Nu History Podcast – Episode 9: Law and Emotion in Late Medieval England

Today’s podcast features Dr. Gordon McKelvie, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at The University of Winchester. He’s here to talk to us about some of his recent research in Late Medieval legal records, as well as a look into the role of emotions in the decisions and events of the Wars of the Roses!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 5: Late Medieval Kings and Kingmakers

Here’s another podcast for you!

In this episode we talk to Alex Brondarbit, Academic Analyst in the division of Academic Affairs at University of California, and author of two books on late Medieval nobility, power and advancement. We discuss his recent work particularly around English kings and power brokers. We also talk about the experience of getting history books written and published in this day and age.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Tasty History: Chocolate

Hello guys! It has been a really long time since we have had time to write a proper blog entry. But now hat we have got the podcast up and running and the team is reconfigured, it is time to deliver. And, our first topic since the formation fof Nu History couldn’t be more delicious: Chocolate! Whether you like it dark, with milk, hot, cold, as a bar or a drink, I believe there is a chocolate for every kind of person. So, today I will give you an insight into how chocolate came to be. For this, we must first travel thousands of years into the past to one of my favourite historical areas: pre-Hispanic Meso America.

The Origins of Cacao

Just to clarify; chocolate is a product derivate from cacao or cocoa beans. The actual word for chocolate comes from the Aztec xocolatl, which meant bitter water. However, cacao was used way before the Aztecs to create indeed bitter tasting beverages made with cocoa and often used for either ritual or medicinal purposes. In a recent study (2018) published by Sonia Zarillo et al. trace back the earliest recorded used of cacao to 5300 years ago, in the area of Santa Ana, (Ecuador). Coe and Coe also state that the Olmecs had domesticated cacao plants and used its produce for medicinal purposes and religious rituals, and we have ample evidence of this from the area of Veracruz (1900–900 BCE). But the most extensive knowledge of Meso-American culture that we have regarding cacao comes from the Mayan culture, (500-800CE) where there is an abundance of ceramics that depicts its varied uses. It is also the Mayans from who we get the word cacao as kakaw. Kakaw was essentially a gloop of cacao made into a drink and the most renown discovery of this type of product is found at Rio Azul. This is the site where in the 90s the scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified the original chemical signature of cacao. By the time the Aztec empire took control of most of Meso America, things had changed. It seems that the Aztecs didn’t actually grow their own cacao already by the 1400s, and instead they used to obtain it as an import, often paid as a tax from areas they conquered. They also started drinking it cold and branching its uses, so that in Aztec culture cacao was an aphrodisiac according to Szogyi.

Cocoa Beans Comes to Europe

The beans were brought back to Europe by the cargo ships from the Americas. It was in fact Columbus who originally shipped them to Spain, however they got little interest from the public until much later when chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court. Despite it being first found by the Spaniards, the success of cocoa and chocolate in Europe would come from other nations, two main rivals of Spain in fact: the English and the Dutch. Cocoa was prominently imported during the reign of Charles I and during the 16th century, it was actually used as a drug to solve tooth decay and dysentery. Moreover, one of the physicians for Queen Anne, Hans Sloane, seemingly saw Jamaican workers during his visit to the island back in 1680 mixing cocoa powder with breast milk as a form drink, so he decided to borrow the concept (but with cow’s milk) for medicinal purposes once more. At this stage, the history of chocolate takes a dark turn as during the early modern period many African slaves were used in the cocoa plantations that the English, Dutch and French had in the transatlantic colonies. And so, with cheap labour and the invention of the first mechanic cocoa grinder in Bristol (1729) the European obsession with chocolate – and slavery – continued all the way to the 19th century when things changed once again.

