Valverde now began to lecture him on the One True God. It was long-winded and tiresome and of no interest to the Inca Emperor who interrupted to him state that no one cared for this mysterious truth when the Sun God was present for all to see. He asked to know the authority for what he said?  When Valverde replied that it was the Bible he held in his hand Atahualpa asked to see it. Valverde passed it to one his servants who presented it to the Emperor.

Atahualpa studied it for a moment before declaring “There is no magic in this, it does not speak to me,” throwing it upon the ground.

This was the moment Pizarro had been waiting for, he ordered his gunmen to open fire and his cavalry and foot soldiers to emerge from their concealment and charge:

“Now our troops burst out from all the gates and fell upon the defenceless Indians yelling, they cut the unarmed Indians with their swords as if they were carving loaves of bread. It was an atrocious slaughter.”

The noise and the smoke and the dust kicked up by the horses terrified the Incas who began to flee in panic as the Spanish cut and sliced their way through them. Pizarro attacked Atahualpa directly killing his entourage and overturning his litter before roughly dragging him into one of the house where he was stripped of his jewels and fine robes.

The large Inca army had fled without putting up any resistance and no Spaniard had been injured despite killing many hundreds. Even so, Pizarro established a defensive perimeter and posted guards should they return.  In the meantime, the naked Atahualpa was provided with some coarse cloth and forced to dine with Pizarro who told him that he not only owed him his life but was now his prisoner.

The following day the Spaniards looted the Inca camp returning laden with precious booty.

Noticing the fever of excitement that gripped the Spaniards at the sight of gold Atahualpa now made a remarkable proposal. In return for his freedom he would fill the room they were in with gold and silver as high as he stood, and not only that he would do so within two months. Pizarro was sceptical but if that’s what he said then so be it – he agreed.

Atahualpa would prove as good as his word, Pizarro would not.

Orders were given for Inca officials to gather all the gold and silver they could find in whatever form, goblets, plates, ornaments, jewellery, trinkets, and bring it to Cajamarca. Spaniards who were despatched to supervise the shipments often stole what they had been sent to protect and both robbery and murder became commonplace.

The conquest of an Empire would be put on hold while the Conquistadores enriched themselves which, despite their repeated and pious declarations to the contrary, was why they were there.

Indeed, the more gold they found the greedier they became and Pizarro was aware of the rumour  circulating among his men that he had struck a deal with Atahualpa to keep secret the locations of where more could be found and so deprive them of their share. Atahualpa then had become a liability in more ways than one, and if he believed that delivering upon his side of the bargain would secure his freedom then he was sadly mistaken, it would not even save his life.

The vast Inca Army estimated at more than 50,000 strong had not been defeated in battle and it was assumed at some point it would seek to free its Emperor. Despite the arrival of Diego Almagro in February 1533 with a further 150 men and 60 horses the Spaniards still felt vulnerable and lived in constant fear of ambush.

It was Almagro who insisted that as long as he lived he would be the focus of resistance, and  as such Atahualpa must die. Pizarro was yet to be convinced while many of the leading Captains believed it dishonourable to renege upon a bargain agreed in good faith.

Pizarro also knew that it was not for a man of his lowly status to pass judgement upon Kings, even those of the savage heathen, only a King can kill a King; but Almagro had spread his poison and unnerved his men and as the old Conquistador knew well enough, it was rarely detrimental to rid oneself of an enemy.

On 26 July 1533, he had Atahualpa tried before a hastily convened Court on charges of idolatry, murder, and treason. The verdict was never in doubt and found guilty he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

The prospect of being burned alive, horrified Atahualpa, and it was agreed with the priest Valverde that should he convert to Catholicism an alternative means of execution might be found. Atahualpa agreed to do so and following his baptism and a perhaps an ill-chosen change of name to Francisco he was garrotted to death in the main plaza of Cajamarca later that same day.

The Inca Emperor’s execution on what were clearly trumped up charges upset some of the Captains who wrote to Charles V in Madrid expressing their dismay prompting the King to reproach Pizarro:

“We have been displeased by the death of Atahualpa, since he was a Monarch, and particularly since it was done in the name of my justice”

For a time at least Pizarro feared being recalled to Spain to account for his actions.

Following his execution  Atahualpa’s younger brother Tupac Hualpa was chosen to replace him but he died soon after in October 1533. The Spaniards who had not even yet begun to advance upon Cuzco required a compliant Vassal who would nonetheless command the respect of the Inca people. They alighted upon yet another brother Manco, who they believed had opposed Atahualpa during the civil war.

Francisco Pizarro entered Cuzco on 15 November 1533, there was no resistance. In a little over a year he had deposed a mighty Emperor with fewer than 200 men and conquered an entire Empire with a mere 500. He dictated a letter for the King in Spain:

“This city is the greatest anywhere in the Indies. I can assure your Majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be unparalleled even in Spain.”

It was a remarkable triumph, greater even perhaps that that  achieved by his cousin Cortes but his admiration  for the aesthetic qualities and fine architecture of his conquest did not prevent the Spanish from setting about with relish what they seemingly did best – pillage. The palaces and temples of Cuzco were ransacked, it was said that even the graves were dug up so their occupants could be stripped of valuables. Pizarro had ordered that private dwellings be left unmolested so as to not unnecessarily rile the people and that all the treasure seized be handed into appointed officials. Both orders were largely ignored.

Not long after his triumphal entry into Cuzco, Pizarro set off in pursuit of Quizquiz whose large army had remained loyal to Atahualpa. Manco was forced to accompany him and his close knit cabal of family members but in regards to Quizquiz he was happy to do so for his men were from Quito, Atahualpa’s hometown, and his sworn enemy.

Manco would prove to be of great assistance in tracking down and defeating Quizquiz but he received little thanks. In fact, the Pizarro brothers treated him appallingly humiliating him at every opportunity. Gonzalo Pizarro even raped his wife.

The ill-treatment was so severe that in November 1535, he tried to escape but recaptured was briefly imprisoned until released on the promise that he would retrieve for them a solid gold statue that had belonged to his father. Escorted by just two Spanish guards this time he did escape.

At liberty once more Manco returned to Cuzco where he summoned the Inca leaders to a secret meeting in the Temple of the Sun God.:

“I have summoned you all here because we all now clearly know who these strangers really are. They are not worthy people sent by the Gods but children of the devil. We have endured a thousand insults and they have treated us like dogs while swearing to be our friends. Now I want you to send your messengers throughout the land and summon all your forces to gather here in Cuzco in twenty days time to attack them. Make sure the bearded ones hear nothing of this and we will kill every last one of them, and then perhaps we will wake from this nightmare.”

The Inca people rallied to Manco and by May 1536, Cuzco was besieged while at the same time Francisco Pizarro was hemmed in at Lima where he was building a new city. In desperation he pleaded with Mexico for reinforcements and three different Relief Columns were sent none of which got through. But the Incas did not have the armaments with which to storm a city and despite their vast superiority in manpower they could not overwhelm a relatively small number of Spaniards and their native allies armed with cannon, muskets and cold steel ensconced behind stone walls.

Even so, the Siege of Cuzco would not be broken until March 1537 after ten months of intermittent but often savage fighting during which Juan Pizarro was killed.

As Spanish reinforcements closed in Manco and his supporters fled into the mountains where they fought a successful seven year guerrilla campaign effectively establishing an independent Inca State. In January 1537, he defeated an army led by his old nemesis Hernando Pizarro at the Battle of Ollantaytambo in which as many as 300 Spaniards may have lost their lives, many killed after capture.

Manco’s continued resistance so infuriated Gonzalo Pizarro that upon capturing his half-sister and favourite wife Cura Ocllo in late 1539, he had her stripped naked, tied to a tree, and scourged to death before ordering her body shot through with arrows, placed in a basket and floated downstream for her husband to see.

