American History · english history · european history · history

The Great Hunger 1845-1852

I have been doing research lately on the Irish potato famine (1845- 1852). The famine was a terrible disaster. Countless lives due to a blight affecting the potato crop which was the primary food source for a large part of the population. It is likely that many lives could have been saved if certain aspects were handled differently. This is easy to say in hindsight, but at the time the future was less clear. During this time there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, change in the workplace, and misinformation (sort of like what we have just lived through these past two years). There was a lot of information to sift through, but in this post I hope to provide the best summary of events.

In 1841, the population of Ireland was calculated at about 8 million people. By 1851, there was only 6.5 million remaining. 1.5 million are recorded deaths (likely to be much more than this) and 2 million as a result of mass emigration. This single event changed the shape of Ireland permanently. Pre-famine Ireland had quite a large population boom at the end of the 18th century. Despite the recent Anglo-Irish Union, Great Britain was growing wealthier and Ireland more poor. Once the war against Napoleon was complete, Irish exports were no longer in demand. Industrialization in Ireland slowed down and was unable to keep up with the the industrial revolution in England (which was now given priority). With the collapse of industrialization and manufacturing in Ireland, many people were pushed back to the land.

After 168 Years, Potato Famine Mystery Solved - HISTORY

The structure of the economy was something along the lines of : Elite landowning family-> landowners -> bound laborer -> landless laborers. The bound laborer were contracted to work for a particular farmer for a certain number of days where, in return, they would be given shelter and food. At this time, a barter system was very popular. In exchange for work, a one room cottage was provided and a small plot of land to grow potatoes. The landless laborer would move from farm to farm and make a wage which would be used for food and diet. 20-30% of the land was held by absentee landowners. Instead of re-investing their money into their lands and tenants, it would be used for their personal use. The majority of the Irish population fell into the bound and unbound laborer categories. The majority of the population were very poor.

The Irish Potato Famine Sheds Light on the Human Impact of Climate Change |  Toronto Sustainability | TSSS

The potato crop became so important during this era and made up the majority of a peasants diet. All of their daily meals would consist of potato and milk. Large quantities of potatoes were able to be produced for cheap and they were very nutrition rich. It would keep a large family well fed and likely contributed to the pre-famine population boom. Donnelly states in his book (The Great Irish Potato Famine) that the average male would consume 12-14 lbs of potatoes daily (combined with milk). Potatoes were also used to feed livestock (pigs, sheep) that many of the peasants raised for additional food source and for income.

The summer of 1845 was unusually cold and it was very wet. This allowed phytophthora infestans (the fungal disease which caused the potato blight) to grow. It likely originated in the Americas as the United States had their own potato blight in 1843/1844 (the United States did not depend on the potato crop as Ireland did, so it was not detrimental to their lifestyles). It then moved through continental Europe and Southern England. The summer of 1845 was cold and wet which encouraged the blight’s spread even more. The diseased crop would not be noticed in Ireland until early September. The initial reaction was restrained as they waited for more of the crop to be dug up. Officials and scientists had to be sure that it was not just a small portion of the overall yield that was diseased. Yet, as the autumn wore on, more concerned letters began to be sent. They reported that one third of the crop was destroyed, then one half, and so on. Some of the aristocracy would go so far as to deny the existence of the blight and all those who supported it were “dangerous radicals”. Yet, this blight was very real and due to lack of real government assistance and incorrect science this problem was not tackled well from the onset.

After an investigation by scientists, who were meant to determine the cause and find a remedy, they came to the conclusion (incorrectly) that it was not a fungal disease. They believed it was just a result of the unusually wet summer they had just had. They would encourage the citizens to continue to plant whatever healthy seed potatoes they had (they believed that only the rare instance of another wet summer would cause the crop to fail). Later it would be revealed that this was not the only factor and due to these reports the diseased crop continued to be planted.

