Wednesday, 31 December 2014

December competition

Our competitions are open to UK readers only - sorry!

To win one of five copies of Dan Jones' Magna Carta book, just write your answer to this question in the Comments box below:

"If you were designing a Magna Carta for today, what would your first clause be?"

Please also send your answer to so that I can contact you if you win.

Closing date extended to 14th January.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Cabinet of Curiosities: The Human Heart - Louisa Young

My proposal for the Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the most curious items I have ever come across: the human heart. We all have one; most of us will never see one. We all know what it is, very few of us can explain how it works. There exists a universal fascination with it which no other organ shares, not even the brain, so complex and mysterious, and only now beginning to give up its secrets. The future may belong to the brain, but the past belongs to the heart.

When I first wrote about the heart, in The Book of the Heart (2001), people would say 'Oh - the physical heart? Or the emotions?'

'Both,' I would reply, because the heart is above all two things at once: full and empty, moving and still, left and right, ventricles and atria, physical and spiritual, red and blue, oxygenated and non-oxygenated, body and soul, sacred and profane, god and man, hard and soft, recipient and creative, male and female, suction and expulsion. It is a muscle, a pump for blood, and yet it is the home of love, courage and religion; it is full of blood and of symbolism. Every age, every culture and every religion has ideas and beliefs about the heart which support, overlap and undermine each other; we have always known the heart's vital importance, and assigned similar reasons for it.

Here is an anthropomorphic Olmec heart, 5000 years old:

I divided the book into four sections - like the four chambers - and filled them with Anatomy, Religion, Art and Love, but they kept overlapping.

But why the heart? Imagine you are a neanderthal. . .  what do you do? Go hunting? Your heart twitches when you see your prey - a mammoth, say. It beats faster and faster as you run after your mammoth. When you shoot it, where do you aim? You know an animal shot through the heart dies; you know when it dies the beating stops. You drag the mammoth home, heart thumping away with the effort of work. You give it to your family to eat and your heart glows with pride. Your wife takes you aside and makes beautiful love to you in gratitude for having brought home the mammoth bacon; again, your heart makes its presence felt. Little wonder that the most ancient cave paintings - in the cavern at Pindal - show a heart (on a mammoth, as it happens) and the earliest written story, Gilgamish, tells of the hero's heart being full of courage as he sets out, and full of affection for his friend.

In ancient Egypt, after you died your heart was weighed against the feather of truth, in front of a jury of fourteen gods, and if it were found wanting it was eaten by a demon called Ammit, part crocodile, part lion, part hippo. The process of judgement was governed by the Book of the Dead; here are some prayers listing some of the 42 specific sins which had to be denied by your heart, to specific gods:
'Oh Wide-of-Stride who comes from On, I have not done evil.
Oh Shadow-eater who comes from the cave, I have not stolen.
Oh Lion Twins who some from Heaven, I have not trimmed the measure.
Oh Cave-dweller who comes from the west, I have not sulked.
Oh Backward-faced one who comes from the pit, I have not copulated with a boy.
Oh High of Head who comes from the cave, I have not wanted more than I had.

'I have not mistreated cattle, I have not sinned in the place of truth, I have not deleted the loaves of the Gods; I have not eaten the cakes of the dead, I have not held back water in its season, I have not quenched a needed fire . . .'

And there were prayers to the heart itself (both hearts the haty and the ib - the Egyptians had separate names for the emotional and physical hearts) asking it not to lie about you, or get you into trouble:
'Oh my heart of my mother
Oh my heart of my mother
Oh my heart of my being
Do not rise up against me as a witness
Do not oppose me in the tribunal
Do not rebel against me before the guardians of the scales . . . '

Here is the Psychostasia of Hunefer - heart on the left, feather of truth on the right, Thoth commanding the proceedings, Ammit lurking:

which led directly to this sort of thing: St Michael weighing a soul 
(depicted here by Hans Holbein the Younger)

I had an entire chapter on the pre-biblical origins of Country and Western lyrics, with a section on Hank Williams's Your Cheatin' Heart -  'Your cheating heart will make you weep, you'll cry and cry and try to sleep, but sleep won't come, the whole night through - Your cheating heart, will tell on you . . . ' You can't tell me that's not about Osiris.

The ancient Egyptian and Babylonian reverence for the heart swanned through the Old Testament into Judaism and Christianity; segued into Islam (where the heart must be clean and pure as glass to reflect God back at himself - god lives in a clean heart - cue Blondie, Heart of Glass - and here is a heart of glass, full of animals, with Jesus holding it up (while spurting blood from his heart into a cup - the original suit in cards, which became Hearts, was Cups, as in Tarot and the old Italian Scopa cards):

and cue also this - a dear little Jesus sweeping all the evils out of a cosy clean heart: 

Which leads to all kinds of things . . . . Here is a piece of work by an anonymous nun of the late 15th century. Forgive my bad photograph. The heart is a house; the aorta is a chimney (with the Lamb of God sitting on top). Steps lead up to the door and inside the nun sits on Christ's knee, with God the Father embracing her and the Holy Spirit perching by her. She has even let her hair down and taken off her veil. Top right you may make out St Walburga and her host of 144,000 virgins arriving on a cloud. A tiny dog protects the doorway. It is truly a heart full of love, a safe place to spend eternity.

