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The History Press blog

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    Soldiers in the Korean War

    I have been conducting oral history and journalistic interviews ever since I was a young student under Raph Samuel at Ruskin College in the late 1960s when I interviewed an old communist who had led the unemployed riots in Birkenhead in 1932. It was an interview that would initiate a life long passion for talking to people. And yet in all the years since I have never conducted an interview of such intensity as I did earlier this year as part of a book about British soldiers in the Korean War. 

    The interview was with a sprightly 85 year old former soldier who had fought in the war. The intention of my book was to tell the story of the ordinary soldier in their own words about what it was like fighting a war where the winters were -40 degrees and the equipment and clothing was, to say the least, inadequate.

    The Korean War had begun in 1950 when the North Koreans invaded the south, driving the South Korean and American forces almost out of the country. America along with United Nations forces fought back driving the North Koreans northwards to the 38th parallel. During the course of the war 100,000 British troops were involved with just over a thousand of them dying. It was the bloodiest conflict British forces have been engaged in since the Second World War and yet it remains almost forgotten. But what is perhaps most astonishing about our involvement is that 70 per cent of those soldiers who served were conscripts, ordinary lads aged 18, 19 years of age, doing their national service.

    Bill Fox, a veteran of the Korean War

    My interview with Bill Fox, took place, like so many of my interviews, sitting in the front room of his Manchester house over a cup of tea. Little did I know how harrowing it would be over the next three hours. Jim had served with the Glosters at the Battle of the Imjin River in April 1951 when over 200 British soldiers died, many killed by American napalm bombs. Bill had witnessed at first hand many of his comrades being killed. Another solider I had interviewed had seen his friend  crouching next to him have his head shot off. During the battle Bill had managed to make it down the hillside as the Chinese forces came pouring over the hill. He lay in the dark in a ditch with a couple of others planning to make a bid to escape when it grew dark. But then the dreaded happened. A Chinese soldier was standing over him with a rifle pointing at his head. They were promptly taken prisoner by the Chinese and marched off to a prisoner of war camp. It was a march that took months, during which they had little to eat or drink, were treated harshly and had no facilities to wash. As Bill remembered, he had no idea how long he would be a prisoner. “If I had committed some crime back home and been sent to prison I knew it would be for three months, a year, six years, whatever. But here I had no idea when I would be released.’ In fact it would be two and a half years.

    I doubt if Bill had ever really told his full story to anyone. It’s not the sort of thing you settle down to tell the kids or grandchildren. And anyhow it takes too long. Indeed two other soldiers I wanted to interview about being a prisoner of war had refused, merely saying that they ‘saw terrible, terrible things’ and didn’t want to rake up any memories. But Bill, maybe realizing that he was getting older, was prepared to tell all. As he talked about the prisoner of war camp he became animated, tears rolled down his cheek, and he began to curse heavily.  The tears became even more distressing when he told me how the Ministry of War had written to his parents to tell them that he was missing in action and presumed dead. How they must have grieved, he said. Bill witnessed torture in the camps, was beaten up himself, suffered disease, infestations and was kept alive on the barest quantity of food. Eventually he was released and returned home to his astonished parents in Collyhurst. 

    Although Bill’s story was without doubt the strongest interview of all in the book, others, such as the young lad who had to find and bury the dead, are also harrowing. And when you leave them after the interview all you experience is humility. They were brave young lads who have experienced trauma in a way that most of us (thankfully) never will. Some times it’s a privilege to be an oral historian.

    British Soldiers of the Korean War: In their own Words

    Stephen F. Kelly is the author of British Soldiers of the Korean War: In Their Own Words, which is published by The History Press.

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    Herman Rothman

    The title of Herman Rothman’s autobiography, Hitler’s Will, has a double meaning. It tells the story of Herman (Hermi) Rothman, the last surviving German-speaking interrogator in the British Army who was part of the team that found and translated Hitler’s political and personal Will, along with Goebbels’ addendum. But Hitler’s Will is also about the great fight of a family for survival against Hitler’s will to kill all the Jews, including them. Hermi’s interrogation work at the end of the war meant that he discovered and exposed many of the Nazis’ darkest secrets including the documentation from Perry Broad, a German corporal, who confessed in detail to how the Auschwitz concentration camp was run. The document created and interrogations done by Hermi, as well as his testimony in court at the Auschwitz Trial in 1964, led to the conviction of several SS concentration camp staff.

    But Hermi’s story goes far deeper than one man’s extraordinary work in Germany with British counter-intelligence at the end of the war. It is a Holocaust memoir of a family separated by the Nazi regime, its survival against all odds, and its reunion after fifteen years. Hermi was born Hermann Rothman in Berlin in 1924. Less than ten years later, Hitler came to power in Germany. Like all German Jews, Hermi’s family was at risk. In the coming years their future changed beyond their imagination and eventually the whole family had to flee the Nazis. Hermi himself was one of 10,000 children who came to Britain on the Kindertransport just before war broke out in September 1939. When he was old enough to enlist, he volunteered for the British Army and was part of another 10,000 refugees from Nazism (not all Kindertransport) who served in the British forces during the Second World War. The wider background and story about these veterans has been told in detail in my book The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens: Germans who Fought for Britain in the Second World War.

    While Hermi had escaped with the Kindertransport, back in Germany his father, mother and brother were forced to go on the run from the Nazis. Woven into this heart-rending tale is the selfless dedication of one family friend, Herr Belgart, a non-Jewish Police Inspector in Berlin, without whom the family would not have survived. At every point, he forewarned them of impending danger and arrest. He informed the family of the imminent deportation of Polish Jews from Berlin in October 1938, and a few weeks later, when Hermi’s father was sent by the Gestapo to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Herr Belgart spent eight months trying to get him out and eventually secured his release. He then helped Hermi’s father to get out across Germany before the Gestapo had a chance to re-arrest him. Hermi has dedicated his book to Herr Belgart who did not think twice about risking his own life and position to save members of the Rothman family. Without him, they would not have survived the death camps. Sadly, Herr Belgart did not survive the war, but was killed in the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943. 

    The war in Europe officially came to an end on 8 May 1945, VE Day. Hermi had the satisfaction of witnessing the total defeat of the regime that had caused his flight from Germany in 1939 and so much suffering to his family. Germany had accepted unconditional surrender and much of the country lay in ruins.

    As the Allies were beginning the enormous task of de-Nazifying and rebuilding Germany and Austria, and shaping postwar Europe, Hermi was posted with the 3rd British Counter-Intelligence Section to Westertimke and then Fallingbostel. It was at the German POW camp in Fallingbostel that Hermi’s interesting intelligence work began. He and a handful of fellow German-speaking refugees in the British Army were involved in the interrogation of suspected Nazi war criminals, as well as high-ranking Nazis who had been close to Hitler, including Hermann Karnau. It was at Fallingbostel that one of Hermi’s colleagues found Hitler’s political and personal Will and Goebbels’ addendum sewn into the sleeve-lining of the jacket of POW Heinz Lorenz, who was Goebbels’ press attaché. That discovery led to Hermi’s unit, under Captain Rollo Reid, translating the valuable documents behind closed doors. Coming into close proximity with men suspected of horrendous war crimes was never going to be easy, but returning to Germany in British Army uniform, Hermi was desperate to demonstrate the order of law, to uphold human rights, and show that despite the personal trauma of the Hitler regime, he could be above the lure of revenge. Today, his desire is that we should all learn from history and not repeat the errors of the past. I commend his courage in writing this book, and in so doing confronting some of the most painful parts of his past. I have met frequently with Herman and Shirley and know how deeply the scars remain within. In recording his story for posterity, he has added a vital piece in the jigsaw of Holocaust oral testimony, against those who would deny the Holocaust ever happened or that it was not as horrific as portrayed by Jews today. Hermi is a man of integrity, devoted to his wife and family, whose gentle humility sometimes hides a truly extraordinary person.

    The Hunt for Hitler's Missing Millions is a documentary on Herman Rothman, the subject of Hitler’s Will, which will air on Channel 5 at 20.00 on Friday 27 June.


    Hitler's Will eBook


    Extracted from Hitler's Will, the amazing true story of Herman Rothman's remarkable life, including how he managed to escape from Nazi Germany before the War began, and his role in bringing to light Hitler's personal and political testaments. 

    The ebook of Hitler's Will is now just £2.99, get your copy here.

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  • 06/27/14--03:00: The Friday Digest 27/06/14
  • THP Friday digest
    This week's update features the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, books bound in human skin and the sunken kingdom at Borth.

    Sculptor Ray Lonsdale of Two Red Rubber things, South Hetton Ind. Est. and his latest work, title '1101' which is to symbolise the 1st minute of peace after the First Word War.

