Friday 19 April 2024

Ada Lovelace - by Sue Purkiss

 On a recent stay on Exmoor, I came across an article about someone called Ada Lovelace. I had vaguely heard of her, but if you'd asked me why, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Yet she turns out to have been a fascinating and significant character - in a number of different ways. 

Born in 1815, she was the only legitimate child of Lord George Gordon Byron, who was famous as much for his scandalous, buccaneering lifestyle as for his status as one of the Romantic poets. His shadow would loom over her life - she called her sons Byron and Gordon; yet she never met him: he and her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella), separated a month after Ada was born, and he subsequently left England for Europe, never to return. He died in Greece eight years later. Part of the reason for his departure was the amount of scandal surrounding his love life - in particular a probable relationship with his half-sister Augusta. These were the things that pushed him, but there was also something that pulled him: an irresistible craving for adventure, and for a life unshackled by the mores of English society.

Ada Lovelace

Annabella, left with her child, does not seem to have been a particularly affectionate mother, largely handing over the care of Ada to her own mother; but she did have strong views about how the child was to be brought up. Disturbed by Byron's behaviour and black moods, she had come to believe he was insane, and she determined to protect her daughter from insanity by means of education: Ada was to be taught mathematics and logic, and kept away from the dangerous possibilities of literature. One of her tutors was eminent mathemetician and astronomer Mary Somerville - after whom Somerville College in Oxford was later named - and the two became good friends. Ada seemed to have a natural propensity for science: when she was twelve, she decided she was going to learn to fly, and she went about her project methodically and seriously, deciding on suitable materials for wings and studying the anatomy of birds.

Her interest in mathematics continued, and she became friends with the eminent scientist Charles Babbage, working with him on his Analytical Engine, which is often said to be the first computer. Another eminent scientist, Michael Faraday, was impressed by the scientific papers she wrote on the workings of the engine; she saw possibilities as to how it might be used in a way which was over a hundred years ahead of her time. This was a time, remember, when new ideas were bubbling up in all sorts of different spheres: technology, botany, agriculture, ballooning, astronomy, the use of electricity - and, of course, in literature too. Byron himself was one of a group of successful poets including Shelley and Keats, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey at a slight remove, all of whom, to a greater or lesser degree, plundered the worlds of science for imagery and ideas.

Ashley Combe House (now demolished)

In 1835, Ada married William, the eighth Baron King, later to become the Earl of Lovelace. The main family home was in Surrey - but they honeymooned at another family house on Exmoor, near Porlock Weir, called Ashley Combe. The house was on the steeply wooded slopes of the north coast, with dramatic views of the Bristol Channel. It's a stunningly beautiful area, and it's no surprise that Ada came to love it. She returned there frequently, and she and William redesigned the house, turning it into an opulent Italianate mansion - and they also improved the woodlands, planting exotic trees and creating dramatic viewpoints and a network of paths: she and Babbage discussed their ideas as they walked along these paths, perhaps ending up at the tiny Anglo-Saxon Culbone Church. These woods are a focus of interest again now: along the cliffs are pockets of temperate rain forest, where trees are hosts for lichens and mosses and ferns, thanks to the damp air which sweeps in from the west. Like many other nature-rich habitats in Britain, temperate rain forests have declined, so any remnants are doubly precious - and Ada played her part in protecting them.

She died young, at only 36 - the same age as her father. Like him, she had a life which didn't follow the expected pattern for her time and milieu. Her name is less well-known than his - yet arguably, she achieved far more. Sadly, she became estranged from her husband just months before her death; her mother swept in to care for her. Rather poignantly, she requested to be buried beside the father she had never known, in Nottinghamshire, near his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.

Friday 12 April 2024

Art, Colonialism and Change by Stephanie Williams

If you move fast, you can just catch the fabulous exhibition Entangled Pasts 1768-Now, Art, Colonialism and Change at the Royal Academy in London which ends on 28 April.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA used the banisters of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for his magnificent piece, 'Woman Moving Up'.  Slowly, but steadily, her head a globe of the world, she heaves herself and a suitcase full of heavy baggage, up a splendid marbled staircase. Photo Stephanie Williams

Moving round this exceptional exhibition, I was struck by how much more powerfully a single work of art – rather than any number of words -- can express the pain and contradictions of history. Yet at the same time, offer a fresh perspective on the brutally contrasting and intimately entangled pasts of Africa, India, Britain and the Americas.

Of which we still know so little.

Bust of a Man by Francis Harwood, 1758,
John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
You enter the RA’s central rotunda to be greeted by a handful of fine portraits of Black men. Strong, handsome, elegant – among them works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and John Singleton Copley. Each is accorded all the care and dignity, of any of their white sitters of their time. In the centre stands a black stone bust of a man from 1758 by Francis Harwood. Wonderfully lit, it is reflected up on a series of mirrors to alternate with busts of famous white men beneath the dome. The normal order of the white world has been subverted.

This is a show that makes its points with a light touch. Huw Locke’s Armada imagines the flotillas of craft engaged in the servicing of the plantation economy. At first these look magical. Mesmerising, tiny craft: fishing boats and lighters, miniature Spanish galleons. Look closer. High-rigged slaving ships, their sails, blackened and tattered, like the death ships they were. All are realised from abandoned lengths of string and cloth, plastic, wood and rubber and are suspended like flotsam and jetsam on uneven waves from the ceiling.

Hew Locke RA, Armada, 2017–19, Tate.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. 

Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe – celebrated in my Canadian past as one of the nation’s great heroes – was painted twenty years after his death after defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759. At his feet sits an idealised First Nation man. In fact he is a Delaware, rather than any of the native tribes to be found in the locale.