Dutch Production, English Consumerism: Cocoa in the 19th Century

The transformation of cacao into the product that we could recognise nowadays only happened in the 19th century thanks to a clever Dutch chemist. Coenrad van Houten came up with the idea of removing cacao butter and added baking powder to the mix all successfully achieved by his creation: the cocoa press (1828). He had previously invented a alkaline solution that made chocolate less bitter to the taste, so the “Dutch Cocoa” invention made it a lot more marketable. Interestingly most the cocoa consumed in the UK during the 19th century was produced in the Netherlands, making this a very profitable industry for the Dutch. In Victorian Britain the first chocolate houses opened in the area of Mayfair and the concept drove English society into an absolute craze. In fact, at the royal apartments in Hampton Court we know that Willian III, as well as George I and II had a dedicated chocolate kitchen. Lizzie Collingham argues however that during this period much of the cocoa powder used in these establishments was heavily adultered with other products. Amongst these feature things like lentils or tapioca, which actually made what they served more similar to a cocoa soup rather than a cocoa drink.  However by then, the price of cocoa dropped becoming more affordable and an easily available product in many houses. Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK was a great conduit for this phenomenon. Still popular today, the first shop was opened in Birmingham in 1824 by John Cadbury. Collingham again adds that the most influential brand that contributed to the popularisation of cocoa amongst the working clasess was not Cadbury, but the now forgotten Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa. Vi-Cocoa distributed a blend of cocoa, kola nut, malt and hops that made it incredibly popular between 1895 and 1910. In her book The Hungry Empire, she says that Cadbury’s target audience would have most likely been middle classes women, whilst Vi-Cocoa was targeting the working class man with an alternative to tea.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Peters enhanced Victorian chocolate by using powdered milk in the beverages and therefore creating milk chocolate, and instant national favourite. Dutch cocoa balanced bitterness reached a new height when the Swiss chocolatier Rodolpe Lindt (1879) used his conching machine to turn cocoa butter into an improved product, with better texture and flavour. The manufacturing advances of the time also allowed for Lindt’s product to be easier to distribute and reach new markets, so Lindt was a key player in changing chocolate into a food item rather than a drink. Meanwhile in America? Cacao beans were also used as a currency up until the 19th century in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Funnily enough, these were easy to fake: empty casks were often filled with soil to pretend they were ripe cacao beans.

So as you can see the journey of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate is a varied and multicultural one. From its origins in America to its developments in Europe kakaw has adopted many forms and purposes. And, although I certainly believe most of us don’t use it as a medicine for tooth decay…I think we can probably agree it is a medicine for the soul and, as recent scientific research confirms, good for our mental health. With this history of chocolate, and the many more to come articles and podcasts regarding food history, I am trying to send a message of hope and unity. I truly believe that food brings people together, and in this day an age of conflict and division, humans and human history could do more with interconnectivity and hope.

I hope you join us on the next one 🙂

The Outlaw King – A Medieval Movie Review

Just a couple of months ago Netflix released The Outlaw King, their historical action drama about the life of Robert the Bruce in early 14th Century Scotland. Chris Pine is the big name here starring as the Bruce himself. Overall the film has received exceedingly average reviews, with around a 60% aggregated score. This is even after 20 minutes of battle and action scenes were cut due to complaints about length from the initial previews. Unfortunately the heavy amount of criticism it has received has mostly been due to it being seen as boring rather than having any glaring fault. Personally I feel the problem is that the average film reviewer and Netflix watcher aren’t able to appreciate the place where The Outlaw King shines, and that’s in its physical presentation of history.

The scope of the film is fairly narrow, as it doesn’t really cover Robert the Bruce’s whole life or reign, but only some time just before coronation up until after the battle of Loudoun Hill. Furthermore if you come into this film expecting a heavy degree of accuracy in its events then you may be disappointed. As with most movies, this one does mess around with the timeline somewhat, as well as putting historical figures in places where they maybe wouldn’t have been. For example the film depicts Edward I as dying before the battle of Loudoun Hill, when he in fact died some months later. Also the film does the usual and makes the protagonist the good guy and his opponents inherently evil. The character of Bruce is that of an enigmatic and well-behaved man of the people, who desires to restore Scotland to its citizens. However, historian Fiona Watson notes the real Bruce was most likely cold, canny, and driven by his personal ambition. I do think that some of this can be forgiven, as the characterization of the Bruce as the hero and Edward Longshanks and his son Edward II as evil can show the perspective of those on the Scottish side. After all the English were seen as the invaders and oppressors.

In either case, the film doesn’t overly sugar coat the cause of the Bruce and his men. It does show some of the underhanded tactics they may have made use of. The story is really kicked off when Bruce murders an opponent of his John ‘The Red’ Comyn in a priory. In the film it is shown as a hasty decision that Bruce made to stop Comyn from telling the English of his plans to revolt, when in reality it was probably a more planned decision, and when it turned out that Comyn survived Bruce had him finished off. So the film does somewhat clean things up there. However in a later scene James Douglas, one of the Bruce’s men, is shown to have a similar disregard for murder in holy places when he goes to take back his family’s castle from the English by waiting for the guards to be in a service in the chapel and slaughtering them before they could arm themselves. Douglas is then on known as ‘The Black Douglas’, and so we see that the morality of the Scottish side isn’t entirely unquestionable in the film. On a side note, I do think that Chris Pine’s depiction of the Bruce is a little overshadowed by the charismatic fury shown in the Black Douglas, especially in combat.

