Opening the Iron Curtain – the DDR’s day of dissent

 

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It’s the summer of 1953, and, across East Germany, angry people take to the streets.

This isn’t a polite protest.

This is a furious, red flag ripping, police beating, office burning rampage.

The crowds demand:

  • better living conditions;
  • the reunification of Germany; and
  • free elections.

Instead, they would get:

  • Trabants;
  • the Berlin Wall; and
  • another 35 years of hardline Communist government.

Could the 17 June 1953 uprising have ever been successful at bringing down          Soviet-dominated eastern Europe?

Or were the people’s protests doomed to fail before they even started?

I’m Ian Chapman-Curry, and this is Almost History. This is the podcast that explores the history that could have happened and explains why, instead, we got the Wall, the Stasi and decades of terrifying field athletes.

An Iron Curtain has descended across the continent 

To understand the East German uprising in 1953, we have to go back to the summer of 1945 in the UK. Winston Churchill had won the war in Europe but lost the general election in Britain.

Being kicked out of Number 10 was a huge blow, but it gave him lots of time to think, write and travel. In March 1946, he delivered one of his most famous speeches:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia.”

Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania fell easily into the USSR’s bear hug. They had, after all, been completely overrun by the Red Army. But only part of Germany lay in Soviet hands.

To begin with, this wasn’t the biggest concern for many. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Germans were united in misery.

Wherever you lived, the chances were that your home was a pile of rubble, friends and family were missing or dead and, if you were lucky, you had a job that paid in cigarettes.

But things were about to change.

In 1949, one of the first blasts of the Cold War froze east and west Germany into two opposing states.

In the west, American, French and British zones of occupation joined to become the Federal Republic of Germany.

This left the Soviet zone to become the German Democratic Republic.

By the early 1950s, stark differences were emerging between the capitalist west and the communist east.

Invigorated by the injection of American money, the West German economy enjoyed the first exhilarating signs of the Wirtschaftswunder, its Economic Miracle.

East Germany’s response to their booming neighbour was to issue punishing new production targets and focus on heavy industry as they forced march the country towards socialism.

The response was immediate, if unsurprising – the country staggered towards economic collapse.

Why did the biscuits suddenly smell and taste of petrol?

Bread and butter became scarce.

People were forced into length queues to buy food that had noticeably declined in quality.

And why did the biscuits suddenly smell and taste of petrol?

Complaints were met with slogans that were so crass it was as if the regime was trolling the people.

“First work harder, then live better!” was among the least alluring of the promises on offer.

Unlike in other Soviet-dominated countries, East Germans had a clear alternative – they could move to West Germany.

In 1952, 125,000 Easterners took this option and fled to the west.

In the first four months of 1953, a further 160,000 defected.

Altogether, half a million people would move from east to west in 1952 and 1953 alone.

And this was a crisis for a country that had only started with 19 million people.

We don’t want to be slaves to our work!

The sun rises into the pale blue sky on the morning of 17 June 1953. Across Berlin, people wait to see what will happen.

The day before, 10,000 people had marched to the House of Ministries. Their rough, hand-painted banners carried clear messages:

“Reduce the quotas!”

“We don’t want to be slaves to our work!”

“Berliners, join us!”

Today, the protesters will find out if their fellow citizens would join them.

The early signs are promising. First shifts at factories across the country are cancelled when workers don’t turn up. Strikes are declared as people converge in city centres and town squares across the GDR.

By the afternoon, half a million people are on strike. They are joined by up to a million more taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Amongst the protesters, rumours spread and become distorted.

Was it true that a demonstration ten kilometres long was snaking its way through Berlin.

Had the Columbus House department store been destroyed on the Potsdamer Platz?

Bits of information are passed on in breathless excitement. Rostock, Magdeburg, Dresden, Halle and Leipzig were paralysed.

Soon, the peaceful protests give way to angry clashes and then violent confrontations.

Blood is shed. Smoke is in the air. People lose themselves in the mob. The streets give themselves into the chaos.

Party buildings are raided, smashed and burnt.

Everywhere, red flags are torn down. Someone braver than most ignores crowds of Russian soldiers at the Brandenburg Gate and rips away the giant crimson banner.

The police are pushed and pressed and panic. They shoot – first, into the air then into the crowds.

In a rage, the crowds attack with whatever they can get hold of. Bottles, bricks and bollards fly through the air.  

And then an unmistakable sound. The crunch of a thousand boots marching through a broken city. The ominous rumble of the tanks.

The Russians had come.

A million people are out on the streets demanding change.

In cities across the country, the protests are turning violent. The government doesn’t trust its own police to quell the uprising.

Is this the end of communist East Germany? Will the Americans, British and French intervene? And how will the Russian soldiers respond?

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Build a wall

So, did the government give into the demands and let everyone go home to live happily ever after.

The end.

No, not quite.

The East German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote a stinging piece in the aftermath of the uprising:

“After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

– Bertolt Brecht

The Soviet High Command flooded the streets with tanks, trucks and soldiers.

The Russians did not not leave anything to chance. A state of emergency was declared with martial law for offenders.

The New York Times reported Soviet soldiers driving: “trucks zigzagging wildly up and down Unter den Linden in front of the massive new Soviet Embassy building”.

To emphasise their determination, they would let off bursts from their machine pistols.

The Manchester Guardian was more graphic, reporting that: “one man who was not quick enough was run over by the leading armoured car. His head passed directly under the wheels. Women screamed and somebody was sick.”

By the late afternoon, the vast crowds had dissolved leaving small pockets of dissent for the police to deal with.

This left the Soviets plenty of questions.

Why did this happen?

How could workers rise up against the workers’ state?

And why would comrades strike when they worked in the people’s own factories?

It was perhaps even more of a surprise for the Soviets.

The Russians didn’t even think that the Germans were capable of protests. Stalin had once amused himself at the thought of a German uprising:

“Revolt?” he had joked “why they won’t even cross the street unless the light is green.”

But Stalin was dead.

And, in the aftermath of the uprising, so too were 34 demonstrators, passers-by and bystanders and a further five GDR police and functionaries.

And East Germany’s leaders and their Soviet masters had to learn lessons from the uprising to help them stay in power over the coming years.

Do you think that 17 June will break out again?

Their first lesson was that it was vital never to be caught by surprise.

Over the coming years, billions of marks were poured into the Ministry for State Security.

With stereotypical efficiency, East Germany developed a secret police force, spy network and surveillance society that wound delicate threads of intelligence around every aspect of life.

The country’s infamous Stasi was set on its course to become one of the most effective and repressive secret police agencies ever to have been unleashed on its own people.

In Nazi Germany, the German secret police, the Gestapo, employed one policeman for every 2,000 people.

By the 1980s, in contrast, the Stasi had one agent for every 166 people. These terrifying numbers were bolstered by up to half a million unofficial collaborators.

That gave the Stasi roughly one informer for every sixty people, numbers that were significantly higher than for the Gestapo or the KGB.

Nowhere was free from state surveillance – doctors, nurses, priests, janitors, teachers and public transport workers were regarded as being particularly good sources of information.

The leadership was still, however, terrified of another popular uprising. In the dying days of the regime, the feared Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, nervously asked his advisers: “Do you think that 17 June will break out again tomorrow?”

Not just any border. A dangerous one.

The second lessons was that they had to seal off the border to West Germany.

Ulbricht had been warned by the Soviet Ambassador that unless he took immediate measures, there would be no one left in East Germany.

Fences and barbed wire were strung out along the inner German border. Before the uprising, Stalin had advised the East Germans to create a proper border between the two Germanys and “not just any border, but a dangerous one”.

But what could be done about Berlin?

West Berlin, forged from the US, British and French zones of occupation, was a constant irritation to the Soviet system.

The Soviet Ambassador was remarkably candid in observing that: “the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favour of Democratic [East] Berlin”

How could it favour East Germany?

Jan Morris provides a characteristically vivid snapshot of crossing into the GDR:

“Travelling from west to east through [the inner German border] was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, peopled by all the ogres of totalitarianism, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you, I used to feel, without anybody ever hearing of it, and your every step was dogged by watchful eyes and mechanisms.”

For East Germans, the West could still be reached through Berlin. Just a subway stop away was a world of technicolour, light, opportunity and freedom.

It was so enticing that, by 1961, the GDR had lost a fifth of its population.

The solution was clear, uncompromising and desperate.

On the morning of 13 August 1961, 200 kilometres of barbed wire was rolled out to encircle West Berlin. Fences followed the wire, and concrete was added to the steel.

The last open link between east and west had been closed. The entombment of the GDR was complete.   

The Berlin Wall would become one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War. In 1982, the Iron Lady visited the Iron Curtain. Margaret Thatcher was uncompromising in her views, stating that: “every stone bears witness to the moral bankruptcy of the society it encloses”.

A penny for your loyalty

Finally, the leadership resolved to maintain workers’ living standards and satisfaction in a desperate attempt to keep support from at least part of society.

