Sunday, 29 July 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The torpedoing of the "Carpathia" (1918)


Famous for rescuing the survivors of the Titanic disaster in 1912, the 8,000-ton Carpathia was one of the smaller members of the vast Cunard fleet. Over the course of her career, which began in 1903, nine years before she became famous because of the Titanic, the Carpathia had operated the route between Liverpool and Boston, undertaken cruises to the Mediterranean and sailed between New York and the Austro-Hungarian city of Fiume. 

In 1914, she was requisitioned for the Imperial war effort and assigned to help the Canadian Expeditionary Force move Canadian troops across the Atlantic to the Western Front. As with most requisitioned passenger ships, her voyage routes and purposes were often changed and she served in a variety of functions between 1914 and 1918. One of the troops she brought over for active service was the American soldier, Frank Buckles, a native of Missouri who went on to become the last living American veteran of the First World War; dying at the age of 110 in 2011.

On 17th July 1918, a date that was to become famous in European history for another event entirely, the Carpathia was sailing through the Celtic Sea, near the southern coast of Ireland, en route for Boston. The recent influx of American service personnel, some of whom the Carpathia had helped bring over, had hastened the defeat of the Central Powers and the Great War was now in its final months. But, at 9:15 in the morning, the Imperial German Navy showed that it still had some teeth; its submarine, U-55, fired two torpedoes into the Carpathia's side. Five men died in the initial explosions. Captain William Prothero ordered everyone into the lifeboats, which were quickly lowered, as the ship began to sink. Keen to hasten the ship's end, the U-55 vindictively fired a third torpedo and was menacingly approaching the lifeboats when the Royal Navy ship, Snowdrop, arrived and opened fire.

It was a measure, perhaps, of just how appallingly vindictive the First World War had become that the U-55 seemed to be preparing to target the survivors. In 1915, when another Cunard ship, the Lusitania, had been torpedoed, the German navy had insisted that they would never have fired a second torpedo into a sinking ship. By 1918, such niceties had vanished and three had been fired, with the possibility of attacking the survivors in the lifeboats only being prevented by the arrival of a British warship. 

The Carpathia sank in one hour and forty-five minutes; its wreck was discovered by American author Clive Cussler in the year 2000. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

What's God got to do with it: Religion, Ireland and the Troubles


The Irish are always particularly hostile to outsiders' "interference." Woe betide the first foreign national who tries to pontificate upon an internal Irish matter. I was once at a party in America where someone informed me that Northern Ireland was nothing more than an imperialist occupation. Blood nearly streamed out of my eye-balls and I nearly couldn't finish my tequila. (That's how serious it was.) The northern Irish, in particular, are prone to getting especially antsy about it. Nothing irks them more than being told that their country is either a glorified warzone (entirely untrue) or that the troubles of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were the result of religion (debatable). As far as most northerners are concerned, it's got absolutely nothing to do with religion and only an ill-informed idiot could possibly assume that it had. 

I mean, when was the last time someone chucked a petrol bomb over the stigmata of Padre Pio or bricked a policeman because they didn't agree with justification by faith alone?

The Troubles in Ireland were political, not religious. They arose from a desire by one-third of the northern population to unite with the independent south and a conflicting desire by the other two-thirds to stay united with Britain. Over time, the demographics have shifted, but the issue remains the same. Shared sovereignty would be equally unpalatable to both sides of the debate. What it all comes down to is Ireland's relationship with Britain, not Jesus. Even some historians agree. In his recent book The Elizabethans, A.N. Wilson painted a brilliant and very witty portrait of everyday life under Elizabeth I (looking blingtastic, I might add. Me loves me some sceptres.) Wilson's book begins by looking at life in sixteenth-century Ireland; he argues that it was the Tudors who messed Ireland up for centuries to come, but that nationalism's cosy links with Catholicism only arose because of how much everyone hated the English, not how much they loved Catholicism. As Wilson points out, when the Reformation first occurred in the 1530s, the Irish went along with it far more easily than the English did: "It was not, initially at least, a specifically religious matter, though by the end of the sixteenth century the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell, could see themselves as champions of 'Christ's Catholic religion' against the English heretics. The fundamental point of contention, though, was English interference in Irish affairs: English attempts to make Ireland less Irish. As a matter of fact, in the early stages of the Reformation, the Irish went along with Henry VIII's religious revolution more peaceably than the English did. There was no Pilgrimage of Grace, there were no Irish martyrs for the faith, no Irish Thomas More or Bishop Fisher. More than 400 Irish monasteries and abbeys were sold to Irish laymen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Irish did not protest when Henry VIII made George Browne the Archbishop of Dublin - that was, the former Augustinian friar who performed the marriage ceremony between the King and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps, if a Gaelic Bible and Gaelic Prayer Book had been available in Ireland, as a Welsh Bible and Prayer Book were in Wales by 1567, Ireland might have remained Protestant." It didn't, of course.

What is frustrating from an historian's point of view is how little people in Northern Ireland actually know about history, but how much they use history to shape their views. (The phrase 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing' springs to mind and has never been more applicable.) In 1641, when thousands of Irish Protestants were massacred by their Catholic neighbours, hundreds of Catholics joined a Catholic confederacy that pledged to stop further massacres and to support the rule of King Charles I in Ireland. Cromwell's infamous attack on Drogheda and Dundalk in 1649 was as much an attack on Irish royalists, who continued supporting Cromwell's fallen enemy, the King, as it was an attack on Irish Catholics. William of Orange won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 with the help of the Pope. When the first serious rebellions against British rule broke out in 1798, most of its leaders were Presbyterian-Protestants. It was not until the early 19th century that a clear link between one religion and a corresponding political side could be seen in Irish politics. (Some people still blame Daniel O'Connell for this, but the lad needed to get himself some votes and we shouldn't be too nasty to the man who won Catholic Emancipation.) 