For a time Francisco Pizarro had feared he might lose everything but Manco’s revolt was occurring far away and no longer posed any immediate threat and so he could focus upon the endeavour on which he had invested so much time and energy, the building of Lima which he called the greatest thing he had ever done for like many illiterates deprived the majesty of words he possessed a heightened appreciation of the beauty of things.

But he had not been left entirely at peace as he now vied for power and influence with his old business partner Diego Almagro.  Charles V had helped fuel the rivalry by appointing Pizarro Governor of New Castile; or northern Peru, and Almagro Governor of New Toledo, or southern Peru.

If the division of responsibility was intended to divide and rule then it worked a treat for the two men were constantly at loggerheads, particularly over who should rule in Cuzco. Almagro also accused the Pizarro’s of plundering Peru for their benefit alone.


The antipathy was deep, could not be reconciled, and came to a head when on 26 April 1538 their forces clashed at the Battle of Salinas. Although he was too ill to be personally present Almagro’s forces succumbed to a defeat which saw him barely conscious tied to a donkey and forced to flee to Cuzco.  The refuge Cuzco provided could only be temporary and the arrival of the Pizarro’s would see him tried and found guilty of treason. Upon the sentence of death being passed the grizzled old veteran of so many campaigns fell to his knees and begged for his life. Hernando Pizarro for one was not impressed:

“I am surprised to see you so demean yourself and in a manner so unbecoming a brave cavalier. Your fate is no worse than that to have befallen many a soldier before you. Since God has given you the Grace to be a Christian you should perhaps employ your remaining time making up your account with Heaven.”

There would be no mercy.

Diego Almagro was strangled to death in his prison cell before his body was dragged into the main square and publicly decapitated. The Pizarro brothers later attended his funeral.

Francisco Pizarro now had more than he could ever have wished for – titles, honours, wealth, land, power. A man of little background who could barely sign his own name had conquered an entire world but now he got complacent absorbed as he was by his desire to create in New Spain a paradise greater than any to be found in the Old Spain.

He had been warned many times that despite disposing of his greatest rival he still had enemies, none more so than Almagro’s son, also Diego, who remained no less ambitious and now sought vengeance for the execution of his father.

On 26 June 1541, Pizarro was dining at his palace in Lima when 25 heavily armed supporters of Almagro stormed in. As his servants tried to keep the door closed the old man rushed for his sword and struggled to put on his breastplate but there was too little time and forced to turn and fight he struck down two men and was grappling with a third when his throat was slashed. Falling to the ground his enemies were quickly upon him stabbing him repeatedly.

As he lay dying he cried out to Jesus and scrawled the sign of the cross in his own blood.

The veteran Conquistador was dead at the age of 70, his passing more lamented than perhaps history would have us believe.

Three years after the murder of Francisco Pizarro, Manco, the man who had refused to be cowed by him met a similar fate at the hands of the same men. He was playing a game of horseshoes at his mountain hideaway of Vilcabamba when he was stabbed in the back by the assassins of Pizarro to whom he had earlier given refuge.

What they hoped to achieve by murdering Manco we shall never know for they were quickly surrounded by his guards and killed to a man.

There is an element of irony, if not exactly poetic justice, that the Conquistador Pizarro’s murder should have been avenged by the Indian warriors of his great Inca rival.















Hernan Cortes: Montezuma’s Nightmare

On 12 October 1492, Christopher Columbus planted the flag of Catholic Spain on an island he named San Salvador. He had inadvertently, for he thought he had made landfall in the East Indies, discovered the Americas – it was a New World.

Hernando Cortes de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano was born in Medellin in southern Spain sometime in 1485, the son of minor nobility who like many who are born to a little, rather than no status at all, he always sought more.  He was in fact a distant relative (second cousin once removed) of the future conqueror of the Incas, Francisco Pizarro.

Described as a pale and sickly child noted for his petulance he was to grow into a haughty and arrogant young man with, it was said, an unjustifiably high opinion of himself. He had chosen not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Army Officer and so the hopes were that he would qualify as a lawyer but he was not one to knuckle down to hard study; instead he had been drawn to exciting tales of the New World across the seas where riches beckoned for the man audacious enough to seize them.

After spending two years in Salamanca training as a notary, which at least provided him with a grounding in legal affairs, he returned to Medellin having failed to gain entry to University much to the disappointment of his parents; but all he wanted to do was get to the New World, and he was to spend much of the next year frequenting the ports of southern Spain hoping to find a ship willing to take him.

At last, in the spring of 1504, aged nineteen, he embarked for the Americas.

Settling in Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola he was appointed notary for the town of Azua de Compostela and surprisingly perhaps was to prove an able administrator with an eye for detail who was quickly marked for promotion, but he had not travelled so far to be an admired and respected bureaucrat. It was a frustrating time for the ambitious Cortes.

By 1514, he was serving as secretary to the Governor of the recently conquered New Spain, or Cuba, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar but relations between the two men was not good. Both were equally ambitious and they eyed one another with suspicion. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when n 1518 Velazquez provided Cortes with a charter permitting him to lead an expedition to first explore and then secure what he could of mainland Mexico for the King of Spain.

Previous expeditions had achieved little and it was possible that Velazquez simply wanted Cortes out of the way. If so, he soon changed his mind and cancelled the charter.

Cortes despite having to finance much of the expedition out of his own pocket was delighted at the opportunity, he had yet to secure his fortune and no less significantly his name back in Spain, here was his chance and he wasn’t about to squander it so when he learned that the charter had been revoked in February 1519, he sailed anyway.

His armada was hardly impressive, 300 Spanish volunteers packed onto 11 small ships along with a similar number of Indian slaves and personal servants. What he hoped to achieve with such a meagre force perhaps even he did not know, but he did possess assets that went beyond a mere tally of the numbers . Among his troops were 20 who bore firearms known as arquebusiers and 40 who were trained in the use of the crossbow. He also had 15 horses, a few small cannon, and all the Spaniards wore steel helmets and breastplates. They were to prove significant.

In March 1519, he landed on the Yucatan peninsula then in Mayan territory which he claimed for Spain before moving onto the River Tabasco where having dispersed the natives in a series of skirmishes he received a tribute of 20 female slaves; among them was Malinche who as Dona Maria would become both Cortes’s lover and bear him a son, more significantly she could speak both the Nahuatl and Mayan languages. As the Franciscan Friar Geronimo Aguilar could already speak Mayan he would be able speak with Malinche, and through her Cortes would be able communicate with the Aztecs.

It was now that Cortes first learned of a great Empire further inland inhabited by a mighty and fierce people, the Aztecs; but Cortes sought one thing and one thing only, gold, and he barely spoke of anything else. His men were volunteers and they had not embarked upon this venture for the greater glory of God, they too sought their reward.

They sailed on north before mooring near modern day Vera Cruz, and it was here that they first encountered the Aztecs.

On Easter Saturday 1519, at San Juan de Ulua the Spanish camp was visited at the head of a grand procession by Pitalpitoque and Tendile representatives of the Great Emperor Montezuma. Cortes was a little dismayed that they were neither overawed nor surprised by his presence but he was even more astonished by the gifts of gold they now presented him with.

He could barely contain his excitement while at the same time scrambling around trying to find a reciprocal gift for the Emperor. All he had were a few baubles and a red velvet cap. The meagreness of the offering was not well received and belied the suggestion that he represented a great King.  But there was only one thing on Cortes’s mind. He asked the Ambassador:

“Do you have more gold, because I and my men suffer from a disease of the heart that can only be cured by gold?”

The Ambassador replied:

“Yes, we do.”

His words could not have been more inflammatory.