File:Another view of the Famine Memorial - geograph.org.uk - 338076.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
Famine Memorial in Dublin

By October 1845, over half the crop was destroyed and inedible. At this point, it was obvious that a food shortage and famine was on its way. Prime Minister Robert Peel’s government did take some action early on, despite the belief (and stereotypical thought process) amongst Parliament that the Irish were “exaggerating”. A large quantity of corn from the Americas was imported in an attempt to keep food prices low and provide additional sources of food for those in need (though they were expected to purchase this). Yet, the exports of oats grown in Ireland to England and other countries was not halted. This could have been another source of food used to avoid the impending starvation, but was, instead, sold outside of the country. The price of everything went up with the scarcity of the potato. The government’s hope was to sell this corn at wholesale prices to the local community relief committees and it was up to them to distribute as they saw fit. A lot of the government’s plan hinged on the local landowners and the “absentee” aristocracy to actually help and take care of their tenants during this time. Yet, this was not working out quite as envisioned.

A public works program was started as well (railroad, drainage, roads, etc) to try and increase employment for those in need and to provide wages to purchase the food supply. It was also hoped to improve the modernization of Ireland and the economy. Yet, like everything, this was easily corrupted. Landowners would begin to take the state grants whether there was need or not. The selection process for who got the jobs was left up to the local relief committees. They were meant to give it to the destitute, but many tickets were bought and sold to people unconnected. Those who did not have as dire need were finding their way onto the employment rolls. Many in Parliament and involved with the government believed that they were spending too much money on these programs.

In 1846, with another failed crop, the situation became dire. The first casualties due to starvation began to appear. The citizens were also not adjusting well to the new source of food. The corn had to be made a certain way in order to be edible and there was a lack of knowledge of what to do with it. It was also not as nutritionally dense as the potato had been. Many were forced to consume their seed potatoes which eliminate any attempt at a crop for the following year. The government would not provide seed as people would be “discouraged” to save their own. The decline in potato acreage was massive. With the public works program in place, the whole system of survival had changed as well. Previously, there was the barter system and many would work in exchange for land and a potato garden. Now wages were absolutely essential to survive and the public works jobs were limited (remember previously there were many on a barter system). Those who stayed on the farms found that the landowners would refuse to pay a cash wage (which was needed now in order to purchase the new sources of food) so many families were forced to leave. They had to leave and attempt to get one of the new public works job or enter themselves into a workhouse.

The loss of the potato staple also led the loss of livestock production. Food was the primary food source of the pigs and sheep as well. Due to the famine, families had to eat their investments or these were plundered by starving laborers desperate for any food. Families (at least early on) would also force themselves to go without eating for 8-40 hours in order to try and save whatever good potatoes they had in order to use them as seed for the next year. As rainy seasons kept coming, much of their sacrifice was in vain.

The only group that attempted to provide free food/clothing donations in 1846 was the Quakers (Society of Friends). They created soup kitchens and solicited donations from those with means. They would pass out clothing during the difficult and cold winter to those in desperate need and who received none of the minimal relief from the government. As the blight dragged on and on, the donations began to dry out and they were forced to shut down. The Quaker soup kitchens were able create an impact on their local areas and provided an example early on to another way of handling the famine.

1847 was the worst year of the famine as disease began to spread. Typhus and “famine fever” (dysentery and diarrhea caused by the malnutrition/starvation) , and general infection. There were not enough hospitals to support those affected. It became a normal sight to see sickness and death throughout the streets of town. Vagrancy became more and more common as well which contributed to the spread. People had to travel in any attempt to find some work to feed their families. Violence/thievery became more popular and, with the increasing evictions, many were forced to travel from one town to the next. The public work jobs began to fail as the work force became too weak to complete manual labor. This was from the lack of nutrition and sickness. It was common for on laborer to collapse mid work session and another would be in line to take their place and their wages. The wages provided by the government were inadequate for the rising price of food. The wages were not enough to feed one man let alone the family of five he had back at home. This all led to anger, frustration and real fear. The public works had to end as the results were not coming and most of the work force too weak to complete the projects. Additionally, the English government was unwilling to spend any more on it.

What was the Great Irish Famine also known as the Potato Famine of Ireland  and when did it take place?

Mid-1846 there was a government change with John Russell elected as Prime Minister. The new government were more in favor of a hands off approach to the famine. They felt that it was on the landowners in Ireland to take responsibility and fund what was needed for their people. Yet, many of these landowners were absentee owners and did not live or experience the country. Why would they care to get involved? The new government also ended the public works program in 1847. They continued with the food exports from Ireland to England despite the amount of starving people who could use these resources. Death was becoming the norm and families were unable to give their loved ones proper burials as even coffins and funeral expenses were too much for them.

