Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Spanish Armada: Preparations

Not long ago I was asked, unexpectedly, to give a talk on the Spanish Armada. I have never claimed to be an expert on the subject, but this is what I came up with.


The Spanish Armada story must be one of the best-known episodes in English history.
      "Fifteen eighty-eight
       Was the Spanish Armada date"
  as children once recited in junior school. But the date itself raises a question. By 1588 Elizabeth had been on the English throne for thirty years. Why did Philip of Spain wait so long before launching an invasion? and why do it at all, after all this time? Not only was Elizabeth a Protestant heretic, and possibly illegitimate as the offspring of a dubious marriage; but Philip had his own claim to the English throne, both as the husband of the late Queen Mary and as a descendant of the old Plantagenet kings. So why wait so long? The answer must be twofold: the delay was partly due to Elizabeth's skillful diplomacy (particularly her exploitation of her unmarried state); and partly because England ranked fairly low down on Philip's list of priorities.

Philip II of Spain was the son of the Emperor Charles V. Since 1555 he had ruled not only Spain, but also Sardinia,Sicily and Naples, and thus dominating the Italian peninsula. From his ancestors the Dukes of Burgundy he inherited what are now the Netherlands and Belgium. He also became King of Portugal when the old Portuguese dynasty died out. In addition he also ruled a vast colonial empire in America and the Far East; the source of enormous wealth. Every year the Plate Fleet brought the profits of the East across the Pacific from the Philippines to Panama, where it joined with the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru for shipment to Spain. These massive bullion imports enabled Philip to build up the only professional army in Europe, with which to intimidate his neighbours; though his multiple commitments meant that he went bankrupt no fewer than four times during his reign. In 1494 the Pope had allotted all the newly-discovered lands to Spain and Portugal, but the wealth involved became an irresistible target for the excluded nations. Trading, privateering and outright piracy became indistinguishable for enterprising English, Dutch or French captains.

Philip's huge empire brought him many different problems.
   Spanish power in the Mediterranean was threatened by the navies of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, and by their allies, the corsairs operating out of what is now Algeria: the notorious "Barbary coast". This threat was lessened by the Turkish failure to take Malta,and by the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece,in 1571, but for the rest of the century there was essentially a stand-off between Philip and the Turkish Sultan, with neither establishing a clear advantage.
   In 1566 the Dutch Protestants rose in revolt against Spanish rule. Philip sent armies there, under his half-brother Don John of Austria (the victor at Lepanto), and latterly under Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, but never managed to crush the rebels.

   France, not England, was Philip's main enemy, as it had been for his father, the Emperor Charles V. France was now in a very delicate situation. For decades, there was a spasmodic civil war between the Catholic monarchy and the Protestant Hugenots; the most notorious incident being the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris, when thousands of Hugenots were murdered. From 1574 the King of France was Henry III; the last of his line, childless, presumably homosexual (nicknamed "Le Roi Mignon": "the sweetie king"). The power behind the throne was his mother, the formidable Catherine dei' Medici, from the great Florentine family; but the heir to the throne was a cousin, Henry of Navarre; a Hugenot! The other great power in France was the Catholic League, headed by the Duc de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine. It seems certain that Philip was backing the League with his money. King Henry and his mother did not trust the League, and were fearful of Spanish ambitions in France. In Paris the League was all-powerful, and Henry was losing control of his own capital to the Guise faction. (The Guises weren't even properly French, coming as they did from Lorraine. Mary Queen of Scots was from the same family, her mother being a Guise, and her first husband had been Henry III's elder brother)
Until the 1570s, or even later, Philip never gave up hope of winning Elizabeth of England over. He would far rather have had her on his side against the French, and at least neutral in the Dutch war, than have to go to the trouble of overthrowing her by force. On her part, Elizabeth wanted above all to avoid war; and she used her unmarried state as a skillful negotiating gambit: would she marry a French prince or a Spanish one? or perhaps someone completely different: Eric of Denmark, or even Ivan the Terrible of Russia! Helped by her natural tendency to procrastination, she kept them all guessing, literally for decades.
     Elizabeth was a religious moderate, disliking persecution or "windows into men's souls" unless actual treason was involved. But a series of events forced her into an increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish position:-

   1568   Mary Queen of Scots fled to England. She was undoubtedly the heir to the English throne, and also a Catholic. Elizabeth used the excuse of the mysterious murder of Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, an English nobleman, to keep her under house arrest pending an investigation. But Mary inevitably became the focus of a series of Catholic plots against Elizabeth.
   1569   "The Rising of the North". Catholicism was still strong in the north of England, where several of the old feudal lords now rose in rebellion, but were defeated
   1570   A Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius V proclaimed Elizabeth a heretic and usurper: English Catholics were absolved of their oaths of obedience and commanded to overthrow her. About this time, numbers of young English Catholics were secretly trained abroad as priests and then smuggled back into England.
   1571   The Ridolfi Plot sought to free Mary and marry her to the Duke of Norfolk, England's premier Catholic nobleman. Norfolk was executed, and Mary placed under tighter restrictions
   1581    The learned and saintly Edmund Campion, England's most prominent Catholic priest, was arrested, tortured and executed for treason. Recusancy fines (for non-attendance at Anglican church services) were massively increased
   1583   The Throckmorton Plot to kill Elizabeth
   1586   The Babington Plot. A "sting" operation implicated Mary
   1587   Mary Queen of Scots was executed in February.

Elizabeth was reluctant to get involved in the Dutch revolt, but the assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader William the Silent in 1584 made her realize that the situation was critical, and she sent money and an English force under her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, to support the rebels. Leicester proved distinctly incompetent as a general, and Parma took some towns from the rebels, but even so this English assistance encouraged the Dutch and angered Philip.
   In Ireland the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond (known as the Geraldines) rose in revolt in 1579. A Spanish force was sent to assist Desmond, but was caught and massacred at Smerwick in 1580.
   Then there was the issue of piracy in American waters. At first, English ships did not directly attack Spanish colonies, but in 1577 came Drake's voyage round the world, raiding undefended Spanish bases on the Pacific coast. Philip was understandably furious, but Elizabeth pleaded ignorance. In 1585 Drake attacked in the West Indies, sacking Cartagena and other Spanish bases.

Finally in 1586 King Philip decided he'd had enough, and instructed his leading admiral, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, to draw up a plan for the invasion of England. It was now far too late to help Mary Queen of Scots, but it is questionable how far Philip ever really wanted Mary, with her strong French links, on the throne of England. That problem at least would shortly be solved.

Before we outline Santa Cruz's plans, we must examine the changing face of war at sea. One of the problems facing King Philip was that, with his vast empire, he needed not one navy, but two: one for the Mediterranean and another for the Atlantic; and they weren't the same!

From ancient times, the warship of the Mediterranean had been the galley: long, narrow, low in the water, having a shallow draught without a keel, propelled by banks of oars: fighting by ramming the enemy or by closing and boarding. This method suited the Spaniards because of their splendid professional army (the word "infantry" originated with Philip's soldiers). The last great galley battle in history was at Lepanto in 1571, where a composite fleet commanded by Philip's half-brother, Don John of Austria, had decisively defeated the Turks off the west coast of Greece. Most of the Spanish commanders were galley-sailors: Santa Cruz himself had been in command of the reserve at Lepanto, and his intervention at a crucial moment had been decisive.
   But galleys were unsuitable for the rougher waters of the Atlantic, where ships needed higher sides and deep keels to tack with the wind. Also, advances in metallurgy enabled better guns to be cast. In the previous half-century a new kind of warship had been developed: the galleon, with 16 or more cannon each side, mounted on different gundecks, so that with proper training the sailors could fire a devastating broadside. Henry VIII's ill-fated "Mary Rose" was one of the very first galleons. Galleys by their very nature could not fire broadsides, and only carried a few cannon.

Santa Cruz outlined his invasion plan in March 1587. The figures were astonishing. He reckoned on an army of 59,000 men; which, with the sailors needed to transport them, came to a manpower total of 94,000, plus horses. To carry this gigantic force to England he envisaged a fighting force of 150 galleons, 40 hulks (large store-ships), 40 galleys and a mass of smaller ships: a total fleet of 556 vessels. The ships would be armed with 1280 cannon (which sounds a lot, but actually only averages 2 per ship). The expedition would be provisioned for six months; the supplies including 19 tons of biscuits, 23,000 barrels of salt fish, tons of cheese and bacon, tens of thousands of gallons of water and wine ....... the total cost coming to one and a half billion maravedis!
     Where was all this to come from? To take a single instance: Santa Cruz asked for 150 galleons, but how many did Philip actually have? just 24! and he was already in financial difficulties! Was the admiral trying to tell his king that the expedition wasn't really feasible?
     A new plan was then evolved: to invade and conquer England on the cheap. In the Netherlands, just across the narrow seas from the coast of Kent, the Duke of Parma commanded a first-rate army of 60,000 men (most of whom, incidentally, were not Spaniards). Would it not be possible to mount a much smaller expedition, which could sail from Spain, pick up Parma's troops, land them somewhere near Margate and use them to defeat Elizabeth's makeshift forces in a single rapid campaign before returning to take on the Dutch once more? But in April 1587, while this revised plan for a slim-line Armada was still being drawn up, Drake raided Cadiz harbour; and there, in the most favourable galley conditions imaginable, he destroyed twelve royal galleys while losing no ships himself in the process. Drake then landed at Sangres, further up the coast, where he captured and burnt huge quantities of supplies intended for the Armada before returning home. It was clearly shown that galleys stood no chance at all in a battle with galleons.

