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


Listen here:     iTunes  | Stitcher | Overcast | PocketcastOnlinemp3Podcast feed

If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!

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?

Before we return to the real world, just a reminder that you can get in touch or subscribe for exclusive email only content at

And, if you like the show, please leave a rating – it’s the best way to help others find the podcast.

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?


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.


Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

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



If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!

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.


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

“There has been news …


“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’.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

Louis of England – history’s forgotten King of England


If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!

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.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

Princess Mary Tudor’s flight to freedom


If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!


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?

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

Canterbury’s cancelled Christmas and the Plum Pudding Riots



If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!


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.


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.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

The Prince of Poyais – settling in the country that never was



If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!


In 1822, Gregor MacGregor committed what The Economist newspaper has called the ‘biggest fraud in history’ and ‘the greatest confidence trick of all time’.

Investors, many of them Scottish, put forward vast sums towards creating a colony in central America. They were told it was a sure bet, a land of milk and honey – another paradise on the isthmus.

Sounds familiar? If you listened last week, you might think that once bitten, Scots would be twice shy.

Instead, bonds for Gregor MacGregor’s Principality of Poyais were oversubscribed and colonists easy to find. They would all profit from this rich and fertile land that was larger than Wales and ripe for settlement.

The only problem was that Poyais didn’t exist.

A sure fire bet

By the 1820s, many people in Britain were ready to dream of a better life.

They had lived through the turbulent decades of European revolution and war.

Now, with the British economy expanding and the cost of living falling, those with spare cash were looking to bet on the next sure thing.

Three things combined to make the next sure thing an imaginary principality on the Atlantic coast of central America.

First, London displaced Amsterdam and Paris to emerge as the world’s dominant financial centre. The London Stock Exchange was instrumental in matching investors with borrowers. Countries from Prussia to Peru issued bonds to raise much-needed capital.

Secondly, the British government had taken advantage of peace to lower the interest offered on its own sovereign debt. Investors seeking a more attractive return had piled into bonds offered by other countries. If Peru was raising money, why not Poyais?

Finally, Latin America had become a fascinating and fashionable investment. Prospectuses for loans raised by Colombia, Chile and Peru had highlighted the economic resources of these countries.

Did it matter that these newly independent lands hadn’t even been officially recognised by the British? For many investors, it did not matter. In this climate, who would question the claims made for another new country?

His Highness Gregor, the Cazique of Poyais

At exactly this most propitious moment, a man named Gregor MacGregor stepped forward with his compelling offer.

He claimed to be the ruler of Poyais. This was, he declared, a free and independent state on the Atlantic coast of the bay of Honduras. His country was just three or four days sail from the thriving British colony of Jamaica. The United States could be reached in about eight days.

Historian Victor Allen describes MacGregor as a:

‘debonair and imperious young man, he possessed a winning personality, a boundless West Highland imagination and a fiery daring that could hardly have been excelled by any of his turbulent clan.’

MacGregor had fought for Britain in the Napoleonic wars.

He had then gone over to South America to take part in that continent’s wars of liberation.

His rise was meteoric, the Scottish ‘staff colonel became Commandant-General of Cavalry, then General of Brigade and, finally, when he was no more than thirty, General of Division in the Army of Venezuela and New Granada’.

MacGregor was a man of boundless vision and very few scruples. He claimed to be the Cazique of Poyais. As such, he was the ruler of over eight million acres centred on the Black River on the Atlantic coast of central America.

And who was to say otherwise? Latin America was throwing off Spanish control. New and exotic sounding countries were created. Was Poyais really any less believable than Panama or Paraguay?

MacGregor claimed to have been granted dominion over Poyais in 1819 by the King of the Mosquito Nation.

MacGregor went on to sell land, state jobs and titles. He targeted Scotland, claiming to be motivated by a desire to compensate the country for its sufferings over Darien.

Once again, Scots flocked to the banner of colonisation, with thousands investing in the scheme and hundreds signing up to be amongst the first colonists.

Once again, Scots were beguiled by promises of rich returns and the trading prospects of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

To back his claims, a 350-page guidebook was produced. This claimed to be intended for the use of settlers. In reality, it provided a fertile space for the imagination.

