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The History Press blog

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    The RAF of the 1970s was much bigger than it is today and recruited its pilots from many walks of life.  Through the University Air Squadron scheme it aimed at the brightest and the best to fill places in the cockpits of such aircraft as the Harrier, Jaguar, Hercules and Puma.  But it first had to train instructors to teach them.

    There is success and failure, literal ups and downs and humorous anecdotes, such as the time when I flew backwards along the River Clyde. 

      'When we arrived over Loch Lomond it was very rough, but he was not feeling airsick and he was coping reasonably well. As we climbed higher we had to do so on a westerly heading because we would otherwise have drifted east at a rapid rate of knots. We managed to do a stall at 6,000ft and a loop and then we were at the eastern limit of our area. Beating our way back into wind to give us some free airspace took ages. When we got there a couple of turns to look all around us, and one more aerobatic manoeuvre, had us back at square one. I told him that we were losing the battle and encouraged him to stick the nose down, leave max rpm on the engine and descend at 140kts to 2,000ft. We flew almost sideways down to Dumbarton rock and then I had an idea for a bit of a ‘wheeze’.

      ‘I have control, you relax for a while,’ I said. I then turned right instead of left, pointing down the Clyde towards Helensburgh instead of up the river towards Glasgow. I selected full flap and slowed down to 45kts and looked over the side. Sure enough we were making slow progress backwards over the centre of the river! The radar controller called on the radio to ask my position; he said that we seemed to have disappeared from his display. I told him where we were, but he said that he couldn’t see us. At this very slow rearwards speed we probably looked like one of the many ships coming upriver to Glasgow.

    A formation of three UGSAS Chipmunks over Glasgow Airport in 1969

    I kept up this jape for about five more minutes and then I thought that I would let the controller off the hook. I increased power, raised the flap and turned downwind and up-river.'

    There were some exciting tales as well, such as the time I nearly got into a ‘dogfight’ with a USAF Phantom fighter.

    'On another day I was flying with a student who was nearing the time for his Instrument rating Test. He was practicing steep turns with the instrument flying blind on his helmet visor so that he couldn’t see out. I was looking out to make sure that we didn’t hit anybody. Then I spotted an aircraft, turning equally hard, looking like he was trying to set up for a dogfight. As we got closer to each other I could see that it was a camouflaged McDonnell F4 Phantom in USAF markings. I thought that it was probably from the ‘Wild Weasel’ wing at RAF Lakenheath. He was burning a lot of gas and pulling hard. One thing that I had learnt in Germany was that pilots of high performance aircraft had to work very hard to out-turn a Canberra. The big wing gave us lots of lift and with full power we could turn in a very small circle with the speed down at around 190kts; that made us an extremely difficult target, despite our size. I told my student to relax and I took control. He lifted his visor and started to help me keep track of our ‘opponent’. As the Phantom started to gain an advantage, I used a trick I had learnt on my first tour.

     Canberra T17 WH 874 of No 360 Squadron, RAF Cottesmore

    I rolled out of the turn and simultaneously extended the airbrakes, opened the bomb doors and pushed the nose down into a 60° dive. The drag from the airbrakes and bomb doors stopped the speed building up too quickly and as we descended I saw the Phantom zoom past us. We had virtually stopped our forward speed right in front of him.   He now pulled up and turned back towards us again. I levelled off to see what he would do next. He descended towards us and pulled into a close formation position on our left wingtip. I could clearly see the pilot. Then it suddenly struck me. Perhaps all he had been trying to do was to get close to us so that he could indicate that he had lost his radio and wanted us to shepherd him down through the cloud cover

    Back to an airfield. By way of a visual query, I held up an arm with an upturned thumb at its end. He dropped his mask, returned the thumbs up, made an exaggerated wiping of his brow gesture and then lit both his afterburners and swung up and away right over our heads. We could clearly hear the roar of his jet exhaust. Obviously his radios were fine and he just wanted to have a bit of fun. I put ‘Bloggs’ back under the hood and we continued as briefed. It had been a rare and welcome diversion from the daily grind!'

    Follow Me Through by Mike Brooke

    To find out more about the life of a flying instructor, read Follow Me Through by Mike Brooke

    Follow Me Through is the Mike Brooke's follow-up to his very successful debut title,  “A Bucket of Sunshine”, in which he tells of his own journey into military aviation and the three years he spent on a Canberra squadron based in Germany in the mid 1960’s, at the height of the Cold War.


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    Earl's Court

    Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre is undeniably a historical icon; the home of dramatic and perennial UK exhibitions since before the present structure was built, starting in 1886/7 when audiences were gripped by the thrills of Buffalo Bill and his cowboy spectaculars, as well as Roman chariot races.  Since then everything from Crufts Dog Show, the Royal Tournament, The Ideal Home Exhibition, the Royal Smithfield Show, the National Boat Show, the Motor Show, the World Travel Market and countless mega concerts have rolled in and out of their cavernous halls. 

    All that is about to come to an end, with the final approval of a major new development after several years of legal opposition by nearby residents and the exhibition industry, covering not just the Earl’s Court Exhibition envelope but, 761 existing residential property alongside Earl’s Court also.  The new development will raise both sites to the ground and construct 800 new housing units within a 20,000sq.ft.  area, called the Lillie Square Development, as the first phase of the creation of a new London district with a five-acre “lost river park”, 4 new urban villages, leisure facilities, affordable housing and refurbished railway stations all around it.  Interestingly, the naming of this area, Lillie Square, harks back to the first development of this space in March 1869 when the Lillie Bridge Athletic Ground opened.  As such, this was the first link with the present Earls Court Exhibition Centre nearby.  Before then, it had simply been covered with small farms and market gardens.  

    It has to be said that Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre has been viewed by many for some time as being long past its ideal sell-by date.  The rise of the more modern and more flexible ExCel in London’s Docklands has been relentless, and has accounted for the loss of much of Earl’s Court’s hitherto stalwart and reliable business. Now the emphasis on West London is being centred on Olympia (the sister flagship of Earl’s Court) evidenced by the recent completion of a £30m investment.

    It’s an object lesson for the UK event industry and those who own, run, or manage exhibition halls and centres in London.  Buildings that were built over a century ago for these purposes were fit for them at that time but, unless they are regularly maintained and upgraded to fit today’s exacting requirements, their owners will take cold hard decisions to either change their use, or redevelop.  

    I have personally witnessed this change with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lawrence Hall, a similarly historical building and exhibition hall of some architectural significance but which, ultimately, proved very expensive to maintain, upgrade, and compete with more modern and dedicated venues.  The result was that the RHS took the sensible decision to lease this building to Westminster School for their use as an internal sports facility.  There were other factors involved in this decision, not least of which was the difficulty encountered with residents which surround it. 

    In today’s sensitive environment where commerce, noise and disturbance too often clashes with residential aspirations for quiet and traffic-free disturbance (even the Royal Albert Hall gets complaints) the dedicated venue built fit-for-purpose beyond the rarefied atmosphere of a residential zone, has to be the preferred way forward.  


    Sweet Peas, Suffragettes and Showmen

    René Dee is the author of Sweet Peas, Suffragettes and Showmen: Events that Changed the World in RHS Halls.

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  • 01/24/14--05:30: The Friday Digest 24/01/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features buttock cupping, heresy and an all-digital library ...

    Generals on horseback. Image from

    Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about the First World War debunked

    Image for Life in the trenches

    * Just how did so many soldiers survive the trenches?

    File photo: former Japanese imperial army soldier Hiroo Onoda (right) offering his military sword to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (left) to express his surrender at the Malacanan Palace in Manila, Philippines, 11 March 1974

    * Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese World War Two soldier who refused to surrender has died this week in Tokyo, aged 91. He remained in the jungle on Lubang Island near Luzon, in the Philippines, until 1974 because he did not believe that the war had ended.

    Catrin o Ferain (c) National Museum Wales


    * portrait of sixteenth-century Welsh noblewoman, Catrin of Berain was discovered in the art collection of Nazi Hermann Goering, but how did it get there?


    Pope Francis met with Abraham Skorka at the Vatican in September. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP


    * Rabbi Abraham Skorka has said that Pope Francis wants to open the Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII's reign during the Second World War, to determine whether the Catholic Church could have done more to stop the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII led the Catholic Church from 1939 until 1958 and has been widely criticised for the decision to stay silent.

    On a farm deep in the countryside 100 miles (160km) west from Sao Paulo, a football team has lined up for a commemorative photograph. What makes the image extraordinary is the symbol on the team's flag - a swastika.