Finally I should mention what I really loved about the Film. As my particular interest is in historical warfare, and arms and armour, especially of the medieval period, any film that manages to depict these aspects well is instantly in my good books. Sadly I find it very hard to name any one film that manages to tick more than a few boxes for me, but perhaps this film has changed that? Despite the issues with overarching historical events this film has in places, if you look at the details in presentation it blows away bigger budget movies, especially its nearest comparison Braveheart. There isn’t an anachronistic kilt in sight! Anyone who knows their stuff about medieval warfare will find this move a treat, as everywhere you look people are armed and kitted out in a variety of authentic armour and weapons. For example, you’d expect there to be swords everywhere, but in reality swords wouldn’t be very common on the battlefield as they were really just a sidearm, and only for those that could afford it. Instead the Outlaw King shows us armies of spears, the primary weapon on the medieval battlefield. You’ll also see axes and warhammers being used heavily by the main cast, even the Bruce himself is seen using the lowly axe despite being the king, but this is good as it would certainly have been the preferable choice against the armour of the time.

Speaking of armour, this has to be the best depiction of armour I’ve seen in a film to date. Instead of putting everyone in full shining plate like most films would simply due to the assumption that it should be around in the middle ages, this film has heavy use of cloth armour, known as the gambeson, for bulk of the fighters shown, which is a very rare thing to see in films despite how overwhelmingly common it would have been. For those who could afford more, late 13th/early 14th century armour was mostly consisting of mail, and perhaps with a ‘coat of plates’ worn over it. This was the predecessor to the full plate harness that we’re all familiar with. It is a series of steel plates held together under a fabric layer, with larger plates on the chest and back which would eventually become one large single piece in later periods.

By no means is the depiction of weapons and warfare perfect in this film, it’s just far far better than most. For example you will still see the old trope of fire arrows making an appearance. Something that you only really see in movies because it is more visible, especially at night, than real arrows. They are employed during a very short siege in this film, which is one of the weaker moments. They are sold as being an unstoppable weapon despite the castle they are being shot into being mostly made of stone, so the castle is given up without an extended siege, which I would have liked to have seen. On similar note there are some issues with the castles used in the movie themselves, such as the fortifications being oddly sized, but I think this is mostly forgivable as they don’t feature too prominently and are probably more modern castle styled houses or mansions that were used due to budget limitations. Overall however, in terms of the presentation of warfare, as well as many other aspects of medieval life that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail on right now, The Outlaw King really gets things right in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before. The key to this I think is that they’ve actually listened to historians and other advisors on these details rather that leaving things to set and costume designers to fail at reinventing the wheel so to speak. They even went to various re-enactment groups to be extras and train others in combat, as well as going to credible historical crafters and smiths to make their weapons, such as the prominent Tod Todeschini of ‘Tods Workshop’ who designed and made the daggers carried by the main cast.

Overall I think that the film is a fairly entertaining historical drama with excellent action and combat, I could have just done with more of it. I was expecting the final climax to come much later in the Battle of Bannockburn. However with criticism coming from the previews of the length and too much battle, and with the historical accuracy of the timeline already being somewhat muddled and squashed together, I think it was wise to forgo any more messing with the events and keep it as a clean ending after the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Hopefully the mixed reaction isn’t too big a blow for historical films, especially ones with such good details!

Don’t Mention the Empire!

 

The British Empire holds a strange place in the UK’s national memory; many young people have little knowledge of it while many older people remember it fondly, with 65% of over 65s in a YouGov poll saying the Empire was something to be proud of in 2014.[1] Considering that the British Empire lasted for 500 years, it is rarely talked about, usually only brought up when talking about immigration or invoked as a nostalgic tool to invoke ‘Britannia’ in relation to issues such as Brexit.[2] Actual detail is rarely mentioned, it’s rarely covered in film or TV despite the UK’s love of period drama and the teaching of it in schools is minor, if existent at all.

I was never taught about the British Empire in school. I was never even taught about the slave trade, except for brief mentions during Black History Month – and then only the USA’s role was mentioned. I know some people a little younger than me at least were taught about the slave trade and going back to my parents’ school days of the 1960s and 1970s, the slave trade was mentioned. The British Empire overall though was barely touched upon. While teaching of the British Empire has reportedly been improved upon in recent years, it is still patchy due to a focus on certain aspects or periods of the Empire.

The problem with teaching about the British Empire is that it isn’t easy and it doesn’t make Britain look good. Take the teaching of World War Two in Britain – the Nazis were clearly evil and we fought against them, so we’re the good guys! Great detail is gone into on the Nazi atrocities, quite rightly. However any evil done by the British is glossed over to preserve the dichotomy. No talk of handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler prior to the war; or the bombing of German civilians; or the British government doing nothing to help victims of Nazi persecution (the famous Kindertransport children were only allowed to enter the country if a non-governmental organisation found them a place to stay and a £50 bond per child was paid); the internment of those who came from countries who were part of the Axis Powers; and the blind eye turned to the rape of women and children, committed by Allied troops, by the Allied leadership to name a few. Acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Allies does not make the Nazis look at any better, nor does it mean disrespecting those who died – they were not the government. Acknowledging these atrocities does however damage the myth of a heroic Britain, of a past we should be proud of. That is exactly why the British Empire is such a touchy subject.