By 1989, it was still possible to buy a bread roll for a penny and tram tickets that hadn’t increased in price since the uprising.

People enjoyed job security. And, even if they didn’t, they could self medicate with booze and keep their jobs even if they routinely turned up drunk.

Was the protest doomed?

So, could the protests on 17 June 1953 have unified Germany and toppled the Soviet Bloc?

No.

The Soviet Union would simply not accept the loss of its hard won gains from the Second World War.

This was shown time and time again, especially in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. No matter how violent the uprising, it would be met and put down with crushing military power.

Until 1989, when the Soviet Union itself tottered on the brink of dissolution and, one by one, the communist regimes of eastern Europe fell.

So, from Almost History, we’re almost done!

I love hearing from you. If you like the podcast, please take a moment to rate or review it on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast service.

If you want to find out a bit more about this subject, I can recommend an excellent piece in July 2018’s edition of History Today called Day of Dissent in the DDR by Dr Richard Millington, which was the key inspiration for this episode.

Also Anne Applebaum’s book The Iron Curtain, is a fascinating survey of the ten years after the Second World War which forged the Eastern Bloc.

The theme music is Newsroom by Riot and transition theme is Behind Your Windows by Kai Engel. Details for all of the other music featured this week is set out in the episode description.

END THEME

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Operation Unthinkable – Churchill’s plan that would have started a Third World War

 

 

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According to Field Marshal Montgomery, rule number one on the first page of the book of war is ‘do not march on Moscow’.

In April 1945, Winston Churchill ordered the British Chiefs of Staff to rip up the rule book and plan for an attack on their wartime ally, Russia.

It was audacious, inconceivable and incredibly risky.

So, fittingly, it was codenamed Operation Unthinkable.

Just how close did we come to launching the Third World War in 1945?

A naughty document

In October 1944, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met for the Fourth Moscow Conference. During a long evening of vodka-fuelled negotiations, the two leaders agreed to divide various European countries into spheres of influence.

Churchill wrote out a list of countries and percentages to represent the interests of the USSR and the UK. Stalin indicated his approval of the plan by marking a large blue tick in the top corner.

This possibly represented the high point in Churchill’s faith in his Russian wartime ally.

Just five months later, serious doubts had surfaced in Churchill’s mind over whether the Soviet Union could be trusted. At stake was the future of Poland, the post-war division of Europe and even the survival of western democracy.

In 1939, Britain had gone to war with Nazi Germany in fulfilment of the terms of the Anglo-Polish Agreement of Mutual Assistance. Now, with the end of the war in sight, Churchill had a keen interest in the fate of her pre-war ally.

Josef Stalin also had a keen interest in the fate of Poland.

And Stalin exerted far more control over what that its future would be.

By the time the Allied leaders met at Yalta in February 1945, the Red Army was in control of most of Poland. It had occupied Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow, or, at least, what remained of these cities. It was also posed to take Berlin, Vienna and Prague, tightening the Soviet grip on central Europe.

Stalin had also installed the Polish Committee of National Liberation in power in Warsaw. The Committee, also known as the Lublin Government, was dressed in the costume of national independence, but was fully controlled from Moscow.

Any doubt about Stalin’s intentions was relieved when 16 Polish representatives of the London-based government-in-exile were arrested despite having been issued safe-conduct passes.

Churchill’s doubts solidified as Soviet intransigence increased. He expressed his fears to Roosevelt that: ‘at present all entry into Poland is barred to our representatives. An impenetrable veil has been drawn across the scene’.

So had Britain gone to war with one totalitarian state only to see another take control of Poland?

A tide of Russian domination is sweeping forward

On 4 May 1945, Churchill wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Antony Eden:

‘Terrible things have happened. A tide of Russian domination is sweeping forward … After it is over, the territories under Russian control will include the Baltic provinces, all of eastern Germany, all Czechoslovakia, a large part of Austria, the whole of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

‘This constitutes one of the most melancholy events in the history of Europe and one to which there has been no parallel. It is to an early and speedy showdown and settlement with Russia that we must now turn our hopes.’

What kind of ‘early and speedy showdown’ could Britain hope for in 1945?

In 1941, Churchill had assumed that victory would bring with it the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon world, with the USA and the British Empire to be the driving engines of a new world order. Churchill predicted that the Soviet Union would: ‘need our aid for reconstruction far more than we shall need theirs’.

It didn’t work out like that. By the end of the war, Britain was broken in victory. The Red Army controlled eastern Europe and had over seven million men under arms. And it was only going to get worse. Churchill pondered the future:

‘What will be the position in a year or two, when the British and American Armies have melted and the French has not yet been formed on any major scale, when we may have a handful of divisions, mostly French, and when Russia may choose to keep two or three hundred on active service?’

And then what?

Could Britain once again face an enemy just across the narrow divide? Churchill went on to muse that:

‘it would be open to the Russians in a very short space of time to advance, if they chose, to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic’.

On VE-Day, the Prime Minister broadcast to the British people to tell them that the war in Europe was over. Crowds filled the streets and squares of a jubilant London. Max Hastings recounts Churchill’s mood amidst this celebration:

‘From a balcony in Whitehall that evening, he addressed a vast, cheering crowd, who sang Land Of Hope And Glory and For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow. But back in his rooms, all he could talk about was his dismay at Soviet barbarism in the east’.

To impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire

Diplomacy had failed. Communist regimes were tightening their grip on power throughout central and eastern Europe. Agreements on British and American access to Prague, Vienna and Berlin were ignored.

Just under a month before Germany’s final surrender, Winston Churchill ordered the British Armed Forces’ Joint Planning Staff to think the unthinkable and plan for an attack on Russia.

Lt Gen Sir Hastings Ismay submitted his final report to Churchill on 22 May 1945. In it, the primary goal of Operation Unthinkable was stated as being:

‘to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. Even though ‘the will’ of these two countries may be defined as no more than a square deal for Poland, that does not necessarily limit the military commitment.

There was even a target date for the offensive. British and American tanks would roll eastwards once again on 1 July 1945.

The plan was based on some key assumptions.

The attack would enjoy the full backing of the public in the UK and USA and continued high morale amongst British and American troops.

The western allies would full assistance from Polish troops and recourse to German manpower and the remnants of German industrial capacity and they could rely on logistic support from other western countries.

Finally, the planner assumed that, on being attacked, Russia would ally herself with Japan;

One of the more incendiary aspects of the plan was that the western allies were to be joined by up to 100,000 rearmed German soldiers. The planners were told to: ‘count on the use of German manpower and what remains of German industrial capacity’.

The plan called for a swift punch through Poland by 47 British and American divisions. The Royal Air Force would strike from bases in Denmark and Northern Germany and the Royal Navy would move along the Baltic coast.

What would have happened next?

The Paris Peace Talks

What if … Churchill had convinced his generals and the Americans that they needed to attack the Soviet Union in July 1945? This section imagines a possible outcome for this future that never was.

Stalin strode across the square. He was aware of the entourage hustling behind him, but he didn’t look back. He had arrived in Paris after a three-day train journey crawling through the blasted, ruined towns and cities of Europe and he was keen to stretch his legs.

He had observed the destruction with grim satisfaction. First the Germans and then the Imperialists had tried to grind Russia into dust. But it was not mighty Russia that had been ground down. Instead, the Red Army had continued its westward march until it reached the Atlantic. Not even Tsar Alexander had reached the Atlantic.

Stalin hadn’t been caught out by Churchill’s perfidy and Truman’s treachery. He had known all along that after Germany had been defeated, America and England would turn on Russia.

They had expected the Soviet Union to bleed to death. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were supposed to have exhausted each other. But it wasn’t Russia who had emerged battered and broken. Britain didn’t have the resources for another fight and America didn’t have the stomach.

Stalin had been determined not to be caught out again. He still had nightmares about the dark days in June 1941 when Hitler had unleashed his armies against him. That would never happen again.

He had given Merkulov all of the resources that the People’s Commissariat for State Security needed to infiltrate the Imperialists. His spymaster ensured that they had people in Downing Street, at the White House and, perhaps most importantly, at Los Alamos.

This time, Stalin had known the day of the planned attack and his forces were ready. Marshal Zhukov had regrouped his forces around Berlin and Brandenburg. The Red Army had hastily dug itself-in and built defences. Tanks and aircraft were moved north and west. They were ready.

He had been lost in thought, but no one around him dared to interrupt his silence. Eventually, Stalin was roused by the clipped sounds of a parade drill. He looked up and around. He was here to inspect preparations for the peace talks.

His advisors had suggested holding the talks at Versailles. Stalin rejected that – he’d hated Potsdam and wasn’t going to repeat the experience of being holed up in an aristocrats’ playground.

No, the talks would be in Paris. And he knew exactly the right location. The Communards had established a headquarters at the Hôtel de Ville. That would send the right signal to the Capitalists. He had decided that Kaganovich and Zhdanov were the most capable Orgburo members available and had charged them with organising the spectacle.

