Saturday 30 August 2014

Assassinating Lenin

On 30 August 1918, a disgruntled Socialist Revolutionary, the 28 year old Feiga 'Fanny' Kaplan, fired three times at Vladimir Lenin as he left a factory where he had been addressing the workers.

He was hit twice, once in the chest, whilst another bullet lodged in his neck.

Despite the severity of his injuries however he refused to leave the Kremlin to attend hospital fearing a further attempt on his life.

Lenin survived but it was touch and go, and it is believed that the wounds he sustained in the attack led to the series of strokes that would end his life just six years later.

Fanny was arrested at the scene but was she responsible? 

She had suffered terribly during periods of imprisonment and her experiences had left her almost blind, and she used a stick to guide her. When the bullet was eventually removed from Lenin's neck four years later it was found to be of a different calibre to the pistol Fanny had been arrested with, and none of the witnesses to the assassination attempt ever testified to having seen her fire the shots.

Fanny readily confessed and during four days of interrogation obdurately refused to implicate anyone else. Frustrated, on 1 September, her captors dragged her into the yard and shot her once through the back of the head. Her body was then placed in a barrel doused in petrol and set alight. 

There would be no trace of her remains for others to worship.

The day after Fanny's execution, Lenin inaugarated the "Red Terror" that would seek to exterminate all enemies of the Bolshevik Revolution and claim the lives of more than 800,000 people.

As Lenin would remark: "You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs".


Friday 29 August 2014

Nine of Diamonds: The Curse of Scotland

On 2 August 1876, the legendary Wild Bill Hickok was playing five card draw in a saloon in the town of Deadwood in the lawless Black Hills of Dakota.

 Aware that his fame was as much a curse as a blessing he rarely sat down to a game of cards without ensuring that his back was to the wall but on this occasion that particular seat was unavailable. He decided to play nonetheless.

 It was to prove a fatal error.

Later that afternoon a ranch-hand by the name of Jack McCall walked up behind him and fired once into the back of his head for no other reason than he could boast that he had done so.

The cards that Hickok was holding at the time, two black aces and two back eights, has since become known as the Dead Man’s Hand.

It is the most famous hand of cards in the history of poker. But it does not contain the most notorious playing card.

 That dubious honour goes to the Nine of Diamonds – the Curse of Scotland. 

There are various versions as to why the Nine of Diamonds sends a shiver down the spine of the Scottish collective.

The most popular theory why it is so known is because of the similarity the playing card has to the family crest of John Dalrymple, the 1st Earl of Stair, who on 13 February 1692 ordered that the MacDonald Clan be put to the sword in the notorious massacre at Glencoe.

The events at Glencoe caused outrage in Scotland even if much of it was less than genuine.

There were many especially amongst the Lowland Scots who considered their Highland kinsmen little better than savages and who would have raised a glass in celebration of their demise not choked on its contents aghast at their fate.

Cattle rustling thieves and unrepentant Jacobites deserved no better so their deaths, however gruesome,would not have been considered a curse by many.

Also, just how many Scots would have been aware of the Dalrymple family crest?

And would they necessarily have drawn the comparison with the Nine of Diamonds in a pack of playing cards?

Another version for the origin of the curse comes just prior to the bloody conclusion of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6.

On the eve of the Battle of Culloden the Commander of the English Army William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, later known as Butcher Cumberland, was playing cards when he issued the order that in the coming battle no rebel was to be given quarter. 

The young Officer who was to pass the order onto the Regimental Commanders uncertain if he had heard it correctly nervously asked the Duke to repeat what he had just said.

 A clearly irritated Cumberland then hastily scrawled the order on the Nine of Diamonds and handed it over.

That night on the other side of Drumrossie Moor Bonnie Prince Charlie was likewise playing cards when it was discovered that the Nine of Diamonds was missing from the pack.

Some of those present considered it an ill-omen and so it was to prove for the following day the Jacobite Army was brutally crushed.

All of this may well have been true but it does not explain why the first mention of the Curse of Scotland had occurred in print in 1710, thirty six years earlier.

Perhaps a more plausible theory is that which concerns Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary was a Catholic raised in the French Court who was beautiful, flirtatious, and a woman.

If that in itself wasn’t enough to raise the hackles of the predominantly Presbyterian Scots then her love of dancing and games was - whether it was golf, falconry, or playing cards.

Mary particularly enjoyed playing a game known as Pope Joan in which the Nine of Diamonds was the most significant card.