As The Economist noted, the promises were extravagant to the point of being suspiciously too good to be true:

‘the natives were not only friendly, but loved the British. The soil was not just fertile, but capable of sustaining three maize harvests per year (elsewhere, two would be good going). The water supply was not just clean, clear and abundant, but in the streams of Poyais there were chunks of gold.’

There was also a bounty of native livestock, commercially desirable timber, rivers teeming with fish and a coastline favoured by the hawksbill sea turtle with its valuable shell.

An obvious question was why this bountiful paradise had been overlooked by the Spanish. MacGregor had a ready answer to this. Poyais was separated from Honduras and Nicaragua by a chain of mountains that made the country immune to hostile attack.

It wasn’t only the prospects for Poyais that generated excitement. There were long-standing plans to build the canal through the narrow isthmus that connected north and south America. The canal would join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and revolutionise world trade.

By October 1822, MacGregor and his backers were ready to offer a Poyais bond yielding 6%. This was double the prevailing rate being offered by the British Government for its bonds.

Eventually, his frauds would run to £1.3m. As a share of Britain’s economy, this is equivalent to around £3.6 billion today. And, at the heart of this gigantic confidence trick was a colonial vision not entirely dissimilar to Scotland’s disastrous venture in Darien.

If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. But MacGregor managed to convince bankers, doctors and military men along with farm hands and labourers.

The Honduras Packet

The first ship, the Honduras Packet, left London in September 1822. It was followed on 22 January 1823 by the Kennersley Castle sailing from Leith. Between them, they carried around 250 settlers.

David Sinclair conveys some of the incredulous optimism that infected those first pioneers:

‘One of the cabin passengers, Andrew Picken, the young man who had been appointed to manage the national theatre of Poyais, spoke about what he had learned of the capital city, St Joseph, just a few miles from the Black River settlement, on the western side of the bay. It was a place of broad boulevards and collonaded buildings in the classical European style, with a splendid domed cathedral, an Opera House as well as the theatre, a royal palace, the headquarters of the Bank of Poyais and, of course, the seat of the Parliament.’

Once again, Scotland loaded her hopes, dreams and colonists on board ships and sent them across the Atlantic to central America.

What would they find on the other side?

Poyaisian paradise

What if … Poyais had been the paradise described in MacGregor’s publicity? This section imagines this future that never was.

Poyais had been good to him.

Poyais had been good to all of them.

He remembered the day that they arrived in their new home.

Their ship had sailed to the mouth of the Black River, where that stately river spilled into the Caribbean.

They were met by a flotilla of smaller vessels, the lighters that would take them to the docks of Saint Joseph. The rigging was decked with the green cross flag of Poyais. From the boats, Poyer men and women smiled and waved at them. It was their first welcome to the promised land.

Their second taste of a golden future came when the capital city of the Poyaisian State came into view. Saint Joseph was a handsome and prosperous city. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place even in the richer parts of England.

The Black River was wide at this point, but spanned by majestic bridges. Saint Joseph straddled the river, stretching along the Atlantic coast, facing the old world with the energy of the new.

The locals on their boats delighted in serving as guides, pointing out the great buildings in their city.

Over there was the Royal Palace, white stucco punctuated by elegant colonnades topped with a vast pediment depicting the founding the colony.

Then came the Opera House, as majestic as Covent Garden albeit just a fraction smaller. The national theatre was next, with as fine a stage as any in Europe.

There were the churches with spires inspired by the great Wren buildings of London. And then the cathedral, a heady mix of gothic with byzantine flourishes.

As they drew closer, they marvelled at the broad, tree lined avenues. Near the port, these were lined with richly decorated warehouses that could be mistaken for mansions, but for the actual mansions nearby belonging to a higher order of grandeur.

Right next to the port, the offices of the great trading companies rivalled in creating the most magnificent statements of their wealth and power. House flags fluttered next to the Green Cross of Poyais and the Union Flag, colourful symbols of pride and patriotism.

They had drawn up to the quay and looked around at the busy docks. Goods were being loaded and unloaded from an uncountable array of ships. The wharves were alive with the cacophony of trade.

Saint Joseph had been a memorable introduction to Poyais.

But, when his mind wandered back to those first days, he didn’t think about the city. He thought about the countryside where he had staked his claim and built his farm.

