I was looking into Magna Carta – as you do. The sealing of the Great Charter in 1215 was a Big Thing (a post is in preparation) and we’re going to hear plenty about its 800th anniversary in 2015. Democracy also celebrates 750 years since Simon de Montfort’s ‘parliament’ of January 1265. This summoned two knights from each shire and two elected representatives of each borough to “come to the King at London” – though the King, Henry III was effectively de Montfort’s prisoner at the time. Simon almost certainly never envisaged a parliamentary democracy as we all aspire to, but it was a significant event and seen by many as a precursor to the House of Commons. Anyway, all of this got me thinking about anniversaries in general, and centenaries in particular. So what centenaries could Britain be thinking about in 2015? And, of those, which ones will get the most press? Do you want to have a small wager?
1015 – Cnut invades England
Cnut (or Canute), son of Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, claimed the English throne and, in September 1015, arrived in Kent with an estimated 10,000 warriors. Sailing round the south coast, he is said to have subsequently laid waste to Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, fighting a series of battles against the Saxons under Edmund Ironside. Cnut became King of all England on Edmund’s death in 1016, ruling until 1035. He has associations with Bosham, in Sussex, where one of his daughters is said to be buried in Holy Trinity Church. Cnut himself was buried in Winchester, the old capital of Wessex.
1215 – Magna Carta
Under pressure from ‘the barons’, nasty King John set his seal to the Great Charter at Runneymede on 19th June 1215. This document attempted to hold the monarch accountable to the rule of law and has enormous symbolic significance in establishing the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial. Free men as we would know it were limited in number in 13th century Britain.
Magna Carta has been called “England’s greatest export” (bigger than the Beatles?), “the foundation stone of the freedoms enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries” (according to several websites – I have no idea who originally said this). In addition to a memorial near the site at Runneymede, four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta survive and can be seen, two in the cathedrals where they were first deposited, Lincoln and Salisbury, and two in the British Library (check before you visit).
Events and ‘Magna Carta Weeks’ are planned all over the UK in 2015 – and beyond, including in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Visit MagnaCarta 800th for more information than you can possibly take in.
1415 – Battle of Agincourt
On St Crispin’s Day, 25th October 1415 a small, hungry, disease-ridden English army under King Henry V defeated a much larger French one near the village of Azincourt, about 31 miles south east of Boulogne. As with the Battle of Crécy in 1346, a lightly-armed largely peasant army of English and Welsh foot soldiers, most equipped with longbows, overwhelmed heavily armed French cavalry. There is astonishing disparity over numbers in various accounts, but the generally accepted figures are that the English army was around 6,000 and the French 30,000. French losses were horrendous – anything between 5 and 10,000 – made worse by the slaughter of French prisoners which, even in a violent age, went against accepted rules of warfare and common sense, ordered by Henry probably because he thought his army was being attacked in the rear. The cream of French nobility are said to have perished at Agincourt. The total number of English dead has been estimated at around 200. If you like historical fiction, I can recommend Bernard Cornwell’s excellent novel, Azincourt.
Agincourt came in the middle of what is known as the HundredYears War between England and France. The English victory at Agincourt eventually led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, under which it was agreed that Henry or his successor would become King of France on the death of the then current French monarch, Charles VI. To seal the deal, Henry married Catherine of Valois, Charles’ daughter. Henry died of dysentery in 1422 and never became King of France. Eventually, with some help from Joan of Arc, the French booted the English out.
Agincourt’s fame is probably limited, and undoubtedly enhanced by Shakespeare’s play, Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – etc). The ruins of Monmouth Castle, where Henry was born, can be visited. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, where you can also see Catherine of Valois’ death mask. Catherine has associations with LeedsCastle and her later marriage to Owen Tudor had a profound effect on everyone; her grandson was the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII.
1715 – The ’15 Rebellion
After Queen Anne died leaving no surviving heir in 1714, the nearest Protestant candidate was No 52 in line to the throne, the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, a Roman Catholic could not be monarch; the sovereign had to swear to maintain the Churches of England and Scotland. ‘The Fifteen’ was an attempt to replace George with James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II and a Roman Catholic, who was in exile in France. The rebels were known as ‘Jacobites’, from Jacobus, the Latin for James.