As far as many Presbyterians were concerned the Pope was the anti-Christ and to be playing cards at all was a sinful act, to be playing a game called Pope Joan was damn near heresy.

It was also the case that during the reign of Queen Mary nine priceless diamonds were stolen from Edinburgh Castle by the thief, George Campbell.

 They were never recovered and the loss to the Scottish Treasury was such that Mary had to raise taxes significantly to make up for the shortfall.

The theft of pennies from the Scotsman purse and the fury that it evoked plays into their supposed parsimony but does little to explain why it should be considered the Curse of Scotland.

 After all, the raising of taxes, then, as now, remains commonplace.

The legend of the Nine of Diamonds as the Curse of Scotland remains vague, perhaps lost forever in the mists of time.

Though with time to ponder some might reflect that the real Curse of Scotland is, and has always been - the English. 

This may all change of course on 18 September. 

Monday 25 August 2014

A Little Glamour: From the Golden Age of Hollywood

"I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want the girl next door, go next door".

She was born plain Lucille Fay Le Seur, but she was to become Joan Crawford, the ultimate Hollywood Diva.

She had been dancing for pennies since childhood and she'd had to drop out of college to scrub floors and wash dishes just to put food on the table.

She had got to the top the hard way (though, some would suggest it was the easy way) but either way having got there she wasn't going to let it slip.

Bette Davis was to say of Joan Crawford: "She was the good time had by all".

Unlike Joan she was the daughter of a rich New York Attorney, and had never had to work merely to make ends meet. So did she resent Joan's pretensions to grandeur? After all, she was the polished young lady.

Or was it the rumoured attempt Joan had made to seduce her at a Hollywood party the rejection of which Bette believed may have imperiled her career.

We may never know, but when it came to Joan Crawford the gloves were rarely off.

"Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it is because I am not a bitch. Maybe that's why Joan Crawford is so good at playing ladies".

"One should only speak good of the dead. Joan Crawford is dead, good".

"Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda, and ended up with me".

Rita Hayworth, or Margarita Carmen Cansino, is most famous for the role of the seductress Gilda, and for a time it seemed that every woman in the world wanted to be Rita Hayworth, but then so did she.

"All I wanted was what everyone else wants, to be loved".

But a successful career and the title the World's Most Beautiful Woman did not mean happiness and neglected by her husbands and abused by a string of lovers she took to drink. Indeed, people were to remark upon the toll the alcohol had taken upon her physically whilst she was still only in her thirties.

She died alone, aged 68, having suffered from Alzheimer's disease for many years, the effects of which may often have been mistaken for drunkenness.

"You could have put all the talent I had into your left eye and stiff not suffered from impaired vision".

Veronica Lake, or Constance Frances Ockelman, was to have a brief if spectacular career, appearing in a series of classic film noirs the role in which she had only got because at just 4'11" she was the only actress the Studio had who was significantly shorter than her co-star Alan Ladd.

Her appearances also spawned the famous, and much copied since, peek-a-boo hairstyle.

But she was always considered a bit strange and difficult to work with, so much so that somewhat unkindly but out of earshot, she would often be referred to as Moronica Lake.

They were unaware of the schizophrenia she had been diagnosed with in childhood.

Within a few years her career was over, t was revived briefly in the 1960's when she was discovered working as a waitress in Los Angeles, but by this time she was already an alcoholic.

She died in 1973, aged 50, of kidney failure.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Sacco and Vanzetti: A Case of Judicial Murder?

On 5 May, 1920, two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti , were apprehended on a tram following their escape from a police stakeout. Both were suspected of being involved in the murder of two unarmed men during a payroll robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, the previous month.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti were committed revolutionaries, both had fled the police, both had been armed at the time of their arrest, both lied in their initial statements, and coming as it did at the height of the First Red Scare in America (the second was the McCarthyite anti-Communist Witch hunt of 1947-52) it seemed an open and shut case.

But when it came to Court the case against the men began to unravel - the Judge was openly hostile, the ballistics reports inconclusive, police testimony uncertain and contradictory, whilst some witnesses recanted their statements only to then recant their recantations.

Regardless of the many anomalies in the case against them the Jury took less than three hours to find both men guilty of murder and the sentence of death duly followed.

Sacco and Vanzetti were soon to become a cause celebre as such eminent people as H.G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Dorothy Parker rallied to their support. The Labour Unions held street collections to pay for their defence, the American justice system was condemned in parliaments, and there were demonstrations held across the world.

But despite a re-trial and numerous appeals the sentence remained unchanged.

