Harlots, Housewives & Heroines

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls is a three part series about women in Restoration England, presented by Lucy Worsley. The three episodes each focus on a sort of woman – the harlots, housewives and heroines of the title; although the last of these categories is a bit forced. Worley’s thesis was that the second half of the 17th Century was actually a rather good time to be a woman (relatively speaking). The Civil War was in part responsible for this due to the high levels of mortality – the highest rate in English history before the First World War – and it was interesting watching this around the same time as Britain’s Great War (post) because some of the ideas about how mortality leads to social change were the same. This being a Worsley series there was a certain amount of dressing up through all three episodes – ostensibly to show us the different sorts of clothes worn by different sorts of women but in reality I think it’s because she finds it fun! This isn’t criticism, I’d be inclined to do the same if I had the opportunity 🙂

The first episode (the harlots) was actually about upper class women, who were labelled this way to reflect the notorious licentiousness of Charles II’s court. He had many mistresses and these women wielded great power. The second episode looked at what it was like to be a more ordinary woman in Restoration England – a housewife. Worsley also talked about how the shortage of men due to the wars meant that this era was when the concept of the spinster and the old maid arose and were labelled. The final episode took some of the notable women of the age as its jumping off point (Nell Gwyn, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Benn etc) but really it was about the women who didn’t fit into the other two categories – what was it like to be a young woman in service in London, for instance. And also a discussion of the new career of actress as women were for the first time allowed on stage.

An interesting series, worth watching.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 3 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 4 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Episode 1 of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities – 3 part series looking at three key cities each in a different key year in the 20th Century.

Episode 1 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Secrets of Bones; Tales from the Royal Wardrobe

Secrets of Bones was a 6 part series of half hour programmes about skeletons, presented by Ben Garrod. Each episode covered a different aspect of the way that skeletons are vital to vertebrates. The series looked at both the commonalities between the vertebrate skeletal structure, and also the ways that skeletons are adapted to the life style of the particularly organism. For instance when talking about bone structure Garrod highlighted how the mix of mineral and organic material makes bone particularly suited to holding organisms up in general. And he also talked about how bird bones are particularly lightweight as an adaptation for flight.

Garrod was a very enthusiastic presenter, clearly in love with his subject and able to convey that to the viewer. I was also impressed that it didn’t feel dumbed down at all. It was perhaps a little repetitive at times, but given how information dense the short episodes felt it might’ve been necessary to recap at the end just to stop one from getting lost. Worth watching.

Tales from the Royal Wardrobe was another one-off programme about royal history presented by Lucy Worsley. As with Tales from the Royal Bedchamber (post) it was a history of the English (and then British) monarchy from Tudor times forward, this time viewed through the lens of what clothes they wore and how this affected public perceptions of them. And it was a splendid opportunity for Worsley to dress up in a variety of historical outfits! 🙂 She stopped short of dressing up as the Queen or Princess Di, however – but we did get that far towards modernity in the clothes that were discussed.

It was a fun programme, I think I always enjoy watching Worsley’s programmes. I do wonder how many times she can repeat this particular formula before it goes stale, tho – two might be enough.

Other TV watched this last couple of weeks:

Episodes 3 and 4 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

Episode 1 of Dolphins – Spy in the Pod – slightly disappointing documentary series about dolphins.

The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain; Tigers About the House; The Birth of Empire: The East India Company

The First Georgians: The Kings Who Made Britain was a series presented by Lucy Worsley which ties into an exhibition at Buckingham Palace this year to mark the 300th anniversary of George I taking the throne. The series (and presumably exhibition?) focussed on Georges I and II who are often overlooked a bit in the rush to get to George III and the madness and loss of the American colonies. As well as the two monarchs Worsley also looked at the other important members of the family during this time – starting with the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was the originally designated heir to Queen Anne. Sophia didn’t live long enough to take the throne, so it was her eldest son George who did. Other members of the royal family discussed were the spouses of the two Georges: Sophia and Caroline; and Frederick Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III).

The Hanoverians were brought in as monarchs of the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament designed to avoid the “disaster” of a Catholic monarch. This of course was fertile ground for conflict – which boiled over in 1715 and 1745 with the Jacobite rebellions. As well as being Protestant they had another advantage – they were a family, with more than one heir already lined up! It was hope this would usher in a period of a stable Protestant monarchy. And it did, in one sense, but they were a pretty dysfunctional family. George I’s wife spent the last 30 years of her life locked up after having an affair, George I and George II did not get on, neither did George II and his son, Frederick. As well as all their disastrous fallings out the family also had some problems with being accepted by the populace of their new country – they were seen as foreigners, and George III was the first of the dynasty to be born in England! Both George I and George II were seen as more interested in Hanover than they were in the UK, Frederick was the first to truly put the UK first – mostly as it would annoy his father.

This was a time of great change in British society, and Worsley’s thesis was that some of this was due the trickle down effect of the Georges’ on the society around them. For instance in George II’s reign the concept of “the opposition” in parliament began to rise. This is because Frederick provided a secondary focus for the politicians – a place in the political system where you could disagree with the King whilst still being loyal to your country.

