Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Terminators Part Two By L.J. Trafford

Last month I looked at the assassinations of three Romans: Julius Caesar, Caligula and Domitian. I examined the How, the Who and the Why of those murders and in doing so uncovered high principles, self preservation and wholesale revenge.
This month I'm examining three more assassinations and seeing if there are any linking themes.

1) Commodus 
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Prior to Commodus there had been a run of, what Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire likes to call, The Five Good Emperors. These were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This is what Gibbon sees as the height of Roman power and good governance. Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180 AD at the age of 18 to a system that had been run extremely well for over 70 years.

The big question here, and I know you’re all thinking it: how did he cock it all up?
We shall see.... but before that let’s skip ahead for a look at Commodus’ final moment.

The How
If you’ve seen Gladiator and are now yelling “I know this! In the arena by that Australian dude!”, you are in for a rude awakening. For history has a very different tale.
Firstly Commodus’ wife Marcia served him up a dish of poisoned beef. However, the Emperor vomited the beef and the poison up. As Commodus recuperated in a nice restorative hot bath, a wrestler named Narcissus was sent into the bathroom. Narcissus proceeded to strangle the Emperor.

The Who
Well two are named above. His wife and the wonderfully named wrestler Narcissus. But there were more involved. Cassius Dio names Laetus and Eclectus. Laetus was the Praetorian Prefect. Which is interesting given Laetus had a whole guard at his command to undertake the assassination, which he didn’t use.

The Why
Commodus had reigned 12 years when he was assassinated. We are extremely lucky in that we have an actual eye witness, in the shape of Cassius Dio, as to what living under Commodus was actually like. I make no apologies for posting this long extract. Because it is so worth it and gives you an insight into what those 12 years of Commodus' rule had been like:

And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in   his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. 

Commodus was very fond of playing in the arena, as again Cassius Dio, who was actually there informs us:
On the first day, then, the events that I have described took place. On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets. He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator. 

Obviously performing as a Gladiator and as a wild beast hunter is very un-emperory. Even when you are extremely good at it: 

Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow 
Historia Augusta 
A young Commodus

And forcing the Senate and the people to watch it is a bit annoying, especially if they had a much better event to go to. But is it justification for murder? Probably not. However, we do have a long list of Commodus' other offences:

  • Letting unpopular favourites such as Praetorian Prefect, Cleander run Rome whilst he ran around shooting ostriches and head waggling intimidation of Senators.
  • Full scale eye popping debauchery. Which included collecting 300 beautiful concubines for his pleasure from across the Empire, whether they wanted to be collected or not.
  • Megalomania on an epic scale. Which involved renaming Rome, Commodiana after himself. He also renamed the months of the year to  Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius,Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius. And he even renamed himself to this far from catchy title: The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country.
  • Horrific cruelty, including: "One corpulent person he cut open down the middle of his belly, so that his intestines gushed forth.  Other men he dubbed one-eyed or one-footed, after he himself had plucked out one of their eyes or cut off one of their feet." Historia Augusta. 
  • And err this: "It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company, as he thought." Historia Augustua
All in all I think the question we need to ask regarding the assassination of Commodus is not Why? But rather, why not?

The Aftermath
Our friend Cassius Dio sums the aftermath up nicely “After this there occurred most violent wars and civil strife.”
Indeed there was. The year following Commodus’ assassination is known as the year of the 5 emperors. So you can imagine what a bloody mess that was.

Was it a success?
As with last month’s look we have to look at the key aims before we can evaluate the success rate. Despite our eye witness of the times, Cassius, the detailed motives of Laetus and Eclectus are kind of vague. Which actually makes sense, there was no cataclysmic one thing that pushed them over the edge rather 12 whole, long years of Commodus’ erratic and strange behaviour.
It was successful therefore in the fact that the Senators who’d been worn down from this behaviour were freed from the tiring, depravity of it all.
So yes. We’ll call it a success despite a civil war later breaking out.

Aurelian. Originally produced
in the Nordisk familjebok.
2) Aurelian

Aurelian ruled for only 5 years from 270-275 AD. Which might not sound like much but it’s worth bearing in mind this was during the 3rd Century Crisis. A hundred years of turmoil that saw Emperors come and Emperors before they had a chance to get the posh purple clothing on. A century in which you had a whopping 82% chance of an unnatural death as Emperor. The average reign was only 3.6 years. So Aurelian was punching well above his weight to rule a whole 5 years and he packed a surprising amount into that half decade:

  • He expelled the Vandals, the Juthungi and the Sarmatians from Roman territory. 
  • He defeated the Goths. 
  • He defeated the Palmyrene Empire. 
  • He defeated the Gallic Empire.
  • He had a bit of a breather. Then reformed the monetary system, built some massive walls and generally made things better.