This was the time of plenty in the perpetual Poyais summer.
His corner of paradise produced abundant harvests of cotton and sugar along with more food than his family could eat.

In some ways, it seemed like a part of England’s pleasant pastures had been transplanted to the tropics. There were shady, tree-lined lanes that ran between farms and plantations. Herds of fat, content cows gorged on a rich pasture to produce butter and cheese for the empire.

But, look a bit more closely, and the wonder of this equatorial paradise was revealed. From the tree tops, a bright flash of blue, red and orange would reveal macaws. A surge of pink would betray a watering pool favoured by flamingos. Even the hedgerows were alive with the lustrous greens and blues of hummingbirds and the Honduran emerald.

A glance into the distance would also give away the true nature of Poyais. The colony was ringed with majestic mountains. England’s oaks and elms were replaced with mighty redwoods, rich cedar and mahogany. Rivers cascaded from the peaks, watering the fertile plains before rolling down to the ocean.

In idle moments, his mind always went back to those golden days.

A swampy, pest-ridden littoral

Where was the splendid city on the Atlantic coast?

Where was the bustling port with its ships from every nation?

Where was the promised land?

According to a contemporary report in The Times, the colonists: ‘expected to find a country already populous and cultivated, and where they would obtain abundance of employment in their respective avocations’.

Instead, they landed on the Mosquito Coast, evocatively described as ‘a swampy, pest-ridden littoral inhabited only by wandering tribes of Mosquito Indians.’

The Times continued its report noting that the colonists’:

‘disappointment was, therefore, proportionally aggravated, when they found themselves landed on the margin of a wilderness, and were set to work in clearing ground for erecting habitations, exposed by day to the scorching rigours of a climate to which they were altogether unaccustomed, and unsheltered from the dews of night in their hours of repose’.

A similar bleak picture of that ill-fated landing was painted in The Observer:

‘When the emigrants arrived at San Josef, on the Black River, nothing could exceed their anguish, on finding, where they expected a fine flourishing town, with nearly 2,000 inhabitants, there were only two or three ruined huts, where two Americans had once resided, for the purpose of trade with the natives during the favourable season.’

Crumbled like powder in his fingers

Perhaps there was a simple explanation. This place was so far from being the bountiful and abundant Poyais that they must be in the wrong place. So, the settlors from the Honduras Packet simply decided to wait for the other ships. In the meantime, they set up a temporary camp.

Things went from bad to worse. One settlor built a canoe and set off to get help. Unfortunately, he drowned shortly after setting off.

An Edinburgh cobbler had been promised the title of Official Shoemaker in Poyais. The jarring reality was too much and he shot himself.

The Kennersley Castle’s arrival in March 1823 prompted far more questions than it answered. As Sinclair write:

‘The sense of disappointment was acute. As their boats were rowed back to the ship to collect more men, they stood at the edge of the swamp and stared at each other in disbelief, struggling to come to terms with the loneliness and desolation of their surroundings.’

The survivors from the Honduras Packet soon disabused the new arrivals of any joy at having arrived on dry land. They were stuck in a dangerous and barren land.

One of the colonists summed up the apocalyptic sense of mounting despair when he wrote that: ‘it seems to be the will of Providence that every Circumstance should combined for our destruction’.

After a hellish few months during which the settlers were ravaged by tropical disease, hunger and death, a passing ship unexpectedly came to the rescue.

Survivors were ferried to the British colony of Belize and then on to London. The ravages of those first months of colonial life had already taken their toll – two thirds of the original settlers died.

Fortunately, word was sent back to London and the Royal Navy was able to turn back the five other boats that had set sail.

News of the scandal soon reached Britain. By the autumn of 1823, newspapers were printing excoriating reports and warnings to their readers. The grim realities of life at Poyais were revealed.

Soon, complaints reached the corridors of power. One was raised in front of the Lord Mayor of London. As part of the proceedings, the Lord Mayor asked one of the survivors, James Hastie, how he found the soil to be:

‘Hastie replied that he was a curious man for raising potherbs, and he purchased twenty-four shillings worth of seeds, which he sowed in the place called the Settlement, where he also sowed potatoes, but nothing was produced; and when any thing came to the surface it was burnt like snuff, by the sun. He meant that it crumbled like powder in his fingers.’