In 1925, the gangster Celestino Madeiros confessed to being one of those who had committed the Braintree robbery and stated that neither Saccco nor Vanzetti had been present. The Judge in charge of the case however refused the demand for a further retrial based on the evidence of a convicted murderer.

On 23 August, 1927, following the rejection of a last minute appeal to the Governor of Massachusetts for clemency Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed by electric chair in Charleston State Prison.

Friday 22 August 2014

The Many Women of Sir Thomas Lawrence

Considered by many to be the finest portrait painter of the Georgian era, the future (Sir) Thomas Lawrence was the son of a relatively humble Innkeeper in Devizes, Wiltshire who had honed his talent as an artist whilst still a child by offering to sketch customers at a sovereign a time.

In 1787, aged 18, he moved to London where his prodigious talent was quickly recognised, so much so that within five years of arriving in the city he was appointed "painter-in-ordinary to His Majesty", and with Royal sanction came both a Knighthood and the commissions of the great and good of English society.

Lawrence was make a great deal of money during his lifetime but spent it so readily that he was never a rich man and was indeed rarely out of debt.

He was also to become as famous the sexual dalliances he had with the many beautiful women who sat for him as the portraits of them he had been paid to produce, which as a postscript I feel obliged to add does not appear to occur in the dusty and dimly lit corridors of historical research.

He died on 7 January, 1830, aged 60, unmarried, broke and pursued by his creditors.

In the Victorian era that followed his art was largely forgotten and neglected only being rediscovered in the early twentieth century. Many of his portraits now reside in the National Gallery:

Marguerite, Countess of Blessington


The Honourable, Mrs Seymour Bathurst

Lady Louisa Jayne Allen

The notorious, Lady Caroline Lamb

Lady Frances Gordon

Lady Anna Powell

Lady Henrietta Cole

Maria, Lady Callcott

Lady Maria Riddell

 Miss Caroline Fry

Mrs Cecilia Locke

Sarah Siddons

Thursday 21 August 2014

Richard III

22 August 1485, arguably the most controversial, and certainly the most vilified and maligned Monarch in English history is killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He died heroically charging into the thick of the  enemy to seek out and engage his opponent, the usurper Henry Tudor, in single combat, and with the battle lost rather than demand a horse to carry him from the field he declined one.   

But is he truly the most England's most villainous King?  Did he murder the Princes in the Tower?

Not according to the vote on our Website, and if so he remains the only English King with his own effective fan club.

Had he been the legitimate heir to the throne, all along? As the illegitimate grandson of the fourth son of Edward III, Henry Tudor certainly wasn't

And so the controversy rages 

See: Richard III: A Villain for all Time at 

The Princes in the Tower at

Have your say, and cast your vote.


Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Pendle Witches

19 August 1612, condemned by her own 9 year old daughter, even though the evidence of a child was   inadmissible in Court under English law, Elizabeth Device and 13 others stand trial at Lancashire Assizes  accused of witchcraft. All bar one are found guilty - there always has to be at least one acquittal for any mass trial to be considered valid - and hanged the following day.

The Pendle Witch Trial was the largest ever held in England and at a time when people were beginning to have their doubts about such things. Even that old demonologist King James I had expressed his discomfiture at the ultimate sanction being imposed for such dabblings, genuine or not.

The fear of Witches and Witchcraft would be revived during the Civil War largely as a result of the activities of the so-called Witch-Finder General Matthew Hopkins, even if his motivation was money not not the eradication of maleficient magic from the impure air of war-torn England, but that is an entirely different story.

On 21 March, 1612, a young woman Alizon Device was making her way through Trawden Forest near Pendle Hill in Lancashire when she encountered a peddler by the name of John Law who was travelling from Halifax on business. Alizon was a “healer” and the granddaughter of Elizabeth Southerns, better known locally as Demdike, the matriarch of a family notorious for its beggary and for dabbling in witchcraft and magic. 

Upon seeing that John Law was a peddler Alizon seized the opportunity to do some begging of her own. She approached him and asked him for some pins. Pins were essential in the practice of witchcraft - for the treatment of warts, for divination, and of course for acts of maleficium, but they were also expensive.

It was never Alizon’s intention to pay for them and instead she implored Law to give her the pins for nothing. When he refused she became abusive, screamed and swore and appeared to curse him. Following their harsh exchange of words John Law continued on his way before he was seen to suddenly collapse.

He’d apparently had some kind of seizure. Nevertheless, he managed to struggle to his feet and stumble to a nearby Inn where he again collapsed. Witnessing this Alizon fled.