Exact numbers of those who died at the hands of the British Empire will never be known, and no estimation will ever be agreed on but let’s take a look at a couple of generally accepted figures. 3.1 million Africans were transported by the British to its colonies and other countries.[3] 1 million (at least) died in the Irish Potato Famine, while the British government exported food from Ireland and British landlords evicted families.[4] 4.3 million died in the Southern India famine of 1876–78, while the British government exported food from India and refused to provide any charity, instead forcing the starving to work for rations that were not enough to sustain them.[5] At least 28,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 Black people died in one of the earliest examples of concentration camps, created by the British Army during the Second Boer War.[6] These uncomplicated figures are enough to cause horror for any person with something resembling a moral compass. These are indefensible. These were civilians; the excuse of ‘they were attacking us’ just simply doesn’t count for these examples.

Now there are people who claim that the British Empire was a force for good, a highly controversial claim among many historians, but the major problem with the lack of education or thorough discussion of the Empire outside academic circles means that these claims are fed uncritically to the public almost always via newspapers and politicians who are using this argument for their own political means. For example, if we refer back to the atrocities above, the Daily Mail in one article claimed that during the British Empire ‘the occasional massacre was undoubtedly carried out’ but we played a role in ending the slave trade and ‘successfully exported’ democracy to countries that were colonies.[7] This of course shows a rather dismissive attitude to the deaths of millions and conveniently leaves out the British role in beginning the slave trade. This is not exactly unsurprising when you consider even Wikipedia refuses to use the Daily Mail as a source; that such an article makes no attempt to even vaguely consider history properly. It is also understandable in some respects why newspapers like the Daily Mail aggressively pursue such a position; they do not exist to teach history – or even tell the truth – they are there to push a particular opinion onto readers in the hope that readers will support their political aims at the ballot box to financially support their owners. This, of course, is not confined to just right-wing newspapers but to newspapers in general.

The problem is that when many peoples’ knowledge comes from journalists set on achieving political goals the actual debate and evidence of the Empire is not present. While historians cannot escape ideology completely, at least there is some kind of attempt at being critical of their perspectives and examining evidence. If an argument is to be made that the British Empire was ‘good’ then it should be put forward properly evidenced with historical rigour, with an actual chance of experts being able to debate the argument for its historical accuracy rather than political value. This is why it is so important that the British Empire is actually taught in schools so students have a chance to critically engage with the history rather than be fed carefully condensed politicised propaganda. An evidenced debate in schools has been favoured by school leaders and historians over a curriculum based on fostering patriotism.[8] This approach has also been favoured by students themselves.[9]

The lack of knowledge about the British Empire is particularly problematic because of how much of an impact it is having today. The British Empire created Apartheid in South Africa, and continued to resist imposing sanctions on the government till the end. Claims of violence between black and white South Africans has recently been the subject of interest amongst Trump supporters. The British Empire played a large part in the beginnings of the Israel-Palestine conflict, perhaps the most controversial conflict in modern history. After pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other for the British Empire’s own gain, the rushed partition of India helped cause the bloody legacy of the events of the partition that still plagues the relationship between India and Pakistan today. Intervention in Afghanistan began with the British Empire and the volatile state of the country can be linked back to British installed puppet governments. Proper understanding of these current events cannot be achieved without the knowledge of what past events caused them, and in so many cases the British Empire played some part.

It is even still having an impact on government policy as seen with the recent Windrush scandal with those who came to Britain and their descendants from former colonies in the Caribbean being threatened with deportation. The disregard for these people who spent their early lives under colonial control and then came to rebuild the UK due to lack of work available in their own countries because of colonial policy, all while having to cope with racism and poverty when they came to Britain. The recent scandal led to many of these people facing racism and poverty all over again; with many arguing that such behaviour would have never happened to white immigrants and that the decision to destroy records was racially charged. Whether such assertions are true or not, there is certainly an issue that being former colonial subjects that their history was not considered as important as white Britons.