In case the point had been lost on the audience, Mr Hastie continued to note that: ‘It is such a soil that if he were to put a turtle’s egg into the sand, in ten minutes it would be as well boiled as if it had been put into a kettle’.

MacGregor realised the game was up and moved to France. He set about looking for investors and new settlers. He was disturbingly successful, persuading 60 people to emigrate.

Fortunately for those 60, French authorities were more suspicious than their British counterparts. When the would-be Poyers applied for passports, the authorities couldn’t find any proof that Poyais existed. This triggered an inquiry, the truth was revealed and MacGregor was imprisoned.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

A wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama



If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!


Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland sank a huge chunk of its national wealth into an audacious scheme to colonise central America.

By building its own colonial empire, a still independent Scotland planned to become a more equal partner with England under the Stuart crown.

This is the first in a two part series looking at Scotland’s colonial disasters. In both cases, huge amounts of capital were raised and lost, and many lives ruined, as Scots attempted to forge a colonial empire in Central America.  

The colony was to straddle the Isthmus of Panama at the Gulf of Darién. It would create an overland route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Vessels from the Old World and the New World, it was hoped, would converge on the colony. Scotland would reap bountiful dividends.

In the end, the venture failed. The Darien Scheme’s downfall was a major push forcing Scotland to give up her independence and join with England in 1707’s Act of Union.

A tropical cure for economic torpor?

There was something about the steamy isthmus of Panama that seemed to attract Scottish adventurers. With its tropical jungles, exotic plants and animals, searing temperatures and debilitating diseases, it was about as different from the mountains, glens and lochs of Scotland as could be imagined.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland was suffering. English competition, the aftermath of ruinous civil wars and Scotland’s sclerotic export trade combined to stifle a moribund economy.

By the 1690s, crop failures compounded economic woes. Famine stalked an already suffering population.

There seemed to be two options. Scotland could pursue an economic and political union with England. Or it could forge an independent mercantile and colonial destiny.

Scottish nationalism and pride led the country to try and go it alone.

One of the country’s brightest leaders was William Paterson. He had gone to London to seek his fortune. He proposed the scheme that led to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694. This brought him huge personal riches and enormous political capital. He returned to Scotland brimming with ideas to improve his native land.

Under his guidance, the Bank of Scotland was set up in 1695. The Company of Scotland received its charter in the same year.  It would compete with the English East India Company and develop trade with Africa and the Indies.

The Door of the Seas, the Key of the Universe

These were important developments in modernising the Scottish economy. But they wouldn’t be enough to bring about the fundamental step change that many in the country demanded.

Once again, William Paterson had a big idea to transform Scotland’s fortunes.

The English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch all had colonies. Even Denmark, Norway and Sweden had expanded abroad. Scotland needed her own overseas outlet.

So, where should the Scots go?

Paterson had heard about ‘a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama’. It boasted a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land. It was called Darien.

Darien offered far more than a natural harbour and agricultural land. It is one of the narrowest points on the thin strip of land connecting the Americas. Only 50 kilometres separate the Atlantic from the Pacific at this point.

Darien was, in Paterson’s own words, ‘the Door of the Seas, the Key of the Universe’.

By establishing a vibrant Scottish entrepot at Darien, goods could be conveyed the short distance between the oceans. This would save thousands of miles and days of sailing. It would also avoid the dangerous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn crossings.

Again, according to Paterson, ‘trade will increase, and money will beget money’.

It would also be a very different kind of overseas venture to those that had preceded it. It would not be a colony of conquest, like the Spanish and Portuguese empires in South America.

And it would not be a colony of plantations and slavery, like those in the West Indies, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.

Instead, Darien would become a free port, an international emporium welcoming goods, ships and people from around the world.

It was a visionary and compelling idea. It caught the imagination in Scotland. Soon, subscriptions were pouring into the offices of the Company of Scotland. By the time ships were ready to sail, £300,000 had been raised. This vast sum is estimated to represent about a quarter of all of the money circulating in Scotland at the time.

Five ships were assembled and fitted out in Leith. They bore rousing patriotic names – the Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour. They left Scotland on 12 July 1698, crowds of well-wishers crowding the shore

Their orders were to sail to the Bay of Darien and establish the colony of Caledonia with the first settlement to be New Edinburgh.

