Monthly Archives: January 2017

An incorruptible crown – The Execution of Charles 1

Is it ever right to depose a ruler who has a legitimate right to rule? That is a question which  many people ask in the modern world where tyranny and democracy come face to face and conflict ensues. But this is not an exclusively modern problem.

charles-iCharles I was a monarch who believed in the divine right of kings, that God had placed him on the throne and so no mere mortal should be able to tell him what to do. This attitude meant that he was constantly at odds with Parliament who wanted a role in ruling the country, particularly when it came to setting taxes. Charles would not listen to them and constantly dismissed Parliament, only recalling it again when he wanted more money. To make matters worse, Charles was considered to be too close to the Catholics in his religious observances. Henry VIII had made himself Head of the Church of England, a position inherited by Charles, yet Charles married a Catholic princess and many people were afraid that he would take England back into the hands of the Pope. There was simmering tension throughout the country which eventually broke out into all-out war in 1642.

The English Civil War ebbed and flowed across the country. With The king losing ground in 1645 he surrendered to the Scots in the hope that this would help him, but instead his forces north of the border handed him over to the English Parliament and Charles was imprisoned. He refused to compromise and give up any of his powers, and escaped in November 1647. But his freedom was short lived; he was recaptured and imprisoned on the Isle of Wight. From his captivity Charles organised a Scottish invasion to coincide with uprisings of his supporters in England, but this attempt to regain power was unsuccessful and, by the end of 1648, the English Civil War was over.

Charles I was tried for treason in January 1649, still believing in his divine right of kingship and refusing to give up his powers to Parliament. He was found guilty and executed on 30th January 1649.

On 29th January Charles was able to say goodbye to two of his children who were under the control of Parliament. On the following morning he donned two shirts as the weather was cold and he did not want to shiver and make people think he was afraid. The execution took place in front of Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. The most complete record of the only execution of an English king is an anonymous account which is quoted by all the major historians. I have used this account as the basis for the scene of the execution of Charles I in my novel, The Cavalier Historian.

Excerpt from ‘The Cavalier Historian’.

Simon shivered and pulled his cloak closer around himself. It kept out the bitter cold of January, but failed to warm his heart, or to banish the chill of a dread which reached deep to his bones. From their position at the top of a flight of steps leading to a shop, he and his father looked out over the silent crowd. No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were focussed in one direction. Simon did not want to look, but could not help himself. His eyes turned slowly towards the raised scaffold with its block. He turned to look at his father. Sir Thomas stood straight and still, outwardly calm, although Simon could see the tension in his clenched jaw and the nervous twitching of one eye. Turning back towards the scaffold, the young man thought back to the time the King had visited Marston Manor. They had felt so sure of victory back then. No one could have predicted that things would end in this way.

The crowds thronging Whitehall stood silent and still around the black draped scaffold, come to see the execution of their King. Simon was glad that they had got there early and were close to the block. Not that he wanted to see what happened in detail, but he knew that his father wanted to be able to offer comfort and strength to the King, if at all possible. They had tried so hard to get to see him after sentence had been passed, but had not been allowed. Sir Thomas had ranted about the unholy actions of the Rump, called down all kinds of curses upon the heads of Cromwell and Ireton, threatened revenge for the cruel way the King had been treated. But as the hours passed he had calmed, accepting that what was now ordained was inevitable, wishing only to say goodbye and take an oath to his sovereign that he would continue to support the Stuart cause. Such a meeting would have been an equal comfort to himself as to the King. The denial of access had wounded him deeply.

There was a low murmur of anguished voices as all heads turned towards the Banqueting House. The execution party had arrived.

The King, wrapped warmly against the bitter January morning, was flanked by a bishop and his executioner. He said something in a quiet voice to the bishop, who nodded. The King stepped forward. Simon was unable to hear the first words the King spoke, and leant forward to listen more intently. Due to the soldiers who stood between him and the crowds, Charles’s voice did not carry far, but Simon and Sir Thomas were able to make out what he said.