A few days later John Law’s son, Abraham, visited Alizon and demanded that she accompany him to visit his seriously ill father and lift the curse. He was in a poor way.  A doctor described his condition:

“His head is drawn awry, his eyes and face deformed, his speech not well to be understood, his arms lame, especially the left side.”

He was displaying all the symptoms of what we would diagnose now as a stroke.

Witnessing John Law’s condition, paralysed and struggling to breathe, Alizon  apologised for what she had done and begged his forgiveness. It was not forthcoming her apology being merely an admission of her guilt. John Law was to survive, but barely.

That Abraham Law had assumed from the outset that his father’s sudden illness must be the result of maleficium comes as no surprise. Lancashire at the time was a wild place that was considered by many to be almost outside the law.

It was still largely wedded to the old Roman Catholic faith and was thought to be a place of magic and superstition. It was considered unadvisable to travel there unaccompanied not only for reasons of physical attack but because witchcraft was believed to be so commonplace.

This had remained the case even though in 1562, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Parliament had passed an Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts. It effectively criminalised the practice of witchcraft for the first time and provided for the death penalty where harm could be proven to have been done. Even so, little effort had been made to enforce it in unruly Lancashire.

All this was to change on 24 March, 1603, when the 37 year old King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England. He was a man who’d had a long and enduring interest in witchcraft. Indeed, he believed himself and his wife to have been a victim of it when storms were sent against a ship that was carrying him to Scotland.

A woman, Agnes Sampson was later garrotted for supposedly having conjured up these storms.

James regularly attended the interrogation and trial of witches and in 1597 he had written his book on the subject, Daemonologie. 

There was little doubt that he was a staunch believer in the existence and perniciousness of witchcraft, and of the necessity of rooting it out. He had written that it was the duty of people to denounce witchcraft where they found it and of the responsibility of the local authorities to prosecute practitioners of it.

By 1612 he had become a little more sceptical and his views had tempered somewhat. Even so, local Magistrates were well aware of the King’s abiding interest in the practice of witchcraft and were eager to do his bidding as they saw it. 

The Justice of the Peace for the area of Pendle was Roger Nowell. He was an ambitious man who had been busy prosecuting those who refused to attend Church of England services, then a criminal offence.

He had long been aware of the prominence of witchcraft in Pendle and when he received a complaint from Abraham Law regarding Alizon Device, he at last had the opportunity to prosecute it.

There were two families in Pendle who were particularly notorious for dabbling in witchcraft, the Device family also known as Demdike and the Whittle family also known as Chattox.

They were despised locally for their aggressive begging and were old rivals for the services they provided.

Thomas Potts, the Clerk of the Court, in his book The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancashire, 1613, described the matriarchs of both families.  Elizabeth Demdike he wrote:

 “Was a very old woman, about the age of four score years, and had been a witch for fifty years. She dwelt in the Forest of Pendle, a vast place, fit for her profession. What she committed in her time, no man knows. Thus she lived securely for many years, brought up her own children, instructed her grandchildren, and took great care to bring them up as witches. And certain it is, no man near them, was secure or free from danger.”

He then described Chattox:

 “This Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, was a very old, withered, spent, and decrepit creature, her sight almost gone, a dangerous witch of very long continuance; always opposite to old Demdike, for whom the one favoured the other hated deadly; and how they envy and accuse one another. Her lips were always chattering and walking, but no man knew what.”

On 30 March, 1612, Alizon Device, her mother Elizabeth and brother, James were summoned to appear before Roger Nowell to answer the accusations made by Abraham Law.

 Alizon Device, who was the only one of the Pendle Witches to truly believe in her own guilt quickly confessed to having sold her soul to the Devil and of calling upon her Master to lame John Law. Her brother James also testified to his sister being a servant of the Devil and of her ability to bewitch people. 

Elizabeth Device was more reticent in her testimony and only admitted to the fact that her own mother, Demdike, might possess something akin to the Devil’s Mark on her body.

Alizon Device did however take the opportunity to implicate the Chattox family. 

This she almost certainly did out of malice and revenge for in 1601 they had broken into the Device home at Malkin Tower and stolen all their goods. She also accused old mother Chattox of causing the death of her father whom she said was so frightened of her that every year he presented her with 8 pounds of oatmeal.

These confessions were elicited without the use of torture which was not permitted under English law until the accused had already been proven guilty. This in any case was merely a preliminary hearing and no charges had yet been brought. Nevertheless, Alizon Device was remanded in custody whilst Elizabeth and James were released.