Cortes now determined upon a show of force, he ordered his musketeers to fire into the air and his cavalry to ride at the gallop. The Aztecs shrank back and huddled together in fear and trepidation. They were astonished they had never seen anything like it before.  The Aztec emissary ordered his artist to draw what he had seen and later reported back to Montezuma:

The strangers have sticks that spurt fire and ride deer as high as a house which snort and foam.”

Cortes was suspicious, uncertain as to why he and his motley crew had been treated with such honour and respect – the reason would soon become clear.

It is possible that the Aztecs had been warned well in advance of the Spanish incursion but also prevalent was the legend of the God Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, who after being expelled from the land of Mexico had vowed to return from across the sea and reclaim his throne in the very year according to the Aztec calendar of Cortes’s arrival; and there were many things about these strangers that could not be explained.

But once thought God’s they would soon prove themselves all too human.

Cortes’s repeated requests to meet with Montezuma were ignored so he determined to continue inland and find this place of gold but the tales told by natives of human sacrifice and that the Aztecs would flay the Spaniards  alive, tear out their hearts, and eat their flesh had unnerved his men.  A mutiny was brewing and some of them expressed the desire to return home. Cortes did not debate the issue he had the ringleaders executed and then ordered the ships to be burned.

His men now had a stark choice, either follow him or die where they were.

In mid-August 1519, he began his march on Tenochtitlan but he would do so via a circuitous route so as to rally support from among the many indigenous tribes who both feared and detested the Aztecs including the Nahuas and Totonacs but the most powerful were the Tlaxcalans and with these the Spanish clashed violently. Indeed, for two weeks they had them surrounded on a little hilltop and it seemed that Cortes and his small force might be wiped out but the Tlaxcalans hated the Aztecs far more than they feared the strangers in their midst and Cortes was able to negotiate a peace that saw the Tlaxcalans become his most invaluable ally.

In the early autumn Cortes resumed his march now reinforced by around 1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors. By the beginning of October he had reached the town of Cholula, the largest in Mexico after Tenochtitlan. Upon entering Cholula, Malinche warned Cortes that they were close allies of the Aztecs pointing out to him the altars of sacrifice and receptacles for body parts present in the town. Moreover, she had heard rumours that they intended to attack the Spanish possibly at night or after luring them into a trap.

Cortes decided to strike first by inviting 100 of the town’s leading citizens to a meeting at which they presented themselves in all their finery. Upon their arrival they were surrounded by troops however, and Malinche told them they were guilty of treason and must pay for it with their lives. Cortes then ordered their execution. The Spaniards then turned their weapons on the many people who had turned up to watch events killing around 2,000 men, women and children before ransacking the town.

Learning of the massacre at Cholula, Montezuma remarked:

My heart burns as if washed in chilli.”

Whether Cortes had ever seriously been threatened in Cholula remains doubtful but if he had intended to send a message to Montezuma in Tenochtitlan then it was a brutally effective one.

Cortes and his party arrived on the hills overlooking Tenochtitlan on 8 November, no effort having been made to impede their passage and what emerged from the mist shrouding the valley below on that damp, overcast morning left many of them awestruck. They had been told of the Aztec capital’s wonder but few had believed it, now they could see it for themselves.

It was a city on a scale greater than any to be seen in Europe cast upon a lake that could only be traversed by three giant causeways; a stone metropolis of imposing structure, of pyramids, tall buildings, high walls, great steps and grand archways dominated at its centre by an imperious temple that reached up to the heavens as if imploring them to come closer. It was a city teeming with life, of commerce, market gardens, water borne craft – a quarter of a million people busy, productive, and distracted.

One Spaniard witnessing it for the first time wrote later:

“It seemed like an enchanted vision. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It was so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of a thing never heard of, never seen of, or never dreamed of before.”

Even the hard-bitten Cortes, not a man inclined to wax lyrical other than about himself felt obliged to write:

“It was the most beautiful thing in the world; the most magnificent thing I ever saw.”

But it was a city tainted by the stench of death, as Cortes was soon to discover.

The Tlaxcalans remained outside some distance from the city while guides led the Spaniards through its streets past a people intrigued but not cowed by their presence to a vast courtyard where Montezuma waited to greet them.

The Aztec Emperor was resplendent in the finest cloth, bejewelled and with a large entourage, his advisers either side of him, servants swarming around; and he had come bearing gifts of gold, just small trinkets, enough to tease but not to satisfy the imperishable lust of his guests.

But Montezuma was to be less than imperious in his manner. Indeed, he was to speak almost as a supplicant:

“O Lord, you have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your throne which I have briefly kept for you, but you are fatigued you are weary after your long journey. They said you would return and now you have done so, but first go to your palace and rest your limbs, and go in peace.”

Cortes was surprised to be greeted so, he had claimed to be the representative of the great King across the sea but it had been a bluff and he had nothing with which to prove it.  Now this great man in this magnificent city, leader of a mighty Empire, was treating him as an equal, maybe even his superior.

What was in Montezuma’s mind remains a mystery, perhaps he intended to lull the Spaniards into complacency, perhaps he believed the words he spoke. Cortes soon became convinced that Montezuma believed him the God Quetzalcoatl and there may be an element of truth to this for the 8th of November in the Aztec calendar was the Day of Wind, the Day of Quetzalcoatl – but then it was also the Day of Deceit.

Writing many decades after of his experiences as a soldier in Cortes’s army Bernal Diaz del Castillo provides us with a description of the Aztec Emperor:

“The Great Montezuma was about forty years old of good height, well-proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon.  He had many women as his mistresses, and he was quite free from sodomy.”

But as impressed as they were by Tenochtitlan the Spaniards had heard the tales of Aztec cruelty, they had seen the altars of sacrifice, the discarded human entrails, and it had filled them with a righteous fury, that for all the grandeur these people were little better than Godless heathen savages.

Montezuma invited Cortes to see the Great Temple of the War God Huitzilopochtli upon the summit of which the hearts were torn from the bodies of those condemned to die as human sacrifice.

As Cortes and his party entered the dimly lit chamber the stench of death almost overwhelmed them for beneath the statue of the War God was a brazier of human hearts some still warm. The sight of t horrified them and Cortes tried hard to hide his disgust should it be mistaken for fear but even so turned to Montezuma wanting to know:

“I don’t understand how a prince as great as you could think that these are Gods, they are bad things called devils, and I would like your permission to place a Cross here and a picture of the Virgin Mary.”

A clearly offended Montezuma replied:

“Had I known you would insult our Gods I would not have brought you here, we hold these things to be good they bring us health, harvest, rain, and water. We must sacrifice to them. Do not mention this to me again.”

The idea that to keep the sun in its orbit and maintain the cycle of the seasons you must assist the Gods by providing them with heart and blood to function was difficult for a good Christian man to comprehend. Christ had given his blood and his life to redeem mankind these people kill others providing the blood to placate their Gods.

Whether or not human sacrifice in Aztec society was ever committed on the scale that has often been suggested it would serve as the justification for all of Cortes’s future actions.

A week after the events at the Great Temple Cortes arrived at Montezuma’s palace in the dead of night with an armed escort to inform him that he was now their prisoner and must return with them at once to their residence or be forced to do so.

Montezuma did not understand, he could not be made a prisoner, he was Emperor; and even if he did agree to become their captive his people would never tolerate it.  The argument raged back and forth for many hours as Montezuma refused to accompany them and Cortes demanded that he do so, while all the time those Spaniards present became ever more anxious as dawn began to break. If what they were doing was discovered they could all be massacred. Eventually, a Captain unsheathed his sword and angrily declared “Let’s kill him now and have done with it.”  Montezuma’s servants rushed to shield him but Cortes chose not to intervene. It was only after Malinche translated the violence of the Captain’s words that Montezuma, reduced to tears, at last relented.

