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King John of England and the French invasion

When Richard the Lionheart was killed by a crossbow bolt in France in April 1199, a French chronicler, no friend of the English monarch, wrote: “God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.” Richard had been a feared and victorious enemy of France, and few believed that his younger brother and successor, John, would be a match for the formidable and experienced French king Philip II, known as Augustus.

Philip II of France and King Richard of England receive the key of  Acre

Philip II of France and King Richard of England receive the key of Acre

As an archbishop presciently despaired on hearing of Richard’s death: “What hope remains to us now? There is none, for, after him, I can see nobody to defend the kingdom. The French will overrun us, and there will be no one to resist them.” When John died in 1216, more than one-third of England, including the capital, was under French rule.


Medieval sense of humour

The passions of a violent society spill over into the sense of humour you will encounter. Yes, there is humour, lots of it, amid the violence and sexism. But whether you will find it funny is a quite a different matter. For example, here is a medieval joke. One merchant asks another, ‘Are you married?’ ‘I had three wives,’ the second merchant responds, ‘but all three hanged themselves from a tree in my garden.’ The first merchant retorts, ‘Pray, give me a cutting from this miraculous tree.’

Sarcasm might be commonly referred to as the lowest form of wit in our own time but in the 14th century it is just about the highest. It is arguably the only form which does not require the humiliation of a victim. One of the most famous humorous letters of the century is written by the young Edward II to Louis d’Evreux, in which he promises to send him a present of ‘some misshapen greyhounds from Wales, which can well catch a hare if they find it asleep, and running dogs which can follow at an amble, for well we know how you love lazy dogs’. Similarly, if you visit court in late 1328 you might be amused by Roger Mortimer’s sarcastic reply to a letter from earl of Lancaster, his avowed enemy. Having been accused to impoverishing the Crown, Mortimer denies everything vehemently and then adds ‘but if any man knows how to make the king richer, he is most welcome at court’.


Bear River massacre in 1863

Four miles north of Preston, Idaho, the Bear River quietly ambles through green valleys and sagebrush covered mountains, the Shoshone call this place Boa Ogoi. Something happened on this site that is little known to U.S. history. But it is seared forever into the memory of the Shoshone.

On January 29, 1863, the militia of the U.S. Army’s Third California Volunteers, under the command of Colonel Patrick E. Connor, rode down the frozen bluff and massacred some 350 Northwestern Shoshone Indians – the largest slaughter of Native Americans in the history of the country. Estimates of the dead are nearly double those of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and Sand Creek, Colorado. It was a clash of two diverse cultures trying to share the same land, and the Shoshone lost. The Shoshone, comprising several bands, had close contact with the white settlers moving in the ever-growing tide of westward expansion. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being precisely where immigrants would pass on their way to the Pacific; that, combined with the critical perception people had of Native Americans at the time, resulted in a recipe for disaster.


The Great Exhibition opened

The world’s first international exhibition of industry was opened on the 1st May 1851 by Her Majesty Queen Victoria. It was originally planned that this inauguration would be a private ceremony because the Queen had been attacked in June of the previous year by Robert Pate, and was wary of public attention.

But again The Times thundered, its leader column stating:

What was unworthy part would these nervous advisers cause the Queen of England to play! Surely Queen Victoria is not Tiberius or Louis XI, that she should be smuggled out of a glass carriage into a great glass building under the cover of the truncheons of the police and the broadswords of the Life Guards. Where most Englishmen are gathered together, there the Queen of England is most secure!


Anti-suffragette postcards

In these days on telephone, email, text, Facebook or Twitter, it is salutary to remember that in early 20th-century Britain the picture  postcard was one of the cheapest and most accessible forms of communication. Over 600m postcards were posted in 1904, rising to over a staggering 900m in 1913.

To cope with the increasing demand for the inexpensive and easy-to-use form of communication, major cities had up to 10 postal deliveries daily while in many other areas up to five were common. Unsurprisingly, it was mainly the growing urban lower middle and working classes who used postcards as a form of communication.

The golden age of the picture postcard in early 20th-century Britain coincided with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement. Although some pro women’s suffrage postcards were produced, particularly by the suffrage societies themselves, their number was small in regard to the vast outpouring by commercial publishers who were overwhelmingly opposed to granting the parliamentary vote to women. (…)


Punishing the poor

Poverty came close to being a crime in 16th and 17th  century England. Once the needy sought help from the monasteries but during the reign of Henry VIII most of these had been dissolved. City dwellers feared the influx of penniless beggars from the countryside who were considered idle, lawless and a threat to the public order of the towns. Given their lack of work and inability to support themselves, it was thought discontent might breed among the poor resulting in social unrest or even revolution.

The wealthy and worried determined to hide th epoor behind closed doors. And so Houses of Correction or Bridewells were born, so called because the first was at Bridewell Palace in London.


Propaganda in the Wars of the Roses

In June 1864 Lewis Carroll was in London seeing to the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On June 22nd he visited Lambeth Palace and while there (he notes in his diary) ‘the librarian, Mr Stubbs, showed me some interesting old MSS and relics’. I wonder whether one of those old manuscripts was not Lambeth MS 448: even the most casual reader cannot ignore the great number of decapitations recorded there. Alas, Alice was already with the publishers, so that manuscript cannot be the source for the Queen of Hearts.

Lambeth MS 448 comprises brief notices of contemporary history composed at Ely abbey shortly after 1462. What makes this manuscript particularly interesting is the suggestion that the author’s sources were news-bills. News-bills have been defined as official or officially sanctioned reports; news-bills are not, in other words, newsletters, which passed between private persons, nor are they those hand-bills which were posted in public places, as well as circulated either by individuals or by groups, and which outlined grievance private or public. Many newsletters survive, especially in the Paston collection, and there are innumerable references to the posting and circulation of hand-bills from the fourteenth century onwards. News-bills, on the other hand, are elusive; Lambeth MS 448 seems to he the sole instance of their being recorded.


Medieval Arms and Armoury

European warriors of the early Middle Ages used both indigenous forms of military equipment and arms and armor derived from late Roman types. One of the most widely used types of helmet was the Spangenhelm. Body armor was usually either a short-sleeved mail shirt (byrnie), made up of interlocking iron rings, or a garment of overlapping scales of iron, bronze, or horn.

medieval armour 3

Shields were oval or round and made of light, tough wood covered with leather. Metallic mountings lined the rims. A hole in the center of each shield was bridged by a hand grip inside and a shield boss outside. Weapons were the spear, sword, ax, and the bow and arrow.


Punishment of women

For women there were punishments designed to humiliate as well as to hurt. The scold’s bridle took many appearances but in essence each was the same – a metal cage to clamp around the head with a built-in gag. Included in the design of some was a bell which rang when the ‘scold’ was paraded around the town. Of course, in the streets she was subjected to the jeers of the crowd.

In Ipswich the scold was drawn around the town on a cart in the ‘gagging’ chair or ‘Tewe’, as it was known. The bridle, also known as the brank, was first used at the end of the Middle Ages in Scotland. It was rarely used after the start of the 19th century.


The grave of King Richard III finally found?

Richard III has become known, perhaps unfairly, as one of the most notorious kings ever to rule England. This may be partly to do with the history written by the Tudors, whose description of him formed Shakespeare’s dramatisation. Archaeologists searching for the grave of King Richard III say they have found bones that are consistent with the 15th century monarch’s physical abnormality and of a man who died in battle.

A team from the University of Leicester said the bones were beneath the site of the Grey Friars church in Leicester, central England, where contemporary accounts say Richard was buried following his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.