Wednesday, 20 January 2021

The Real King Arthur - via Zoom


I've just delivered my talk and presentation on "The Real King Arthur" to a U3A group of over 120 people via zoom. This is the first time I've done such a big group on zoom, and it worked surprisingly well. We took in Monty Python, Keira Knightly, Dark Age battle tactics, medieval troubadours and climate change as well as romance, legend and culture wars. This talk truly has it all.  

Movies, books and television series have been produced recounting the tales of Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Ophelia and the other legendary characters. And yet the panoply of chivalric legend is known to have been added from the 12th century onwards. But behind this later accretion of legend and romance lay much older stories firmly routed in Dark Age Britain. But scholars are divided over how much truth the older stories contain. It is generally agreed that the character of Merlin is based on the bard and poet Myrddin Wyllt, who died in about 612, while Lancelot was a Breton nobleman who died around 680. Most enigmatic of all is Arthur himself who may have been a post-Roman ruler or military commander of about 500 – though some historians doubt he even existed. This talk untangles the later legends and seeks to find the truth that lurks behind them.

The audience was particularly interested in the cultural changes that overwhelmed what is now England during the Dark Ages. There were questions on the way Christianity was replaced by paganism, why people stopped talking Latin and began conversing in the Germanic precursor of English and that all led into a discussion on how people identify their own culture in opposition to others. Great stuff. I'm glad I took party. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

FILM REVIEW - Windbag the Sailor


This is the first in a series of posts reveiwing films that either cover historic events or are themselves old and a part of our history. 

Today: "Windbag the Sailor" a 1936 British film starring Will Hay. 

As with many of Will Hay's films much of the humour comes from the fact that the man in charge, the figure of authority, is a fool. 

Will Hay plays Ben Cutlet, a retired bargee on the canals. He lives in his sister's pub and pays his way by keeping the locals entertained [while they buy drinks] with wild, fantastic and completely false stories about this adventurous life on the high seas - fighting pirates in the South China Sea, being marooned on a desert island, surviving the worse storm ever seen etc etc. He is overheard - and recognised as a fraud - by the dishonest manager of a shipping line who wants to scuttle a ship for the insurance, and who needs a captain who won't notice what the mate is up to. 

Captain Cutlet is thus hired and through misadventures actually goes to sea with the barman from the pub [Moore Marriott] and the pub's boy [Graham Moffatt] as stowaways. The hammock in the captain's cabin offers slapstick opportunities, while the trio's efforts at working out the ship's position bring in the sort of nonsensical wordplay that made Hay famous in Music Hall before he went into farms. 

After assorted comic adventures, the villainous mate sets the trio adrift on a raft while he gets down to scuttling the ship. The raft fetches on a tropical island where the hapless trio are captured by the natives. It is here that modern audiences might balk. The natives are a curious mix of Polynesian, African and Caribbean cultural traits - and are portrayed as being utterly naive when faced with the modern world in the form of Capatian Cutlett and his radio set. Clearly the movie producer just wanted some hapless natives as a plot device and gave no thought at all to modern politically correct senisibiliites - it was 1936 after all. When the mate and crew also arrive on the island, the trio persuade the natives to throw the "bad men" into prison. 

After further tomfoolery on the island and on the high seas, everyone is rescued and the trio go home as heroes. There is one last piece of slapstick on the grand scale that you can see coming a mile off - but which Captrain Cutlett can't, which I suppose is the joke. 

Overall a good comedy movie. Rather slow-paced for modern tastes, as many films of this vintage are, and the modern viewer may find the island section somewhat racist. But the jokes, wordplay and slapstick kept on coming. Worth a punt if you have a spare hour and a half some time. It is on YouTube being out of copyright.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

BOOK REVIEW - The Gobi Desert by MildredCable


This is a fascinating book.

I got it second hand and did not realise just how well-known the author actually is. So far as I was concerned it was a cheap second hand book written at the time and so was likely to be an interesting contemporary view of an area of the world about which I knew little. Which it is in. In spades. Wow.

The book was written by a British missionary woman who traveleld for years around the oases, towns and out of the way hamlets of the Gobi desert to bring the word of Christ to the locals. Not that you would really know that from this book. The missionary activity is barely mentioned. And her two companions do not rate a mention at all except she occassionally says "we" when referring to herself indicating that somebody else was there at the time.