‘For the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs; that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things. And therefore until the people have the liberty of good government, as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves. Sirs, it was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I need not to have come here. Therefore I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people.’

Simon was impressed by the calm assurance of the King’s voice. As with his trial, there was no trace of the stammer which usually marked his speech. As he spoke in those final moments of life, he was truly a monarch to be proud of.

The condemned man turned to his executioner.

‘I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands…’ The executioner nodded, no further words were needed. Charles turned to the bishop and asked for his cap, which he placed on his head before turning back to the axeman. ‘Does my hair trouble you?’

‘It would be best, Sire, if you placed it all beneath the cap.’

The King nodded and proceeded to do so, aided by the bishop and executioner. Simon found it hard to believe that this was all real. The King behaved so calmly, spoke so calmly. The execution party was polite. The crowd restrained. It felt to him like play acting, as though the scene would soon be over to loud applause, and the actors leave the stage. But no. The reality continued as the King spoke again.

‘My Lord Bishop, I fear not. I have a good cause, and a gracious God on my side.’

‘There is but one stage more, Your Majesty, which, though turbulent and troublesome, yet is a very short one.’ Simon could hear the catch in the man’s voice, as though he struggled with the words. It was obvious that the man was not comfortable with his task and wanted to do all that he could to aid the King. ‘You may consider it will soon carry you a very great way; it will carry you from earth to heaven; and there you shall find to your great joy the prize you hasten to, a crown of glory.’

The King nodded. ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.’

‘Indeed, Your Majesty. You are exchanging a temporal for an eternal crown. A good exchange.’

Simon stole a look at his father. Sir Thomas stood calmly, his gaze sure as he kept his eyes on the King’s face. For a moment he caught the condemned man’s eye. There was recognition in Charles’s eyes, and gratitude for a faithful servant who had dared to come forward to offer his support. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Simon heard a deep intake of breath from his father as he fought to control his emotions, focussing on giving all of his strength to the King, who now turned back to his executioner.

‘Is my hair well?’ At a nod from the man he removed his cloak, which he handed to the bishop. His hand went to his neck, to the jewelled pendant of Saint George, symbol of the Order of the Garter. He held it in his fist for a moment, as though reliving in his mind past days of glory. Then he removed it and handed it to the bishop. Next came his doublet and waistcoat before he put the cloak back over the crisp white shirt, as though to lessen the impact of the bright flow of blood which must soon cover it. He breathed deeply and held his hands out in front of him.

‘When I put out my hands this way, then.’

The executioner nodded.

The King of England stood for a moment, his lips moving in silent supplication, his eyes lifted towards heaven. Then he knelt and laid his head on the block. After a moment in which he composed himself, the King held out his hands.

The heavily muscled executioner raised the axe above his head. It held for a moment at the apex before he brought it down with all his might. With one blow, the King’s head was severed from his shoulders.

Simon found himself trembling, his knees weak, his stomach wanting to disgorge his breakfast as the head fell to the wooden boards with a thud. Bright blood fountained from the neck and began to pool as the body slipped to the side, an arm still twitching. He looked at his father and took strength from the way he stood, unmoving, seemingly unaffected. Simon straightened and turned back to the block in time to see the executioner pick up the severed head and hold it for the crowds to see. There was no cheering. No sign that this execution was the will of the people. Instead a collective groan went up, like the sighing of the wind before a storm. Only the soldiers cheered, and this seemed to Simon to be more out of a sense of duty than from the heart.

Two soldiers stepped forward and lifted the King’s body, placing it in a coffin. The executioner placed the head with the body and the coffin was covered with black velvet. More soldiers stepped forward, lifted it to their shoulders and carried it solemnly back into Banqueting House.

Simon and his father stood unmoving. Unable to move. They watched as people came forward, soaking handkerchiefs and pieces of cloth in the King’s blood. No doubt some did so as tokens of their wish to see the King dead, but they were few. Simon could see by the reverent, tear-stained faces that most people took the blood to cherish it as the sacrifice of a martyr, as a blessing from a divinely appointed monarch who now wore his incorruptible crown.

England no longer had a king.