Due to the loss of rents, landlords began to evict tenants in large numbers. Families would lose their only shelter during the harsh winters forcing them to enter workhouses or wander. Some people left without prompting in order to qualify for ANY relief benefits that were provided by the government. After the public works program was dismantled, those in need were expected to go to the established workhouses (again, not enough to fill the demand). The workhouses were hated and dreadful places that were depressing and disease ridden. Yet, many just entered in order to have their funeral/coffin paid for on the government’s dime. Eventually, a Soup Kitchen Act was passed by the government to give out food free of charge, but it was likely already too late. The damage had been done. It was a very slow implementation process with months of delay. There were restrictions on who could receive the water downed broth they provided. They could not be receiving any wages (even though any public work wages were insufficient to purchase the food they needed). The unemployed were receiving more relief than those employed, so naturally this also contributed to the destruction of the public works program and labor force as well. People began to leave their jobs as it was more advantageous to. There was also the lack of adequate cooking facilities and the quality of some of the food was bad. Instead, these soup kitchens spread more disease than anything else. Yet, it probably allowed many a chance to live. Eventually, with lack of resources and the impatience of the government elite (to them the famine felt like a constant drain on their treasury resources), this program also petered out.

The Irish Potato Famine 1846-1850

Most of the loss of population was due to emigration. They could no longer survive in Ireland, so their fortunes had to be sought elsewhere. Large amounts of people traveled to America, Canada, Australia and other parts of Great Britain where they would find new jobs and be free of the constant threat of starvation. It was cheaper for many landlords to assist with helping their tenants emigrate. They usually gave the choice of emigrating or eviction. It is obvious what one would pick. 2.1 million Irish adults and children took this opportunity. So many were leaving that not all was well regulated. Some of these ships, filled with those searching for a new life, were dubbed “coffin” ships as they were overcrowded and their was no separation of those sick and well. Many died on the way to a new life. On the other hand, those who made it were able to find a better life than the one they had just left.

The tension of the famine and the anger around the lack of sufficient government response spurned the nationalist movement in Ireland. The Young Ireland movement published articles that again sparked interest in separation from England and the Act of Union. Following the worst year of the famine, in 1848, the Young Ireland movement attempted to try and organize for a formal rebellion. Leaders William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Meagher and Richard O’Gorman traveled around Ireland in attempt to rose the population to support and join them in their mission. Yet, this was difficult as majority of the population was just concerned with staying alive. There was a small skirmish with what forces they had, but this was quickly squashed by the authorities. Smith O’Brien was sentenced to a punishment of transportation to a penal colony in Tasmania (originally sentenced to death for treason). Other leaders would emigrate to America after the failure of this uprising.

By 1852, after so much death, continuous crop failure, and people leaving the country, the famine began to recede. The crops were finally starting to be successful again and, due to the lower population, recovery became successful. With the lower population, there were less mouths to feed, more land to go around, and more jobs available. It is sad that this is what it took in order to recover from such a disaster when there were so many other opportunities with better government intervention and distribution of free food. Likely, some of the death and destruction could have been avoided. There was a bitter taste for the British government left in the the mouths of those who remained. The famine changed the landscape of Ireland forever. With fewer people, now they were facing a labor shortage which continued the slow progress of Ireland’s economic advancement. The dependence on the potato had diminished as well and people became more focused on themselves and their immediate family. As for those who emigrated, many of the Irish who came to America became very involved in labor and political movements and had a great impact in improving the workforce and welfare of its people. They assisted greatly in the boom of the American economy.

It was not until the 1990s that a formal apology was provided by a UK Prime Minister for the government response to the disaster.

This was a difficult topic to research as there are not many light spots throughout the reign of the famine. I found it disheartening that many did not take the problem seriously enough in order to act in a timely manner. This was often due to preconceived notions of how the Irish were viewed in other parts of the UK. There were ways that many of these lives could have been saved, especially if they had set up a food distribution system (one that was free or actually made sense with the amount of wages they were providing). Instead, it was left up to the absentee aristocracy and other higher up landowners who had their own interests at heart more than their tenants. The mass emigration movement did affect many other countries in the world as they gained a new cultural group. It often helped to make change for the better, like in America, and many of those who emigrated found more success and happiness than if they stayed. The Irish Potato famine had a huge impact on the development of modern Ireland and on other countries in the world.