Despite such claims that the British Empire was a good thing, even from politicians in government, there is a strong suggestion that perhaps the British government aren’t quite as proud about it as they claim. In 2011 a group of elderly Kenyans won the right to sue the British government for the torture they allege they suffered in the Mau Mau rebellion against the Empire. As a result of this an official review of colonial government papers, which unlike most government papers had not been passed onto the National Archives, was undertaken. The review found that they had been purposefully hidden, and that also thousands had been disposed of with the expressed intention by the secretary of state for the colonies so that any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” should be destroyed.[10]

 

[1] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/

[2] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/dont-mistake-nostalgia-about-british-empire-scholarship

[3] http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/britain-and-the-trade.pdf

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/famine_01.shtml

[5] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=S2EXN8JTwAEC&pg=PA132&dq=famine+british+empire+india&as_brr=3&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=famine%20british%20empire%20india&f=false

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/boer_wars_01.shtml

[7] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20180412/281861529084026

[8] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/british-empire-students-should-be-taught-colonialism-not-all-good-say-historians-a6828266.html

[9] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/413714/History_for_all.pdf

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/apr/18/britain-destroyed-records-colonial-crimes?newsfeed=true

 

The Battle of Britain Bunker, Uxbridge

This post will feature the newly opened, Battle of Britain Bunker and Visitor Centre on the former site of RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is the only Second World War bunker to be preserved and open available to the public. The former RAF site was sold off for a new housing development in 2010. The Bunker was available for tours, booked in advance. Now however the site has been heavily invested by the financial backing of Hillingdon council and houses a new Visitor Centre adjacent to the Bunker, whereby prior booking is no longer necessary.  The Visitor Centre explains about the line of work that happened in the Bunker and features interactive exhibits and visuals relating to plotting, radar and collecting calls from telephones. It is also a good feature for those visitors who are less mobile as they can still see information and learn about what happened in the Bunker.

Outside the complex visitors are welcomed to the statue of New Zealander Keith Park (1892-1975), the Second World War Royal Airforce commander. He oversaw the running’s of the operation room at RAF Uxbridge for two years from 1940-1942. He was known as the “Defender of London” in Germany and for organising fighter patrols during the Dunkirk evacuation the Battle of Britain campaign. What’s more, the grounds also include a mock Hurricane, Spitfire and memorial close to the entrance of the Bunker immortalising the words uttered by Winston Churchill when he entered the Bunker on a visit in 16th August 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.

 

The Bunker

Upon arrival visitors must report to the entrance desk at the Visitor Centre to collect tickets to visit the Bunker. The Bunker operates tours in the mornings and afternoons. Please ensure to take a ticket and keep it on your person until the guide leads you to the entrance of the Bunker, it is here where you hand your ticket to a steward. When entering the bunker, you go down a long flight of stairs so be watchful.

The Bunker was the location for No. 11 Group RAF’s operation which served as part of the Dowding system. The Dowding system served as the world’s first conception network on land to control airspace in the United Kingdom. It used a telephone network to gain intelligence as opposed to radar that could have been intercepted. This Bunker is most famous for controlling airfield operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and additionally the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the D Day Landings of 1944.

Geographically there were several fighter command groups stationed in the United Kingdom they were divided into different geographical locations. No. 11 Group which encompassed the South-East, No. 10 Group covering the South West, No. 12 Group covering the Midlands, No. 9 Group covering the North West, No. 13 covering the North East and lastly No. 14 Group covering Scotland. Focusing on No. 11 Group its headquarters was located at Hillingdon House at RAF Uxbridge. The group’s operating room was within the Bunker underground, to avoid detection. A previous bunker was built over ground in 1939 but the idea of having an operations room over ground was too obvious in case of an enemy air attack.

The commands that occurred in the Operations room within the Bunker was passed onto airfields within the group. These airfields were divided into 8 different sectors. The Operations Controller was seated above a plot map and a display on the wall relating to the other RAF stations within the group covering; RAF Tangmere, Kenley, North Weald, Debden, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Northolt. These were the stations were fighter squadrons were based. It is important to note that everything displayed in the Operations room was always suited to the view of the Operation Controller. Additional staff included; Army and Navy Officials, Plotters, telephonists and RAF officers, one of which was the late Hollywood actor Rex Harrison.

The map of the United Kingdom and northern France was displayed on a large board whereby the Operations Controller could see very clearly where plotters would update them with necessary information. This was a job carried out by plotters who were mainly women from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAFs). They were fed information from Chain Home Radar stations monitoring approaching aircraft, it was the Royal Observer corps that detected aircraft that was friendly or hostile. This information was fed to a Filter room whereby the plotters in this room would breakdown the information and relay it to the plotters in the Operation room. The plotters used long thin rods that would move markers on the map indicating numbers of aircraft and how many feet they were in the sky. It also displayed friendly and hostile aircraft. Depending on what information they receive the would move the markers across the map to provide the Operations Controller an up to date understanding of affairs happening in the skies.