Version 2 of the Armada was very much smaller. Only 19,000 soldiers were taken on board, with a consequent overall reduction of manpower to 30,000: only a third of the original proposal. The fleet was also much reduced, to just 130. This included just 4 galleys (none of which managed to reach the Channel), 4 galleasses (an experimental hybrid ship, which did not prove a great success), 25 big hulks for the stores and far fewer small ships. The main fighting force was 65 galleons; still far more than King Philip possessed: instead large merchant ships were commandeered and armed as galleons. The number of cannon, however, was doubled to 2,400; half of which were heavy, firing shot of over 4 pounds weight. The new Armada was thus far more effective as a fighting force.

After endless delays, the expedition finally set sail from Corunna in north-western Spain on July 12th 1588. But Santa Cruz was not on board. He had died in February, aged 63. As his successor King Philip nominated the Duke of Medina Sidonia; a rich, pious and brave nobleman. He had no experience of the sea, and indeed had begged Philip not to give him the command, but had striven manfully to overcome the confusion he inherited in the dockyards.

What followed was to prove a turning-point not only for England, but for the entire history of western Europe. If England had fallen to the Spaniards, Protestantism would have been reduced to a handful of small, scattered enclaves: Scotland, Scandinavia, Switzerland and a few German principalities. The Dutch rebels would have been unlikely to resist for much longer. Even the future of France was at stake, for at the same time as the Armada set sail, Henry III had fled from Paris and taken refuge by the Loire, leaving his capital under the control of the Duc de Guise and his pro-Spanish Catholic League.
   What would happen now?

My next essay will outline the Armada campaign.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

My very brief career as a beggar

Some years ago I visited Florence. On my last morning there, I had to carry my luggage from the hotel to the railway station. It was very hot and my bags were heavy, so I stopped for a rest at the Baptistry.
I sat on the steps by Ghiberti's great door, fanned myself with my hat and then put it on the ground by my feet. I must have looked dreadful, because a passer-by dropped a small coin into it.
Despite this evidence of the extreme ease of making money by begging, I have not repeated the experiment.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

My Early Life, by Winston Churchill

This must be one of the most entertaining autobiographies of all time. Churchill wrote in in 1930, when he had already served as a Liberal cabinet minister under Asquith and Lloyd George, and as Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer under Baldwin, but was now embarking on nine fruitless years out of office. The book covers the time up to the start of his Parliamentary career in the first years of the 20th century.

Churchill passes quickly through what he portrays as his distinctly unpromising youth: an appalling prep school, years of underachievement at Harrow, then Sandhurst (where he needed two attempts, and the services of a "crammer", to pass the entrance exams), a commission in the Fourth Hussars and a posting to Bangalore in India. There, he tells us, his education really began, with a programme of serious reading in his leisure-time. (It is interesting that a hundred years earlier the future Duke of Wellington had embarked on a very similar campaign of self-education under much the same circumstances) Churchill developed his sonorous prose style by devouring the great classic historiansGibbon and Macaulay.

This is where the story really starts. The book is largely taken up with Churchill's adventures, which took the form of searches for battle. The odd thing is that none of these stemmed from his normal regimental duties He first came under fire in Cuba, of all places, where he travelled to witness the attempts of the Spanish colonial forces to put down a rebellion on the island. He then obtained leave to join a campaign to crush some troublesome tribes on the north-west frontier of India, where he witnessed his first killings and had the first of his many narrow escapes from death. This expedition enabled him to write his first book, "The Story of the Malakand Field Force". A map shows us how depressingly familiar that region is today, for Churchill was writing about the Swat valley and the "Tribal Areas" of Pakistan on the Afghanistan frontier. Churchill's comments on the outlook and behaviour of the tribes still hold true today, though nowadays we blast them from drones in the sky rather than deter them from rebellion by burning their villages and destroying their crops as Churchill's expedition did. (Oddly enough, he makes no reference to Islam at all in this book)

Next came the Sudan, where General Kitchener had been sent to destroy the power of the Dervishes and avenge the killing of General Gordon at Khartoum. Kitchener was most reluctant to allow Churchill anywhere near the campaign, considering him an pushy young self-publicist (which he was, of course!). Only after intense lobbying by his mother and friends (even the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, was persuaded to put in a good word for him!) did Kitchener surrender with an ill grace and allow Churchill to join the expedition as a supernumerary unpaid Lieutenant in the Lancers. There he took part in the last cavalry charge ever made by the British army at the battle of Omdurman, where he shot two Dervishes and again narrowly avoided being killed himself. This led to another book: "The River War", which was again very well-received.

Churchill's next step illustrates his limitless ambition. He resigned from the army in order to fight a bye- election at Oldham as a Conservative candidate. M.P.s at this time were still unpaid, and he proposed in future to support himself by his writing. As it happened, his attempt to enter into Parliament failed, but this enabled him in autumn 1899 to go to South Africa, where the Boer War was just starting, as war correspondent for the "Morning Post", at the extraordinarily high salary of £250 a month plus expenses.

More adventures followed. He was in a troop train derailed by Boer artillery, was taken prisoner and interned, escaped, was a fugitive with a price on his head ("£25: dead or alive"), hid in a coalmine and on a goods train which took him to safety in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. From there he returned to South Africa, rejoined the army, survived the disaster of the battle of Spion Kop and took part in the relief of Ladysmith. The publicity gained from all these exploits led to his election as M.P. for Oldham at the general election of 1901.

So, at the age of 26, Churchill found himself already famous as the hero of many adventures, a popular writer and journalist, and now a Member of Parliament. Before taking up his seat, he embarked on a hectic lecture tour of Britain, and then of the United States and Canada, which left him with £10,000 in the bank: an enormous sum for the time, which preserved him from financial worries for many years. Few young men could ever have achieved so much in so short a time, and his meteoric career was only beginning, for in less than ten years he would be a Cabinet minister.

    But none of this could have been achieved without Churchill's family connections. His grandfather was the Duke of Marlborough; his father, Lord Randolph, (who died shortly before Churchill joined the army) was the most charismatic young Conservative politician of his generation; his mother was a great society beauty. From his infancy he had been introduced to everyone who mattered. As a young subaltern he was invited to a private dinner where the Prince of Wales was a guest - and contrived to irritate his future sovereign by arriving twenty minutes late! His early books were read and praised in the highest circles.The great Joseph Chamberlain, cabinet minister and apostle of Imperialism, came to Oldham to speak on his behalf in the election campaign.
    Throughout the book Churchill takes pains to contrast the view he had of the world as a gung-ho young army officer with how he now perceives things as an experienced government minister in his fifties. Looking back, he regrets that he never had a chance to go to university, but feels that what he lost in academic education was more than compensated by what he gained in experience of life.  

When one reads a biography of Churchill, such as the splendidly-written one by Roy Jenkins, one realizes how much of the story Churchill left out. One could hardly expect him to have publicized that his father apparently died of syphilis, or that by the time he was a rising young politician his mother (described by Jenkins as a "serial adulteress") was married to what we would nowadays call a "toy-boy", scarcely older than Churchill himself. His younger brother Jack receives barely a mention. His years at Harrow were not as unproductive as he implies. I used to know a history master at Harrow, who told me that some of Churchill's essays were preserved in the school archives, and that they were very good. Churchill dismisses in a single line the fact that he won the Public Schools Fencing Championships; whereas he devotes several pages to his exploits on the polo field as a young army officer. (For some reason, successful English people take a delight in positively boasting about how useless they were at school. I cannot imagine a German or Japanese behaving like this!)
     The last sentence of the book refers forward to September 1908, "When I got married and lived happily ever after". Not only does Churchill not give the name of his wife, but there has been no mention in the book of any girlfriend whatsoever! In fact the only woman apart from his mother appear  in the book is his old nurse, Mrs Everest. What are we to make of this?

It was inevitable that such a dramatic story should be made into a film: "Young Winston", with Simon Ward in the title role and Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft as his parents.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Bean casserole made easy

This is my mother's recipe. It looks a rather muddy mess, but is actually very tasty!