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The last invavsion of Great Britain – ‘overpaid, over sexed and over here’.

When was the last invasion by foreign troops into Great Britain? The Norman Conquest in 1066? Many people who lived during the Second World War might dispute that and say that 26th January 1942 saw the start of the last invasion by a foreign force with the arrival of the first American soldiers! We have all heard the phrase ‘overpaid, over sexed and over here’ used to refer to GI’s who arrived in England in preparation for D Day, and many people did find their arrival disconcerting – particularly the young British servicemen overseas who worried about their sweethearts, or the men who served at home in jobs essential to the war effort but who could not compete with the rich, brash new comers. The Americans had money, chocolate, stockings and other items which had not been seen in Britain for years; they were also strangely exotic, most people only having heard an American accent in the cinema. It was a difficult time for the British, but we should not forget the difficulties facing the young soldiers far away from home, in a foreign country for the first time, and facing the prospect of going into battle. It was equally difficult for them to adapt, and the American War Department published leaflets explaining the British culture and how the young GI’s should behave.

GI's in London
GI’s in London

In January 1942 Britain was a tired country. The British had been holding out against the Germans for over two years, an island of defiance which welcomed the support of the Americans with a mixture of relief and curiosity, and frustration that it had taken their Allies so long to get involved. But once the American’s began their preparations for the invasion of Europe there was no stopping them, and by the end of the war over 1.5 million US servicemen were stationed all over mainland Britain. Anticipating potential problems between the Americans and their British hosts servicemen were issued with a pamphlet entitle Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain explaining British history and culture and giving advice on how to get along with their hosts. As well as giving advice to the American serviceman the publication also gives some insights into what it was like in Britain during the war. So what did the American War Office have to say? Here are just a few of the points from the long pamphlet which I hope you will find interesting and, on occasion, amusing (summarised, quotes in italics).

The British are reserved, not unfriendly. Great Britain is a small crowded island, hardly bigger than Minnesota, so people do not invade each other’s privacy. If someone on a bus or train doesn’t speak to you they aren’t being unfriendly, they just don’t want to seem rude – but you can bet they are paying more attention to you than you think!

Watch your language. We have the same language but with differences which mean you could inadvertently cause offence. Don’t laugh at their quaint turns of phrase. Don’t say ‘bloody’ in mixed company as it is one of their worst swear words. Don’t say ‘I look like a bum’ because you are saying you look like your backside. Don’t call their monetary system ‘funny money’; pounds, shillings and pence are complicated but telling the British that our decimal system is better won’t go down well. British people work hard for their money, and get paid much less than you so they won’t like you making fun of their hard-earned cash.

Don’t be a show off. The British don’t like bragging and showing off. Don’t throw your money around. Be sensitive to the British ‘Tommy’ who gets paid much less than you and will be touchy about how much you get paid.

The British are tough. The people you meet might be polite and soft-spoken but don’t be misled. 60,000 British civilians – men women and children – have been killed by German bombs yet morale is high. A country can’t come through that without guts. Also, don’t try to lecture the British on ‘taking it’; they’re not interested in taking it anymore, but getting together with us and starting to dish it out to Hitler.

London during the blitz
London during the blitz

Remember there’s a war on. Britain may look tired, worn and dirty but you aren’t seeing the country at its best. They’ve been at war since 1939. Houses haven’t been painted because factories are making planes not paint; cars look old because no new ones are being built; parks and gardens are unkempt because there is no one to look after them, or they have been turned over to growing vegetables. The British people will want you to know that their country in peacetime is much prettier, cleaner and neater.

The monarchy. Britain is a great democracy, the King reigns but doesn’t govern and his people have a great deal of love for him. Criticizing the King would be like someone criticizing our country or flag. The King and Queen haven’t been evacuated from London, they have stayed during the blitz and their home has been bombed just like many other people. The British are proud of them. The National Anthem is played at the end of public gatherings like the cinema or theatre and you should stand to attention for it, if you don’t want to miss the last bus then leave before that anthem, that is OK.