Anyway, the defenders of the idea that religion has nothing to do with Ireland's bullet-and-the-ballot-box history point out that at no moment has a theological debate formed the nexus for an outburst of violence. On the surface, it therefore seems very clear that what caused the Troubles (and lingering sectarian resentment today) was not faith, but instead questions of identity, culture, nationality and politics. 

But is it as clear cut as that? Anyone from Northern Ireland will know that the words "Protestant" or "Catholic" are used far more often in conversation than more accurate terms like "unionist" or "nationalist." It's a short-hand and instantly-recognisable way to convey what someone's political opinions are. And what their view of history is. Anything that can prove the other side wrong is met with metaphorical dances of joy. (Literal ones would be totes undignified.) For instance, recently, when I was tutoring a friend about Ireland's medieval past, his face lit up with a euphoric glow at the revelation that the English invasion of Ireland had actually been blessed by Pope Adrian IV. "So, let me get this straight: the Pope that they all adore actually ordered the English to invade?" (I didn't know that there were many "Pope Adrian IV fan clubs" around, but whatever. That's nice for him. Frankly, more 12th century personalities should have fan clubs. Eleanor of Aquitaine, for instance. Maybe he just meant popes, in general? I don't know. Oh, those crazy Catholics. Still, though - the Eleanor of Aquitaine thing should be considered.) 

You see, it's my contention that religion actually does matter in Ireland's troubles. And that it matters, a lot. Just because no-one ever started a fight over the perpetual virginity of Mary or the existence of Purgatory does not mean that faith doesn't influence us. Religion, in a strange way, is still everything in the north of Ireland. For most people, whether they like to admit it (and usually they don't), it establishes all the essential elements of someone's personality. It may reveal what school you went to, who you're likely to vote for, what sports you play, what national anthem you'll stand for, what you're likely to get offended by and what your world-view will be. Religion flows, subtly, beneath the surface, shaping everything above it.

How, though? Well, to put it in a nutshell - and I'm being reductive here, so I apologise - Catholics tend to think they're better at being Irish and Protestants think they're better Christians. And in both cases, it's annoying.

Northern Irish Protestants are brought up to believe that Catholicism is nonsense. Even if that phrase is never specifically said, there are numerous tiny influences in an Ulster Protestant's childhood that lead them to the inescapable conclusion that Catholicism is not "real" Christianity. That it's all superstition, Mary, saints, statues, priestcraft, paedophile priests and spiritual idiocy. Even if you get older and you claim to respect Catholicism because "we're all Christians," most Protestants are still utterly convinced, in their heart of hearts, that Protestantism is "real" Christianity. Okay, maybe Catholics aren't bad, but they're certainly wrong. Because of Protestantism's assertion of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and its belief that the Bible is literally true (i.e. what you see is what you get), it's impossible for many of them to appreciate that Catholicism is, in fact, an enormously complex system of beliefs that happens to be based on the Bible just as much as Protestantism is, but through a different set of textual interpretations. 

This belief gives most Protestants a sense of rather irritating spiritual superiority. Even "bad" Protestants who go to church twice a year, who leave the service early, who shag all around them, swear, drink and generally have a good time, can still feel better about themselves, because no matter how shaky their own faith is, they're still automatically better Christians than every single Catholic they know. ("Bad" Protestants who are smug, nasty and self-righteous feel this all the time, but I digress.) For most Protestants, Catholicism is the "fan fiction" of Christianity; it's the unofficial spin-off. It's not quite real. At a recent table quiz, half the Protestants in the room did not know the name of the last book in the Bible. Had you pushed them though, they would still have sworn blind that they were more authentic Christians than the most devout of Catholics. (Btw, seriously? Revelation, guys. Isn't that general common knowledge?)

Northern Irish Catholicism breeds its cultural superiority in a different way to Protestantism. What happens in Sunday Schools, youth groups and Scripture Unions for Protestants, often happens in the school system for many Catholics. Whilst there are some schools that are nearly 100% Protestant, it is illegal for any school to have a purely Protestant ethos. There are, however, numerous Catholic-only schools - many of whom have excellent exams results. Mercifully (or hopefully) few of these schools teach a sectarian message; although many do teach a rather one-sided version of Irish history ("Protestant" schools often fail to teach it, at all.) The major point, however, is that in a school (or any social organisation) where there is no risk of offending anyone, it is permissible for ribald sectarian banter to run un-checked. What Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics say when they're in mixed company is a world-apart from what they say when they know that only their own "kind" is in the room. What they say to foreigners (including the English) is often outright, politically-correct, rose-tinted lies. For seven years, thousands of Catholics spend most of their time in an environment in which there is zero need for them to moderate what they say about politics or religion and they have zero daily interaction with Protestants. I am in favour of faith schools, but in Northern Ireland specifically, I do sometimes worry about them. That kind of environment can breed both a casual sectarianism and an innate, unconscious attitude that Protestants are "foreigners"; that they're somehow not really Irish and, as a result, that they don't belong here. Far too many Catholics think that Protestants all behave like mini-Ian Paisleys; too many Protestants think that all Catholics had a childhood that was basically a cross between The Magdalene Sisters, Titanic Town and Angela's Ashes.