Serves 2 good helpings

400 gm tin of butter-beans
400 gm tin of tomatoes
8 or more dried apricots
1 onion, grated or chopped
2 bay-leaves
1 full teaspoon of Marmite
Salt and pepper

Mix all the ingredients together the night before, cover and leave to stand, so that the apricots can absorb the flavour. Add more liquid the next day if necessary. Cook in the oven for one hour at 180 degrees.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Gunpowder Plot in Staffordshire

Many people know that most of the Gunpowder Plotters were killed or captured at Holbeach House, near Dudley, in south Staffordshire. But what were they doing there? This essay attempts to answer that question.
This famous engraving shows eight of the plotters: Robert Catesby, who was the leader and inspiration of the enterprise, Thomas Percy, Guido Fawkes (who at this stage of his life did not answer to the name "Guy"), the two sets of brothers, John and Christopher Wright and Robert and Thomas Winter (more properly, "Wintour"), and Bates. Four other major plotters are missing from the picture: Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby.
    What had these men got in common? They were all Catholics, driven, as they saw it, to desperate measures because King James I, who had seemingly promised to relax the penal laws against Catholics, had now reverted to strict enforcement. (At that time, ruinous fines were imposed on anyone refusing to attend Church of England services, and any Catholic priests who were caught were liable to be tortured for information and then executed). Of the twelve men, Guido Fawkes, a Yorkshireman, had been a mercenary soldier in the Spanish service, Thomas Percy was a relative and dependent of a great nobleman, the Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas Bates was Percy's servant, which is why he was only given a surname in the picture, and was depicted without a hat. The other nine were all landowning gentry, mostly with property in the Midlands, related to each other by a complex network of marriages between the old Catholic families. They were mostly in their mid-thirties, though Digby was ten years younger than the others.

Everyone knows the story of how the plot to blow up Parliament was betrayed to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic nobleman (probably by Tresham), how Monteagle then passed the message on to the King and his chief minister, Robert Cecil (who must surely already have known that something was going on), and how Fawkes was discovered with the stock of gunpowder around midnight on November 4th /5th, 1605. But the blowing-up of Parliament was only to be part of the plot. Some of the plotters were waiting at Dunchurch, near Rugby. It was hoped that the explosion would kill not only King James but also his heir, Henry, Prince of Wales, and perhaps even his four-year-old younger son, Charles (later King Charles I). This would leave as heir to the throne James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth: just nine years old, but already with her own miniature court at Coombe Abbey, nine miles away from Dunchurch. With James and his sons dead, the plotters intended to kidnap Elizabeth, proclaim her as Queen and bring her up a Catholic. They hoped to spark off a mass rising of English Catholics, and maybe also foreign intervention by Spanish troops. All this was, to say the least, highly optimistic. Any priests who got to hear of the plot were horrified and urged its abandonment, the Pope favoured conciliation with England, and King James and Philip III of Spain were beginning to negotiate the peace treaty which they both wanted.

When the plotters learned of the arrest of Guido Fawkes they would have been well-advised to abandon all their plans and take cover, but many of them still hoped that part of the plot would succeed. They accordingly fled back to their power-base in the Midlands and seized war-horses from Warwick castle, and also a supply of gunpowder, in the hope of starting an armed rising. Not surprisingly, only a handful joined them, including John Grant, Henry Morgan and a Staffordshire landowner, Stephen Littleton. On November 8th most of the group were trapped at Holbeach House, Stephen Littleton's home, by 200 men under Sir Richard Walsh, the sheriff of Worcester. In the fighting Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers were killed and Thomas Winter, Rookwood, Grant and Morgan were wounded. The others were captured individually over the next few weeks. Meanwhile Guido Fawkes, after savage torture, had revealed most of the details of the plot. Francis Tresham died in the Tower of London of a urinary infection two days before Christmas.

After a treason trial at which they were not permitted any defence lawyers, the surviving plotters were sentenced to the full penalty for traitors, which was execution by hanging, drawing and quartering. Accordingly on January 30th 1606, Digby, Grant, Bates and Robert Winter were dragged by sledge to St Paul's churchyard and, one by one, partially strangled on a rope, then, whilst still alive, castrated, disembowelled and chopped into pieces. The next day Fawkes, Thomas Winter, Keyes and Rookwood suffered the same fate at Old Palace Yard next to the Houses of Parliament (not, of course, the present building!) There were other executions in different parts of the country: Stephen Littleton and Henry Morgan being executed in Stafford.

Holbeach House still stands: it is now a care home.

There is a final ironic twist to the story. Little Princess Elizabeth, who was intended to be the plotters' puppet ruler, of course never did become Queen. When she grew up she married a German Protestant prince: Frederick, Elector Palatine. In 1714 her grandson became King of England as George I, thus ensuring a Protestant succession to the throne. All later British monarchs are descended from her.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Shrewsbury panorama

We have recently moved to Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. The old part of the town lies within a loop of the river Severn, and includes a tangle of alley-ways with very strange names: Grope Lane, the Dogpole, even the Pig-Trough!

This is the view from Shrewsbury school. The buildings in the foreground are the school boat-houses. Across the river are, from left to right: St. Chad's, the redbrick tower of the modern market hall, the spires of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Alkmund's, and the tower of St. Julian's. St. Chad's was built by George Steuart in the 1790s. St. Mary the Virgin has some exceptionally fine late-mediaeval stained glass  The Abbey is off the picture to the right.

Between St.Chad's and the river is a particularly charming place: a formal garden in in old quarry, known as the Dingle.

The centre of the town is The Square, with its mediaeval market hall.

This is the old Grammar School, built in the early 17th century; now the town library. The statue in front is Charles Darwin, the school's most famous former pupil. Others include the Elizabethan poet-statesman Sir Philip Sidney, and, less happily, the dreaded Judge Jeffreys from James II's reign.

    (See also: a later post on Shrewsbury's black and white buildings)

Friday, 1 November 2013

A Third World Slum

In 1984 I went on a trip to the Soviet Union, which as well as taking us to Moscow and Leningrad also included crossing the Caucasus mountains down to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. I have written a full account of the trip on an earlier blog entry, and I want to focus here on just one aspect.

 In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, I had my first and only experience of observing an actual Third World slum. We were amazed to find that our hotel, which was a very large new building, backed onto a slum; a revolting area of little cabins made of bits of board and corrugated iron, packed together all higgledy-piggledy and housing several hundred people. There were television aerials and even a few cars amidst the squalor, but I also saw large rats foraging in broad daylight.

These are a couple of photos I took from the hotel, one being the view from my room.


Apart from the slums, there were few old buildings in Yerevan. The pride of the city was clearly the new football stadium just down the road from our hotel: the home of Yerevan Ararat, one of the best teams in the USSR.
      It was the sight of the slums in Yerevan which sparked off the most discussion in our party. The whole lot could have been cleared away for the cost of building our hotel, and the new football stadium must have cost millions. So why were the slums still there? Of course, it is likely that before the war Yerevan was ALL slum, and that the rehousing done so far was actually an impressive achievement. I suspected there just weren’t enough civil engineers in the Soviet Union assigned to such projects. The building sites we saw in the other trans-Caucasian cities, Tbilisi and Baku, were primitive operations which would have horrified any British bricklayer. There were no wheelbarrows on site, the scaffolding looked most unsafe, and some of the ladders were just bits of wood nailed together. We were all surprised that the authorities had given so little thought as to what the tourists would make of the squalor staring them in the face.

 I was saddened how fast the tourists fell into an entirely patronising attitude towards the slum-dwellers, on the general theme of, “Well, we wouldn’t like to live there, but the people seem happy enough, and they probably prefer it to living in blocks of flats”. (this view, interestingly enough, was expressed in these very words by an East German.) Judging by the extreme grottiness of the flats we saw under construction, I could understand people not wanting to live in them, but those slums were a plain and simple health hazard, and should have gone long ago. Besides, refraining from demolishing slums on the grounds that the inhabitants still want to live in them was hardly the approach one would expect from the Soviet planning authorities! I was more convinced than ever that the Soviet Union was a very inefficiently run country, still escaping from ancestral poverty and backwardness, and that trying to conceal this not-too-disgraceful fact was the cause of a great deal of pretense and dishonesty. Long before the end of the tour, we were starting to laugh at the latest display of incompetence, though a French lady in the group kept exclaiming “Oh! What a country!” in a tone of despair.

The Soviet Union disintegrated six years after our visit. Perhaps our experiences should have led us to anticipate this, but we proved no more prescient than the professional commentators. Whether the collapse of the U.S.S.R. really benefited the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus might be questioned, because there has been endemic warfare there ever since. Whether the Yerevan slums are still there, I do not know.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Admiral Benbow

John Benbow was born in March 1653 at Coton Hill in Shropshire, a village which is now a suburb of Shrewsbury. His father, who seems to have been a tanner, died when he was still young.
    Benbow joined the navy at the age of 25. In those days, the navy was one of the few institutions in which a man from humble origins could rise to a position of wealth and importance; especially when there was fighting to be done, which was the case during his career.