On 2 April, Demdike, Chattox, and Chattox’s daughter Anne Redferne were also summoned to appear before Roger Nowell. Both Demdike and Chattox were in their eighties, nearly blind, and hard of hearing. 

They were vulnerable, easily intimidated, and both quickly confessed to being servants of the Devil. Chattox said that she had willingly sold her soul after being told that she:

 “Would not lack for anything and get any revenge she desired.”

 Anne Redferne refused to confess to any wrongdoing even though her mother had earlier said that she made clay models and stuck pins in them with the intention of doing people harm.

On the basis of the evidence provided Nowell had Demdike, Chattox, Anne Redferne, and Alizon Device committed to Lancashire Jail to await trial at the next Assizes charged with the crime of maleficium, or causing harm through witchcraft.

On 6 April, Elizabeth Device arranged a meeting at Malkin Tower, a rather grand name for what was little more than a ramshackle hovel, for those friends who wished to show their support for the accused members of her family while James Device stole a sheep to feed those in attendance.

When Roger Nowell learned of this he ordered that the events at Malkin Tower be investigated. As a result of the subsequent inquiry eight of those who attended the meeting, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, James Bulcock, Alice Gray, and Jennet Preston were arrested. 

What had been a minor case of local maleficium had now escalated into a full-scale witch hunt.

Those arrested for witchcraft in Pendle were tried alongside a group known as the Salmesbury Witches - Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, Ellen Brierley, Isobel Robey and Margaret Pearson the so-called Padham Witch.

It was to become known collectively as the Lancashire Witch Trials.

The two Judges charged with hearing the trial were Sir James Altham, a man nearing retirement but who was keen to make amends for having been accused of presiding over a mistrial; and Sir Edward Bromley who was eager for a promotion that would see him sent to London.

Jennet Preston who had attended the meeting at Malkin Tower was the first of the accused witches to come to trial on 27 July, 1612. As she resided in neighbouring Yorkshire her case was heard at York Assizes.

This was not the first time she had been put on trial for her life.

The previous year she had been accused of killing a child through witchcraft but had been found not guilty. 

This time the accusation was that she had caused the death of a prosperous local landowner, Thomas Lister.

It was stated in Court that when she had been taken to see the corpse of the dead man and touched it the corpse had:

 “Bled fresh blood, presently, and in the presence of all those present.”

She had earlier been implicated by James Device who said she had discussed the murder at Malkin Tower. She was found guilty and hanged on 29 July.

The Lancashire Assizes opened on 18 August and none of the accused could have been in any doubt of the fate that awaited them. The main witness in the case for the Prosecution was Elizabeth Device’s nine year old daughter, Jennet.

The evidence of a child was traditionally looked upon with some scepticism and was technically inadmissible in Court but the Judges decided that King James had made it plain that Witch Trials were to be considered an exceptional circumstance. 

They ruled that her evidence was to be treated as on a par with that of any adult.

Jennet was the daughter of Elizabeth Device by a man who was not her husband. As such she had always been treated separately from the other children as if she were the runt of the litter, and it was Jennet who identified those who had been in attendance at Malkin Tower, including Alice Nutter. 

The Court believed her even though it seemed unlikely that Alice Nutter, the wife of a wealthy local merchant and landowner would even deign to be seen with let alone frequent the homes of uneducated, unemployed beggars, but she was from a family of well-known local Catholic recusants and in the eyes of the Jury this alone would have been enough to condemn her.

Standing upon a table she now told the Court how her mother was a witch and was visited regularly by a large brown dog which was her familiar and that it had been sent by the Devil. Likewise, her brother James had a familiar that was a big black dog. 

As she gave her evidence her mother screamed at and cursed her from the dock. She accused her of lying, pleaded for her to stop, and shouted that she did not know what she was doing. So loud were Elizabeth’s screams that she had to be dragged from the Court.

Elizabeth Device was the only one of the accused who refused to be either intimidated or cowed by the Court. She pleaded her innocence throughout and never begged for forgiveness either from the Judges or from God. Indeed her aggressive attitude in Court was roundly condemned. 

Thomas Potts was to write of her:

 “This odious witch who suffered from a facial deformity that resulted in her left eye being lower than her right”.

 Her pleas of innocence did her no good and she was convicted of maleficium and sentenced to death, as was her son James. 