The same nun made this: The heart of Christ on the cross. The ladder leading up is labelled step by step with virtues you need to have in order to reach the happy state of union with God inside his heart. 

Here's another couple setting up home in the heart of god: 
Rama and Sita, inside Hanuman

Here is the most wounded of wounded hearts, that of Mary, with her seven sorrows, each one a blade: this is a 17th-century Italian depiciton. She would have had a wig and a skirt. 

A heart is a container of God, his love, and his word: 
here it's a vine bearing grapes full of blood/wine/Holy Communion for the lambs to drink (see also heart-of-glass Jesus, above) 

Here it's a pomegranate, split open to presage Christ's passion on the cross, when his heart was pierced by the spear of the soldier Longinus (knowing this would happen is one of Mary's sorrows, see above). Broken hearts of course had a chapter to themselves.

Here the heart is a book 
(cf Moses, the two tablets of the law, the law written on the hearts of men . . .)

and here is Jesus (or Amor, depending) writing in it

which brings us to this:

If it can be a book it can be a map. Eat your (sorry) heart out, Grayson Perry:

or a song . . . .

or a musical instrument. See those heartstrings go Zing. . . .

Or it can be a locket to keep a real heart in.
This one contained the heart of Edward, Lord Bruce of Kinloss, who took exception to Sir Edward Sackvile's contention that Scotsmen were beggarly, and as a result died in a duel at Bergen. 
There's a reason why it's upside down, by our standards. I could tell you why. I could tell you why the heart has a pointy bottom and scallopy top, too, despite looking in reality like a meat whoopie cushion. And why it has two sides. And  . . . all kinds of things. If truly 'the heart of him that hath understanding seeks knowledge' (Proverbs, 15.14), just ask.  

Have I convinced you? Is the heart curious? Does it not deserve a place in our cabinet? 

Monday, 29 December 2014

Magna Carta

We are delighted that this month’s guest post on The History Girls comes courtesy of Dan Jones author of The Plantagenets and presenter of the recent Channel 5 series about them called "Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty." He was kind enough to take some time out of a hectic schedule to answer a few questions posed by Elizabeth Chadwick on his excellent new book about the Magna Carta. 

This is what his publisher, Head of Zeus, has to say about him:

Dan Jones is the author of The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown, both of which were Sunday Times bestsellers. As a journalist he writes regularly for The Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Spectator and is a columnist at the London Evening Standard. He has presented television programmes for the BBC and Channel 5 – most recently ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets (2014) and ‘Great British Castles’ (2015).

In 2015 as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations Dan will be taking part in the British Library’s exhibition of the charter, appearing in events nationwide, and giving a TED talk on the subject. He lives in London with his wife and children and tweets as @dgjones.

Elizabeth Chadwick: In the summer of 1214, the year before Magna Carta was signed, a very significant battle, still commemorated by the French was fought near a place called Bouvines. King John was attempting to regain the continental dominions he had lost to the French almost ten years earlier. John and his allies suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the French. If there had been a different outcome to the Battle of Bouvines, or if King John had had a slightly less difficult character, do you think Magna Carta would not have happened - or was it inevitable?

Dan Jones: I guess this strikes right at the heart of Magna Carta: it was both a complaint against (and an attempt to correct) King John himself, and a howl of protest addressed at sixty years of Plantagenet (aka Angevin) government, going back to the accession of Henry II in 1154. The catastrophic loss at Bouvines certainly made things awkward for John in the autumn of 1214, and although John struggled against it for nine months into the spring of 1215, I think that some form of serious reckoning was inevitable after that loss. John’s personality certainly contributed substantially to his problems. It wasn’t that he was massively more monstrous than his father or his brother Richard I – but he lacked many of their redeeming qualities, AND he was thrust into much closer contact with his English subjects than either of his predecessors, because he had lost Normandy. To put it crudely, he was up in their faces all the time. Can we imagine a more benevolent, more militarily successful king John, who would have died in 1216 having driven the controversial Angevin system of government for a decade and a half without having been forced to agree Magna Carta? Yes, easily. But then I should think that the reckoning would probably have come during the reign of John’s son, Henry III.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Magna Carta often mentions the ‘ancient customs’ of the realm. Just how far back in the mindset of the barons involved in creating Magna Carta did these ancient customs go?