Benjamin West, The Death of General James Wolfe (1727-1759) 1779.
National Gallery of Canada

As edition after edition of prints and copies of this painting, conceived as record of a great patriotic victory, were reproduced and circulated around Britain and the world, this image laid the ground for the ideal of the ‘noble savage’ — the admiring onlooker, which recurred in similar works again and again. Here it is challenged by the work of Robert Houle, a Saulteaux Anishinaabe artist, whose Lost Tribes, 1990-1991 can be seen in the next room.

Similarly, Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point series combines print-making and drawing to make the white figures who dominate well-known classical paintings, such as Titian, recede into the background, mere outlines impressed into paper, while traditionally marginalised Black figures rendered in graphite come vividly to life.

Each of these contemporary works force the viewer to assess well-known paintings from the white European canon afresh.

The Royal Academy itself comes under scrutiny for the works of art that were displayed at its Annual Exhibitions. And consider Johann Zoffany’s family portraits. A founder member of the Royal Academy, he had fallen out of favour with his royal patrons and sailed for India in 1783. Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah shows an officer of the East India Company listening to his daughter Jane play the piano, fondly holding hands with his wife. To the right of the picture, his younger daughter, Maria, plays with a cat held by an Indian girl of about the same age. She is too young, surely, to be an ayah, the child’s nurse? Much more likely, she is the offspring of Blair’s Indian mistress.

Johann Zoffany, Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah, 1786. Tate 

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) Poems on Various Subjects,
 religious and Moral, 1773.  The British Library
I make many new discoveries.

I had never heard of Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from the Senegambia region of West Africa and enslaved by a family in Boston, who became a poet. Writing as confidently as any white male of the time, she bitterly protested the painting made by Richard Wilson of Niobe, — in Greek mythology the archetypal bereaved mother, who weeps throughout eternity for the loss of her 12 children, murdered by the gods. Niobe was made in 1761, the same year in which Wheatley was captured.

Nor did I know Shahzia Sikander, whose Promiscuous Intimacies 2020, knits together the Mannerist tradition of the west with classical Indian art to highlight the contradictions of a one-sided history.


Shahzia Sikander Promiscuous Intimacies  
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

And have fun unpicking the rich symbolism of the Singh Twins in Indiennes: The Extended Triangle from the ‘Slaves of Fashion Series, 2018. 


The Singh Twins, Indiennes: The Extended Triangle 
from the 'Slaves of Fashion series, 2018, 
© The Singh Twins 

I have always been struck by the bombastic power – and incongruity -- of British architecture set down, often by Royal Engineers according to pattern books, in every former colony from Jamaica to Hong Kong. In Primitive Matters: Huts Karen McLean projects a series of large European style homes once owned by wealthy merchants and plantation owners in Port of Spain in Trinidad onto seven huts replicating the local vernacular.

Karen McLean, Primitive Matters, Huts 2010


There is much, more more to see.  Sit for a moment in front of Isaac Julien's film, Lessons of the Hour, about the abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who questioned, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?'  Consider Edwin Long's The Babylonian Marriage Market of 1875 shown not far from El Antsui's poignant Akua's Surviving Children 1996.   

University of London, Egham. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

The counterpoint between past and present is a potent device indeed.  What a waste it is this show is not on for longer.


Entangled Pasts, 1768 - NOW 

Art, Colonialism and Change is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 

until 28 April 2024

Photo Bill Knight

Stephanie Williams is a Canadian writer based in London and delighted to be writing for the History Girls, a blog she has often investigated when doing historical research.  Author of BBC Book of the Week, Olga's Story, the life of her Russian Grandmother, her most recent book, Running the Showwas based on an 1879 questionnaire which revealed the extraordinary characters who were Queen Victoria’s colonial governors. She is now at work looking into the back-offices of the East India Company in London to find out  exactly what went on there. See more at

Friday 5 April 2024

The Men who Ate Gold ~ by Lesley Downer

Like a great cloud
The Wiraqochas [Whites]
Demanding gold
Have invaded us.         
The Death of Atau Wallpa, Runasimi [Quechua] epic lament
                                           put into writing in the 18th century
Inca Emperor, Museo Inkaryi, Valle Sagrado

I was recently lucky enough to go to the enchanting country of Peru and was captivated by its extraordinary landscape and tragic history ...

The all-conquering Atahualpa
In November 1532 the emperor of all the Incas, Atahualpa, was marching south to his capital, Cusco, accompanied by an army of 80,000 men in a vast triumphal cavalcade. After a long civil war he had captured his half brother, the then Inca, and made himself emperor - Inca - of the whole vast land of Tawantinsuyu.

Deep in the mountains he ordered his men to pitch camp in a lush fertile valley outside the small city of Cajamarca. There were so many tents pitched across the hillside that it was like a city. Atahualpa and his women stayed in a beautifully-appointed residence a few kilometres away, at a hot spring where mineral waters hissed and bubbled out of the ground. There was a bathhouse, hot and cold running water and a garden. There he engaged in a ceremonial fast, took the waters and recuperated from a war wound.

Inca emperor and courtiers in a palace 
of Inca stonework, Museo Inkaryi

 Atahualpa was an incredibly impressive presence. His crown was a multi-coloured braid like a coronet from which hung the imperial fringe ‘of fine scarlet wool’ spreading across his forehead. When he travelled he was borne aloft in a gold litter with such majesty that people left the roads on which he passed and ascended the hills to worship and adore him. He was far too grand for his feet ever to touch the ground.

The Four Quarters of the World

His grandfather, the great emperor Thupa Inka, who died in 1493, had been an Alexander the Great, who expanded his territory across not just modern-day Peru but much of modern-day Ecuador and Chile, creating the empire of Tawantinsuyu, ‘The Four Quarters of the World’, which ran along most of the east coast of South America. 