Elizabeth’s mother, Demdike, was likewise condemned to death though she seemed confused by the proceedings and was so hard of hearing that she could barely hear the charges brought against her or the sentence when it was read out. She was to beg forgiveness from God but accepted her fate with that degree of equanimity that often comes with old age.

Anne Whittle, Chattox, was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pleaded not guilty of witchcraft but the confession she had made earlier in the presence of Robert Nowell was read out in Court.

After hearing this she broke down in tears, begged forgiveness from God and pleaded with the Court to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne. 

On 19 August, Anne Redferne was tried for murder. Like her mother before her she pleaded not guilty but her mother’s earlier testimony that she had made clay models for the purpose of meleficient acts was again read out in Court.

Like Elizabeth Device before her she refused to confess and was the only one of the accused not to implicate anyone else. Regardless of this she was sentenced to death and condemned to hang. 

Alizon Device whose behaviour in Trawden Forest had started the entire train of events had believed in her own guilt all along. She was contrite for having done John Law harm and begged forgiveness from God for having been a witch but accepted her fate for she knew she must die.

On 20 August, 1612, at Gallows Hill in Lancaster, Elizabeth Device, Alizon Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, known as Chattox, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, and Katherine Hewitt, known as Mould-Heels, were hanged.

They were joined by the Salmesbury Witches, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, Jane Southworth, and John Ramsden. Old Demdike had died earlier in captivity. Collectively they had been accused of sixteen murders by witchcraft over many years. 

 Three of those arrested were later released without charge and one defendant Alice Gray was found not guilty.

The trial and execution of the Pendle and Salmesbury Witches was an unusual phenomenon in England where those convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death had remained in the hundreds over the centuries even at a time when the Witch Craze was sweeping across Europe. Some of those hanged at Pendle were convicted of little more than guilt by association or for attending the meeting at Malkin Tower.

The trial had been driven by ambitious men, particularly Roger Nowell and Sir Edward Bromley who were seeking to ingratiate themselves with the King by being seen to clean up an area notorious for its lawlessness and high levels of Catholic recusancy. As such they were willing to largely rely upon the witness statement of a nine year old girl which was unprecedented in English law and this at a time when attitudes towards witchcraft were beginning to change and more and more of those brought before the Courts were being acquitted.

Even King James whose interest in the subject of witchcraft was well-known had recently voiced his scepticism and had declared that the evidence provided in such trials should undergo rigorous examination.

Of the Judges who presided at the trial, Sir James Altham never truly restored his reputation from the previous mistrial and his reliability and honesty remained suspect for the rest of his life. He died in 1617. 

Sir Edward Bromley was never promoted to the London Circuit of Judges. Likewise, Roger Nowell never rose in the ranks of Government service to which he aspired. 

On 24 March, 1634, Jennet Device, the nine year old girl, upon whose evidence so many of her family and their friends were hanged was herself arrested for witchcraft. It is known that she was still in prison as late as August, 1636, though her eventual fate remains a mystery.

*** See Related Articles: 

 Matthew Hopkins; The Witch-Finder General

The Salem Witch Trials



Sunday 17 August 2014

Queen Elizabeth I's Dark Secret?

Was Queen Elizabeth I in reality a transgender man,or possibly a hermaphrodite?

She was far taller than the average at 5'9", she had large hands and feet, and extraordinarily long fingers, and many of her portraits display distinctly masculine features.

Did she hide her face behind thick layers of white makeup to disguise stubble?
Did she wear high collars to conceal an Adam's Apple?

She wore wigs throughout most of her life and in old age was entirely bald.

Upon her death she ordered that no medical examination of her body should take place and that under no circumstances must it be embalmed.

Is this the reason she never seriously contemplated marriage? Is this the reason she remained the Virgin Queen?

It has long been rumoured, and is just a thought.

Monday 11 August 2014

The War Poets: Sassoon, Brooke, and Owen

“Good morning, good morning! The General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card’, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both with his plan of Attack.

Siegrfied Sassoon was born into a life of wealth and privilege and in the years preceding the outbreak of war he felt no obligation to attain either academic achievement or pursue a career but instead preferred the life of a country gentleman, riding out, playing golf, and indulging his great passion - poetry. 
But like most young men of his background he had a sense of duty and a deep if  sometimes subdued patriotism and as war appeared imminent he enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry and trained as an Officer receiving his Commission the in May, 1915.

In November he received the tragic news that his much loved younger brother Hamo had been killed at Gallipoli.

The loss affected him greatly but served only to make him push harder for a front-line posting which he finally received in March, 1916.