    * Cruzeiro do Sul farm near Campina do Monte Alegre: the Brazilian ranch where Nazis kept slaves.


    Image from


    * The Second World War's toxic legacy of ill health and depression.


    Unveiling of the Alderney tapestry


    * Alderney's home-made piece of the Bayeux Tapestry is to be exhibited in the Bayeux Tapestry museum, Normandy, France. After experts suggested that the Bayeux Tapestry was incomplete as it did not feature William the Conqueror's Christmas Day coronation in 1066, islanders took up the challenge to finish the work and made a 10-foot panel in a year.

    * Andrew Self asks what is history?

    Human Osteology researcher Dr Katie Tucker and King Alfred the Great (c) DAVID HARTLEY/TOPHAM PICTUREPOINT]

    * Bones believed to be those of Alfred the Great, have been discovered languishing in a box in Winchester City Museum - and not buried in an unmarked grave as previously thought.


    Fra Mauro Map of the World

    Terra Incognita to Australia is an exhibition that  displays maps which changed the way the medieval and modern worlds were viewed and shaped. 


    Jews accused of being heretics dying at the stake – AKG Images


    Burned at the stake: your 60-second guide to heresy from History Extra.

    Man with trousers down

    * A look at buttock cupping and other health 'cures'

    A graphic crime broadsheet published in 16th-century Zurich reports on a murder.

    * Early newspapers in pictures.

    A tophet outside Carthage, a special part of a cemetery dedicated to the burial of infants, according to Josephine Quinn. Photograph: Josephine Quinn

    * Have archaeologists finally found proof that the Carthaginians sacrificed their own children? 

     Book shelf. Image from


    * 5 things Publishing Perspectives learnt at Digital Book World 2014

    Does women’s fiction need a shelf of its own?

    * The all-digital library in Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio has proved to be a big hit with locals and visitors alike, but is a library without print books really a library at all? 


     Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    The 25th January, the anniversary of Burns’  birth, is the night when thousands of Burns Suppers take place across Scotland and across the world – a tradition that dates back to 1802, just a few years after Burns’ death. The highlight is the parade of the haggis – often accompanied by a piper – followed by the recitation of Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’. Oh, and everyone sings ‘Auld Lang Syne’. All accompanied by lashings of whisky.

    As the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns has naturally been eulogised, canonised, mythologised and, at times, sanitised. None of this has detracted from his brilliance and his enduring legacy, which continues to inspire both writers and ordinary Scots to this day.

    Robert Burns

    * Like William Shakespeare in England, everything concerned with Burns’ life and work remains of abiding interest. Burns came from a humble background in Ayrshire, growing up with the hard manual labour of farming. He began to write poetry at the age of 15.

    * Like many ambitious young men of the period, Burns was convinced the only way he could rise out of his dire financial situation was to emigrate to Jamaica. The voyage was called off when his first collection, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, became an unexpected success. All 612 copies sold out in the first month. It was 1786, and farmer Rabbie was about to take the Scottish literary world by storm. Soon, he was being lionised in Edinburgh society.

    * Burns’ poetry is often characterised by themes of solidarity, fairness, equality, liberalism and even proto-socialism. You wonder what this humanitarian would have made of working on a slave plantation.

    * By 1787 the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’ had rocketed to fame and was widely regarded as the national bard. So, like any hardworking author, he went out and promoted his work. His tours of the Borders, the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and Stirlingshire were largely commercial in nature, but they also allowed him to collect traditional ballads and folk songs. Some of his finest work appeared in the six volumes of The Scots Musical Museum.

    * Again, like many authors, Burns’ cultural success was not matched by an equivalent financial reward. He tried to return to farming, and then worked for the unpopular excise (tax gatherers).

    * The years of pitiless farm labour took their toll of Burns’ health. Prematurely aged, he died in Dumfries in 1796, at the age of just 37.

    * In 2009 stv (Scottish television) conducted a viewers’ poll to find who was regarded as the greatest Scot of all time. Burns won hands down.

    * Burns wrote the words for one of the most-sung songs in the world: the New Year anthem ‘auld Lang Syne’. Which, loosely translated from scots, means roughly ‘in remembrance of old times’. 

    * His song ‘Scots Wha Hae’ with its patriotic tub-thumping, was the unofficial national anthem of Scotland for almost 200 years, and is the official party song of the Scottish national Party.

    * In 1965 World Heavyweight Champion boxer Muhammad ali (then Cassius Clay) visited the Burns Country in Ayrshire and quipped in typical rhyming style: ‘they told me his work was very, very neat,  so I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?’’

    Probably the best-known piece of Scottish supernaturalism is Burns’ 1791 narrative poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’, which is read aloud at Burns suppers. Tam, having been drinking late, is passing Alloway Kirk (which is still there in south Ayrshire) when he sees witches and warlocks having a knees-up, the host of the dread party being the Devil himself. tam draws attention to himself when he shouts in approval at the appearance of an attractive semi-naked witch, and he only just escapes the subsequent hot pursuit by reaching the sanctuary of Alloway Bridge – the witches, as tradition demands, cannot cross running water, but the closest witch manages to pull out the tail of tam’s horse Meg just as he reaches safety.


    Extracted from The Little Book of Scotland by Geof Holder.

    The Little Book of Scotland is a funny, fast-paced, fact-packed compendium of frivolous, fantastic or simply strange information on Scottish Heritage.

    The Little Book of Scotland by Geoff Holder

    From Sir Walter Scott to Sir Sean Connery, Queen Victoria to Mary Queens of Scots, The Little Book of Scotland by Geoff Holder is packed full of Scottish History. 

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    Jane Austen died aged only 41, didn’t marry, never had children and lived out her days in the south of England, rarely straying from the genteel and orthodox social circle into which she was born. She completed only six full length novels, and tasted only brief and limited fame in her lifetime.

    Yet, 200 years after her death, she is one of the world’s most revered writers, a literary giant, her life the topic of dozens of biographies, her work the subject of thousands of academic studies. In recent decades, her novels have frequently been adapted for television and film. The internet has spawned countless blogs and websites on which all things Austen are analysed and adored. There are mugs, and tea towels, and t-shirts, and books of Jane Austen quotations, and instructions on just how manners maketh man – and woman – according to her expert word.   

    A coloured engraving based on the Cassandra portrait. (c. 1873)

    Novels have been written in imitation of her own, in tribute to her own and in completion of her own. There are sequels, parodies and eroticised versions of her writings, and, most entertainingly perhaps, contemporary mash-ups, including recent bestseller
    Pride and Prejudiceand Zombies, which bears the subtitle, ‘The Classic Regency Romance – now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!’ Jane, who was not at all averse to a good parody, and wrote several of her own, would probably have found all this adoring preoccupation with her work highly amusing. As she once wrote:

    ‘I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

    In this hyper-connected world, why do we still care so much for her stories, drawn in the far-off days of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on to such a small canvas, ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’, as Jane Austen herself once called it. ‘You are now collecting our People

    delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,’ she advised her aspiring novelist niece Anna, in 1814.Her own novels rarely extend beyond these parameters, and the biggest dramas we encounter are broken engagements, sprained ‘ancles’ and that now quaint social crime: elopement.

    Despite the fact that she lived in turbulent times, there are no wars in Jane Austen. Poverty and rural crime, which was all too present even in her limited world, rate scarcely a mention. Her plots can be summarised as: girl meets boy and eventually, after varying obstacles are overcome, they marry.

    And yet there’s still something about Jane, far beyond the famous romances which are the subject of her novels. Over 200 years after they were written they still capture the complexities of human beings, and the nuances of their relationships, with all their joys, tensions, contradictions and ironies – and they continue to beguile readers the world over.

    This spinster novelist with little experience of the wider world, raised on a diet of swooning, unrealistic tales of love and scandal, was a genius at observing and describing ordinary human behaviour. Her narratives are immensely satisfying because of the sophistication of their construction and the precise brilliance of the style with which they are told. Her dialogue never sounds less than true.

    Sir Walter Scott, the most popular novelist of his day, was one of the first to recognise Austen’s talent in this respect, declaring himself envious of her ‘exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment’.  Genteel ladies and gentlemen, whose behaviour rarely deviates from acceptable social norms, her characters may be, but as she declares in Emma, what Jane Austen understood so well was that ‘seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human discourse’.

    Scratch the surface of her characters’ polite social exchanges and universal, timeless human dilemmas emerge. Is this man all he seems to be? Is my friend true? Am i really in love? Hypochondriacs are annoying. Some girls are very silly. Some men are only out for what they can get. Some women only care about money. Austen’s insights into what goes on in the human head and heart beneath the social veneer are second to none. The smallest telling detail – a word, a turn of phrase, a witty aside, a foolish remark, a look, a look away – can reveal the innermost workings of her characters’ hearts and minds.

