Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…


Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.

The Road to Rebellion- Zanj Rebellion

To start off, I wish all a happy and prosperous new year to those who read and take an interest in our blog. My first post of 2018 will look at the enslaved Zanj peoples of East Africa and reasons as to how rebellion ensued from 869 to 883 AD. for this January’s African History month.


An African History in Mesopotamia

The term Zanj is a name of Arab origin which is loosely translated to “Land and Black” and was coined by Muslim geographers in the Medieval period. The area was in and around the region of the East African coast, now modern-day Kenya and Tanzania and settled by Black Africans of Bantu heritage. Trade was prominent in this region with the Arab world that involved lucrative goods such as ivory and gold.

The slave trade of the Zanj peoples also dominated. They were shipped and important to work on the marshlands in the surrounding area to Basra in Mesopotamia, now Iraq and sold to Wealthy Arabs to cultivate the land, primarily for sugarcane. Basra was an important port city in the region, so it was accessible to transport the produce from the land and to import slaves. These marshlands were left for some time due to flooding, wealthy Arabs saw an opportunity to implement a plantation based economy by converting the disused land for arable farming, using intensive labour. This was why the Zanj peoples were considered and that the East African coast was near the Arab world. Some Zanj peoples worked in Salt flats close to Basra. It was not just in the region of Basra that Zanj peoples were imported for slavery, some were shipped to other Arab speaking regions that bordered the Indian Ocean.


The struggle of the Zanj peoples

The lives of the Zanj peoples were harsh and miserable with many accounts indicating punitive treatment from their masters. The living and working conditions is a major factor that contributed to the Zanj rebellion, but it was not necessarily the only standing factor.


Anarchy of Samarra (861-870 AD.)

The ruling Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate was heavily marred and weakened by internal discord relating to the Caliphate’s succession and struggle inevitably ensued. This period was known as the Anarchy of Samarra, seeing as court was held at Samarra at this time. The succession of the Caliph’s was violent seeing as they were killed, disposed, exiled or overthrown. This anarchy allowed rebels to implement their own policies of governance that replaced the existing system. This greatly affected taxation from provinces, the central government would otherwise have had and in turn created a loss. With less revenue from taxation it meant there was less money to pay for resources should external or internal conflict ensue. This, in a way swayed attention from the Zanj slave trade as it meant there was no ruling stability in the Caliphate and it greatly affected the prestige of the central government. As a result, it perhaps allowed a chance for rebellion.


The role of Ali Ibn Muhammed   

So how did Ali Ibn Muhammed attract support from the Zanj peoples in Mesopotamia? As explored previously, the Zanj peoples clearly lived and worked in terrible conditions and that at the time of the Anarchy of Samarra it weakened the ruling system and as such it appears as if the last factor discussed in the form of Ali Ibn Muhammed ties together the previous two factors contributing to the rebellion.

Ali Ibn Muhammed did benefit from hearing the news concerning warring factions, particularly in Basra. Ali Ibn Muhammed eventually seized the opportunity to gain Zanj support in return for their liberation because of this, although initially he struggled to gain support. Some accounts note him as enquiring about their living and working conditions cultivating the land. To some Zanj, this appeared to be the opportunity for freedom, a life free from slavery. He managed to recruit a sizeable amount of Zanj slaves who were willing to rebel for the cause, along side other ethnic groups unhappy with the regime.

The Path to Operation Anthropoid

This post will document the Czech/Slovak resistance to Nazism in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. It was a time of great struggle for the people of Czechoslovakia under the Munich Agreement of 1938 the area of Sudetenland (today in the Czech Republic) on the borders of Bavaria, Saxony and Lower Silesia now Poland was amalgamated into Nazi Germany. It was in September of that year in 1938 that Adolf Hitler wanted to take Sudetenland. The area of Sudetenland had many German speakers residing there and many of the population suffered greatly during the Great Depression. Much of the population were employed in export dependent industries including; paper making, textiles, toy manufacturing and glass manufacturing. Many Sudeten Germans wanted answers to their problems and as a result they turned to more extreme movements to rectify this. One as such was Fascism. The Munich Agreement was a conference attended by Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference and as a result felt betrayed by the United Kingdom and France, hence the name the Munich betrayal. All parties signed the agreement on 30th September 1938, however it was dated on 29th September that Hitler was permitted to take Sudeten lands in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovakian government was exiled to London. Fast forward a year and the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia was a separate pro-Nazi republic and Hitler proceeded to seize the rest of the area including Moravia and Bohemia where Prague is located. This fundamental decision on Hitler’s part ended appeasement. Later in 1939 Germany invaded Poland and propelled Europe into another war, The Second World War that would last another 6 years.

Resistance occurred in the form of boycotts and mass protest demonstrations at the start of the Second World War. Operation Anthropoid was a planned assassination of a high ranking Nazi Official by the name of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was head of the Reich Main Security Office , General of Police and later Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. He was notoriously attributed to the “Final solution” to the Jewish question, helping to organise Kristallnacht and quash resistance in Czech/Slovak lands, this involved suppressing their culture. When he was in Prague he did not hesitate to eliminate any threat to Nazi rule. 92 people were assassinated shortly after Heydrich’s arrival to Prague and placed c.5000 people into concentration camps. Heydrich did not hide his intentions that he wanted the Czech lands to become German. The Czech people were an exploited labour force for Nazi Germany.

The Czech government in exile in London agreed that Heydrich was to be assassinated. Jan Kubis, a Czech and Jozef Gabcik were chosen to lead the operation and it was initiated by the Head of Czech Intelligence Frantisek Moravec and approved by Czechoslovakian President, Edvard Benes. They were trained by the British Operations Executives in order to carry out the operation. Kubis and Gabcik arrived via parachute in December 1941 and were in hiding whilst planning and conducting the assignation attempt. In this time they came into contact with anti-Nazi organisations and families that helped them and prevent them being thwarted. It was intended that they were to arrive in Pilsen, however this never happened due to navigation issues. This included doing background research that included Heydrich’s routine in order to paint a reliable picture for them to aid with their mission. It wasn’t until May 27th 1942 that they were successful. Kubis and Gabcik eventually settled on a plan to assassinate Heydrich in Prague.

On May 27th 1942 Heydrich left for Prague from his home in Panenske Brezany. The area that Kubis and Gabcik ambushed Heydrich was at a curvature of a tram line. This area was used because the curvature allowed for Heydrich’s car to slow down making the ambush seemingly easier to perpetrate. Kubis and Gabcik were stationed 100 metres from each other and when Heydrich’s car approached the curvature, it was Gabcik who opened fire at Heydrich with a sub machine gun but it wasn’t functioning properly. Heydrich ordered the car to stop to apprehend the assailant and tried to shoot Gabcik with his luger pistol. Upon witnessing this Kubis threw a grenade at the car. Shrapnel was scattered from the grenades collision through the car’s right rear bumper and hit Heydrich’s border (the shrapnel). Kubis and Gabcik shortly attempted to shoot in the direction of Heydrich but missed their target. Heydrich attempted to chase and shoot Gabcik but he collapsed and was bleeding heavily from his injuries. Heydrich’s driver attempted to apprehend Gabcik after Kubis left the scene by bicycle. However Gabcik wounded the driver and he too escaped. Initially it was thought on both Kubis and Gabcik’s part that the operation was a complete failure. Heydrich was later taken to hospital and operated on and needed blood transfusions. On 4th June Heydrich died from his injuries and contracted sepsis.