    * 'Men whose minds the dead have ravished’ - psychological war disability and the First World War. 


    WWI rap battle

    * Who was really to blame for the First World War? The BBC's epic historical rap battle may just have the answer ...

    Mametz actors patrol trench National Theatre Wales

    Reliving the horrors of Mametz Wood on a Welsh sheep farm.  


    Children laid a wreath at the site of the 1314 battle to mark the anniversary

    *  Events were held this week to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. The 1314 battle, fought on 23 and 24 June, saw Robert the Bruce defeat the forces of Edward II.


    Why is Stirling Castle the bloody heart of Scotland?

    Why is Stirling Castle the bloody heart of Scotland?


    Arnold Bennett

    Arnold Bennett was a national treasure and the J.K. Rowling of his day, but today he is probably the most successful and famous British celebrity you've never heard of.

    This undated photo made available by DuPont shows chemist Stephanie Kwolek at the DuPont Labs in Delaware.

    * Pioneering scientist and Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek has died at the age of 90. Kevlar was initially intended to be used in car tyres but it is now used in millions of products by people around the world

    Two books bound in human skin

    * The macabre world of books bound in human skin.


    The outside of the library

    * Alassio: the Italian town with an English secret. 

    The plane that was hijacked

    The fascinating story of the man who carried out one of the world's earliest hijackings.


    Prehistoric tree stumps on a beach in Borth, Wales, from a forest first flooded about 5,000 years ago, after the last ice age. LUKE WOLAGIEWICZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES


     * A sunken kingdom has re-emerged from the waves at Borth in Wales after the floods which battered Britain’s western coastline earlier this year. 


    Jaroslava Sklenickova lived in Lidice at the time and survived. She spoke to Witness about the time.



    *  On 10 June 1942, the Czech town of Lidice was 'liquidated' after the assassination of the Nazi chief Reinhard Heydrich. Jaroslava Sklenickova lived in Lidice at the time and survived and here she speaks about her experience.

    Herman Rothman


    The extraordinary story of Herman Rothman and Hitler's will.

    Whiteleys Queensway (c) Fritz Jörn - Own work

    Linda Stratmann shares her experience of filming with Dr Pamela Cox for Shopgirls and returning to Whiteleys. You can see the first episode here on iPlayer

    Could the Duchess of Alba be the next Queen of Scotland? [WENN]

     * If Scotland votes for independence in September, could the Duchess of Alba be the next Queen of Scotland?

    Writer and poet Laurie Lee immortalised rural life in his book Cider With Rosie, which brought him worldwide acclaim (c) Getty

    * The life of Laurie Lee: the author of Cider with Rosie has been remembered in his native Gloucestershire.

    Police capture crime scenes in 3D

    Police forces are embracing the latest 3D-scanning technology to record crime scenes as virtual reality models. This helps them find clues, but also to immerse juries in the scene of the crime. 


    The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    * The 'wheel of books' at the British Museum's bookshop is making us want to go and visit again ...


    * According to a new study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American reads for only nineteen minutes a day, with young people reading even less at a paltry eight minutes per day. How much do you read?
    Booktrust has given away 2,500 children’s books to foodbanks as part of this month’s National Book Start Week.

    New sentences … a man types on a laptop keyboard. Photograph: PhotoAlto / Alamy

    The Perseus "Wherehouse" in jackson, TN

    * Hachette Book Group has purchased the publishing division of the Perseus Book Group, but here's the part of the Hachette-Perseus deal you didn't hear about: It involves 400 leading indie publishers.  
    Thumbs Down


    Books (c) Thinkstock

    * Amazon had been accused of 'bullying' smaller UK publishers with experts claiming that the new Amazon terms amount to 'assisted suicide' for book industry. But is there a way out for publishers?

    * Emma Chapman asks: do we really care if indie bookshops cease to exist? 


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

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    Thomas Cromwell’s last words and moments on 28 July, 1540 continue to cause quite a lot of discussion, and the following piece is offered to try and clarify some points.

    Thomas Cromwell. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532–1533. Image from

    Cromwell and the ‘catholic faith’

    In Tudor times, condemned traitors were supposed to confess, abjectly and utterly, to the crimes of which they had been accused. Cromwell had not done this. True, in his letters to Henry from the Tower he admitted that he had failed in this and that, he had neglected his duties here and there, he was an unworthy servant of such a wonderful prince, and so on – all standard Tudor bowing and scraping. For all this he appealed to the king to show mercy. But though in mortal danger and not without fear, he was also composed, rational and at times bold. Because when it came to the main charges against him – sedition against the king and heresy against the Eucharist – he rejected them flatly, calling on God and the king’s conscience to witness. This was not what Henry wanted to hear, and when the letter was read to him it left him moved; he asked for it to be read over again, and again a third time.

     On the scaffold there was the same combination of contrition and defiance. Yes, he had offended God and the king, for which he was sorry. He had lived a sinful life and needed divine forgiveness. All this is very general; almost anyone in his last hour could say the same.

    From the account of Edward Hall, the Tudor historian and friend of Cromwell, he asked the crowd to pray with him: ‘O Father forgive me: O Son forgive me: O Holy Ghost forgive me: O Three Persons in one God forgive me’. There is nothing here about the intercession of Mary and the saints. This contrasts sharply with the will he made in 1529, which began thus: ‘I bequeath my soul to the great God of heaven, my Maker, Creator and Redeemer, beseeching the most glorious Virgin, our Blessed Lady Saint Mary the Virgin and Mother, with all the holy company of heaven, to be mediators and intercessors for me to the Holy Trinity, so that I may be able … to inherit the kingdom of heaven’.

    Then a surprising statement for a man who had done so much to advance the Reformation: ‘I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith, no nor doubting any sacrament of the church’. Now the Roman Catholic Church had, and has still, Seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination and Extreme Unction. Cromwell and his allies had managed to exclude the last four from the English Ten Articles, 1536, though they were later restored in the King’s Book, 1543. Protestants recognised only the first two. So which church and which sacraments did Cromwell actually mean? Mind games on the scaffold, I think.

    Cromwell continued: ‘Many hath slandered me and reported that I have been a bearer of such as hath maintained evil opinions, which is untrue’. Almost certainly this refers to the two main charges against him of heresy and sedition, and again it was bold stuff. Traitors were not supposed to protest their innocence. Perhaps to take the sting out of this he added: ‘But I confess that like as God by His Holy Spirit doth instruct us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but bear with me witness that I die in the Catholic faith of the Holy Church’.

    Then he asked the crowd to pray for Henry and Edward. Then: ‘I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaineth in this flesh, I waver nothing in my faith’. The italics are mine: he meant pray for me while I still live. He did not ask for prayers or masses for his soul when he was dead. A strange ‘catholic faith’ this is turning out to be.  

    Hall continues: ‘And then he made his prayer …’ But Hall does not give the words of the prayer. For this we must turn to John Foxe, the Elizabethan historian and compiler of the martyrs. There is no reason to doubt Foxe, because he knew Ralph Sadler and others who had been close allies of Cromwell.

    The words are these. ‘I see and acknowledge that there is in myself no hope of salvation, but all my confidence, hope and trust is in thy most merciful goodness. I have no merits or good works which I may allege before thee’. This is justification by faith alone. Cromwell trusts only in the grace of God ‘to be in the number of them to whom thou wilt not impute their sins; but will take and accept me for righteous and just … Most merciful Saviour … let thy blood cleanse and wash away the spots and foulness of my sins. Let thy righteousness hide and cover my unrighteousness. Let the merits of thy Passion and blood-shedding be satisfaction for my sins …’

    This is pure Lutheran, and it may be the reason why Hall, writing while Henry was still living, left it out. It was dangerous, as Henry had fallen out with the Lutherans, and three days after Cromwell’s death three of his Lutheran allies were burned for preaching the same thing.

    But how could a man say ‘I die in the catholic faith’ and follow it up moments later with a thoroughly Lutheran last prayer? Many of Cromwell’s hearers might have missed the gallows humour, as many have done since.

    The issue is one of terminology. Today, every Sunday, many church goers recite the words of the Creed – ‘I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church’ – and they are not Roman Catholics.

    The same double use of the word ‘catholic’ was known in the sixteenth century.

    There is nothing here except the faith of the true, ‘universal Catholic Church’ (ecclesia catholica). This was Philip Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession, the first great Protestant statement of faith. He repeated this more than once in the revised version, known as the Variata in 1540: ‘In doctrine and in ceremonies, nothing contrary to Scripture or the Catholic Church is received among us’. There is also Thomas Cranmer’s later work on the Eucharist, Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament: Cranmer was arguing for a very Protestant view of the Lord’s Supper, claiming that this was the one held by the ancient church.