    Virginia Woolf once remarked that of all great writers, Jane Austen was ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’.  it is her minute attention to detail that makes Austen such a giant of a writer and such a favourite of so many readers. Her novels can be returned to again and again, throughout life, because on each reading they will reveal something new. Read her as a teenager and, despite Jane’s own protestations that she couldn’t write a ‘serious romance’ to save her life, her novels present themselves as love stories, where the heroine always gets the right man in the end, but finds out things she needs to know about him and about herself along the way. Read them when older, and perhaps more cynical about life and relationships, and her characters reveal not so much their romantic aspirations but the extent to which property, status, health and wealth preoccupy them. 

    In short, Jane Austen’s stories give her readers a profound sense of her characters’ inner lives. Whatever your thoughts on Austen, her influence, especially on other writers, cannot be underestimated.

    Extracted from Jane Austen pocket GIANTS by Caroline Sanderson

    Jane Austen Pocket Giants

    To read more on Jane Austen, browse our selection of books and find out just what makes Jane so special. 

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  • 01/31/14--04:30: The Friday Digest 31/01/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features Holocaust Memorial Day, the 'secret' Tube and recycled movie costumes.

    Home Depot in Regents Park, London

    * During the First World War, up to 12 million letters a week were delivered to soldiers, many on the front line. How did they get there?

    Blackadder Goes Fourth

    * This week, the Government's Special Representative for the Great War centenary commemorations, Dr Andrew Murrison, called on people to keep politics out of the First World War anniversary, but can it be done? 

    The soldier, 67, who became WW1's oldest victim

    * The story of Henry Webber, the 67-year-old soldier who became one of the First World War's oldest victims.

    Private Joseph Bailey of the York and Lancashire Regiment from Sheffield was killed at The Somme (c) Rex

    * Drunk, broke and obsessed with sex, the British Tommies of 1914 were unlikely heroes.

    Henry Tandey, First World War, portrait


    * Private Henry Tandey VC: The man who didn’t shoot Hitler

    Map of Europe 1871-1914

    * Never again? Upon the centenary of the First World War, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, asks people to heed the lessons of 1914


    Inmates of Auschwitz were marked with tattoos. Sam Pivnick, a survivor of the camp, had to sweep 'shit, piss and bodies' from the trains as they arrived. Photograph: Mimi Mollica


    * The 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day and the annual commemoration offers the perfect opportunity to ensure that each generation never forgets the horrors that were perpetrated in the concentration camps. Holocaust survivors share their stories whilst Martin Winstone looks at tourism and the Holocaust.

    * Safe house: the centre for Holocaust survivors in North London.

    This is an aerial view of the city of London around St. Paul's Cathedral showing bomb-damaged areas in April of 1945. (AP Photo) #

    * The Second World War: a stunning collection of photos that offer a retrospective look at life after the war.

    A U.S. serviceman rifles through art treasures at a former Luftwaffe barracks (c) Getty Images

    * The true story of the 'Monument Men' who saved the world's art treasures from Hitler and the Nazis.


    Lord Northcliffe: a press baron with a sense of humour

    * Richard J. Evans asks was Lord Northcliffe the ultimate practical joker?  

    The ruin of the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents on the edge of the border with Armenia, in Ani, the now-uninhabited capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom in Kars at the Turkey-Armenia border. (AP Photo) #

    * Stunning images of the ancient ghost city of Ani: 'the city of a thousand and one churches'

    Downton Abbey

    Anne Helen Petersen discusses the real fantasy of Downton Abbey.  

    This blue Victorian gown

    * WARNING: be prepared to spend your entire lunch hour on this blog - recycled movie costumes (because you know you have seen that dress somewhere else before!)

    Main Rail trail waits in tunnel (c) Bradley Phtotography

    * What is it like on the ‘secret' Tube? Deep under the streets of the capital, a disused railway tunnel known as the London Post Office Railway stretches for 6 miles. After being shut for a decade, there are now plans to reopen it as a tourist ride.

    The Prima Porta Augustus statue, first century BC

    * Christopher Smith revels in reappraisals of both Augustus, 2,000 years after his death, and of Cleopatra, the so-nearly queen of Rome.

    A coracle (c) Wikimedia Commons

    * Was Noah's Ark round?


    Detail from an 1842 trial scene at the old bailey, depicting court officials, judges, jurymen and lawyers.

    * Australia or jail: which was worse for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century criminals?  


     Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Friends. But for how long?

    If you thought the Cold War between East and West reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, then think again. 1945 was the year when Europe was the crucible for a Third World War.

    So concerned was the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that in the spring of that year he ordered his Chiefs of Staff to prepare a plan, ‘Operation Unthinkable’ to attack the Soviet Empire. The top secret plan was so sensitive that only Churchill’s immediate circle of military advisors were privy to the blueprint. The detailed proposal, which may seem fanciful today, sought to claw back East Germany and Poland, which had fallen under Soviet domination. Churchill felt particularly guilty over the fate of the Poles, who had fought valiantly for the Allies during the war but whose future was now dictated by Stalin.  

    If Churchill wanted to act, he knew that time was running out. The United States were about to move vast numbers of their troops and ordnance out to the Far East for the assault on mainland Japan, leaving Western Europe at the mercy of Stalin. Furthermore, demobilisation would start after VE Day and would rapidly reduce the size of the British Army and their capacity for offensive action.

    The Big Three at Yalta

    The plan called for a massive Allied assault on 1 July 1945 by British, American, Polish and German – yes German – forces against the Red Army. They aimed to push them back out of Soviet-occupied East Germany and Poland, give Stalin and bloody nose, and force him to re-consider his domination of East Europe. But the plan was fraught with danger and the Allied force risked being dragged deeper into Soviet territory to face the nightmare of fighting in a Russian winter. The ghosts of Hitler and Napoleon were never far away.

    Eventually in June 1945 Churchill’s military advisors cautioned him against implementing the plan, but it still remained a blueprint for a Third World War. There were numerous flashpoints around Europe, where Allied troops were face-to-face with the Red Army and any of these confrontations could have sparked another world conflict. The Americans had just successfully tested an atomic bomb, and there was now the final temptation of obliterating Soviet centres of population.   

    But Churchill’s political days were numbered. In July 1945 a General Election removed him from office and the plan for ‘Operation Unthinkable’ was but away in the bottom drawer. Churchill, alone amongst Western leaders, appreciated the Soviet threat, and it was only a matter of months before the Americans themselves woke up to the threat from Stalin and consulted the British military about a new war plan. The Cold War was now a reality.

    Operation Unthinkable

    Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War, written by Jonathan Walker, explores Churchill’s chilling plan. Using a wide range of primary sources, he outlines the background and unfolding drama surrounding ‘the war that never was.’

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    The power and functions of the monarch have never ceased to evolve, and rules of succession have been flexed to suit the needs of the time or the demands of the ruler. The area, people and customs of the kingdom have also changed. So we cannot picture William the Conqueror wrangling with parliament any more than we can imagine George IV lading his troops into battle.

    Made for Charles II, this crown is only used at the coronation

    Just as the monarch’s power and duties have changed, so have ideas about continuity. In ancient times, military leadership was a vital part of kingship, so it was thought best for the Crown to pass through the male line from father to son, or from brother to brother, or (as in Scotland in the early middle ages) to a king’s most respected kinsman.

    As the rules stood before the birth of Prince George (and the time of Queen Elizabeth’s succession), when a monarch had sons and daughters, the sons were first to inherit. The children (sons and daughters) of a monarch’s eldest son would take precedent over a third son and so on. Only if a monarch had no living son - and no grandchildren through a son – would that monarch be succeeded by a daughter.

     The Windsor Family Tree

    The descendants of Queen Victoria already number in the hundreds, and thousands of people could trace their ancestry back to a medieval king such as Edward III. Ancestry alone does not ensure the survival of the monarchy. It must adapt to change and earn respect through staying functional, while carrying on traditions that served previous generations well.

    Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born at 17 Burton Street, London on 21st April 1926. A happy childhood was spent with her parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, and younger sister Margaret Rose. Present at her parents’ coronation in 1937 after the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936, at the age of fourteen she broadcast to the children of the empire.

    With the succession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, the line of succession became secure. She is the mother of four Children, grandmother to eight and a great-grandmother. In 2013, laws changed to allow equal succession rights to both sons and daughters – ensuring that the unborn child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would become third in line to the throne.