What this book is, however, is a marvellously compelling description of the Gobi as it was in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was a vanishing world, and the author is aware of that. The advent of aircraft and motor lorries was transforming the millennia old face of the Gobi with its camel trains, donkey transport and unsuface roads and byways. This was a Gobi where a wrong turn could spell a hideous, long-drawn out death from thirst

She describes the different peoples of the area, their religions, customs and habits. She looks at the ruins of the past and gives a bit of history, but mostly it is the contemporary that dominates this book. The crops, the minerals, the trade, the characters, the places, the road and the desert - always the desert.

The book ends with an account of the wars that broke out after the Chinese government annexed and then abolished the centuries old Khanate of Kumul, which had ruled the area for centuries under a dynasty that was descended from Genghis Khan. Those wars eventually saw the area collapse in to chaos and anarchy that costs tens of thousands of lives, destroyed the trade routes and ended with dozens of towns utterly abandoned. It also drove the author from the area in fear of her life

A great book. It is available in modern reprints, so go and get a copy.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Women at War


Yesterday I gave my talk on "Women at War" for a Women's Institute Group. I always enjoy this talk as it breaks through so many stereotypes - about women, warfare, Greeks, South America, the Royal Navy and more. 
The official blurb from my website says:In this talk, Rupert Matthews looks at the ways women have been involved in warfare from ancient times to the present day. Starting with the mythical Amazons, and the truth that lies behind the legend, Rupert looks at some of the great women warriors of history such as Boadicea, Zenobia of Palmyra, Artemisia of Caria, Mavia the Arab, Lagertha the Viking, Tomoe Gozen the Samurai, Joan of Arc, Mary Ralphson, Joanna Salter and Mary Dixon before looking at the mass participation of women in 20th century warfare through the WRNS, WAAFs and ATS of World War II. 
The talk kicks off with the Amazons, the famous tribe of women warriors that feature so strongly in Greek Legend. The audience loved how I explained the way that the apparently nonsensical Greek myths and fables about these women warriors were actually based on real fact. And how the archaeologists had been digging up burials of these ancient women warriors for most of the 20th century without realising whatthey had found. The archaeologists found bodies with weaponry and so just assumed that the bodies were those of men. It wasn't until one scientist spotted that the body he was studying was female that the truth was uncovered.
And I later explain why the Amazon River is called the "Amazon" by unveiling yet another unexpected myth-buster. 
But I think the bit the audience liked best was the section on Aethelflaed of Mercia who fought against the Vikings in the early 10th century. Again, some lovely stereotypes demolisehd as the brutal warfare of the period was revealed to have been as much about tactical innovation as about bashing each other as axes. 
If you fancy having this talk - or one of my others - for your group either via Zoom in the near future or in person once restrictions are lifted, get in touch on or visit my website.    

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

BOOK REVIEW - Rebel by Douglas Carswell


Douglas Carswell has an axe to grind - which makes this book far more enjoyable and interesting than most of the political books that I plough my way through. I flew through the well-written pages ennjoying every single insult, gibe and sarcastic thrust that Carswell hurled at those he blames for the miseries of mankind.

Carswell's main point - admirably made with numerous historical exampales - is that the people in power have a tendency to feather their own nests not only at the expense of others, but even if that means ultimately reducing the amount of prosperity in the society they rule and thus making themselves poorer. That tendency can be halted, but only if power is diffused through society so that the elites do not have the power to rush headlong into economic suicide.

He then shows how there are chilling indications that our Western society is starting on the road to disaster.

Well-written, well-argued, well-thought out. Doesn't mean he's correct of course, but make your own mind up.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Spellbinding Buttons



 Today I kept a U3A group spellbound for well over an hour with my talk on the "History of Buttons". 

Today we take buttons very much for granted. When we buy a new outfit it comes with buttons attached, and when we discard the clothes the buttons go with it. But this very familiarity has bred contempt for what is really a highly sophisticated bit of practical clothing. This books starts back in antiquity before buttons were invented to show how our ancestors had problems keeping their clothing done up – and even on their persons. The invention of buttons is covered, along with the various innovations in fashion that followed rapidly. The talk also looks at the different types of button used over the centuries and at the very special uses to which buttons have been put by the fashion-conscious, spies, the military and the pearly kings and queens of London before finishing with a word about modern fashion etiquette that would be impossible without buttons.

Today's audience were especially interested in the Pearly Kings and Queens of London's East end. 

The practice of wearing clothes decorated with mother of pearl buttons is first associated with Henry Croft (1861-1930), an orphan street sweeper who collected money for charity. At the time, London costermongers (street traders) were in the habit of wearing trousers decorated at the seams with pearl buttons . In the late 1870s, Croft adapted this to create a pearly suit to draw attention to himself and aid his fund-raising activities. In 1911 an organised pearly society was formed in London.