    John Rogers, Cromwell’s ally and Bible translator, and the first martyr in Mary’s reign, was asked by his interrogators whether he was ‘in the faith of the catholic church’. He replied: ‘The Catholic Church I never did nor will dissent from’, and added that the ‘catholic faith signifieth not the Romish church: it signifieth the consent of all true teaching churches of all times and all ages’. 

    There was a polemical purpose behind this. Reformers claimed that they were the true catholics, loyal to Scripture and the faith of the catholic and apostolic church of the Creed, the faith that the Roman Church of the popes had corrupted.

    So, what exactly did Cromwell mean by ‘catholic faith’? His last prayer answers the question. Gilbert Burnet, the seventeenth century historian, said it was ‘certain’ Cromwell died a Lutheran. The expression ‘catholic faith’, he goes on, ‘was then used in England in its true sense, in opposition to the novelties of the see of Rome…’     


    Source material


    * Augsburg Confession: summary at end of Article 21, and the end of the entire work in Pelikan and Hotchkiss (eds), Creeds and Confessions … in the Christian Tradition, vol 2: Part 4: Reformation Era (2003), pp. 76–7, 117 [5]

    * Burnet, G., History of the Reformation … , ed. Pocock (1865), vol 1, p. 454

    * Cranmer’s Defence is printed in The Work of Thomas Cranmer, ed. Duffield (Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics, 1964.)

    * Cromwell’s last words and prayer are recorded in Edward Hall, A Chronicle containing the History of England … to the end of the reign of Henry VIII  (London, 1809), p. 839, and John Foxe, Acts and Monuments …  ed. Pratt (4th edn, 1877), vol pp. 402–3. Foxe’s sources who knew Cromwell: vol 5, p. 36

    * Cromwell’s will is printed in R. B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, vol 1, pp. 56–63; his letters from the Tower in Meriman 2, pp. 268–76. For the story of Cromwell’s fall, see John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (History Press, 2008), chaps 16–17 and Epilogue

    * Variata: Melanchthons Werke … ed. Stupperich (1951), vol 6, pp. 36 (17–27), 79 (16–19)


    John Schofield is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He holds a PhD in Reformation history, is an expect of Thomas Cromwell and is also the author of 'Cromwell to Cromwell' and 'The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell'.

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    Thomas Cromwell’s last words and moments on 28 July, 1540 continue to cause quite a lot of discussion, and the following piece is offered to try and clarify some points.

    Thomas Cromwell. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532–1533. Image from


    Edward Hall, the Tudor historian, completes his account of the last moments of Thomas Cromwell, after his last speech and prayer, in this way: Cromwell ‘godly and lovingly exhorted them that were about him on the scaffold’ and committed his soul to God, then ‘patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and butcherly miser, who very ungoodly [sic] performed the office’. The italics are mine: one stroke only, it seems, but this ‘ungoodly’ has led to speculation that the execution was horribly botched.

    A Victorian essayist, Arthur Galton, quotes a ‘contemporary writer’ (Galton’s words) saying that two executioners were ‘chopping the Lord Cromwell’s neck and head for nearly half an hour’ (Galton has these words in quotes).

    Galton does not name the writer or give any source reference; nor does he explain why a second executioner has turned up. Galton’s essay, moreover, is a very superficial survey of his subject, and he is a bit at sea over Cromwell’s fall. Cromwell, he says, ‘died professing the Anglo–Catholicism which his own policy had done so much to restore’, which is rather silly. He is also wrong about Cromwell’s Protestant fellow prisoners ‘who had been caught in the meshes of the Six Articles’ and later burned: Barnes, Garrett and Jerome were in the Tower because of disputes with Bishop Gardiner in Lent, 1540, not the Act of Six Articles, 1539.

    Surviving contemporary reports, in fact, tell a very different story. The Chronicle of Thomas Wriothesley, who knew Cromwell well, says simply that he was beheaded. Likewise Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, who had been following the events leading up to Cromwell’s arrest very closely, and sending detailed reports toFrance. Marillac adds that Cromwell was spared a worse death (that means he was not hanged, drawn and quartered). Richard Hilles, aLondon merchant who also knew Cromwell, says much the same. The Venetian ambassador, who did not like Cromwell, adds that his end was better he deserved, which does not sound as though it was agonisingly drawn out. A London Chronicler says that the head (apparently intact) was set up on London Bridge; but if two men had been hacking away at it with axes for half an hour, there would have been no head left to put anywhere.

    Moving on to the Elizabethan era, John Foxe the martyrologist was not squeamish. He graphically tells of the prolonged torture at the stake of John Lambert in Henry’s reign and Nicholas Ridley in Mary’s; so there is no reason why he would have kept silent if something hideous had happened to Cromwell. But Foxe knows nothing of Galton’s witness.

    Soon after Foxe, a highly inventive narrative of Henry’s reign was composed by an unknown Spanish author, commonly known as the Spanish Chronicle. Here Mark Smeaton is tortured with a knotted rope tied round his head to get him to confess that he and Anne Boleyn were lovers. Sadly for those who trust in this sort of thing, however, the Chronicle also has Cromwell (who died in 1540) investigating adultery charges against Catherine Howard (which did not come to light until the following year). Then after Catherine’s demise, arrangements begin for Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. (This is no misprint: this writer really does make Catherine Howard Henry’s fourth wife and Anne of Cleves the fifth.) Later, after Anne’s unhappy meeting with Henry, Cromwell gets up at a dinner one evening and tells everyone he is going to make himself king, for which he is arrested. One of those at this dinner is the Marquis of Exeter (who died in 1538). 

    No surprise, therefore, to find something new in the Chronicle when we get to Cromwell’s fall. Here Cromwell asks the headsmen: ‘Pray, if possible, cut off the head with one blow, so that I may not suffer much’. But even the Chronicle says that Cromwell died ‘with a single blow of the axe’.

    The Elizabethan historian Raphael Holinshed follows Hall and Foxe for the most part, though here the executioner ‘ill favoureblie’ [sic] performed the office. But John Stow (1600) has another variation – he says that Cromwell ‘patiently suffered the strokes [plural] of the axe by the hands of him who ilfavoredly [sic] performed his office’. The plural could suggest that a hitherto unpleasant secret is slowly being revealed. It could, however, be a simple misprint or transcription error, because Andrew Willet, writing about the same time (1603) insists that Cromwell’s end was ‘neither unfortunate nor miserable’.

    Cromwell was also the subject of a play or interlude, acted by those of the royal household in the reign of King James. The author is known to us only by his initials, ‘W.S.’ When his last hour comes, Cromwell bids farewell to his friends and those around him, including Stephen Gardiner, his chief enemy. The executioner begs his forgiveness, which is freely granted. Cromwell and the headsman leave the stage, and friends speak sadly one to another. Then in comes a man with Cromwell’s head. Then Ralph Sadler arrives in haste with a reprieve from the king, but it is too late. It is all very genteel and obviously not intended to be factual. Nevertheless there is no hint of a bad end.

    Moving on to the middle of the seventeenth century, another Spanish writer, Rodrigo Mendes Silva, follows the Spanish Chronicle, though this seems still largely ignored inEngland. When the sign was given, writes Gilbert Burnet, ‘the executioner cut off his head very barbarously’ – a similar thought to the earlier ‘ill favoureblie’.  

    Then in 1695, a writer identified in the records only as ‘R.B.’, though more knowledgeable on Cromwell than Galton, says that the head was ‘cut off at three or four strokes by the hand of an unskilful and butcherly executioner’. This reads like a best guess to interpret Hall’s ‘ungoodly’. But there is still only one executioner, and at worst three or four stokes, which would take less than thirty seconds, not half an hour. Right up to at the end of the seventeenth century, it seems that no one knew of Galton’s source.

    Nor did the Victorians think much of it. No mention is made of it in three leading historical works of his time: Froude’s History of England, vol 3, 1893, Merriman’s Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 1902, and Pollard’s, Henry VIII, 1905. Merriman, no friend of Cromwell, lists Galton in his bibliography but ignores him in the section on Cromwell’s fall.

    Maybe Galton’s source will turn up one day, somewhere. Maybe, however, it is just a fiction, as Froude, Merriman and Pollard apparently thought. Hall says that Cromwell’s enemies rejoiced at his misfortune, and some did invent accounts of it. Less than a month after the event Cromwell’s main Lutheran ally, Philip Melanchthon, heard that he had been strangled, quartered and burned.