In a recent survey conducted of Ireland's Catholic population, 80% stated that they did not believe in Transubstantiation - one of the core tenets of the Catholic faith. Few Protestants can name all the books of the Bible; even fewer know the relevant history, context and textual debate about what they emphatically believe to be the revealed Word of God. Ireland's relationship with faith is therefore a troubled one - to put it mildly. No wonder outsiders get it wrong so often. Sometimes, I don't even particularly understand it myself. We get angry about how religion is misused in our communities, but then we feel guilty about criticising people from our own "side" when they behave in a sectarian manner. We feel as if we're letting the side down; as if condemning an individual's actions is somehow condemning the whole community. It's stupid and it's spineless. And I've been guilty of doing it myself.

There are many other causes that keep sectarianism alive in Northern Ireland; just as there are also many factors which are, mercifully, slowly beginning to strangle it and starve it of oxygen. Religion is not the cause of the Troubles, but I can't help but think that it is still one of the reasons. If it doesn't cause the tensions, it certainly re-enforces them. And if that is the case, then the verse that springs to mind is the shortest in the Bible and one worth remembering for all believers: "Et lacrimatus est Iesus." (John 11:35 - "And Jesus wept.")

Monday, 23 July 2012

Beyond a stereotype


Recently, I was at a dinner party in Leicestershire and I had the pleasure of sitting next to a published Tudor historian. Conversation turned to the six wives of Henry VIII and it was generally agreed that the wife you'd want to hit the town for a couple of martinis with was definitely Anne Boleyn. Discussion of Anne's chic glamour soon led to a game of comparisons with Henry's other queens and, in particular, Anne's predecessor - Katherine of Aragon.

Whilst Anne has a decidedly chequered historical reputation - with people loving and loathing her in equal measure - Katherine of Aragon rests much more securely in her position as a de facto kind of saint. (There's a movement to turn her into a de jure one, too, but I digress.) She is the archetype and symbol of the wronged woman, the original president of the "first wives' club" and all the qualities traditionally associated with the perfect royal woman have been attributed to her. It is rare, to the point of startling, to find anyone who is prepared to query this  - let alone to criticise. Which is why I remember being distinctly shocked (putting-down-the-glass-of-wine-shocked), when the historian to my right said, with passion, "But she could be so cruel to people. She could be so, so cruel." 

Well, she's right. Katherine of Aragon was capable of perfectly vile acts of nastiness, which in popular legend are usually attributed to queens like Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth Woodville. Her vindictive bullying of her father's Jewish ambassador, her vicious desire to ritually humiliate the corpse of King James IV of Scotland and her complete indifference to anything but her own position make Katherine, in my eyes at least, an often thoroughly unpleasant character. Her melodramatic insistence that her living conditions during her widowhood and then divorce were purgatorial are patently untrue and we can tell that by looking at the surviving accounts book. That Henry VIII's first wife was also dignified, intelligent and magnificently tenacious is also beyond doubt. Katherine of Aragon is a far more interesting and more complex, but perhaps significantly less sympathetic, character than the saint created by the relentless PR machine set-up in her own lifetime.

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, who ranks as my personal favourite of the six, was in many ways a much more fragile character than both her enemies and supporters like to think. What Anne Boleyn had, almost seeping out of her fingertips, was charm and charisma. As it turns out, a dangerous gift. She had something that we would now recognise as star quality; what the French recognised, even then, as je ne sais quoi. Like most naturally clever people, she was often accused of being manipulative or disingenuous. Like Katherine, she could also be unpleasantly oblivious to the humanitarian cost of her political causes. Unlike Katherine, she was neurotic, although both women shared a slightly hysterical bent to their characters. Anne was explosively temperamental and she got worse as she got older. The unmistakable impression given off in eyewitness accounts of the final months of Anne's life is that of a young woman trying desperately to hold everything together, as her life fell inexplicably and irretrievably apart. There are ample anecdotes of Anne's personal kindness and her generosity to those around her, but there are almost moments where she behaved recklessly and foolishly. To paraphrase a Tudor novelist of the 1950s, in many ways Anne Boleyn was clever, but she was not always wise. 

Jane Seymour is another problematic soul. The romantic legend that she was the great love of Henry VIII's life and the perfect antidote to Katherine's pride and Anne's temper is sheer nonsense. Evidently, the couple married quickly and, as the old saying goes: marry in haste and repent at leisure. Within a few weeks, Henry was commenting on his new wife's pretty maids of honour and lamenting that he had not met them before marriage to the queen. The problem with figuring out Jane Seymour's actual personality is that there is almost nothing in any source that gives us an example of her doing anything proactively. In fact, of doing anything, at all. Her supposed support for Mary Tudor counted for less than nothing, because she only showed favour to Mary after Henry had publicly humiliated her, forced her to acknowledge the Reformation and brought her back to court to be paraded as the regime's number one prize turncoat. Given the scars left on Mary's psychology, health and spirit, Jane's gift of a diamond ring doesn't seem like it would have helped that much. Although, I suppose a diamond didn't hurt. 

Similarly, there is absolutely no documentary evidence to support the idea that Jane took a protective interest in Anne Boleyn's motherless baby, Elizabeth. A slightly obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with controlling her maids and a pregnancy-inspired craving for quails from Calais are the only glimpses we get into Jane Seymour's day-to-day-life as queen. Then, eighteen months after securing the crown, she was struck down in unimaginable agony and died as a result of post-childbirth complications - like thousands of poor souls both before and after her. She rests today in Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, beneath a black marble stone as inscrutable as she herself was in life.