Sassoon was to prove an exceptional Officer both dedicated to and protective of the men under his command but he was also a conflicted man - confused by his latent homosexuality that saw bonds of affection develop with fellow Officers that might not otherwise have been the case, and he was similarly bewildered by his physical commitment to a war on the battlefield that he was fast becoming disenchanted with in his heart.

Nevertheless, he was brave to the point of recklessness earning him the nickname “Mad Jack” and in May 1916, whilst leading a night-time raid into No-Man’s-Land his courage in rescuing a fellow soldier saw him awarded the Military Cross.

After participating in the Battle of the Somme he was struck down by a severe bout of dysentery and briefly repatriated home and it was now among friends and family that he first began to express his doubts about the war.

It was on visits home that he would become maudlin and despondent as if amid the mud and the blood of the trenches he could lose himself as a man of action in defence not just of his country but the men under his command, venting his anger on the enemy and sating his melancholy in the written word.

But in the peace and tranquility of hearth and home he could see with unvarnished eyes the panoramic vistas of insanity. 
In April 1917, he was shot by a sniper and was once again repatriated to England for a period of convalescence where encouraged by those such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Garsington Pacifists he was encouraged give voice to his disillusionment.

Given the possible consequences for Sassoon of doing so these people should not perhaps be considered friends and it has been suggested that they exploited him for their own ends, but if so it appears he was a willing victim. 

Having already disposed of his Military Cross by throwing it into the sea on 15 June he wrote his famous Soldier’s Declaration against the war which he sent to his Commanding Officer, and which was read out the following month in the House of Commons and later published in The Times Newspaper:

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects that actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. 

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise”.

In a war where any dissent from the front-line was frowned upon and Sassoon himself would have regularly censored the letters of his men this was borderline treason.

His friend, the author Robert Graves fearing that he would be court-martialled urged him not to do it.

He had experienced first-hand how the death of Siegfried’s younger brother had impacted upon the family, describing in his memoir of the war “Goodbye, to All That”, how when staying a night in the dead brother’s bedroom which had remained unaltered since his death with fresh flowers provided every day and his favourite cigarettes on the bedside table, being woken in the early hours of the morning by the rapping sounds and peculiar wailings of a séance.

Sassoon’s mother later apologised for having disturbed him.

He now feared that Siegfried was about to inflict further grief on the family so he used his connections to interceded on his behalf.

The Military Authorities sensitive to morale at home were prepared to listen and rather than consider him a traitor and prosecute a well-known war hero he was instead diagnosed as having been rendered mentally and emotionally unstable as a result of sustained front-line service and possible shell-shock
He was sent to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh to receive psychotherapy, a fairly new treatment also known as the “talking cure”.

At Craiglockhart he became friends with the fellow Officer and poet Wilfred Owen who was there also recovering from the effects of shell-shock.

Sassoon was to remain at Craiglockhart for a number of months but endured an increasing sense of guilt that whilst he lived in comfort and talked literature and poetry late into the night his men continued to suffer and die on the Western Front.

His subsequent request to return to front-line duties was accepted.  

By the spring of 1918 he was back in France in time to resist the Germans last great offensive in the war.

Ironically, given the many risks he had taken throughout the war on 13 July he was shot in the head possibly as the result of friendly fire and invalided out of the army.

The years immediately following the end of the war were a troubled time for Sassoon as once more immersed into a life of privilege so far away from the horror of the trenches and those who fought alongside him who now endured unemployment and increased poverty, he embarked upon a series of homosexual affairs with young men who had no understanding or even concern for the pain suffered by those who were their seniors of just a few years.

It only served to damage him further.
In 1933, he married Hester Gatty, a woman many years his junior, which at least provided some stability in his life and a son whom he adored, and though they were later to separate it was to prove a signal and transformative moment.

Siegfried Sassoon who had survived the worst of trench warfare in the most horrific conflict then known to man lived to old age during which time he converted to Roman Catholicism and renewed his interest in spiritualism.

He was also to write his semi-fictional sketches from the front, one of the great testaments of the war, and continue to produce well-received poetry all his life but it will always be his wartime verse for which he is best remembered and admired.  

For a man who had been so emotionally engaged with the war, with its people, and the events occurring around him, Sassoon’s poetry has a disturbingly dispassionate and matter-of-fact quality that resonates with the gravity of resignation and despair.

It has an earnestness lacking in so many others, an acid-tongued cynicism that slices through the solemnity and maudlin introspection of regret and loss that lights up the fog of despondency but barely and without relief: 

“I knew a simple soldier boy,
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumbs and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindled eye
Who cheer when soldiers march by;
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go”.