For this he declared himself Restorer of the World. Then somebody assassinated him.

The How
In 275AD Aurelian had decided that he just didn’t have enough victories to his name and started eyeing up the Persians. It was whilst he was in Thrace preparing for this campaign that it happened.
Compared to other assassinations the description we have is disappointingly brief.

Observing Aurelian to go out of the city with a small retinue, they ran out upon him and murdered him. 
OK. That’s the how dealt with. Given this is an era without firearms we’ll assume swords were involved. Perhaps daggers. Maybe a spoon.
Let us move on.

The Who
The Who in this case were his own Guards. But they had been egged on by a man named Eros or alternatively Mnestheus. Whatever his name was, he worked for Aurelian. Zosimus says he carried messages for the Emperor.

The Why
In a nut shell: Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up. We know not at what. But it was something big enough for him to fear Aurelian’s wrath. Though I guess this depends on how nervy Eros/Mnestheus was and how exacting Aurelian was. Possibly it was a slight misfiling of letters. Possibly he’d been nicking money on the side. Possibly he’d given the wrong message to the wrong person and that’s why they were going to war against the Persians. We shall never know. Which is bloody annoying.
Anyhow Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up in a way that apparently could only be resolved by killing the sole man who’d managed to restore the Empire, defeat all it’s enemies and bring stability to the region.
Rather than doing the deed himself Eros/Mnestheus went to the Guards and told them a:

Plausible story, and showed them a letter of his own writing, in the character of the emperor (which he had long before learned to counterfeit), and persuading them first that they themselves were to be put to death, which was the meaning expressed by the letter, he endeavored to prevail on them to murder the emperor. 

Firstly, being able to counterfeit the Emperor’s handwriting is quite a suspicious talent and one that makes you wonder whether that is at the bottom of Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up.
Secondly, let’s be impressed not only by Eros/Mnestheus’ counterfeiting skills but also by his ability to spin a yarn to the Guards. Because they swallowed this whole. Which suggests three possibilities:

1) The Praetorian Guard were a particularly gullible lot who unfortunately had been allocated swords.
2) Aurelian was the sort of boss that you could most easily would order your death on a whim. Or as the Historia Augusta puts it “Aurelian — it cannot be denied — was a stern, a savage, and a blood-thirsty prince.”
3) The Guard were somehow involved/implicit in Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up/possible corruption/maybe counterfeiting ring.

The speed at which the conspiracy formed and was executed suggests that it was deemed very necessary. As does the fact that the Guards had no successor in mind. Which is highly unusual in an era where rival legions propelled forward their own candidates for Emperor.

The Aftermath
It went as well as can be imagined when a hasty conspiracy murders an extremely capable emperor who had only just restored stability after decades of bloody instability.
Surprisingly as mentioned above, the Guards did not appoint a successor. They handed that honour over to the Senate. There even seems to have been a bit of regret at their hasty actions.

After he was slain and the facts became known, those very men who had killed him gave him a mighty tomb and a temple. 
Historia Augusta

The Senate gave it eight months thought and came up with Marcus Claudius Tacitus as the new emperor. He lasted 8 months.
His successor Florian didn’t even last that long.
And so the crisis of the 3rd century continued.

The big walls of Rome that Aurelian built at Porta Asinaria
Photo by MrPanyGoff

Was it a Success?
Given the original motivation was to prevent Aurelian finding out about whatever it was that Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up, well yes it was a success. Aurelian never did find out about the cock up.
But this was his fate:
Mnestheus, however, was afterward hauled away to a stake and exposed to wild beasts. 
Historia Augusta 

Eeek. One can’t help feel that Eros/Mnestheus might have been able to use those magnificent counterfeiting and smooth oratory skills on more usefully escaping Aurelian’s wrath.

3) Valentinian III

Possible diptych of Aetius. Historian Ian Hughes in his book
Aetius: Attila's Nemesis suggests that this may very well be Aetius.Photo credit Tatarrn

Valentinian III became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of only 6 after showing prodigious talent in drawing, colouring and ruining furniture by jumping on it.
Just kidding. He, of course, inherited the title. An early start meant he ruled for 30 years. Or rather other people ruled on his behalf. First up his mother Gallia Placidia, followed by the top general Aetius.