    But none of this adequately explains Hall’s ‘ungoodly’. Froude suggests that Cromwell’s death ‘seems to have been needlessly painful through the awkwardness of the executioner’. It is possible that the execution did not proceed quite as surgically as it should have done, but it is more likely that Froude and others were guessing and on the wrong trail, as a few quotes from Hall’s contemporaries will show.

    An English translation in 1533 of the Enchiridion by Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar, reproved ‘ungoodly manners’, meaning bad, immoral conduct, not clumsiness or inefficiency. ‘Set before thine eye’, he warns, ‘how ungoodly’ it is, among other things, to ‘submit thyself unto a stinking harlot’. And ‘if honour be given of man for an ungoodly and unhonest [sic] thing … this is not honour but great dishonesty’. Then in another translation, this one of the Paraphrases of Erasmus, the daughter of Herod danced ‘ungoodly’ (meaning seductively, immorally); and Jesus was ‘ungoodly and shamefully handled’ atCalvary (this refers to the mocking and jeering, not the execution itself). In an anonymous commentary on the parable of the wedding feast in chapter 22 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, those who refuse the king’s invitation to the banquet are ‘ungoodly’. ‘Little sins’ warns Bishop Fisher, ‘deform our souls and maketh them ungoodly’. ‘Good things ungoodly used are not good’ says Roger Ascham, tutor to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth.

    Other examples could be given where, in Hall’s time, ‘ungoodly’ did not mean ineptly or inefficiently; but basely, shamefully, badly in a moral sense. This could be why Holinshed has ‘ill favoureblie’ instead: the meaning is the same (see above).

    It may be difficult for us to imagine a ‘goodly’ or ‘favourable’ public beheading, but the Tudors were more inured than we are to this sort of thing. Bizarre though it may seem nowadays, there were scaffold civilities that had to be observed. The headsman would kneel and ask forgiveness of the condemned, who would grant it gladly, with a smile, a kind word and maybe a gift. There was no need for malice between the two. The one was not just the instrument of judgement; he was also sending the other out of this troubled life to a better world (he hoped).

    My guess, therefore, is that there was only one stroke of the axe, but this executioner behaved spitefully in some way that Hall does not describe in detail. Hall calls him a ‘miser’, which used to mean a contemptible character, not someone who hoards money. Maybe Cromwell was manhandled, or maybe there was some coarse ribaldry before or after the deed was done. Others like Hilles and Foxe either did not know what had offended Hall, or if they did, they thought it not worthy of a mention. This way ‘ungoodly’ can be harmonised with the testimonies of reliable witnesses that Cromwell’s end was mercifully quick.


    On the morning of the 28 July, 1540, according to Foxe, Cromwell called for his breakfast, and after ‘cheerfully eating the same’ he set out for the scaffold. On the way he met Lord Hungerford, condemned to die for serious sexual offences, including incest with his daughter, and looking ‘heavy and doleful’. Cromwell, still cheerful, bid him take heart and not fear. ‘For if you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough with the Lord, who for Christ’s sake will forgive you; and therefore be not dismayed. And though the breakfast which we are going to be sharp, yet trusting to the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyful dinner’. 

    Let us hope he enjoyed his dinner. And that Henry joined him shortly after. It is pleasing to think of them reunited in realms above. Likewise Henry and his six wives happily together at last, with no divorce trials or crises of conscience to worry about; and Elizabeth and other Tudor favourites, all perfect friends at the same convivial table; and all having a good old laugh at the stories we still tell about them. 


    Source material

    * Anon, Here begynneth the pystles and gospels …, 1538 (STC 2nd edn 2966–3; Reel: STC 557:13b), p. 52

    * Ascham, R., Toxophilus …, 1545 (STC 2nd edn 837; Reel: STC21:29), p. 17

    * Burnet, G., History of the Reformation, ed. Pocock (1865), vol 1, p. 453

    * A [London] Chronicle … Henry VIII, ed Hopper, Camden Miscellany 4, 1st series 73, p. 15

    * Erasmus, Enchiridion … , 1533 (STC 2nd edn 10479; Reel: STC 37:07), docs 152–3, 162 

    * Erasmus, The … paraphrase of Erasmus on the New Testament, 1548 (STC 2nd edn 2854.5; Reel: STC 1772:01), pp. 56, 180

    * Fisher, J., Two fruytfull sermons …, 1532 (STC 2nd edn 10909; Reel: STC 134:02), doc 28

    * Foxe, J. Acts and Monuments … ed. Pratt (4th edn, 1877): on Cromwell and the dinner, vol 5, pp. 402–3, 438; on Lambert, vol 5, p. 236; on Ridley, vol 7, pp. 550–51

    * Froude, J.A., History of England, vol 3 (1893), pp. 336–9

    * Galton, A., The Character and Times of Thomas Cromwell: A Sixteenth Century Criticism (1887), pp. 155–6

    * Hall, E., Chronicle … to the end of the reign of Henry VIII (London, 1809), p. 839

    * Hilles in Original Letters … English Reformation, ed. Robinson, Parker Society, vol 1, p. 203

    * Holinshed, R., Chronicles of England…London, 1585 (STC 2nd edn 13569.5; Reel: STC 2293:01), p. 951.

    * Marillac in Letters and Papers … Henry VIII, vol 15, num 926

    * Melanchthons Briefwechsel, ed. Scheible, T9, num 2473 [3] 

    * Mendes Silva quoted in Merriman vol 1, p. 302, fn 3

    * Merriman, R.B., Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (1902), vol 1, pp. 300–304

    * Pollard, A., Henry VIII (1905), p. 316

    * ‘R.B.’, ‘Remarks upon the Life, Actions and Fatal Fall of Thomas Cromwell’, in The Unfortunate Court Favourites of England …, Nath. Crouch, 1695 (Wing/C.7351), p. 153

    * Spanish Chronicle, or Chronicle of Henry VIII … in Spanish by an unknown hand, trans. and ed. Hume (1889), pp. 60–61; 75, 84–97, 104

    * Stow, J., Annales of England,London, Newbery, 1600 (STC 2nd edn 23335; Reel: STC 1611:07), p. 976

    * Venetian ambassador: Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, vol 5, 1534–54, num 224

    * Willet, A., An antilogie or counterplea to an … apologetical epistle … , 1603 (STC 2nd edn 25672, Reel:  STC 1263:02), p. 194

    * Wriothesley’s Chronicle (Camden 2nd series, 11, 1875), p. 120

    * ‘W.S.’, The true chronicle historie of the whole life and death of Thomas Lord Cromwell, as it hath beene sundry times publikely acted by the king’s maiesties seruants, 1613, (STC 2nd edn 21533; Reel: STC 1334:04), pp. 26–7.


    John Schofield is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He holds a PhD in Reformation history, is an expect of Thomas Cromwell and is also the author of 'Cromwell to Cromwell' and 'The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell'.

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  • 07/04/14--03:00: The Friday Digest 04/07/14
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features global war, mistakes in medieval manuscripts and the age-old print/ebook debate. 

    Great War Britain Exeter. Soldiers at the pyramids in Egypt

    * Was World War One really the first global war? 

    Gavrilo Princip is paraded by his Austrian captors after assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo Photo: Alamy

    * Gavrilo Princip and the lie that started the First World War


    * The National Library of Scotland has digitised more than 130 trench maps covering the major battlegrounds across France and Belgium, allowing you to see how the Western Front evolved between 1915 and 1918.  


    Mobile phonesThe irritating person chatting with her long-distance bestie during a movie. That 'master of the universe' shouting sell orders at the table next to you through lunch. You have WWI to thank for both of them, because it was during the Great War that the idea of taking a phone with you came to fruition. Telephones themselves had passed the novelty stage but were still far from a fixture in every home or office. Military units, though, found that the ability to reach out and touch forward units through a voice call was far more efficient and effective than relying exclusively on carrier pigeons, telegraph, or couriers (all of which remained in service.) (Source: National Archives)


    * From mobile phones to air traffic control: seven surprising technologies from the First World War

    Low-wavelength lasers removed centuries of damaging grime from the bronzed Gates of Paradise in Florence, Italy.  Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    * How modern chemistry techniques can save ancient art

    * A fascinating look at Van Gogh's paintings brought to life.

    Design by Frederic Barnett for a 'duplex' low-level Tower Bridge, which would have allowed 'uninterrupted continuity of vehicular and general traffic'

    * London's Tower Bridge, which turned 120 years old on 30 June, is one of the most iconic London landmarks. But, thanks to an open competition, many other designs were submitted for consideration before Horace Jones' submission was selected. 

    Using modern dating techniques, a Cambridge historian found Henry VIII (pictured) was largely incompatible with any of his wives


    * According to a recent study by a Cambridge historican, Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII's most compatible wife, but do you agree? 


