May
15
2014
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Malmesbury – the first capital of England?

Where was the first capital city of England? London? Westminster? Winchester? All would be decent guesses but, according to a BBC 4 documentary, they would be wrong. Could the accolade go to the decidedly less well known Malmesbury?

I was dozily watching the first programme in the BBC 4 documentary series ‘Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings’ late last night when the presenter, Dr Janina Ramirez, said something that grabbed my full attention:

“the place he treated as capital of his new kingdom [i.e. England] was near its centre – Malmsebury”.

Malmesbury market cross By Arpingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Malmsebury? Whatthenow? I had never even heard of Malmsebury, let alone of its central position in English history. I blame the Anglo-Saxons – I have never really delved much before 1066 in history. It is all graphemes and dipthongs, Æthelwulfs, Æthelberhts and Æthelreds. It isn’t until the Normans that we get kings with ‘normal’ names.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
May
13
2014
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I have sinned

Did a British Army officer communicate a victory in a pivotal battle in India by transmitting a single Latin word?

In the frontier thrusting early years of the nineteenth century, the British Army attracted some of the boldest, bravest, most eccentric and unorthodox officers ever to grace the field. Looming large over them all was General Sir Charles James Napier, Commander-in-Chief in India and Governor of Bombay Presidency.

Statue of General Sir Charles James Napier in Trafalgar Square By Elliott Brown [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His most notable campaign led to the subjugation Sindh in modern day Pakistan. In conquering the province, Napier had far exceeded his mandate. He had been given orders to quell the insurrection of the region’s Muslim rulers and, instead, greatly augmented the territory under direct British rule.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
May
08
2014
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Albert Göring – the good brother

The Göring family name is indelibly associated with Hermann Göring (1893 – 1945). Hermann was one of the leading lights of the National Socialist movement, and, until the regime was consumed and destroyed in the reaping hubris of Allied military advances, held some of the highest offices of state in Nazi Germany.

The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg saw the trials of 24 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany. Following the suicides of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring was perhaps the highest ranking survivor of the regime.

Albert Goering

He was one of Nazi Germany’s most senior military commanders. He had been Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe since 1935 and was made Reichsmarschall of the entire armed forces in 1940 by a grateful Führer . His power was not confined to military matters, and his civilian portfolio of positions includes the Presidency of the Reichstag and he was Minister President of the Free State of Prussia, Reichsstatthalter of Prussia and Reich Minister of Aviation and Forestry.

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Written by IDC in: History |
Apr
29
2014
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The Trafalgar Square Tank Bank

One of the most successful appeals for money to support the British war effort was inspired by the tank. Seen as a wonder weapon that could shorten the war, the cumbersome and ungainly vehicles became popular icons and were ultimately used not only to promote War Bonds, but as kiosks to sell them from.

A watercolour by Sir William Orpen illustrates clearly why the tank initially terrified German defenders. In the painting, a pair of tanks rear up, high above the ridge of the trench line. You can almost sense the next move, as the metal behemoths plunge down to destroy the unfortunate inhabitants of the defensive line.

The Trafalgar Square tank bank is attended by huge crowds

Looming over an apocalyptic landscape of churned mud, charred trees. mutilated bodies and broken buildings, the tanks must have seemed like something conjured out of the furthest depths of H G Wells’s imagination. They are giant, alien and inhuman – so much so that many senior figures in the armies thought they could only have a role in the Great War. Afterwards, they would be consigned to history.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
17
2014
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Death from the skies

It is a scene from the darkest days of the Blitz. A squadron of German planes flies over the East End and the City releasing a deadly stream of bombs on the people below. A school in Poplar is blown up and more than 162 people in total are killed.

But this is not a story from the Second World War; it is a chapter from the First World War. These were the first air raids against the capital carried out by aeroplanes rather than dirigibles and London’s first daylight raids.

At 11:30 am on Wednesday 13 June 1917, 20 planes appeared over the skies in London. They flew in a tight formation, appearing like colossal birds in migration. People looked up and some began to cheer what they assumed must be British planes. The aeroplane was one of the wonders of the First World War – desperate necessity had been a fertile mother to the numerous inventions that created more reliable and robust planes.

Gotha RG bomber in flight See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Britain’s Great War, Jeremy Paxman notes that, “many thought they [the planes] were British, and rushed out to wave at them. And then the bombs began to fall. On the streets there was terror, there was shock and there was disbelief.”

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
15
2014
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This is not a test

At 9:33 a.m. on 14 September 1954, a Soviet Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40,000-ton atomic weapon from a height of 25,000 feet just north of Totskoye in the steppes of the southern Urals. In the early years of the Cold War, the testing of nuclear weapons was not unusual – there would be 8 others in that year and over 200 in the same decade. What made the Totskoye nuclear exercise so particularly horrifying was that the bomb was dropped on an army of 45,000 of the Soviet Union’s own troops.

Nuclear tests in the early years of the development of atomic weapons were not safe. Scientists had not fully appreciated the damage caused by exposure to radiation. Even when warnings were provided, military expediency often trumped individual health. Many of those soldiers who were bathed in the blinding light of nuclear explosions would later succumb to cancers.