During this period the Western Empire was continually menaced by troublesome and fearsome sounding tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals and *cue dramatic music* Attila and his horrifying Huns.

Luckily for Valentinian he had a trusty and talented general in the shape of Flavius Aetius. Aetius was happily fighting off the Franks, the Burgundians and the Bagaudae, in addition to everyone else in this fighty happy period.

The How

Valentinian decided to go riding on the Campus Martius with a few guardsmen and the followers of Optila and Thraustila (Huns loyal to Aetius). When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optilla and his followers mad for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face 
John of Antioch.

Ouchy. And clearly unexpected:

Whether those present were stunned by the surprise of the attempt or frightened by the warlike reputation of the men, their attack brought no retaliation. 
John of Antioch

The Who
We have the two names above. Optila and Thraustila. We also have one other bit of key information “Loyal to Aetius”.
To get to the why let us us rewind 6 months to September 21st 454 AD.

The Why
Attila the Hun, one of Rome's many enemies at the time.
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

As we’ve seen above Flavius Aetius was the Western Empire’s greatest general at a time when they really needed great generals.
In 454 Aetius was at the height of his fighty-ness and success. His son was even betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter. He was basking in Imperial favour and general respect by all.
Then on the 21st September 454 Aetius was invited to a planning meeting with the Emperor. As Aetius went through the boring details of tax revenues and finances and budgets, the emperor suddenly jumped up from his throne and started yelling accusations at him.
The key accusation being that Aetius was a treacherous so and so (insert your own favourite term of abuse here) and was plotting to replace him as Emperor.
The historian Priscus picks up the story:

While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external. 

Yes, really. Valentinian jumped up and stabbed to death his employee during a particularly dull meeting. I mean clearly we’ve all been in meetings like that and possibly we’ve all imagined killing our colleagues just to end those types of meetings. But it’s still quite shocking is it not? The Emperor of the West jumping up and stabbing to death his most favoured general to death during a meeting on tax revenues, of all things.
So why did he do it? Was Aetius really plotting to take over? He had the popularity, the army, the capability to do so. But then his son had just got betrothed to Valentinian’s son. His grandchildren would be of Imperial birth. He had no need to push Valentinian out the way.

Valentinian clearly believed Aetius was planning to usurp him and we are told why:

Maximus, a powerful noble, who had been twice consul, was hostile to Aetius, the general of the forces of Italy. Since he knew that Heraclius, a eunuch who carried very great weight with the Emperor (Valentinian III), was extremely hostile against Aetius for the same reason….since they both wished to replace his sway with their own. The made an arrangement and they persuaded the emperor that if he did not act first and kill Aetius, Aetius would kill him.

John of Antioch

Back to Valentinian's murderers, Optila and Thraustila. Post bloody emperor murdering, we are told this:

Both of them took of the Emperor’s diadem and horse and rode off to Maximus. 


Yes the exact same Maximus who had persuaded Valentinian to murder Aetius. Funny that. Even funnier, guess who succeeded Valentinian as Emperor?

The Aftermath
What a magnificent piece of treachery that was!  We are expecting high things of Maximus as Emperor now, aren’t we? After all he successfully played on the paranoia of Valentinian to remove the top general in all of the West, and then plied up feelings of revenge in the breasts of assassins Optila and Thraustila to remove Valentinian.
He probably ruled for decades playing off everyone against each other in a thoroughly schemey reign.
Err no.

His reign lasted only two months. Mostly because one of his earliest actions was to cancel the intended marriage of Valentinian’s daughter to the son of the Vandal King, Geiseric.
Geiseric did not take this well and launched an invasion into Italy. Given there was no highly successful Vandal repelling Aetius to sort out Geiseric, the civilians of Italy hit panic mode. As did Maximus, who sensing his scheming powers were of little use against the invading Vandals, legged it. Whilst fleeing he was set upon by an angry mob and killed. Meanwhile the thwarted Geiseric took out his frustrations on Rome, spending two weeks sacking the city.

Was it Successful?
By the Gods above it was. Maximus successfully murdered his way to becoming Emperor without getting his own hands bloody. It was inspired. It was just unfortunate that he wasn’t actually much good at being Emperor and had orchestrated the murder of the only man who could have saved his reign.