The Aztecs needed to be civilised, Cortes had decided, an Empire as great as theirs could not be ruled by a man such as Montezuma, a pagan man.  Neither could it any longer be denied to God. He would rule in the name of the King of Spain but with Montezuma at his side to provide his governance with the veneer of legitimacy.

It was no coincidence that the wealth of Tenochtitlan had not been delivered up to him as he expected and that no deal had been struck with Montezuma to do so. Cortes was impatient, more importantly so were his men. Orders were given for the palaces and temples of the city to be stripped of their treasures and for those who possessed gold to present it to their new masters.

Cortes would create a Great Treasury to which only he had the key.

Meanwhile, in Cuba reports of Cortes’s success only further enraged its Governor Velazquez de Cuellar who remained determined to force his return and claim all the riches and the glory for himself. Cortes was no longer an ally but a rival, and so in April 1520 he despatched a force of 1,100 men to do just that under the command of Porfilo de Narvaez.

Cortes could not ignore the threat and would be forced to confront Narvaez even though he would be greatly outnumbered and reliant upon his Tlaxcalan allies for support. Desperate to intercept Narvaez before he reached the city Cortes left 200 men with Pedro de Alvarado in Tenochtitlan. It was a token force and he would be dependent upon Montezuma to maintain order, but he had little choice.

As it transpired when the two armies confronted one another it quickly became apparent that there was little desire on either side for Spaniard to kill Spaniard except perhaps on the part of Porfilo de Narvaez whose reputation depended upon the outcome of any engagement.

On 27 May, after a brief skirmish during which Narvaez lost an eye, Cortes prevailed.  Aware of the rumours that Mexico was a place of gold and great riches few of Narvaez’s men required much encouragement to now join with Cortes – as it turned out he would need every one of them for in his absence the situation in Tenochtitlan had taken a turn for the worse.

With his shock of red hair and handsome features Pedro de Alvarado was a difficult man to ignore and ebullient by nature and flamboyant of dress he was no less determined that no one should ever dare do so. But the image of the spirited cavalier belied a ruthless character and a cruel streak unrestrained by compassion.

On behalf of his subjects Montezuma approached Alvarado seeking permission to celebrate the Festival of Toxcatl which was granted under certain conditions – the people must gather in one place and they must be unarmed.

On 22 May, some 600 of the richest men in Tenochtitlan accompanied by their families gathered in the confined space of the Patio of the Gods, a walled courtyard that was part of the Great Temple. Many were naked except for their feathered headdresses and necklaces of gold; others wore elaborate costumes colourful and bejewelled. But unnoticed by the celebrants Alvarado had blocked the exits and posted guards. No sooner had the festivities begun and the dancing started than troops entered and began to open fire. Panic ensued as with swords drawn the Spaniards cut and slashed their way through the thronging mass of people with those not cut down crushed in the desperate attempt to elude their pursuers. According to one Aztec account:

“Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a time. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again the Spaniards would see and kill them.”

Few escaped the bloodshed and the Aztecs were to claim that the attack had been unprovoked the Spanish made mad by their lust for gold, something that Alvarado was to deny but Cortes’s  noted parsimony and reluctance to share the contents of his treasury likely drove Alvarado to seize the opportunity of acquiring some wealth for himself.

News of the massacre in the Great Temple quickly spread and the Aztec people rose in fury against their oppressors. The call for warriors from far and wide was heeded as they gathered in great numbers to expel these cruel strangers from their land once and for all despite Montezuma’s repeated calls for calm and not to resist.

Alvarado had lost control of the situation and soon found himself besieged in the Imperial Palace.

On 29 June, in desperation he ordered Montezuma to address the mob gathered outside in person but his commands were barely heard, his words lost among the banging of drums, blowing of horns, and howls of derision. The soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes what happened next:

“Barely was the Emperor’s speech to his subjects finished when a shower of stones and darts descended. Our men who had been shielding Montezuma had temporarily neglected their duty when they saw the attack had ceased; but while he spoke to his Chiefs  Montezuma was hit by three stones, one on the head, one on the arm, and one on the leg, and though we begged him to have his wounds dressed and eat some food and spoke very kindly to him, he refused. Then quite unexpectedly we were told he was dead.”

His description of the Spaniards reaction to Montezuma’s death may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, however:

“Cortes and all of us Captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us who knew him who did not mourn him as if he was our father.”

But the suggestion that the Spanish killed Montezuma when they realised he was no longer of any use to them also lends itself to scepticism. Why after all, murder a compliant Emperor only to have him replaced by whom exactly?

The following day Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan to find it in uproar. He demanded to know of Alvarado why the massacre in the Great Temple had occurred and was told they had been attacked after intervening to prevent a human sacrifice (the details of Montezuma’s death now seemed almost peripheral).  But there was no time for recriminations for despite being greatly reinforced by the troops who had deserted Narvaez he knew they would be overwhelmed if they remained – he made the decision to abandon the city that very night.

The Spaniards heavy-handed and brutal approach had proven a grievous error and now they would pay the price.

The Aztecs had blockaded the three causeways across the lake and so Cortes set his men to building a wooden bridge, a single, makeshift, rickety structure for over a thousand men, horses, wagons laden with baggage, and an artillery train.

Cortes believed the Aztecs would not fight at night and so they left as darkness began to fall their way lit by torches, their gold clutched close to their breast; but the Spaniards had barely begun to cross the bridge when the alarm was raised and the Aztecs descended upon them from all directions in their tens of thousands.

Stretched out in a long line exposed and vulnerable, stumbling around in the dark, terrified by the screams of their assailants, and under a constant hail of missiles there could be no organised defence and many desperate to escape the mayhem  plunged into the lake only to drown dragged to the bottom by the weight of their armour, or to be plucked from the water by Aztec warriors in their war canoes mutilated and killed; others were pulled to the ground beaten and stabbed to death; many more were captured alive and taken to the Great Temple where as the sun rose the following morning they had their stomachs opened, their entrails spilled, and their hearts torn from their chest and raised aloft in sacrifice to the War God Huitzilopochtli.

Few other than those in the vanguard of the column survived what was soon to become known as the ‘Night of Tears,’ barely 300 men, 870 Spaniards had been killed many only recently recruited. As the fortunate few gathered outside the city even the iron-willed Cortes was seen to weep, but not for long.  He wished to know the whereabouts of the shipbuilder Martin Lopez – had he escaped? Upon learning that he had been wounded but lived, he said:

“Then we go, for we lack nothing.”

The Aztecs celebrated their great victory believing the evil strangers had been vanquished forever, never to return.  But by now they too were dying in their thousands, from smallpox.

Cortes now made haste for the territory of the Tlaxcalans whom he prayed would still support him while being harassed every mile of the way by Aztec warriors their hit-and-run tactics playing havoc with the Spaniards already shredded nerves.

On 7 July, on the plain of Otumba, north-east of Tenochtitlan, Cortes was confronted by an Aztec Army many times the size of his own. This was their opportunity to kill all the remaining Spaniards and have done with the affair but they seemed more interested in mocking them for their previous humiliation than engaging them in battle. Cortes seized the initiative and attacked targeting the Aztec General for an early death, with their leader killed his army disintegrated and fled. Cortes had lost a further 70 men he could ill-afford but his rout of the Aztec Army convinced the Tlaxcalans that he was still the man to defeat their mortal enemy.

Astonishingly within a year Cortes would once again stand before the walls of Tenochtitlan for whatever he may have lacked in the art of diplomacy he more than made up for in resolution and the iron determination to succeed.

In the forests of Tlaxcala under the supervision of the shipbuilder Martin Lopez the Spaniards constructed a fleet of 13 pre-fabricated Brigantines that would be transported on the backs of more than 8,000 native porters to Tenochtitlan where pieced together they would control the lake, cut-off the water supply, and starve the city into submission.