    The Queen is now the longest reigning British monarch since Queen Victoria. Her Silver (1977) and Golden (2002) Jubilees were marked by parties and parades that helped restore the image of a royal family battered by intrusive media in an age determined to ditch deference.  

    *extracts taken from Kings & Queens by Brenda Williams, Royal Babies by Annie Bullen and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II - Diamond Jubilee Souvenir 1952 - 2012 by Annie Bullen

    The Windsor coat of arms

    Find out more about the Royal Family with our selection of royals books. 

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    It is well known that the title prince of Wales is the birth-right of the king of England’s eldest son. It is also reasonably well known that English monarchs have seen this office as being within their prerogative to bestow since 1282. In that year, Edward I engineered the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native ruler to be recognised as prince of Wales by the English crown.

    The badge of the Prince of Wales (source:'s_feathers)

    What is less well known is how and why Wales found itself as a principality rather than a kingdom.

    The key date to consider is 1063, and the key man is Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the last king of Wales and a ruler who came closer than any other to becoming the figure for Wales that Alfred is to the English, Charlemagne is to the French and Kenneth MacAlpin is to the Scots.

    Post-Roman Wales had developed along lines that are comparable to the rest of post-Roman western Europe. The area had become territorially defined during the Roman era, the flexible groupings of kin lands that had developed in prehistoric times coalescing under the empire’s administration then emerging as kingdoms after the legions’ withdrawal. The leaders of those petty kingdoms vied with the early Anglo-Saxon warlords for land and power, but the realistic ambitions of ‘Welsh’ rulers for pan-British domination were brought to an end in the seventh century. With horizons narrowed, four major kingdoms emerged as the dominant entities within Wales: Powys, Gwynedd, Dyfed/Deheubarth and Glamorgan. Below these over-kingdoms there remained a large number of smaller entities, whose rulers clung to royal nomenclature with varying degrees of success.

    Kingdoms of medieval Wales (source: The Last King of Wales)

    There were many obstacles – both internal and external – to the formation of a single kingdom of Wales. But a distinct Welsh identity emerged at this time, reflected in language, law, religion, culture and mythology. A series of successful kings emerged who were able to project their power over large parts of the country as a whole, men such as Anarawd ap Rhodri Mawr, Hywel Dda, Maredudd ab Owain and Llywelyn ap Seisyll. The native chronicle labelled such men with the grandiloquent term ‘King of the Britons’.

     Gruffudd, though, took things to an entirely new level. He united all the territories that comprise modern Wales, conquered land across the border that had been in English hands for centuries, forged alliances with key Anglo-Saxon dynasties and turned the Viking threat to his realm into a powerful weapon in his hands. In 1055, Gruffudd led a great army and fleet against the English border, crushing its defenders, burning Hereford and forcing Edward the Confessor to recognise his status as an under-king within the British Isles, leaving Wales as a united and independent state for the only time in its long history. Having emerged as a war leader, Gruffudd would also prove to be more, a patron of the arts and the church. He had the trappings of a king, including impressive wealth, courts throughout the country, professional ministers, a powerful household and a strong naval presence. At the height of his powers he was described by a native source in imperial terms as ‘King Gruffudd, sole and pre-eminent ruler of the British’.

    Gruffudd ap Lllywelyn (By permission of The National Library of Wales)

    His power did not sit well with many of the conquered localities of Wales, though, lands formerly ruled by men who still considered themselves kings. Such leaders found a formidable Anglo-Saxon ally in Harold Godwinesson, and their bloody campaign against Gruffudd ended with the king being betrayed and beheaded by his own countrymen. The leaders who had turned against Gruffudd agreed a humiliating submission of Wales to King Edward and Earl Harold. Then things got worse.

    As the conquering Normans began to arrive on the Welsh border and Viking raiders returned to the coasts, the surviving ‘kings’ of Wales tore each other apart in a bewildering series of civil wars. The tone taken by English and continental sources in dealing with Welsh nobles became increasingly patronising, a reflection of growing imperial outlooks and of a very real reduction in the power of Welsh leaders. This attitude would not have been lost on the leaders who followed Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, nor on their learned subjects. The last man to be given the title ‘King of the Britons’ by the native chronicler was not a Welshman, but William the Conqueror.

    The surviving Welsh dynasties slowly regrouped in the twelfth century, notably in Gwynedd under the descendants of the man responsible for Gruffudd’s death, Cynan ab Iago. Men like Cynan’s grandson, Owain Gwynedd, and his thirteenth-century descendants, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, would revive the ambition seen so clearly under Gruffudd, to rule all of Wales. By their day, though, most of the richest lowlands in the south-east and south-west of the country had been irretrievably lost, while eastern border conquests on the scale that Gruffudd had made were never a realistic possibility.

    In these straitened circumstances, and with outside observers ridiculing the status of Welsh kings, ambitious native nobles adopted the novel title of prince (W. tywysog, L. princeps) in order to set them apart from their fellow ‘kings’. When Owain Gwynedd consciously adopted this style in the 1160s, he was at the height of his power and still calling himself king of Gwynedd. Owain added the moniker ‘prince’ in order to reflect his position as leader of the wider Welsh nation. While this may reflect growing Welsh confidence in the later twelfth century, it is impossible not to see the decline in the country’s status and aspirations when compared to the time of Gruffudd.

    The Edwardian castle at Rhuddlan on the River Clwyd, built 300m to the north-west of Guffudd's court at Twthill

    The constitutional position sought by Owain Gwynedd was developed by his grandson Llywelyn ab Iorwerth at the start of the thirteenth century, the latter seeing all the native lords of Wales as his tenants. Llywelyn, his son Dafydd and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd would seek to have this position recognised and ratified by treaty with the king of England. Inherent in their plan was the direct feudal lordship of the king of England over the prince of Wales, leaving it clear that the ‘kingship of the Britons’ was to be sought in London, not in the west of the country.

    The fact that the thirteenth-century principality of Gwynedd was a part of the kingdom of England and its leader one of the king’s magnates was acknowledged by all; no-one would have passed such a judgement on Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, nor on the kingdom of Wales that he had forged.


    The Last King of Wales


    Dr Sean Davies has a PhD in Welsh medieval history and is the author of “Welsh Military Institutions, 633-1283“ (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2003), plus a number of academic articles. He works as a writer and editor. Sean and his brother, Dr Thomas Michael Davies, are co-authors of “The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, c.1013-63” (The History Press, August 2012)

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  • 02/07/14--04:30: The Friday Digest 07/02/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features 'penis captivus', tattoos and the 10 worst couples in literature.


    Infographic showing the effects of explosions on the Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Image from

    * Was the tunnellers’ secret war the most barbaric of the First World War? 


    What does a collection of 100,000 American war letters teach us? Image from


    * Over the course of fifteen years, Andrew Carroll has collected letters by US soldiers from every war in America's history, but what does a collection of 100,000 American war letters teach us?


    The team of women code-breakers who worked in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in 1945. (c) Geoff Robinson 

    * The female codebreakers who operated the first electronic computer during the Second World War



    * A set of maps prepared by the Nazis for Adolf Hitler's planned invasion of Britain has sold at auction for £351. The maps are extremely detailed with both topography and cultural landmarks being mentioned. 

    verdict read out against those accused of trying to assassinate Hitler. Image from


    * The Nazi murder law that is still in effect today: a surviving statute from 1941 means that women who kill their abusive husbands are more likely to be jailed for murder than husbands who beat their wives to death


    The axe-wielding Psychobunny of medieval times.


    * A wonderful medieval image that has being doing the rounds this week: the axe-wielding psychobunny of Medieval times ... 

    Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995 

    * A historical fiction round-up for February 2014 from History Today. 


    Mars and Venus depicted by 16th Century artist Raphael Regius (Special Collections, University of Vermont)

    * 'Penis captivus' has long fascinated the public (there are reports from 1372 about a voluptuary named Pers Lenard and a woman whom God 'tyed hem faste togedre dat night' with the whole town seeing the couple still entwined 'fast like a dogge and biche togedre' the next day,) but can couples really get stuck together during sex?

    Bracknell Library (c) Andrew Weller


    * Hundreds of thousands of research journal articles are to be made available on computers in public libraries. It is hoped that this move will rejuvenate the library industry and encourage more people to use public libraries. 

    Harry Shearer with Henry Goodman in Nixon's The One

    * Harry Shearer is best known for providing the voice of Mr Burns in The Simpsons, but his next role sees him take on former US president Richard Nixon in a series based on the disgraced politician behind closed doors.