     Canvey Island sea wall mural


    * The Canvey Island flood disaster of 1953 has been remembered with a mural on the 262ft sea wall painted by professional artists and Canvey inhabitants.

    Caroline Wazer, a PhD student in ancient history at Columbia (@CarolineWazer), found an image of a nursing mother on a Roman sarcophagus: "Here's a nursing mother & baby on a 2nd c sarcophagus at the Louvre. Tunic/diaper combo?"


    * Where did Roman babies poop?

    Image (c) Penelope Trunk via


    * Penelope Trunk asks: in this day and age, are museums now irrelevant?


    Leiden UB, VLF 30, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, f. 21v 


    * Medieval manuscripts and the beauty of mistakes

    Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk who in 1551 died of the sweating sickness hours before his brother Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk. Image from

    * 'The dreaded sweat': the other medieval epidemic

    Val McDermid - photo Mimsy Moller. Image from


     * Crime novelist Val McDermid has said she would not be able to build a career as a writer today, as publishers would not take the risk on her low-selling early books. Do you think that writing is getting harder to break into?

    * ThrillWriting discusses what not to wear: clothing choices to save your heroine ...

    The Panel: Neil Morrison, Lisa Milton, Peter McKay, and Anna Rafferty. 

     * UK publishing pros ask: is publishing cool anymore? 

    World Book Night logo

    * A halt has been called to the US World Book Night after the scheme failed to secure external funding. 

    e-book and print books

    * Author Tony Horwitz has caused outrage with his recent New York Times op-ed piece which claimed that despite being a 'digital bestseller', he actually lost money on his ebook and he is 'wary of this brave new world of digital publishers and readers' as a result.

    Whilst many agreed with Horwitz's conclusions, other disagree, with websites such as The Ploughshares questioning whether going digital had anything to do with the problem


    * Publishing Perspectives ask: what does your brain like better, print or ebooks?

    Paper Knowledge By Lisa Gitelman

    * Digital Book World shared an interesting interview with Lisa Gitelman on the written word in translation.

    * As the Amazon/Hachette dispute rumbles on, Amazon has taken to the Wall Street Journal  this week to defend itself


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

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    Dr. Nicole Girard Mangin pictured here with her dog called 'Dun'.

    When war was considered very much a male environment, why did women petition to be militarised on an unprecedented scale? Why did they take their own volunteer groups to the front?

    There was no legal or moral obligation on women. They were not conscripted and they were not subjected to the white feather campaign, but there was a growing sense of duty to support their men and their country.

    Following the declaration of war, it was not just men who rushed to volunteer. Red Cross Nurse, Violetta Thurstan saw queues of women waiting to register for war work in London. She feared that most of them had no medical training and would be of little use, yet their sense of patriotism was undeniable. Katharine Furse, Commandant of the Voluntary Aid Detachment scheme, said that she had to turn away numerous applicants, but rather than dampen their enthusiasm she organised first aid courses for them.

    Beneath the patriotism, a deeper sentiment drove the women onward, even after early enthusiasm for the war began to wane. During the 19th century, a significant social movement had built up momentum; this was known as the ‘women’s movement’.  In 1918 Great Britain granted women political suffrage and this major event is often used to illustrate the impact that the war had on women, a tangible reward for their hard-work. Much research has gone into the struggle for suffrage and the demonstrative Suffragettes who grabbed headlines, but the women’s movement was bigger than suffrage. Whilst groups like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies created networks for like-minded women to meet together and gave them a public voice, they also provided launch-pads for new groups and societies such as the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convey Corps and the Scottish Women’s Hospital. Alongside political campaigns, women worked hard to improve their educational opportunities and towards the end of the 1800s, a growing number began to attend university. In 1849 Doctor Elizabeth Blackwell made history by becoming the first woman to be awarded an MD from an American medical school. Returning to Britain to practice, she inspired Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and a whole generation of women to follow her example. With the education gap closing, women began to look for gender equality in the workplace.

    Not all women who volunteered in the Great War were campaigners for equality or political activists, but they all shared a new level of confidence, a belief in their own abilities which continued to grow even when the war dragged on and the large numbers of casualties and overwhelming levels of suffering tested their courage. The War gave the women the opportunity to demonstrate on a worldwide platform that they were able to take on new responsibilities and do the same jobs as men.

    Doctor Flora Murray co-founder of the Women’s Hospital Corps in 1914 had been a Suffragette and declared her new organisation was politically motivated. For the majority of female doctors though - such as Australian Agnes Bennett, American Rosalie Morton and Frenchwoman Nicole Mangin - it was a chance to learn new skills, face new medical challenges and give help where it was most needed. For Mabel St Clair Stobart, war offered adventure and she longed to be in the middle of the action. She joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in its formative years, but feeling it lacked direction she formed her own auxiliary medical group, the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy. The Convoy Corps succeeded in going out to Bulgaria during the Balkan Wars 1912-13, where they were sent to the front. When the First World War started, Stobart went straight to Belgium, only to be arrested as a spy by the invading Germans. Escaping prison Stobart then ran a hospital in Cherbourg, but she did not feel suitably challenged and so she joined the Serbian Relief Fund and arrived in Serbia in the midst of typhus epidemic. When the Austrians and Bulgarians invaded she offered her unit to the Serbian Army.

    Whether or not it was compassion, ambition, patriotism, politics or a sense of adventure that made women want to contribute to war work, it was the women’s movement which gave an entire generation the impetus to take action and ultimately head to the front.


    Female Tommies

    Elisabeth Shipton is the author of Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War, a book which tells the story of women in the First World War at the front line, under fire, and in combat. Through their diaries, letters and memoirs, meet the women who defied convention and followed their convictions to defend the less fortunate and fight for their country. 

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    The Centenary of the First War is still under shadow from the 50th Anniversary around 1964.  This created powerful stereotypes of lions and donkeys, ,butchers and bunglers and oh what a lovely war --- Joan Littlewood, Alan Clark and A.J.P Taylor were some of the main setters of the scene.  The focus was on the infantry experience on the Western front and mainly on the officers even on the very select group of war poets.

    Already the Centenary is beginning to widen out the picture to the war effort across the UK – the all class and the working class war. My new book Our Land at War sets out how it was a war of small groups and crews—trawler men dragging up mines, women munitions workers on shell filling conveyors, rail men with supply trains with heavier loads on the unexpected and little used routes across London to the South Coast,   pilots at 8000 ft. on a winters night without oxygen and workers making tetanus and typhoid vaccines. The civic history of Leeds paid tribute to the unparalleled endurance of pain and suffering shown by both sides and all classes and the wonderful power of organization and initiative to meet unforeseen difficulties shown by our own country. Long before the official war memorials from 1915 onwards there were many street shrines made of simple materials carrying the names of local people on active service. 

    The East Coast of England showed both the resilience and the innovation. The Zeppelins came in over Felixstowe and the first casualties were in Yarmouth. In Harwich there was the war beyond the tennis court where trawlers for Grimsby swept lanes twice a day to clear some of the 25, 000 mines laid during the War. There were large sea plane bases at Yarmouth and at Killingsholme on the Humber. Early on there was the bombardment of Scarborough by two giant cruisers while the good citizens were mainly still in bed, early on a Wednesday morning.   In Grantham there was the huge training base for the largest new corps the Machine Gun Corps at Belton Park.

    The 51st Division Machine Gunners trained at Grantham, on 23 March 1918.

    Less known is the innovation record of engineering firms up the East Coast. Ransome’s in Ipswich developed the Stokes mortar a simple and effective weapon named after its managing director Wilfred Stokes.

    Greets in Bury St Edmunds made the aircraft part which cause the most problems—the radiator-- and managed to produce hundreds working 7 days a week during the 1918 emergency. In Norwich Boulton and Paul was a major producer of the Sopwith Camel in a site by the main railway station.  

    In Lincoln Foster’s designed and produced the first tank in 141 days using the caterpillar track which had been invented in Grantham. The design proved to be the basis for the later success and was far better than the later Schneider light tanks developed in France.  Less well known was the work of Livens the Managing Director of Ruston Bucyrus in Lincoln in devising the Livens projectors. With these the 5000 men of the Special brigade to cause 141,000 casualties. The projector allowed containers with 50 % gas content  to be fired a few hundred metres to create a  highly concentrated cloud  could which was far more effective than the 10 % content gas shells dispersed  by the German Army.

    The innovation in the East drew on the pre-war record. The Lincolnshire plough in Fenlands had encouraged the first factory farms using steam tractors. The first lawnmower was developed by Ransome’s in Ipswich. Labour shortage caused by the pull of London was a pressure towards the first Ivel tractor in Biggleswade. Further back Turnip Townsend and Norfolk farmers had supplied food for the vastly expanding city of London and the East Coast had become a main sea route and training ground for seamen such as Captain Cook with the Newcastle coal trade. The enterprise culture of Eastern England was crucial to the effectiveness of the British war effort.  