While Cortes was preparing his unanticipated return to the Aztec capital life in Tenochtitlan was returning to something like normal despite the ravages of those European diseases against which they had no immunity one of whose victims was Cuitlahuac who had succeeded his older brother Montezuma as Emperor. He may have presided over the expulsion of the hated strangers but he would be dead of smallpox within three months.

The Aztec nobility chose Cuauhtemoc, a man who would fight, as their new Emperor. He had promised to do so and would prove as good as his word.

By late May 1521, Cortes once more stood before Tenochtitlan with his ships and a formidable army, 80,000 Tlaxcalan and other native warriors reinforced by Spanish troops from Cuba who had heeded his call for volunteers. He expected a swift victory but had prepared for a long siege if required; with the city surrounded and his ships dominating the lake and controlling the means of access to the city he had Tenochtitlan in a vice-like grip and was determined not to let go.


The Aztecs were not accustomed to siege warfare but they adapted soon enough. The causeways they protected with barricades and traps laid for the unwary while sharpened stakes and nets were placed beneath the waters of the lake to impale and snag the light craft with which Cortes hoped to land troops on the shore.  Aztec warriors also no longer fled at the sight of horses or cowed at the sound of guns, though the giant Mastiffs trained to kill still struck terror into their hearts.  Neither did they believe any longer that the Spaniards were divine or invincible – they bled, they died, and they feared just like everyone else. Indeed, Spaniards were being regularly killed and those who fell into their hands they sacrificed upon the altar of the Great Temple in broad daylight for all to see.

Once again Bernal Diaz del Castillo leaves us a description:

“The dismal drum sounded again as we saw our comrades who had been captured dragged up the steps of the Great Temple to be sacrificed, cutting open their chests and drawing out their palpitating hearts to be offered to their idols – the Indian butchers.”

Cortes’s attempts to storm the causeways were repulsed time and again while his ships were being harassed by Aztec war canoes. Even their camps outside of the city had been attacked. The Aztecs had also taken to distributing the body parts of dismembered Spanish captives among the camps of their Tlaxcalan and other allies. It proved very effective propaganda and many now began to believe the Aztec prophecy that the strangers would be utterly annihilated.

No longer believing in the Spaniards capacity to defeat the mighty Aztec Empire their native allies abandoned the siege in their droves until by late June only a few remained.

Cortes could not abandon the siege however, so he would bombard the city from his Brigantines but the attacks would cease, attrition would have to do its work. He told his men:

“The Aztecs will eat up all the provisions they have soon enough.”

But the Spaniards were making little headway, the city itself remained intact, but it could no longer be re-supplied and the people were starving. The more desperate the situation the greater the number of people needed to be sacrificed to propitiate the Gods. If prisoners were not available then children would suffice.

Malnourished and weakened by disease the Aztecs were in no position to exploit Cortes’s predicament and in time his native allies would return encouraged to do so by the promise of rich reward, and in the case of the Tlaxcalans the desire for revenge after years of brutal oppression.

The failure of Cuauhtemoc to break the siege even after Cortes had been deserted by his native allies was not indicative of a lack of desire on his part but of his powerlessness to do so for the situation in Tenochtitlan was dire. As many as 40% of the population had already died of disease, the water supply was scarce and tainted, food was at a premium, and he was running short of warriors.

Cortes sensed the time had come for a breakthrough and ordered his army to advance upon the city in three columns before linking up to descend upon the Great Temple and the Emperor’s Palace. But it would prove far from easy as even the women and children took up arms to defend hearth and home – ambushes were laid, missiles rained down from rooftops, prayers and imprecations rent the air while the human sacrifices multiplied two-fold, three-fold and even more as the struggle for every house, every street continued fierce and remorseless.  So bloody was the fighting that despite the inevitability of the outcome Cortes remained willing to negotiate the surrender of the city to bring it to an end but Cuauhtemoc would not countenance it.

It had been a desperate last stand but finally after a week of almost continuous warfare and close-quarter combat Aztec resistance crumbled and those who could began to flee across the lake and into the interior.

On 13 August, Cuauhtemoc’s flotilla of small boats carrying himself and his family was intercepted and he was taken captive – the siege was over.

Taken before Cortes the Aztec Emperor remained defiant calling upon the Spaniard to take his dagger and strike him dead. But Cortes refused telling him:

“You have defended your city like a brave warrior and a Spaniard knows how to respect valour, even in an enemy.”

Such magnanimity was to prove short-lived however, as eager to retrieve the treasure lost during the ‘Night of Tears’ he put Cuauhtemoc to the torture to reveal its whereabouts. He denied any knowledge of its whereabouts but after having his feet held over hot coals and doused in burning oil he told him it had all been thrown into the lake.

Like many victims of torture it seems Cuauhtemoc merely told the Spaniards what they wanted to hear for very little of the gold and precious jewels were ever recovered.

Cortes chose to retain Cuauhtemoc as Emperor in part to keep order but also to assist in bringing in the gold that continued to obsess him.

Meanwhile in Tenochtitlan the murder and rapine continued for some time with the Tlaxcalans particularly merciless in their pursuit of vengeance. Indeed, so bad was it that reports of the brutality reached the Royal Court in Spain and Cortes was forced to plead his innocence in a letter to the King blaming the violence on his Native Indian allies and insisting that he had done all he could to prevent it.

Cortes was to govern, Cuauhtemoc was to rule, but it was an uneasy partnership. Cortes doubted the Aztec Emperor had ever reconciled himself to Spanish domination and he remained the only man who by reputation alone could still challenge that domination, even if by now the Aztecs were a broken people.

In early 1525, Cortes ordered Cuauhtemoc to accompany him on an expedition to Honduras in what was likely a ruse to lure him away from the city in order to kill him.

On 27 February, in front of witnesses Cortes accused Cuauhtemoc of plotting to assassinate him. He denied the charge but at a hastily convened trial was found guilty and sentenced to death. At his execution he declared that he was being unjustly killed and that Cortes would have to answer before his God for what he had done. It made no difference.

For all the blood that had been shed in the preceding years it was felt that Cortes had overstepped the mark in his execution of Cuauhtemoc who had admirers even among the Spanish many of whom believed the charges had been fabricated.  They were after all, Conquerors, Conquistadores, they did not have to behave this way.

Cortes was to remain in Mexico to build a new city in the Spanish style upon the ruins of Tenochtitlan but his power waned as he became the titular head of an Administration increasingly run by bureaucrats sent from Madrid. Still, he was a very wealthy man though more from his ownership of silver mines rather than his anticipated procurement of gold in vast quantities.  A fortune he had accrued, it was said, by not distributing the wealth of the Aztecs among his men as he had promised, which was largely true. Not that he was willing to own up to it instead believing that all the accusations made against him including those of venality and cruelty were merely attempts to undermine him. He declared in a letter to the King that were it not for him Mexico would not be a part of the expanding Spanish Empire at all, which was also true, though it did not endear him to his opponents.  He was not receiving the credit he deserved and even though he was honoured time and again it was never enough.  He was to write many times to Charles V complaining of the meddling from Madrid and the overweening power of the Church, even attending the Royal Court in person to plead his case for greater freedom of action and where, much to his irritation, he failed to be recognised.

As far as Charles V was concerned it mattered not, Mexico belonged to Spain and to God, not Cortes.

Then again what honours are sufficient for a man who has destroyed a civilisation, especially when it takes so many to build a New World.

Hernan Cortes died in Spain on 2 December 1547 aged 62, a very rich but disgruntled man.








Peasants’ Revolt

In June 1348 at Melcombe Bay in Dorset, bubonic plague arrived upon the shores of England. The Black Death as it was known had already devastated much of Europe, now in little over a year a million Briton’s would lose their lives or almost half of the entire population. Its scourge would reach far and wide and tear at the very fabric of English society in a way that little else could.