Going back to the display on the wall depending on the different stations lights will flicker to state whereabouts aircraft is and to show the Operations Controller a physical embodiment/tracking of their decision making from standby to action. It is also important to note that the visibility and weather balloons was also marked on the display, again providing the best view to the Operations Controller so they can be best informed to make decisions. The plotters job was important as they had to ensure the information was kept up to date, otherwise that could mean drastic consequences for aircraft and cause confound decision making for the Operation Controller. When changing shifts, the plotters had to standby the other plotter they are shifting with to see what information they were being fed to again make sure the information on the map was current. This was also true when a plotter needed to take a break, the covering plotter had to stand with the plotter wanting a break for approximately 10-15 to ensure all information fed to them was being kept up to date.

 

Location-

The location of the Battle of Britain Bunker is easy to get to, it is close to the Town centre of Uxbridge, Greater London and has good connections to the A40 and M40. It is an easily accessible day trip from London as the tube serves Uxbridge on both the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. Additionally, the U2 is the nearest bus to serve the Bunker which will then take an extra 10-15 minutes to walk to the venue.

 

Practicalities-

Residents of Hillingdon Borough can visit for free (upon showing Hillingdon resident card) as with servicemen/women and ex-servicemen/women. Please check with the venue for exact proving to those visitors from outside the area.

 

All in all, the Bunker and Visitor centre is a great day out for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in the Battle of Britain.

The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

Valley-of-the-River-ColnecMuseum-of-London-Frank-Gardiner.jpg
Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

original.jpg
200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

lbl-river-wall.jpg
Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

IMG_20171120_150319928.jpg
Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

Uncovering the Neolithic at Ness of Brodgar

Today I bring you an update about a place I have been wanting to go visit now for quite sometime, yet it always seems to escape me. I am talking about Ness of Brodgar, which is part of the archaeological compound found in Orkney located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site is 2.5 hectares and in combination with the other two, it forms the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Most people would think, well okay this is just another of those cool rocky man-made formations, why such a fuss? Well the thing is that the team that has been working in this area is pretty much convinced that Ness of Brodgar is actually older than Stonehenge – around 500 years – which of course has serious implications in our understanding of the Neolithic developments in Britain, and for that purpose the entirety of Europe. The team act work on site is led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre For Archaeology UH, and has been investigating the site for over a decade. The investigation started in 2005, when Nick Cord decided to explore a whaleback mound that was believed to be a natural formation. The actual dig started in 2008.

The finds here are unique. These include clay figurines with marked faces and bodies as well as painted wall designs from around 3000 BC. This is quite a remarkable part of the discovery as Nick Card and Antonia Thomas advise:

‘until recently, relatively few examples of Neolithic decorated stonework

had been found in Orkney, with even fewer from secure stratigraphic contexts. As a result

of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar however, the number of known examples has

more than doubled.’

(Card, Nick and Thomas, Antonia Susan orcid.org/0000-0002-1959-7260 (2012) Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney : decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar. In: Cochrane, Andrew and Jones, Andrew Meirion, (eds.) Visualising the Neolithic. Oxbow Books , Oxford , pp. 111-124).

The archaeologist have seen and identified an increased used of carved ceramic maces and axe heads too. The items found during the excavation have raised questions regarding the use and function of such place. Current theories contemplate the possibility that this could have been a great temple complex. One of the reasons behind this thought it the fact that the site contains a really high number of rooms to have been some sort of military building. Even from the point of view of the domestic sphere, the details known about human living during the Neolithic period suggest that communities would have lived in smaller singular buildings – nothing quite of the vast dimensions unearthed at Ness of Brodgar. This was further backed with the geophysics analysis of the area, suggesting that the sheer size of the complex goes beyond our current understanding of everyday Neolithic society.

The real importance of the site is due to the building site and the techniques used in its construction. 5000 tones of rocks were used to construct what looks to be a symbolic layout. The type of stone use in this site is flagstone, which is abundant in these islands. Due to its physical properties, flagstone presents itself as a material easy to work where you can obtain flat blocks for construction as well as durable tools. It has been pointed out that the extensive use of stone work in Orkney during the Neolithic may not just be related to the lack of timber, but perhaps plays a further symbolic meaning which Mike Parker Pearson advises may be related to the culture of stone circle buildings. This also seems to have some close connection with other structures of a similar type found in the Hebrides. The position of the complex is also striking as it is in the middle of a promontory. Perhaps the evidence could be indicating a Neolithic theocratic society, as perceived from the great power the site suggests priest may have held.  Another theory that relates the site to what we now know from Stonehenge is the fact that this area could well be part of a larger ceremonial promenade – similar to the one located on the Salisbury plain. The main supporter of this idea is Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, who was also involved on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

As you can see this site is really helping us reshape our archaeological and historical knowledge of Orkney and the Neolithic, which can have serious repercussions in our general understanding of the British Isles as well as early human history. There is so much more that will come out of this, as the excavations go on. So if you want to find out more, or keep an eye out for possible new discoveries, I suggest you have a look into their website, where you can also find a lot of extra information from the archaeological record point of view, in addition to audio-visual material that is really worth while:

http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/

 

A Brief History of Winchester Cathedral

Last week, after three amazing years, I finally graduated from the University of Winchester with a 2:1 in English Literature and History. Graduation was an unforgettable experience, spent catching up with friends, trying not to trip, and posing for about a thousand awkward photographs that will, presumably, stare down at me from my grandfather’s display cabinet until the end of time.