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Sport. Take the opportunity to watch a match if you can – soccer, rugby or cricket – but remember the British reserve. If a fielder drops a catch in cricket the crowd will probably say ‘good try’ even if it was a bad fumble, back home the crowd would probably shout ‘take him out’, so be careful not to insult in the excitement of a game.

Indoor amusements. You will find theatres and movies (cinemas) in Britain, but the place most people go to relax is the pub – we would call it a tavern or bar. They drink warm ale, not like our cold German beers; you won’t get much whiskey now because war taxes have put the price up to around $4.50 a bottle. Don’t forget that the pub is a meeting place for the neighbourhood where people come to meet their friends not strangers. Don’t join groups of people or games like darts unless you are invited.

The British soldier. You will probably want to get to know the British Tommys. If you want to make friends don’t steal his girl or not appreciate what his army has faced since 1939; and don’t make a show of how much better paid you are than him.

Keep out of arguments. Don’t tell the British that ‘we came over and won the last one’. All countries played their part in the last war. We lost 60,000 men in action, don’t forget that the British lost almost a million of their youngest and best. (Note: by the time the Americans arrived in 1942 Britain had lost as many civilians to bombing in WW2 as the US did soldiers in WW1).  Don’t criticise them for their losses early in this war and say how we are going to change things. Remember how long they have been holding Hitler back without help from anyone. The British welcome you as friends and allies. But remember that crossing the ocean doesn’t automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first class barrages in the last war.

London children
London children

Britain at war. Back home in the US you were in a country at war, you are now in a war zone. All lights are blacked out at night; all highway signposts have been taken down. For months the British have been bombed night after night. Everything is rationed from gasoline to soap, food most of all. Incomes are down because of the high war taxes. Try to understand the British situation which is something the US has never faced. Women are non-commissioned and commissioned officers in the armed forces, and men take orders from them. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them.  They have pulled aviators from burning planes.  They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.”  There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire. Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform.  They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

Female gun crew
Female gun crew

Important do’s and don’ts.

  • Be friendly.
  • Don’t be flash with your money.
  • Don’t show off.
  • If you are invited to eat with a family don’t eat too much even if they say there is plenty, you could eat most of the week’s ration.
  • Don’t make fun of speech or accents.
  • Don’t comment on politics or the British government.

Let this be your slogan: It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.

In my novel, Heronfield, Bobby is a GI who comes to the UK to prepare for the invasion of Europe. He, and his friends, embody the spirit of the GI’s – friendly, open, sharing what they have with the local children at Christmas. They were not easy times for the Americans or the British, but the conflict that brought two countries together in war also created friendships and loves to last a lifetime.

Clare Hollingworth, 10th October 1911 – 10th January 2017

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Today I would like to pay tribute to one of the women who has inspired my writing and who died today, aged 105.

Clare Hollingworth was one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century. Born in Knighton in Leicestershire on 10th October 1911, Clare’s father worked in the shoe trade. Clare had a fairly ordinary life as a youngster, and by 1939 she had married and was living in Poland with her husband. She was horrified by what she saw of the Nazi treatment of many groups of people and decided to help, rescuing around 3,000 refugees from Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia which had been annexed by Hitler). For some reason the British government was not happy with what she was doing and MI6 persuaded her employer to ‘let her go’. Clare returned to England and decided that she wanted to be a journalist, partly due to stories told to her by her friend Trilby Ewer. Trilby wrote for the Daily Telegraph and arranged an interview there for Clare. She was hired on the spot as a ‘stringer’ (a freelance journalist) working with Hugh Carleton Greene, who was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Berlin.

With her nose for a story Clare headed for Katowice where she borrowed a car from the British consul-general and drove towards the Polish border. The road was full of motorcycle despatch riders who seemed to be incredibly busy, and as she drove Clare passed a long hessian screen which had been put up to stop people looking down into the valley below. With the luck which seemed to follow Clare at times a random gust of wind caught the screen and pulled it back, revealing hundreds of German tanks and other vehicles lined up and ready to invade Poland. 29th August 1939 was only Clare’s third day as a journalist, but she already had her first headline in a national newspaper when the Telegraph printed her story as the Page One lead.