The square was already surrounded by a phalanx of oversized flagpoles, each bearing a huge red flag. The town hall had been dressed with red banners and illuminated portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. As soon as the square was lined with Red Army soldiers, the effect would be overpowering.

He was now really enjoying himself. He would make little Clement Attlee and President Rayburn walk the entire length of the square towards the meeting, long enough to impress upon them the new reality of power in Europe.

Churchill had been turfed out of office as soon as it became clear that his gamble had gone wrong. The British Army had made a few small gains in north Germany, but were soon pushed back. Whole companies of British and American troops had mutinied. They might not have been so keen to give up if they knew the welcome that Mother Russia was preparing for them back in Siberia.

Within days, the retreat had become a rout and the Imperialists were rapidly chased out of Germany. In the end, the remnants of their armies almost retraced their steps, falling back to the same Normandy beaches they had triumphantly landed upon just over a year ago.

Those precious little ships had, once more, ferried back the broken divisions of soldiers. But this time, the weather had not been kind and thousands had drowned in storms that ravaged the Channel.

All that was left was for Stalin to decide how much of Europe he would absorb directly into the Soviet Union. The rest would be given reliably Communist governments. He would then decide how to dismember the British Empire – he was particularly keen to see a Russian naval base in Newfoundland.

He walked into the town hall and was met with a decidedly sweaty looking Beria. He looked terrified and all the colour had drained from his face. Normally, He fixed his poisonous dwarf with a stare. Beria had a habit of not speaking unless you beat the truth out of him.

“Well?”

Beria shifted and looked at the ground. Stalin grabbed his shoulders and forced him to meet his gaze.

“There has been news …

“Yes”

“from Moscow. And Leningrad …”

“Spit it out, Beria, the Devil got you?”

“They’ve dropped it. They’ve dropped the bomb.”

Committed to a protracted war against heavy odds

The military’s response to Churchill’s call to think the unthinkable was unambiguous and unpromising.

They informed the Prime Minister that an attack on Russia at this stage ran a strong risk of failing.

This was putting it mildly.

At the time, the USSR had a two to one superiority in armour and four to one in infantry across Europe and the Middle East.

The result of such failure would be the occupation of the entire European continent by the Soviet Union and the possible loss of British independence. Many hundreds of thousands if not millions of further lives would be lost.

A plan was submitted to the Prime Minister on 8 June 1945, in which the Chiefs of Staff wrote: ‘once hostilities began, it would be beyond our power to win a quick but limited success and we should be committed to a protracted war against heavy odds’.

Victory would be impossible without: ‘a large proportion of the vast resources of the United States’. The remote odds would:

‘become fanciful if the Americans grew weary and indifferent and began to be drawn away by the magnet of the Pacific war’.

Field Marshal Brooke was less diplomatic, writing that: ‘the idea is, of course, fantastic and the chances of success quite impossible. There is no doubt that from now onwards Russia is all powerful in Europe.’

The Cabinet Office planners also pointed to the failure of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union to highlight the futility of such a military engagement.

Unsurprisingly, the report suggested that the Soviet Union was likely to respond aggressively to such an attack. Whilst the allies concentrated on Poland, the Red Army could overrun Norway, Turkey, Greece and potentially take the oil fields of Persia and Iraq.

War weariness will be the predominant feature

Even if Churchill had got the top brass on board, how could they possibly convince soldiers and civilians to make further sacrifices?

Fighting in the west had been destructive enough, but it was nothing compared to the blood that had already soaked eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union. If anyone knew that, it was the Germans. The report suggests that:

‘war weariness will be the predominant feature of the German civil population’.

The planners feared outright mutinies in the British army if they were told to prepare for war with their erstwhile allies.

General Hastings Ismay thought it impossible even to contemplate asking them. Could Britain and America forget:

‘all that they had said about their determination to destroy Nazism, taken the Germans into their fold, and proceeded, with their help, to crush their recent allies? One is forced to the conclusion that such a reversal of policy … was absolutely impossible for the leaders of democratic countries even to contemplate.’

Ismay went on to write:

‘For over three years, public opinion in America and Britain had been led to believe that Russia was a brave and faithful ally who had done the lion’s share of the fighting, and endured untold suffering. If their governments had now proclaimed that the Russians were untrustworthy and unprincipled tyrants, whose ambitions must be held in check, the effect on national unity in both countries would have been catastrophic’.

Was Churchill’s bellicosity, in part, fuelled by his knowledge of the successful progress of the Manhattan Project? His state of mind may have been revealed at July’s Potsdam conference, Churchill told the Chief of the Army, Sir Alan Brooke:

‘if they insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev and so on’.

In the end, the preparations came to nothing, and were, if anything counterproductive, serving only to fuel increasing suspicion between the wartime allies. The discussions were conducted with the greatest levels of secrecy. But this didn’t prevent Stalin soon finding out about them. Soviet agents and communist sympathisers had penetrated all levels of the Whitehall bureaucracy.

Moscow was told of the planning and was also informed that Field Marshal Montgomery had been ordered to gather up German arms in case they were needed to re-arm Wehrmacht troops.

The plan’s obvious flaws and difficulties did not end discussions. As tensions began to increase between the west and the Soviet bloc, British and American military planners began to consider how they would defend Western Europe and the British Isles from any Russian attack.

Churchill responded to ask his military planners to:

‘Pray have a study made of how then we could defend our island, assuming France and the Low Countries were powerless to resist the Russian advance to the sea’.

The details of the planning were stored away at the Public Records Office in a file headed ‘Russia: Threat to Western Civilisation’.

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Louis of England – history’s forgotten King of England

 

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In August of 1216, the King of Scotland rode down the entire length of England to pay homage to a new English king at Dover.

The Scottish monarch bent his knee to a warrior prince who was the pride and hope of his dynasty.

His name was Louis and he was the eldest son of the King of France.

Louis is overlooked in most lists of English monarchs. But he was, at this point in time, in control of two-thirds of the country and had the support of the majority of its barons.

At Lincoln, he had a chance to win a great victory and secure his claim to the throne.

This is a rich story with a cast that includes a septuagenarian warrior, a fighting monk, a nine-year old boy king and a fearsome Châtelaine who defied a whole army.

But most of all, it is about a battle that could have gone either way.

What if … the Battle of Lincoln had gone the other way and the King of France’s eldest son had secured the English throne?

John: An Awful King

In 1187, Henry II of England controlled more of France than the King of France.

Conversely, within a generation, the King of France’s eldest son, Prince Louis, would lead an invasion of England that would see him control up to two-thirds of that country.

What had happened to reverse the fortunes of the Anglo-Norman Plantagenets and the French Capetians so decisively?

A simple answer is that King Richard died and was succeeded by his younger brother, John.

Bad King John.

The chapter dealing with John in 1066 And All That is titled ‘John: An Awful King’.

Is there truth behind the satire?

John is most frequently encountered today in the role of Robin Hood’s chief antagonist or as the monarch forced to sign the Magna Carta.

On screen, he is variously depicted as vain, cowardly, effete and weak.  

Chroniclers were far less kind in their descriptions.

William of Newburgh called him ‘nature’s enemy’ whilst the Barnwell chronicler said he was ‘a pillager of his own people’.

The Minstrel of Reims describes him as ‘evil and cruel’ and wrote that he was the ‘worst king who was ever born since the time of Herod’.

For John’s medieval contemporary Matthew Paris, this didn’t go far enough. In his account, he has the Barons of England exclaim:

‘Woe unto you, John, last of kings, detested one of the chiefs of England, disgrace to the English nobility’.

Historians debate just how bad John actually was. Some even point to what could be seen as redeeming qualities.

But John was certainly capricious and cruel.

As he teetered on the brink of calamity in 1212, he oversaw the execution of 28 Welsh boys at Nottingham.

The youths had been held as hostages following an uprising in the Principality the previous year.

After learning of a fresh Welsh uprising, John rode to Nottingham to supervise his revenge. He watched the boys taken away from their play, screaming and pleading. They were hanged in a row along the castle walls.

And his cruelty was not reserved for foreign enemies. The de Braose family were, for many years, amongst the favourites at King John’s court.

That was until Matilda de Braose incurred John’s wrath and enmity by openly referring to his alleged crimes. For that, he caused her to be starved to death in the dungeon of Corfe Castle along with William, her eldest son.

Even his closest family were not safe. He was widely thought to have ordered the murder of his nephew, Arthur of Britanny. Many believed John had actually stabbed Arthur himself.

John was also reviled for his military failings. He was obsessed with recovering Angevin lands that had been lost in France. His hopes had been dashed in the slaughter of the Battle of Bouvines.

Being evil did not disqualify you from the throne in medieval Europe. But losing battles was another matter.

Many of his English barons revolted and the country was plunged into civil war.

There was a brief reconciliation on the granting of the Magna Carta in 1215.

John’s repudiation of the Great Charter saw the conflict flare back into life, burning more fiercely than before. The chronicler Roger of Wendover describes England during this desperate time:

‘The whole land was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled to blot out everything from the face of the earth; for, running about with drawn swords and knives, they ransacked towns, houses, cemeteries, and churches, robbing everyone, sparing neither women nor children.’