The consequences were that Heydrich’s death was the only successful assassination attempt of a high ranking Nazi official. Gabcik and Kubis managed to lay down low from preying Nazi eyes. In the meantime Nazi Intelligence linked the assailants to the village of Lidice and or Lezaky where the entire village was completely obliterated to the ground. Many inhabitants died. Intelligence officers alluded to the fact many Czech soldiers who were in exile in the United Kingdom originated in Lidice and so was concluded the assailants had connections there.

For a time it proved difficult for the Nazi’s to get a lead on who perpetrated the assignation. The bounty was set for 1million marks in exchange for where the assailants were hiding. A fellow exiled Czech soldier, Karel Curda who arrived along with 3 other exiled soldiers for their own mission to sabotage gasworks in Prague in 1942 as part of a resistance group Out Distance betrayed the operation and led the Nazis to those who provided help to Kubis and Gabcik. Those who offered help to the resistance were tortured, sent to concentration camps and killed. The torture for one young man, Ata was truly deplorable as after he was beaten his torturers showed the decapitated head of his mother. Ata resisted any attempts to reveal information for some time and continued to uphold his silence on the matter very bravely in the face of adversity. However, he later broke his silence under the torture and revealed to the Gestapo what they needed to know.

Nazi Intelligence found out that Kubis and Gabcik were residing in the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague. A shootout ensued which resulted in the death of Gabcik and other resistance fighters. Kubis alongside other resistance fighters committed suicide in the crypt. The Bishop Gorazd and other senior church leaders were shot by firing squad. In a noble fashion Bishop Gorazd took the blame for what happened in the Cathedral to protect his flock. The man who betrayed his fellow comrades, Curda was a Gestapo collaborator for the reminder of the war but after the war was over he was tracked down and charged with high treason and for punishment was hanged.

It is certainly an enthralling piece of Czeck/Slovak history and one that is remembered for those who fought for freedom and justice to crush Fascism and tyranny. The bullet holes are still evident on the outside of the Cathedral today from the shootout and today a museum is housed in the Cathedral. I was lucky enough to visit Prague and was staying in the Manes area in the New Town, fairly close to Wenceslas Square and to this day the bullet holes remain on the exterior of the Cathedral. Although, please note the museum is not open on Mondays*

There are two films that base the events of what happened; Operation Daybreak released in 1975, starring Anthony Andrews and Timothy Bottoms and Anthropoid released in 2016, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan that are both worth watching in order to gain more of an insight regarding the operation.

*correct at present time of publishing


The Kite Runner- Using Literature as a source for recent times

The post will look at the historical significance in Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 bestselling novel, The Kite Runner. The novel is a coming of age story focusing on Amir born into a Pashtun family in Afghanistan. Recently, as of Monday 10th July I went to watch the stage adaptation of it with another blogger- lauraljpotter. This got me thinking as there is plenty to right about. Particularly, life in Afghanistan during the 1970s, during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban occupation. I also touch upon Afghans who immigrated to the United States of America during the late 1970s and 1980s, mainly commenting on the accounts in the novel. For starters, I will explain the basic premise of the story and provide a general historical account of the country. Minor spoilers of the plot will be announced to emphasise the historical value of this time period.

The story starts in the mid-seventies focusing on Amir’s friendship with Hassan, who is the son of the family servant and the strained relationship Amir has with his father Baba. The themes Hosseini highlights are the following; friendship, identity, love and redemption, spanning across time from Afghanistan in the mid-seventies towards California in 2001. The modern state of Afghanistan was founded in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Duran but long before this happened the area was conquered numerous times. The earliest account we know was in 330BC, when Alexander the Great conquered it. In the 700s AD, Arab armies invaded the area and the inhabitants of the area converted to Islam. Later in 1218, Genghis Khan’s army penetrated the area. This is interesting to note as it explains the ethnic mix of people that live in Afghanistan and this is still visible today, this will be explained in more thorough detail further on. Conflict did not end there as in the mid-1800s Britain and Russia clashed in order to gain control of Central Asia. There was a power vacuum in Central Asia due to the declining Ottoman Empire, Qajar dynasty and Qing dynasty in the region. This was called “The Great Game” as Britain and Russia vied to occupy these territories. Eventually “The Great Game” led to the First Anglo-Afghan War. By the end of the 1800s, Afghanistan was unwilling to allow British presence in the region and refused a mission to be set up in Kabul. This resulted in the Second Afghan War. At the time Britain acquired an empire that stretched all around the globe, it was coined as “the empire, where the sun never sets”. Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Pakistan was still a part of India and in 1893, the British established an unofficial border to separate Afghanistan and British India. A third war ensued between the Afghans and the British. In 1919 the Third-Anglo War concluded. To summarise, what this short piece does is provide a background account to the complex history of Afghanistan up until when the story starts.

Now we will focus on the country of Afghanistan in the sixties until the seventies. It was a different place to what it became in the early noughties. It was a relatively safe and stable country since 1933 when Zahir Shah quelled unrest by becoming king. Before Zahir Shah, since after the Anglo-Afghan Wars there was always a power struggle in order to establish a long lasting dynasty in Afghanistan. In the twentieth century Emir Amanullah tried to rule and incorporate western influences in Afghanistan, but civil unrest in the country ousted him out. However, from what the background account tells us, this proved to happen throughout the course of history. In particular for those who had money and prominence, life in Afghanistan was very good, full of lavish hill top homes and festivities. Life was full of excitement and opportunities were abundant. This was looked at in Hosseini’s novel. Notably, Baba and Amir’s comfortable home, Amir’s schooling, Amir’s birthday celebrations and the Kite flying competition. This reveals that Amir had a stable and comfortable home life. Expanding on this western travellers often ventured through Afghanistan as a pit stop before moving on to India. This particular route was known as the “hippie trail”.