Dan Jones: People love to bang on about the good old days, don’t they? When your money went further, and the summers were hotter, and there weren’t so many foreigners… Those complaints (minus the stuff about the summers) were as common in 1215 as they are today. If we were going to put a date on it, then the barons were looking to the days of Henry I (1100-1135) for their inspiration – Henry I’s coronation charter was well known and was actually included in draft treaties that were drawn up for debate in the months and weeks before Magna Carta. But this isn’t the same as saying that the barons wanted to turn the clock back 115 years to 1100, and be done with it. Magna Carta was looking for reform in a partially imagined past, and its ‘ancient customs’ were not necessarily or wholly ancient.

Elizabeth Chadwick: The Church clearly placed itself in prime position with regard to the Magna Carta clauses and also ensured that the charter both began and ended with matters of ecclesiastical importance. Were the other clauses in the charter arranged in order of importance or just as they were thought about?

Dan Jones: You’re right – the hand of Archbishop Stephen Langton can be felt all over Magna Carta - the freedom of the Church is given pride of place and is restated at the end. Is there a logical flow to the rest of the 63 clauses (or chapters)? Not really – clauses are grouped together thematically, but when you read the charter aloud in its entirety (as I just did for the audiobook) you also get the powerful sense of this charter as unfinished business – slightly ragged, swarming with competing agendas and full of compromise. It was, after all, a peace treaty.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury was the ‘chair’ of the committee so to speak, but do we know which of the barons were most instrumental in bringing about the wording and content of these clauses? For example, I know that father and son Roger and Hugh Bigod had a good grasp of the law, the former having been an itinerant judge hearing pleas in the reign of King Richard and being a man with a keen eye to his own rights and personal advancement. I just wondered if there were any pointers to who the biggest movers and shakers were among those who hammered out the wording of Magna Carta?

Dan Jones: We absolutely do know who was involved in drawing up Magna Carta – and on both sides. The charter names more than two dozen men who advised the king – they include the great knight-turned-baron William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the king’s half-brother William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, and a large number of English and Irish clergymen, including the archbishop of Dublin and the Master of the Templars. On the barons’ side, we have a list of the twenty-five noblemen who were appointed as enforcers of the charter – this was preserved by the chronicler Matthew Paris. You’re right to mention the Bigod family. Other notable figures included Robert FitzWalter, lord of Dunmow and Eustace de Vesci – two barons who had been agitating against John since 1212 when they had been at the heart of a plot to assassinate him. They also included the earls of Oxford, Clare, Essex, Winchester and Hereford, and the Mayor of London, Serlo the Mercer, who was presumably one of those who lobbied so hard for the explicit recognition of London’s liberties in Magna Carta.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Do you think that if Sir Edward Coke had not ‘rediscovered’ and promoted Magna Carta in the 16th century during the reigns of James I and Charles I that it would have sunk further into obscurity? Obviously he revived it and used it to boost the efforts to bind the Stuart kings to principles of government, but how much awareness was there of the document at that time among his peers?

Dan Jones: Well, by Coke’s time Magna Carta had been circulating in printed form for more than a century (it was first printed by Richard Pynson in 1508), but it had understandably not been very popular during the Tudor years. All that stuff about restraining kings and guaranteeing the freedom of the English Church was a bit… risqué. Look at Shakespeare’s King John, written probably in the 1590s – no mention at all of Magna Carta there. So the charter owes much to Coke for reviving it and making it a symbolic part of a political argument far removed from the circumstances of Magna Carta’s creation.

But the whole story of Magna Carta – in a sense, right from the first reissue in 1216 – is of it being revived, turned to another purpose and consequently mythologised. Coke was perhaps the most important figure of all in this process, along with our American cousins who adopted Magna Carta as their model as they thrashed out the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. But the process rumbles on even today, when Sir Tim Berners Lee calls for a Magna Carta For The Web, or Jay-Z uses ‘Magna Carta’ as the name of his album to suggest himself rewriting the rules of the music industry.

King John "signs" Magna Carta Bill Nye 1906
Elizabeth Chadwick: Although clauses 39 and 40 are the most well known and most often quoted – for example number 40: “To no free man will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice” - do you have a favourite clause of your own or one that especially interests you? If so will you tell us about it?

Dan Jones: I love the clause banning fish weirs in the Thames and Medway. (Clause 33). Partly because it speaks to the arcane and peculiarly ‘medieval’ nature of so much of Magna Carta’s content. And partly because as soon as you think about it, you conjure up a clear picture of the world of Magna Carta: wooden fish-traps placed along the rivers were a blight to the boats that relied on the south-east’s main waterways. There – now we’re out of the dusty world of ink on parchment and aboard a boat working its way along a tidal river. That’s the humanity that throbs beneath Magna Carta.