A memorial statue of Henry Croft was donated by the Hospitals, societies, and other charitable organisations Henry had helped in his lifetime. The statue was placed in Finchley Cemetery where Henry was buried, but after it was vandalised was moved to the Crypt of St Martins In The Fields.

I have a wide variety of talks to give via Zoom - or in real life when restrictions are lifted. Find out moere on my website.



Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Battle of Hastings via Zoom


 Yesterday I was delighted to give my talk on the Battle of Hastings to a Probus group via Zoom. 

The year 1066 is the best known date in English history – and deservedly so. The defeat of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings led to the total subjugation of England under the foreign dynasty of William of Normandy. English nobles were stripped of their titles and lands, English clergy ousted from their positions and even the English language itself driven from both Court and the courts. This talk looks at the build up to the battle to explain why it was fought, at the battle itself to explain how it was won and lost, and at the aftermath to show why this one battle had such devastating long-term results.

The members of the group asked some cracking questions. They were fascinated by the mystery surrounding the death of the heroic King Harold - as shown in this iconic scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. 

 There are two distinct accouns of Harold's death. Writing only a year or two after the battle, Guy of Poitiers names four Norman knights who killed Harold from horseback, while he was on foot and who then mutilated his body. Writing twenty years later Amatus of Montecassino says that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow during the battle, but does not definitely give this as the cause of death. William of Malmesbury - writing in the 1120s and using official government documents as source material - states that Harold was killed by an arrow. 

The traditional version of Harold's death, with him being killed by an arrow in the eye is a combination of Amatus' eye wound and William's death by arrow. Guy's account has traditionally been skated over by historians. More recently, however, Guy's version has gained popularity among academic historians who prefer it as it was written straight after the battle. They pooh-pooh the traditional account. 

However the scene from the tapestry hints at a chain of events that explains all. The words "Harold Rex" are placed over the man wounded in the head by an arrow. The words "is killed" are over the figure of an Englishman being hacked down by a Norman knight on horseback. Perhaps the scene is intended [as some others clearly are] to be read chronologically. That would mean that Harold was first wounded by an arrow in the eye, and then killed by one or more Norman knights. 

This solution neatly explains all the evidence - the accounts of Guy,William ad Amatus are all true, and the otherwise enigmaic tapestry panel is explained. It is also in accordance with human nature. The knights who killed Harold would naturally want to boast about having overcome one of the most famous warriors and military commanders of his age. They would not be so keen to boast of having killed a man already grievously wonded by an arrow in the eye. 

I have a wide range of talks available to be given over Zoom or - when permitted - in person. See my website for details.




Saturday, 9 January 2021

BOOK REVIEW - Homo Britannicus by Chris Stringer



This is an interesting book about the prehistory of humanity in the British Isles.
It tells the epic history of life in Britain, from man's very first footsteps to the present day.  Chris Stringer describes times when Britain was so tropical that man lived alongside hippos and sabre tooth tiger, times so cold we shared this land with reindeer and mammoth, and times colder still when we were forced to flee altogether. TThe Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, led by Chris, has made discoveries that have stunned the world, pushing back the earliest date of arrival to 700,000 years ago. Our ancestors have been fighting a dramatic battle for survival here ever since.
I have a few quibbles about the tone of the book. IN places it reads a bit like a pitch for more funding for his research rather than a dispassionate account. But I guess that is one side of academia these days. 

Friday, 8 January 2021

RAF Typhoons in Sussex and Sir Arthur Coningham


The more established airfields were still active, with Tangmere acting as a staging post for numerous squadrons coming in and out of the area. The Typhoons of No.266 (Rhodesia) Squadron was in residence for a while. Flying Officer Norham Lucas was lost to anti-aircraft fire while firing rockets during a low pass, or so his comrades thought when he failed to form up after the attack. In fact his aircraft had been badly damaged, but not destroyed. At low altitude he managed to keep the engine running long enough to get over the Channel and find a patrol boat. He then baled out and was picked up, to get back to Tangmere that evening.

 Meanwhile the Poles were still in action, attacking ground targets with their bombs and guns. Le Havre was attacked on 21 May, Vacqueriette on 22 May and Douai on 24 May. Next day they hit Amiens, Criel on The 27 May, Bavinche on 28 may, Abbeville on 29 May and Grenflos on The 30 May.

The Wing had a day off operations on 31 May to receive a visit from Leigh-Mallory and Sir Arthur Coningham. Thus far the squadron had been operating only over occupied Europe, but it was confidently expected that at some point after D-Day they would get to within range of Germany itself. Naturally the Poles were keen to hit back at their enemy after their home country had been invaded, occupied and removed from the map. One of the Poles asked Coningham what the rules of engagement would be once over Germany. “Oh”, came the reply. “Just shoot at anything you see.”