Sources:

The Great Irish Potato Famine by James Donnelly, Jr.

The Irish Potato Famine: The History and Legacy of the Mass Starvation in Ireland during the 19th Century by Charles Rivers Editors

The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and Saga of the Irish People by John Kelly

https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/young-ireland-rebellion-1848

https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history/Great-Famine-relief-efforts

https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/after.htm

biography · english history · european history · history

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu- Advocate for Vaccines

Vaccines have long been important in our current medical care. As children, we are protected from harmful diseases due to the development of these vaccines like measles, tuberculosis, meningitis, etc. The list goes on and on. Most recently, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine has allowed many of us to take steps in ending the pandemic that has changed the face of our world this past year. Many deadly diseases have been eradicated due to the development of vaccines which allows for better living conditions and longer lifespans. As of 1980, smallpox was declared to be eradicated. That would not have been possible without some of the work that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did in order to fight for inoculation. As an upper class English woman of the 18th century, most of the public sphere was off limits. This included the medical field where women were not given the education or taken seriously. They would have to trust in men knowing what was right for their bodies. Yet, Montagu was different. As an early feminist, she was extremely bold. She did what she felt she needed to do and fought for the causes that she thought were important. This included the early smallpox vaccination.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born in 1689 in London to an aristocratic family. As she was the eldest daughter, her expectations were to use her beauty to marry well and become a model woman in her society. Yet, Montagu found her passion was for education. She believed that education was the way for a better life that she envisioned for herself. She wanted to be a part of that public sphere that was barred from those of her sex. “The Careless education given to women of quality [makes it]….so easy for any Man of Sense to corrupt them,” Montagu later wrote in one of her numerous essays/letters. She became an avid reader and taught herself many different languages. She also focused on making social connections with those who she could have intellectual conversations with and who would better her own educational journey. These connections placed her in a visible position in public/political society.

Montagu was a bit of a rule breaker. She was clever, headstrong, witty, and was not afraid of how the public may view her. In 1712, against her father’s wishes, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu which caused a great scandal in the gossip of high society. Her husband actually encouraged his wife in her writing career and her goals of making an influence in politics ( as this would be to his advantage as well in his rising career).

In 1713, Montagu’s younger brother died from the disease smallpox. Smallpox was a common endemic in London and other parts of England and it was making its fatal rounds again. In 1715, Montagu caught it herself and, luckily, survived. Unfortunately, it left her with bad scarring and the loss of her eyebrows. The death of her brother and her condition after her recovery had a big impact on Montagu. She became extremely interested with the rumors of inoculation practices in China and Turkey that she overheard Doctors and other intellectuals in her circle speaking about it.

Women were some of the most affected by the smallpox disease. They had to deal first hand with the death of their family members and with the disfigurement of themselves. This may not seem to be such a loss, since they survived after all, but the scarring and disfigurement from the disease was detrimental to a society girl’s prospects. For women of this time, physical beauty was often deemed one of the most important thing to secure future advantageous marriage proposals. Montagu would write poetry about her experience with the disease and her recovery (amongst many other topics that she was passionate about). In her poem, Flavia she writes:

Thus breath’d the anguish of a wounded mind ;
A glass revers’d in her right hand she bore,
For now she shun’d the face she sought before.

‘ How am I chang’d ! alas ! how am I grown
‘ A frightful spectre, to myself unknown !
‘ Where’s my Complexion ? where the radiant Bloom,
‘ That promis’d happiness for Years to come ?

Yet, women were excluded from the practice of medicine or even discussions with medical elite (even though they had almost more to lose due to the disease). Women were often even excluded from learning Latin as well. Montagu began to write a great deal about topics she was passionate about. She wanted to influence others with her writing and it gave her some agency in the public sphere.

In 1716, Montagu’s husband was appointed to be the English ambassador in Turkey. This was a great promotion for him and opened Montagu to a whole new world. She had the opportunity now to travel and she would write one of the first travel narratives through all of her letters during her time there. She took a great interest in the culture of Turkey and embraced it fully. She took it upon herself to learn the language and learn more about the culture. In her travel writings, she wrote about what she learned from the art and the culture. She had an appreciation for the dress and would wear the current styles. She also talked a great deal with her Turkish hosts and held intellectual discussions with them. She wrote about the differences she saw in gender expectations (the good and the bad) to her friends in England. Yet, what she was extremely interested in was the inoculation process.