Having examined the assassinations of six ancient Romans can we find any common themes/links/similarities?

They all involved conspiracies of more than one person. Whether it be Brutus and his high minded gang, Caligula's staff turning their heads as Cassius plotted, or Laetus and Eclectus frantically improvising when their original plan to kill Commodus failed.
We also have some criminal masterminds who managed not to get their own hands bloody in the shape of Domitian's chamberlain Parthienus, Aurelian's nervy assistant Eros and of course the mega scheming Maximus.
Motivations wise we've had revenge (Caligula). We've had self preservation (Domitian, Aurelian and probably Commodus). We've had ambition (Valentinian). And we've had high minded principles (Julius Caesar).

All in all the key thing we've learnt is most definitely: Watch those closest to you.
Whether they be your own Guards (Aurelian, Caligula, Commodus), your wife (Commodus), your secretaries (Aurelian, Domitian) or your friends (Julius Caesar, Valentinian).

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series of Books, which cover a whole series of bloody Emperor deaths that all took place in a single year. And available on Amazon

Monday, 18 March 2019

When History meet Hollywood by Sarah Gristwood

There’s been a bit of a boom in historical films recently - and I was lucky enough to get a preview of several at a film festival. Not, however, the one that’s attracted all the controversy: the new Mary Queen of Scots film which has been criticised so freely – it shows a meeting between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor which absolutely never happened. Though actually, every single drama about them has imagined that meeting, from Schiller back in 1800 to the old Vanessa Redgrave/Glenda Jackson movie. 

There is no such thing as a fully historically accurate movie – hasn’t been, since The Birth of a Nation in 1915 painted the Ku Klux Klan so favourably. How could there be, when there is no one single fully authentic version of history? But each generation (maybe even each person) makes their own demands as to the kind of accuracies they do and do not need- what Simon Schama called selective fastidiousness -  and that can change quite dramatically.

Each generation giving a take on history reflects its own preoccupations; so that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V tells us first about the England of World War 2 - then, about Shakespeare’s England – and by the time we get round to its version of Agincourt, we’re hardly talking history.

So, what is a historical film? The great ancient world epics beloved of old Hollywood? The heroics of Errol Flynn? Or the kind of costume dramas once made by our own Gainsborough Studios – what one film historian called ‘trash history’?. Arthur Schlesinger reckoned that to count as a historical film, a picture has to turn on public events as well as private ones, and I think that’s fair. 

War and Peace film 1956
So you’ve got all war films – and some, but not all Westerns – and War and Peace but not Anna Karenina; and Gone With the Wind is certainly a history movie. Spartacus, and Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi and Gallipoli, and Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, actually. We like to pride ourselves today on having got past the cliched kind of movie history, and certainly it’s easy to sneer now at the obvious falsity of the old`costume dramas. A Margaret Lockwood lookalike making riding motions, while the scenery scrolled along behind her . . . But there is nothing new under the sun. We today don’t have the franchise on attempted accuracy. Yes, a charioteer in Ben Hur was wearing a wristwatch; and no, that probably wouldn’t happen today. But the costumes for Gone With the Wind were made from fabrics specially woven from museum samples, and on Errol Flynn’s Charge of the Light Brigade, replica Victorian stamps were used on inter-office correspondence to set up an on-set mood of authenticity.

But all that attention to that kind of detail takes us so far and no further. There are some territories on which history and Hollywood must always disagree. I once attended a talk where one of the panellists was a playwright commissioned to write a biopic of Bonnie Prince Charlie and not finding it easy. The problem was all those drunken years in foreign courts with which the real Charles Stuart’s life petered out, ineffectually and inconveniently. A film story needs a definite ark. If only the Prince had the decency to die at Culloden, then they might have had a movie . . .

At that same talk, I heard the man who wrote the film Elizabeth praise the importance of research. You read it all, he said, then you write it all down. He recommended a roll of wallpaper lining, to fit in the exact chronology. And then – he said -  you take all that research, and you throw it away. Because film has its own agenda. The language of film is emotion, as I once heard Harrison Ford say. Or to quote an earlier producer: if you can cheer the hero and boo the villain, if the action is also fast and plentiful, then go into production straight away.