[PHOTOS of me graduating]

It was also, as I’m sure every Winchester grad can confirm, spent looking around in absolute awe at the beautiful cathedral we’re so lucky to graduate in. What a building! And what a history! As I stood nervously, waiting for my name to be called and wobbling in my heels (in hindsight, a poor choice on the uneven stone floor), I couldn’t help but think of all the sights the cathedral must have seen over the years and of all the other people to have passed through those impressive wooden doors.

I knew various tidbits about the cathedral’s history- such as the gloriously higgledy-piggledy stained glass in the West Window, which had been swept up and restored by the people of Winchester after Cromwell’s men destroyed it during the Civil War- but I suddenly felt inspired to learn more. More than that though, I wanted to jot down some highlights here, hopefully to inspire others to visit (and to fall in love with) Winchester Cathedral.

But first:

(Because what post about Winchester Cathedral would be complete without this gem from the ‘60s?)


Anglo Saxon Origins

Now, Winchester Cathedral has its roots in the seventh century, when the pagan monarchs of England first converted to Christianity. In 635, Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, was baptised and, just over a decade later, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church in Winchester, which was by then the heart of Anglo Saxon Wessex.

This was a small, cross-shaped church which became known as Old Minster. In these blurry photos I took back in 2014 on my freshers’ tour of the cathedral, you can just about make out where it stood, slightly to the north of the present building and outlined in red brick.

[PHOTOS of Old Minster outlines]

Soon, Old Minster became a cathedral, housing the cathedra of a bishop responsible for a huge diocese that stretched all the way from the English Channel right up to the River Thames. In turn, it became the most important church in Anglo Saxon England, and was the burial place for many of the earliest kings of Wessex, including King Alfred the Great. The legendary King Cnut is also buried at Winchester, alongside his wife Queen Emma.


A Place of Pilgrimage

By the tenth century, Old Minster had become the priory church of a community of monks, living under the care of St Benedict. The church was made even bigger and grander by Bishop Aethelwold, who had the bones of St Swithun moved from their burial place in the forecourt, and housed in a new shrine inside. The fame of St Swithun and his miracles spread far and wide and all around his tomb, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he was said to have healed.

By the year 1000, Old Minster was a multipurpose building- having become a mighty cathedral in its own right, a thriving priory church, and a renowned place of pilgrimage.


E-norman-ous Change

Significant changes were to lie ahead for Winchester however, as England’s Saxon leaders were abruptly toppled following the events of 1066 and the invasion of William the Conqueror. He was anointed king on Christmas Day at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and quickly moved to take control of the Church.

Winchester’s last Saxon bishop was replaced with his own royal chaplain, Walkelin, and the French bishop soon set about building a huge new church in the Norman Romanesque style. After 450 years, Old Minster was demolished. Its stones were used for the new cathedral, consecrated in 1093 with a grand ceremony attended by almost all of England’s bishops and abbots.


Medieval Majesty

The Norman cathedral soon flourished. In 1100, William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus (the Red), was buried here following his suspicious death whilst out hunting in the New Forest. He was buried under the tower of his father’s great cathedral, which collapsed seven years later- according to local folklore, as a result of his wickedness.

Around this time, sumptuous works of art were being commissioned. A glorious new font was installed, celebrating the life of St Nicholas and later, in the twelfth century, a magnificent illuminated Bible was made for the monks to use in their daily worship. The Winchester Bible can still, to this day, be seen in the Cathedral Library.

[PHOTOS of the Winchester Bible]

In the centuries that followed, wealth and powerful bishops would put their stamp on the Norman cathedral. It was re-modelled again and again, with soaring gothic arches added in the fourteenth century and made more ornate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They also commissioned their own chantry chapels, where priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls into Heaven.


Reformation Transformation

The dissolution of the monasteries, following the Act of Supremacy and Break with Rome in 1534, lead to many changes and upheavals for the cathedral. After nearly 600 years, Winchester’s great Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory, had come to an end. The shrine of its patron saint was ransacked under the cover over darkness and its cloister demolished.