She witnessed a “ritual engrafting party” where an older woman would inoculate 15-16 people. This was to protect against smallpox. This had such an impact on her that, in 1718, she hired a Greek woman to inoculate her own son. No one in the West had been inoculated at this point. This practice in Turkey was also interesting because it showed that women were the ones taking on the role of doctor. They were the ones trusted with the knowledge of this early vaccination method. This was very different from the way things were in England at this time.

Who Discovered the First Vaccine? | WIRED

When they returned to England later that same year (her husbands time at that post had expired), another smallpox epidemic had begun. Montagu was determined to have her daughter inoculated as well. She wrote to a surgeon, Charles Maitland (who had been present at her sons inoculation in Turkey), to assist. Her letters were written vaguely in a way that would not be traceable if intercepted. This is how risky it was for her to be trying something different behind the backs of her husband and the medical elite of the day. Maitland did insist to have three physicians present, as this was the first experiment of its kind in England. They obtained a sample of smallpox matter and then opened small wounds in her daughter’s arms and legs. A small amount was introduced to the wound. Her daughter was sick for a short time then quickly recovered. One of the doctors present ( Dr. James Keith) was so influenced by this that he actually had one of his own sons inoculated as well.

In order to spread the word of the successful operation, Montagu would write essays about the importance and the benefits of the inoculation. That it would have such an positive effect to their society, would improve health, and would save lives. Montagu and her daughter began to travel to households of the elite and Montagu would hold discussions about the benefits and spread the word about the process. Montagu eventually received support from Princess Caroline (wife of future George II) when she became interested in the results of the experiments. The Princess helped to set up a larger trial of the process. Six prisoners were also inoculated and proved that the procedure was safe and they remained smallpox free. Princess Caroline proceeded to have her children inoculated.

Throughout the 1720s, many other aristocratic families followed suit and Montagu’s experiments were widely reported in the newspapers. Naturally, there would be a great deal of criticism which she had predicted all the way back in Turkey. Some in the medical field did not support it as they would be losing a great deal of money from the fees they collected treating the same patients multiple times for smallpox. They also did not trust in Montagu’s “findings” as she was a female. Some just wanted more evidence. The Church viewed this early vaccination process as going against God’s will. On a few of Montagu’s cross-country travels to the elite households, she was met with looks of disgust. Her own sister refused to inoculate her own son (who would later die of smallpox).

By now Lady Montagu was famous and her writings were well disbursed. The newspapers also associated her with all the discussions about the medical practice. She would address her critics as well through her essays. She clearly explains every detail of the inoculation process and talk about what she witnessed in Turkey. She discussed how thousands there have gone through the process and the good it had done for their cities. She also addresses how she “shall sell no drugs, nor take no Fees … I shall get nothing by it, but the private satisfaction of having done good to Mankind.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would go on to live her life to the fullest (and never to society’s rigid expectations). At the age of 47 ( now separated from her husband), she would travel to Europe after falling for a 24 year old Italian man. Sadly, that relationship did not last long, but she continued to travel the continent meeting new people and learning about different cultures. She did this for just about 20 years. She died in 1762 in England.

Lady Montagu was extremely influential in early vaccinations. She did not invent the process, but she was key in spreading the knowledge to the West. She was the first Briton to prove that inoculation was safe and effective. Without her writings and her headstrong spirit, these ideas and this progress may have taken much longer to reach England and the rest of the West. She also did not back down to society’s expectations and instead found her own ways to become involved politically. She would be viewed as an influencer and intellectual in today’s eyes. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an early advocate whose work helped make vaccines, like the COVID 19 vaccine, to be possible.

Sources:

Willett, Jo. 2021. “Mary Wortley Montagu: The Scourge of Smallpox”. BBC History Magazine, July 2021.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44766/town-eclogues-saturday-the-small-pox

Barnes, Diana. 2012. “The Public Life of a Woman of Wit and Quality: Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Vogue for Smallpox Inoculation”. Feminist Studies, Summer 2012.