He quickly saw action in the Mediterranean in 1678-81, when Admiral Herbert led attacks on the corsairs operating out of the ports on the coast of Algeria: the notorious "Barbary Shore". These corsairs were a serious threat: they had in the past raided as far as Cornwall, and kidnapped whole villages to sell as slaves. The campaign was successful, but disputes over prize-money led to Benbow transferring to the merchant service for the next few years. But the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9, which brought William of Orange to the throne, quickly led to war with France, and he returned to the Royal Navy. He was appointed captain of HMS "Sovereign",and later promoted to Rear-Admiral, and then to Vice-Admiral. He took part in the naval battles at Beachy Head, Barfleur and La Hogue, and in raids on St. Malo, Dunkirk and Calais; and his courage and tactical skill were noted and admired. It was in this war that the British navy established a supremacy over the French which was never subsequently lost.

When peace was eventually signed, Benbow was sent to American waters, to protect trading vessels against piracy. But within a few years, it became clear that hostilities with France were about to resume. This would become known to history as the War of the Spanish Succession, and may justifiably be considered as the first-ever world war, with fighting not only in Europe but also across the Atlantic. In 1702, in anticipation of this, King William dispatched Benbow in command of a small fleet to the West Indies. There in mid-August he fought a running battle of several days against a French squadron under Admiral Jean du Casse. But some of Benbow's captains, led by Richard Kirkby, apparently refused to follow orders, and the action proved indecisive. The British ships which did go into combat were outnumbered, and some sustained heavy damage. Benbow's leg was shattered by chain-shot. He was determined to continue the fight, but to his fury Kirkby and other captains refused. The squadron had to return to Jamaica, where Benbow ordered the arrest of the captains, branding them cowards and traitors.

    In a development which seems extraordinary nowadays, Benbow received a letter from du Casse, acknowledging that Benbow ought to have won the battle, adding, "As for those cowardly captains who deserted you, hang them up, for by God they deserve it". Was this a case of a chivalrous relationship between commanders, or was du Casse simply trying to stir up trouble?

 Benbow died of his wounds in Jamaica on November 4th. His tombstone, with an appropriate inscription, is in St. Andrew's church, Kingston. Captains Kirkby and Wade were tried by court-martial for cowardice and disobedience of orders, and condemned to death. They were shot on board HMS "Bristol" in Plymouth on April 16th 1703. Others of Benbow's captains were also convicted, but were later pardoned.

Benbow quickly became a popular hero. One would have thought that a commander who could not persuade his subordinates to follow orders had failed in the most fundamental way, but it was Benbow's final disaster rather than his earlier successes which inspired the balladeer:-

"Come all ye sailors bold, and draw near, and draw near,
And listen to my lay without fear.
It is of an Admiral's fame
Great Benbow was his name,
How he fought out on the main
Ye shall hear, ye shall hear.

Brave Benbow he set sail for to fight, for to fight,
Until Du Casse's ships they came in sight.
Brave Benbow he set sail
In a fine and pleasant gale
But his captains they turned tail
In a fright, in a fright

Said Kirkby unto Wade, We shall run, we shall run,
Said Kirkby unto Wade, We shall run,
For I value not disgrace
Or the saving of my face,
but the French I dare not face
Or his gun, or his gun"

            -  and so on for several more verses.

Those who know that great classic adventure story "Treasure Island" may recall that the first chapter opens with Billy Bones, First Mate to the legendary pirate Captain Flint, turning up at the inn called the "Admiral Benbow" and living in fear of encountering a mysterious seafaring man who has lost a leg (Long John Silver, of course!)

   Benbow remains well-known in his native Shrewsbury, with a memorial tablet in the church of St. Mary the Virgin

and a pub named after him (though I don't think he would have worn this kind of wig).

There has been a move to erect a statue of him in the town, though so far without result.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Columbus Misconception

It is a common belief that Columbus set sail to prove the world was round, which people at the time did not believe. But this is entirely false.

Ever since the writings of Aristotle and other ancient authors were rediscovered in the 12th century, all educated people knew very well that the world was round. This is clear in, for instance, Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, written almost two centuries before Columbus. Dante even has an understanding of gravity, attracting everything towards the centre of the earth. (Strictly speaking, Dante and other mediaeval writers had no evidence to support this belief in a round earth, but they approached the ancient writers in an entirely uncritical spirit: if Aristotle said so, it had to be true!) One ancient Greek scientist, Eratosthenes of Alexandria, had attempted to measure the size of the earth, and had produced an estimate surprisingly close to the true figure.

Marco Polo’s account of his travels to China in the 13th century was very widely read, and European explorers and traders longed to gain access to the vast riches of the East of which he wrote. But with the arrival of the Turks, the overland route across Central Asia was no longer open. What to do instead? Some of the ancient geographers had believed there was a way south round Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and for a generation before Columbus Portuguese explorers had been venturing down the west coast of Africa. But what they discovered was that Africa was very much bigger than expected, so that a voyage round the Cape to India and back might take years rather than months. Furthermore, the Portuguese kept their navigation charts top secret, and prevented any other ships from venturing that way.

Columbus therefore had the idea of reaching India and China by sailing westwards across the Atlantic. The trouble was, he grossly overestimated the size of Asia, and he did not believe the ancient Greek calculations of the size of the earth: he thought it was much smaller! He therefore believed that the coast of China lay approximately at the position of Kansas City, in terms of distance. He spent years attempting to get one of the kings of Europe (including Henry VII of England) to sponsor his voyage. The reason his efforts were fruitless for so long was nothing to do with a belief the world was flat. What happened instead was that the kings would consult their learned men, who would say, “This fellow Columbus doesn’t know what he’s talking about! The world is much bigger than he thinks, and China is much further away - so far away, in fact, that no ship can carry enough food and water for such a long voyage. Columbus’s crew will all have died of starvation long before they get to China!”

The irony is, of course, that these learned men were quite right: Columbus didn’t know what he was talking about!  Eventually Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain thought Columbus was worth a speculative punt, if only to try and outflank the Portuguese.

Although Columbus made four transatlantic voyages altogether, he never realised he had discovered a new continent, but believed he had found the western route to the fabled Indies, and that the coast of China couldn’t be far away. This is why the islands he discovered are still called the West Indies, and the inhabitants of North America were called, until very recently, Red Indians.

On a world map produced in 1507 the new continent was named not after Columbus, but after a slightly later explorer, Amerigo Vespucci; though the reason for this remains unclear. It was left to Magellan, a generation after Columbus, to find a way round South America and across the Pacific to the actual Indies - and, incidentally, to disprove Columbus‘s estimate of the size of the earth.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury

This classic account was published in 1927; at the height, therefore, of the Prohibition era, when organised crime in New York, Chicago and many other cities rose to unprecedented levels of wealth and power. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that the final chapter is headed “The Passing of the Gangster”, since Asbury could hardly have been unaware that the gangsters were emerging from the slums to make vast sums of money from bootlegging, and use it to thoroughly corrupt the city police and politicians and become a serious menace to society. The reason for this apparent dichotomy lies in Asbury’s definition of what constitutes a gang.

By a “gang” Asbury means the violent mobs from the revolting slums in and around the Five Points area of lower Manhatten in the 19th century (the original meaning of the term “downtown”), who brawled with each other and with the police, maimed and robbed passers-by, and sometimes sallied forth, numbered in scores or even hundreds, to murder and riot. The names of some of these gangs live on in legend: the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, the Whyos; later, the Hudson Dusters, the Gophers and many others. The early gang members were mostly of Irish extraction, and their favoured weapons were the club, the knife, the knuckle-duster, and an ingenious instrument to gouge out the eyes of victims. Often the women were as ferocious as the men. Asbury has a separate chapter on the Chinese gangs, whose murderous wars, being largely confined within the Chinese community, were less known to the general public.

Asbury makes it clear that whole districts of downtown Manhatten were effectively "no-go" areas for the police, but also shows that a level of corruption assisted the gangs' progress. Unscrupulous politicians employed the gangs at election time to wreck opposition campaigns and intimidate voters, and having gained power would instruct the police to turn a blind eye to certain gang activities. Many policemen found it much less dangerous to take their cut of gangster profits than to attempt to suppress the gangs, and the immigrant communities often looked on the gangsters as heroes rather than villains.