    Nick Bosanquet is the author of Our Land at War which is out now at £14.99


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  • 07/11/14--04:00: The Friday Digest 11/07/14
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features a potential re-write of British histiry, Irish heritage and landmarks of summer literature.  

     * An open letter signed by a number of bestselling writers has called on "Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers". The letter, instigated by US writer Douglas Preston, also calls on "loyal readers" to email Amazon founder and c.e.o. 

    Malahide Castle: Wikimedia
    * Heritage and Archeology News list the 10 must see castles in Ireland.   

     * One of the bones found at the Winterbourne Kingston Archaelogical dig could provide vital clues as to who was living in Britain around 350AD when the Roman Empire was beginning to decline. Could this discovery rewrite british history

    Henry IV
    * It is the sort of headline that makes you do a double take: "Shakespeare accused of causing misery to people with skin conditions" says the Independent; "Is Shakespeare to blame for our skin worries? Insults about sores, boils and moles may be behind lasting stigma, claims study", adds the Daily Mail. 

    Crime scene

     * Womens appetite for explicit crime fiction is no mysteryAt this year's Theakstons Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, roughly 80% of the audience (and half the 80 or so authors appearing) will be women. 

    The Go-Between

     * Landmarks of summer literatureSummer literature doesn't stop with Sonnet 18, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Le Grand Meaulnes, Ulysses, The Great Gatsby and Whitsun Weddings. Here are a few more sun-drenched pages to mark this week's arrival of the season. 

    You don’t find many twins of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

     * Are authors running out of book titlesPeople first started to notice last year when Kate Atkinson's Life After Life coincided in the US with Jill McCorkle's Life After Life , which had been published just six days earlier. Since then examples of novels with the same name have kept on cropping up. Should writers adopt the imitator-proof JK Rowling approach instead?

    1962, Tender Is the Night
    * Calling it wrong - When fictional names don't match their characters. It might seem unreasonable to complain about the names authors choose for their characters - it's their choice after all. But some writers could clearly do with a little help. Take Swiss author Joël Dicker's international bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. 

    To live in peace with others, But sweeter still and far more meet To die in war for brothers 

    * The independant look at 'A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality.' 
    F. W. Harvey in 1940
    * Ivor Gurney may be one of our most famous First World War poets, but it was his close friend Frederick William Harvey who was dubbed 'The Laureate of Gloucestershire'. FW Harvey, also dubbed 'The Forest Poet' as he grew up in Minsterworth, was born in Hartpury in 1888.
    Krak des Chevaliers, March 2014
    * Syria, graced with thousands of historic sites, is seeing its cultural heritage vandalised, looted and destroyed by war - but volunteers are doing what they can to document the damage and save the country's cultural identity from obliteration. 

     * Arcadia Publishing has acquired The History Press Inc., the U.S subsidiary of the U.K. based The History Press Ltd. Terms of the deal, which closed earlier this month, were not disclosed. The purchase unites the two largest publishers of local or regional books. 
    * Joanne Harris, 50, said that Rowling's "little story about wizards" has given aspiring writers unrealistic expectations of being "showered with money". Harris, whose own successful book was made into a hit movie starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, was speaking at a Parliament event about how authors could be paid enough to keep British literature alive.

    Classic detective: Brenda Blethyn as Di Vera Stanhope in Vera, the ITV series based on Ann Cleevers's books
    * Ann Cleeves attacks 'glib' depictions of murders of womenThe bestselling crime writer says she doesn't believe in a 'psychopath who hates women because his grandmother stuck him in a cupboard'. 
    Magna Carta, 1215 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
     * Magna Carta is a 13th-century document enshrining the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and the nobles, and placing limits on the power of the crown. Here are some facts about the Magna Carta, its clauses, history and why and when it was signed. 

    Atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima, 1945 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

     * Was the US justified in dropping atomic bombs on Japan's Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War? History Extra have started a debate. 
      Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Fowey harbour, another deep, enclosed harbour, with Pont Pill, a creek on the east shore. Mixtow Pill (sharing the name with privateers) is the adjacent creek upstream.

    Fowey Harbour in peacetime

    Pirates in the English Channel?  Surely not! 

    Think again.  For as long as men have sailed the seas with goods in their ships, pirates have flourished, seizing all opportunities to steal either goods or entire ships.  In fact and fiction, we have heard a lot about them in the Caribbean, in Tudor and later times.  But Medieval Pirates  is the first account to describe pirates on our own shores at a much earlier date.

    Nine, eight, even seven hundred years ago, commercial and political conditions combined to provide ideal opportunities for pirates in the English Channel. Two great industrial centres, Flanders and Florence, led the world, importing raw materials and exporting finished goods.  As for English trade, she exported two essentials – wool from northern sheep pastures and tin from the south-west.  In the fourteenth-century wool manufacture began in the Cotswold valleys, but still the dyes and alum had to be imported.  She imported vast quantities of French wine, mainly from Gascony; salt from Brittany; iron from Castile; and spices and other luxuries, which came through Venice but started out much further east. Countless ships laden with this trade, sailing near the coast, proved ideal targets for pirates.

    Politically, the world was volatile, reacting to the whim of leaders.  England and France were always hostile and often at war. The English Channel was a wide, lawless, unstable frontier zone between them, and so the ports were vital frontier towns. Local merchants, supported by landowners, not only sailed the ships but also managed the ports. The merchants grabbed the opportunity to exploit that situation, so piracy went hand in hand with official trade. 

    With no royal navy, the king had to rely on the goodwill and support of those men, to carry his trade, his messengers, his household and on occasions, to transport his armies across the Channel.  In effect, the merchants, alias the pirates, usually had the upper hand, and often chose to disregard instructions from the king

    In the thirteenth-century the Cinque Ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney, Hastings together with Winchelsea and Rye) controlled the shortest Channel crossing.  In order for royal armies to cross, the Ports repeatedly struck bargains with Henry III and Edward I.  In exchange for supplying transport the ports received a series of privileges which they still remember in ceremonies today.  It was, in effect, a form of blackmail. The kings were also unable to stop a long-term petty war which the Cinque Ports waged with (Great) Yarmouth over the annual Herring Fair, herrings being a vital source of food.

    In the fourteenth-century, England repeatedly sent armies to make forays across Normandy.  They are memorable for the capture of Calais and certain spectacular victories, but achieved no other lasting gain. Retaliation by the French, raids on the south coast of England, was much more effective. The raid on Southampton, the leading port, on 4 October 1338 was typically terrifying. When fifty French, Scottish and Castilian galleys sailed up Southampton Water, the port’s defenders fled, leaving the enemy to seize great quantities of wool and wine from quays, warehouses and the castle before burning the town and abandoning it destitute.  By 1390 French raiders had crippled the ports and with them, the English economy.

    Henry IV therefore lacked finance, and with the eastern ports shattered, he turned to those in the south-west, notably Dartmouth, Plymouth, Fowey and Bristol. Another kind of piracy, state-sponsored privateering, came to the fore.  Henry ordered them to attack French cargoes, with the provision that they could keep some or all of the loot.  John Hawley of Dartmouth (c.1340-1408), a leading privateer, was a benevolent man who ploughed part of his fortune back into his town and port.  But by 1335, a rougher class of men emerged, and, after England lost Gascony, her last French possession except Calais in 1453, chaos prevailed at sea ...


    Medieval Pirates

    Jill Eddison is the author of Medieval Pirates: Pirates, Raiders And Privateers 1204-1453. Breaking new ground, on a subject that remains topical today, this book explores medieval piracy as it waxed and waned, setting dramatic life stories against the better-known landmarks of history. 

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    An East End Album


    Steve Lewis will be at Barton's Bookshop, Leatherhead on Saturday 19th July from 10am-3pm signing copies of his new book, An East End Album

    The pictures in this book show the changes that have happened in the East End of London since the beginning of the 1960s. A rag-and-bone man rings his bell to let the residents of Stratford know he is doing his rounds to collect any old junk; a tradesman uses his horse to pull the barrow; the local greengrocer comes round once a week with supplies. One old man uses a bike to collect goods with a sign saying ‘Complete homes purchased’; local traders sell cockles and whelks at an East Ham market, while others enjoy a pint and play cards in the local pub; another old man hawks his goods at the docks, selling shoelaces and boot polish. With never before seen images, this beautiful collection is a must-see for all Londoners. 