Montagu, Mary Wortley. Edited by Teresa Heffernan and Daniel O’Quinn. 2013. The Turkish Embassy Letters. Toronto: Broadview Editions.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Mary-Wortley-Montagu

biography · english history · european history · history

The Strength of Queen Katherine

In this post, I wanted to focus on Queen Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. With all the focus on Anne Boleyn, Katherine is typically remembered for her struggles later in life. She is remembered as the old, unattractive, stubborn woman who was being replaced by her young and vivacious lady in waiting. In reality, Katherine of Aragon was an extremely strong woman, a very popular queen and a role model for many of her subjects. She was intelligent and educated. She was also loyal to a fault. She was born of Queen Isabella (who was the queen of Castile in her own right) and King Ferdinand. She was trained for queenship since she was a toddler and prepared entirely for her role as a leader. She was integral to the success at the Battle of Flodden. It is easy to see why she remained popular with England’s subjects even after the King had decided to put her aside.

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biography · english history · history · Scottish History

Battle of Bannockburn and Robert the Bruce (Part 3)

Part One ( The Great Cause (Part 1) )

Part Two ( William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2) )

In 1297, the Robert the Bruce was 22 years old. In part 1 of this series, his grandfather (also named Robert Bruce) was one of the contenders for the Scottish throne but lost to John Balliol. The Bruce family was still one of the most powerful Scottish families and were determined to see their claim to the throne fulfilled. They sided with Edward I when the first rebellions broke out.  This was because they refused to back their rival John Balliol and hoped others would support their claim. Now, the young Robert Bruce, against the wishes of his father, decided to join the Wallace’s rebellion in 1297. In 1298, Bruce was named Guardian of Scotland. His rival, John Comyn (the nephew of John Balliol), was also named co-Guardian. The men disliked each other and again were beginning to split into factions, just like their previous relations. Yet, despite these factions, in 1302 Edward received oaths of allegiance from all parties. Was young Robert the Bruce going to honor this oath?

Continue reading “Battle of Bannockburn and Robert the Bruce (Part 3)”

biography · english history · european history · history · Scottish History

William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2)

In part one of this series (The Great Cause (Part 1)), Edward I had forced the Scottish nobles and their King to swear an oath of allegiance to him as their “overlord”. As he believed he had finally subjugated Scotland, the English king attended to affairs in other parts of his kingdom. After the betrayal of John Balliol and a failed rebellion, Edward I completely occupied Scotland. He sent soldiers to ensure his rule would continue. The people of Scotland were taken advantage of and abused under this military occupation. Scotland needed a new champion to take up their cause for freedom. Their nobles had failed them with their infighting and military defeats, so it was time for one of their own to pick up his sword.

William Wallace’s background is hazy and was thought to be the son of a minor feudal lord in Renfrewshire or Ayrshire. He seems to have grown up with military training which contributed to his later success. He was a very tall man . He was over six feet when the average male height was about 5’6” (though this physical characteristic was highly exaggerated in legends). Walter Bower (author of  the Scotichronicon) describes him as having “a certain good humour, had so blessed his words and deeds with a certain heavenly gift, that…he won over to himself the grace and favour of the hearts of all loyal Scots.” Bower also described him as “fair in his judgments”, compassionate, patient, and a skilled orator. Yet, English sources would describe him as “a vagrant and a fugitive”, a “bloody man”, and “a chief of brigands” (Morris, pg 303).

Continue reading “William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2)”

english history · european history · history · Scottish History

The Great Cause (Part 1)

This month I was supposed to be travelling to Scotland with one of my best friends. Scotland has been a dream trip of mine for a while, but it seems 2020 had other plans for me and so many others in similar situations. I hope to re-schedule, but, in the meantime, I would love to share some Scottish history in a new three-part series. This series will focus on the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). This was a time that was filled with fascinating characters, intriguing military battles, and cunning tactics. On the English side, we have Edward I, “The Hammer of the Scots”. Edward was one of the strongest monarchs in English history, but also has a reputation of being a tyrant. Later, his weaker son, Edward II, will struggle to carry on his father’s legacy. There are some familiar names on the Scottish side such as: William Wallace and the legendary King Robert the Bruce. Along the way there will be a sprinkling of minor characters, including a brilliant sneaky re-capture of Edinburgh by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. I am greatly looking forward to this series and I hope it will provide an interesting read!