The Martin Scorsese film that bears the same title was based, rather loosely, on Asbury's book. What the film did was to take from the book a number of of real-life individuals (Bill the Butcher and Boss Tweed), locations (the Old Brewery), gangs (the Dead Rabbits) and events (the draft riots of 1863) and run them all together, when in reality they were spread over several decades (Bill Poole, alias "Bill the Butcher", who was by no means the charismatic personality of the movie, was actually shot dead in 1853, whereas Boss Tweed's spectacularly corrupt city administration flourished after the Civil War). This technique makes bad history, but good movies! The first "Godfather" film was similar: taking famous incidents from the lives of different real-life gangsters and making them all happen to the same person. (It is perhaps not surprising that the scariest part of Asbury's book - the description of how, in the great Draft Riots, the gangs tortured and murdered any Negroes they found - does not feature in Scorsese's film)

The penultimate chapter of the book, which deals with the years before the First World War, is headed "The Last of the Gang Wars". Asbury observes that things are changing. The gun had replaced the club and the knife as the favoured weapon of gangdom. Muggings and robbery as a means of raising funds were being supplanted by extorting money from brothels and gambling dens, and by providing thugs to intervene in labour disputes, schlamming either strikers or blacklegs depending on who paid them. Endless brawling over territory was giving way to targeted assassination. Police and politicians increasingly received back-handers to look the other way. New waves of immigrants had moved into the Lower East Side and parts of Brooklyn, and gave birth to new gangs: Italian and Jewish rather than Irish. New names emerged that looked forward to the Prohibition era: Owen "the killer" Madden, Jacob "little Augie" Orgen, and the leader of the James Street gang, Johnny Torrio. But Asbury fails to draw appropriate conclusions from the obvious signs of changing times. A glance at the index shows that the word "Mafia" appears nowhere in the book. Of Torrio he records only that he left New York, moved west and "soon became a conspicuous figure in the underworld of Chicago". This is a profound understatement, for Torrio became one of the most seminal figures in the history of organised crime. The message he preached to the Chicago gangs, which was taken up in New York too, was: "There's enough money out there to make us all rich; but too many dead bodies littering the streets gets crime a bad name, and the public may demand action. So let's form alliances rather than fight, agree to keep to our own territories and our own fields of operations, then we can pay off the cops and the politicians and everything will be fine". And, although some of the more psychopathic gangsters took no notice, it gradually became gang strategy. To assist his control in Chicago, Torrio called in a promising young thug from Brooklyn. His name was Al Capone. It is unsurprising to find that this name is also missing from Asbury's index.

By his own definitions, Asbury was right. New York had gradually become more civilized. The huge mobs who swarmed out of the noisome slums of lower Manhatten to fight street battles and terrorize respectable citizens no longer existed by the 1920s. But the gangs still flourished, though in a different form, and were more insidiously powerful than ever.

Monday, 16 September 2013

1914: The Coming of War

                                Europe in 1914.

The coming anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War has already led to the appearance of several weighty books on the subject. I do not propose to add to the debate on why the war started, but merely to outline the chronology of events.

The Background

For centuries, the dominant power on the continent of Europe had been France. This changed for ever in 1870-71, with the defeat of France by Prussia and the creation of the German Empire under William I as Kaiser.  The new empire was now the most powerful state in Europe, both militarily and industrially. Bismarck, the architect and now Chancellor of the new Germany, realised that German interests were henceforth best served by preserving the status quo. His foreign policy was therefore dedicated to the isolation of France, who would always be seeking revenge for her defeat. He therefore negotiated a Triple Alliance with the Austrian Empire and Italy, whilst simultaneously signing the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. He always strove to be on good terms with Britain. To his successors he left two pieces of advice: never fight against Russia, and don’t tie the sleek German battleship to the worm-eaten Austrian hulk. Both of these came to be ignored.
Unfortunately the German Empire, though strong economically and militarily was politically primitive. The Reichstag was the most democratic Parliament in Europe, but Bismarck had ensured that it had hardly any control over the government, which was answerable to the Kaiser alone. And in 1888 William II became Kaiser of Germany, following the deaths in quick succession of his grandfather and father. In 1890 he sacked Chancellor Bismarck and took personal control. He proved to be an excitable, rather unstable young man, whose erratic attempts at personal diplomacy served only to sow confusion and suspicion. His aim was to win Germany “a place in the sun”: a goal which Bismarck would have regarded as dangerously vague and lacking in content.
One rapid consequence was the failure to renew Bismarck’s treaty with Russia. Instead the French seized their opportunity, and in 1893 a Franco-Russian commercial treaty and alliance was signed. Although William was to make personal appeals to the Tsar, this link was never broken, and Germany now faced the alarming prospect of a war on two fronts.

For the latter part of the 19th century Britain had followed a policy which won the nickname of “splendid isolation”. This meant, not withdrawal from the continent, but the refusal to commit to a firm alliance with any other power. Instead, Britain would use its influence to make small adjustments to the balance, to avoid major conflicts and prevent any one country achieving dominance. There were no permanent “good guys” or “bad guys” in British diplomacy. There was still a residual, traditional suspicion of France, which resurfaced as late as the 1890s. The nearest to being a permanent “bad guy” was Russia; disliked for its repressive government and for its imperialist ambitions in Central Asia and the Balkans (shades of the 20th century Cold War!). The only continental war Britain fought in the century after the fall of Napoleon was against Russia in the Crimea in the 1850s, at there was a threat of war against Russia in the Balkan crisis of 1877-78. On the other hand, many prominent British politicians favoured closer friendship with Germany, and it was not Britain’s fault that this never came about.
For centuries Britain, with her small army, had relied upon the superiority of her navy to protect her from invasion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this superiority at sea had enabled her to build up a vast world-wide empire, though paradoxically this meant that Britain had even fewer soldiers to be deployed on the European continent. By the start of the 20th  century Britain was the only major European power without a system of military conscription, though as long as the fleet reigned supreme, this did not matter very much. But now, beginning in 1898, Germany began to build its own High Seas Fleet, and continued to expand its naval programme in subsequent years. Unlike Britain, Germany did not have a world-wide empire to protect, and this naval project had to be seen as a threat to Britain. It was made very clear that Germany could either have a large fighting navy or British friendship, but not both, but without result. Britain had to respond in kind, and soon the 20th century’s first serious arms race had developed, as each side tried to outbuild the other in the new class of super-battleships, the Dreadnaughts.
There were inevitable diplomatic repercussions. In 1902 Britain signed an alliance with the rising power, Japan: her first alliance for many decades. The arrangement was that henceforth Japan would look after British interests in the Far East, enabling the British Grand Fleet to be withdrawn to home waters to keep a watch on Germany. Equally inevitably, Britain was drawn closer to France. In 1904 an “Entente Cordiale” was agreed between the two powers, and then in 1907 an Anglo-Russian Convention created a Triple Entente in opposition to the Triple Alliance. From the British point of view, this was far from being an open-ended commitment to back France under all circumstances, but nevertheless there was an increasing presumption that Germany would be the enemy in any future war in Europe. The British army was modernised, and plans were made for a British Expeditionary Force of seven divisions to go to the aid of France. In two crises involving colonial disputes in Morocco, in 1905 and 1911, Britain supported France against what was seen as German trouble-making. Meanwhile the Germans, by now aware that Italy was no longer a dependable ally, increasingly developed a paranoid feeling of being “surrounded by enemies”, with their only friend the weak and crumbling Austrian Empire.

Count von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff from 1890 to 1905. Faced with the prospect of a war on two fronts, against Russia and France, he devised the complex plan that came to bear his name. It depended on the primitive and inefficient Russian government taking a long time to mobilize its vast armies, giving the Germans a window of opportunity to smash the French. Accordingly the great bulk of the German army would move westwards, with the greatest strength, 53 divisions, concentrated on its right (northern) wing. This would deliver a crushing hammer-blow through Belgium and then wheel round to envelop Paris from the north, and knock France out of the war before Russia could do much damage in the east. Actually this plan indicated the failure of German diplomacy to detach France from Russia; and in reality even Schlieffen wondered whether Germany really had the strength to carry it out. But it was the only plan the German army had.

Crisis in Balkans
The decline of the Turkish Empire in Europe was a recurring feature of 19th century politics. As the Turkish tide receded, new states came into existence in the Balkans: Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria. They were weak and poor, and the neighbouring Great Powers, Russia and Austria, competed for influence in the region. Traditional British policy had been suspicious of Russian ambitions in the Balkans. This had led to the Crimean War in the 1850s and the threat of war between Britain and Russia in 1877-78.
This latter crisis led to Bosnia being brought under Austrian supervision, and in 1908 the territory was unilaterally annexed, without the other Powers being consulted. The Russians, unable to respond, especially felt humiliated by the episode. The problems of Bosnia have been brought into sharp relief in our own times, with its mixed and volatile population of Croats, Serbs and Moslems, and in the early 20th century they haunted the Austrians. At that time the Austrian Empire (technically the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) was an anachronistic ramshackle affair, where a ruling elite of Germans and Magyars presided over a large Slav population of Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Slovenes and others, plus a large number of Jews. Some of these groups supported the Austrian government; others were opposed. (As in Third World countries today, many of these racial minorities fled rural poverty to seek work in the capital, Vienna, to the alarm and disgust of the young Adolf Hitler). The acquisition of Bosnia did not help the situation at all. Serbia had its own claims to Bosnia and was prepared to stir up trouble there. In 1911 the “Black Hand” was formed; a Serb terrorist group with links to the Serbian government. Austria on several occasions considered launching a war to crush Serbia, whereas the Serbs looked to the Russians for support.
In 1912 the various small states formed a Balkan alliance and went to war with Turkey. The Turks were driven back almost to the gates of Constantinople and all remaining Turkish territory in Europe was parcelled out. But the very next year there was a second Balkan war, where all the other states combined against Bulgaria, which had gained the most, and even the Turks managed to regain some ground. The result was a smouldering powder-keg of mutual hostility throughout the region.