However, that air of stability soon collapsed when in 1973 King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin. Two ideologies developed during this time in wanting to prevent gradual western ideals that occurred in the royal Afghan court. One ideology supported communism and the Soviets. This group was called the People’s Democratic of Afghanistan. Another ideology advocated for a return of religious values in society. It was the PDPA that ended up being more successful first in 1978, within a year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, plunging Afghanistan into the Cold War as a potential satellite state. They did this to strength the communist ideology of the PDPA in Afghanistan as well as extending their on sphere of influence in Central Asia. However, war ensured as not everyone was happy with the Soviet invasion, in “The Kite Runner”, Babi, Amir’s father did not want the Soviets to take control of Afghanistan. Using Babi as an example, many affluent families in Afghanistan and those who held close ties to royalty were suspected to be reactionaries and many of them like Babi and Amir had to flee to neighbouring Pakistan and as a result became refugees and wait admitted asylum. It was from there that many families moved on to the United States of America, like what Babi and Amir did. Babi and Amir like many Afghans settled in Fremont, California. A majority of Afghans who fled Afghanistan settled in the San Francisco Bay area of California like Fresno, Los Angeles, Virginia and other major areas like Illinois, Florida and Washington. Many Afghan migrants worked in unskilled professions or in the public sector. Some Afghan professions mentioned in “The Kite Runner” were traders, teachers, policeman and gas station attendants. Life was not always easy for any particular new arrivals to the USA but what Hosseini does draw attention to is the fact that it was perhaps easier for some to assimilate into the new American culture, whereas for others it was more difficult. This was looked at in the form of father and son, Babi and Amir. Babi struggled seeing as he had established himself in Afghanistan it was bound to be difficult to pack up and start again, particularly as he was living in a comfortable hill top home in Afghanistan. In Fremont he was living in an apartment block. For Amir, you could argue that it helped him pursue his dreams of becoming a writer as he improved his English, went to college to major in Creative Writing and found love and married Soraya. In essence embracing his new opportunities and attempting to pursue the “American Dream”.

The Soviets tried their best to capture all of Afghanistan, but this did not happen, they found it difficult to penetrate the countryside and this remained relatively untouched. The Soviets eventually realised that they couldn’t continue funding a conquest they knew they could never win. The geography of Afghanistan is testing as it is a heavily mountainous land-locked country. Again, more civil unrest ensued and much of the country was being taken over by mujahedin groups. The capital, Kabul managed to quell this for three years as Najibullah, an ally from Moscow was able to control the area. Eventually, Kabul fell and Najibullah lost control. Even still these rival mujahedin only managed to control the city until 1996, when they were ousted by much younger jihadis. They were known as the Taliban and controlled everyday life in Afghan society from there on in, including the vibrant capital Kabul. Kabul changed drastically under this leadership. Kabul was once a place where men and women could sit in university together and women weren’t told what to wear. This all changed when the Taliban took control and implemented a strict regime on Afghanistan.

In more recent time, in the noughties Afghanistan garnished much negative connotations and further turmoil. Most notably, the War on Terror, Afghanistan was used as a testing ground by British and American forces. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre all attention went on combating Al Qaeda, the Terrorist group responsible for the heinous act and capturing their ringleader, Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban were told in “The Kite Runner” in the form of one character the antagonist, Assef who frequently tormented Amir and Hassan. He constantly made fun out of Hassan’s ethnicity of being a Hazara. Some people like Assef did not like the Hazara people as they held a belief that they were not true Afghans and how they polluted the country. This was ironic in the story as Assef himself had a Pashtun father and a German mother. Many Hazara people as a result faced widespread discrimination in everyday life. This is something that many Hazara people face even today. Harking back to what I mentioned earlier, there were two different ethnic groups mentioned in the story, one were the Pashtuns and the other group was the Hazaras. The Hazaras were said to be descended from inner Asia and more specifically around Mongolia. This makes sense considering how many times different armies came to conquer and/or settle in Afghanistan. However, this theory is not entirely confirmed and we do not know for sure where they actually descended from.

Afghanistan faced much hardship over the years and history seemingly starting to repeat itself in the form of occupation, then reoccupation, then occupation, then reoccupation an endless cycle it seems over the centuries and something that still lays bare in Afghanistan today; whether that be when Alexander the Great first captured the land or as early in 2009 when Obama increased the number of American troops to arrive in Afghanistan.

Political Unrest in Russia: The Abdication of Nicholas II

Nikolai Aleksandrovich, known as Tsar Nicholas II, was the last Russian Emperor and a member of the illustrious Romanov dynasty that had sat on the imperial throne since the early seventeenth century. Born on the 18th of May in Tsarskoye Selo, now Pushkin, Nicholas was born to rule only to die in a bloody revolution designed to end the formal monarchy of Russia. Nicholas II was the son and heir of his predecessor Tsarevich Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and his consort the Dagmar of Denmark Maria Fyodorovna, and his succeeded his father in Moscow on May 26th 1896. As a child Nicholas was trained to be an excellent military officer but his intellectual skills were inadequate to be prepared for the role of emperor. It is well documented that he possessed a good personality, but naturally shy with a compulsion to remain within the privacy of the family quarters instead of socialising with the court subjects. His close family was intimate and happy since Nicholas had a genuine affection and love for his wife Alexandra whom he married two years before his ascension on 26th November 1894. Alexandra was the stronger of the two in temperament and was the leader in their religious guidance during their marriage and reign. However well his family circle functioned the political undercurrents of court life was rumbling with discontent. Nicholas had a tendency to lean on favourites, to distrust his ministers, and to believe his right to rule was derived from the outdated notion of Divine Right and absolutism that had already seen the fall of the French monarchy.

The year running up to the 18th March 1917 had several upheavals close in on the Russian imperial family, their downfall and eventual execution in 1918. Nicholas II had run through a series of ministers that had presented the emperor with a skewed perception of common Russian life that he preferred to what he read in the official reports that landed in his office. His belief in autocratic rule meant that he never attempted to produce policies to aid his government and people. Russia maintained the medieval ideology of feudalism and the people being closely tied to the land ensured a limited measure of freedom. This meant that the people’s faith in the imperial monarchy was low and morale sank lower during Russia’s involvement in World War One from 1914. Nicholas as a monarch has interests in Balkans and attempted to salve peace within the great powers of Europe, however the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo meant Nicholas’ resistance to war ended in the mobilization of Russian troops. Yet this war would see Russia falling from being a world power to an economic and military failure. In the years running up to the world war Nicholas II had been to seen to be the blame for several catastrophes from the execution of multiple political opponents, the instigation of the Russo-Japanese War, a very violent defeat for the leaders of the 1905 Revolution, and links with England attempting to suppress the power of Germany.

One of the reasons the people grew increasing disaffected with the imperial monarchy was the lack of order and control to the Russian army who had already seen a recent war with Japan. The imperial army lost approximately over three million soldiers, lack of food and supplies alongside poor management from the higher level military leaders. As the government failed to provide for their own army and citizens, riots and rebellions grew in frequency, particularly with Nicholas away, and authority crumbled. There had been several attempts at constitutional reform to become more similar to the role of parliament in Britain  but they were resisted. The increasingly isolation of the Tsar to his ministers prevented anything meaningful taking place.