Brimful of evil qualities

John was so hated that many English barons decided to encourage a claim to the throne made by Prince Louis, the eldest son of the King of France.

Louis arrived in England in May 1216 and immediately started his campaign to oust his despised rival.

There was a rich irony in this. John had bankrupted himself and the kingdom as part of his obsession with recovering his lost lands in France.

Now, he barely clung onto a third of England whilst the French invader held sway over the rest.

The odds seemed to be heavily in Louis’s favour.

Surviving records indicate that 97 baronies supported Louis whilst only 36 had remained loyal to John. Louis also had support from the Welsh and Scots. He held London and could be resupplied from France.

Then, in November 1216, John died of dysentery at Newark Castle.

The chronicler Matthew Paris wrote a succinct and damning epithet: ‘foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.’

Another contemporary wrote that the dead king had been: ‘brimful of evil qualities’.

John left behind a kingdom wracked by civil war and a crown that was heavily in debt and reviled by many English barons.

He also left behind his nine-year old son, William.

With such odds stacked against him, how did William even survive into 1217?

William did have a much stronger claim to the throne. He was a direct descendant through the male line of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Louis’s claim came through his wife, Blanche of Castile, who was Henry II’s granddaughter.

William had also been crowned, albeit in a decidedly atypical ceremony.

Normally, English monarchs are crowned at Westminster Abbey in a coronation officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and that was traditionally held on a Sunday. William was hastily crowned on a Friday in Gloucester Cathedral by the Papal Legate.

Nonetheless, William was the anointed King of England.

William was also supported by the Church. His father had turned England into a Papal fief to gain support in Rome. He had been able to declare a ‘just and holy war’. Louis, by contrast, had been excommunicated.

William also had some important supporters and castles. The legendary commander William Marshal was behind the king. William’s allies held key castles at Newark, Lincoln, Dover and Nottingham.

On 20 May 1217, two armies met in Lincoln. Forces loyal to King William held the castle. The city itself was full of men pledged to Prince Louis of France.

This clash of arms was a dangerous gamble for William. The stakes were high. If he won, he would hold on to the crown. If he lost, he would lose his throne and probably his life.

Historia de regibus Angliae

What if … Prince Louis’s forces had won the Battle of Lincoln? This section imagines this future that never was.

After months of painstaking work, he was nearing the end of his labours.

With a few scratches of the quill, his manuscript was finally complete. The monk sat back and looked at the pages of vellum that set out his chronicle.

He had spent years on the Historia de regibus Angliae. But not even he could have imagined that this history of English monarchs would end with the King of France’s eldest son sat firmly on the throne of England.

And he could never have imagined that he would witness the battle that ended the Plantagenets.

He looked around. It was late and he was alone in the scriptorium. The flickering candles cast strange shadows on the walls. His mind wandered in the stillness.

The cathedral cloisters were quiet now, but in 1217 they had been at the noisy centre of England’s civil war.

The monk had arrived at Lincoln as a boy. Henry and Eleanor ruled then. Good wine came to Lincoln, direct from Aquitaine, a sign of English prosperity and a product of the extensive Plantagenet lands.

How things had changed.

Once, Kings of England made war across the South Sea. Then came John and war came to England. King Louis arrived, invited by many of John’s barons. Conflict stalked the land and, whilst nobles and knights clashed, the poor suffered even more than usual.

Soon enough, John died. Was it the shock of being usurped? Or had the devil come to reclaim one of his own? It was now a fight between Louis and John’s nine-year old son Henry.

The decisive battle has been fought in his own city. He had seen the clash from the top of one of the Cathedral’s towers.

The packed streets of the City were crowded with men, cobblestones splashed with blood and slippery. The Cathedral Green became a battlefield, with men so pressed against each other that they could barely raise an arm to strike.

He saw a man’s head split open by a fierce axe blow. Brains and blood burst out. That was the point at which he had seen enough to make him sick.

But the worst was yet to come to for Henry’s supporters and especially their commander, William Marshal. The venerable fighter had reached his three score years and ten, and the Lord God decided he would last no longer.

Marshal pushed his troops towards the French. Thomas du Perche stood at the centre of his host, recognisable to all with his bright red and white shield and surcoat.

The French were falling back, their soldiers falling to the deadly arrows raining from the Castle’s crossbowmen.  

Then, just as victory seemed certain, Marshal surged towards du Perche.

Right outside the front of the Cathedral, the future of England was decided in a fight to the death.

An arrow sped towards du Perche, but was interrupted by Marshal’s advance. It ripped open the Marshal’s horse, spilling its guts to the floor. Marshal was thrown to the ground in front of the French.

Soon, the English troops were melting back towards the castle and then out of the city.    

But his history was no place to dwell on John or Henry. The Bishop wanted to present the new King with the volume to mark his rightful place in the line of English monarchs.

And that is how he had found himself in Westminster seven months after the battle.

The Bishop had ordered the monk to join his retinue for London. Lincoln’s prelate had supported Louis from the beginning and he wanted his scribe to make that very clear in his account.

He had found a precarious perch high up in one of the Abbey’s upper chapels. From here, he could see the high altar and most of the nave.

Louis had found the church to be somewhat simple compared to the splendour of Reims. He had promised to rebuild the abbey on a grand scale but, until then, he had to be satisfied with decorating for his coronation.

The abbey was hung with lengths of scarlet velvet and cloth of gold. A particularly fine carpet had been placed in front of the altar. Clearly, there was no shortage of coin in the French treasury.

Beneath him, barons and bishops filled the church. No one wanted to miss the coronation and be thought of as opposing the new king.

Finally, Louis was led by Cardinal Langton and Archbishop Langton. The brothers had risen high on opposition to John and now controlled Canterbury and York. The choir had swelled into a chorus of Firmetur manus tua.

Louis’s rich blue robes were trimmed with ermine and decorated with the golden fleur de lis of his dynasty. He was the King of England but intended to rule France in time as well.

The small procession reached the high altar and all three made a lengthy show of prostrating before the cross. He now understood why such costly carpet had been laid at that spot – the king had to show humility but wouldn’t tolerate too much discomfort.

Louis then took the oath, promising to preserve the Church and people in true peace, forbid rapacity and to bring justice and mercy in his judgments. After so many years of war, it seemed like an impossible dream that there could now be peace.

Cardinal Langton now turned to the congregation and asked them if they were willing to submit to Louis as their prince and ruler and to obey his command. There was an enthusiastic response and cries of vivat rex! Was it too keen an acclamation? There must have been plenty in the crowd below who had supported Henry and who were now desperate to show loyalty to the new regime.

Louis was now surrounded by the bishops of England. Cardinal Langton anointed the king, gently touching his hands, head and body.

Prelates stepped forward to invest Louis with the sword, armils and mantle.

Cardinal Langton once again took centre stage to place the crown on Louis’s head. The coronation ring, sceptre and rod were now delivered and the king, loaded with his golden regalia, was blessed.

The choir sang the Te Deum as Louis was finally led to his throne. He had ruled England but now, finally, he was their anointed king.

The horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs

Louis was never crowned King of England.

William Marshal did not die in the Battle of Lincoln.

Instead, it was Thomas du Perche, the commander of Louis’s forces, who was slain in front of the Cathedral.

The battle was pivotal, but it was King John’s son, William, who would emerge victorious rather than Prince Louis.

English forces had gathered to the west of Lincoln in May 1217. Three things combined to bring victory to William’s army.

The first was du Perche’s relative inexperience. He overestimated the size of the English force and decided not to meet them in battle on open ground to the west of the city. As a result, French forces were trapped within the city walls.

Secondly, Lincoln Castle was held for William by Nicola de la Haye. This gave the English forces valuable intelligence on the conditions within the city. Once the attack started, English crossbowmen on the ramparts were able to pick off men and horses. Roger of Wendover wrote that:

‘By means of the crossbowmen, by whose skill the horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs, the party of the barons was greatly weakened’.

Finally, there is the role of fortune. Battles in the middle ages were notoriously dangerous and unpredictable. William rolled the dice and won. It could easily have gone the other way.

Many of them were slain before they got to Louis

Louis lost a half of his forces at Lincoln.

The tide had turned against the French. Many of Louis’s supporters attempted to flee back to London. The chronicler Wendover recorded that:

‘Many of  them, especially the foot-soldiers, were slain before they got to Louis; for the inhabitants of  the towns through which they passed in their flight went to meet them with swords and clubs, and, laying ambushes for them, killed many’.

Did Henry’s victory at Lincoln seal the fate of Louis’s English adventure?

Or, put another way, what would have happened if Louis’s forces had won the battle?

There seems little doubt that the Battle of Lincoln was a pivotal moment in the conflict. It wasn’t the only factor that decided who would sit on the throne of England. But Louis’s defeat made it very unlikely that he would take the crown.