On June 28th the nephew and heir of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were murdered on a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The terrorists who carried out the killing were a group of young Bosnian Serbs. This was not an isolated incident, and the Austrian government decided the time was ripe for retaliation against Serbia itself. The foreign minister, Berchtold, commented, “The time has come to settle with Serbia once and for all”. But the Austrian government did nothing until it was assured of German support. When this was promised by the Kaiser, an ultimatum was sent to Serbia on July 23rd, couched in such terms that the Serbs could not possibly accept it. As Berchtold put it, “What terms can be put which it would be possible for the Serbs to accept? ….. A diplomatic success would be valueless”.
Nowadays we might have more sympathy for the Austrian reaction. Suppose a member of the British royal family was murdered by terrorists suspected of having links with a foreign government. Or consider the American reaction to 9/11. This led to the invasion of Afghanistan. The initial American reaction was to attack Iraq; but intelligence reported that Saddam Hussein had no connection with Al-Qaeda, and the Iraq war had to be postponed till a later date. But what would have happened if some major power (Russia, for instance) had announced that any attack on Afghanistan, or Iraq, would be treated as an extremely hostile act? Would the American have gone ahead anyway?
This is what happened in 1914. The aged Emperor Franz Josef, reading the ultimatum, commented, “Russia cannot accept this. This means a general war”. He was right: the Russians were outraged.
In the event, the Serbian government accepted all but 2 of the Austrian demands. Under normal circumstances, this might have provided a basis for future negotiation; but that was not what the Austrians wanted.

On July 28th: Austria declared war on Serbia. Everyone knew that this was little more than a token gesture: the Austrian army would not be able to make any moves for at least a month, and a serious invasion could scarcely be mounted before next year. But the ball was now very much in the Russian court. Would they stand by the Serbs, and if so, what would they do?
As the crisis deepened, Italy announced its neutrality. This surprised no-one; though one prominent Italian socialist journalist broke with his party on the issue, demanding instead that Italy should enter the war against Germany. He was to get his wish a year later. His name was Benito Mussolini.
More to the point; what would Britain do? No-one seemed to know. Until the crisis broke, the Liberal government was more concerned with the threat of civil war in Ireland, where Protestant Ulster was threatening armed revolt against the Irish Home Rule Bill (and importing German weapons with which to fight). Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary could perhaps have made it absolutely clear to the Germans that any attack on France would inevitably lead to a declaration of war by Britain; but he knew he could not count on the support of all the Cabinet for any such declaration. In any case, such a strategy failed in 1939: Chamberlain made it very clear that Britain would go to war if Germany attacked Poland, but Hitler simply did not believe him. As it was, Grey spent the vital days at the end of July trying to mediate a way out of the crisis, perhaps by an international conference. France and Russia accepted his offer of mediation; but in Germany the Kaiser dismissed it as “A tremendous piece of British insolence”. As the Austrian ambassador in Berlin explained, “The German government in no way identifies itself with them, but on the contrary is decidedly opposed to their consideration, and only communicates them in order to satisfy the English”.
The Russians were faced with a choice. They could stand by and do nothing, which was unlikely after other recent humiliations. They could order a partial mobilisation of armies, directed purely against Austria. Or they could order a full mobilisation, which would involve moving troops to the German frontier as well. For a couple of days, Tsar Nicholas II vacillated, but his General Staff was determined on full mobilisation, and the order was duly issued on July 31st.

At this point, war became inevitable. The Russian war strategy, like that of the other Great Powers, was an aggressive one: to advance into the weakly-defended east of Germany. But such a move would ruin the Schlieffen Plan, which was entirely dependent on the Russians moving only slowly. Therefore an ultimatum was sent from Berlin, demanding an immediate halt to mobilisation, and on August 1st Germany declared war on Russia. At the same time an ultimatum was sent to Paris, threatening war if France came to the aid of Russia, and including demands which the French government could not possibly accept, such as handing over border fortresses.
By this time the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, and even the Kaiser himself, were showing signs of cold feet. But it was too late: the mighty German military machine had taken over. Moltke, the Chief of Staff, told the Austrian generals, “A European war is the last chance of saving Austria-Hungary. Germany is ready to back Austria unreservedly ……. Mobilize at once against Russia. Germany will mobilize”. Under the Schlieffen Plan, the great bulk of the German army would mobilize and move westwards. The Kaiser could announce, “We march only towards the east”, but as Moltke pointed out in his memoirs, “This was impossible. Once planned, it could not possibly be changed”. So, although France had made no hostile moves, the German invasion was now imminent. It was, as A. J. P. Taylor once put it, “War by railway timetable”.
  On August 2nd Germany occupied Luxemburg and sent an ultimatum to Belgium. At the same time, Russian forces invaded eastern Germany. The next day, August 3rd: Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The mighty Schlieffen Plan went into operation. In a little over a week, one and a half million men had been mustered and were ready to advance against France. 550 troop trains a day crossed the Rhine: one every ten minutes at the Cologne bridge. Deployment was completed by the 17th. Seven armies, commanded by (numbering 1-7 from the north) Kluck, Bulow, Hausen, Albert of Wurttenburg, Crown Prince William, Rupert of Bavaria, and Heeringen, went into action; the main hammer-blow being assigned to Kluck’s and Bulow’s troops, who were to swing round through Belgium and attack Paris from the north.

On August 4th: Britain declared war on Germany. The British cabinet had been deeply divided until the invasion of Belgium, which won over the doubters, especially David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the war party. Traditionally Britain had always opposed any major power taking over a territory so dangerously close to British shores; and German behaviour in Belgium (taking hostages, destroying property and shooting civilians who resisted) outraged public opinion both in Britain and in the United States (In the war of 1869-70, German forces had refrained from entering Belgium, and Britain had not intervened). There was also another factor at work. The German government enquired whether Britain would allow the German fleet to sail down the Channel to attack northern France: the answer from the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill) was, of course, “No way!” As it was, the British declaration of war caused only two unimportant cabinet ministers to resign in protest.
The British Expeditionary Force was mustered and landed in France. The continent was now at war: Turkey and Italy would shortly join in.

Why war broke out in 1914 has been debated by historians ever since. Unlike the Second  World War, which was plainly caused by Hitler’s aggression, the First World War does not seem to have been “about” anything. I remember the late professor Geoffrey Elton being asked for his view on the subject. He replied, as I recall, "Sunspots! Afflicting all the leaders of Europe with temporary insanity! Well, it's as good an explanation as any!"

I heard recently a lecture on 1914 by Niall Ferguson, which I found most unconvincing in its assessments. He said that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, must bear a "very heavy responsibility" for what followed. But I'm not sure what else Grey could have done. Perhaps tell Russia after the Sarajevo murder that Britain would absolutely oppose any military action in support of Serbia? (As it was, Grey appealed for a conference, but this was effectively sabotaged by Germany). Or perhaps warn the Germans against any attack on France? (though this would only have encouraged France to support Russia). Or, alternatively, take no action when the Germans invaded Belgium? (though it is hard to see why any country should want to be friends with Britain after this). Of course Grey did not foresee what the First World War would be like; but then,neither did any other national leaders. The only person who might, with hindsight, have approved of what followed is Lenin; since without the world catastrophe which ensued, the Bolsheviks would never have come to power in Russia!  

Friday, 6 September 2013

Buildwas Abbey

Shropshire is well supplied with ruined abbeys, but this little one (its full name being the Abbey of Our Lady and St. Chad) has always been my favourite. It stands on a crossing of the River Severn, between Shrewsbury and Ironbridge. It was founded in 1135 by Bishop Roger de Clinton for monks of the Savignac order, which was merged with the Cistercians soon afterwards. Its history was generally uneventful, though one abbot was murdered in 1342, and another kidnapped by Welsh raiders a few years later; and in 1406 followers of Owain Glyndwr, in rebellion against King Henry IV, ravaged the abbey's lands.

Because of the slope of the ground, there is no west door: instead the church is entered from the south.

This picture is looking eastwards along the nave of the church towards the presbytery. In the north transept there are remains of "night stairs", to enable the monks to come down from their dormitory above the chapter house for night-time services without having to go out of doors!