The Russians began the war in the strong position in regards to supplies, but by 1917 severe winters had caused a standstill in railways, emergency shipments of coal and the treasury being depleted significantly. On the 23rd February 1917 the citizens of Petrograd resorted to stealing and rioting which slowly spread to other cities all with the aim to gain the attention and bring down the Tsar. With the best of the militia dead the police created a forced recruitment and gave them very little training. Although the police and militia deployed fired into the air rather than the mob of over twenty thousand that had formed they were not deterred but reinforcements from Nicholas’ base were too late. On the 12th of March the Volinsky Regiment mutinied which led to successive rebellions within the militia to join the mob themselves. Nicholas II knew that the situation was die when the imperial guards loyalists the Preobrazhensky Regiment formed under Peer the Great also turned their anger against the Tsar. By the end of the day sixty thousand soldiers had joined the revolution to march against the Tsar.

Up against such numbers members of government, the Duma and the Soviet attempted to restore order with provisional preparations. The most significant order was that Nicholas II was to abdicate and create a clean slate for ruling Russia. Nicholas II faced the decision with the threat of civil war, the army generals pushing for abdication and his citizens deprived of food with his family in the hands of the Soviet.

Nicholas II abdicated on the 15th March 1917, thus formally ending what is now known as the February Revolution. Originally he had abdicated in the favour of his son Alexei who was weak but soon the aim of the revolution was to force the whole imperial family into exile. The ideology of whether Russia should remain in the hands of the monarchy or become a republic was put to a vote by the people. Nicholas’ abdication and further revolution by the Bolsheviks would formally bring the end of the Romanov dynasty that had lasted three centuries. By October 2017 the last Romanov imperial family were imprisoned.

If you would like more information one of the best Romanov biographers is Simon Sebag Montifiore whose books are available on amazon and in most booksellers.

Hand in Hand: Theatre and Politics

In recent weeks the link between politics and theatre has come to the forefront of discussion, with arguments about politics role in the theatre. Whatever peoples’ thoughts are on politics’ place or appropriateness in theatre, it is simply undeniable that the two are inextricably linked and have been since theatre existed.  This is not a simple link either; theatre and politics throughout history have been linked in a variety of ways, whether it be in the play itself, its patrons, its performers and writers or even the physical theatres themselves.

Western theatre is largely based on the theatre of the ancient Greeks. This is also where politics and theatre became intertwined. The venue for theatre and politic discussion during this period were the same; the amphitheatre. This, along with the emphasis placed on rhetoric as civic duty, meant the two often overlapped during this period. While there is no term in ancient Greek for satire, several of the earliest satirists wrote for Greek theatre, such as Aristophanes who was fiercely critical of Cleon, a general and politician, and Menander whose earliest surviving fragment of work was an attack on a politician.

English theatre until the Reformation was mostly restricted to religious plays such as mystery cycles and miracle plays. These plays became unacceptable after the Reformation and secular theatre began to flourish. Theatre companies, to play in public, were required to have a noble patron and many of the companies took their name from their patrons, such as the Lord Chamberlin’s men.

Theatre companies during this period had two audiences: the monarch and court; and the general public. Therefore plays had to straddle a line of appealing to the general public while not offending the court. Sometimes this failed, such as in A Game of Chess which was stopped after several performances for its thinly veiled allegory of the current monarchy.

Even plays that were not about the monarch or court could be dangerous. Shakespeare’s Richard II was paid to be performed shortly before the Essex Rebellion in 1601 by Essex’s supporters in hope that the play, which was deeply critical of Richard II, would encourage people to join the rebellion.  Luckily for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlin’s men they were not punished for their accidental involvement. However such incidents show that theatre was considered to be deeply political.

After the closure of theatres under the Puritan Interregnum rule of Oliver Cromwell, the ascension of Charles II led to a new flourishing age of theatre. Political plays found new popularity in theatres across the country, such as The Country Wife and The Roundheads. This was despite theatres requiring a royal patent and despite the fact that Charles II was known to frequent theatres unlike his predecessors.

The introduction of allowing women on stage was one of the most politically charged acts of the 17th century, directly challenging gender roles. Female actors attracted controversy on and off-stage: on stage the women portrayed characters far from what was considered ‘acceptable’; and off-stage many actresses who had come from lowly means found themselves thrust into the political spheres of court, and able to wield political power via their affairs with nobility or even the king himself.

The Licensing Act of 1737 had a huge impact on English theatre and was introduced because of the political fears of Prime Minster, Robert Walpole. Walpole feared that the popularity and presence of political satire and dissent on stage undermined him and his government. As a result the act allowed government censorship of the stage, which continued until 1968. The act was strengthened in 1848, making it compulsory for all plays to receive government approval before staging. This meant whole plays could be refused, although in most cases plays simply had certain passages censored. This included all plays, even performances of classical plays. This created a two tier theatre system with legitimate theatres who were licensed and those that were not.

With the power of the censor, plays especially in the 19th century began to focus more on social than political issues, which aligned more with the attitude of the government. When politics did enter the theatre, it was not uncommon for it to come after the scripts had been submitted to the censors. Pantomime became one of the most political genres of theatre. Writers such as George Bernard Shaw and J B Priestly courted controversy by inserting their own politics into plays.

At the dawn of the 20th century political groups began to form theatre groups, such as the Workers Theatre Movement and the Pioneer Players. In 1936, the Unity Theatre was formed with distinctly left wing productions, many of which directly challenged censorship.

After the Second World War, political theatre came into its own. Politically charged theatre first found its footing on the fringe theatres as until 1968, theatres were still censored. Plays such as The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (who would go on to write a number of highly politically charged plays throughout the last half of the 20th century) and Oh, What a Lovely War!, pushed their political messages indirectly.

The lifting of censorship, along with the political atmosphere of the 1960s, allowed an explosion of direct political theatre. Plays such as Saved by Edward Bond, which had previously been severely censored, were allowed in their full political anger. Play writers were no longer restricted to political satire to criticise their government, their monologues could now directly call out those who did not live up to their expectations.

This has continued and expanded through into the 21st century, with even ‘family-friendly’ productions such as the musical Billy Elliot being adamantly anti-Thatcher. Today it seems unimaginable that in living memory that there was not a time where playwrights could not write clear criticism of the current political climate.