(Suicide in the Trenches)

Rupert Brooke

The 27 year old Rupert Brooke was already an established poet feted by the literati and those such as the Bloomsbury Set before the outbreak of World War One, though he was as much admired for his boyish good looks as he was his literary abilities attracting in equal measure the attention of both men and women, which caused him some early confusion.

He was the son of a Master at Rugby Public School and had a sheltered, if not gilded childhood, but one which allowed him to dream and his dreams of an idyllic England were ones he expressed in his poetry, though always with wit and humour.

His was not an England of ship-building, blast furnaces and mines but one of panoramic vistas, country Churches, and lakes glimmering in the summer sun.

When the opportunity came to fight for his rural idyll he embraced it and he is looked upon with scorn now by some critical of his unquestioning belief in country and unbridled patriotism.

But Brooke never lived long enough to experience the meat-grinder war of the Western Front and his idealistic verse reflected the feelings of many swept up in the enthusiasm of those early months of the war.

Brooke’s connections ensured that even with no military experience, or indeed the required training, he was commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve but the patriotic Rupert’s war was to be a short one.

On 23 April 1915, he died in delirium en-route to Gallipoli from the effects of a mosquito bite.

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away’
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends, and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven”.

(The Soldier)

Wilfred Owen

Born in the small market town of Oswestry on the border of England and Wales into a solid middle-class family that espoused the traditional values of sobriety, hard work, belief in country and the established social order, the young Wilfred Owen also immersed himself in his Welsh heritage especially the stories of the Bards and from an early age he expressed his desire to be a poet. 

Owen was resident in Southern France where he had taken a teaching post when war was declared but unlike Brooke and Sassoon he displayed no great desire to become involved.

Indeed, it seemed as if the war was occurring in some far-away place and had passed him by, and it wasn’t until late October, 1915, that he at last out of a sense of guilt returned to England to enlist for Officer training in the First Artists Rifles.

Commissioned as a Lieutenant he spent the first year of his service in England where he came to like the feel of his uniform and certainly the respect that seemed to come with it.

He was sent to the France on 31 December, 1916, but he had little time with which to dwell upon his new surroundings for within the week he had been transferred to the front-line fully experiencing its rich panoply of horrors – the constant shelling, the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun, the fear of the ever-present sniper, and the dread of gas.

The brutality of it all, and the fact that there were people out there who wanted to kill him, came as a profound shock.

It was all a little too much for the dream-like Owen who began composing the first of the more than 650 letters he was to write home to his mother complaining of the filth and dreariness of it all and of the contempt he had for the dullards under his command whom he described as unimaginative lumps. 

The difference in attitude towards the common soldier with whom they served of the aspirational middle-class Owen and the more aristocratic Sassoon was stark, though Owen’s opinion would change over time.

Having had more than one brush with death in April, 1917, Owen was blown high into the air by a trench mortar which left him with severe concussion. Badly shaken he was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and evacuated back to England where he found himself at Craiglockhart at the same time as Siegfried Sassoon.

The two men quickly became close friends spending long nights together discussing poetry during which time Sassoon, whom Owen admired greatly describing him as great, or even greater, than Shakespeare, encouraged him to write and write.

Owen was to act on his friend’s advice and almost all of the poetry we now remember him for was written in the fifteen months of life he had remaining to him.

His shell-shock meant that he could have completed his military service in England and despite Sassoon threatening him with violence if he did so he followed the example previously set by his friend and volunteered to return to the Western Front to be with his men. 
In July 1918, he returned to active service in time to participate in the Allied push towards final victory.
On 4 November 1918, he was leading his men in a crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal when he was shot and killed.

On 11 November, as the Church bells in England rang out at the announcement of the Armistice and people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the war, Owen’s parents received a knock on the door and the telegram informing them that their only son had been killed in action a week earlier. 

In 1919, in recognition of the great courage and endeavour he displayed in leading his men in a series of actions the previous autumn he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

Wilfred Owen is acknowledged by many to have been the greatest of the war poets more adroit and technically gifted but also more adventurous in his use of language experimenting with rhyme and vowel sounds to recreate the intense suffering of the common soldier often with a simplicity of language that reflected the simple sense of duty upon which they had entered the fight and endured its torments.:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’
Knock-kneed, coughing like old hags we cursed through the sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shot. All went lame, all blind,
Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out at stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen are all honoured with a plaque at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.