Louis’s only lifeline was to secure reinforcements, supplies and money from France. His defeat at the Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217 severed this lifeline, making it only a matter of time before he had to sue for peace.

Louis was forced to make peace on English terms.

On 12 September 1217, he left England for good.

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Princess Mary Tudor’s flight to freedom

 

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In the summer of 1550, Princess Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, was packing her belongings and preparing to flee her home.

Her Tudor brother was the figurehead for an increasingly Protestant regime. Mary clung to her mother’s Catholicism.

She feared for her life and, as the pressure on her to conform grew, she turned to her powerful relatives abroad.

She could be safe again, but they could only protect her if she left England.

What if … Mary Tudor had fled her Essex estates and boarded the boat to take her into a European exile?

A devout brother, and overflowing with all kindness

On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died at Whitehall Palace. He was succeeded by his nine-year old son Edward. On the same day, the new king found time to write to his eldest sister Mary.

His letter proclaimed filial affection, with Edward promising to be:

‘a devout brother, and overflowing with all kindnesses.’

But his kindnesses towards Mary soon dried up.

Mary was not just from a different generation. In an increasingly zealous Protestant England, she stubbornly clung to the old order.

In Mary’s world, Catholicism was the true religion, England was loyal to the Pope and she was a Princess.

Against her was a government that identified with Protestantism, saw the Pope as an anti-Christ and viewed Mary as the illegitimate bastard of the old King’s annulled first marriage.

For Lady Mary, as the regime insisted on labelling her, this was the latest indignity that had been heaped on her and her late mother.

Mary was not alone in her struggle for conscience and status. She was the daughter of a princess of Spain and a scion of the House of Habsburg. Charles V was her cousin.

Whilst she had powerful friends abroad, Mary’s devout Catholicism ensured that she had powerful enemies at home.

A particularly splendid mass of Pentecost

As time passed, Mary grew increasingly indignant at the slights to her standing and the denigration of her religion.

As long ago as 1533, Mary was declared illegitimate and was styled as The Lady Mary rather than Princess Mary.

Her father’s Act of Succession in 1544 had returned her to the line of succession, but even this retained the taint of her bastard status.

But at least Henry had been a slow and reluctant reformer on church matters. Under her brother’s reign, religious differences between Mary and the government became more marked.

Mary sought solace in a particularly pious devotion to Catholicism. She attended up to four masses a day and opened up these services to her household.

Meanwhile, little by little, the Protestant reformation was chiselling away at Catholic practises.

In the first year’s of Edwards reign, the rosary was banned. Parish processions and devotional pilgrimages were curtailed. And the Sanctus Bell no longer rang at the moment of Eucharist.

On Whit Sunday in 1549 the new Common Prayer Book was to be used in every service. Mary signalled her opposition by organising a ‘particularly splendid mass of Pentecost’ at her Kenninghall estate.

What say you, Mr Ambassador?

This act of defiance did not pass unnoticed. For a government already unnerved by the outbreak of the Prayer Book Rebellion, Mary’s unwillingness to toe the line was a big problem.

The King’s Council wrote to Mary advising her to obey the Act of Uniformity.

Others in the realm had not been treated so kindly. Bishop Gardner had been thrown into the Fleet Prison and then sent to the Tower of London for refusing to comply with the new religious regime.

Mary had an impressive trump card to defend her against such rough treatment. Her cousin was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles V was the ruler of large swathes of continental Europe.

His rule encompassed modern-day Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and much of Austria, Hungary and Italy. He was also the beneficiary of the increasingly large flows of silver from the New World. Charles was not someone who Edward’s government could afford to upset.

Charles sent the regime a message via his ambassador, François van der Delft. He informed the English that he would not tolerate his cousin being forced to ‘change her religion’.

In case this point was lost, a more forceful note was issued soon after.

But still the pressure to conform was building.

Mary grew increasingly worried about her future. At the end of April 1550, Mary summoned the Imperial ambassador, van der Delft,  to see her at her estate of Woodham Walter, near Maldon in Essex.

She knew that she was in danger from those who surrounded the King, noting that:

‘They are wicked and wily in their actions, and particularly malevolent towards me, I must not wait till the blow falls.’

She also raised the prospect of being safer abroad:

‘If my brother were to die I would be far better out of the Kingdom, because as soon as he were dead, before the people knew it, they would despatch me too’.

Finally, she put van der Delft on the spot by summarising her delicate position and asking for his opinion:

‘I would willingly stay were I able to live and serve god as I have done in the past; which is what I have always said. But these men are so changeable that I know not what to say. What say you, Mr Ambassador?’

Mary was 34, unmarried and increasingly desperate. She wanted to leave England and seek the protection of her cousin, Emperor Charles V.

Now they just had to figure out how to do it.

Peril in going and peril in staying

In May 1550, two plans were floated. One was for a disguised Mary to accompany van der Delft on his return to the Netherlands. The second was for Mary to be picked up from the coast of Essex and taken to an Imperial warship.

Time ran out on the first plan, so the second was put into motion.

Van der Delft’s secretary, Johan Dubois, was entrusted to bring Mary to the coast and then on to the Netherlands.

All of the pieces finally came together at the end of June 1550.

Mary moved her household back to Woodham Walter, barely two miles from the shoreline of the Blackwater Estuary.

On the evening of Monday 30 June 1550, three Imperial warships arrived off the Essex coast under the command of the admiral of the Imperial fleet.

Dubois was rowed from the warships to Maldon under the guise of being a grain merchant intending to sell a consignment of corn.

The country was in a state of high alert, with the Council informing all of its local informants and officials that they should be vigilant in the face of possible continental aggression.

This only added to the tensions on board the Imperial ships and made Dubois’s mission all the more hazardous. He had no time to lose, and sought to make contact with Mary and her household.

What is to become of me?

What if … Mary had decided to leave England? This section imagines this future that never was.

Princess Mary sank to her knees. Her cabin was crude, but a small shrine had been set up in the corner.

She focused on the face of the Virgin, her golden halo glinting in the unsteady, flickering light of a single candle.

She was safe.

She was finally safe.

She let out a long, low sigh and then breathed in slowly.

She felt the calm move through her body, chasing out the fear that had gripped her since she left England.

This was the second time is as many nights that she had felt the Lord’s blessing. He was with her and she would always be with Him.

Last night, she thought she would lose her mind in a crest of mounting panic. She had torn about her chambers crying out. She remembered sobbing and shouting the same questions until her throat was raw. What would become of her? What would her fate be?

The Lord had intervened.

All around her was the chaos of a hasty departure. Her ladies were busy stuffing belongings into bags.

She had cried out for a sign. At that moment, a bag toppled over and its contents clattered to the floor. She looked down and saw the necklace at her feet. She bent over to pick it up and brought it to her knees. It was Christopher, the saint who guided travellers as they ventured into the unknown.

She sat, looking closely at the portrait. She was lost in her thoughts and didn’t hear her Lady in Waiting calling her. It was only when her shoulder was gently tapped that she returned to the physical world.

‘Beg pardon, my Lady, but the Ambassador’s man is here.’

At least she had an answer for him.

She would go. She would leave her home and her country and throw herself on the mercy of her family across the water.

Everything then happened at a dizzying speed. She felt as though she was watching events unfold from above. She was no longer of this world, merely a spectator as night turned into day. Her belongings were packed and her household gathered.

She said a short farewell, promising them that she would return. Her ladies were in tears and even the men were visibly upset. What would happen to them?

But she couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t think about anything other than getting away from a country that was no longer her home.

Her small party had set off for the coast. They had planned what they would say if they ran into suspicious locals. The Ambassador’s man, Dubois, had invented a story that Mary was moving to another of her Essex estates whilst essential repairs were carried out at Woodham Walter. Dubois had been reassuringly resourceful. She had to remember to commend him to her cousin when she reached the Low Countries.

They hadn’t met anyone along the two-mile stretch between her manor and the sea.

She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the sea. She remembered travelling down the river between palaces. But the sea was different. Her mother had come from across the sea. And now she would carry her memory back with her.

Dubois gestured to a low lying but study vessel. He told her it was a grain boat, used to ferrying heavy loads of wheat and barley across the German Sea.

There were few comforts on board, but it was only for the short journey to her cousin’s warships which, she was assured, lay offshore.

The ship slipped away from its moorings and jolted. Mary felt a wave of panic as she watched England slip away. At first, she could almost reach out and touch dry land. Within a few minutes, the coastline had receded, sinking back into the dark night with only a few torches pricking the blackness.

As the land faded away, the warships loomed ever larger. They were huge vessels, absolutely dwarfing the grain boat.

In no time, they were side by side. A winch had been lowered to save her the indignity of climbing a ladder. Above her, the ship’s commander shouted out a greeting in French.

‘Welcome home, Your Majesty’.

The whole business was so near being discovered

In reality, there was no sign from God and no resolution to Mary’s indecision.

The Princess had developed cold feet.