This was an incredibly sophisticated empire with a network of roads built for llamas to walk on, carefully irrigated agricultural terraces, great monuments and
Performer depicting an Inca woman

public buildings of masonry, great blocks of perfectly smooth stonework that slotted together like pieces of jigsaw puzzle and were never toppled even by the most violent earthquake. The Incas were the last of a long line of peoples all of whom left their mark on Peru; the Inca themselves were only here for a hundred years.

After his grandfather’s and his father’s deaths, civil war broke out between various half brothers; the old man had had some sixty sons. Eventually Atahualpa proved victorious. Now the time had come to consolidate his empire and establish his rule.

He’d already had news of the extraordinary strangers who had landed on the coast.

The gold eaters
There are coming men who never sleep and who eat silver and gold, as do their beasts who wear sandals of silver. And every night each of these speaks with certain symbols; and they are all enshrouded from head to foot, with their faces completely covered in wool so that all that can be seen are their eyes.
Waman Puma, 16th century native chronicler 
Performer depicting an Inca 

The newcomers were pale and hairy. People soon realised that they were not half man and half beast, like centaurs, but sitting on enormous animals, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Atahualpa also heard that they were pillaging the countryside and abusing the local people.

But there were not that many - 168. Atahualpa had bigger things to worry about. He was still tidying up pockets of resistance, issuing orders to his army, arranging the occupation of the newly-won empire, awaiting reports from his commanders in the south and planning his journey to Cusco. In fact one of his nobles on his way south had already met the newcomers and spent a couple of days with them. He had even given them stuffed ducks to eat and gifts of pottery.
Atahualpa, 14th Inca, 18th century portrait,
courtesy Brooklyn Museum/wiki commons
The Spanish sent representatives to Atahualpa, who agreed to meet their leader, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the following day in the central square of the town of Cajamarca. The town had been largely evacuated for the war. The barrack-like buildings that surrounded the square on three sides were empty. There Pizarro hid his men, horses and cannons. The 168 Spanish crouched in the shadows, awaiting the Inca, trembling with fear.
Showdown at Cajamarca
It was November 16th 1532.

Atahualpa arrived in a ceremonial parade. First came liveried men in chequered coats who sang as they cleared and swept the ground before him. Then came a troop of five or six thousand, almost all bearing only ornamental weapons. He left his main troops outside the town. He was not expecting an attack.
Gold and blue chequered cape
of feathers, Museo Larco, Lima

All the retainers wore large gold and silver discs like crowns. Eighty lords in rich blue livery carried Atahualpa’s litter on their shoulders. The timber ends were covered in silver and the litter was lined with multi-clouded parrot feathers and gleamed with plates of gold and silver. Atahualpa himself wore his imperial crown and a collar of large emeralds around his neck. A staff bearer carried Atahualpa’s royal standard with his personal coat-of-arms.

Perhaps Atahualpa was expecting this tiny contingent of men to be awestruck by the grandeur of his procession. He demanded that they return everything they had stolen since they had arrived in his kingdom.

Pizarro meets Atahualpa, by Waman Puma,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 But things did not go as expected. A Spanish friar stepped forward and started talking what must have sounded like nonsense to Atahualpa’s ears. He thrust a breviary - a service book - into the Inca’s hands. It must have been closed in some way. Atahualpa tried to open it and at first he couldn’t. He finally succeeded and stared at the pages, turning them over, not seeing the purpose of them. The Incas had no writing at this point. Then he tossed it impatiently onto the ground, looking furious.
‘By the grace of God’
It was the moment the Spanish had been waiting for. The Spanish Royal Council had issued a Requirement proclaiming that the newly discovered peoples should submit to God and the king of Spain and had declared that this Requirement had to be delivered before any bloodshed could take place. The friar screamed that Atahualpa had desecrated Holy Writ, giving the Spanish the excuse they needed to rush out and start killing.

What followed was a massacre. The Spanish, firing cannons, wearing armour and mounted on horses - none of which the Incas had ever seen - burst out of the barracks and into the square. The Inca troops were utterly panicked by the smoke and fire and steel and charging animals. Hundreds, trying to flee, trampled each other to death. The Spanish killed almost all the rest.

Portrait of Atahualpa, Museo Inka, Cusco

Atahualpa’s retainers gathered around him, protecting him and holding his litter high. When the Spanish sliced off their hands with their swords they heaved the litter up on their shoulders and when some were killed others rushed in to take their place. But eventually they were all slaughtered.

A Spanish soldier tried to kill Atahualpa but Pizarro parried the blow, shouting, ‘Do not kill him.’ Then he personally dragged the Inca emperor out of his litter by his hair.

As the Spanish records recount triumphantly, ‘And since the Indians were unarmed they were routed without any danger to any Christian.’ They later added, ‘It was by the grace of God, which is great.’

Gold, gold, gold!
Atahualpa was dragged off and imprisoned in a small room in Cajamarca. The Spanish were impressed with how very intelligent he was and what an able and resourceful man he was - obviously so if he’d won all these battles to make himself emperor. He was very curious about the Christian way of communicating by writing and spent his captivity learning Spanish, chess and cards.

Pizarro, Lima Cathedral

He quickly became aware of the Spanish obsession with gold. In fact he wondered whether they ate gold or were suffering from a disease for which gold was the only cure. To the Incas and the preceding peoples of Peru, gold and silver were beautiful materials from which to make marvellous objects. They were not interested in money, they had no money. They saw gold and silver as beautiful and even with religious significance.