Land and the labour required to work it was the source of wealth in medieval England and the social hierarchy was rigid and supposedly ordained by God. There was little scope then for social advancement and the peasantry as serfs were obliged to work on the land of their liege lord but with labour suddenly scarce that framework was to be broken, and  as it transpired irreparably so.

The scarcity of labour allowed the peasants to break their bond of obedience and begin to charge accordingly for their services.  If a landowner was unwilling to pay then so be it, but his cows would not be milked, his fields would remain unploughed, and his crops would not be sown with the peasants simply taking their labour elsewhere. Not that the landowning class were willing to accept the new reality without a fight.


On 18 June 1349, Edward III passed into law the Ordinance of Labour which introduced price controls and fixed wages to pre-plague levels. It made little difference and those who were forced to work did so only reluctantly causing John Gow, the poet, and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, to write despairingly:

“They are sluggish, they are scarce, and they are grasping. For the very little they do they demand the highest pay.”

Two year years later Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers intended to reinforce the previous Ordinance by stipulating exactly what farm labourers, shepherds, and artisans such as cobblers, carpenters, and blacksmiths could earn.  Workers could not demand more and employers were not permitted to pay more, nor were they allowed to employ excess labour or provide alms to the poor.

To combat inflation price controls remained in force and to increase the pool of available labour everyone under the age of sixty was required to work but as there were few records with which to determine a person’s age and given the short life expectancy of the time this meant almost everyone.

The new laws, enforced by local officials were in fact more honoured in the breach as market forces prevailed and wages would in fact more than double over the coming decades.

The Black Death had also provided opportunities for those fortunate enough to survive and would otherwise have remained poor to acquire through inheritance small fortunes of their own.  One such man was Clement Paston, a yeoman farmer, or plain peasant from Norfolk, who inheriting land and money from deceased relatives invested it wisely putting his family on the path to respectability and to becoming the eventual owners of Caister Castle.

Such men would form the backbone of rural England in the decades following the Black Death and it was a status they were willing to defend, and so it was to prove in the summer of 1381.

Richard II, the son of the deceased Black Prince, the hero of the Battle of Crecy, had been crowned King on 16 July 1377, following the death of his grandfather Edward III whose long fifty year reign had been brought to a close the previous month.

Even at just ten years of age much was expected from the scion of such great men but it did not augur well that England was to be ruled by a child especially as during the period of his minority the country was to be governed by a Royal Council under the guidance of his uncle John of Gaunt, a man little trusted and even less liked.

Thought intolerably ambitious many feared that John of Gaunt would use the opportunity of the King’s youth to seize the crown for himself. It is perhaps indicative of the power he already wielded that he chose not to. Richard was King by divine appointment after all, and there was little mood among the nobility for dispute. Any fears that a child on the throne would result in political and dynastic turmoil were soon allayed.  The unpopular John of Gaunt may have ruled with a rod of iron but power for him was always a case of personal enrichment something he pursued with gusto. The challenge to Richard’s reign when it came would be from an unexpected source.

England was at the time in the midst of the Hundred Years War with France which was proving increasingly burdensome not only on the nation’s finances but also its manpower and resources.

The money required to finance the ongoing conflict could only be raised from among those able to pay, or the very village elite that had now come to dominate rural life.

Traditionally tax had been imposed on the property and goods of the individual but this had proved incapable of compensating for the post-plague slump and providing the finance required for the war in France. A new and more productive form of taxation was required and so a poll tax was levied at a fixed rate of a groat, or 4d, on every person aged 15 and over able to pay regardless of wealth and income.

It had first been imposed by John of Gaunt in 1377 during the dying days of Edward III’s reign. It had proved so unpopular that many people removed themselves from the tax register where possible and as a result it garnered only a further £22,000. When it was reintroduced in March 1379, it raised only £18,000.

In November 1380, Simon Sudbury in his capacity as Lord Chancellor announced before Parliament that £160,000 was required in extra taxes to make up for a short-fall in public finances. This time it would be levied at an exorbitant 12d, or four times the previous amount and the age of liability was lowered to 14. Unsurprisingly tax evasion soared with entire villages in Essex and Kent refusing to pay or simply packing up their goods and disappearing into the woods.

The three men who were seen as most responsible for the imposition of the poll tax, John of Gaunt, Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, and Lord Treasurer Robert Hales were already loathed for their corruption and greed. Those who had amassed small fortunes of their own in the wake of the Black Death were damned if they were going to give them up to the likes of them.

Likewise, Gaunt, Sudbury, and Hales were determined to collect the new tax with a vigour that had previously been lacking.

In March 1381, Commissioners were despatched to enforce compliance with the poll tax, they were not well received. Peasants suddenly became hard to find, villages had been abandoned, and when people did gather to be assessed as ordered they did so reluctantly and in a mood of non-compliance.

When the men of a village complained that their women were being sexually molested under the pretext of proving they were eligible to pay the new tax they were roughly dealt with. Already disgruntled the brutal behaviour of the Commissioners only made the peasants animus even worse and they were willing to act, as they soon found out.

Having established himself at Brentwood in Essex on 30 May Commissioner John Bampton ordered representatives of nearby villages to attend upon him and pay the tax owed. That they turned up armed did not augur well.

Led by Thomas Baker from the village of Fobbing the peasants refused to pay and when Bampton demanded they do so they attacked killing three of his clerks. Fearing for his own life Bampton was quick to flee later reporting the incident to Robert Belknap, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, who decided to investigate for himself.

Belknap did not travel alone but took the precaution of providing himself with an armed escort only to find the area in such a state of uproar that they counted for little. He was taken prisoner and told that not one them, would pay even a penny of this iniquitous tax before being forced to witness the beheading of six of his guards. He was then released on the promise never to return.

News of Belknap’s humiliation quickly spread and more tax resisters soon emerged – the Peasants’ Revolt had begun.

But the events at Brentwood were not merely an explosion of pent-up frustration and rage or the violent impulse of unsophisticated wide-eyed illiterates. Indeed, in its initial stages at least the Peasants’ Revolt was notable for the absence of peasants.  These were educated men, small landowners and craftsmen, low-level village officials such as the Reeve and the Bailiff, those who had something to lose, the village elite.

Among those who are known to have participated are Sir Thomas Raven, a Member of Parliament and Bailiff of Rochester Castle, John Mocking, a London Wine Merchant, John Sumner from the village of Manningtree in Essex (notorious as the birth place of the Witch-finder General) who owned property valued at over 400 marks, or more than £150,000 in today’s money, and Robert Pearce, a local landowner also from Manningtree.  There were of course others who were scoundrels such as Thomas Wootton, a soldier who had been paid £30 in advance to fight in France but would instead desert to join the rebels, and Richard Scott, a conman and thief who took part merely to plunder.

Evidence also suggests that the Peasants’ Revolt was not as spontaneous as has often been thought.

Although overland communications were poor with few good roads river traffic was commonplace while the better-off among the rebels, of whom there were many as we have seen, had horses and were able to travel far and wide spreading the message of revolt.

The rebels also had a system of communications via coded messages which read out in taverns and town squares were eagerly anticipated. One such message was the following:

 “John Shep, sometime St Mary Priest of York and now in Colchester, greeteth well John Nameless and John Miller and John Carter and biddeth Piers Plowman to go to his work and chastise well Hobb the Robber.”

Translated John Shep was a New Testament reference, the St Mary Priest of York was John Ball, John Nameless was everyman, John Carter and John Miller craftsmen and trades people, Piers Plowman, alluded to the legend of Robin Hood, while Hobb the Robber was another pejorative term fort the Lord Treasurer Robert Hales.

The people understood well enough, they were primed and they were ready. They had objectives, their appeal was to the King, and their demands were for justice.