Wade in Blood: Operation Anthropoid

Along with my fellow W.U. Hstry contributor Ellie, I recently travelled around several countries in Europe. One of our stops was in Prague in the Czech Republic. I had been browsing things to do in Prague when I came across the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. I recognised the name Heydrich from my History GCSE but I had no idea what the memorial was for and how it related to Heydrich. Upon some good old fashioned googling, I learnt about Operation Anthropoid, the only successful assassination of a top ranking Nazi organised by a government. Despite this apparent Allied success, the reprisals from the Nazis were truly horrific. The assassins along with their accomplices and those who sheltered them were killed or committed suicide. Somewhere between 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and interrogated with some sent to the camps. Around 5000 of these were executed. Perhaps most horrifyingly of all, two villages Lidice and Ležáky, had their inhabitants either executed or sent to camps before the villages themselves were destroyed. With such a staggering human cost I was shocked that I had never heard anything about this, and I have since found that several others I would expect to know about it did not either. Interestingly since learning about Operation Anthropoid, the BBC posted an article about the search for the assassins bodies and I have also learnt about a film dramatizing the events called Anthropoid which is due to be released in September.

In 1942 as the Nazis approached Moscow, the Nazi Reich looked unstoppable and governments in exile such as the Czechs came under increasing pressure to show active resistance. Czech resistance had been subdued by the brutality of the Nazi regime, especially under the rule of Reinhard Heydrich, the sadistic Nazi official placed in charge of Bohemia and Moravia (which makes up the majority of the Czech Republic today; Czech Silesia had become separate as part of the 1938 Munich agreement but would re-join Czechoslovakia in 1945 and remain part of the Czech Republic until 1993). Heydrich was not just responsible for brutality within Czech borders, he was also responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi elite death squad responsible for the deaths of around two million people, principally civilians, between 1941-1945. He also chaired the Wannsee Conference where the decision to implement the Final Solution, the formal decision to follow a policy of total extermination of Jews. Therefore it was decided that Heydrich would be a valuable target for assassination.

After several delays the assassination took place on 27 May 1942. Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčí, a Slovak, were chosen for the assassination. The plan was to attack Heydrich in his car during his commute from home to Prague Castle at a bend in the road that would make it impossible for his driver to be able to escape and also meant the car had to slow down. Gabčík attempted to use his machine gun, but it jammed, leading to Kubiš to throw a modified anti-tank grenade, causing damage to the car’s right rear bumper. This damage led to fragments of shrapnel and the upholstery entering Heydrich’s body. It was these injuries that would later kill him. The pair attempted to shoot Heydrich, not realising how extensively injured he was at the time, but neither managed to shoot on target due to the after effects of the explosion. Both were forced to flee, injuring Heydrich’s driver who tried to catch them, thinking they had failed. Heydrich was quickly aided and took to Bulovka Hospitial where he was treated. A week after the assassination he seemed to be improving after surgery, but he went into shock and died the following morning.

Hitler ordered immediate retaliation, even before Heydrich’s death. While the first priority was the assassins and their collaborators, Hitler was adamant that the Czech people should also suffer. It was only due to concerns of Himmler about how it would affect Czech productivity for the war effort that resulted in a scale back of the reprisals. Hitler originally had wanted to have 10,000 Czechs who were considered to be politically unstable, even though they were not considered to have been part of the plot, executed. Despite Hitler’s original intentions not being carried out, the reprisals were still horrendously brutal. Around 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and tortured. Martial law was proclaimed and the Nazis began a large manhunt. Around 5000 Czechs were killed in reprisals, the first of whom to be executed was Alois Eliáš, who had previously served as the Prime Minister during the initial occupation while secretly working for Czech underground. He had been arrested in September 1941 but was executed as the first of the reprisals.

The most infamous of the reprisals however was reserved for the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Both villages were incorrectly linked to the assassination. Lidice was home to several Czech officers who were in exile in England leading to the Gestapo to suspect that Kubiš and Gabčík were being sheltered there. On the 10th June 1942, the inhabitants of the village were rounded up. The men of the village were separated and shot to death. The women and children of the village were held for a further three days before being separated. A few children were spared for ‘re-education’ with German families as well as those under the age of one. The rest, however, were callously murdered at Chelmno extermination camp in gas vans. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Not satisfied with the murder of the village’s inhabitants the village was destroyed and razed to the ground, including the village church and cemetery.

The village of Ležáky met a similar fate on the 24th June. A radio transmitter was found in the village which had been hidden after paratroopers from Operation Silver A, a resistance operation, had arrived in the region. Five hundred SS troops and police surrounded Ležáky, removing the town’s inhabitants before setting the village on fire. The adult inhabitants were shot to death that night or within the following several nights along with those associated with the assassins. The children of Ležáky, with the exception of two who were placed with German families, were murdered in the same way as the children of Lidice.

Kubiš and Gabčík lived to hear of the destruction of Lidice, but not that of Ležáky. The pair felt responsible but they were stopped from making a very public show of responsibility. Since the assassination they had been hidden by families in Prague before being given sanctuary in the orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodus, along with four other paratroopers. After a few days of hiding the church was stormed in the early hours of June 18th. The group were betrayed when a member of a Czech resistance group, Karel Čurda, for the price of a million Reichsmarks had gave the Gestapo the names and addresses of the group’s local contacts. Eventually a teenage boy after suffering horrendous torture, including being shown his mother’s severed head, gave up the information the Nazis desperately wanted. The boy along with his family was executed at Mauthausen concentration camp in October that year.  The church was sieged by 750 SS soldiers, with the group holding out in the prayer loft for two hours armed with only small calibre pistols compared to the soldiers’ machine guns and hand grenades. Kubiš along with two of the others assassination died after this battle. Gabčík, and the remaining three paratroopers fought on despite continuous heavy gunfire, tear gas attacks and an attempt to flood out the crypt where they hid. The foursome decided to commit suicide rather than be captured, a final act of defiance.

Even with Kubiš and Gabčík’s deaths, the reprisals did not falter. The families of those in the church were rounded up and executed. Bishop Gorzad tried to take the blame for the incident to spare as many as possible. He was tortured and later executed alongside the church’s priests and lay leaders for sheltering the assassins. Those with any connection to the assassins or the resistance were arrested, with many being sent to concentration camps or executed.

Despite the success of the assassination little changed for the Czechs. The Nazi regime managed to continue to control and force the population in manufacturing for the war effort. The Czech resistance continued their activities but widespread resistance among the population did not gain momentum until the latter end of the war with the Nazis losing their grip over the territory, allowing the Czechs an actual opportunity of success. The assassination had led to the dissolution of the Munich agreement that had led to the partition of Czechoslovakia, with Britain and France agreeing that the region would return to Czechoslovakia. Of course, in the view of many Czechs it had been a betrayal that the Munich Agreement had ever been signed with Britain and France, breaking their military obligations in an effort to stave off the Nazis.

Between 1945 and 1948, Kubiš and Gabčík were celebrated as heroes. However after the Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948 such celebration and memorials to the murdered were not tolerated, due to the involvement of the Czech government in exile and their location in Britain during the war. Finally after independence, the St. Cyril and Methodius church was opened to the public with a memorial to Operation Anthropoid named: National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, the memorial that I first learnt about on this bloody event in Czechoslovakian history. The village of Lidice was rebuilt in 1949, with some of the women from Lidice who had survived the camps returning. More permanent memorials for Lidice did not appear until the end of Soviet occupation. The decision was taken not to rebuild Ležáky, and only memorials to the victims remain on the site.