Pachacuti, the great 9th Inca, Atahualpa's
great grandfather, in Cusco

Atahualpa offered to fill a large room, 22 feet long by 17 feet wide (6.7 by 5.17 metres), with gold objects and two equivalent rooms with silver in exchange for his freedom.

Even though he was imprisoned he was still emperor of his country. He ordered his general to strip Cusco of its gold and silver. He had never lived there - he’d grown up in the equatorial north - and had no attachment to it. Also it was the headquarters of one of his brothers who was of course his rival.

Between December 1532 and May 1553 caravans of precious objects crossed the mountains on llama-back to Cajamarca. When Atahualpa had fulfilled his part of the bargain and the rooms were full, Pizarro had it all melted down into ingots and shipped to Spain. Then he had Atahualpa garrotted and the Spanish marched on Cusco.

Cusco, Plaza de Armas

My sources are three wonderful books: The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming; Cut Stones and Crossroads by Ronald Wright; and 1491: The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Plus my own experiences of Peru.

All pictures except the Brooklyn Museum portrait of Atahualpa and Waman Puma's depiction of Atahualpa meeting Pizarro are mine.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. And watch out for The Shortest History of Japan, out soon! For more see

Friday 29 March 2024

The Aspidistra Radio Transmitter #WW2

by Deborah Swift

Harold Robin - WW2 Radio Engineer

The Shadow Network which forms the title of my latest book refers to the fake news radio stations set up by Sefton Delmer in WW2. These secret radio stations operating in WW2 pretended to be genuine German radio stations and employed German prisoners of war or other German speakers to make their broadcasts. The broadcasts were deliberately racy and were designed to capture the hearts of ordinary Germans and make them believe they were listening to a forbidden radio station from their own country. Their popularity spread, and they got wide audiences for their programmes.

The radio signal for these ‘fake news’ radio stations needed to be strong enough to appear as though it came from Germany and had to be more powerful than anything that was then available.

By coincidence, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had created two high-powered radio transmitters which could not be used in the US, because of a change in American law. The RCA were eager to sell them to Britain. So Harold Robin, (pictured above) a Foreign Office radio engineer, saw their potential, and travelled to America to examine them, and then worked to improve them. He adapted a transmitter so it was able to move frequency in a fraction of a second, at the flick of a switch.

The powerful ex-RCA transmitter, eventually installed in Sussex, England, was named Aspidistra, referencing the popular Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, in which an Aspidistra houseplant grows until it ‘nearly reached the sky’.

In fact, most of the technology was buried underground at the site at Crowborough, though its antennae were visible – three guyed masts, each 110 metres tall, directing the signal broadly eastwards. The Art Deco–style transmitter building was housed in an underground shelter which had to be excavated by the Canadian army troops who were stationed nearby.

Intrusion operations

The Aspidistra mast was so powerful it could be used to intercept German frequencies. During Allied air raids, German radio transmitters were switched off so the Allies couldn’t use them to locate their installations.

As soon as the Germans switched off their masts, Aspidistra began transmitting on its frequency, just like the German station. The transition was seamless and German listeners believed the original station was still broadcasting. Aspidistra operators would then insert pro-British propaganda and fake news into the broadcast as if it was coming from official German sources.

Post War Use

After the war, Aspidistra was used by the BBC. It made its final transmission on 28 September 1982, before being finally switched off by Robin, the man who had been responsible, forty years earlier, for bringing the transmitter from the US and setting up the station at Crowborough.

In my novel based around the Aspidistra transmitter and the fake news radio stations, I include a fictional plot to blow up the transmitter. Although fictional, this is not unlikely as there were several attempts by the Germans to sabotage infrastructure and communications systems in England at the time.

If you’d like more information about Radio Aspidistra I recommend this Nuts and Volts Magazine article - The Raiding Dreadnought of the Ether.

‘Brilliant! Loved this novel about the input made by the Political Warfare Executive to WW2. The characters seemed so real and true.’ NetGalley Reviewer

‘A gripping tale of wartime subterfuge, spies, saboteurs and black propaganda’ NetGalley Reviewer

Read more about   THE SHADOW NETWORK

Friday 22 March 2024

In Defence of Poland by Rebecca Alexander

My first neighbours were a couple in their eighties from Poland. As time went on, they told me stories of life in childhood, celebrations, food, the Slavic language, the beautiful landscape and grand history. After Joe died, his wife Rosa started to tell stories of his journey through the war. 

Zygmunt Bieńkowski and Jan Zumbach present the first "trophy" of Squadron 303

On 1st September, 1939, as we all know, Germany invaded Poland. What is less commonly known is the scale of the invasion. 1.8 million German combatants poured across Poland from three sides, from Germany, East Prussia and Slovakia in one day. They brought the massive power of the Luftwaffe, which had some of the most evolved and heavily armed planes of that time. Hitler had ordered that the attack was to be carried out “with the greatest brutality and without mercy”. 

Sixteen days later, The Poles were beaten back and trying to protect Warsaw, when Stalin invaded the part of Poland ceded to him by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Poles were overwhelmed, and had lost at least twenty thousand civilians and more soldiers. Poland never formally surrendered but its government, navy and air force evacuated to London, seeking a place from which to win back their homeland. 

The Polish Air force had taken its outdated P11s with open cockpits and two machine guns against the faster, better armoured and closed in cockpits of the Me-110s, with four machine guns and two cannon. They fought gallantly and often successfully, but they were also outnumbered. Despite the disadvantage, Polish pilots far outnumbered their planes by 5 September, down to 120 aircraft. By the time the order came to evacuate on 17/18 September, pilots were reduced to flying trainer planes, unarmed civilian planes or their battered P11s across to neighbouring Romania. Despite their disadvantages, they had brought down 126 German planes, with more probably shot down and or damaged. It would now be a long and difficult journey to safety. 