First Soviet Atomic test, Joe One or Lightening One

But most tests at least had the pretense of protections. Tinted glasses were provided to protect the eyes from the intense blasts. Personnel were evacuated to a presumed zone of safety and often observed the tests behind makeshift blast shelters.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
10
2014
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The sack of Louvain

In 1914, German soldiers sacked the Belgian city of Louvain. Its population was expelled and some were carried off in freight trains to camps in Germany. Its library, together with its priceless collection of rare manuscripts and early printed books, was deliberately burnt.

A cowed and defeated civilian population watches helplessly as their conquered city is taken and burnt by German soldiers. Prominent citizens are rounded up and then shot whilst others are beaten and publicly disgraced. Tales of brutal atrocities against women and children spread almost as quickly as the flames that are destroying the ancient buildings.

Interior of the Famous Library at Louvain. (Photo by N.J. Boon, Holland.)

The university’s ancient library, filled with irreplaceable volumes of incunabula and glorious illuminated manuscripts, is doused with kerosene and set alight. Wooden beams and millions of pages make perfect fuel for the ferocious flames that soon reduce the building to rubble and its priceless contents to ashes.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
08
2014
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The people behind the menu – 3

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the third of three posts to remember the people behind the menu .

Dame Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba’s eating habits have become legend in the music world. She was so famous that she leant her name to two dishes – Melba toast and peach Melba.

When Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba was ill in the late 1890s, she was fed these crisp cracker-like toasts to settle her stomach. These were not any old crackers and they were not created by any old chef.  Auguste Escoffier is reputed to have created the toast and named them after the singer. They became a staple of her diet in the 1890s when she fell ill.

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
03
2014
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The dying nations of the world

In 1898, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave a speech  on foreign relations. The core message seemed simple enough; weak states become weaker whilst strong states become stronger. But, in the dying days of the European peace, it was a remarkably prescient, perhaps even self-fulfilling prophecy.

On 4 May 1898, Lord Salisbury gave a remarkable speech to the Conservative party faithful. The Prime Minister spoke to a packed audience of the Primrose League (a grassroots mass membership group of Conservative Party supporters) at the Royal Albert Hall on the subject of the life and death of countries.

Robert Cecil - 3rd Marquess of Salisbury By London Stereoscopic Company (NYPL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a rousing, imperial speech, Salisbury made his prophetic remarks: “All I can indicate is that the process is proceeding, that the weak States are becoming weaker and the strong States are becoming stronger.”

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Written by IDC in: British History,History |
Apr
01
2014
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The people behind the menu – 2

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the second of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria is in no danger of being forgotten. Anyone who has visited London’s top tourist spots will have seen the giant memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. They may also have spotted her unmistakable likeness in statues at the Royal Exchange, Carlton House Terrace or Blackfriars Bridge.

You may catch a train at Victoria Station, not only in London but also in Manchester, Belfast and Southend. She is commemorated in everything from Canadian cities (the capitals of British Columbia (Victoria) and Saskatchewan (Regina)) to Australian states (both Victoria and Queensland are named for the Queen-Empress), Africa’s natural wonders (Victoria Falls and Lake Victoria) to Britain’s highest military decoration awarded for valour (the Victoria Cross).

IMG_1716Queen_Victoria_1887_s

As the iconic and eponymous Queen of the Victorian age, reigning at the apogee of Britain’s imperial reach, it is perhaps unsurprising that her name attached to a staggering long list of places and things. More prosaically, this included foods.

The most obvious of these is the Victoria Sponge. I must confess a conflict of interest when writing about the Victoria Sponge – it is an enduring favourite and an unavoidable weak spot for any diet. In principle, it is a very simple cake – two layers of sponge joined by a jam and cream filling and dusted with sugar.

This apparent simplicity belies some pretty fundamental questions – fresh cream, vanilla cream or buttercream? Strawberry or raspberry jam? Icing or caster sugar?

Victoria was also commemorated in a plum, apple and pea.

Beef Stroganoff

If the Romanovs held the imperial crown, the Stroganovs held its purse strings. Since the days of Ivan the Terrible, the family had been singularly successful at navigating the largely separate worlds of royal court and commercial endeavour.

The result was a dynasty of fabulous wealth. They were elevated to the aristocracy and built one of the finest mansions in the new capital of St. Petersburg (Stroganov Palace on the famous Nevsky Prospekt). They served a succession of Tsars as advisors, ministers and administrators.

stroganoff1Строгановский_дворец_(1)

The Stroganovs’ hold on Russian business ended with the Revolution, but their name lives on in a dish that has become a quintessential symbol of Russian cuisine. It isn’t clear which member of the family the dish is named for. It might even have just been named to honour the dynasty and add some aristocratic sparkle to a menu.

Beef Stroganoff is essentially sautéed pieces of beef served in a sauce with sour cream. Over the decades, however, it has become a favourite around the world and is made to hundreds of different recipes. It has even been used as a topping for baked potatoes, as a filling for crepes and on pizzas.

I’m not sure that Count Stroganoff would have approved of a dish where tomato paste is substituted for ketchup and sweetcorn is added, but I’m sure he would have been happy that at least his illustrious family is remembered, albeit tangentially, in menus around the world.

Carpaccio

In the 1930s, Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, developed a dish based on the Piedmonetes carne cruda all’albese. It featured raw meat thinly sliced or pounded thin. Soon after, an exhibition dedicated to Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio was staged in Venice. How did the two become connected? The Daily Telegraph suggests that the recipe took on the painter’s name “possibly because the colours of the dish are reminiscent of his vivid use of reds”

Written by IDC in: History,Society |

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