The pride of Scotland, the envy of the world

She sat in shade of the veranda, a light, cooling breeze blowing from the ocean. The morning rain storm had come and gone, and taken the oppressive heat with it. What remained was the vibrant blue of a cloudless sky and the glittering turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean.

Waves crashed against the white sandy beach and palm trees danced. It was days like this that made her happy. From her solitary refuge she could see all of humanity – these days, it seemed like everyone came to New Edinburgh.

Ships dotted the water as far as the horizon, carrying the flags and pennants of all the nations. Just over the hill to the left, the sprawl of the town of New Edinburgh began.

Was it still a town? It seemed more like a city now. Massive warehouses, tall buildings and solid churches clustered around the harbour. Scots colonial houses spread out as far as she could see – the crofts of the Caribbean.

But, unlike the croft she had been born in, these homes were prosperous and substantial.

Moraig was one of the last surviving colonists from the first ships that came to Darien. She had been a wee bairn, but those memories were still so vivid. She could barely step foot on a ship without feeling ill, remembering the disease and despair of that ocean crossing.

When they had arrived, there was no town and no harbour. Everything had been built by those brave, early settlors. Still, she remembered the sheer joy of reaching dry land, splashing in the spray of the ocean and feeling the warm sand between her feet.

Her parents had started work immediately, making a makeshift shelter and finding food and water.

Whilst she and the other children played, the settlement became a village. The natural harbour was reinforced with piers, wharves and jetties. All of this was guarded by Fort St. Andrew, the huge Saltire of Scotland flying proudly in the wind.

Her happy childhood was only interrupted a few times by the drums of war. The Spanish were made furious by what they had done. It didn’t matter that they had no settlements or interest in the area. They just wanted everything for themselves.

Their haughty pride was soon cut down by Scottish steel. With drums and fifes and the roar of cannons, the attackers were sent packing. It only took two or three defeats for them to learn the lesson.

Soon enough, the colony had enough cannons, ships and men to defend herself from Spain, pirates and any others foolish enough to test them.

Soon enough, her childhood ended. She was married and had children of her own. Her husband worked for the Company, and they were able to build a substantial home away from the packed streets of the harbour.

Over time, a path was cut through the dense jungle. New Stirling was founded on the Pacific side of the isthmus, a sister settlement connected by the Road.

In her later years, the process of getting goods from one side of the colony to the other had been honed into a smooth, efficient system. An iron road was laid, with mules and horses able to pull long trains of wagons across the isthmus. Now, there was even talk of digging a canal to connect the oceans.

She didn’t go into town very often these days. Her children, grandchildren and, Lord be blessed, even her great grandchildren came to visit her. There was always someone over to stay – the traders and townsfolk who had become friends over the decades.

She was happy and proud. They had planted seeds in this strange corner of the world and they had reaped a bountiful harvest. New Edinburgh was the pride of Scotland, and Scotland the envy of the world.

One of the most spectacular of all national failures

Today, there is no New Edinburgh on the isthmus of Panama.

Caledonia barely survived its first year.

And even today, Darien remains largely untouched. The Darien Gap is the missing link in the Trans-American Highway.

So how did it all go so badly wrong?

The colonists soon found that their new home was not a wonderful paradise. It was a malarial swamp on land owned by the Spanish. Paterson had backed his idea in person and accompanied the first ships. Even he acknowledged their first choice for settlement was unwise:

‘A mere morass, neither fit to be fortified nor planted, nor indeed for men to lie upon. We were clearing and making huts upon this improper place near two months, in which time experience, the schoolmaster of fools, convinced our masters that the place now called Fort St Andrew was a more proper place for us.’

But nowhere on the peninsula was particularly suited to settlement. Agriculture failed and trade was non-existent. Worse still, the Spanish were set to attack the interlopers on their territory. One of the colonists, Alexander Shields, wrote that:

‘the Colony had deserted the 20th of June last [1699] for sickness (having destroyed themselves by working excessively on the fortifications) and for fear of want of provisions, that the St Andrew with her men was gone to Jamaica and the Unicorn and Caledonia to New York.’

These troubles might have been overcome with help from England’s colonies. However, King William made sure that this assistance would not be forthcoming.