Most of the Polish Air Force made their ways by circuitous routes to France, with the stated aim of defending the French then driving forward to liberate Poland. They stole planes and gliders, drove cars and lorries, caught rides on horse drawn cars and the last of the trains. The Romanians took their smart uniforms, exchanging them for their own clothes, stealing personal jewellery, boots and weapons when the refugees couldn’t hide them. The country was poor, the language unfamiliar, the only common language was French. Refugees were marched to an internment camp in Cernăuți, along with thousands of soldiers, ordinary people and other airmen. About eighty percent of the air force (over nine thousand air- and ground- crew) had got to Romania. Another thousand escaped through Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia or Hungary. Fifteen hundred were captured by the Soviets and sent to labour camps. 

Conditions in the Cernăuți camp were terrible. There was poor sanitation, little food or shelter, but security was very lax. Polish Air Force personnel escaped, travelling across nominally neutral Romania on foot, horse and cart or train to Yugoslavia or Hungary. A few secreted coins for bribes, and home-made documents got them through border checks, avoiding the odd Nazi sympathiser. On one occasion, realising they were being followed, two pilots caught and questioned a man speaking in German on a concealed radio, eventually making the decision to kill him as a Nazi spy. 

Many walked over the Carpathian mountains, some dying in the cold. The Hungarians were civil and helpful, despite having a very active fascist party and anti-Jewish legislation, and many were helped onwards toward Italy. General Józef Zając, a pilot, was stopped in Fiume, which was then in Italy, accused of being a Jew. Only his rosary and Polish credentials saved him. Pilots reaching the Black Sea were able to take ships to the Mediterranean and to French or British ports. Others struck out through Germany itself, walking into Belgium then across to France, knowing they could be shot if caught. 

The Polish personnel were incredibly resourceful. Three mechanics walked to the Italian border on the Yugoslav side and claimed they were Italians who had accidentally wandered across the border, the Yugoslavs sent them into Italy rather than fill out visa forms. After walking across Italy, they used the same ruse to get into Switzerland, from which they could legally travel into France. 

Polish pilots escaping north to Lithuania were not so welcome, and Latvians were cautious, not wanting to offend the Soviets. Polish agents in collusion with the British embassy helped many pilots escape by boat to Sweden, then on to Denmark or Norway here they headed for France. 

The Polish Air Force initially wanted to defend Europe by bolstering the French air defences. Bomber pilots were sent to England to start training but fighter pilots were accommodated, as they drifted in, at Luxeil, Le Bourget and dispersed around the French airbases. 

Many French politicians didn’t believe it would come to another war. The Polish pilots were placed on out of the way airfields with old Caudron Cyclones, defective planes that the French called ‘flying coffins’ were grounded by the French air ministry. The Poles couldn’t wait to engage the German Luftwaffe, and were happy to fly in the Caudrons. As on the first of September, the Germans attacked at dawn, blowing up French planes in their airfields and hangars while the Polish pilots chased them off as best they could. Six weeks after arriving at the airbase, the French surrendered and the Poles were off again, commanded by their leader General Sikorski, to flee to the coast and get, by any possible means, to Britain. 

Polish pilots stole planes, boats, rode trains, hitched lifts and walked to the coast, where thousands were rescued. Those in bases in the south of France fled to the Mediterranean coast. British steamers, Polish naval vessels that had joined the Royal Navy, and British warships transported them to Britain from ports as far away as Algeria and Casablanca. One had stowed away on a steamer going to Mexico, travelled up through the US and Canada and joined a unit coming to the UK. 

Altogether, 6,200 made the journey successfully. It was a heroic migration, but the fight had hardly begun. The Poles (and Czechs, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and French who had joined them) arrived just in time to adjust to the RAF regulations, learn the language and cope with the different culture before the onslaught of the battle of Britain. The Poles, who had experienced actual combat against the German forces, were horrified to be demoted to the lowest rank, pilot officers, and to have to practice formations and radio commands on bicycles on the runway. They were happier to be training in relatively advanced British planes and to be reunited with their ground support crew, who were so conscientious some only slept when their pilots were in the air. 

By the time Polish pilots flew their first missions in defence of Britain, they had survived their own rigorous training, months of dogfights against the power of the Luftwaffe in Poland and France, travelling across and increasingly hostile Europe, training in old biplanes at British training grounds and learning a new language and customs. They complained mostly about the strict rules within the air forces, and the food, but the locals were welcoming and the British were determined to fight off any invasion. 

Dunkirk had left the Royal Air Force short of 450 pilots, with a loss of another 300 a month as the German planes started incursions across the English Channel. The British knew the Polish pilots had been trained to use their own initiative over staying in strict formations or waiting for commands. It was easier to assemble pilots that hadn’t been integrated into the depleted squadrons, into their own, Polish groups. 

On 31 August 1940, the newly formed 303 squadron was operational, six of their Hurricanes defeating four confirmed and two probably Messerschmitt 109s, and they continued to have considerable success for the week up to the Battle of Britain. 

303 squadron pilots. L-R: F/O Ferić, F/Lt Lt Kent, F/O Grzeszczak, P/O Radomski, P/O Zumbach, P/O Łokuciewski, F/O Henneberg, Sgt Rogowski, Sgt Szaposznikow (in 1940)

By the 31 October 1940, the battle was over. Almost three thousand pilots of all Allied nations had taken part, destroying over thirty percent of the German planes, although at considerable loss to their own forces. 