She must have realised all that she would give up if she fled, and, as a true daughter of Henry VIII, she found such abdication of her royal prerogative hard to accept. Dubois liaised with her trusted officer Robert Rochester, who begged the Imperial secretary for more time.

Dubois was firm in his message to Mary – now was the time to escape and they had to leave straight away. Mary dithered, unable to make a decision and stalling for more time.

Dubois grew increasingly frantic as he tried to make the Princess see reason. He feared that the plot was already

‘The whole business was so near being discovered that it was most improbable that it could be kept secret’.

Eventually, Dubois ran out of patience and Mary was no closer to making a final decision to leave England. Dubois slipped back to the Imperial warships under the cover of darkness, and the small fleet sailed away taking with them Mary’s best chance for escape.

Just three years later, Mary’s fortunes had completely reversed as she succeeded Edward VI as Queen of England. The dead King’s Protestant advisors had conspired to deprive her of the crown by raising Lady Jane Grey to the throne.

The Nine Days’ Queen saw her support drain over the course of her brief reign whilst Mary was acclaimed as Queen across the country. Queen Jane was deposed and ultimately executed and Mary returned to London in triumph as Queen.

What would have happened if Mary had stepped aboard that rowing boat and slipped away in the dead of night to the Imperial warships and a future under the protection of Charles V?

It seems likely is that Princess Mary’s claims to the throne of England would have been fatally compromised.

The English were notoriously suspicious of the European neighbours if not downright xenophobic in their hatred of foreigners. It is likely that Mary’s flight to Europe would have been seized by her enemies as a definitive sign of her treachery and foreign sympathies.

She could only have returned at the head of an invading army, and with Charles V’s constant wars against his French enemies, it seems unlikely that a women could have commanded such resources no matter how close the family connection.

So what would have happened on Edward VI’s death? Would this have accelerated the accession of his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth?

Maybe not.

Extending the reign of the nine-day Queen

John Dudley, the newly minted Duke of Northumberland and the first non-royal duke in England’s history, was the most powerful man in the Kingdom.

His influence and relationship to the King ensured that he effectively ruled during Edward’s minority. Would he have happily given power to a 20-year old Elizabeth, even if she was a Protestant?

It is possible if not likely that he would have hatched a similar plan to that he concocted to keep Mary off the throne.

Placing the pliant, biddable and young Lady Jane Grey on the throne would ensure his continued influence. In fact, as Jane had married Dudley’s son, this marked the birth of a new dynasty. With Mary out of the picture, would Elizabeth have been able to overturn this coup?

Perhaps not.

The consequences of Mary’s flight from the realm could therefore have been the long reign of Queen Jane and a far more aggressive Protestant if not Puritanical state. This could have seen England develop in a similar way as under Protector Cromwell after the English Civil War.

With the glitter, success and cultural highs of the court of Gloriana replaced by the dour, god-fearing Jane the consequences could have been far reaching. A puritanical shut down of the theatres could have easily deprived English of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Would the nascent English empire have been founded, or would the regime be too busy facing internal and external foes to finance overseas adventures?

Would England and Scotland have remained separate kingdoms, with the Scottish Stuarts deprived of the English crown by a fecund Dudley dynasty?

All of this was possible if Mary had stepped on board the boat on that fateful night in 1550.

Should we be grateful that she didn’t?

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Canterbury’s cancelled Christmas and the Plum Pudding Riots


 

 

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In 1647, the new puritan government tried to cancel Christmas.

People in Canterbury protested in a peculiarly English way, with a destructive game of football followed by a mass brawl.

The city’s Plum Pudding Riots led to a royalist revolt throughout Kent and the second round of the Civil War.

With Parliamentary armies fighting in Wales and Scotland, could this have marked a revival in fortunes for the beleaguered King Charles the First?

On 21 May 1648, 10,000 royalists gathered on moorland outside Maidstone in Kent.

They were just 35 miles or a day’s hard march from a largely undefended London.

A new phase of the English Civil War was about to begin.

The English Civil War is a misleading term for this turbulent period in the middle of the seventeenth century.

With fierce fighting in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the war was not confined to England.

It was neither a civil nor singular conflict. Instead, a series of savage, internecine campaigns marauded across the British Isles for over a decade.

Kent had escaped the worst of the slaughter and spoil. So why were its people inviting ruin by sparking a rebellion against Parliament?

There were, of course, a whole range of grievances.

But the revolt started with an attempt to cancel Christmas in Canterbury.

A Canterbury Tale

It was Christmas Day.

Not that you could tell by looking around. There were none of the garlands, wreaths and boughs that usually marked the season. The Lord Mayor of London had been insulted and jostled when he had ordered the holly and ivy pulled from that city’s conduits and passages. Canterbury’s citizens had been unenthusiastically compliant.

The Mayor looked around the market square and saw that only a dozen shopkeepers and stallholders had heeded his demand to open.

Jesus had turned the merchants from the temple. Now, his true believers wanted them to open for business. It was the only way to dispel the superstition that hung around this pagan day.

It was a shame that many in Canterbury didn’t see it that way. Many still clung to the old ways, to the liberty of carnal and sensual delights that was clearly a sinful indulgence.

There had been grumbles when May Day celebrations were cancelled. The young had missed the unruly and anarchic fun of Shrove Tuesday, although others welcomed the peace.

And it was fair to say that the new celebrations offered in the Directory of Worship had not been universally welcomed. The Puritans had offered a day of fasting on the last Wednesday of each month as a replacement for holy days. It was surly a godlier choice, but trying to promote penance over pancakes was not the quickest way to endear Parliament to the people.

Christmas had been a tougher tradition to tackle. And now, a growing swell of townsfolk braved the cold streets to demonstrate their displeasure at the opening of shops.

Faced with the hostile crowd, the Mayor’s party of civic notables and a guard of pikemen no longer seemed quite as reassuring as when they had set off.

Still, they had work to do.

A trickle of reports had reached Westminster from more rebellious parts. He had seen snippets warning of ‘sundry seditious sermons’ and ‘dangerous speeches that darkly implied threats against the Parliament and a course to be taken with the Roundheads about Christmas’.

So, Parliament had adopted a hardline approach and, as a result, he was now standing in the freezing cold in front of one of the largest crowds he’d ever seen in the city.

The Mayor’s party moved along the street, encouraging shopkeepers to open.

The crowd surged forwards, shouts growing louder and curses flying at the traders and the city officials.

The mayor kept his men back, leaving the stalls and shops to bear the brunt of the crowd’s anger. Goods started to fly over the heads, smashing on to the ground and scattering around.

The crowd had become a mob. People didn’t even bother to pick up valuable spices and textiles. They were trod into the muck, broken, ripped and ruined.

One of the merchants was standing near to his shuttered premises. The Mayor asked him to open up, threatening him with the stocks if he stayed closed.

The crowd surged forwards, shouting support for the shopkeeper and heading straight for the Mayor.

He tried to shout, to order the crowd to move back. As they pressed against him, he lashed out. He was immediately pushed violently to the ground.

He tried to get up, but was trodden down into the muck and dragged by his feet in the gutter. He gasped for air, suffocating in the press of legs. As he flailed about, his robes were ripped.

Somehow, he managed to get to his feet and find his voice. He ordered the crowd to disperse.

It seemed to work. The spell was broken. The crowd receded, rage replaced by dumb insolence. There was quiet again in the broken wreck of the market square.

He felt his back straighten, tilted his face upwards. He was the authority and he would be respected. His tattered, mud splattered robes fluttered in the wind. But he was the Mayor of Canterbury and he would be obeyed.

Just as his confidence was surging back, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

No.

It couldn’t be.

His heart sank.

From out of a growing crowd, someone had produced two inflated pigs bladders.

It was time for a game of football.

Kentish rebellion

And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day in 1647 in Canterbury, that the people rebelled in the most English way possible – with a game of football followed by a riot.

These were the days when football was unconstrained by pitches and rules. A game could wend its riotous way across a whole town. It usually involved most of the population, whether they wanted to take part of not.

Crowds charged around Canterbury shouting ‘Conquest’. The City’s aldermen were jeered and then, more seriously, chased, beaten and forced back into their houses.

The sporting action was interspersed with nods to a traditional Christmas. Holly bushes were set up in doorways and entertainment offered. The records are silent about what this entertainment was, but it was guaranteed to upset the Puritans.

Not that the crowd cared very much about what the Puritans thought. One of the more uncompromising ministers, Richard Culmer, was pelted with mud.

And that could have been the end of this unruly Canterbury Christmas. The sheriff, mayor and aldermen had been knocked about but suffered no lasting physical damage. Only their pride had been badly bruised.

But that wasn’t enough for the county’s Puritan and Parliamentary leaders.

They were determined to make an example of the ringleaders.

They sent their leader, Sir Anthony Welden, an aged and particularly officious Parliamentary commissioner to ‘punish merrymakers who had played football in Canterbury the previous Christmas’.

Sir Anthony had been in favour of dealing with them quickly and violently under martial law. He was overruled and so, in May 1648, he found himself in Maidstone for the Kent Assizes.