In direct opposition to how it's often played out in life, history can be quite kind to ugly girls. Especially if they're fat and a bit jolly. Anne of Cleves, the "ugo" of Henry's marital misadventures, is therefore rather fondly remember in Britain today, because of her metaphorical love for a strudel and a giggle. Divorced after only six months as queen because Henry allegedly found her sexually repulsive, Anne accepted a generous divorce settlement and actually got on rather well with her replacement, Catherine Howard. The two women even held a New Year's party together at Hampton Court and went through the deliciously Hilton-sisters-meets-Kardashian-style ritual of exchanging gifts of pet puppies and some bling. It is often assumed, therefore, that German Anne was contented with her lot and lived the last two decades of her life in perfect peace and happiness - thoroughly relieved to have escaped a life of being trapped under the sweating, ulcerous man-mountain that was Henry VIII. 

In fact, like most things in history, it was a good deal more complicated than that. Whilst Anne had partied hard with Catherine Howard, she was moved to fits of furious weeping when she heard that her ex-husband was going to marry Katherine Parr in 1543. Far from being relieved that she was no longer queen, Anne took her husband's sixth marriage as a slap in the face. She claimed that she was far prettier than Katherine and she had apparently believed a rumour that with Catherine Howard now dead, Henry was going to come back to her. There is no record of any puppy-giving fiestas to wifey number six. Apparently, even for this sensible and jolly woman, the allure of the crown and the prestige of human attention was too much to walk away from.

Anne's replacement - the sexy and nubile Catherine Howard - is a Tudor novelist's wet dream. Sometimes, I fear, quite literally. The teenage daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, the story goes that Catherine was forced into the middle-aged monarch's sight-line by her ambitious and amoral uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who essentially pimped her out to his royal master. Slipped in between the monarch's sheets in the spring of 1540, he speedily chucked Anne of Cleves for her and beheaded his chief minister, for good measure.  (Chop and change, etc.) Showered with gifts, jewels and parties, Catherine was the ultimate trophy wife. A sensuous young bimbo on the arm of a hideous and obese wealthy businessman. Then, she was caught with the sexy pool boy - or, one of her husband's grooms, in this case. Him, her, a helpful lady-in-waiting and one of the queen's pre-marital lovers were all shipped off to the executioner's block, where the poor girl ended her life before her twentieth birthday. A sacrifice to the illogical fantasies of men and kings and the appalling double standard of western sexuality.

Much of that is true. Catherine died horribly for something that she need not have died for under English law; it was Henry's insistence that she die that made her death an inevitability. She was also the King's middle-aged fantasy. But to shift all blame off Catherine for her own actions is unfair and inaccurate. At times, she behaved with near-suicidal levels of stupidity and self-indulgent recklessness. Sometimes, this was because she listened to truly terrible advice from her family and ladies-in-waiting; other times, it was because she herself was bored and wanted distractions. Capable of acts of thoughtful kindness, particularly to those less fortunate than herself, as well as being fun-loving and surprisingly elegant when carrying out her public duties, Catherine Howard's story is one that shows the terrifying way in which a human life can be shaped, and even ended, by a combination of bad decisions, bad advice and bad luck.

In contrast to Catherine the nymphet, Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, is usually presented as an elegant and intelligent bookworm. The perfect stepmother, if you like. For Victorians, the fact that Katherine was a devout Protestant made her more easily related to. She seemed like one of them. And that's how she's been remembered - as the perfect Victorian lady, in a gorgeous Tudor frock. In reality, Protestantism in the 1540s was a much more passionate affair than the sedate Anglicanism of Victoria's era. And Katherine gave herself over to the new religion with all the vigour of a woman throwing herself into the arms of a new lover. She was possessed and consumed by it; penning near-hysterical prayer books, extolling Protestantism's "born again" theology of justification by faith alone and sola scriptura. She came to loath the Catholic faith of her childhood and only by, quite literally, throwing herself at her husband's feet, did she escape being burned alive for heresy in 1546.

Although the Victorian version of Katherine as loving, charming and well-read is certainly true, there is therefore another side to her personality - passionate, outrageous and a risk-taker. It helps explain why she earned the dislike (one suspects) of both her stepdaughters in May 1547, when she eloped with Thomas Seymour, only a few months after King Henry's death. It was a gutsy move, made for love, which her eldest stepdaughter Mary was outraged by and which even the young Elizabeth confessed to being uncomfortable with. 

The six wives of Henry VIII hover in our collective imagination, fulfilling our need for female stereotypes or historical fantasies. From the stereotypes' point of view, they respectively stand-in for the noble queen, the scheming temptress, the wallflower, the fat girl, the sexy bimbo and the sexless governess. We form opinions on them based on the impression we have of their characters. I should know; I've done it myself. And we are extremely reluctant to abandon those preconceptions, even when faced with an avalanche of contradictory evidence. Their lives were often tragic, often inspirational and invariably much, much more interesting than what they've been reduced to. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The sinking of the "Britannic" (1916)


When news reached Belfast in 1912 that the Titanic had sunk on her maiden voyage with such an enormous loss of life, the Harland & Wolff shipyards in the city were quick to learn lessons from the tragedy. When the findings of the American and then the British inquiries were published, numerous changes were made in the building of the Titanic's incomplete younger sister. Designed to be the third of three luxurious transatlantic liners for the White Star Line, most of east Belfast's workforce were still toiling away on building this ship when changes were made to prevent a repeat of what had happened with the Titanic. Both the Titanic and the first sister, Olympic, had been named after powerful figures in Greek mythology - the Olympic after the fictional gods of Mount Olympus and Titanic after the titans, a race of younger gods gifted with incredible strength. The third and largest of the three sisters was apparently originally intended to be named Gigantic, which had the same triumphalist air as the name Titanic. Desperate to put as much distance between their new ship and the disaster of 1912, White Star stealthily had the name changed to the more patriotic Britannic and then denied there had ever been any serious intention of christening her Gigantic.