British pilots on average took down 5 enemy planes per pilot lost. The Poles averaged 10.5, meaning they were able to fly many more missions for the rest of the war with tremendous success. Nearly two thousand Poles were killed and thirteen hundred wounded, winning 342 bravery awards. 

As the RAF’s Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding put it: ‘If it had not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say the outcome of the battle [of Britain] would have been the same.’ 

After the war, the Polish airmen couldn’t safely return to Poland, which was lost to the Soviet Union. A few who tried were either arrested and interned, or shot as traitors or spies. Most, like my neighbour, settled in Britain and many were offered permanent posts in the RAF when the Polish Air Force was disbanded. Taking Joe’s story of the journey to Britain and his burning desire to free Poland, I am presently writing a book based on a fictional pilot which comes out January 2025 with Bookouture.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, I can recommend: The Forgotten Few; The Polish Air Force in Word War II by Adam Zamoyski (2004) and Truly of the Few; The Polish Air Force in Defence of Britain by Dr Penny Starms (2020)

Friday 15 March 2024

Stories in Flowers by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Spring is on its way. It has been a long winter (or, at least, it feels that way) and the bursting of buds and arrival of flowers bring welcome signs of new life. In a former History Girls Blog, I wrote about Autumn: a celebration of nature’s golden season but, this year especially, I feel Spring deserves its own celebration. As each new flower appears, I have been delving into the stories behind the species and their names. Here are a few of my favourites:


‘Brother, joy to you! I’ve brought some snowdrops; only just a few, …Cheerful and hopeful in the frosty dew’. Extract from 'The Months’ by Christina Rossetti. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Snowdrops are seen as bringers of cheer and joy, given they are one of the first flowers to appear after winter. They may originally have been brought to Britain by monks in the fifteenth century (although the sixteenth century is usually cited as the earliest date). Frequently they are found in monastery gardens and churchyards and have been associated with the Christian celebration of Candlemas Day (2nd February), which gave them the name ‘Candlemas Bells’.

Their Latin name is ‘Galanthus’ which derives from Ancient Greek, meaning milk-flower. The common snowdrop’s name ‘Galanthus Nivalis’ ('nivalis' is Latin for ‘snowy’) alludes to its ability to thrive even in snowy conditions, its pendent blooms nodding gracefully above a blanket of white. An added bonus of this particular variety is its honeyed scent. 

Although we usually associate snowdrops with hope, there was a time when it was thought that to see a single snowdrop was a sign of imminent death. It was even considered bad luck to take a snowdrop inside one’s home.

Snowdrops have been used to treat headaches and other pains and, in modern medicine, an ingredient from snowdrops is being used in a treatment for dementia.

During the Second World War, British citizens nicknamed American soldiers ‘snowdrops’ due to their green uniforms with a white cap or helmet.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

After the snowdrop, next appears the Narcissus, commonly known as the Daffodil. One of the best loved stories of the character Narcissus is told by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his 'Metamorphoses'. Narcissus is a beautiful young man who rejected the love of many admirers, male and female. One of those scorned hopefuls prayed that Narcissus himself might suffer unrequited love. The goddess Nemesis heard his prayer. One day, while out hunting, the handsome Narcissus lay down to relax on a grassy bank next to a clear spring. On noticing his own reflection in the water he mistakenly believes he has happened upon another beautiful youth. He smiles. The youth smiles back. He waves. The beautiful boy waves back. Narcissus is falling head over heels. But he soon becomes frustrated:

‘My love desires to be embraced for whenever I lean forward to kiss the clear waters he lifts up his face to mine and strives to reach me.’

Narcissus beats his chest with his fist, turning his milk-white skin crimson (‘like apples tinted both white and red’), and is dismayed to see that his beloved likewise appears battered and bruised. The torment continues until eventually Narcissus dies, consumed by his grief. Mysteriously, when his sisters prepare his funeral pyre, ‘The body was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals’.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Narcissus achieved immortality through his metamorphosis, living on through the ubiquitous daffodils springing up in March bringing cheer and colour. Perhaps less cheerfully, his legacy has also been left in the term ‘Narcissism’.


When the daffodils have finished, we can look forward to the blooms of Fritillaries. These were introduced into England in the seventeenth century by Huguenots, French protestants, fleeing from persecution by the Catholic tyranny. Hence, Fritillaries have long been seen to symbolise persecution. Their pendulous solitary flower perhaps reinforces this meaning.

The flowers are commonly known as ‘Snake’s head’ due to the scaly pattern on them resembling a snake’s skin. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Another explanation is that the name derives from the Latin word ‘Fritillus’ meaning a dice box. The connection seems to be that games of dice can be played on a chess board, which the markings on the flowers resemble. 


In the Latin poem the ‘Aeneid’ (Virgil’s epic celebrating the founding of Rome), the climax describes fierce battles fought between the two sides led by the hero Aeneas and his great enemy, Turnus. The battlefield is described as being smattered with a ‘dew’ of blood. Commentators have noted the highly poetic use of ‘ros’ (dew) here. In another of Virgil’s poems, the 'Georgics' (a celebration of all things rustic), he uses ‘ros’ simply to mean rosemary, the full Latin name for which is ‘ros marinus’ (dew of the sea). Rosemary is thought to represent remembrance and perhaps Virgil had this symbolism in mind in his description of the victims on the battlefield whose lives were sacrificed as part of the destiny of the founding of Rome. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The symbol of everlasting memories also explains why in Victorian times brides included rosemary in their wedding ceremonies - it demonstrated they were bringing fond memories of their former home into their new, marital home. Some brides today still include it in their bouquet to represent love and memories (both those to cherish from the past and those to come in the future).