    No. 43, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters


     * Art critic Waldemar Januszczak looks at the work of Goya, describing the Capriccios 'as a cycle of nightmarish etchings'.


    Excavation at the Sant'Omobono site in central Rome has provided evidence of early Romans' efforts to transform the landscape of their city.


    * Has the world's oldest Roman temple been discovered in central Rome? 


    14th November 1936: A film fan uses a mirror to admire the image of film star Gary Gooper she has had tattooed on her back by George Burchett a London tattooist (C) Getty Images


    * 'Tattooing is on increase: habit not confined to seamen only,' proclaims one headline, while a second article declares: 'Tattoos are no longer the trophies of rockers, sailors, bikers'. The first appeared in the New York Times in 1908, the second appeared on this website years ago, but why hasn't the way people talk about tattoos changed? 


    Wythe House Study where Thomas Jefferson was taught law, after leaving his studies at the College of William & Mary. License Attribution Some rights reserved by phi1317

    * A 1985 essay on why we should study history...

    Jehol fossils. Image from


    * The 'animal Pompeii' which wiped out China's ancient creatures. The fossil beds of Liaoning province in north-east China, which date to 120-130 million years ago, have long baffled scientists but they now believe that the creatures from the lower Cretaceous era were instantly killed by volcanic eruptions similar to the violent blast that hit Pompeii in AD 79. 


    Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18) 

    El Dorado: a title and a myth.  


    Photo credit: PieterFloore 


    Dodo bones, snow goggles and the Muggletonian view of the world: just some of the things you can find in the University of Cambridge museums. 


    The Mitford family (c) The Mitford Society

    * Miss Chapter's Reviews: The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life

    Claire Danes and Leonardo Dicaprio kiss in the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: Alamy

    * Earlier this week JK Rowling angered fans when she said that Herminone should have married Harry, not Ron as they were better suited, but who are the 10 worst couples in literature? 


    Image from


    19 quirky conundrums only book lovers understand.  


     Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Never Mind the Penalties: The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book - Phil Ascough


    Here’s a question that you won’t find in Never Mind The Penalties – The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book: How many squads at the 2010 World Cup didn’t feature English-based players?

    The total at this year’s tournament will almost certainly be lower, with only Colombia and Russia lacking options from the English leagues as the countdown continues to Brazil 2014.

    Subject to availability – a phrase which embraces such eventualities as injury at the end of a tough domestic season or maybe lengthy suspension after appalling behaviour – Germany will surely select Mesut Özil and Uruguay will pin their hopes on Luis Suárez, both having shone in South Africa and then in the Premier League.

    And if the tournament fails to excite punters and pundits in quite the same way as before then it’s almost certainly down to the fact that we no longer have to wait four years to see the world’s best players. Many of them are in action in our own competitions every week, with the rest beamed to our screens via wall-to-wall coverage of the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.

    The movement which developed into an overseas invasion of players into the English game began as a trickle. Spurs were at the forefront in 1978 when they signed Argentina’s World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricki Villa. Later that year Manchester City recruited the stylish Kazimierz Deyna, who had captained the Poland side which denied England in the 1974 World Cup qualifying campaign.

    Since then countless performers from world football’s biggest stage have paraded their skills...

    Five stars of the World Cup and the Premier League

    Never Mind the Penalties: The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book - Phil Ascough

    Dennis Bergkamp

    A mean streak which surfaced occasionally couldn’t detract from the quality of a player who scored stylish and stunning goals for Arsenal and the Netherlands, notably against Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup.

    Jurgen Klinsmann

    Infuriated fans with his theatrics for the German national side but then brought smiles to their faces with the diving goal celebration which appeared regularly during two successful spells with Spurs.

    Luis Suárez

    A bad boy at the 2010 World Cup with Uruguay and on many occasions since with Liverpool but arguably the most lethal striker in the Premier League and a major threat to England’s hopes of progress this summer.

    Dan Petrescu

    Sheffield Wednesday brought Romania’s attacking full-back to England after he impressed at the 1994 World Cup and he soon made an impact in the Premier League. Chelsea signed him the following year and he became a key player at Stamford Bridge.

    Jay Jay Okocha

    England in 2002 were Jay Jay Okocha’s last opponents in his third World Cup finals. Four seasons at Bolton Wanderers followed and he signed off at Hull City. Had the magical midfielder managed more than 18 appearances, City would surely have won a Premier League place without having to battle through the play-offs.

    World Cup wish list – five legends who would have enhanced the English game

    Never Mind the Penalties: The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book - Phil Ascough

    Gheorghe Hagi

    A mercurial midfielder who starred for Romania at three consecutive World Cups. Nicknamed “the Maradona of the Carpathians”, Hagi played for Real Madrid and Barcelona before leading the transformation of Galatasaray into European contenders. He would have improved any English club of his time.

    Hristo Stoichkov

    Experienced mixed fortunes as Bulgaria exited the 1998 finals without a point four years after shocking holders Germany on their way to the semi-finals. Stoichkov scored the first goal against the Germans and finished as the 1994 tournament’s joint top scorer.

    Paolo Rossi

    Italians have made their mark in the English gave but we have never quite attracted the very best. Paolo Maldini would have been a catch and Totò Schillaci’s goal celebrations would have been a sight to behold. But the addition of Paolo Rossi, hero of the 1982 Finals, would have been a game-changer.

    Zlatan Ibrahimović

    Supremely talented, a prolific goal scorer and with an ego the size of his native Sweden, Ibrahimović would be perfect for the Premier League. Instead he’s delivered outstanding and outrageous performances for the likes of Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona and both Milan clubs, but at the age of 32 there’s still time for a London swansong.

    Zinedine Zidane

    The World Cup has not provided the best stage for Zizou as France lurched from the ecstasy of 1998 to the collective embarrassment of 2002 and his personal shame in 2006. Retirement spared him a hat-trick of humiliations in 2010, but as a player he had it all would have pulled the crowds in the Premier League.

    One to watch in 2014

    Rather than an individual player I’ll be keeping an eye on the team who could just make a mockery of the old joke about ten famous Belgians. Fourth place in 1986 is their best finish so far and they haven’t even qualified for the last two tournaments, but Mignolet in goal, Kompany at the back and Hazard up front are only three reasons why Belgium are a team to avoid in Brazil.

    Oh, and the answer to that question by the way is five: Germany, Italy, Japan, North Korea and Uruguay.


    Never Mind the Penalties: The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book - Phil Ascough


    Never Mind The Penalties: The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book, written by Phil Ascough with a foreword by Kevin Kilbane, will be published by The History Press in the spring.

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    Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers is probably best known as one of the four men who died with Captain Scott in 1912 on their return from the South Pole. Crossing the world from London via South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to Antarctica was not, however, his first experience of long-distance travel. When Henry joined Captain Scott’s expedition in 1910 he was an experienced mariner who had circled the globe four times and had, as a Lieutenant in the Royal Indian Marine (the ‘RIM’), recently served in India, Myanmar (then Burma), Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the Persian Gulf.

    Burma was also an old haunt of Henry’s father, Captain Bowers, an entrepreneurial Scottish sea-captain. The Captain first went to Burma as a young apprentice seaman, including on a perilous journey on the Ramsay in 1841, on which one of the passengers was the famous American Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson, co-founder of Burma’s still thriving Karen Baptist church. By 1868, the Captain was working in Burma permanently and took part in an expedition, led by Captain Sladen, up the 1,000-mile-long Irrawaddy, the aim of which was to re-open an over-land trading route to China. At Mandalay, the royal capital of still-independent upper Burma, the expedition party boarded a ship loaned by the king, accompanied by armed guards, local guides and interpreters – and several elephants. From Bhamo, the highest navigable point on the Irrawaddy, they struggled through jungle and remote tribal areas towards China. When Captain Bowers returned to Rangoon he wrote a formal report (published as Bhamo Expedition, copy in National Library of Scotland), full of facts and figures and descriptions of the countryside and tribes of upper Burma, illustrated by his own quirky sketches. During a short visit to Britain he talked about the expedition and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. The Captain returned to the east and in 1877, in Singapore, married an English missionary teacher Emily Webb; two daughters were born in the east but Henry, the couple’s first son, was born in Greenock in 1883, during one of the Captain’s short stays with his family in Scotland.

    Young Henry Bower’s father soon returned to Burma. In 1887 the Captain became ill; his wife and young Henry set out to join him but by the time they reached India the Captain had already died in Mergui, southern Burma. The Captain left few assets but Henry inherited his father’s love of the sea and, like him, became a sailor at an early age, initially serving in the mercantile navy on round-the-world routes.