Scotland’s colonial adventure had run foul of William’s continental strategy. He might have been King of Scotland, but he was also the Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic.

He needed to build alliances to protect the Netherlands from France. In the 1690s, this meant befriending Spain. And Spain would never tolerate a foreign incursion on the Isthmus of Panama.

Paterson and the Scots saw an undeveloped opportunity. The Spanish viewed the land as the essential thread connecting two halves of her New World empire.

So, in the summer of 1699, King William issued a proclamation that forbade assistance to the Scots. This was issued to all of the colonial governors and commanders. It ensured that Darien would receive no help from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda or the American colonies.

That left the Scots surrounded by hostile Spanish forces and with no one to trade with. The bolts of tartan cloth and thousands of periwigs that they had brought with them across the ocean seemed particularly foolish in the suffocating heat of the tropical jungle.

Shipwrecked for want of necessary expenditure

Despair soon gave way to prostration as the colonists fell ill with a deadly array of tropical fevers. Paterson was not immune from the suffering – he lost his wife and daughter and was laid low by dysentery.

Eventually, in June 1699, the colonists decided to save who and what they could and return to Scotland.

Only 300 of the 1,200 original settlers survived. Just one of the first five ships made it back to Scotland.

Further disaster was to follow, as a second wave of settlers had already set out to Darien before news of the disaster reached Scotland.

They would find an abandoned colony and just as hopeless a situation as their predecessors. This time, the Spanish were in no mood to entertain Scottish guests and sent a large force to besiege the settlement.

The result for Scotland was catastrophic. She had sunk a quarter of her national wealth into the scheme. People from all strands of society were heavily in debt. It also marked the final push towards full union with England. In 1707 the Act of Union brought the two kingdoms together into the United Kingdom.

It became one of a series of chapters in a melancholy book. Walter Scott wrote, in The Tales of a Grandfather, that:

‘The Scots are often found to attempt splendid designs, which, shipwrecked for want of necessary expenditure, give foreigners occasion to smile at the great error and equally great misfortune of the nation.’

Next week, we fast forward 130 years to discover the story of the Poyais, the country that never was, in Scotland’s second attempt to colonise Central America.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term and the voice from the sewer



If you like the podcast, please take a second to help others find us by leaving a review!

In the first half of 1940 only one question mattered in American politics. Would Franklin D. Roosevelt break with tradition and run for a third term as President of the United States? The New York Times proclaimed it as ‘the all-absorbing political riddle’.

Roosevelt kept the country guessing right up until the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in July 1940. On the second day of the convention, a message from FDR was read out.

It announced that the President had no desire to continue in office or to be nominated for election. It produced a stunned and shocked silence.

Suddenly, the quiet was shattered by a voice thundering over the loudspeakers.

‘We want Roosevelt!

We want Roosevelt!’

But did the President want a third term?

Breaking the example of the Cincinnatus of the West

In March 1797, George Washington left the President’s House in Philadelphia. He had completed his second term in office and was retiring to his beloved Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

The first President of the United States was so popular he could have held the office for life.

Instead, he became the Cincinnatus of the West. Like his Roman precursor, Washington voluntarily gave up powerful military commands and political prizes and became a role model for the fledgling republic.

A precedent was set. Presidents would limit themselves to two terms in office. It was a powerful tradition and its power helps to explains the contortions that Roosevelt and the Democratic Party went through in 1940 as they prepared to break it.

Roosevelt was first elected to the White House in 1932. His second term was won in the Presidential election of 1936. By 1940, he had served two terms. So, what would FDR do next?

The world wants Roosevelt

He had never seen so many people in a single place. He’d been told that there would be more than twenty thousand attending the convention. That was more than the entire population of his home town. Hell, it was more than the entire population of the county.

Chicago didn’t phase him – he’d spent plenty of time in New York City. But this crowd, well, that was something else.

Wherever he looked, there was a mass of people. Row upon row of tiered seating ringed the convention floor, rising steeply towards a ceiling decked with the stars and stripes and patriotic bunting. Each of the balconies was dressed, so that continuous ribbons of red, white and blue stretched around the stadium.

He stood with his state delegation, clustered around the simple white placard that announced NEW YORK. Thrust into the air on a black pole, it joined the 47 other state banners that waved and jostled in a curious continental joust.