The cloister lies to the north of the chapel, rather than to the south, which is the usual position.In this picture you can see the massive pillars supporting arches with a slight point, indicating a transition from the Norman to the Early English style of building in the late 12th century. There is an early example of ribbed vaulting in the Chapter House

The abbey possessed a number of books, but otherwise was never very large or important. When Henry VIII began his campaign to dissolve all the English monasteries, Buildwas was reported to have only seven monks, and the last abbot, Stephen Greene, wisely surrendered it to the King in 1536. The estate was granted to Edward Grey, Lord Powys. Much building material was removed, and by the 19th century Buildwas was a romantic ruin, overgrown with ivy. It was handed over to the Ministry of Works in 1925 and is now run by English Heritage.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


Once again, Spain is making claims over Gibraltar. It would be worthwhile to give a quick sketch of the history of Gibraltar, showing why it is under British rule.
     We should first look at the origin of the name. In the later seventh century AD the first great wave of Islamic conquest swept right across north Africa to Morocco, and in 711 a Moslem army crossed the straits and routed the forces of the Visigoths, a Germanic people who had ruled Spain ever since the collapse of the Roman empire three centuries earlier. The Moslem commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, named the landing-place after himself: "Jebel Tariq", "the rock of Tariq",  hence "Gibraltar". The Moslem tide swept on through Spain and into France, and was only brought to a halt at Tours in 732.
     For the next few centuries, Islamic Spain was one of the great civilizations of European history, famous for its philosophers and poets (Jews as well as Arabs); and its magnificent buildings can still be seen, particularly at Cordova and Granada.

     The Christian reconquest of Spain began in the eleventh century, and lasted four hundred years. Spain was not a united country; its two principal kingdoms being Castile in the centre and Aragon on the east coast. Gibraltar changed hands more than once, but finally fell to the forces of Castile in 1462, and the reconquest was completed with the fall of Granada in 1492. Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, and a united Spanish monarchy was established.
    The new nation rapidly became rich and powerful. The kingdom of Aragon had for centuries included the Balearic islands, Sardinia and Sicily, and by a combination of conquest and diplomatic marriages, Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson, Philip II, also ruled the Netherlands and much of Italy. In the sixteenth century Spain claimed sovereignty over the newly-discovered American continent, and the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru flooded back into Spain. But Spanish supremacy did not last long, and the economy was not helped by the decision to expel all Moslems and Jews from Spain. (The notorious Spanish Inquisition was originally established not to persecute Protestants but to ferret out Jewish and Moslem converts to Catholicism who still secretly clung to their old religion)

By 1700 Spain was in severe decline as a great power. In that year there died King Charles VI, imbecile and childless, leaving his vast empire to a relative: Philip, the young grandson of Louis XIV of France. The result was the war of the Spanish Succession. Alarmed at the prospect of an enormous French-dominated superpower stretching all the way from Gibraltar to the Rhine estuary, plus the Mediterranean islands and much of Italy, plus the huge overseas Spanish empire, Britain, Holland, the Austrian empire and various lesser powers formed a "Grand Alliance" to check French ambitions. The Catalans also rose in revolt against the rule of Madrid. The war is best remembered for the Duke of Marlborough's great victories over the French in Germany and the Netherlands, but in Spain Allied forces were less successful. A British army briefly occupied Madrid, but was then defeated and driven out.
   The war ended with the compromise peace at Utrecht in 1713. Philip became King of Spain; but a Spain deprived of its European possessions. Belgium, Sicily and much of Italy went to the Austrians, and the Duke of Savoy became King of Sardinia. Britain's share of the spoils was comparatively modest, but included Gibraltar and Minorca. Together they formed the base for a naval presence guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean.

Throughout the 18th century, Spanish attempts to regain its lost possessions caused spasmodic diplomatic crises. Soon after Utrecht, a Spanish expedition attempted to reconquer Sicily, but after causing much damage on the island was defeated by the British fleet. The most serious attempt came in the War of American Independence, when Spain joined France in backing the American rebels and laid siege to Gibraltar. The attempt failed, with the Spanish fleet destroyed by Admiral Rodney at the "Moonlight Battle" of January 1780. In the eventual peace treaty Spain was rewarded by being given back Minorca, and also Florida, but Gibraltar remained British. (In this war the British government was so desperate for allies that Minorca was even offered to the Russians in return for help; but Catherine the Great wasn't interested. This opens up fascinating prospects for "alternative history", does it not?)
    In the 19th century the opening of the Suez Canal made Gibraltar vital to British strategic interests, since the "spine" of the British Empire now ran through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea to India and Singapore. At the start of the 20th century Admiral Fisher named Gibraltar as one of the "Keys to unlock the world", along with Alexandria and Aden.

Spain hit the international headlines in 1936 when the army under General Franco rose in rebellion against the Republican government. In the worst of all possible outcomes, the revolt was successful in the south, but the north and east, particularly the Basque and Catalan regions, remained loyal to the government, with Madrid on the front line. Three years of savage civil war followed. The official policy of the British government, with the reluctant support of the French, was "non-intervention", but inevitably other countries began to use the war for their own advantage. Hitler and Mussolini openly sent troops to fight alongside Franco. The Soviet Union supported the government; but the sheer forces of geography, plus Stalin's preoccupation with industrialization and the Purge, meant that Russian aid was far less effective.  
The British government pretended not to see these blatant infringements of non-intervention. This cartoon by David Low shows Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, playing cards on the prostrate body of Spain, alongside Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Leon Blum, the French Prime Minister. "Trustful Tony" is saying, "Just to discourage cheating, I'll wear a strait-jacket and let you chaps play my cards for me". Meanwhile in the background Italian warships and Nazi bomber-planes head for the rock of Gibraltar.
    George Orwell, who went to Spain to fight for the Republican government, was equally frustrated at his country's attitude; particularly those Conservative M.P.s who supported Franco even when British merchant ships trading with the Spanish government were sunk by Italian submarines. Was it not obvious to them, he protested, that a Hitler-backed government in Spain would seize Gibraltar and seal off the Mediterranean to British shipping? Indeed, in 1940 this is precisely what Hitler expected Franco to do. But Franco was too cautious, or too canny, to enter the war, and consequently he survived, though he was treated as a pariah for many years after 1945.
   And so Gibraltar survived in British hands, and remains so, since that seems to be the wish of the vast majority of its inhabitants. Any attempt to transfer territory against the wishes of the inhabitants (as, for instance, in the Falkland Islands) must be based on a "sacred soil" argument: namely, that the inhabitants have no right to be there, and therefore their wishes are of no consequence. I submit that such arguments are either drivel or very dangerous. Drivel because it is meaningless to say that any state has a "right" to take, against the wishes of the inhabitants a piece of territory which has belonged to another state for a considerable time (and, as we have seen, Britain has held Gibraltar for longer than it was held by Spain; though not as long as it was held by the Islamic Caliphate. Also, the Spaniards ruled Sicily for much longer than they ruled Gibraltar, but I see no sign of them demanding Sicily back). Dangerous because it postulates that the inhabitants of the territory, who may have lived there for several generations, have no right to be there or to decide their future (to give a notorious example: "This land belongs to us! It does not belong to the Jews! Sieg heil!").

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Minack theatre

This summer we visited the Minack theatre at Porthcuro, close to the extreme south-western tip of Cornwall. It was built in the early 1930s by Rowena Cade and her gardener. Rowena (1893-1983) came originally from Derbyshire, where her father owned a cotton mill. She was descended from the celebrated artist of the late 18th century who proudly styled himself "Joseph Wright of Derby".
The theatre has been run as a charitable trust since 1976. It stages a full programme of plays and music every year.
Beyond the stage is a sheer drop down to the sea. In bright summer weather the views are magnificent. (The sea really was this colour on our visit!)

 The concept is that of an Greek theatre. I was reminded of the theatre at Pergamum, in present-day Turkey, though that is very much larger and looks down onto a plain rather than to the sea:-

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Early Mediaeval International Revolution

In the 10th century the Mediterranean and Middle East were dominated by city-based empires, as had always been the case. All the significant states, whether Christian or Islamic were ruled by “palace culture”, centred on a capital city, with a court and a tax-collecting bureaucracy ruling a population of peasants, defended by mercenary armies. The oldest of the cities was Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire; but most of the other great cities were Moslem: Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate; Cairo, Palermo, Cordova. The Christians of the west and the nomads of the Ukrainian steppe were viewed as being much alike: barbarian threats to be contained; useful only as a source of slaves and mercenaries. The situation seemed stable enough, but by the early 13th century the position was changed utterly, with the old empires in full retreat or facing annihilation. How and why had this occurred?