Rosemary is a firm favourite in kitchen gardens, with purple flowers to add colour to the wonderful scent.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Colours are the basis of the story behind the beautiful Iris. Iris was the messenger of the Greek gods. When she flew down from Mount Olympus to deliver messages to the mortals, she would leave a rainbow in her trail. The colours of irises are as varied as the colours of the rainbow. A devilish red known as Lucifer and vibrant orange are just two of the colours found in Crocosmia, which are in the same botanical family as Iris, the latter shown perhaps at its best in a striking purple.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The kings of France used the iris in their royal emblem – we know it as the Fleur de Lis.

Water lily

France also leads us to our next flower, the water lily, magnificently celebrated by the French impressionist Monet whose beloved water lilies in his garden at Giverny inspired him time and time again.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They take their name, ‘Nymphaea’, from Greek mythology, where Nymphs (Nymphai) were minor goddesses or spirits of nature, many of whom were associated with springs and fountains. Water lilies were said to be found growing where nymphs used to play. 


Finally, a brief mention of a flower to look forward to in Summer. Foxgloves’ flowers stand tall, as if pointing upwards, and it is easy to see why their shape is described in their Latin name ‘Digitalis’ (like a finger).

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They have beautiful bells in pinks and whites but, a note of caution: the freckles in the bells have been said to be the fingerprints of elves, placed there as a warning that the plant is highly poisonous.

These are just a few of the stories which flowers and plants have to tell. Names, symbolism, uses and superstitions have evolved throughout history, culminating in a true garden of delights. I do hope you enjoy all the flowers which you see in Spring, whether in a garden, park, or simply by the roadside.

Post Script

The date of this blog coincides with the release of a video I recorded for Bloomsbury Academic as part of their campaign Where Can Classics Take You? The theme was what I love most about Classics and how the study of Latin and Greek can lead to so many fascinating places. ‘Mea culpa’: I forgot to mention one place where Latin, Greek and Classical mythology are alive and growing – the garden.

Watch the videos here: Where Can Classics Take You?


Aeneid (Virgil: Edited with notes by R. Deryck Williams)

A Latin Dictionary (Lewis and Short)

Cambridge Latin Anthology (Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr)

Cambridge Greek Lexicon (J. Diggle et al.)

Complete Language of Flowers (Sheila Pickles)

Metamorphoses (Ovid: Translated by David Raeburn)

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Christopher Brickell)

RHS Latin for Gardeners (Lorraine Harrison)

Who’s Who in the Ancient World (Betty Radice)

Friday 8 March 2024

"Hans the Most Famous"* by Mary Hoffman


Hans Holbein the Younger, Self-portrait

Think of Henry Vlll and what picture floats into yoir mind? Or Thomas Cromwell, or Thomas More? The likely answer is an image painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, a German-Swiss Master who spent more than a third of his life in England and weathered the stresses of the king's marriages, religious reforms and and the many shocks that Tudor England was heir to. In fact you can't really think of the Tudors at all without the man who became known as the King's Painter.

There is an exhibition on till 14th April at the King's Gallery in Buckingham Palace (though it was still the Queen's Gallery when we visited it in January) called Holbein at the Tudor Court and it is well worth your time to go and see it. 

Young Hans was born in the autumn/winter of 1497 in Augsburg, Bavaria the son of Hans the Elder, who was also a professional painter. His older brother, Ambrosius, was a painter too and their uncle Sigismund (or Sigmund) seems also to have worked in Hans the Elder's studio. The boys would have been brought up in an atmosphere of portraits and altarpieces, of oil paints and book design.

Augsburg had been passed over by the plague that ravaged most of Europe in earlier centuries and, with access to the forests and rivers of Bavaria, had become a booming centre for timber, metal, paper and textile industries.The Holbeins lived in a three-storey building by a narrow canal, reached  over a little wooden bridge.

Hans the Elder's art was largely devotional, paintings and murals on religious themes, painting textiles and carpets in exquisite detail, a technical skill inherited by his younger and more famous son. 200 sketches survive from Hnas the Elder, mostly portraits. But art at the time was not valued in the way it became in later centuries. An "artist" was an alien concept in the Renaissance; even Vasari in 1550 wrote his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects without use of that term. The social position of the Holbeins and other what we would now call 'artists" in both Northern and Southern Europe was that of an artisan, someone paid for his labours as piecework or on commission.

But the prosperous merchants and bankers of Augsburg were keen to have their likenesses commemorated, whether in portraits or as donors on lavish altarpieces.

Ambrosius and Hans, drawn by their father

By his late teenage years Hans the younger had moved to Basel with his older brother Ambrosius, where they became apprenticed to another Hans, Herbster, Basel's leading painting of his day. They found work making woodcuts for use in book production in the young industry of printing and one of their first jobs was to drawmarginal pictures for a work by Desiderius Erasmus, the leading Humanist of BNorthern Europe.

A few years later it seems that Ambrosius might have died, since nothing more is recorded of his work. Young Hans, on the other hand, thrived, marrying a well-off widow, Elsbeth, who already had one sone and started bearing more children to her second husband. And in 1923, Hans painted his first portrait of Erasmus, who recommended the artist to his friend Sir Thomas More in England.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger


Three years later and Hans quit Basel to seek his fortune in London but this was just his first foray into England. He went back to Basel for four more years, painting his wife and their two older children, in the time between many commissions. But Basel was a hotspot for Protestant Reform and the political upheavals there made the city a dangerous place for artists, whose freedom to paint whatever they liked was strictly curtailed.