Elizabeth Chadwick: You have very clearly delineated the mass influence of Magna Carta up to this point in history. How do you see its influence progressing into the digital age for future generations?

Dan Jones: Big question and in a sense above my pay grade, but when I consider the circumstances that threw up Magna Carta and the big issues concerning our digital future, I mainly see masses of questions and no easy answers. How do you check massive companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and so on, whose wealth and power is starting to exceed that of some nation states? How do you regulate the regulators? What rights and liberties do we really all have in common? Who’s going to get rid of the fish-traps on the Thames and Medway? No, wait, I think we sorted that one.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Blue Plaque-tastic! by Clare Mulley

This week I was thrilled to learn that Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and the subject of my last biography, The Spy Who Loved, has been short-listed for a blue plaque in London. English Heritage, who run the scheme, have not confirmed the date or location yet, but have said that I may spread the word. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would not be pleased to have their building associated with such a heroine, so hopefully I will have good news soon, but these things are never guaranteed… 

'Blue Plaques' is the title of the last chapter of my first book, The Woman Who Saved the Children, a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, the inspirational founder of Save the Children. In it I looked at all the memorials that have gone up to this remarkable woman. These include a community sports hall in her home-town of Ellesmere in Shropshire, the thriving village of Xheba in Albania, an English rose, and one of the better-known dogs belonging to HRH, The Princess Royal, Princess Anne - the Princess is the President of Save the Children, and one of many to admire the charity’s founder.

The Eglantyne Jebb memorial lamp
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Eglantyne had a wonderfully dark sense of humour, and I think that this rather eclectic assortment or memorials would have amused her. As would the glass chandelier that hangs in the chapel of Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college where she had once read history. Each pendant is in the shape of a ‘white flame’, reflecting the nickname that she had earned for her burning passion for her work, as well as for her prematurely white hair. The chandelier was paid for by subscription among Eglantyne’s former college friends, but it has always amused me that among her papers I found a letter that Eglantyne wrote to her mother during her college days, bemoaning the dullness of her fellow students. If the new intake were as tedious next year, she joked, she would liven things up by putting a bomb in the chapel. And now she is remembered there with this very pleasant, if not wildly exciting, glass chandelier.

Blue print for the memorial seat to Eglantyne Jebb

After Eglantyne’s death in 1928, blueprints were also produced for a stone bench, featuring Save the Children’s original logo, the swaddled babe, to be placed at the top of Mount Saleve outside Geneva in Switzerland. Eglantyne spent her last ten years in Geneva establishing the International Save the Children Alliance, and developing the five-point statement of children’s universal human rights that has now been enshrined as the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. Permission was given for the bench, but when Eglantyne’s sister, Dorothy, discovered how expensive it would be, all donations were reallocated to support children in need in Ethiopia instead. No doubt Eglantyne would have approved.

Of course Eglantyne’s real legacy is not a stone bench, a sports hall, or glass chandelier; it is the wonderful work of Save the Children, saving the lives and improving the life chances of millions of children every day, and the value of the UN Convention, by which institutions, and even governments, may be held to account. However, I was delighted a few years ago when a Blue Plaque was put up at 82 Regent Street, in Cambridge, to mark the building where Eglantyne once worked for a local charity. 

Eglantyne's blue plaque
before it was mounted at 82 Regent Street, Cambridge

The photo above shows Eglantyne’s Blue Plaque, with her dates being pointed out by her great, great, great nephew - who was marvelous at the event, suggesting we used it as an opportunity to raise some funds for the charity. He himself brought some pumpkin seeds to sell, which I duly bought and potted out with my own children. I am afraid to say that the seeds grew into marrows, so he may be considered a swindler, but absolutely the nicest I have met.

So it was with great disappointment that I learned recently that Eglantyne’s blue plaque has been removed. The building has been sold and the developers feel it reduces the value of the site! Save the Children has certainly had a bad couple of weeks since the US arm of the organisation decided to award their annual ‘global legacy’ prize to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his work tackling child poverty while in office. During this time Blair led the G8 nations at Gleneagles to agree to a doubling of aid to Africa, debt cancellation and universal access to Aids treatment. However, Blair’s public legacy has since been overshadowed by his role taking Britain to war in Iraq, actions that Save the Children UK strongly opposed at the time. Hundreds of the UK staff, and thousands of others, have called for the prize to be rescinded, and meanwhile the charity, its many supporters and, most importantly, the children assisted by projects around the world, are facing a serious crisis in terms of support. However, I doubt that this is what the Cambridge developers were concerned about.

Blue plaques are street signposts that operate in another dimension. Instead of showing the way to the motorway or market, they point back in time to the special agent or humanitarian who once lived or worked in that spot – stories that enrich us all as we pass by. I will keep working to try and get Eglantyne Jebb’s plaque replaced. Perhaps the owner of the building opposite might let us project an image of a plaque across the street? Or, once the building is sold again, we might have better luck with the new owners. I will also be keeping my fingers crossed for Christine Granville’s proposed plaque to make it through the final stages at English Heritage.