The Caliphate at Baghdad was already a power past its peak. Its authority had once stretched all the way from the Pyrenees to the frontiers of China, but Moslem Spain had been ruled by a separate Caliphate since the mid-8th century, and Egypt and much of North Africa was subject to the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty. Then in the 11th century the Seljuk Turks, emerging from Central Asia, first occupied Iraq and seized control of the Caliphate, and then in 1071 defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert and flooded into Anatolia, not only turning it permanently into Moslem territory, but transforming the farms of the Greek cities which had dotted the region since the days of Alexander the Great into pasture for sheep. The Seljuk Sultanate did not remain united for long, but the entire balance of the Neat East had been destroyed for ever.
     Further west, Moslem power was in retreat. In Spain, Toledo fell to Christian forces in 1085, and for the next four hundred years Moslem Spain continued to shrink, until finally extirpated at Granada in 1492. There was another permanent change in Italy, where a family of Norman warlords, the Hautevilles, descendents of an obscure knight called Tancred, conquered Sicily and set up their own state there, fighting Moslems and Byzantines indiscriminately.
    So weak and threatened was the Byzantine Empire after Manzikert that the Emperor Alexius was driven to ask for help from the knights of the west, whom he knew well as opponents and mercenaries. The result was the First Crusade, which was not at all what Alexius had envisaged, but which forced its way through the Turks in Anatolia  to take Jerusalem from the Egyptians in 1099 and thereafter raided as far as Egypt and the holy city of Mecca.

Western Europe at the time was a region of weak central authority. The Kings of France had little control over the great lords, and much of present-day France was controlled by the Kings of England; a position which did not change until the early 13th century, when Philip Augustus drove King John of England out of almost all his French possessions. The most powerful state was the Holy Roman Empire, established by Otto the Great in the 10th century, covering Germany and northern Italy. Otto and his successors forcibly intervened in Rome to end a succession of scandalous Popes, opening the way to the pontificate of the great reformer Gregory VII (1073-85). But the claims of the new papacy to universal authority led to conflict with the Emperors which was to tear Italy apart for the next century and a half. The new emerging Italian city-states were able to play off the two rival claimants against each other, as “Guelfs” (supporters of the Pope) or “Ghibellines” (supporters of the Emperor); and as a result, Italy never developed as a nation-state. Almost unnoticed amidst this conflict, a breach came about between the Roman and Byzantine churches in 1054, which became permanent.

The Kings of the western European countries played no part in the First Crusade, which was purely a matter of private enterprise and religious enthusiasm (in varying combination) by great feudal lords, pilgrims and Italian merchants. The reconquest of Spain was similar, with the famous El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: 1043-99) very much an individual freebooter rather than an obedient follower of any King. (Monarchs led the Second and Third Crusades, but without any great degree of success)

The motive that drove the Christian knights and lords was the hunger for land, which they would then hope to rule with as little control from above as possible. This hunger drove the Normans to conquer England in 1066, and to continue thence into Ireland and the Scottish lowlands; whilst at the same time other Normans were overrunning southern Italy and Sicily, and ultimately invading Palestine. (When judging the extreme cruelty of the Normans to anyone who got in their way, we must remember that really they were only second-generation Vikings, with a thin veneer of Christianity which had very little effect on their behaviour)

 The feudal states that resulted from this hunger were decentralized, with a strong tendency to fall into anarchic disorder. It is not surprising that between the crusading knights and the city-dwelling, bureaucratically-governed Byzantines there quickly grew up a profound mutual suspicion and mistrust. The early crusaders actually felt more empathy with the Turks, whose approach to life was not too different from their own. The mutual respect between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin should be seen in the same light: Saladin came from a family of Kurdish mercenary warriors, and he and Richard could understand each other more than either of them could understand a Byzantine emperor. Saladin’s reputation in the west was such that, within a century, Dante accorded him a place amongst the “Virtuous pagans”, whilst many Christian monarchs and even some Popes were depicted writhing in the nether reaches of hell.

Saladin’s recovery of Jerusalem from the crusaders was matched in importance by his takeover of Egypt, where he restored the Sunni faith. Western mistrust of the Byzantines culminated in the disgraceful episode of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when the crusaders sacked Constantinople itself. Once again, no state was involved, unless we count the Republic of Venice, which cynically manipulated the campaign for its own benefit.

So by the early 13th century, the whole picture of the Near East was different. The eastern Mediterranean was now dominated by Christian ships, especially those of Venice and Genoa. Moslem power had been permanently expelled from Sicily, and was in irreversible retreat in Spain. The Byzantine Empire was shattered, and would be unable to resist a later resurgence of Turkish attacks. Saladin had reunified the main centres of the Islamic world, but the Caliphate was now an empty shell, and the Middle East was about to suffer the hammer-blows of the Mongol onslaught. In the west, stronger states were starting to emerge, but the general picture was still one of feudal anarchy. Except in the Slav regions of eastern Europe, the supply of new land for settlement was drying up. Kings and nobles were less interested in crusading than in rivalry with each other. The Papacy was an independent power in its own right, with claims to universal sovereignty. The world had changed.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Emperor Tiberius on Capri

Tiberius (born 42 BC, reigned 14-37 AD) was the second Roman Emperor, in succession to his stepfather, Augustus. He was not originally intended as the heir. He was kept busy on imperial duties from 20 BC, and showed talent as a soldier and administrator. In 6 BC, being fed up or merely tired, he withdrew to the island of Rhodes for several years to study with the Greek philosophers; but was recalled to Rome when the deaths of Augustus's grandsons left the succession open. In his early years as Emperor he showed republican traits, scornfully rebuffing any obsequiousness or flattery, but he seemed to find personal relationships difficult, and he was never popular.
     In 26 AD he withdrew again, this time to Capri. From there he continued to conduct the bureaucratic side of governing the empire, but he never returned to Rome. In his absence the city fell under the control of two ambitious police chiefs: Sejanus and then Macro, who conducted brutal purges of the senatorial aristocracy; whether on Tiberius's direct orders is not clear. After his death at the age of 79 the imperial title passed to his young great- nephew, Gaius Caligula, whose behaviour soon proved to be insane.
    At some stage, either during Tiberius's lifetime or later, stories began to circulate about grotesque orgies being held on Capri, involving the aged Emperor and swarms of very young children. It was also said that anyone who angered him was flung over the cliffs. It is obviously impossible today to assess the truth of such stories, but Tiberius's critics ever since have gleefully combined them with the cruelty of his police chiefs to paint a picture of the Emperor's all-round wickedness.

The Villa Jovis was just one of many residences that Tiberius built for himself on Capri. It occupied a spectacular site on the extreme north-east tip of the island, looking precipitously down to the sea. It is quite a slog climbing up to it from the town below in the heat of summer, but well worth the effort.
     In amongst the text are some pictures I took, showing the huge extent of the Villa Jovis, and the amazing views.

Tiberius's reputation for wickedness derives from the writings of the two great Roman historians Tacitus (born 55 AD) and Suetonius (born 69 AD). Now it is immediately obvious from these dates that neither man could have spoken to many people with direct personal knowledge of Tiberius; and the more contemporary sources which survive are much less critical of the Emperor. Yet Tacitus assails him in the first six books of the "Annals", stressing his cruelty, his morbidly suspicious nature and the immorality of his personal life. Why Tacitus chose to do this is unclear: modern historians tend to think that his description of Tiberius is actually a coded attack on Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD), a tyrant-emperor from Tacitus's own day.

As for Suetonius, his book "The Twelve Caesars", though a splendidly entertaining read, is best seen as an early exercise in sensational tabloid journalism (in the case of Tiberius, "Paedo Emperor in Capri child abuse horror!"), and the sources for his salacious anecdotes are not known.
Modern readers know Tiberius mostly from Robert Graves's historical novel "I, Claudius", and from the TV series it engendered in the 1980s. The stories which Graves relates with such relish mostly come from Suetonius. Tiberius is portrayed as a flawed yet tragic personality, always conscious that the imperial family used his services but did not like him, and with his personal happiness ruined when Augustus forced him, for political reasons, to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania. The tangled and incestuous family tree of the Caesars was such that Julia, whom he was now ordered to marry, was simultaneously his sister-by-adoption and his step-mother-in-law! The two of them did not get well. One would have thought that all this, together with the later death of his son (possibly murdered; according to the scandal-mongers, no member of the imperial family ever died a natural death!) would have been enough to make anyone embittered!

Also worth a trek on Capri, though it is on the opposite end of the island from the Villa Jovis, is the Villa San Michele, created by the Swedish-born doctor Alex Munthe. It is celebrated in his entertaining but grossly sentimental autobiography "The Story of San Michele"; a world-wide best-seller ever since its publication more than eighty years ago. On the very first pages, Munthe discovers that Tiberius still has an unsavoury reputation on Capri, when he stumbles over a chunk of marble from one of the ancient villas and a peasant girl exclaims, "Timberio camorrista!" - "Timberio" being the local dialect version of the emperor's name, and "camorrista" referring to the Camorra, the much-feared Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia (still very active today!); the implication being that Tiberius lived on in folk-memory as a thoroughly evil man. But later on, Munthe comes to sympathize with the grim old emperor, conscientiously carrying out his administrative duties into extreme old age, yet resentfully aware that no-one appreciated his work but that everybody hated him.
     We know of politicians with that problem today; though hopefully they do not seek relief from the stresses of office in the same way as is alleged against the Emperor Tiberius!