    In 1907, two years after joining the RIM (which ranked only after the Royal Navy in prestige), Henry was posted to Burma. By then the last King of Burma had ceded authority to the British and Henry dealt with all levels of British empire officials, from Viceroys to harbour-masters. He learned to navigate the famously treacherous sandbanks of the Irrawaddy and ferried troops and their animals as well as the ‘great and good’ (including the King’s son, the Duke of Connaught) and their sometimes demanding spouses and offspring. In his spare time Henry traced part of his father’s route from Bhamo towards the Chinese border, admired magnificent temples, found traces of gold in rivers and clambered down torrent-filled gorges. As he travelled, he sent long descriptive letters and brief postcards to his mother and sister in Scotland – one colour postcard, of a beautiful Burmese girl in native costume, remained tucked inside the pages of Henry’s copy of Captain Bowers’ report on the 1868 Sladen expedition, unwritten and unposted.

    By the time Henry left Burma in 1909 Rangoon felt like a second home to him, although he preferred the quieter upper reaches of the Irrawaddy. As he left he admitted that he had not managed to see visit his father’s grave in Mergui but noted that an island appeared to have been named after Captain Bowers. Henry was by now, however, eager for promotion and a new posting – and on securing a place on Captain Scott’s recently-announced Terra Nova expedition. In April 1910 he received the longed-for summons from Scott to travel to Antarctica, a largely unmapped continent which had fascinated him since the age of seven – it was time to leave extreme heat and monsoon rains for ice and blizzards.

    Lieutenant Henry Bowers RIM, aged 26, was about to become ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Captain Scott’s marvel.

     Birdie Bowers - Captain Scott's Marvel by Anne Strathie

     To find out more about 'Birdie' Bowers, try Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott's Marvel by Anne Strahie



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     Lionheart: The True Story of England's Crusader King by Douglas Boyd


    Ask people in the street to name one English king, and most would answer, ‘Richard the Lionheart’.  Known to film buffs as ‘King Richard of the Last Reel’, he appears at the end of every Robin Hood epic as the crusader hero returning to right the wrongs suffered by his loyal subjects during his long absence from these shores.  Seeing his grand equestrian statue outside the Palace of Westminster, one might assume he was also a great law-giver.  

    Not so, in his homeland of southwest Francehe was called Ricart Oc-e-No or Tricky Dick.  Forget the myths of chivalry and knights protecting the poor and rescuing damsels in distress.  The twelfth century was a time of constant warfare with no holds barred and Richard was an formidable warrior, whose whole life was spent on campaign.  Once king, he plundered the Exchequer and departed on the Third Crusade with Philip Augustus, the French monarch whose bed he had shared.  The two of them never stopped squabbling and, in the following two years, Richard alienated all his other allies too.   In the Holy Land, he squandered the lives of his followers, slaughtered thousands of civilian hostages and failed to reach Jerusalem despite his brilliant generalship against the forces of Saladin – about which new material has recently become available thanks to Israeli and Australian archeologists.


     Lionheart: The True Story of England's Crusader King by Douglas Boyd


    So, if this was a king who detested England, never learned its language and impoverished the kingdom twice – the second time was to raise his ransom and gain his release from imprisonment inGermany– where did the enduring legend of ‘good king Richard’ originate?  The answer is good old Mum.  To raise the enormous ransom, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine devised a brilliant PR campaign depicting him as a Christian hero.

    Richard’s greatest failing as monarch was to provide no heir to inherit what was then the mightiest empire inEurope. When he was crowned in Westminster Abbey at the age of thirty-one, the only queen present was his formidable mother, for Richard had no interest in women.  His untimely death at Châlus castle, where he was stealing someone else’s treasure, left the throne vacant, so that Eleanor had to let his unstable brother John become king.  Many gay monarchs have fathered children as a duty.  Why did Richard not do so, even after Eleanor bullied him into marrying poor Berengaria of Navarre?  The answer to that will surprise many people.


    Lionheart: The True Story of England's Crusader King by Douglas Boyd


    Douglas Boyd's Lionheart: The True Story of England's Crusader King is available now at The History Press website.

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  • 02/14/14--04:30: The Friday Digest 14/02/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features female porters, the truth about 'Lionheart' Richard I and Ernest Hemingway's favourite burger recipe.


    'Porters in skirts!': the 117,000 women who kept Britain’s railways running during the First World War.

    Germany's Wilhelm II and Britain's King George V horse riding in Berlin (c) Alamy

    * Just whose fault was it anyway? 10 interpretations of who started the First World War.

    Sir Basil Clarke

    Why were journalists threatened with execution during the First World War?

    Ruhleben 1918- The Promenade, looking west. Image from


    * 'Cabbage soup again' - the hardships & resilience of men held in Germany's Ruhleben prison camp during the First World War.

    World War One serviceman's letter delivered after 98 years

    A letter written by a serviceman stationed in Orkney in 1916 will finally be delivered to his family, just 98 years late.

    Alfred Griffiths on guard duty during his training. Image from


    * An amazing lost photo-journal reveals the story of Alfred Griffiths, a Cardiff soldier in the First World War.  


    A former concentration camp prisoner, right, attends a ceremony at the memorial site of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 27, 2014. Photo by Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images


     * How do German students learn about the Holocaust?  

    Making escape on horse and cart (c) Douglas Slocombe

    * A fascinating look at Douglas Slocombe: the cameraman who escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland. 




    * As you may have guessed from the proliferation of hearts and sickly sweet messages that surround you, today is Valentine's Day. If you are looking for the perfect quote to sum up your love for someone, why not look at Penguin's #lovebooks collection? We would advise against buying your loved one this medieval lingerie though ... 


    Papa Hemingway's favourite Wild West burger

    * If you are in charge of cooking a romantic dinner this evening, why not try Ernest Hemingway's favourite burger recipe? 


    A young Helen Keller. Date: 1904. Photographer: Unknown.


    * Web Design Blog have gathered together more than 100 portraits of iconic people but who is missing off their list?

    The context you don't always get on Twitter: President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and their son John Jr. on his Christening day, Dec. 8, 1960. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

    * @HistoryInPics, @HistoricalPics, @History_Pics: Why the wildly popular Twitter accounts are bad for history

    Men cycle through the flood water as the two ladies attempt to stay dry as the Thames floods at Strand On The Green. Getty Images

    * Here are 25 unbelievable historic pictures of Britons taking on the Thames floods... and winning


    Patrick Malahide as Casaubon, Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea and Rufus Sewell as Will in the BBC's 1994 adaptation of Middlemarch. Photograph: BBC

    * The Guardian's list of the 100 best novels is moving on apace, at number 21 is a personal favourite, George Eliots's Middlemarch. It may be a fairly hefty tome but it is well worth a read!




    Does a book’s cover change how you read the story?


    Jane Austen heroines. Image from


    * It is a truth universally acknowledged that we can’t all be Lizzy Bennet but which Jane Austen heroine are you?


    Shirley Temple (c) Sportsphoto


     * Child actress and political ambassador, Shirley Temple died earlier this week,find out more about her fascinating life here

    So That’s Why… ‘Looty’ was a Pekingese -  © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Art Library


    * Anne Boleyn’s lapdog and John Quincy Adams’s alligator: Greg Jenner on famous people in history and their bizarre pets. 

    * Archaeologists at the University of Otago have discovered New Zealand's first mission station and school in Kerikeri in the Far North with the discovery providing insight into the first contact between Maori and European settlers. 

    Here's the first recorded instance of the F-word in English


    * Is this the first recorded instance of the F-word in English? 


    Wild boar 

    * A large-scale investigation of British archaeological sites dating from around 4,600 BC to 1,400 AD has examined millions of fragments of bone and analysed over 1,000 cooking pots to trace ancient British diets.   

    Lionheart: The True Story of England's Crusader King by Douglas Boyd

    * 'Lionheart' Richard I: a mighty king or a menacing tyrant? 

    Richard III

    * From Richard I to Richard III, whose hair and eye colour  are ‘to be revealed’ through DNA genome sequencing.

    The History Press on Field Trip app


    * Have you been taken back in time yet with the Field Trip app? 


     Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Guildhall Derry stained-glass window which commemorates the Three Irish Divisions, left the 36th, right the 10th and 16th. File:Great War Memorial Windows, Guildhall, Derry.jpg

    The use of religious language and imagery in the memorialisation of the First World War helped to transform the fact of mass death and slaughter into the memory of brave and meaningful sacrifice. Christian iconography provided the predominant method of memorialisation, in both popular and official capacities. Despite the lack of focus on religion in much of the historiography surrounding the conflict, the ways in which the Great War is commemorated are dominated by religious language and imagery. According to some interpretations, the appropriation of Christian iconography by the state in its attempts to commemorate the war dead represented the efforts of a calculated union between church and nation to transcend the horrors of the war, and present to the grieving British population a more sanitised and justifiable version of the conflict. Rather than confronting the reality of the war, the fallen soldiers were ‘made sacred’ through the process of memorialisation. Articulated by authors and poets whose lives were profoundly changed by the events of 1914 - 1918, this idea has permeated throughout the historiography of the First World War.

    However, it is my contention that during and after the war there was an instinctive and popular reach for the language and imagery of religion to express and come to terms with the British public’s grief and losses in the war. The universality of mourning and bereavement in Britain during and after the Great War created the need for a response to the mass grief prompted by mass death; religious iconography provided a palliative language of comfort and reassurance for the bereaved. Approximately six million men from the United Kingdom fought in the First World War, and around one in eight were killed. Some 722,785 British citizens died as a direct result of the war, and over one million from the Empire as a whole. Of the men aged between twenty and twenty four in 1914, 30.58 per cent died, and of those aged thirteen to nineteen, 28.15 per cent were killed. Grief and bereavement came to almost every family in the country.[1] In the search for a language to express the loss, grief and bereavement coursing through Britain, Christian tradition was the natural place to turn. Widespread pre-war church attendance, the prevalence of religious education and general familiarity with the Bible and its teachings provided the bereaved with an easily recognisable language of loss and comfort. The use of Christian language and imagery were to become an enduring feature in memorials of the conflict, both physical and rhetorical.

    The unveiling ceremony on 11 November 1920. Image from,_1920.jpg

    British war memorials; the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in London, along with smaller local memorials, provide evidence of the popularity of religious forms in commemoration of the war. However, it is clear that official efforts of the church and state were not always capable of satisfying the wants and needs of all sections of the public. Popular religiosity; a grassroots, instinctive religious feeling was the prevalent characteristic of religious expression during and after the war, rather than orthodox Church of England doctrine. The unofficial shrines that sprang up across London from as early as 1914 are proof of a religious feeling and a desire to remember loved ones in religious and local terms not necessarily affiliated with Church of England orthodoxy or national forms of remembrance.

    Religious language was also a source of comfort to families who lost loved ones, or feared for their loved ones safety. The government and other secular institutions recognised the effectiveness of religious language and imagery, first in mobilising the nation for war and maintaining morale, and later in comforting the bereaved and finding meaning in the mass death. Religious imagery can be found in secular speeches and the press; with the mobilisation of men came a mobilisation of a tradition of high diction which added weight and gravity to some secular exhortations and brought them into the realm of the sacred.  Language of sacrifice was widely employed to give meaning to the slaughter of soldiers in the war, and this became an enduring image of the conflict, constantly reiterated in speeches, sermons, literature and memorials.

    In the use of religious language and imagery, the state was able to memorialise the war in terms of a sacred experience; through the peaceful beautiful cemeteries and memorials, and the high diction which raised the fallen soldiers to the status of saints and martyrs. By some interpretations this represented a calculated sanctification of the horror of war, lifting memory of the conflict above and away from its reality. However rather than an imposition of the state’s will upon a bereaved and grieving nation, the use of Christian iconography in response to the war can also be regarded as a necessary step in the bereavement process, the result of a popular desire for comfort and consolation as thousands across the United Kingdom attempted to come to terms with the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers in the Great War.

    War memorial: A memorial to World War I in the grounds of an old parish church in West Sussex, England. Image from


    Jasmine Ryder McGiff is a history graduate, with a First Class degree from the University of Nottingham, who recently completed an MA at the University of Warwick.

    [1] David Cannadine, ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’, in Joachim Whaley (ed.), Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981), p. 197. 

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    With all the celebrations surrounding the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice last year, you could be forgiven for thinking that 1813 was the most important year in Jane Austen’s short life.

    pocket GIANTS Jane Austen


    But 2014 is the bicentenary of the year I believe marks the real zenith in the life of Jane Austen, novelist. For in 1814 she began to properly enjoy the fruits of her labours and some reward for her remarkable talent. Two of her novels – Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice– had already been let loose on the world to some acclaim.  A new novel –Mansfield Park –was published in May 1814, and Jane also began writing Emma, the novel many people think her most accomplished of all. Her success inspired her niece Anna to try her hand at writing novels too. ‘You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life – 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’, was her aunt’s most encouraging – and much-quoted advice.

    And well she might have been in a mood to encourage her aspiring novelist niece. During this milestone year of 1814, Jane Austen made several trips from sleepy Hampshire to London to stay with her brother Henry; first in Covent Garden, and then later, at his new house in Chelsea. There were meetings with her publisher, and trips to the theatre, including notable outings to see Edward Kean’s much talked-of performance as Shylock, and former royal mistress Mrs Jordan’s as Nell in The Devil to Pay. There were curricle rides, dinner parties and shopping trips during which Jane eyed up ‘pretty caps in Cranbourn Alley’, and selected ribbons with which to trim her bonnet. Miraculously, Jane Austen’s books were earning her money which she – accustomed to frugality - was learning to spend a little of. ‘Though I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too’, she remarked pointedly, in a letter to another niece Fanny, in November 1814.

    License Attribution Some rights reserved by cwasteson. Image from

    And this newly-flush Jane also allowed herself to bask just a little in her literary triumphs. ‘I am very greedy and want to make the most of it’, she wrote to Fanny after the first edition of
    Mansfield Park sold out by the autumn of 1814.

    No wonder she wanted to make the most of it. For how thrilling a year 1814 must have been for this woman: a writer by profession now, not pastime. How satisfying a year for a woman, who from a young child, had loved more than anything else to write; both to entertain her family and to set down the irresistible thoughts of her quicksilver brain, alive with characters and incident. A woman who – by her early twenties - had written skits, plays, poems, prayers and completed the first versions of two novels which would one day be read and adored across the world. A woman who had turned down the prospect of a husband and children because she knew that motherhood and family life would not allow her the freedom to carry on doing the thing she burned to do. A woman who in the words of PD James, a lifelong devotee ‘must have known that however brilliant or successful her brothers, it was she who had genius’.

    1814 was the year Jane Austen first let herself be ‘greedy’, this woman who thought of herself as a writer first and foremost, long before anyone in the world much cared.

    Caroline Sanderson has done jobs in both bookselling and publishing and now works as a writer, editor and books journalist. She is the author of pocket GIANTS Jane Austen and lives in Gloucestershire. 

    pocket GIANTS

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    Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The History Press. 


    52nd Division Christmas card. Image courtesy of Scotland at War


    The British Council has just announced the results of a poll as part of their report Remember the World as well as the War. Not surprisingly the findings showed that fewer than half of UK residents knew, despite the clue in the word “world”, that the First World War was fought in other theatres away from the Western Front. I say not surprisingly, because in Scotland the executive agency of the Scottish Government – Education Scotland - whose remit is the provision of support and resources for learning and teaching, has decided that their webpages dedicated to the impact of the Great War to Scotland focuses on Scotland’s contribution to the Western Front and the home front.

    An example of the content is a PowerPoint file listing the Scottish Divisions of the First World War. A welcome addition to any educational website you would hope. The problem with this file is it only lists three out of the four front line Scottish Divisions which fought in the First World War – the 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland) Divisions. There is no mention of the 52nd (Lowland) Division! No mention of the thousands of Territorial soldiers from south of the Forth and Clyde serving in the Royal Scots, Royal Scots Fusiliers, King's Own Scottish Borderers, Scottish Rifles, Highland Light Infantry and the kilted men of Renfrewshire serving in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

    The Education Scotland web pages specifically look at three battles which involved the 9th, 15th and 51st Divisions but did not include the 52nd Division. The fact that the Lowlanders spent most of the war in the Middle-East and not the Western Front should not excuse their absence for a document which purports to be a list of “The Scottish Divisions of the First World War”.

    Scotland’s bloodiest battle of the First World War was Loos. The eager young Scots who rushed to the colours in the autumn of 1914 to join the New Army 9th and 15th Divisions were cut down in their thousands on 25th September 1915. What the Education Scotland website doesn’t mention is that since June 1915 the first units of the 52nd (Lowland) Division had been in Gallipoli. On 12th July 1915 the two Territorial battalions of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which recruited throughout the border counties of Scotland, suffered horrendous casualties. When Education Scotland describes how the whole of Scotland suffered after Loos, it neglects to mention the Border counties (particularly those which now make up the Scottish Borders Council area) had already been through that grief two months before, after the attack on Achi Baba Nullah had cost the two KOSB Territorial battalions nearly four hundred dead.