In the meantime I was hugely cheered to see this 'blue plaque' sticker, marking the door of the flat where the History Girl bloggers met for our Christmas party last week - and it was reproduced on one of the cakes too! With signs like these still being made and appreciated, I feel there is hope yet for Eglantyne’s plaque!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

December Stillness, by Siegfried Sassoon - Louisa Young

These quiet days, between one set of sparkliness and another, are one of my favourite times of year. Nothing showy for you today, just this, sent by a friend when my mother died, four weeks ago.

December stillness, teach me through your trees
That loom along the west, one with the land,
The veiled evangel of your mysteries.
While nightfall, sad and spacious, on the down
Deepens, and dusk embues me where I stand,
With grave diminishings of green and brown,
Speak, roofless Nature, your instinctive words;
And let me learn your secret from the sky,
Following a flock of steadfast-journeying birds
In lone remote migration beating by.
December stillness, crossed by twilight roads,
Teach me to travel far and bear my loads.

Friday, 26 December 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front - Christmas 1914, by Carol Drinkwater

On Christmas Eve 1914 in northern France a frost set in. It had been raining for weeks, filling the trenches to waist height with water, soaking spirits, drowning hope. So acute was this drop in temperature, that it froze solid the soldiers’ great coats and hardened their boots. The men themselves were "frozen to the marrow".

Christmas morning rose foggy and then turned into a freezing day.
Along certain sections of the front, a truce was called. The Germans seemed to have made the first move.

An Irishmen from the Royal Irish Rifles wrote in his diary of the previous evening: “Nothing of importance happened until 8pm when heralded by various jovialities from their trenches the Germans placed lamps on their parapets and commenced singing.”

Soldiers from both camps rose cautiously from their trenches, climbed up and started to walk in No Man’s Land, unarmed, some bearing white flags. The frosty weather had dried the filthy mud solid. It facilitated the soldiers' passage across the free zone.

Exiting their trenches was counter to the orders given by many, although not all, superior officers on both sides of the war – “no fraternising’ - but the men were ready for respite, a few hours of peace. It was Christmas, after all, and it seemed a perfect moment to remember those who had died or were missing and loved ones back home.

                       Meeting in No Man's Land The Illustrated London News 9th January 1915

They shook hands with their enemies, then smoked cigarettes or cigars, sipped schnapps, sang songs - ragtime, Christmas Carols, Music Hall ditties, and even played football (in some cases using sandwiches for balls). Allies and Germans together. Peace for a few hours. Some exchanged gifts (chocolate cake, tobacco). One unit was offered a gift of two barrels of French beer by the Germans which they rolled back to their trench and consumed. Later, the Germans called out to the Tommies. How's the beer? They and their enemy were in agreement that the French beer was lousy.
Some shared thoughts of their families, showed photographs of their sweethearts back home, waiting and praying for their safe return. Others enquired of the status of certain of their comrades. The Germans were able to confirm that this soldier or that officer had died and had been buried, or they, Brits and Germans, gave permission for their enemies to bury their dead. There were bodies strewn everywhere about them, lying in the hoar frost.

These hours were precious. Moments of humanity in a chaos of destruction. I have read accounts - extracts from letters, diaries, witness statements - stating that this day, this truce, was one of the most abiding and for some, haunting, memories of the war.

Boxing Day, the men were mostly back in their positions, rifles at the ready, to shoot one another again. A few held off, not wishing to be the first to fire.

An interesting historical fact. Not one single soldier of any rank was disciplined for having taken part in the truce. However, the following Christmas it was made clear that no such fraternisation would be tolerated.

Politicians and soldiers alike had been certain that by December 1914 the war would be over. Instead, hundreds of thousands of men from both sides were still in France, stuck in the trenches, frost-bitten, shocked by the number of lives already lost and those that had gone missing in action. It was evident that this war was certainly not going to be a ‘couple of months affair’. 

                                            Princess Mary's royal gift box with her embossed head.

This first wartime Christmas was marked by the British royal family posting out gifts to members of the British, Colonial and Indian Armed Forces, fighting on land or at sea. The gifts arrived in brass tins and were embossed with the head of Princess Mary. Seventeen-year-old Princess Mary, third child and only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, was the founder of the Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund. She organised a public appeal to raise sufficient funds to ensure that ‘every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front’ receives a Christmas present from the nation. The appeal was so successful, raising £162,591 -12s - 5d, that the eligibility for the gift was widened to include every person ‘wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914’. This embraced over two and a half million men and women.
But such a vast number of gift boxes could not be made ready in time for Christma Day. So, the recipients were divied into three classes. Class A received their gifts on or about Christmas Day and each box included a Christmas card. Classes B and C were sent out in January 1915 and included a Victorious NewYear card. 