On 1st September Clare was woken by anti-aircraft guns as German planes crossed the border into Poland. She immediately telephoned Greene who notified the Polish foreign minister – who didn’t believe him. Clare then phoned officials in the British embassy in Warsaw, who also didn’t believe that war had broken out as Germany and Poland were still negotiating. To prove her point Clare held the phone out of the window so that the embassy official could hear the guns himself!

Clare Hollingworth went on to report throughout the Second World War and other conflicts of the last century including Palestine, China, Algeria and Vietnam. She also broke the story that the British intelligence officer Kim Philby was spying for the Russians. Clare Hollingworth was awarded the OBE in 1982 and as the 1980’s progressed she decided to semi-retire, but retirement never stopped her from following up a story. In 1989, approaching her 80’s, Clare was in Tiananmen Square where she wrote about the Chinese government crack-down on protesters – watching the unfolding story from a lamppost which she had climbed to get a better view!

Clare Hollingworth was a trail blazer for female war correspondents, a woman of drive and ambition whose life is the inspiration for the main character featured in my new series of books. Today is a day to remember a remarkable woman who lived life to the full and will be long remembered.

Recommended Read – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life’ is not the usual type of historical novel that I review. This is a fascinating story which explores the concept of life and time. What would happen if we lived the same life over and over again? Would it always be the same or would things change? Would we be able to guide our destiny to avoid the bad things which happen in life or to seek to achieve a goal which appears to be out of reach? Ms Atkinson uses the life/lives of Ursula to explore this theme.

Ursula is born one snowy day in 1910. She dies without taking her first breath but then is born again in the same situation with one minor difference which allows her to live. The novel continues to follow Ursula as she is born and dies, again and again. Each time her life is changed in some small way which leads to much larger changes as the years go by. Edward Lorenz asked, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ In this novel Ursula finds that her choices, as well as the decisions which people make all around her, do indeed lead to great changes – lives saved or lost, war or a chance for peace, all made possible through something as small as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings.

Knowing, in part, what is going to happen to Ursula leaves you rooting for her, hoping that she will make a certain choice, speak to a certain person, avoid a certain action. In some of her incarnations you find yourself hoping that she survives and is happy, in others you hope that her death comes more quickly and she can start a new and better life. It is a strange novel in this sense, yet compulsive reading.

The reason I am recommending this book as historical fiction is the period in which it is set. Ursula lives during the turbulent years of both World Wars, and Ms Atkinson conveys these times in incredible detail. Her fictional accounts of the London blitz are some of the best I have read – both harrowing and inspiring. In another life Ursula lives in Germany during the Second World War. The descriptions of the changes from pre-war euphoria through nationalism to war and, finally, despair in Berlin during the last days of the Reich bear testimony to the depth of research which the author has carried out.

‘Life After Life’ is a unique novel in its structure. It is also a novel rich in historical detail and, in addition, a compelling portrait of Ursula and her family. Ms Atkinson’s writing cuts to the heart of human hopes and dreams, ambitions, loves and losses; the reader comes to love or hate the characters who are well drawn and believable, the kind of people you could meet almost anywhere.

The author writes with great skill, producing a novel which is thought provoking, moving and at times uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which leaves the reader reflecting on life, destiny and fate. What might be the consequences of our actions? Can we shape the future by a single word or deed or is it all pre-ordained? This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something entertaining and educational which leaves you asking questions and wanting more then I heartily recommend that you read ‘Life After Life’.

This novel won the 2013 COSTA Novel Award, and deservedly so.

‘Life After Life’ can be found on Amazon

Kate Atkinson’s website can be found here

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here.

Happy New Year

2016 had its ups and downs for all of us, wherever we live. But 2016 is over and we face a new year full of new promises and new possibilities. We all have our hopes and dreams for the coming year, and I hope that 2017 brings you all that you wish for yourself.

Wishing you a happy, fulfilling, peaceful and prosperous New Year,

Dorinda

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