Perhaps this is why Hans went back to London in 1532, where another kind of upheaval was soon to rock the Tudor court. By then Henry Vlll had convinced himself that the lack of a male heir from his wife Katherine of Aragon was God's punishment of the king for marryting his older brother's widow. At least, that was Henry's justification for wanting to divorce his wife and marry a young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, in the belief she would bring forth a prince to inherit his crown. Henry was infatuated with Anne and took his case to the Pope and to anyone that would listen. To make a long and complicated story short, he solved his problem by splitting from the Church in Rome and becomiong Supreme Head of the Church of England - a strategem suggested by Thomas Cromwell, who was becoming the king's right hand man.

Useless then for Holbein to play his card of introduction from Thomas More, who was opposed to the king's second marriage, and he might have returned to Basel with his tail between his legs, since More resigned his role as Lord Chancellor in May 1532.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

The coming men were of the Boleyn faction and Thomas Cromwell himself; Holbein lost no time in making himself known to them and it seems as if art won out over politics as this former protegé of More's gained favour at the Tudor Court. He started modestly, with portraits of rich merchants, which must have recalled his early life in Augsburg, but in 1533, Holbein painted what is probably still his most famous work, The Ambassadors, now in the National Gallery. Aristocrat Jean de Dinteville and  Bishop Georges de Selve were French diplomats for Francis 1, who were both in London at the time. 

This enigmatic painting, with the elongated skull in the foreground, has led to much speculation. It is said to combine the Arts and Sciences, religion and politics and its technical skill is beyond doubt. Maybe it was this that established young Hans, not yet forty, as the premier painter of the 16th century in England.

1533 was a momentous year for England and Henry. He had married his Anne but his divorce from Katherine had not been sanctioned by the Pope and he was excommunicated. Holbein was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne Boleyn, but after her fall from grace and execution in 1536, all memorials of her were expunged from the record. This charming drawing of her in a night cap survives and is in the exhibition:

By 1536, Holbein the Younger was designated "the king's painter" (not the only one) and paid £30 a year by Henry for his services. Franny Moyle's magnificent book The King's Painter (Head of Zeus 2021) suggests that the king had a genuine affection for the artist and held him in great esteem. But it was a dangerous thing to be a friend of Henry's as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey had found to their cost and Thomas Cromwell would in time experience. 

Earl of Essex (Thomas Cromwell) by Holbein the Younger

Holbein was not so associated with the Boleyns that he suffered for the connection after Anne's death and he continued to paint the prominent men and women of the court. In 1537, the king gave Holbein the commission of depicting his whole family in a mural for Whitehall and, although this work is lost, a copy of it is the origin of all our ideas of the Tudor monarch in his heyday, sumptuously dressed, legs apart in perhaps the first "power stance" of English politics.

Copy by Remigius after Holbein the Younger


The mural featured Henry's parents, Henry Vll and Elizabeth of York, behind him and Jane Seymour, his third queen, on the right. Holbein also painted a full portrait of Queen Jane, the sketch for which is in the exhibition.

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger

As, surely, everyone knows, Queen Jane died shortly after giving birth to Hanry's only legitimater son and heir, who became Edward Vl. This was when things became perilous for Holbein, who was tasked with depicting the candidates to be Henry's fourth wife. One of the king's early choices was Cristina of Denmark, whose half-portrait is in the exhibition (a copy - for the dazzling full-length portrait you must go to the National Gallery).

Cristina of Denmark by Holbein the Younger

Henry's courtship of Cristina was unsuccessful - she is said to have valued her head too much to accept him - and a later candidate was Anne of Cleves. Hans painted a most beguiling portrait of her but Henry found it untrue to life. The disastrous marriage and annulment that followed might have cost Holbein his head, since it contributed to the execution of Thomas Cromwell, who had brokered the match. But Hans kept his head down, and attached to his shoulders. He had lost all his patrons - More, Anne Boleyn and Cromwell but he survived in the torrid world of King Henry's Court, to fight another day.

Anne of Cleves by Holbein the Younger (Louvre, Paris)

There is a miniature that might be of Henry's fifth wife, the ill-fated and short-lived Katherine Howard. Certainly many of Holbein's paintinhgs were copied as miniatures and circulated among Tudor nobles. The exhibition is full of these and many, many exquisite drawings - Mary Shelton, Thomas Wyatt, Thomas More, to name just a few. But you might want to supplement the experience with a an add-on trip to the National Gallery to see Cristina and the Ambassadors. And the National Portrait Gallery for Thomas Cromwell and a copy of Sir Thomas More. The shop at the Monarch's Gallery will sell you the catalogue but I recommend Franny Moyle's book in preference. It is lavishly illustrated and you should not skimp but buy the hardback, as the paperback is inferior.

What were the qualities that made Holbein ther Younger so prominent and his work so enduring in its appeal? Flattery certainly wasn't among them. The king looks powerful, yes, but his tiny mouth and meaty face are far from attrractive and Jane Seymour is positively plain. (Even Holbein's own self-portrait at the head of this post, painted in the year before his death, does him no favours). It is of course possible that standards of beauty/handsomeness have changed somewhat since Tudor times.  

Holbein's technical skills afre beyond doubt, whether in depicting rich fabrics, furs and lace in detail or the modest folds of a simple gown. His main strength seems to be an unsurpassed ability to present us with the sitter itself. Whether the figure is noble, distinguished, sly or "looking like a murderer." as a character in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy describes his poirtrait, he or she looks out at us over the centuries, saying "this is who I am; take me or leave me."

Hans Holbein the Younger died in 1543, at the age of around 46, possibly of the plague that ravaged London in that year. His luck finally ran out but at the time of his death he was the "most famous" English painter (he had taken English citizenship so let us claim him as our own). Nearly six hundred years later his works are exhibited in a sell-out show, which you should try to see before it closes. 


* from a poem by Nicholas Bourbon