Weighing in at 50,000 tons, the Britannic was the largest ship ever built in the British Isles at the time of her launch in 1914. She was four thousand tons heavier than her unlucky sister Titanic and five thousand heavier than her eldest sister, and future running mate, Olympic. Together, the two surviving sisters were intended to operate a weekly crossing of the north Atlantic - with one leaving from New York, at the same time another would leave from Southampton in England. Unlike her sisters, however, the Britannic was not the largest ship in the world at the time of her construction. That honour had already gone to a 52,000-ton German liner, the Imperator, and would soon go to her sister, the 54,000-ton Vaterland - which, like Britannic, was pandering to the ultra-patriotic environment of 1914. However, she was to remain the largest ship built on British soil until the Queen Mary in 1936 - quite the achievement for Harland & Wolff.

Britannic took to the water in Belfast for the first time on 26th February 1914. Some of the proposed changes included extending the watertight bulkhead divisions, making it easier for steerage class passengers to reach the lifeboats and nearly quadrupling the number of lifeboats. There were also more cosmetic alterations, including expanding the ship's famous grand staircase, its first class Louis XVI restaurant, adding a Parisian coffee house like the one the Titanic had and making various expansions to the top private suites in first class.

However, the Britannic was destined never to see commercial service and when the First World War came in August 1914, the new ship was hastily converted into a hospital ship on the government's orders. Now formally serving as His Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic, HMHS Britannic's first tour of duty involved her evacuating the numerous British and Commonwealth casualties from the military campaign in the Dardanelles, against the Ottoman Empire. 

After safely depositing thousands of invalids in Greece, the Britannic was returning to collect more soldiers, under the command of Captain Bartlett and with a combined crew and medical staff of just over one thousand people on-board. There had been some trouble with the weather earlier in the week, but by the morning of 26th November 1916, the Britannic was steaming through a glorious Mediterranean winter's morning. At about twenty minutes past eight, a massive explosion shook the liner. The ship had struck a German mine and soon began listing rapidly on her side. None of her new safety features, designed to protect her from the kind of natural disaster which had destroyed her sister, could feasibly cope with the technological attack from a military mine. 

Captain Bartlett's response was rapid and within ten minutes, the first lifeboats were leaving the Britannic. In a truly horrifying moment however, the Captain's tactical decision to try and race the ship closer to the shallows and thus run her aground to save her, meant that one lifeboat was torn to pieces by the still-turning propellers. Fifty-five minutes after being struck, the Britannic suddenly turned over on her side and vanished into the crystal blue waters. One of the nurses, Violet Jessop, who had once served as a stewardess on the Titanic, later wrote, "She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence...."

Had the Britannic hit the mine on her way back from her mission, when she was filled with injured soldiers, it's likely that her sinking would have constituted one of the worst humanitarian disasters in maritime history. As it was, the disaster cost "only" thirty lives. The survivors were soon picked up by the British Royal Navy and conspiracy theories later circulated that the ship had been deliberately targeted by either a German spy or a German torpedo. However, given the scale of the damage inflicted on the wreck, it seems clear that it was a mine which sank the Britannic.

After the war, White Star Line were rewarded for their service to the British war effort and for the loss of the Britannic. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to reimburse Britain for her lost liners. The 56,000-ton Bismarck, then the largest liner in the world, was given to White Star and renamed Majestic (below.) She became the flagship of the White Star Line and the largest passenger ship in the world for over a decade, until the French Line's Normandie was designed by a former Tsarist naval architect in 1935.


Today, the Britannic lies on her side at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Her wreck was discovered by the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in 1976. All that remains on dry land of her fabulous interiors, which were never completed or installed because of the war, is the lavish philharmonic organ that was intended to add a 'Baroque' feel to her grand staircase. It is on display at the Swiss National Museum in Seewen. 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

19th July, 1543: The Death of Mary Boleyn


We have no way of knowing how old Mary Boleyn was when she died in July 1543. In the author's note to her romantic novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the novelist Philippa Gregory wrote that Mary lived a "long and happy life," after her sister's execution in 1536. Such a desire to give The Other Boleyn Girl a "happily ever after" style ending does not, unfortunately, correlate with any of the known facts. Even by the standards of the sixteenth century, Mary Boleyn died a comparatively young woman. Estimates for her date of birth range from 1499 to 1502 (James Gairdner in the nineteenth century and Retha Warnicke in the twentieth both put it even later, in 1508, but that seems unlikely.) Meaning that Mary was about forty-four or forty-one at the time of her death.

The eldest surviving daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, Mary Boleyn was presumably born shortly after her parents'  marriage. If she was born before 1505, which seems probable, then she may very well have been born in Norfolk - at Blickling Hall, which was her parents' main residence in the first few years of their marriage. She was followed in the nursery by at least four other siblings: George, Thomas, Henry and Anne. Thomas and Henry both died in infancy and are both buried in churches near Hever Castle in Kent, which became the family's main residence after Mary's grandfather William died in 1505. Like her younger sister, Mary spent part of her education in France, although it seems to have been for a much shorter length of time than Anne. 

The later years of Mary Boleyn's life - or Mary Stafford, as she had become by then - are almost as hard to trace as the beginning. Put brutally, once Mary had lost her sister's favour, she ceased to matter politically - or historically. The cause of the rift between the Boleyn sisters was Mary's second marriage. She had eloped with William Stafford, a man of significantly lower social status than she was and slightly younger, too. However, despite her family's hysterical reaction (which took even Mary by surprise) and the insistence of Mary's modern-day enthusiasts that this marriage shows her to be a unique, passionate crusader for romantic love, it was in fact fairly common for aristocratic widows to take a man of lower social standing for their second husband. It helped safeguard their inheritance from their first husband and negate the husband's theoretical authority over his wife. Katherine Brandon, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk and Lady Jane Grey's mother, Frances, were both to do the same as Mary.