                                                                       Princess Mary

Each box contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card from the King and Queen and a photograph of, in my opinion, the enormously inspiring young Princess Mary. Non-smokers received a box containing a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes together with the Christmas card and photograph. The Indian soldiers received boiled sweets in their brass 'hampers'.

  Included in the gift boxes: sterling silver bullet pencils contained within a cartridge, tobacco, cigarettes

There is a marvellous letter on the website of nature writer Henry Williamson, most famous for his 1927 classic, Tarka the Otter. It was penned to his mother on Boxing Day 1914, as the truce was ending and after he had received his tin containing a pipe from the royal family.

It begins: “Dear Mother,
I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say.
But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha ha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench.
Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench.
“On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans (in some places 80 yds away) called to our men to come and fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to 'play the game' a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed & then 16 Germans came out.”

Unbeknownst to Williamson, his letter was sent by his father to the Daily Express who published an abridged version of it in early January.

Henry Williamson survived the war but never enjoyed Christmas again. It was a torment for him;  every year he relived that 1914 Christmas Truce, when he had spoken to German soldiers and discovered that their hopes and fears were the same as those of himself and his English comrades, and that German soldiers dying in agony cried out for their mothers just as did the English Tommy.

During this WW1 centennial year, Scholastic published my YA novel, The Only Girl in the World. It is the story of a young soldier, Dennis, from London and a French café owner’s daughter, Hélène, from the Somme region who meet and fall in love in 1916. Their story ends in tragedy as Dennis is killed before winter breaks. He does not live to see Christmas. No gift for Dennis from the royal family. A Christmas that Dennis, along with almost every other soldier, believed would be celebrated back home with his family. The third Christmas of that war and the troops were no closer to home. Life in the trenches was endured, as we know, until 1918. The extraordinary spontaneity of that Christmas Truce 1914 was never repeated. 
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described it as "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war".

To all reading this, most especially Mary Hoffman and her tremendous line-up of History Girls, I wish you Happy Holidays and a very wonderful and healthy 2015. 
To all of us everywhere, I pray for Peace on Earth.

Thursday, 25 December 2014


Merry Christmas, everyone.  I hope you are enjoying a stupendous feast today.  Of course, this year -perhaps more than most -  people are going hungry because of sickness or conflict.  So I thought I’d take a look at one such Christmas, if only to give us all a break from that 1914 football match which seems to have taken over all media outlets this week.
From September 1870 to January 1871, Paris was under siege by Prussian forces.  Almost fifty thousand civilians died, many of them through starvation. 
Several foreigners were trapped in Paris when the Prussians swooped and, fortunately for us, an English language account of conditions in the city was published shortly after the war.  Henry Labouchere, a wealthy British journalist and former MP sent regular reports to his mistress during the war, and brought them together to form The Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris, published in 1872.

All the railways had been disabled, and the roads were blocked, so the only way to get letters out was by carrier pigeon or hot air balloon.  The useless railway stations at the Gare du Nord and the Gare d’Orleans were transformed into balloon factories, and by the end of 1870, a daring postal service with fees and collection routines had been established, and Labouchere made extensive use of it.

Here is part of  Labouchere’s account of Christmas Day, 1870

We are not having a “merry Christmas” and we are not likely to have a happy new year. Christmas is not here the great holiday of the year, as it is in England.  Still, everyone in ordinary times tries to have a better dinner than usual, and usually where there are children in a family some attempt is made to amuse them… Since the Empire introduced English ways here, plum-pudding and mince pies have been eaten, and even Christmas-trees have flourished. This year these festive shrubs, as an invention of the detested foe, have been rigidly tabooed. Plum-puddings and mince pies, too, will appear on few tables.  In order to comfort the children, the girls are to be given soup tickets to distribute to beggars, and the boys are to have their choice between French and German wooden soldiers.  The former treasured up, the latter will be subjected to fearful tortures.  Even the midnight mass, which is usually celebrated on Christmas-Eve, took place in very few churches last night.

And he spoke of his fellow ex-pats:

The English here are making feeble attempts to celebrate Christmas correctly.  In an English restaurant, two turkeys had been treasured up for the important occasion, but unfortunately a few days ago they anticipated their fate, and most ill-naturedly insisted upon dying.  One fortunate Briton has got ten pounds of camel, and has invited about twenty of his countrymen to aid him in devouring this singular substitute for turkey.  Another gives himself airs because he has some potted turkey, which is solemnly to be consumed to-day spread on bread.  I am myself going to dine with the correspondent of one of your contemporaries.  On the same floor as himself lives a family who left Paris before the commencement of the siege.  Necessity knows no law; so the other day he opened their door with a certain amount of gentle violence, and after a diligent search, discovered in the larder two onions, some potatoes, and a ham.  These, with a fowl, which I believe has been procured honestly, are to constitute our Christmas dinner.