 Action isn’t necessarily a problem with historical subjects – but heroes and villains? Real, past people are never going to slot themselves easily into those categories. Take one of those two films I saw just recently, the wonderful The Favourite with Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Emma Stone as Abigail Masham and a colourful line in dialogue. Him: ‘I should have you stripped and whipped.’ Her: ‘I’m waiting.’ Think Fifty Shades of Eighteenth Century - but, the emotional dynamics of the tale reflect a real truth, while making a cracker of a movie. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, on the other hand - the important story of the 1819 cavalry charge that slayed British citizens on British soil -  suffers from treating the historical facts a bit too respectfully. Know what? I can forgive Mary Queen of Scots, and that ahistorical meeting. And I say that as a historian of the sixteenth century.

That said, historical movies matter. The sequence of events shown in the groundbreaking Soviet film Battleship Potemkin has, in the 80 years since, been co-opted as the official version of the story; nor does it matter (said one of the director, Eisenstein’s, colleagues) since ‘the film is more historical than history’. Gore Vidal suggested we all`accept movies as the only source from which people will soon take their history.

I worry that the makers of historical films have a responsibility they don’t – or can’t afford to – acknowledge . . That each age get the historical films it deserves; and our school report would be ‘tries hard, could do better’, basically. Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor featured hugely in each other’s lives and each other’s imaginations. The movie meeting, in a sense, only dramatises one, emotional, kind of reality.

But I do believe that if film makers are going to blend fiction and fact, they have a responsibility at least to aim for the best version they can, of the great movements of the past, as their own age most carefully understands them. Not just to grab a convincing splash of historical colour for another kiss kiss bang bang story.

(Celia Rees is laid low with the flu and will be back next month. We are grateful to Sarah Gristwood for filling in for her)

Sunday, 17 March 2019


This is Lincoln Jail. The castellated walls and gateway create an image of state authority but once they proved powerless.

Russian inmates at Lincoln Prison frightened to death by ...But where does one begin the story: with the candles or the cakes or the audacity of the plot? 

Or just the persistence of those involved?

The year was 1919. The prisoner, a revolutionary, was a devout Catholic. He attended Mass each Sunday, and acted as a server. He lit the candles on the altar, helped the priest into his vestments, assisted with the familiar rituals and joined in the Latin responses.

The prisoner also noticed that, when the priest arrived to prepare for Mass, he left some items, including the key to rear gate, on the same place on a desk, collecting them up afterwards.

From then on, drop by drop, scrap by scrap, the man collected up melted candle-wax until he had enough gathered to form into a small block. When he got the chance, he secretly took the prison key, pressed it quickly and firmly into the soft wax block he had kept warm against his body, and then returned it to its usual place.

As the Mass ended, the priest gathered up the items and key, put them back in his pocket and left. The devout server returned to his cell, taking the image of the key to the rear gate with him.

The prisoner studied the mould and measured the key’s imprint carefully. Then, even though the prison staff examined all outgoing and incoming mail, he sent the information out to his contacts in almost clear view. On one postcard, he drew a jokey, cartoon showing a drunken man fumbling with an enormous key and, as if in a speech bubble, the words “I can’t get in!” That comically large key had been drawn to show the exact dimensions and pattern marked in the mould.

Before long, a cake arrived at Lincoln Jail, addressed to the prisoner, with a duplicate key hidden away inside. The guards did not detect the key but the attempt failed. The prisoner soon discovered why. As the block cooled and hardened, the candle-wax had shrunk and distorted. The measurements for the replica key were not quite accurate enough. The prisoner studied his original drawings, allowed for the warping, and sent out another postcard.

This one was a drawing of a prisoner andThe Key To Freedom”, a large, ornate key of Celtic design which secretly replicated the key to the prison back-gate. Written across the card were the words “I can’t get out”. After a while, a second cake was delivered, concealing another key. This, too, was faulty.

After a while, another parcel arrived, containing a slab of fruit cake, together with a layer of white plaster, as was often used to replicate wedding-cake icing during the sugar-rationing then in force. The guards poked the slab with a skewer, but the essential ingredients were not detected.

This time, when the prisoner opened up the cake, he found no key. The plan had moved on. This time the cake held a suitably-sized iron bar - an uncut key - and a small metal file: materials and tools to make an exact key there within Lincoln Jail itself, with the help of a fellow-prisoner trained as a master-locksmith.

Castle | Historic Lincoln Trust

Meanwhile, guards and prisoners heard the sounds of singing from outside, where men worked the allotments on the open ground then around Lincoln Jail. They might have noticed the songs were often in some foreign tongue. Within, the prisoner and his two friends had noticed and were listening carefully. The songs were in Gaelic, and the words brought them details of the escape plans.