Following the death of her father in 1539, Mary had inherited some of his extensive lands and money. Her daughter, Katherine, had subsequently embarked upon a career at court - serving in the households of Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, before transferring to that of her cousin, the future Elizabeth I. On 15th July 1543, Mary formally inherited Rochford Hall in Essex, from her former sister-in-law, Jane, who had been executed the previous February. Mary's husband, William, was in France at the time, undertaking four months of military service in Henry VIII's army. On 19th July, four days after the legal wrangling over Rochford Hall had finally ended, Mary Boleyn died. The precise cause of her death has never been established, but it may have been sudden. She left most of her property to her son, Henry, but as the richer half of the couple, she also left her manor at Abinger in Surrey to her husband, William.

Having died in relative obscurity, there is no way of knowing for certain where Mary Boleyn is buried. Various locations have claimed they are her final resting place and Mary's most recent biographer, Alison Weir, has suggested the church of Saint Andrew near Rochford in Essex. The church lay near some of the Boleyns' estates and it had actually been built by Mary's late grandfather, Sir William Boleyn. However, it is impossible to know which churchyard she was interred in and given the impending iconoclasm of the Edwardian Reformation, the renovations of the Marian counter-reformation, the destruction of the civil war and centuries of church redecoration, it seems unlikely that anything of her tomb has survived. 

William Stafford remained a widower for nearly a decade after his wife's death, although his Protestant beliefs and family connections enabled him to prosper at the court of Edward VI, who came to the throne in 1547. He sold Arbinger manor shortly before marrying again to a distant cousin called Dorothy, a girl of about fifteen or sixteen. Following the succession of Mary I in 1553 and England's return to state Catholicism, William and his new wife fled to the continent, where they settled in the Swiss city of Geneva and formed a friendship with John Calvin, the fiery ideologue who founded Calvinism and became the spiritual father of Presbyterianism. Whilst there, William Stafford took to calling himself "Lord Rochford," a title which had been used by Mary Boleyn's late brother, George, and to which William had absolutely no right. Perhaps he had been more dazzled by his first wife's connections and ancestry than the romantic myth of their "all for love" marriage suggests? He died in exile in 1556 and he was buried in Calvinist Geneva. His wife had some difficulty extricating her children from Calvin's clutches, but she eventually made it to Basle and then back to England. 

Mary Boleyn's daughter, Katherine, was already married at the time of her mother's death - to an up and coming courtier called Francis Knollys. By 1543, the young couple had already had two children - Mary and Henry. And Katherine was already pregnant with a third, the future high society beauty, Lettice. Francis Knollys was knighted in 1547, as part of the spate of honours fired out by Edward VI's government in its first few weeks of coming to power and both he and Katherine rose high in royal favour once Elizabeth I became queen in 1558. Katherine's death in January 1569 devastated Queen Elizabeth, who had her buried in Westminster Abbey. 

Katherine's brother and Mary's son, Henry Carey, also prospered under his cousin, Elizabeth, and he also had a large family - twelve children with his wife, Anne Morgan. He had a big personality and one courtier wrote that his "custom in swearing and obscenity in speech made him seem a worse Christian than he was." During the threat posed by the Spanish Armada, he was appointed Principal Captain and Governor of the English army. He died in 1596, at the age of seventy. Queen Elizabeth attended him on his deathbed and granted him the same honour as his sister, of being buried in Westminster Abbey.

Through her twenty-six grandchildren, Mary Boleyn became the ancestress of numerous prominent members of the English upper-classes - including the scientist, Charles Darwin, and Catherine (Middleton), Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge. 


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

17th July 1918: The Execution of the Imperial Family


"Remember that the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love." - Grand Duchess Olga of Russia, four months before her death in 1918.
In the early hours of 17th July 1918, eleven people were brutally murdered in the cellar of a house that stood near the centre of Yekaterinburg, a medium-sized city in the middle of Russia's Ural mountains that drew most of its employment from the local mining industry. The deaths of eleven people in the summer of 1918 is hardly remarkable. Millions of young men were still dying on the battlefields of the First World War; the Spanish influenza pandemic was about to claim the lives of nearly seventy million people worldwide and for the last fifteen months, Russia had lurched from one political crisis to another. It was now in a state of civil war, political terror and social unrest. The downfall of the Russian monarchy in February 1917 and the collapse of the democratic republic set-up to replace it after only ten months had resulted in the world's first Communist regime coming to power in Russia. Led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party, Communism would continue to rule over Russia until 1991, but in 1918 it was faced by a formidable cabal of enemies.  It was by no means certain that it would survive. Hatred of Communism had led to monarchists, democratic republicans, moderate socialists and liberals allying with one another in the shared common goal of destroying Communism's hold over Russia. Communism had responded with an official policy known as "the Red Terror," which saw mass arrests, intimidation, widespread torture, spying, the suspension of civil liberties, numerous executions, assassinations and punishment beatings. By July 1918, thousands were perishing as a result of the Red Terror and many more were dying because of the civil war between the new Communist government (known as the "Reds") and its opponents (known as the "Whites".)