John Ball was born in St Albans around 1338, and had already achieved some notoriety as an itinerant critic of the Church and dissident priest whose sermons condemning the wealthy and corrupt representatives of Christ found a ready and receptive audience. Known as the St Mary Priest of York for reasons that remain unclear his outspoken views neither went unnoticed nor unpunished and he was to be imprisoned many times by the Church Authorities.  He was also accused of being a follower of John Wycliffe and a Lollard propagandist for which he was excommunicated in 1366. Banned from preaching in Churches or on any Church property he took his message directly to the people addressing them at markets, in roadside taverns, anywhere they gathered in numbers. He even preached in graveyards outside the Church as worshippers left religious service. His run-ins with Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury were many and he was in fact in prison when the Peasant’s Revolt broke out. It wouldn’t be for long and he was soon giving eloquent voice to the aims and hopes of those who were his adherents. The French chronicler Jean Froissart recounts a typical John Ball peroration:

“Good people, things can never go right in England until goods are held in common and there are no villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same. In what ways are those we call lords greater masters than ourselves? They are clad in velvet and ermine while we go dressed in coarse cloth. They have the wines, the spices, the good bread; we have the rye, the husks of straw, and we drink water. They have shelter and ease in their fine manors, and we have hardship and toil, the wind and the rain in the fields.”

Froissart also tells us that the Archbishop of Canterbury would imprison John Ball for two or three months at a time but would have done better to have him executed. He had scruples about doing so, however.

Following the events at Brentwood and Fobbing the situation quickly began to spiral out of the Authorities control as it became clear that this was no localised outburst of ill-considered anger but a well thought out campaign of political and social defiance with those known to have colluded with the Commissioners or thought to be untrustworthy being decapitated and their heads stuck on poles as a warning to others.

At the village of Cogglesall for example, they executed the local tax collector before ransacking his house and burning the manorial rolls. They then travelled five miles to nearby Cressing Temple owned by the Knights Hospitaller, an Order run in England by Sir Robert Hales, setting it alight. Its large barns and storehouses were left intact however, their stocks of food and wine distributed among the rebels.

In the meantime, the town of Chelmsford was attacked while rebels under Abel Kerr assailed Lesnes Abbey burning it to the ground as the monks fled in panic.

On 3 June, a known tax resister Robert Belling accused wrongly of being a runaway serf by Sir Simon Burley was imprisoned in Rochester Castle. He soon became a cause celebre and three days later the Kentish rebels marched on the Castle determined to release him. The formidable Rochester Castle which during the Baron’s War had resisted siege for seven weeks fell in a day. It was an indication of the degree of intimidation the rebels could now bring to bear and the support they had even among those who were expected to oppose them.

It would seem that Wat Tyler must have distinguished himself during the storming of Rochester Castle as the following day in Maidstone where John Ball had just been released from prison, he was chosen leader of the rebellion by popular acclaim.

Despite being one of the most iconic names in English history little is known of Wat Tyler, some believe he was a soldier of fortune recently returned from abroad or  was spurred on to avenge some personal sleight or imposition. We do know from his name that he was a roof tiler by profession and a man of aggressive intent who could stamp his authority on a movement of disparate rebels by force of personality alone.

On the same day as Wat Tyler was declared their leader the rebels reached Canterbury where they attacked the Archbishop’s Palace demanding that the cleric be brought before them so they could administer justice but Simon Sudbury had already departed for the comparative safety of London.

London however, was trapped in a pincer movement as rebels marched north from Kent and south from Essex. There was no army to stop them (that was away fighting in France or had travelled to Scotland with John of Gaunt who was disinclined to return) and no skirmishing to slow the advance.

On 12 June the Kentish rebels reached Blackheath on the outskirts of south London just as the Essex men were descending on Mile End to the north-east. The excitement upon reaching London was palpable and it was at Blackheath on the Feast of Corpus Christi that John Ball delivered his famous address:

“When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created alike, and our bondage and servitude came in by unjust oppression of bad men.  For if God would have any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage and recover liberty.”

Meanwhile, in an attempt to curb their evident enthusiasm for pillage and plunder Wat Tyler told those present:

“Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers, we seek justice.”

With no plan of action and few troops to call upon Richard nevertheless refused to be cowed and ignoring his Advisers agreed to meet with the rebels, though he took the precaution of travelling to Greenwich by barge. It did not go well, witnessing their aggressive intent Richard chose not to disembark instead shouting to them from the safety of the river, why don’t you go home, which provoked only laughter among the already hurled insults and myriad cursing. When they demanded that he come ashore and meet with them the Earl of Salisbury responded on his behalf “You are in no fit state to speak to the King.”  With that they rowed back to the city.

Even as the meeting at Greenwich was taking place a number of the rebels had broken away and were already advancing on the city, as they closed in the King was hastily transferred to the Tower of London for his own safety but could the loyalty of the troops assigned for his protection be relied upon?

There was only one bridge across the River Thames into the city but the Alderman charged with its defence had posted no soldiers to bar the way. Likewise, despite orders to lock all entrances to the city Aldgate had been left suspiciously open and rebels now streamed onto the streets of London from both north and south.

The previous discipline displayed by the rebels now disappeared as London descended into chaos, Marshalsea Prison was destroyed and the gates to both Newgate and the Fleet Prison thrown open releasing hundreds of criminals onto the streets. Many Londoners now also flocked to the rebels cause and they were all looking for someone upon whom to vent their anger. The obvious target were the foreigners in their midst, namely the prosperous Flemish merchants of which there were many, and anyone of swarthy complexion or with a strange accent was in danger of their life and some 40 are known to have been killed, their throats cut and bodies piled up one upon the other.  A further 35 were massacred after being refused sanctuary in a Church.

A brothel owned by Simon Sudbury was ransacked and destroyed before the rebels descended in fury upon the Savoy Palace, the London residence of John of Gaunt. Here, at least, a semblance of discipline was re-imposed following orders from Wat Tyler that anyone found stealing from the Palace would be executed. Such a harsh interdiction did not entirely deter the light-fingered, people such as John and Joan Ferrour who helped themselves to a chest containing £1,000 in silver coin before departing for home. Most of Gaunt’s treasures were deposited unceremoniously into the Thames however, including his much prized cellar of expensive wines much to the rebels delight.

That night Richard from his position of safety within the Tower of London looked upon a city in flames as those responsible noisily and threateningly thronged below. He later convened a meeting of his Council. Some wanted to attack the rebels at once but Richard who could call upon some 600 archers and men-at-arms thought them too few and unreliable. Instead he sided with those who counselled caution and it was agreed that couriers be sent to inform the rebels that he would meet with them at Mile End on the morrow.

Early the following morning as the rioting in the city subsided, Richard along with his entourage and a small escort (only a few soldiers had heeded the call to muster) made the perilous journey from the Tower to Mile End.

Jostled and harangued by the crowd violence hung in the air as the Royal Party made their way slowly towards their destination and a fate as yet unknown.

The rebels demanded the following of the King; the abolition of feudal obligation and an end to serfdom; the right to buy and sell on the market without interference; a rent limit of 4d an acre; an end to manorial fines; no forced labour; a free and full pardon for all those currently in a state of rebellion; and the execution of the men responsible for the imposition of the poll tax.

Much to the astonishment of all present Richard agreed to every one of the demands except that to hand over the 16 Lords of the Realm and Royal Officials including John of Gaunt and the powerful Duke of Lancaster for summary execution declaring that he who is found guilty of a crime will be punished subject to the law.

Disappointed that the men on their death list would be spared for now the rebels were no longer willing to take the King at his word and demanded he put his concessions in writing. Again he agreed and 30 scribes were assigned to draw up the appropriate charters.