The events of Operation Anthropoid are known by every Czech, for the sheer bravery and resistance of the Czech people and the terror that befell the population. However, here in the UK, there seems to be very little known about it. Over the last five or so years I have come to realise how much of the events during World War Two are ignored outside of their respective countries (in the UK and US at least).

I find this is concerning in three regards. Firstly, we cannot accurately understand history if we ignore vast swathes of it. Secondly, at a time when Europe and other western countries are gripped with rising fascism and terrorist attacks, we must learn our lessons from similar times past. Lastly, we cannot consider ourselves citizens of the world if we continue to limit our knowledge and understanding of history to that only pertaining within our own borders. While Operation Anthropoid is only one event, I hope that as knowledge of it begins to appear in the British media, that more of us begin to look beyond our restricted knowledge of history.

T. E. Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence, or more commonly referred to as T. E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, as made famous later in the twentieth century by the 1962 film starring Peter O’ Toole. He was a man of many interests and experiences. This post will provide a biographical account of his life but with a particular focus on his involvement during the First World War, the Arab Revolt as part of the First World War specials. Lawrence was born out-of-wedlock in Tremadog, Wales to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner on 16th August 1888. The family lived under the name Lawrence and the young Lawrence went on to study History at Jesus College, Oxford. After graduating with a First Class Honours, Lawrence became an archaeologist and worked in the Middle East on various excavations and became acquainted with David George Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, leading archaeologists of the day.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in January 1914, Lawrence undertook a survey of the Negev desert, now modern-day southern Israel. Surveying the area of the desert was of high importance against the Ottoman army if they wanted to invade in the event of war looming but it was also done for archaeological research. However considering the circumstances at the time, it was useful intelligence to have as it would strengthen any onslaught against the Ottomans, who were allies of the German Empire.

As tensions rose the First World War was declared. However Lawrence did not straight away enlist in the British Army. So how did he become immortalised figure that we know as Lawrence of Arabia? Lawrence certainly had a great deal of knowledge about the Middle East and travelled extensively in the area including; Aqaba, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Petra. Intelligence staff were aware of this and upon his formal enlistment they placed him in Cairo. In 1916 the Arab Revolt began on the 5th June and formally declared on 8th June by Sherif Hussain bin Ali. The aim of the revolt was to cease the Ottoman influence in the Middle East and secure independence from them in order to create a single Arab unified state. However, Sherif Hussain bin Ali was rather to have said that it was to do more with the dissatisfaction of the Young Turks. The Young Turks was a political movement that wanted to replace the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government and by stating that they violated the sacred tenets of Islam. The group became synonymous with discord throughout the early twentieth century which include; the Balkan Wars and the Armenian Genocide. The British dispatched a number of officials to help with revolt along with the French.

Lawrence was sent to the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916 to work alongside the Hashemite forces. Later on during the war Lawrence fought under the command of Emir Faisal who was the son of the Hashemite leader and Emir of Mecca, Hussain ibn Ali al-Hashimi. Populist and sensationalist accounts often embellish Lawrence as the sole Allied presence from Britain and France. It was accounts from an American writer and traveller that certainly made the wider public aware of Lawrence and what he did in the Middle East to help secure Arab independence. However Lawrence himself also helped his own experiences in the Arab Revolt by writing an autobiographical account during 1916-1918.

Lawrence was considered to be a brilliant tactician and could liaise with the Arab troops really well. Guerrilla warfare was what Lawrence, Emir Faisal and the Arab troops conducted against the Ottomans and it was Lawrence who was said to have convinced Emir Faisal that attacking Aqaba was more likely to result in a win than trying to raid Medina. Lawrence seeing as their position was weak to attack Medina at that point, decided on Aqaba and had successfully required the support of his comrades. These irregular attacks against the Ottomans proved to be highly effective. When these skirmishes occurred it hit Ottoman communications and supply routes really hard. In 1917 Lawrence was involved in the Battle of Aqaba, a port on the southern coast of Jordan. The battle itself was not a great obstacle as such it was in actual fact obtained fairly easily in the sense that it was not a stronghold for the Ottomans. Aqaba at this time was a small coastal village and Lawrence demonstrated his strategic mentality through convincing the Ottomans that they were going to attack Damascus rather than Aqaba at this point. Lawrence went even so far to go solo by raiding The Arab troops who did lose their lives was mainly down to environmental factors, like scorpion bites than actual battle fatalities. The march to battle was on land from the Nefud desert. This was the first major victory that the Arabs had over the Ottomans as they withdrew from Aqaba. Considering beforehand that a previous raid on Medina was unsuccessful, the capture of Aqaba was vital as Aqaba now had access to the Red Sea to Egypt. After the capture of Aqaba this enabled the territory to be under the rule of Prince Faisal and be known as the Kingdom of Hejaz. The success of this battle was not without concern as Ottoman troops stationed nearby and made threats to recapture Aqaba and outside the city skirmishes ensued. Nevertheless nothing actually happened in Aqaba itself, considering that security was stepped up. Arab reinforcements and the British forces made their presence known to the Ottomans in Aqaba. As time went on the Arab revolt spread north and reached the areas of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria.

There have been reasons to suggest that he did receive help and that they have been linked to Gertrude Bell’s reports in the Middle East. Like Lawrence, Bell too travelled to the Middle East extensively after completing her University studies. It has been argued that from these accounts, Lawrence was able to successfully occupy the Hejaz over the Turkish defence. Although it may be an indirect influence, the claim was still made. However, it is important to recognise that Lawrence was an integral tool for the success of Aqaba and helping to provide a rallying force to the Arabs who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. After the events of Aqaba, Aleppo and Damascus, Lawrence still stood by with his comrades and sought for their independence at the London and Paris Peace Conferences. Self-rule was not granted and that these areas were granted under a French and a British protectorate. Syria (French) and Mesopotamia (British).

Aside from his endeavours in the Middle East, the question regarding Lawrence’s sexuality was and still is a major topic for discussion. Living and working in a time when homosexuality was excluded and frowned upon by society, it has been suggested that he was engaged in a relationship with Selim Ahmed. These suggestions had arisen mainly because of a dedication poem at the start of Lawrence’s personal account of his time in the Middle East, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, that is a far stretch and a bold statement, considering it is reliant on the information provided that the poem was dedicated to S. A. It is more probable to think S. A stands for a friend he met whilst there or Arab men and women as a whole. Other claims regarding Lawrence’s sexuality have not ended there. There are further suggestions to state that he was asexual or that he was a masochist. However there has been no solid evidence to confirm this, only the odd statement that he found the experience of being beaten pleasurable and that his friends reckoned he was asexual. It is likely that we will never know.