Amidst all this carnage, why were the deaths of those eleven people in Yekaterinburg considered so important? Well, it was because seven of the eleven were members of Russia's deposed imperial family - 50 year-old Tsar Nicholas II, his British-German wife Alexandra, their four daughters - Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17) - and their 13 year-old brother, Alexei. As with most things associated with royalty, the symbolic significance attached to them went far beyond the issue of personality or an individual life. For three hundred years, the House of Romanov had been regarded by millions of Russians as the living embodiment of the Russian nation. The Tsar had been appointed by God to rule over one of the largest empires in history and as head of the government, army, church and court, the Romanov emperors were believed to stand far closer to God than to the rest of humanity. The savage execution of the last of the Romanov tsars was intended to cripple the Russian monarchist movement and to rob them of their most valuable figurehead - the same rationale justified the execution of Nicholas's teenage son, Alexei. It was also designed to shatter the mystique of three hundred years of monarchy. However, it was not the execution of the ex-emperor and his son which caused the most comment - then or now. It was the decision to murder his four daughters - without a trial, in secret and when none of them had any political power. Lenin's right-hand man, Leon Trotsky, later admitted that the girls were murdered because it would send a psychological message to the Russian people: it would show that there was no turning back and that anything that stood in the way of Communist victory in Russia would be ruthlessly eliminated. In a nutshell, it was terror for terror's sake.

Ever since the collapse of the monarchy, the Tsar and his family had been living under house arrest. As time had gone on, the conditions of their detention had deteriorated. Immediately after the first revolution, they had lived in their former home at the Alexander Palace near Saint Petersburg, where they still had access to many of their servants and where there had initially been plans to send them abroad to live in Britain, France, Switzerland or Spain. For their own safety, they were then moved to the town of Tobolsk in Siberia, where they lived in a former governor's mansion. In April 1918, they were moved to Yekaterinburg, where they were imprisoned in the Ipatiev House, a merchant's home which was heavily fortified and where the family were guarded by a local division of the Cheka - the feared Communist secret police. For the last few weeks, the Cheka had been making preparations to kill the entire family and their four remaining servants. The White armies were closing in on the area and Lenin had signed off on the idea, telegraphing the local branch of the Communist party from Moscow giving his firm and unequivocal approval that all the Romanovs now in captivity should die. The task of organising the logistics of the execution fell to a man called Yakov Yurovsky, a forty-year old member of the Cheka who was in charge of security at the Ipatiev House. The meetings had taken place in the town's local "American Hotel." It was decided to murder the family in the Ipatiev House's cellar, disfigure their bodies with sulphuric acid and then hide the remains in the nearby forest.

At half-past one in the morning of 17th July, Yurovsky went upstairs and woke Dr. Eugene Botkin, the imperial family's private doctor and a staunch monarchist who had chosen to share imprisonment with his employers. The doctor was asked to wake the family; Yurovsky fed him the lie that because of fighting in the area, the Soviet government had decided to move the family to another location. In the meantime, artillery fire had been heard in the forest and Yurovsky thought it best if the family took shelter in the cellar downstairs. Botkin knocked on the Imperial Family's doors, informing the Tsar first - as protocol demanded. Nicholas II dressed quickly and efficiently, before turning his attention to waking his son. The Tsarina Alexandra and her four daughters took a lot longer to get ready - Yurovsky later estimated it taken them over half an hour - perhaps because Alexandra's bad back required her to be dressed slowly and with great care. Eventually, they emerged from their rooms and Yurovsky noticed that Nicholas was carrying his thirteen year-old son in his arms. Alexei (above) suffered from haemophilia, a rare genetic blood disease that meant his blood had an inability to clot properly. He had recently suffered another spate of ill-health and without constant exercise, he was finding it difficult to walk. 

As they walked down the stairwell and through the house, the Imperial Family stuck rigidly to the etiquette which demanded they walk in order of precedence. Nicholas and Alexei went first, followed by Alexandra, who was in a great amount of pain and leaning on the arm of her eldest daughter, Olga. One of the other guards, Victor Netrebin, remembered later that he was struck with how thin and tired the Tsarina and her eldest daughter looked. Twenty-two year-old Olga's dramatic weight loss and intermittent bouts of depression had been remarked upon by other eyewitnesses, who had also noted that the stress of captivity had aged the young Grand Duchess prematurely. Coming up behind her were her three younger sisters, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, whom Netrebin would later contrast with Olga by saying how pretty they all looked - moments from death. The youngest of the princesses, Anastasia (17), was carrying her sister Tatiana's pet Pekinese dog, Jemmy. After that came the family's four servants - Doctor Botkin, the Tsar's valet Alexei Trupp, the family's private chef Ivan Kharitanov, and the Tsarina's maid, a tall blonde called Anya Demidova. Demidova was carrying pillows to alleviate the Tsarina's chronic backache.

Contrary to later Hollywood dramatisations of the execution, the family did not go straight into the cellar. The basement of the house was actually separated from the main body by a small courtyard and so the group momentarily stepped outside for one last time, into the warm July night air. Then they re-entered the house by a second door and descended a flight of twenty-three stairs. The room that they were told to wait in was a cross between a storage facility and a traditional cellar. There were double doors at the back, leading to more storage space, which Yurovsky had cleverly locked beforehand. There was also a barred window and a single harsh light-bulb, casting a cold, brutal light over the room. Alexandra (above), who suffered from terrible migraines, heart palpitations, intermittent dizziness and excruciating sciatica, immediately expressed her incredulity that there were no chairs for her to sit on. Later the Communist guards were to mock her for her imperious demand, but given the level of physical agony the Empress was in, it was surely an understandable request. Her health had not been good since the birth of her youngest daughter in 1901 and the stress of the revolution, coupled with what she saw as the humiliation of imprisonment, had nearly killed her. For the last year, she had been administered a substantial number of opiates and even cocaine-laced medication by Dr. Botkin. They were standard early twentieth century treatments for her many ailments, but with medical supplies dwindling, the Tsarina was likely suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms now, as well. The guards, who hated her more than any other member of the family, reluctantly brought in two chairs. The Tsar lowered his son onto a chair and then stood protectively in front of him, whilst the four girls and their maid helped Alexandra sit on the other one. The three eldest daughters then stood behind their mother's chair, whilst the youngest, Anastasia, stood in the back corner, chatting to the servants. Yurovsky then left them all alone for about half an hour, whilst he went upstairs to go over the final preparations. In the meantime, the execution squad were getting nervous and many of them tried to calm their nerves with numerous shots of cheap vodka. A Fiat truck was brought round to the courtyard. Hearing the noise from the basement, the family must have assumed it had come to take them out of Yekaterinburg. In reality, it was to transport their bodies for dismemberment and burial.