Did you noise the reference to camel?  This wasn’t a joke.  The citizens resorted to killing and eating the animals in the zoo - thereby addressing the two problems of how to feed them, and how to feed the human population.  For the rich, this might mean an extremely exotic Christmas dinner.  Here is the menu for one:

You will note the references to rats, kangaroo, and to ‘Elephant consommé.  The zoo's two crowd-pulling Elephants Castor and Pollux had been killed for food.

The killing of Pollux and Castor - Illustrated London News
Eventually, Labouchere got to taste them:

Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner.  Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants which have been killed.  It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton.

It is clear that, for a price, rich people could still eat.  But Labouchere, for all his wealth, was aware of the plight of the  poor:

It is very strange what opposite opinions one hears about the condition of the poor.  Some persons say that there is no distress, others that it cannot be greater.  The fact is, the men were never better off, the women and children never so badly off.  Every man can have enough to eat and too much to drink by dawdling about with a gun.  As his home is cold and cheerless, when he is not on duty he lives at a pothouse.  He brings no money to his wife and children, who consequently only just keep body and soul together by going to the national cantinas, where they get soup, and to the Mairies, where they occasionally get an order for bread.  Almost all their clothes are in pawn, so how it is they do not positively die of cold I cannot understand.
As for fuel, even the wealthy find it difficult to procure it.  The Government talks of cutting down all the trees and of giving up all the clothes in pawn; but, with its usual procrastination, it puts off both these measure from day to day. 

Labouchere’s account is lively and amusing.  It’s hard not to take to him as you read.  

Some years after the siege, he returned to Parliament, and campaigned against fraud and corruption in public life.  However he was also profoundly opposed to women’s suffrage, and is credited/blamed, for the parliamentary amendment which outlawed consensual homosexual acts.  He lived in Pope’s Villa at Twickenham - rebuilt in High Victorian style, and still a splendid sight from the river today.  

So we know that he recovered from his plight, but even so, It’s hard not to pity him, today of all days, when he wrote this, four days after Christmas 1870:

At my hotel, need I observe that I do not pay my bill, but in hotels the guests may ring in vain now for food. I sleep on credit in a  gorgeous bed, a pauper,  The room is large,  I wish it were smaller, for the firewood comes from trees just cut down, and it takes an hour to get the logs to light, and then they only smoulder, and emit no heat.  The thermometer in my grand room, with its silken curtains, us usually at freezing point.  Then my clothes - I am seedy, very seedy. When I call upon a friend the porter eyes me distrustfully.  In the streets the beggars never ask me for alms; on the contrary, they eye me suspiciously when I approach them, as a possible competitor…As for my linen, I will only say that the washerwomen have struck work, as they have no fuel…For my food…Cat, dog, rat and horse are very well as novelties, but habitually, they do not assimilate with my inner man. 

Whatever the less attractive aspects of Labouchere's character, today of all days we should rejoice that when the siege ended, he got away to Versailles:

I am not intoxicated, but I feel so heavy from having imbibed during the last twenty-four hours more milk than I did during the first six months which I passed in this planet, that I have some difficulty in collection my thoughts in order to write a letter.  Yesterday I arrived here in order to breathe for a moment the air of freedom.  In vain, my hospitable friends, who have put me up, have offered me wine to drink, and this and that delicacy to eat - I have stuck to eggs, butter, and milk.  Patts of butter I have bolted with a greediness which would have done honour to Pickwick’s fat boy.

Which brings us back to a more traditional view of Christmas.  And here in your cracker is Mr Wardle's song from The Pickwick Papers.  Just to cheer things back up:

     But my song I troll out, for Christmas Stout,
     The hearty, the true, and the bold;
     A bumper I drain, and with might and main
     Give three cheers for this Christmas old!
     We'll usher him in with a merry din
     That shall gladden his joyous heart,
     And we'll keep him up, while there's bite or sup,
     And in fellowship good, we'll part.
     In his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide
     One jot of his hard-weather scars;
     They're no disgrace, for there's much the same trace
     On the cheeks of our bravest tars.
     Then again I sing till the roof doth ring
     And it echoes from wall to wall—
     To the stout old wight, fair welcome to-night,
     As the King of the Seasons all!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

MAGNA CARTA By DAN JONES: Some thoughts from Elizabeth Chadwick

Front cover 
June 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede and in this book Dan Jones presents a useful guide to bring the general reader up to speed. Dan Jones is of course, the author of the bestselling non fiction work THE PLANTAGENETS which sets out the dynasty's rise to power and eventual ruin over several centuries of medieval British history. The work is also the basis for the recent TV series, written and presented by the author.