The uprising began at Braemar in Scotland, the Stuarts’ home turf and where the Act of Union of 1701 between England and Scotland was unpopular with some. Two battles took place in November, at Sheriffmuir near Dunblane and at Preston in north-west England. Sheriffmuir was either inconclusive or a rebel defeat, depending which account you believe, and at Preston the rebels surrendered to government forces. James himself landed in Scotland in December, but support had dwindled away and by February, in the face of almost certain defeat, the ‘Old Pretender’ as he became known was back in France. Other risings in England were largely prevented by swift government action. Many of the leaders of the ’15 were executed for treason, but most rebels were pardoned. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to take the throne for his father in 1745 was less of a fiasco.
There are several memorials on the site of the Battle of Sherriffmuir.
1815 – the Battle of Waterloo
The final act of the Napoleonic wars was the defeat of Napoleon 12 miles outside Brussels on 18th June 1815. Exiled to the island of Elba after his forced abdication in 1814, Napoleon escaped captivity and headed for Paris, gathering support en route. He marched north into the Netherlands with a force of some 124,000 men, many of them veterans of his Grand Armée. Confronting him was a combined British, Dutch, Belgian, German army commanded by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Marshall Blűcher. Napoleon aimed to defeat these armies in turn, before support could arrive from their allies, the Austrians and Russians.
Wellington held off a French attack at Quatre Bras on 16th June, but Napoleon forced the Prussians back at Ligny. Wellington withdrew to a defensive ridge south of the village of Waterloo. And it was here that the decisive battle was fought. No one’s sure exactly when Napoleon attacked - but it was sometime during late morning and the battle raged fiercely from then on. As Wellington later described it, it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. The day was saved by the arrival of the re-grouped Prussians in late afternoon. By early evening, it was all over and, at 9.15pm, Wellington and Blűcher met to congratulate each other. The final downfall of Napoleon ushered in a period of peace in Europe that lasted until the Crimean War of 1854 (see Trooper Pearson). Apart from that, Britain stayed out of European conflicts until 1914.
There are memorials to and reminders of Waterloo all over Britain. Stratford Saye House in Hampshire has been the country home of the Dukes of Wellington since 1817. Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner in London, also known as ‘Number One, London’, is the town house. Numerous museums feature exhibits from Waterloo, including the National ArmyMuseum in London and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards museum at Edinburgh Castle. The south Hampshire town of Waterlooville is allegedly named after the ‘Heroes of Waterloo’ pub, which used to stand there and which was used by soldiers after they had come ashore at nearby Portsmouth. Last, but not least, Waterloo Bridge in London was named in honour of the battle and, eventually, gave its name to the railway station on the south bank of the Thames.
1915 – second year of World War One
The centenary of the First World War will continue to be commemorated until 2018. The historian Lyn Macdonald has subtitled her book, “1915 – the death of innocence”. And that probably sums it up as neatly as anything can. In amongst it all, though, four significant dates stand out:
19th January – German zeppelins bombed the Norfolk towns of King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth. It wasn’t the first aerial bombardment in history, but it was the first so far as Britain is concerned. Four people were killed.
22nd April – first mass use of poison (chlorine) gas by the Germans at Ypres, Belgium, against British, Canadian and French positions. The British used gas for the first time in September, against German positions at the Battle of Loos.
25th April – British and French troops land in Gallipoli, in an ill-executed attempt to knock Turkey out of the war. After horrendous losses – particularly on the part of Australians and New Zealanders – the campaign was abandoned less than a year later.
7th May – passenger liner the RMS Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland. 1,198 died, including 128 Americans.
So that’s a few centenaries for Britain to mark in 2015. In terms of other anniversaries that may crop up (and we seem to have them every year):
50 years ago, in 1965: Statesmen Sir Winston Churchill died; capital punishment for murder was suspended in England, Scotland and Wales; the Beatles film Help! was released; and the first episode of Thunderbirds was shown on television.
75 years ago, in 1940, Britain was (depressingly) in the second year of yet another war, the Second World War. This was the year that France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway fell to the Nazis, when something like 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill became Prime Minister and the RAF fought the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain over the skies of southern England. On a happier note, it was also the year my parents got married.