After half an hour, the double doors into the cellar swung open, to reveal Yurovsky standing with ten other men. The official justification for the execution was to be the support that some of the Romanovs' foreign royal relatives were giving to the White armies (Britain was supporting them and Nicholas II was King George's cousin.) Yurovsky cleared his throat and read out a brief statement: -

In view of the fact that your relatives in Europe are continuing their assault on Soviet Russia, the presidium of the Ural Soviet had sentenced you to be shot. In view of the fact that the Czechoslovaks are threatening the red capital of the Urals - Yekaterinburg - and in view of the fact that the crowned executioner might escape the people's court, the presidium of the Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, has decreed that the former Tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty of countless bloody crimes against the people, should be shot.

There were some words of incoherent, stunned protest from the Tsar and Dr. Botkin. The Tsarina and Olga, the two most intensely religious members of the family, immediately crossed themselves and began to pray. Yurovsky then calmly pulled out his Colt pistol and shot Nicholas II directly in the heart. Eager to claim that they too had played a part in killing the last Tsar, three other men then turned their guns on Nicholas and fired into his corpse. 

A hail of bullets was then unleashed upon the screaming people in the cellar. The Tsarina died almost instantly, mid-prayer, when she was struck on the left side of the skull. The valet and the cook - Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitanov - received multiple gunshot wounds in the first few minutes and died either from a direct hit or from heavy bleeding shortly after. There is some confusion over what happened to the Grand Duchess Olga (left), whose corpse was later shown to have a bullet wound in the jaw. The trajectory of the impact would indicate that the bullet hit her when her head was thrown back and upwards, perhaps indicating that she, too, died very quickly and was quite possibly knocked backwards by the collapsing bodies of either her father or mother. As she stumbled backwards, one of the stray bullets shot upwards through her jaw and killed her instantly.

The room had by now filled with smoke and visibility was poor. It almost certainly stank, too, as the bodies expelled their fluids as they went into their death-throes. Yurovsky ordered a temporary halt and took the men back outside to re-load their weapons and fetch some rifles with bayonets, which could be used to stab any victims who survived the next attack by gunfire. Re-entering the cellar, Yurovsky saw that Dr. Botkin, who sustained several bullet wounds to the abdomen, was crawling along the ground to lie next to the body of his emperor. Yurovsky shot him twice in the head, before turning his attention to the rest of the room. The two youngest girls - Maria and Anastasia - were huddled in the corner of the room, shrieking hysterically and Maria was trying desperately to claw at the doors in the hope of escape. Tatiana, their twenty-one year-old sister, was generally considered the most beautiful and elegant of the Romanov sisters. Innately conscious of her royal rank, she had been the most right-wing member of the imperial family, after their mother. Now, she was shielding her two younger sisters with her own body and today, Tatiana's remains are the most badly damaged of all the Romanovs'. Seeing Yurovsky approach her, the Grand Duchess dragged herself to her feet to face him and was shot point-blank through the head. She died standing. A very brave young lady. 


Maria and Anastasia (above) were then dispatched by being beaten, shot and stabbed to death by the remaining guards. One of them, a local Communist called Peter Ermakov, admitted to lunging at them like a wild beast and some of the guards allegedly vomited or fled the room at the sound of the girls' screams. Their little brother, Alexei, was repeatedly beaten as he clawed pathetically at his father's coat. Yurovsky intervened to stop the beating; he shot the boy twice through the ear, ending his life. The family's screaming maid, Anya Demidova, was the last to die - apparently from repeated stab wounds from the company's rifle bayonets. It had taken nearly half an hour to massacre the entire family; as Yurovsky would later remark in a stunning under-statement - "It is not easy to kill people."

The bodies of the Imperial Family and their servants were then pumped with the remaining bullets, to ensure that they really were all dead. They were then stripped and taken out to the truck. Yurovsky had them driven into the forest, where they were all doused in sulphuric acid to disfigure them, dismembered and set on fire. Then, they were hurled down a mine-shaft.

It had been a horrible, violent, lawless death - carried out in secret, without a trial or without justice. It was a fate that was to befall millions of ordinary Russians in the years under Communist rule - a system of government which has still, inexplicably, managed to escape the historical condemnation it so richly deserves. The Soviet Union was a depraved and genocidal regime, which even on its best days bore all the qualities of a sociopath. It was devoid of morality or respect for human life. It was infinitely worse than any regime in Russian history. And although it had technically come to power in October 1917, it was the events in Yekaterinburg on 17th July 1918 that should arguably be seen as the Soviet Union's true birth-date. Everything that defined it and everything that it was prepared to resort to was contained in how it executed the Romanovs. As Trotsky so rightly pointed out, with his chilling disinterest in human suffering - it proved that there was no going back. It defined what was to come.
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