The Lothians - East, West & Midlothian | VisitScotland
A photo of Edinburgh, which was our travel destination (https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/edinburgh-lothians/)

In 1286, Alexander III of Scotland died and ended what had been considered a golden age of the Scottish kingdom. At 45 years old, King Alexander decided to risk it all and take a dangerous ride through a stormy night in order to spend the night with his new young bride of twenty-two years old. The next morning, he was found dead at the rocks at the bottom of a cliff. It was a disaster for Scotland as Alexander III had survived all his children and his new young wife had not yet produced an heir. With the throne up for grabs, powerful factions began to form which threatened the stability that had been a constant in the prior Kings reign. The main players were John de Balliol and Robert Bruce (senior, his grandson will become the more famous Bruce). Rebellion and civil war threatened Scotland due to the succession crisis and infighting between the two factions.

Continue reading “The Great Cause (Part 1)”

biography · english history · european history · history

Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?

Continue reading “Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold”

Ancient History · english history · european history · history

Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall

The final season of the popular show Game of Thrones is almost upon us, but much of the world that George R.R. Martin created was inspired by true events. This would include Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. These walls were the boundary of the known world for the Romans during the second century. Just as fan favorite, Jon Snow, looked out into the great unknown from atop the icy Wall, it would have been just as intimidating for the Romans who looked over these historical walls at the expanse of Scotland. They were at the edge of their known world, which could have been very intimidating. So, while there may not have been white walkers, to the Romans, there could have been anything.

Image result for the wall game of thrones
The Wall from HBO’s Game of Thrones

With this post I wanted to pay more attention to the lesser known Antonine Wall rather than the more established Hadrian’s wall. The Antonine Wall was the furthest point that the Roman empire stretched into Britannia. It was only manned for about twenty five years before the wall was abandoned. The wall cut modern Scotland in half as it crossed the land between Clyde to Forth (about 37 miles long). It was made mostly out of layers of turf rather than stone (like Hadrian’s) with a deep ditch that ran along with it. Forts would have been laid out along the wall, including Rough Castle, which would hold the 7,000 men that would have been stationed there. There would have also been a military service road that connected those at the wall with the rest of the empire in Britain. Continue reading “Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall”

biography · english history · history

Aethelflaed: The Heroine of Mercia

Aethelflaed has received a revival of interest with the popularity of the show The Last Kingdom and other media. She is a fascinating character, but, in this post, I wanted to answer two questions. Who was the actual Aethelflaed and why is she so important to English history? I believe she is an important female figure who is often overshadowed by others during the Anglo-Saxon period. In the year 911, Aethelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians, took over the command of the kingdom of Mercia after her husband’s death. She was not just a regent until the next male heir came of age but was viewed as the head of government by her own people. She is known as an effective military commander, diplomat, and a benevolent ruler. By the end of Aethelflaed’s reign, she contributed much to the eventual consolidation of Saxon England.

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english history · european history · history

A Christmas to Remember: The Truce of 1914

Image result for all together now statue
“All Together Now” by Artist Andrew Edwards.

Christmas Eve, 1914

“It must have been sad do you say? Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty. At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, Minuit Chretiens. The cannonade ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches! The Germans were celebrating Christmas too and we could hear them singing two hundred yards from us. Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true. At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches on which was written Happy Christmas then, leaving their trenches, unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting “comrades!”. No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half frozen Yser, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars and we threw them some chocolate. Thus almost fraternizing we passed the morning. Unlikely indeed, but true. I saw it but thought I was dreaming.” -Letter from a Belgian soldier printed in The Times, 1915

World War I began in July of 1914 with the expectation on both sides that it would be a quick victory. Over the course of 51 months the war would bring a devastating death toll of 15 to 19 million soldiers and civilians. This tragic event would practically destroy a whole generation and cause much pain to the families that had to endure. It is easy to remember the death and destruction this war brought, but it is also just as important to remember the positive points. There were moments that showed there was still hope, kindness, and generosity despite differences. In the spirit of Christmas, I wanted to dive into the unusual occasion of the Christmas Eve truce in 1914. This was truly brought on by the common soldier and the truce itself was unofficial and spontaneous. The men found that despite the death, destruction and bad feelings that had surrounded them since the summer; they could take the opportunity to still share a common experience with their enemy. It seems unbelievable to us now (and definitely to the soldiers then) that Christmas Carols were sung with their enemies. These were the same enemies that had fired shoots at them the day before. This is the story and experience of the Christmas Truce 1914.

Continue reading “A Christmas to Remember: The Truce of 1914”