There was only one thing that people were talking about. Would he run for a third term? Around him, he heard passionate arguments in favour of Roosevelt and the occasional denunciation of FDR.

But they hadn’t heard anything from the man himself.

He’d heard rumours that the President didn’t want the nomination. Some said that he was tired, others that he was ill. Some suggested that he wouldn’t dare break the tradition set by the great George Washington.

But would he really leave office in the middle of such a crisis?

Europe’s war was coming closer to home. The Atlantic didn’t seem nearly wide enough with Hitler in control of so much the other side of the Pond. He had spent much of the overnight train journey over engrossed in newspaper reports of the fall of France and the air war with England.

Chicago had seemed muted. There was far less of the razzmatazz that he’d expected from the Democratic National Convention.

The sombre atmosphere continued inside. After the first day, the local newspaper had written that the delegates were drafting Roosevelt with all of the enthusiasm of a chain gang.

By the time he had found a place on the floor, the hall was waiting for the next speaker. Senator Barkley delivered a barnstorming speech that sent a shiver of pride down his spine. All around him, delegates stomped their feed and cheered. A passing mention of the President’s name sent the crowd into a frenzy. For almost an hour, the delegates shouted, screamed and roared, leaving his ears ringing and his senses reeling.

The Kentucky Senator finally quietened the room by announcing that he had a message to deliver from the President. By the time he reached his conclusion, many delegates were already slumped in their seats:

The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office. He wishes in earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all of the delegates in this convention are free to vote for any candidate.

The stunned crowd met the conclusion of his speech with a tense silence. No one quite knew what to do next. Before anyone had a chance to speak or move, a booming voice bellowed over the loudspeakers.

“We Want Roosevelt, We Want Roosevelt”

The voice rang from every speaker, echoing around the cavernous hall.

Soon, the chant was taken up by delegates across the floor. Subdued silence was replaced with ecstatic shouts.

He found himself joining in, leading a chant of “New York wants Roosevelt”. The state delegation was on its feet and gathering around the Empire State’s standard. He linked arms with people he had never met before, and they began to march, demanding a third term for their president.

For the next hour, the convention was a blur of yells, movement and music. Every state, every city and even the world wanted Roosevelt. Shouts would go up and be passed around the convention floor. The state standards bopped up and down as delegates marched around the convention.

The convention became a carnival as the Chicago Police band marched in playing Roosevelt’s anthem “Happy Days Are Here Again”. They competed with the city’s fire department who belted out “Franklin D Roosevelt Jones”. Soon, the stadium’s giant electric organ joined in, and the President’s campaign tunes rang out throughout the hall.

He found himself talking manically, smiling and even dancing.

He had never been swept up in something so completely, so unexpectedly, as that day in Chicago.

But, by the close of proceedings, there was still no official word from the President.

The nomination was his for the taking. But did Roosevelt want to take it?

The riddle of the Sphinx

Was there really ever any doubt that Roosevelt would seek a third term?

At the beginning of 1940, the President suggested that he did not want to remain in the White House for another four years.

On 24 January 1940, hetold Henry Morgenthau that ‘he didn’t want to run unless “things get very, very much worse in Europe”’. He elaborated on this feeling in a discussion with the president of the Teamsters union, Daniel Tobin, citing his failing health:

No, Dan, I just can’t do it. I am tired. I really am. I can’t be president again. I have to get over this sinus. I have to rest. No, I just can’t do it.

In February, he vented his frustrations to George Norris, who had visited to urge Roosevelt to run for a third term:

I am chained to this chair from morning till night … I am tied down to this chair day after day, week after week, and month after month. And I can’t stand it any longer. I can’t go on with it.

There were also more concrete signs of plans for a post-presidential life.  Roosevelt’s private retreat, Top Cottage, was completed at the end of 1939. At the nearby Springwood estate in Hyde Park, designs were being laid for his official library.

There was even talk of buying one of the Florida Keys and developing it as FDR’s fishing retreat.

But, as it turned out, things did get very, very much worse in Europe. By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Nazi Germany held sway over much of continental Europe.

Just days before Chicago Stadium welcomed delegates, the Battle of Britain began. This furious clash of aeronautical power emphasised the precarious situation for freedom and democracy in the West.