“Dress suitably in short skirts … and buy a revolver”: The role of women in The Easter Rising of 1916

As we mark the centenary of The Easter Rising, a recent article by Olivia O’Leary for The Guardian lead me to consider the involvement of women in the conflict and on the involvement of the aristocrat-turned-rebel, Countess Markievicz, in particular.

Three young rebels of Easter, 1916

          Easter fell early this year, on March the 27th, but a century ago Easter Sunday was celebrated on the 23rd of April, with Easter Monday falling on the 24th.  However, the religious festivities of 1916 were to be greatly overshadowed by the outbreak of an armed conflict in Ireland, one which came to be known as The Easter Rising. The Rising, a rebellion against British rule, largely took place in Dublin, with smaller skirmishes breaking out across the country. It began on Easter Monday, 1916, when a group of around 1,800 men and women took over key buildings in Dublin, transforming The General Post Office into their headquarters. It was on the steps of the Post Office that Patrick Pearse read aloud a statement, known as the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which he declared that Irish men and women would fight for their independence from the crown.

The British army, caught unawares by the development and with forces focussed on World War One, was initially slow to react but it soon took measures to halt the rebellion. Within a few days, extra troops had arrived in Ireland. Fighting broke out on the streets of Dublin, and it is thought that almost five hundred people were killed in the conflict. Of them around two hundred and sixty– three for every rebel death – were civilians, with many killed as a result of crossfire in the busy city, or of the British use of artillery and heavy machine guns.  The Rising began on April the 24th and lasted for just five days, though its legacy is still celebrated by Irish Republicans, and the conflict is a common theme in many of the famous Belfast murals. Many others, however, such as the former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, criticise the ‘celebratory’ tone surrounding memorials. He believes that ‘It is important that in remembering and commemorating what happened that we don’t glorify or justify it.’

The destruction of Dublin, 1916

The centenary of the conflict lead many to discuss the way it is commemorated, and indeed whether the legacy is worth remembering at all. In a recent article for The Guardian, for example, published shortly before Easter this year, journalist Olivia O’Leary voiced her admiration at her grandfather’s involvement in the Rising, yet her disappointment in the outcome. She wonders, ‘What happened to the promise of equality in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916, … addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”?’ O’Leary goes on to note that while the proclamation declared an end to British rule, it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. What’s more, writes O’Leary, it made a commitment to universal suffrage, something which was extraordinary at the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote. O’Leary writes of her disappointment therefore that the progressive message ‘became stifled by a conservative culture obsessed with female chastity and purity.’

‘Historians,’ writes O’Leary, ‘now tell us that there was a tussle to have women included so pointedly in the proclamation.’ It was a struggle won by James Connolly and Constance Markievicz, the prominent feminist and socialist. Yet only two years later in the general election of 1918, ‘when Sinn Féin swept the boards,’ it was clear that the socialists and feminists had been pushed aside. ‘Most of the dreamers and visionaries had been shot in 1916’, writes O’Leary, ‘and a more pragmatic and conservative leadership concentrated totally on the nationalist goal of separation from the UK.’ Thus, when the Irish Labour movement decided to stand aside in 1918 so as not to split the nationalist vote, the only woman elected was Markievicz.

Constance Markievicz, the rebel countess of 1916

After reading O’Leary’s article, I was curious to read more about the involvement of women in The Easter Rising. In particular, I was keen to learn more about the role of Constance Markievicz, knowing very little about her beside her reputation as the ‘rebel countess.’ One post, by BBC History, notes that her exploits dominated contemporary press accounts of The Easter Rising. An instance of this being ‘the scene at the College of Surgeons when she kissed her revolver before handing it over to the British officer at the moment of surrender,’ a tale which passed instantly into Irish nationalist mythology. Quite something for a woman who had been born into the aristocratic Gore-Booths family in London, 1868, and presented at court to Queen Victoria in 1887.

The author writes that she married a Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, however they had little in common and separated amicably at the outbreak of World War One. Then, in 1909, Markievicz first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping the nationalist scouting organisation Na Fianna Éireann in their mission to train boys for participation in a war of liberation. She was also deeply involved with the Irish suffragette movement and focussed considerable energy into Inghinidhe na hEireann, a militant women’s organisation founded by Maude Gonne. Markievicz demonstrated further compassion in her work with the poor. In 1913, for example, during the Dublin Lockout, she worked tirelessly so as to provide food for the worker’s families.

Countess Markievicz

Just two years later, she was involved in helping to organise and train the Irish Citizen Army. Indeed, during the Easter Rising, Markievicz was second-in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green/College of Surgeons, and she actively fought throughout the week. After the conflict, she was the only woman to be court-martialled, on May the 4th, 1916. While it has been suggested that Markievicz ‘crumpled up’ during her trial, there is little evidence to support this. Official records instead suggest that ‘she acted with courage, dignity and defiance’ at the trial, and declared “I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict reached by the court was unique; she was found ‘Guilty. Death by being shot,’ yet with a recommendation to mercy based ‘solely and only on account of her sex.’ The sentence was therefore commuted to a life sentence.

Countess Markievicz during her time in prison

Markievicz ultimately served thirteen months in Irish and English gaols, and later claimed that her inspiration during the period of her imprisonment had been Thomas Clarke, a signatory of the Proclamation who had been executed alongside Pearse and MacDonagh on the 3rd of May, 1916.  Afterwards she also was known for being unforgiving in her attitude towards the Irish Volunteer Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, who had opposed and tried to prevent the Rising. In the General Election of December, 1918, Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. However, as a member for Sinn Féin, she never took her seat in Westminster. Rather, she served as Minister of Labour (1919- 1921) in the first Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. She is known to have bitterly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December, 1921, and supported the anti-Treaty forces during the civil war. In 1921, aged 59, Markievicz died in hospital in Dublin. At her funeral, the working class of the city lined the streets.

Crowds line the streets for the funeral of Countess Markievicz, 1921

Markievicz is perhaps the best known woman to have been active in the Easter Rising, but she was by no means the only one. In her article entitled Women of the Rising: Activists, Fighters & Widows, Sinéad McCoole writes of the many who fought alongside her, and are only now receiving recognition. Approximately three hundred women took part in the events of Easter week, 1916. This figure is one which McCoole draws from recently released material held by the Military Archives, and is much higher than previously thought. Beyond the statistics, McCoole also examines contemporary newspapers for ‘a more immediate insight into the roles played by women in 1916.’ One press report, for instance, stated that the women ‘were serving in the dining room of the Post Office dressed in their finest clothes, and wore knifes and pistols in their belts… wearing green and white and orange sashes.’ While another report, based on an account by a Red Cross nurse and published under the headline ‘Fearless Under Fire,’ expresses a great amount of admiration for ‘…these Irishwomen, who did their work with a cool and reckless courage, unsurpassed by any man from the first to the last day of the Rebellion.’