Before they could be tried, the rioters had to be indicted by the county’s grand jury. The authorities took no chances, carefully selecting a reliable panel. Even so, the grand jury refused to indict.

Once again, there were rowdy celebrations in the streets of Canterbury. This time, however, the protests developed into something far more worrying for parliament.

Within days, thousands signed a petition calling for king and parliament to reconcile.

Things started to look serious when one of the Queen’s favourites, the Earl of Norwich, landed to lead the rebellion. Sailors aboard Parliamentary ships around the Kent coast mutinied and took the towns of Deal, Walmer and Sandwich. Dover, the key to the kingdom, was besieged.

With Cromwell and the bulk of the New Model Army fighting in Wales, it was left to Thomas Fairfax to cobble together a force to put down the revolt. In the end, the angry farmers and tradesmen that made up the Kent rebels were no match for professional soldiers.

A sharp summer thunderstorm marked the end of the Battle of Maidstone. Rainwater ran down the narrow streets, washing away pools of blood and hopes of a royalist revival.

Sir Anthony was shocked by the rebellion, writing that:

“Never was the fair face of such a faithful county burned of a sudden to so much deformity and ugliness”.

He should have paid more attention to history. Kent was a crucible of rebellion, the home of Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and Thomas Wyatt.

A year later, parliament asserted its authority by executing King Charles. There was no repeat of Kentish rebellion. You can kill a king, it seems. Just don’t cancel Christmas.

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How an attempt to cancel Christmas and a game of football led to an English revolution


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In 1647, the new puritan government tried to cancel Christmas.n 1647, the new puritan government tried to cancel Christmas.

People in Canterbury protested in a peculiarly English way with a destructive game of football.

The city’s Plum Pudding Riots led to a royalist revolt and the second round of the Civil War.

 

A second descent into hell

On 21 May 1648, 10,000 royalists gathered on moorland outside Maidstone in Kent.

They were just 35 miles or a day’s hard march from a largely undefended London.

A new phase of the English Civil War was about to begin.

The English Civil War is a misleading term for this turbulent period in the middle of the seventeenth century.

With fierce fighting in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the war was not confined to England.

It was neither a civil nor singular conflict. Instead, a series of savage, internecine campaigns marauded across the British Isles for over a decade.

Kent had escaped the worst of the slaughter and spoil. So why were its people inviting ruin by sparking a rebellion against Parliament?

There were, of course, a whole range of grievances.

But the revolt started with an attempt to cancel Christmas in Canterbury.

I saw some shops on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

It was Christmas Day.

Not that you could tell by looking around. There were none of the garlands, wreaths and boughs that usually marked the season. The Lord Mayor of London had been insulted and jostled when he had ordered the holly and ivy pulled from that city’s conduits and passages. Canterbury’s citizens had been unenthusiastically compliant.

The Mayor looked around the market square and saw that only a dozen shopkeepers and stallholders had heeded his demand to open.

Jesus had turned the merchants from the temple. Now, his true believers wanted them to open for business. It was the only way to dispel the superstition that hung around this pagan day.

It was a shame that many in Canterbury didn’t see it that way. Many still clung to the old ways, to the liberty of carnal and sensual delights that was clearly a sinful indulgence.

There had been grumbles when May Day celebrations were cancelled. The young had missed the unruly and anarchic fun of Shrove Tuesday, although others welcomed the peace.

And it was fair to say that the new celebrations offered in the Directory of Worship had not been universally welcomed. The Puritans had offered a day of fasting on the last Wednesday of each month as a replacement for holy days. It was surly a godlier choice, but trying to promote penance over pancakes was not the quickest way to endear Parliament to the people.

Christmas had been a tougher tradition to tackle. And now, a growing swell of townsfolk braved the cold streets to demonstrate their displeasure at the opening of shops.

Faced with the hostile crowd, the Mayor’s party of civic notables and a guard of pikemen no longer seemed quite as reassuring as when they had set off.

Still, they had work to do.

A trickle of reports had reached Westminster from more rebellious parts. He had seen snippets warning of ‘sundry seditious sermons’ and ‘dangerous speeches that darkly implied threats against the Parliament and a course to be taken with the Roundheads about Christmas’.

So, Parliament had adopted a hardline approach and, as a result, he was now standing in the freezing cold in front of one of the largest crowds he’d ever seen in the city.

The Mayor’s party moved along the street, encouraging shopkeepers to open.

The crowd surged forwards, shouts growing louder and curses flying at the traders and the city officials.

The mayor kept his men back, leaving the stalls and shops to bear the brunt of the crowd’s anger. Goods started to fly over the heads, smashing on to the ground and scattering around.

The crowd had become a mob. People didn’t even bother to pick up valuable spices and textiles. They were trod into the muck, broken, ripped and ruined.

One of the merchants was standing near to his shuttered premises. The Mayor asked him to open up, threatening him with the stocks if he stayed closed.

The crowd surged forwards, shouting support for the shopkeeper and heading straight for the Mayor.

He tried to shout, to order the crowd to move back. As they pressed against him, he lashed out. He was immediately pushed violently to the ground.

He tried to get up, but was trodden down into the muck and dragged by his feet in the gutter. He gasped for air, suffocating in the press of legs. As he flailed about, his robes were ripped.

Somehow, he managed to get to his feet and find his voice. He ordered the crowd to disperse.

It seemed to work. The spell was broken. The crowd receded, rage replaced by dumb insolence. There was quiet again in the broken wreck of the market square.

He felt his back straighten, tilted his face upwards. He was the authority and he would be respected. His tattered, mud splattered robes fluttered in the wind. But he was the Mayor of Canterbury and he would be obeyed.

Just as his confidence was surging back, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

No.

It couldn’t be.

His heart sank.

From out of a growing crowd, someone had produced two inflated pigs bladders.

It was time for a game of football.

The Plum Pudding Riots

And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day in 1647 in Canterbury, that the people rebelled in the most English way possible – with a game of football followed by a riot.

These were the days when football was unconstrained by pitches and rules. A game could wend its riotous way across a whole town. It usually involved most of the population, whether they wanted to take part of not.

Crowds charged around Canterbury shouting ‘Conquest’. The City’s aldermen were jeered and then, more seriously, chased, beaten and forced back into their houses.

The sporting action was interspersed with nods to a traditional Christmas. Holly bushes were set up in doorways and entertainment offered. The records are silent about what this entertainment was, but it was guaranteed to upset the Puritans.

Not that the crowd cared very much about what the Puritans thought. One of the more uncompromising ministers, Richard Culmer, was pelted with mud.

And that could have been the end of this unruly Canterbury Christmas. The sheriff, mayor and aldermen had been knocked about but suffered no lasting physical damage. Only their pride had been badly bruised.

But that wasn’t enough for the county’s Puritan and Parliamentary leaders.

They were determined to make an example of the ringleaders.

From riot to revolution

They sent their leader, Sir Anthony Welden, an aged and particularly officious Parliamentary commissioner to ‘punish merrymakers who had played football in Canterbury the previous Christmas’.

Sir Anthony had been in favour of dealing with them quickly and violently under martial law. He was overruled and so, in May 1648, he found himself in Maidstone for the Kent Assizes.

Before they could be tried, the rioters had to be indicted by the county’s grand jury. The authorities took no chances, carefully selecting a reliable panel. Even so, the grand jury refused to indict.

Once again, there were rowdy celebrations in the streets of Canterbury. This time, however, the protests developed into something far more worrying for parliament.

Within days, thousands signed a petition calling for king and parliament to reconcile.

Things started to look serious when one of the Queen’s favourites, the Earl of Norwich, landed to lead the rebellion. Sailors aboard Parliamentary ships around the Kent coast mutinied and took the towns of Deal, Walmer and Sandwich. Dover, the key to the kingdom, was besieged.

With Cromwell and the bulk of the New Model Army fighting in Wales, it was left to Thomas Fairfax to cobble together a force to put down the revolt. In the end, the angry farmers and tradesmen that made up the Kent rebels were no match for professional soldiers.

A sharp summer thunderstorm marked the end of the Battle of Maidstone. Rainwater ran down the narrow streets, washing away pools of blood and hopes of a royalist revival.

Sir Anthony was shocked by the rebellion, writing that:

“Never was the fair face of such a faithful county burned of a sudden to so much deformity and ugliness”.

He should have paid more attention to history. Kent was a crucible of rebellion, the home of Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and Thomas Wyatt.

A year later, parliament asserted its authority by executing King Charles. There was no repeat of Kentish rebellion. You can kill a king, it seems. Just don’t cancel Christmas.

A dream that burst into flames – the British Hindenburg disaster

Scores of people died when the airship burst into flames. It crashed into the ground just over 50 miles away from one of the world’s most important cities. Its demise marked the end of a national programme of airship construction and the death of an imperial dream.

But this is not about the Hindenburg disaster. Just under seven years earlier, the British faced a similar tragedy when His Majesty’s Airship R101 plunged to the ground north of Paris.