 This remark by Coningham led to some heated debate among the Poles as to whether they were supposed to target civilian women and children as well as military and industrial targets. Coningham was forced to send a telegram next day to explain that he had meant that the pilots could attack any bridge, truck or railway that they saw, not just those they had been briefed to attack. He finished by writing “If you do see Frau Goering hanging out the washing leave her to it while you concentrate on Fat Hermann.”




Introduction - The Battlefield of Prestonpans


The Battle of Prestonpans was fought on 21 September 1745. It was one of the most dramatic battles ever to be fought on British soil. By any objective measure, the result should have been an easy victory for the government forces, but by skill, courage and some luck the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie swept all before them. This was a triumph for the Jacobites and a crushing blow to the hopes of the government that the rising would be put down quickly. The followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were called "Jacobites" as they supported the claim of his father James to be King of Britain, "Jacobus" being Latin for "James".

The previous Jacobite uprisings of 1689 and 1715 had both, after initial inconclusive battles, fizzled out fairly quickly. But "The '45", as it became known, was to be a very much more serious affair. The results were to be momentous. Once Bonnie Prince Charlie had won at Prestonpans supporters flocked to his standard. While some military men advised staying in Scotland to raise money, men and munitions, while luring the Government to fight the next battle on ground of the rebels' choosing, Bonnie Prince Charlie decided to invade England with the forces at his disposal.

That invasion was to end at Derby and the Jacobites began the long retreat that was to end on the moor of Culloden in utter and total defeat. The deliberate destruction of the Highland way of life and culture that followed would have devastating effects on the clans, whether they had chosen to rise and follow Charlie or to remain at home.

Without the stunning victory at Prestonpans it is likely The '45 would have fizzled out much as had The '89 and The '15. Instead, Bonnie Prince Charlie swept on only to lead his followers to destruction. No doubt change would have come to the Highlands eventually, but it would have been slower, less violent and driven by the Highlanders themselves. As it was an entire culture was smashed and destroyed.

The two armies that met at Prestonpans could not have been more different. The Government army was modern, professional and beautifully equipped. It was led by a full time army officer with more than two decades of experience on the major battlefields of Europe. The Jacobite army was composed of farmers, herdsmen and craftsmen who had enjoyed no military training at all. They were led by a young Prince of charismatic charms but unproven abilities, assisted by a retired soldier who had not been in uniform for 25 years. The battle was in many ways a clash between not just two armies but between two cultures and two epochs. The Jacobite army was recruited, led and fought as if it were straight out of the Middle Ages. The Government Army was modern in every sense of the word, instilled with the values and teachings of the Age of Enlightenment.

The battle should have been a walkover for the modern, but in fact it was a total victory for the old. It was not only the British government that was stunned by the news from Prestonpans. All of Europe sat up and took notice. Generals, field marshals and war ministers began sifting through their manuals and textbooks looking for some sort of explanation for what had happened, and for a solution to the problem of how a rag-tag army of amateurs had trounced a fully modern army that was its equal in size.

And they shook their heads over the most amazing thing of all about the Battle of Prestonpans. From the moment the first shot was fired, to the time the battle ended, the whole affair had lasted just 14 minutes.


Attacking the Luftwaffe head-on


The 15 September 1940 again dawned bright and sunny, but this time the Luftwaffe were up early with decoys and feints. Then, around 10.40am, the radar picked up what was clearly a major formation gathering over Calais. At 11.15am No.253 and No.501 Squadrons were scrambled from Kenley and ordered to attack a formation of German aircraft coming in over the Kent coast.


The commander of No.253 Squadron, Squadron Leader Gerry Edge (who had been awarded a DFC only two days earlier), had developed the theory that attacking bombers head on was the best form of assault. The closing speed was nerve-wracking, but the tactic did make the German formation break up so that the individual bombers were easier targets. On this occasion he decided to put his plan into effect using the entire squadron.


As they raced toward Germans, the pilots of No.253 saw that the enemy formation was composed of 28 Dornier Do17 bombers with an escort of over 100 fighters. Hoping for the best, the Hurricane fighters roared in with guns blazing. As predicted the bombers began to weave and peel off as they were attacked. In all 17 bombers were hit and fell out of the formation. How many were actually shot down is unclear as the Hurricane pilots were speeding away with throttles wide open to escape the 100 fighters that were coming down fast. When No.501 Squadron arrived, the remaining German bombers jettisoned their bombs and turned for home.