The following blurb is from the inside jacket of MAGNA CARTA and an excellent summary of what the book is about:

 '"On a summer's day in 1215, a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the River Thames  named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On 15 June he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world.
A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of the law, the 'Great Charter' established an Englishman's right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power.  For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights."

This book  is a joy to read, not just for a medieval-obsessive like myself, but for anyone with a general interest in history. It's one of those reference works that should be on every non fiction bookshelf.
The writing style is clean and accessible, edged with dry humour  and has broad appeal. Dan Jones educates his readers without patronising, and he never dumbs down the content. The history is straight, clear, and unfudged.  Oh what a joy and a relief this is to come across.  I have studied the Angevin period for more than forty years.  I'm not university trained, but I am very well read in non fiction works of this era (12th and 13th centuries). Often the academic studies are dry and soporific. The eyes glaze over, the same 5 pages take an hour to read and the information doesn't stick, but  unabsorbed, just passes through.   Unfortunately the popular books with a less dense writing style are frequently unreliable and have to be double-checked and taken with large pinches of salt.  Dan Jones, however, walks a perfect line between the popular and the academic. He puts over the need to know material with depth and complexity while telling it in a vibrant way that hold the reader's attention. That's a very rare talent indeed.

The book itself is a tactile thing of beauty.  It's ornate, with gold embossing on the cover to give that added luxurious feel of holding the real thing in your hand.  The paper is of thick, fine quality,perhaps gently hinting at parchment.   The rich ornamentation and fabulous illustrations  are put together in an uncluttered way that means the book is simple and practical to use.  It is divided into ten easily digestible chapters beginning with an introduction that sets the scene and discusses the fame of Magna Carta and then continues to the historical background including an assessment of the reign of King John, not forgetting the input of his predecessors.  He might have brought about Magna Carta by his policies and the way he dealt with his barons, but he wasn't acting in a vacuum and Dan Jones takes us through the wherefore and the why.
There is a section on what happened between 1215 and now, and a couple of wonderful quotes from David Cameron and Winston Churchill which made me laugh - albeit wryly. Dan Jones has a wicked sense of humour and appreciates the ironies.
Section heading from the contents.
Having guided us through the history, the book follows with several appendices including the full text of the Magna Carta in the original Latin with an English translation alongside so the reader can see the exact wording for themselves. There are interesting short biographies of the barons involved in witnessing and enforcing the charter, and a timeline of the charter from its origins to where it sits now.

By the end of the book the reader has been given an in depth history lesson but in such a way that there's not a single moment of eye-glaze or stodge. Hooray!   There are copious illustrations and page breaks that will suit those with shorter attention spans but at the same time, those who prefer a meaty read will not be let down. There's a lot of learning crammed into these 190 pages.

Any caveats?  I suspect that there may be a few raised eyebrows among those in the know about the comment accompanying the illustration of King John's tomb in Worcester cathedral. The caption says it's made from 'carved wood' when it fact it's Purbeck marble.  It seems a pity for that one to have slipped through the editorial net when King John is one of the major players.  However, that really is a nit-pick when compared with the rest of the book's excellent content.
Highly recommended.  Everyone rush out and get a copy for your bookshelves. It's one of those heirloom reference works that will stand the test of time - a bit like the charter itself!
Detail from the back of the book

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

CHRISTMAS TRUCE 1914 - IMAGINE.. by Leslie Wilson

Imagine if they had all laid down their arms,
not just for hours, or days on some parts of the Front,
though that was astonishing -

The snowy silent night, after months of explosions;
German trenches glowing with Christmas trees,
carols crossing No Man's Land uninjured.

Then the shouts: We not shoot, you not shoot! and:
Happy Christmas, English!
Chilled, fumbling hands passed chocolate cake to Engländer,
and they gave their Christmas puddings to the Hun,
exchanging food instead of bullets and shells. 

 Imagine, though, dare you? And do not say:
It never happens like that -

Which is as bad as saying: We will not
permit it to happen, even inside our heads.

If when the last candle had burned down,
the last pudding was digested -

If they had looked in horror at their guns,
the wire, and the trenches - shaken
their heads, and shouted:

We have chosen to be
a different kind of hero.

If, on every front,
they had buried the weapons in the trenches;
metal skeletons left to rust and decay,
so that peace broke out infectiously,
so afterwards they stayed alive to say;
We were there, we were part of it.

We came home.

Dare we imagine that;

believe it might ever be true?

Leslie Wilson December 2014

The story of the Christmas truce will be in Carol Drinkwater's blog on Boxing Day
There were outbreaks of peace along the Eastern Front too.

Photo of the candle (Eine Kerze) by Bangin, Wikimedia Commons