Finally, on February 3rd 1919, at an arranged hour, the prisoner unlocked the back gate of Lincoln Jail with the replica key and escaped with his two friends. Once outside, the man shut the gate, slid the key back into the lock and turned it. Then he snapped the key off inside the lock, fixing the gate shut.

The three men walked across the rough open ground and met up with three others. On the way, they strolled past some soldiers stationed there on sentry duty. The soldiers, drinking and enjoying the company of a group of friendly Irish girls, ignored their passing. They entered the city and mingled with the crowds as they made  their way up Lindum Hill to the Adam and Eve pub, close by Lincoln's great cathedral.

Lincoln Cathedral - Wikipedia 

From there, the prisoner escaped in a series of cars, travelling from Lincoln to Worksop, on to Sheffield and north to Manchester, arriving at Liverpool. From there, dressed as a priest, the man sailed back to Ireland and the cause he believed in.

The prisoner’s name was Eamon de Valera. Eventually he became The Taoiseach - the Irish Prime Minister - and then the President of the Republic of Ireland.

Éamon de Valera - Wikiquote 

A quick timeline:
In 1882, de Valera was born in New York to an Irish mother and Cuban father, giving him American nationality.
In 1885, aged two, his mother brought him to Ireland after his father’s death.
In 1916, he was one of the leaders in the failed anti-British Easter Rising in Dublin. Arrested, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because of his nationality. He was later released under a general amnesty.
In 1917, he won an election, becoming MP for East Clare on a single ticket “One Ireland”, in defiance of Asquith’s Home Rule amendment on behalf of the Protestant counties in the north. He was also elected president of the revolutionary Sinn Fein party.
In 1918, during the post-Armistice General Election, his party won a large majority of the parliamentary seats in Ireland. The country was still ruled from Westminster by the Westminster parliamentarians, who often acted as if Ireland was a colony of little importance.
In 1918, on a trip to England, he was accused of a “German” plot, and imprisoned on a Defence of the Realm charge within Lincoln Jail.
In 1919, Eamon de Valera, escaped, along with McGilroy and McGarry, escaped. Outside to meet them was Michael Collins, the revolutionary strategist, who had arranged much of the escape, and became a leading figure in Irish history and the fighting during the initial "Bloody Sunday" that followed. (This, as they say, is a whole other story too complicated for this post.)
Additionally, 1919, during de Valera's absence, Ireland had convened its first Parliament: the Dail Eireann. This revolutionary, one-chamber parliament was created by the 73 Sinn Fein MP’s who refused to recognise the British Parliament in Westminster and demanded independence for Ireland.

The response, between 1919 and 1921, was war -  the War of Irish Independence - during which the British Army combined with the Royal Irish Constabulary and its paramilitary forces: the Auxiliaries and Ulster Special Constabulary against the Irish Republican Army. In 1921, the first Parliament failed, and a border was established between the North and South: the Irish Partition.

There are two Irish centenaries in the air, one now and one soon to come.
During this year, 2019, Ireland is celebrating that first Parliament. Then in 1921, in two years time, will come the centenary of the Partition.

Right now, independence is still a very living issue, and it is certainly a time when people in power should know – or be better informed - about the long shadow of history.

To end this post, I’ll add that, in 1950 - thirty years after his escape - Eamon de Valera returned to Lincoln Jail as a guest, to speak at a campaign to re-unify Ireland by peaceful, democratic means.

The abolition of the Irish Partition would, he said, “combine good principles and good business.” A point of view rather relevant at the moment, I fear.

Shamrock - Wikipedia, den frie encyklopædi

Have a good Saint Patrick’s Day!

Penny Dolan

nb. This story came from various easy-to-discover sources, but I would like to mention the author Jane Stanford for her article, which I discovered in the Irish Post of 20th August 2013. Thank you!
During his time in prison, De Valera had studied "The Prince" by Machiavelli, a work he is reported as taking to heart.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

New exhibition at the Mary Rose

I have just been reading about a new exhibition at the Mary Rose. It sounds fascinating stuff: researchers have used new techniques such as isotope analysis to find out an astonishing amount  about the crew of Henry VIII's flagship which was wrecked in the Solent, and they've discovered that the crew's origins were far more diverse than anyone might have imagined. For more information about this, see the Mary Rose website, here

For a more general introduction to the Mary Rose, see my post from a few months ago, below.