Catholicism was briefly revived in the 1550s by Mary Tudor, who married King Philip II of Spain at a ceremony held in the cathedral, but it was not to last long. Since the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the cathedral has been Church of England.


From Pride and Prejudice to the Present Day

By the early sixteenth century, much of the Cathedral as it appears today was complete. New secular names became forever linked to it, in addition to those of many kings and bishops. In the seventeenth century, the angler Izaak Walton was buried in Winchester Cathedral, as was the great novelist Jane Austen, back in 1817.

All was nearly lost in the early 1900s however, as concerns began to grow that the east end of the building would collapse following centuries of subsidence. Miraculously though, the deep-sea diver turned hero, William Walker, worked for six solid years (in terrible conditions, underwater and in complete darkness) and was able to stabilise and, ultimately, save the cathedral!

[PHOTOS of William Walker and the cathedral with scaffolding]

In 2017, after twelve centuries, the beautiful cathedral remains the seat of the Bishop of Winchester and centre of the Diocese of Winchester. It continues to echo with the sounds of sacred music, daily prayer and, on occasion, the voice of Alan Titchmarsh (Chancellor for the University of Winchester) congratulating graduates.

[PHOTO of Alan Titchmarsh]

It truly is an incredible place to visit, and I would fully encourage everyone to do so.


Fashion Trends in the Age of Austerity

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff lately from Laura Clouting (Imperial War Museum) on fashion and trade during the Second World War and how things develop in Britain in this industry from there on. As we all have very ingrained in our minds, this was indeed a period of great austerity in the UK with rations and shortages severely affecting people’s lives. So how did this affect fashion? And why does it matter? Well, I hope that by reading this update you will realise some measures taken during this time had a serious cultural and social effect, and they did much to revolutionise British fashion particularly for women.

This all comes from the realisation of the board of trade that things need to change: people needed to be clothed but also needed a moral boost due to the soaring effect of the war. Therefore, the board decides to work together with several fashion designers to provide a new range of clothing that was suitable for a war-scared Britain. During the age of austerity the accessibility to a good range of materials was seriously limited, and certainly good quality fabrics were hard to come by. But a deal was struck so that designers would have access to better resources in other to produce something known as ‘utility clothing’. The idea behind this was to enhance quality of clothes in a way that made them more durable whilst affordable at the same time. Some big names of the UK fashion industry contribute to these new designs such as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies and Digby Morton. With the help of these visionaries, clothing becomes actually stylish yet well made, and very colourful which is not a conception often associated with the Second World War. Nevertheless, a little help came from home as well. Throughout this period we see women at home adapting the fashion to their needs during war times, so that Brit gals were fashionable yet perfectly functional. If you see some of the designs you would probably laugh, but who did not want to be able to have  matching outfit to their latest gas mask? Many women did find long dresses and trouser suit pieces made this a quirky yet interesting look!

It is also during this time that we see some interesting developments in how clothes are made. For example, from 1942 onward, clothe designs saw a reduction in the number of buttons used in coats and jackets. Pockets were also kept for purely functional purpose, and many outfits found them reduced to none. Skirts too suffer transformations, and the popular pleated skirts of years past, become more simple and plain-looking. Due to the shortage of materials, however, the fashion industry had to think of ways around their design issues, and found some very creative solutions that we see completely ingrained in our fashion today. Due to the occupation of Japan and other parts of South East Asia, it was very difficult to obtain rubber for the elastic bands that had been incorporated into ordinary pieces of clothing. In addition, the high demand for leather in other industries made this a no go area for designers. So, instead braces were introduces as a replacement for elasticated waist bands (so all of you hipsters have loads to thanks to them chaps and chappetes in the 40s!). It is a similar case scenarios with wedge heels. Resources such as wood or cork were not rationed, which made this transition from heeled shoes into wedges and platforms very easy for fashion designers.And, you want to know something interesting? During this period, the length of socks gets reduced to a mighty 9.5 inches to save on materials. Imagine the roar it would have been if we had this trend for ankle socks ballerina tights back then!

In any case, the domestic economies did find this a real relief both economically and emotionally. Yet, these were still times when the made-do attitude were at a peak. We see fashion at home really pushing for amendments rather than buying new clothes. I am sure you are all aware of the old trick of rubbing ones legs with the bags of a recent brew and using eye lines to produce the impression that you were wearing tights. Holes were sawn back together, and clothes that were in no state to be worn, were recycled into rags or fabrics to mend other clothes. We think ourselves very cool for wearing sawn in and iron patches on our jeans and what not, but this was actually rather common back then.

So, next time you want some inspiration on how to keep your fashion cool yet sensible, perhaps you will have a throwback moment and think: what would have my grandparents or great grandparents do?