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    Scottish Independence: Yes or No


    George Kerevan and Alan Cochrane at Blackwells, South Bridge, Edinburgh on 30th July from 6:30-8:00pm giving a talk and signing copies of their bookScottish Independence: Yes or No

    In September 2014, a referendum will be held in Scotland to decide whether or not Scotland should become independent and cease to be part of the United Kingdom. In this book, two of the nation’s leading political commentators will address both sides of this historic debate. George Kerevan will put forward the case for voting Yes, and Alan Cochrane will make the case for voting No. In this volume, the first title in this Great Debate series, the authors will present the distinctive arguments for both sides, fully preparing you to make up your own mind on a decision that will shape the future of Scotland and of Great Britain. 

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    The Dumfries Book of Days


    David Carroll will be at Waterstones, Dumfires on Saturday 19th July signing copies of his new book, The Dumfries Book of Days.

    Taking you through the year day by day, The Dumfries Book of Days contains quirky, eccentric, amusing and important events and facts from different periods in the history of the town. Ideal for dipping into, this addictive little book will keep you entertained and informed. Featuring hundreds of snippets of information gleaned from the vaults of Dumfries’s archives and covering the social, criminal, political, religious, industrial, military and sporting history of the town, it will delight residents and visitors alike.

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    Exploring Historical Cambridgeshire


    Robert Leader will be at Waterstones, Cambridge on Saturday 26th July signing copies of his new book, Exploring Historical Cambridgeshire.  

    This fascinating and beautifully photographed guidebook follows Cambridgeshire’s waterways from leafy Huntingdon to the wide-sky Fens, along the lovely Nene Valley down to the busy port town of Wisbech and travels beside the gentle stream of the Cam into the architectural glories of the university city of Cambridge. The narrative explores the history of Cambridgeshire through its vanished castles and abbeys, and traces the draining of the wild marshes. Cambridgeshire is a county that is different to any other in England, and the watery landscapes of the Fens are unique. From the bizarre Straw Bears that lead the hosts of morris dancers through the heart of Whittlesey every January, to the sedate Rose Fair that graces Wisbech church and gardens every June, Cambridgeshire has something to offer everyone.


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    The Watchtower

    Behind an arched oak door set in a thicket hedge lies Talliston House & Gardens, the house named as 'Britain's most extraordinary home' by
    The Times. With a name that means ‘the hidden place’, this once ordinary house hides thirteen rooms, each set in a different time and place. Twenty-five years in the making, the project has taken a three-bedroomed, semi-detached, ex-council house in Essex and transformed it into a wonderland of inspirational locations including a Cambodian treehouse and medieval tower. Primarily, the project was conceived as exploring the concept of the extraordinary within the ordinary. It’s about exploring how we all have inside us the power to be whatever we want or can imagine.

    Using traditional techniques and authentic items sourced from around the globe, and with added music, ambient sounds, smells and visual elements, you can step from a Moorish bedchamber into a 1920s study, from a New Orleans kitchen into a Victorian retreat – all just by opening the house’s many doors and seeing what lies behind them. Yet the essence of the house is more than how it looks. Every location has a story woven into it, and while images of the house are astonishing, Talliston is not designed to be a place viewed in photographs or picture books, but to be experienced.

    Research for each of the rooms was an integral factor in creating locations that feel genuine and real. Talliston is not a museum; every room is based upon the use and function of the original 1930s council house, just reimagined in a different era. The rooms are also completely functioning; for example, the New Orleans 1950s kitchen is stacked full of all the tensils, gadgets, crockery, pots and pans to prepare anything from a Sunday brunch to a full dinner party.

    The way each room was chosen was by allowing the room’s function to lead the search for the perfect alternate environment. Taking the kitchen as an example, the question became ‘where in the world would you wish to be for the perfect Sunday breakfast’, and from this premise, we discovered that freestanding French furniture and retro kitchenalia crossed in the Deep South of the USA. Bringing together a story of a black maid and her beliefs in the local hoodoo religion located us in the mid-1950s in Bayou St. John. Each of the other rooms have taken similar routes (‘the perfect night’s sleep’, ‘an inspired place to write novels’, etc.) This approach to interior design makes Talliston much more than a time capsule, but instead infuses it with life.

    To create each area, we break down the massive task into five distinct phases (seen in the chart below). First we deconstruct each room back to the brickwork and rebuild from scratch, so that upon completion not one square centimetre of the original house will remain (that’s inside and out). Using only those tradesmen essential to compliance with building regulations (structural, electric and gas), the rest of the skills (from carpentry, bricklaying and garden landscaping to the more esoteric like lime rendering, gold leafing and treehouse construction) have been learned during its lifecycle. During the project, we’ve also seen other craftspeople, artists, architects and volunteers get involved into what is now a veritable community.

    Fundamentally the project is not about living in the past, but instead taking from the best of history to create the future. It’s also about the journey, and about ordinary people learning skills, working together and building a community of inspiration and creativity. But these unique environments are also about love, passion – and, not to question why is Talliston like this, but instead 'Why cannot the whole world be like Talliston?'

    To find out more – and perhaps contributing to help save this project – go to:


    The Treehouse Sanctuary


    Phase I: Design, planning, sourcing and gutting room ready for building work.

    Phase II: Major building work, laying floors and any structural alterations.

    Phase III: Primary furniture and fittings.

    Phase IV: Secondary furniture and fittings.

    Phase V: Details and hard-to-find articles and objects.

    The office


    Talliston’s Thirteen Locations


    1. The Labyrinth, Front garden - 1852 England. 

    Gothic Revival formal and vegetable garden


    2. The Hall Of Mirrors, Hall & stairs- 1992 Italy

    Solar staircase in abandoned Medici summer residence


    3. The Watchtower, Living room - 1887 Wales

    Medieval tower transformed into Victorian rural retreat


    4. The Voodoo Kitchen, Kitchen- 1954 Louisiana

    Working kitchen and laundry in Bayou St. John


    5. The Boathouse, Bathroom- 1986 Norway

    Part of decommissioned and converted lighthouse buildings


    6. The Fountain Courtyard, Back garden- 1933 Ireland

    Wild water garden in former chapel house in County Meath


    7. The Cabin, Garden shed- 1948 Saskatchewan

    Canadian log cabin in the woods


    8. The Starhouse, Conservatory- 2282 Near-space

    Futuristic Japanese teahouse inspired vivarium


    9. The Haunted Bedroom, Master bedroom- 1911 Scotland

    Scottish Edwardian child’s bedchamber in Art Nouveau style


    10. The Room Of Dreams, Guest bedroom- 1977 Grenada, Spain

    Small guest room off the Courty of Myrtles in the Alhambra Palace


    11. The Office, Box-room- 1929 | New York

    1920s detective office in New York State


    12. The Treehouse Sanctuary, Attic- 1965 Cambodia

    Bamboo spirit house in Tonlé Sap Lake fishing village


    13. The Tipi, Tent- 2002 Arizona

    Sioux tipi and travelling room of the house 

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    Operation Tabarin


    Stephen Haddelsey will be at the British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge on Friday 1st August giving a talk about his new book, Operation Tabarin: Britain's Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica 1944-46

    In 1943, with the German Sixth Army annihilated at Stalingrad and Rommel’s Afrika Korps in full retreat after defeat at El Alamein, Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet met to discuss the opening of a new front. Its battles would be fought not on the beaches of Normandy or in the jungles of Burma but amid the blizzards and glaciers of the Antarctic.

    Based upon contemporary sources, including official reports and the diaries and letters of the participants, Operation Tabarin tells for the first time the story of this, the only Antarctic expedition to be launched by any of the combatant nations during the Second World War and one of the most curious episodes in what Ernest Shackleton called ‘the white warfare of the south’.

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    Portsmouth's World War One Heroes


    James Daly will be at Waterstones, Portsmouth on Saturday 2nd August from 12-2pm, signing copies of his book, Portsmouth's World War One Heroes: Stories of the Fallen Men and Women

    Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during the First World War – the greatest loss of life that the city has ever known. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a wealth of sources available and painstaking use of database software, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before. James Daly builds an extremely detailed picture of Portsmouth’s First World War dead, down to where they were born and where they lived. Not only will their powerfully poignant stories tell us about how the war was fought and won, and their sacrifices, but they will also provide a vividly clear picture of how Portsmouth and its people suffered during the war to end all wars. 

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    License All rights reserved by hadar.bensimon. Image from

    For many people, those blissful few days when they are on holiday, are the only time that they have for settling down with a good book. But with thousands of books published every month, and the added option of ebook or print books, how on earth do you choose which books to take? 