If Richard was merely seeking to divide and rule then it worked for many of the rebels now departed for home but others remained not trusting the King to be faithful while his evil counsellors continued to stand at his right hand.

While the King was negotiating with the rebels at Mile End violence had once again broken out in London. News had leaked that both the hated Robert Hales and Simon Sudbury had taken refuge in the Tower of London which was now attacked.  Although it was heavily guarded and should have been a place of safety someone had treacherously lowered the drawbridge and unlocked the gates. Hundreds of rebels flooded into the courtyard and began to rampage through the buildings as the troops assigned to its defence simply disappeared – the great dining area, the kitchens, the royal bedchambers, all were trashed and looted as the mob sought out the targets of their rage.

The King’s mother Joan of Kent was quickly spirited away but neither Hales nor Sudbury were so fortunate. They had fled to the White Tower but it afforded them little protection. Despite Sudbury’s threat of interdiction should they be harmed and that the Wrath of God would be upon them he, Robert Hales, the Royal Physician William Appleton, and a guard John Legge were roughly dragged to Tower Hill and beheaded it taking seven swipes of the axe to decapitate the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Learning of the attack upon the Tower and informed that his mother was safe Richard was taken to the ‘Great Wardrobe,’ a fortified house in Blackfriars where he held an emergency meeting of the Royal Council.

Panic was the watchword and the exchanges heated as both flight and abdication were discussed and it seems that the young King was one of the few who kept a level head .He had bought valuable time at Mile End he told them and would do so again by meeting with the Kentish rebels at Smithfield – if what transpired thereafter was pre-planned we cannot know.

While the killing in London continued Richard was taken under cover of darkness to Westminster Abbey where he prayed before the shrine of Edward the Confessor.

The atmosphere at Smithfield was tense as the two camps lined up similar to opposing armies. The rebels though much diminished in number from before were still far greater than the forces available to the King and they were armed many with bows and halberds stolen earlier from the Tower of London. They were prepared to fight and as Wat Tyler rode out alone to meet with the King his guards formed a protective ring around him.

Tyler dismounted from his horse and strode confidently toward Richard, an evident swagger in his step before bowing unconvincingly shaking him by the hand and calling him brother, all the time nervously fingering the hilt of his dagger. He then made it plain that he was not satisfied with the concessions made at Mile End and that he had further demands that must be met; the money raised by the most recent poll Tax to be returned and redistributed; the entire nobility with the exception of the King and his immediate heirs must be abolished; and John Ball is to be appointed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Richard agreed, and even the brash Tyler was stunned into momentary silence, before declaring himself parched on such a hot day and calling for a flagon of ale to slake his thirst, which he downed with alacrity before wiping his mouth in dismissive fashion and belching in the presence of the King.

Acknowledging that a deal had been struck Tyler remounted his horse and began to ride back toward his men. It was now that one of the King’s retinue, a young squire by the name of John Newton shouted out:

“You are the greatest robber and thief in all of Kent and England.”

Tyler drew his dagger and rounded on the young man at which point the Lord Mayor of London William Walworth, offended by Tyler’s lack of deference toward the King intervened and remonstrated angrily with him as the Royal Guards swarmed around to conceal events from the rebels looking on.

Tyler struck at Walworth but the blow was deflected by the Mayor’s armour. Walworth then retaliated, striking Tyler in the neck and so the fight continued until struggling free of the melee Tyler kicked on toward his men calling on them to intervene but he got no further than a hundred paces before he fell from his horse – the King’s men were upon him in an instant.

Had the rebels attacked the Plantagenet Monarchy may have ended there and then but it was the 14 year old Richard who now seized the initiative as riding towards the rebels he shouted:

“You shall have no Captain, but me.”

The words had been carefully chosen, their meaning deliberately ambiguous – was he now their leader or was it a reassertion of Royal authority? The rebels did not attack they remained passive, some even cheered. Richard now demanded that they follow him to Clerkenwell Fields. Some wandered away, but most did as instructed.

In the meantime, Tyler’s body had been carried off to nearby St Bartholemew’s Abbey from where it was later removed and decapitated the head being struck on a pole and taken to Clerkenwell where Richard was preparing to address the rebels. Reinforced by troops of the London Garrison who had earlier been too afraid to show their faces they now heard a very different King:

“You wretches detestable on land and sea, you who seek equality with Lords and are unworthy to live give this message to your colleagues; rustics you are and rustics you shall remain, you will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher; for as long as we live we will strive to suppress you and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you are faithful. Choose now which course you want to follow.”

As the Royal troops surrounded them and the King berated them for their treason the rebels discarded their arms, fell to their knees, and begged for mercy.

The King’s concessions were now rescinded and the charters drawn up burned, while law and order was restored by force. A rebellion that just days earlier had threatened to tear down the entire structure of society in medieval England would be crushed within weeks.

But even as the events in London unfolded to the rebels, detriment the revolt continued to spread in other parts of the country. In Suffolk rebels led by John Wrawe stormed the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds before hunting down and killing the hated Sir John Cavendish, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench; in Cambridge churches were burned and the esteemed College of Corpus Christi ransacked; the city of Norwich fell to the rebels with the local Justices put to the sword while similar acts of violence were reported as far north as Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

In places where charters had been received they were already being acted upon. In St Albans for example, where permission to demolish the Abbey had been granted, fences had been placed around it, prisoners released from its dungeons, and documents were being burned in its courtyard.

But the newly resurgent Royal Authority would crush all dissent without equivocation and little if any compassion but news of Wat Tyler’s death travelled slowly.

On 28 June, the Essex rebels who had not yet dispersed were cornered at Billiericay by the Royal Army of Sir Thomas of Woodstock and defeated in a pitched battle that left more than 500 of them dead with the survivors receiving little succour from the local population who now wanted nothing to do with them.

The Peasants’ Revolt no longer had the support of the peasants as was made clear when the King’s call for volunteers to crush it was heeded in great numbers by those who had previously participated in it but were now desperate to prove their loyalty.

The last significant engagement occurred at North Walsham in Norfolk where loyal troops under Henry le Dispenser, the Bishop of Norwich, defeated a rebel army led by Geoffrey Lister.

By the end of June it was all over and the retribution began, thousands of rebels had already been killed in fighting and acts of arbitrary violence now it was the turn of the Courts to bring justice where order had already been restored. John of Gaunt was particularly eager to bring to account those responsible for destroying his London residence and retrieving what of his treasure remained but he was to be largely thwarted in both.

John Ball had escaped the events at Smithfield and fled north but was too well known a figure to remain at liberty for long and on 11 July was arrested near Coventry. Returned to St Albans he was tried for treason. In his testimony to the Court he neither denied his involvement in the revolt nor recanted his religious beliefs. Found guilty he was hung, drawn, and quartered in the presence of the King. His skewered head was then displayed upon London Bridge while his four quarters were likewise distributed among nearby towns.

Just a month after the start of the rebellion he had done so much to provoke Thomas Baker was similarly hunted down and executed.

The renegade soldier Thomas Wootton was arrested following Smithfield and chose trial by combat over trial by jury, he lost.

In the months following the restoration of peace Richard travelled the country accompanied by a large army where going from town to town he  promised no further retribution where a willingness was shown to indicate who among them were the ringleaders of the revolt.

Besides the thousands who were punished in the immediate aftermath of the Peasant’s Revolt many others simply melted back into society; the wine merchant John Mocking returned to his business selling the finest victuals to the wealthy of London among them John of Gaunt; John and Joan Ferrour returned home with their booty where they were generous to their friends; Richard Scott was arrested many times in the years to come but for theft and fraud never treason.

The Peasants’ Revolt, the most serious threat ever posed to the status quo in England had been suppressed but no less important for the future of the Monarchy  and the maintenance of the social order was that it should be quickly forgotten – and so it was.