    The 52nd Division doesn’t deserve to be left out of Education Scotland’s web content. Gallipoli should not be left to the Antipodeans to remember; there were thousands of Scots there too, in the Lowland Division and in the Lowland and Highland Mounted Brigades.   

    After Gallipoli the 52nd (Lowland) Division moved to Egypt and served in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force; defending the Suez Canal and then advancing into Palestine. In December 1917 three brigades of the Division did such a good job at capturing Turkish positions around Jaffa that they were commemorated by stone memorials at the locations where they each crossed the River Auja.

    By the spring of 1918 the Lowlanders had been in the Middle East for three years but their presence was required on the Western Front for the final battles of the First World War. Here then is the opportunity for Education Scotland to include the 52nd Division in their PowerPoint – the Lowland Division was moved to France, fighting along with the three other Scottish Divisions. Unfortunately this opportunity has been ignored by Education Scotland. After Loos, Somme and Arras, where the Scottish divisions on the Western Front suffered heavy casualties for little gain, there is no place for the victories of 1918 in the List of Key Battles. 1918 does get a brief mention on page 6 in another Education Scotland download but once again it focuses on early battles where Scottish divisions took heavy casualties. The victories of the British Army in the final 100 days, which the Lowland Division, and the three other Scottish Divisions all took part in, doesn’t fit with the idea of the Scottish soldier as victim and not victor; so the 52nd are still ignored.

    The First World War is a mammoth topic to cover in just a few web pages, so some content will have to be left out; but the omission of the 52nd (Lowland) Division from the Education Scotland website is a disgraceful slight by a government department on the South of Scotland. The latest poll shows the general public currently have a blinkered view of the First World War - focused on France and Flanders, so it is vitally important that those tasked with educating Scotland’s youth about their history do not ignore those who didn’t go over the top to their deaths at Loos, Somme or Arras.


    By @ScotlandsWar - a Twitter account set up to monitor and publicise the First World War Centenary Commemoration activities in Scotland. It is not affiliated to any organisation and is not a  supporter of the Scottish Government’s laissez-faire attitude to the centenary. 

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  • 02/19/14--01:00: The roots of genealogy
  • Curiosity about one’s forebears is nothing new; in fact, the study of genealogy dates back centuries.

    In Britain, early genealogy was intricately bound up with the class system. Genealogists (who were generally antiquarians) grappled with the family trees of the nobility and gentry, but were more concerned with pandering to their clients’ expectations than finding the truth. The pedigrees they drew up, showing links to illustrious antecedents, were often questionable and sometimes involved no research at all. Only in the late nineteenth century, aided by a new breed of professional genealogist, did standards improve and genealogy begin to gain wider appeal.

    A visit to the vestry was essential for tracing parish registers in the past - but vicars gave genealogists a mixed reception

    For example, Edwin Lyne, a middle-ranking civil servant, set out to find his ancestors, whom he thought to be yeoman farmers in the Midlands, in the late 1870s. His interest was spurred by reports that a Mary Lyne of Reading had left an unclaimed estate valued at £500 and he wondered whether he might be a beneficiary. Appeals in the personal columns of newspapers elicited numerous responses from possible relations as well as servants who had worked for the Lyne family. In search of firm evidence, Lyne turned to two sources still used today: parish registers and Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills. He wrote to clergymen in parishes of interest asking them to search their registers, some of whom were cooperative and others not. One vicar complained that he did not have time to examine the registers and that ‘the earlier entries are written in a most difficult handwriting and are faded through age’.

    Genealogy as an amateur pursuit was increasingly popular in Lyne’s era. When Charles Bernau compiled his International Genealogical Directory (IGD) in 1906, he received more than 1,400 entries from genealogists both amateur and professional in Britain, Europe and America. At a time when even a telephone directory was a novelty, some felt that the prospect of being contacted by a complete stranger went against all social norms. One contributor feared that having their name published could lead to ‘correspondence with people one may not care to know’.

    For researchers of yesteryear the first port of call was the Public Record Office (PRO), the forerunner of The National Archives. Formed in 1838, in its early days the PRO saw its role as being to secure custody of the ancient records rather than to promote their use for scholarship or research. Readers were seen as little more than an inconvenience, to be tolerated rather than encouraged. By the 1960s, when the 1861 census was released (putting great strain on the PRO), conditions in the search rooms in Chancery Lane had barely changed, with each document having to be fetched and returned by hand.

    One thing that transformed popular genealogy – enabling researchers to band together – was the appearance of family history societies from the 1960s. Expectations of access to records have gradually risen, and we have since seen a rapid transformation in family history, particularly thanks to TV and the internet – and now finding the records can be done in the lightning-quick click of a mouse.

    This is an edited extract of an article by genealogist Mike Sharpe in the third annual printed issue of Discover Your Ancestors, out from 20 February 2014 – see

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    The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs 

    The Isle of Man is 33 miles long and 12 miles wide. It is situated in the Irish Sea, 16 miles south of Burrow Head in Wigtownshire, 28 miles south-west of St Bees Head in Cumberland, 27 miles east of Strangford Lough and 58 miles north of Holyhead. It is known as Ellan Vannin , the Romans referred to it as Mona in 54 BC and the Scandinavian stories called it Mon or Maon. The Island was inhabited in the Mesolithic Period and communities were established in the Bronze and Iron Age when the Celts constructed several fortified sites.

     The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs

    Christianity was brought to the Isle of Man in the fifth or sixth century and it is claimed that St Patrick was one of the missionaries. AD 798 saw the first recorded raid of the Vikings and the beginning of Norse rule which covered the Western Isles of Scotland, part of Ireland and the north west of England. Godred Crovan ruled the Island from 1079 to 1095 and his family continued the Kingship until 1263. It was granted to Sir John Stanley in 1405 by Henry 1V and his grandson was created Earl of Derby in 1485. The Lordship of Man was passed to the second Duke of Athol by the tenth Earl in 1736.

    The rights of the Island were purchased by the British Government from the third Duke in 1765 because of concerns over smuggling activities. The Duke felt that the money he received was not sufficient and was later granted another amount in compensation, and was appointed Governor General in 1793. He died in 1830 and since then the Isle of Man has been administered by Lieutenant Governors, appointed by the Crown.

     The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs

    It was claimed in the 1930’s that there was no place in the British Isles where the traveller was more cheaply and efficiently catered for than in Douglas. The tourist trade had increased dramatically during the late Victorian and Edwardian period when the paddle steamers brought thousands of holiday-makers from the mainland each week in the summer months. Most people remained in Douglas where the hotels and boarding houses on the front, and the numerous facilities and establishments in other parts of the town offered a good choice to the visitor.

     The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs

    However, there are many other places of interest on the Isle of Man such as Ramsey, which is the second town in size and population. It is also situated in a large bay with a large beach, park and unrivalled scenery. Port Erin is on the south-western coast with Port St Mary close by, providing bathing and boating. The old capital Castletown, with its fortress and golf links at Langness is also popular with visitors. The old fishing port of Peel is referred to as “The Western City”. Laxey is situated in one of the largest glens on the Island, extending from Snaefell to the sea and contains the “Big Wheel”, which was built to pump water from the lead mines. The Manx Electric Railway, steam trains from the Isle of Man Railway and a fleet of buses convey people around the Island to places such as Dhoon Glen, Ballaglass, Sulby and the peak of Snaefell.

    The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs 

    The Isle of Man: In Old Photographs by Ian Collard is available from The History Press now.

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    Loco Motion


     Michael Bailey will be at St. Thomas’ Church Hall on Thurday 20th Febrary from 8pm giving a talk entitled ‘Robert Stephenson: Wider Horizons’ for his new book, Loco Motion: The World's Oldest Steam Locomotives

    The steam locomotive is a machine that has inspired imagination, innovation and invention from the time of its origination and continues to evoke passion in enthusiasts today. Here Michael R. Bailey, expertly and in fascinating detail, describes the development of the steam locomotive during its pioneering first half-century until 1850 by exploring the surviving locomotives that may be seen in Britain, Europe, and North and South America. In addition to surviving relics, he also takes a look at operable replicas, which fill many gaps in international collections, to provide continuity in this evolutionary story.

    Exploring in depth each example’s operational and preservation history, along with design characteristics, component materials and modifications made, no detail is left unmentioned. With unparalleled detail, incredibly stunning images and a list of museums housing all of the world’s oldest locomotives, this truly is a volume that no student of railway history should be without.

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