    One of the easiest places to start is by picking a theme e.g. a particular genre, subject, time period or author. I can’t get enough of the Tudors so a mix of historical fiction and Tudor history books are always a winning combination for me. However, if you are feeling a little contrary, you can always choose books that are the complete opposite of each other; there's nothing like flitting between chick lit and crime thrillers to keep you awake when you’re lying in the sun. By doing this, you will also avoid 'genre burnout' - when reading lots of one type of books make them feel a bit 'same-y'. Take this as a heads-up from someone who once got stuck somewhere with only Clive Cussler books!

    If I can't decide on a genre my local library is always very good at providing recommendations and most will have lists of recommended titles or staff picks, especially at this time of year. It is definitely worth asking library staff about what to read next as they are usually avid readers themselves and will have a good idea of similar books that may interest you. Being in the library also has the added bonus of letting you flick through the book before you commit – a plot may be great but if you don’t like the author’s writing style you’ll never enjoy it.  Another benefit of the library is that although people may tell you not to judge a book by its cover, a beautiful design can definitely help you decide between books. If you find one that catches your eye, why not read the first chapter before deciding to read (or not).

    Bestseller and awards lists are a good starting point if you are unsure of where to begin at your library - there is a good chance that at least one book will catch your eye on there.  The Amazon bestseller lists move very quickly and it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for upcoming authors and books. There are always lists of '1,000 books to read before you die' and even if this seems a little daunting, it can be a good way to start the ball rolling.

    Or, if you have an ereader, you can browse the free list and be a bit adventurous with something you wouldn’t be confident enough to pay for. The classics are free to download, so you can finally get round to reading Dracula or some other classics that you haven't been brave enough to try yet. 

    Joining a book club is a good way to find new authors and connect with like-minded individuals about books that you are passionate about. Even if there isn't a book group near you, you can find many online with sites such as the Guardian Book blog which has a thriving book club community

    If all else fails, there’s always the traditional (and perhaps most obvious) route. Ask your friends, family and followers for suggestions of their favourite authors and/or series. It is likely that you will share similar interests; some of the best books I have read have been recommendations or gifts.  There are lots of book bloggers and YouTubers online and sites such as Goodreads can help ease people into online book reviews. The breadth of the community means that you can find bloggers who share your specific tastes and I am now stuck with a 'to read' list which doesn't stop growing!

    Online there are many places that are devoted solely to finding your next book and sites such as Bookseer, Just the Right Book, Whichbook and What Should I Read Next throw up some fairly accurate picks. If you keep an open mind, you may just find your new favourite book!  

    We also asked The History Press staff to share their favourite summer reads, check out their recommendations below: 

    1950s Bognor Regis    Italian Adventures
     Darwin     English History Strange but True
     Vortigern    Manual for British Men
     Escape from Broadmoor    Warrior Origins
     Mitford Girls' Guide to Life    Standing in the wings
     Scotland's Castles    Brothers in blood
     Shooting 007    Riddle of Sphinx Island
     BBH Aberdeen    Little Book of the Tudors


    How do you choose your holiday reading? 


    Further reading:

    * A primer to finding a good read

    * The best books to pack this summer

    * Why summer reading is a holiday essential

    * Summer voyages: Questions of travel. 

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  • 07/25/14--02:30: The Friday Digest 25/07/14
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features the peculiar history of cows, the bonfire of papers at the end of Empire and Amazon's twentieth birthday.

    Scapa Flow. Image from

    * Why was Orkney the perfect naval base in the First World War? 

    The Countess of Carnarvon in the grounds of Highclere Castle Photo: GEOFF PUGH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

    * Do you agree that the aristocracy suffered as much as the lower classes during the First World War?

    A Night at the Cinema in 1914  A BFI National Archive compilation of clips and shorts that would have been seen 100 years ago.

    * Spend a night at the cinema in 1914 with the British Film Institute.

    A  Harrier - informally referred to as a Jump Jet - hangs alongside a Spitfire in the newly-refurbished atrium

    * The Imperial War Museum has reopened ahead of the centenary commemorations with 'death and destruction all around'.

    Heinz Baked beans Topfoto


    * Life on the eve of war ... 

    An image of a British munitions factory in 1915 at the Imperial War Museum's new first world war galleries in London. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images


    * The Germans resist a heroic view of war – if only we could ...  

    Matania plane down


    * Fortunino's Fortunes - the twenty-first century revival of war artist, Matania

    From poetry and polemic to films, teacher Alex Ogg collects his top first world war related teaching resources. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images


    * Is it guns for boys, gender for girls in the First World War classroom?  

    'The Three Species of Friendship', an illustration from a 15th-century French edition of Aristotle's 'Ethics'. Bridgeman/De Agostini


    * How does it feel? Understanding the emotional lives of people in the past.

    The original Swedish title of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (film adaptation pictured) translates as Men Who Hate Women Photo: Snap Stills / Rex Features

    Does crime writing have a misogynistic heart? 

    How the Commonwealth has captured the imagination of film-makers over the decades.

    Modern carabinieri

    Illustration of Edward, Black Prince

    One of the bollards by Oliver Creed in Norwich

    Alexander the Great

    cows in the oed

    Sir Christopher Wren's plan for the rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

    A colonial policeman and an auxiliary guard Mau Mau suspects in 1954. Photograph: Popperfoto

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    Amazon's 'fulfilment centre' in Swansea. Photograph: Ben Cawthra/Rex Features


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

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  • 07/26/14--02:00: The Final Over
  •   Today, many biographers, historians and film-makers have a chilling certainty in the correctness of their judgments on the First World War. It wasn’t only an appalling tragicomedy in its making, they agree, but for the poor front-line soldier life in the trenches was one of unrelieved privation and horror.

       Of course, no one in their right mind would claim that combat duty would be actively enjoyable in any war, let alone one that left behind some 37 million military and civilian casualties. But a reading of the diaries and letters of some of those most intimately involved at the heart of European affairs from 1914-18 often gives a more nuanced, and gripping, account than the armchair version of a hundred years later.

       Take, for example, the words of the cricketer-soldier Lionel Tennyson, the poet’s grandson, which command the natural authority of a man who was twice Mentioned in Dispatches and three times wounded during his service on the Western Front. Aged 24 on the outbreak of hostilities, Tennyson’s life to that point had been largely dominated by a twin preoccupation with fast women and slow horses. Moving almost overnight from the drawing-rooms of Chelsea into the mud and blood of the Marne campaign, he writes in his diary of an experience that combines the familiar hardships and terrors of war with some of the characteristics of an extended French holiday.

       Arriving by train at his unit’s depot at Amiens, Tennyson dwells on the ‘especially lovely’ countryside, as well as the well-stocked local shops and market stalls that showed no sign of being affected by the war, and particularly mentions the marble-floored public baths, where he ‘soaked luxuriously before dining at the Brasserie de l’Opera.’

       For some time after that, Tennyson continued to record a scene of equal parts pleasure, boredom and intermittent panic. On his fourth evening in France, he was jerked awake from a peaceful sleep when ‘a private soldier in the Inniskillen Fusiliers had a nightmare, and jumped up yelling, “The Germans are on us!” Everyone leapt up, seized rifles, and there was tremendous excitement – I have never been so frightened in my life.’ The next morning, ‘A man came into the camp wounded from the front. He told us Sam Rickman had been killed, many injured, and the whole battalion had been cut up.’ Even then, Tennyson was able to spend the afternoon shopping and to meet up with a Captain Davies, ‘who had had his foot run over by an Army Service Corps wagon which was running away’, before dining at the Café Victor and ‘looking in at the Hotel de Ville, which was very fine.’

       The following week, Tennyson and his unit struck camp and took a train to Le Mans. During the journey, he writes, ‘We saw trainloads of refugees pass us coming down from the north, and also trainloads of wounded.’ Once settled in the barracks at Le Mans, Tennyson was called upon to settle a demarcation dispute between the British and French cooks sharing the camp’s galley – ‘such a lot of talking as I have never heard,’ he notes. After two or three more idle days, ‘I paid the men, giving them five francs each. This was the first pay they have had since we left England. I dined at the Hotel de Paris and had a hot bath there.’ Following that, Tennyson writes matter-of-factly, ‘The news came in that we were off at about midnight to the front. This pleased us, as we had been hanging about for some time now ready to go.’

     What comes through time and again is the authentic voice of a British soldier making the best of a bad situation. No one is saying that what happened to Tennyson and many more like him over the next four years was, for the most part, actively pleasurable. But it may only be in long perspective that the Western Front has come to be portrayed as one of such unrelieved horror. In many individual cases the truth was more nuanced, with its full share of humanising contradictions, and all the more compelling as a result.

    Christopher Sandford is the author of The Final Over which is out now at £18.99 

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