.

The story of LZ 129 Hindenburg’s tragic last flight is well known. Hundreds of people came to watch the famous airship land. A live account of its fiery destruction on 6 May 1937 was broadcast on the radio. The recording became famous around the world. HMA R101 did not have an audience to witness its last moments.

British Airship R101

R101 was the flagship of the Imperial Airship Service. The blimps were designed to bind the far flung territories of the British Empire with vastly improved communications. Sailing times of weeks and even months could be compressed into days. They might be slower than planes, but they offered the promise of cruise ship levels of comfort to well heeled passengers.

Airship R101 at mooring mast (1929)

The project was initiated at the fourth Imperial Conference in 1921. The crash of R101 meant it would be terminated before the seventh Imperial Conference in 1930.

R101, along with her sister airship R100, would ply the route from London to Australia via Egypt and India. Alternatively, they could head west, crossing the Atlantic and linking Britain with Canada.

Whichever route they plied, they would play an integral role in linking London with other capitals in the Empire and Commonwealth.

Cardington Shed By Mac from UK (Cardington Airship Shed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those dreams would go up in flames when the dirigible crashed in France on 5 October 1930. Out of the 54 people on board, 48 died including the Air Minister Lord Thomson.

Even if public faith in airship travel wasn’t fatally compromised, the crash had robbed the Royal Airship Works of its most important designers and engineers.

Warwolf – King Edward’s secret weapon to hammer the Scots

Stirling Castle is a striking, man-made addition to an already formidable natural fortress. Sheer cliffs thrust up from the rolling Scottish Lowlands. The thick castle walls extend these solid quartz-dolerite foundations towards the sky. It is imposing and seems impregnable. It probably was, at least until Warwolf came to visit.

.

In 1304, Stirling Castle was the last Scottish holdout to the English invasion. Edward I of England had lived up to his enduring nickname. He had almost hammered the Scots into submission. But to have complete control of his northern neighbour, he needed to capture Stirling.

A photograph of Stirling Castle, in Stirling, Scotland.

Stirling wasn’t just a strong castle. It was synonymous with royal authority in Scotland. Its location, at the heart of Scotland and controlling the River Forth crossing, gave it an incredible importance. It was the gateway to the Highlands that could be slammed shut if it was allowed to remain in enemy hands.

Edward was not the sort of man who would let something he wanted remain in enemy hands.

His war machine had already laid low several of Scotland’s most formidable castles. With the country almost completely subdued, his relentless focus was now on bringing Stirling to submission.

Stirling Castle with the foothills of the Scottish Highlands in the background By RFARKAS (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His army surrounded the castle and laid siege. His engineers constructed the siege engines that had been deployed to devastating effect earlier in the campaign. He deployed the latest military technology, ordering that the components of gunpowder be brought up from England:

‘We command you, that in haste, you cause to be purveyed to the city of York a horseload of cotton thread, a load of quick sulphur, and another of saltpetre’.

Edward I of England

Edward did not want to leave anything to chance. He didn’t want to merely suppress Scottish opposition; he wanted to crush it. And, to do this, and to leave an indelible impression of English might, he ordered the construction of what was one of the medieval age’s largest siege engines.

Fearsome weapons of war developed nicknames that have endured through the centuries. Edward’s machine had a suitably uncompromising name – Warwolf. Whether rendered as Warwolf, War Wolf, Loup de Guerre, Ludgar or Lupus Guerre, it was designed to strike terror.

Trebuchet in Castelnaud, France by Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Warwolf is believed to have been a trebuchet. All that is clear from the scant historical record is that it was a vast and complicated machine. It is believed to be the largest trebuchet ever made and, when disassembled, filled 30 wagons. It took “fifty carpenters and five foremen a long time to complete”. Indeed, some accounts say it took three months to build.

Was this creation so fearsome to behold that it induced the strongest castle in Stirling to surrender?

Historians disagree on what eventually induced the castle to surrender. Stirling’s own local history pages provide alternative explanations to the fear induced by War Wolf. In one version, “Edward succeeded in filling the moat with earth and stone and prepared scaling ladders and ropes, and the garrison saw their fate and offered their surrender. Another says that Edward managed to breach a wall with a ram, which convinced the garrison to surrender. Another explanation was starvation.”

What is clear, however, is that the garrison were willing to surrender. Matthew Strickland’s account notes that, ‘ ‘by a piece of cold-blooded cruelty which shows Edward in a singularly unattractive light’, the king refused to allow the garrison to capitulate until he had brought his great engine ‘War Wolf’ to play against the castle.’

The English king is widely quoted as replying to the plea for surrender that, “You don’t deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will.”

19th Century diagram of a medieval trebuchet

In the Book of the Crossbow, Ralph Payne-Gallwey quotes Sir Walter de Bedewyne, a contemporary observer, to explain what happened next:

‘As for news, Stirling Castle was absolutely surrendered to the King without conditions this Monday, St. Margaret’s day, but the King wills it that none of his people enter the castle till it is struck with his “War-wolf,” and that those within the castle defend themselves from the said “War-wolf” as best they can.’

Edward was not going to be denied the fun of unleashing his lethal creation. One contemporary account has Warwolf levelling a section of the wall of the castle. The siege of Stirling Castle was concluded soon after.

In The Hammer of the Scots, David Santiuste, finishes off the story:

‘Finally, on 20 July, Edward agreed to accept the garrison’s submission. The account in Flores tells us that the patriots embraced their allotted role in the spectacle, emerging with ashes on their heads and halters round their necks, placing themselves utterly at Edward’s mercy. This done, the king ultimately spared their lives – although [Sir William] Oliphant [the commander of the garrison] and his men were imprisoned. Only fifty had survived from the initial 120.’

The coronation that never was

On 12 May 1937, Westminster Abbey rang with shouts acclaiming the new King-Emperor. In 1936, Britain had prepared for the coronation. Much of this effort was wasted when Edward VIII abdicated on 10 December 1936. Everyone had been getting ready for the coronation that never was. 

The Coronation of a new King-Emperor promised a bonanza for British manufacturers. Factories that had been quiet during the darkest days of the Great Depression now hummed with activity. 

Souvenir for the coronation of Edward VIII

Orders poured in for mugs, plates, medallions and a myriad other souvenirs. Many featured the distinctive profile of the new monarch, his head turned to the left to show off his sharp side-parting.

The London Illustrated News decided to scoop its rivals by commissioning an opulent coronation portrait. Albert H Collings depicted the King wearing purple and gold robes with an ermine cape and the gold and ruby chain of the Order of the Garter. 

Coronation portrait of Edward VIII (Illustrated London News)

Meanwhile, official preparations were set into motion. Illustrators got to work on the design of the official souvenir programme. Prints would be sent around the world well in advance of the ceremony. 

There was just one problem. Everything was made in the dying months of 1936 and depicted a King who was about the abdicate. Outstanding orders were discretely cancelled. Items already produced were destroyed or hidden away. They were souvenirs for the coronation that never was.

Edward VIII had succeeded his father on 20 January 1936. He broke royal protocol to watch the proclamation of his accession the next day. This was a sign of the crisis to come. It showed his disregard for tradition. Even worse, he was watching with the still married Wallis Simpson.

King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936 By National Media Museum from UK [see Wiki Commons page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

As 1936 unfolded, the constitutional crisis developed in intensity. British newspapers had been silent on the scandalous union between Edward and Wallis. Their American and European counterparts did not uphold such discretion and gleefully reported every detail.

As news seeped into the UK, public opinion moved sharply against the new king. The British political and religious establishment made it clear that Edward and Wallis’s relationship could not continue. 

Wallis was already a divorcee. She was about to divorce her second husband so that she could marry Edward. Perhaps even more shocking to imperial Brits, she was American.  

Edward wanted to defy convention and public opinion. He wanted to have his woman and keep his crown. Incongruous preparations for his 12 May 1937 coronation unfolded at same time as the crisis meetings that would lead to his abdication. 

With only months left, officials, newspapers and manufacturers carried on their preparations. Edward would sit for the Illustrated London News’s coronation portrait just days before his abdication. 

King Edward VIII - Instrument of Abdication (By Government of the United Kingdom [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As it happened, on 12 May 1937, a King was crowned at Westminster Abbey. After all, the date was already in everyone’s diary. The massed ranks of ermine clad peers and robed clergy gathered to proclaim Edward’s brother as King and Emperor. 

The coronation portrait was also given a second chance. The purple and gold robes, ermine cloak and chain stayed the same. Edward’s face was simply replaced by a portrait of George VI. 

Postbox cipher of Edward VIII - Whitchurch (Mick Lobb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Postal Station K in Toronto, Canada By Jamie (originally posted to Flickr as Postal Station K) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are still a handful of traces of Edward’s brief reign. A clutch of Royal Mail postboxes carry his distinctive cipher. A handful of public buildings completed in 1936 are similarly adorned. Philatelists and numismatist prize rare examples of stamps and coins bearing Edward VIII’s distinctive profile.

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