So - you've spent years in search of the wreck of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, which you know has lain under fourteen metres of water in Portsmouth Harbour since 1545 - somewhere. In 1971, after three years, you find four timbers: the frames of the port side of the ship. So far so good - but it's buried under four centuries of silt.

For the next eleven years, teams of divers, archaeologists and engineers work on releasing the ship from its muddy shroud - remembering always that this is the grave not just of a ship, but of the 500 men who went down with her. The enterprise is not financed by the government: it has to be paid for. So there's all that side of it to consider too. It probably helps that you acquire an influential backer in the form of Prince Charles, who dives down to see the ship for himself, and to lend a hand.

Eventually, in October 1982, the great moment arrives. 60 million people all over the world watch the longest outside broadcast yet undertaken, as an enormous floating crane, the Tog Mor, slowly raises a steel cradle in which nestle the remains of Henry's once-proud ship. Klaxons sound from all the vessels gathered to watch: a gun salute comes from Southsea Castle, where two years before his own death, Henry watched as his ship sank during an engagement with a French invasion fleet. It's a moment of high drama, a story of achievement against huge odds. Everyone holds their breath: something could still go wrong.

The raising of the Mary Rose, from Visit Hampshire

But it doesn't. The ship arrives safely at its new home, a dry dock in Portsmouth Harbour, next to that relative youngster, Nelson's Victory.

But then what?

What you have is historic and romantic and a tangible link with the world of the Tudors - but it is basically half a ship, and it's incredibly fragile. Its timbers have been preserved under the silt which excluded oxygen and all the organisms which happily munched on the half that wasn't covered up - but as soon as the wood is exposed to the air, it is at risk.

Clever scientists work out what to do about the wood. From the moment she emerges from the sea, pumps attached to the lifting frame begin to spray her with water, and this will continue for many years - except for a few hours a day, when the archaeologists can do their work. A shelter is built above her. The water washes the salts out of the ancient timbers, and she is sprayed with ployethylene glycol to stregthen them. Then, in 2013, the sprays are turned off, and large air ducts take on the job of removing the water from the timbers, now that they have been stabilised.

So that's the preservation side taken care of. But part of your remit is to establish a museum to house the Mary Rose and all the artefacts which were found inside her - and how do you do that? The SS Great Britain, Brunel's beautiful ship, which I've written about here before, was also battered by the elements and by the years - but it was possible to restore her to the extent that you can see her now almost as she was when she was a 'living' ship. That was never going to be feasible with the Mary Rose. So how was she to be displayed?

The solution the architects (Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon)found is breathtakingly clever. The museum is on three levels, corresponding to the lower decks, main decks, and upper decks. On each gallery, you walk along a passageway with glass partitions on either side. On the right is the cross-section which is what remains of the ship itself. You can see the cabins, the gunports - the whole structure of the ship. On the left, you can see the objects which were found on the deck you can see on your right. And what a wealth of objects there are: weapons, of course, as this was a warship - but also the personal possessions of the men on board, and the tools of their trades.

The Mary Rose - picture by Rosie Smith

There are also moving tableaux on board the ship, showing groups of sailors about their tasks - holograms, perhaps? I don't know, but whatever they are, they're very realistic. The passageway you walk along dips, and somehow you have the impression that you're on a moving ship - I don't know how they manage this, but they do. It's all very clever.

Then when you leave the viewing gallery, there's a section with displays of the artefacts and explanations of what they have learnt from them. So for instance, you are shown what was found in the surgeon's cabin, and given notes on each object - what they were used for, what they tell us. And they have reconstructed from some of the skeletons what the living men may have looked like, and have made videos using actors who look similar to show them using the objects found - so the surgeon wears the hat which was found, and the leather shoes, and demonstrates some of his intruments.

I'm fascinated by the ways that museums and art galleries have found in the last twenty or so years to display their artefacts. There are some beautiful extensions and remodellings, such as in the Ashmolean and the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum, and such clever uses of technology, as in the Museum of European History in Brussels, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and this Mary Rose Museum. Sometimes, it seems that when you look out at the world, you see so much horror. It's as if civilisation is going backwards, not forwards, and as if nothing has been learnt from history. But in this area, the reverse is true. So much has been and is being learnt, both of history, and of how to display it and make it meaningful. Thank heavens for museums!