Some of the approximately 300 women involved in the Easter Rising

Indeed, the contribution of women attracted a great deal of international attention, and in the aftermath of the Rising many representatives of the American press came to interview the women who had been imprisoned. Kathleen Lynn, for example, who had served as Chief Medical Officer in the Irish Citizen Army later reflected that they were not what the media had expected; ‘We were not up to the mark and as snappy as they would have liked us to be. They got the impression that we were a poor lot.’ Yet, whatever the opinion of the American press, and whether or not the Easter Rising should be commemorated or simply remembered, the role of women in the conflict should not be overlooked. In a recent article entitled The Forgotten Role of Women Insurgents in The 1916 Rising, Tom Clonan effectively summarises by stating that while women continue to be ‘effectively airbrushed from historical accounts of the Rising and their sacrifices for the state routinely omitted in discussions about Irish identity and citizenship,’ the role they played in the struggle of 1916 and in the subsequent War of Independence was nonetheless vital.


Further reading:

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle


‘Courage even above her sex’, this statement immortalised on a plaque as part of a eulogy for Lady Mary Bankes by her son Sir Ralph Bankes is located in St Martin’s Church in Ruislip, Greater London. This statement was in actual fact a rather fitting and accurate description of her; particularly concerning her valour during the Civil War whilst defending her home, Corfe Castle in Dorset. This post will account for Lady Mary’s bravery concerning this siege against Parliamentarian assault on Corfe Castle.

Lady Mary Bankes neé Hawtrey was the only daughter born to Ralph Hawtrey Esquire of Ruislip, Middlesex and Mary Altham in c.1598. Bankes married John Bankes, later made an Attorney-General, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas to King Charles I and knighted as Sir. Looking at her marital family connections in hindsight that Lady Mary was married to a pro-Royalist. Lady Mary bore ten children in total, four sons and six daughters. There only appears to be later information relating to two of her sons, Sir Ralph Bankes and that he married Mary Bruen with issue and Jerome along with Ralph later purchased a manor on behalf of their mother after the events of the siege at Corfe. Considering there is no later information accounting the lives of her other sons it can be presumed that they died in infancy without issue or that later records are of them at adulthood have been lost or are hard to come by. There are more extensive records relating to who her daughters married and if they had issue. Alice Bankes married John Borlase, Jane Bankes married George Cullen, Mary Bankes married Sir Robert Jenkinson (with issue), Joanna Bankes married William Borlase of Great Marlow (with issue) and Arabella Bankes married Samuel Gilly. Her other daughter Elizabeth, it can as with her sons; Charles and William that she died in infancy or that she reached adulthood without marriage. However considering all her sisters married, the former theory is more likely.

The most thorough account we have of Lady Mary is surrounding her involvement in the Siege of Corfe Castle. Corfe Castle had a rather imposing appearance, dominating the surrounding landscape of Corfe Village since the times of William the Conqueror and the site was used for the construction of the castle as it was close to Purbeck forest as the so that he could use it for hunting purposes. The ruins as they appear today, indicate that the design was Norman but the site was used in Saxon times and even further back to the Iron Age. It was acquired by Sir John Banks from Lady Hatton (otherwise known as Lady Coke) who was twice widowed by her first husband William Hatton. William Hatton inherited the castle through his uncle who died as a bachelor, Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth I. This suggests the castle was once a royal domain of the Tudors, however they did not take much notice of the place as William the Conqueror did. Henry VII handed the residence over to his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort and she was said to have not visited the castle more than once, Henry VIII like his father passed it down to Henry Fitzroy. At the point that he died it fell to Edward VI upon Henry VIII’s death and passed it on to Lord Protector Somerset before Elizabeth I inherited it.

Sir John Bankes most likely purchased the castle as a country retreat intending to use it for leisurely purposes but considering the political climate at the time Sir John Bankes did not manage to see the positives of his investment. This was mainly due to his work commitments for Charles I, he did in actual fact preside over cases against Members of Parliament who refused to comply with royal prerogative. One of which was John Hampden who refused to pay one of Charles’ taxes ‘Ship money’, by claiming it was an unjust tax that Charles instigated without the consent of Parliament in spite of the King and his supports saying it was needed for the upkeep of Naval defences along coastal areas. This tax soon was imposed on inland areas too, which increased further animosity. Upon the outbreak and throughout the Civil War he appeared to be loyal to Charles and the Royalist cause and as a result of this loyalty he followed the King North to his new seat at York and later to Oxford. This is where Lady Mary Bankes’ involvement comes in at the time of war.

Lady Mary Bankes along with her children and servants withdrew to Corfe Castle in 1642, whilst her husband was away serving Charles. At first life for the Bankes’ seemed relatively peaceful until the Parliamentarians became interested in the site. The local parliamentary commanders, Sir Walter Earle and Sir Thomas Trenchard along with 200-300 men set out to capture it and planned to storm the grounds on 1st May 1643 at a May Day gathering at the castle making it seem less suspicious. However this plan never worked as Lady Mary was informed of this plan beforehand and she was well equipped to prevent these troops from entering the premises on that day. She stepped up security surrounding the castle and required that the gates were to be kept shut. At this point Lady Mary was successful in preventing a Parliamentary coup. However, it is equally as important to consider the fact that she prevented this from happening with a bit of luck as she learned of this coup as it was leaked. Nevertheless she demonstrated great courage and wisdom by protecting herself, family and servants from the Parliamentarians. From this point they kept watch on her actions from afar, this was to monitor who she lets in and in the sense who she may be corresponding with. Additionally she also enlisted the help of 80 soldiers led by Captain Robert Lawrence. June proved to be a testing month for Lady Mary at Corfe as the Parliamentarians openly attacked the royalist stronghold. Erle came back this time with a larger force of men, this time about 500-600 men and two siege engines. This was designed to break through the fortress of Corfe Castle. Captain Lawrence defended the Middle ward of the castle, whereas Lady Bankes, her daughters, servants and an additional five soldiers dropped stones and hot embers in order to protect the garrison from the Parliamentarian troops. Bankes, her family, servants and Royalists who were loyal to her acted valiantly and managed to hold up the castle until 1646. By this time her husband Sir John Bankes had died and with the formation of the New Model Army by Oliver Cromwell the Parliamentarian tactics seemed to undermine the Royalists. Charles I and his supporters were in a weak position at this point. In 1646 unfortunately Corfe Castle was besieged by the Parliamentarians. It does some though again that luck did play a part in this, albeit bad luck. It was chiefly down to a dissenter who switched allegiance to the Parliamentarians, Colonel Pitman. He led a Parliamentarian force through a sally gate into the castle. At this point they used a shrewd tactic by wearing their garments inside out so that they resembled Royalist clothing. Being caught out by this ambush Lady Bankes was forced to surrender Corfe Castle over to the Parliamentarians.