Meanwhile, pro-Roosevelt tickets were sweeping the Democratic primaries and caucuses. The President neither campaigned nor publicly endorse these slates.

When is a campaign not a campaign?

So, did Roosevelt ever really plan to retire in 1940? Or were his announcements and deals part of an elaborate plan to maintain an aura of reluctance and humility?

As Ted Morgan notes in FDR: A Biography:

a third term movement would make him vulnerable to attacks that everything he had done was to serve his ambition.

I think it is more likely that Roosevelt saw his presidency as being instrumental to defeating Hitler and Nazism.

Whatever the truth, any doubt in the President’s mind seems to have been dispelled by the time of the convention.

The New York Times reported on 13 July 1940 that ‘the Democratic Convention of 1940 will go into the records as one of the most completely regulated and the most willingly controlled meetings in the history of the present Presidential nominating system’.

Anything other than a nomination for Roosevelt would have been ‘a surprise for which the assembling delegates, or the country … are distinctly unprepared’.

A wild, shifting mass of screaming, standard-waving humanity

Roosevelt did send a messenger to formally turn down a third nomination. The New York Times’s correspondent, Sidney M. Shalett, described Senator Alben Barkley’s speech heightening the tensions in the hall. When Roosevelt’s name was finally mentioned, for ‘twenty-five minutes the stadium was a wild, shifting mass of screaming, standard-waving humanity’.

Conrad Black relates the next minutes in his book Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom:

There was complete silence for a few moments. Then the Chicago Democratic machine took over the convention. From the basement a mighty voice bellowed into a microphone connected to all the loudspeakers in the convention hall: “We Want Roosevelt!” This chant was repeated endlessly; every state and city, sequentially, wanted Roosevelt: “Chicago wants Roosevelt!” “New York wants Roosevelt” etc., peaking every couple of minutes with “The World Wants Roosevelt!”

In the New York Times, Sidney M. Shallot described the ‘screaming, shouting, yelling in complete abandon’.

Jean Edward Smith describes the pure pandemonium of the convention in his bookFDR, and goes on to note that:

through it all that deep penetrating voice could be heard above the noise that filled the arena: “We want Roosevelt”, “Everybody wants Roosevelt”.

This voice was later identified as belonging to Thomas D. Garry. At the time, he was serving as Superintendent of Chicago’s Department of Sanitation. His intervention would become famous, or infamous, as the Voice from the Sewers.

Taking over the microphones was only one part of the plan. Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Ed Kelly, had planted hundreds of Roosevelt supporters around the stadium. They took up the chant, which spread to the delegates. They had created an unstoppable momentum.

A virtually unanimous nomination

Was anyone really surprised at this turn of events? The New York Times’s James A Hagerty didn’t think so. In his view, the President’s message to the convention ‘was taken as the basis on which to accord the President a virtually unanimous nomination later, and an implicit promise on his part that he would accept renomination if drafted by a united convention’.

The next day, the delegates cast their ballots. Whether planned or not, Roosevelt received 946 votes against 72 for Farley, 61 for Garner and 5 for Hull and 9 for Millard Tydings. It was a crushing landslide that strengthened FDR’s grip on the Democratic Party.

Roosevelt went on to win the Presidential election in November of 1940. He served a full third term and then won the next presidential election in 1944. His fourth term was cut short when he died in April 1945.

Roosevelt’s 13-year occupancy of the White House remains unique in the nation’s history. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, limiting future presidents to two consecutive terms.

So, what if Roosevelt had decided that enough was enough and that he wasn’t going to run? With the United States teetering on the brink of participation in the Second World War, whoever entered the White House in 1941 would have been tested to the core.

It remains one of the most fascinating counterfactuals with potentially profound implications for the conduct and course of the war.

Feedback and reviews

Do you like the podcast? You can help others to find it by rating or reviewing the podcast and sharing it with friends.

On iTunes, this takes a couple of steps but it is the best way to help me reach a wider audience.

1. Search for Almost History on the Podcast app.

2. Tap the podcast artwork under the Podcasts heading (the red and white logo).

3. Tap reviews and leave a star rating or, even better, add a review as well!

If you are having trouble, this page shows how to leave a review in six easy steps!

Further reading

  • Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2005.
  • Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. London: Grafton Books, 1985.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008.