A good series about a couple of Kings I often overlook at bit, and it has definitely made me want to see the exhibition.

Tigers About the House was something completely different 🙂 Giles Clark is a zookeeper who is in part of the team who look after the Sumatran tigers in a zoo in Australia, and for the first couple of months of the lives of a pair of cubs he was bringing them up at home. The tigers in the zoo aren’t ever going to be reintroduced to the wild, and are handled often by the keepers (and sometimes by the public) so this was a good way to familiarise the cubs with humans while they were young. But it wasn’t in any way domesticating them – it seemed more like the keepers ended up as friends of the tigers (whilst still respecting them). As well as the strand of “ooooh, cute tiger babies” the programme also had a message about conservation. One of the reasons this Australian zoo is so keen to have their tigers handleable, including by the public, is that this encourages people to contribute to conservation funds. Sumatran tigers are being hunted to extinction by poachers in the wild, because their bodies are used in traditional medicines and as luxury goods – there are only a few hundred tigers left in the wild, and they may become extinct in the wild in the next few decades.

A very cute series, which did its job at raising awareness of the tigers plight in the wild.

The Birth of Empire: The East India Company was a two part series presented by Dan Snow looking at the history of the East India Company, and how they accidentally established the British Empire. It was full, as you might expect, of British people behaving poorly towards the Indians. But different phases of the history had different sorts of poor behaviour. Snow split it into two halves for the two episodes – in the first part of the history the Company was wholly independent from the British Government, and wholly concerned with profit. Going to India as a member of the East India Company was a good way to become spectacularly rich – providing you survived the climate and the diseases that came with the climate. It also seemed to have less formalised racism – men who went to India with the Company frequently married or otherwise had relationships with local women, and could take on some of the local customs (including but not limited to polygamy). But profit was the main focus, and this lead to the spectacularly poor management of a famine in Bangladesh (including selling food out of the region in order to make a profit rather than feeding the people) that appalled the public in Britain. The Company was brought under the oversight of Government after this, and the second phase of its history began.

This phase was to see the rise of the civil service and also increasing education of the the Indians. But it also started to move from trade with India to ruling India. In part because the Government oversight was back in London and couldn’t really do much to restrain the ambitions of the men on the ground in India. This era also saw the rise of a much more racist attitude towards the Indians, regarding them as innately inferior. And it was this attitude that lead to increasing tensions between the Indians and the Company – and this boiled over in the Indian Mutiny (otherwise known as India’s First War of Independence) in 1857. There were atrocities on both sides, and public sentiment in Britain was that the Company had been at fault in letting it happen. This was the catalyst for the British Government taking over ruling India and the end of the East India Company.

An interesting series that reminded me (again) how little I know of the history of India – I need to add a book about the subject to my (huge) list of books to read 🙂

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also watched:

Episode 4 and 5 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episode 1 and 2 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley

A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley was a three part series about the peculiar relationship of Victorian & Edwardian Britain with murder. It was half about the real life crimes that shocked (and enthralled) the nation during the era – including such notable villains as Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen as well as others I’d not heard of before. This strand of the programme also looked at the changing face of crime detection and reporting during this era – the very idea of police detectives was come up with in Victorian times. The British fascination with murders also got a boost from cheapening newspapers and rising literacy.

Worsley was also talking about fictional murders – and the blurry line between dramatised stories of real life crimes and purely fictional crimes. Particularly in Victorian times an especially juicy story might get turned into the plot of a melodrama or for a travelling puppet theatre show. People would also write in to New Scotland Yard with their own ideas for how to solve high profile unsolved murders – and Worsley tied this to the beginning of the detective novel.

Purely fictional murder sensational novels and detective stories rose in popularity through Victorian and Edwardian times, reaching their highpoint with the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. This is the time of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers etc and in their fiction murder has become very sanitised, and detection a parlour game. Figuring out “whodunnit” before you got to the reveal at the end of the book had much the same appeal as doing a crossword, and those were also rising in popularity at the time.

This was a TV series with a sense of fun – Worsley dressed up in period costume, and acted out snippets of melodramas and so on as they fitted into the story she was telling us. Including a bit of the transformation scene from the stage production of Jekyll & Hyde!

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.

Episode 1 of The Crusades – series presented by Thomas Asbridge about the Crusades.

Episode 1 of Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures – Richard Fortey looking at three fossil sites that changed our idea of the past.

Martin Amis’ England – a one-off programme featuring Martin Amis talking about what he thinks it is to be English and about modern society. The BBC blurb for it sounds a lot more negative than I thought it actually was.

Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs – one-off programme about the photographs taken by ordinary soldiers during WWI. Particularly featuring two photographers, one German and one British, whose descendants met up as part of the programme.

Unnatural Histories; Tales from the Royal Bedchamber

Unnatural Histories was a series with a message, and in the case of one of the episodes it even seemed to have some subliminal messaging going on (and perhaps the other two and we just didn’t spot it). The basic premise was that the series was looking at three great “wildernesses” which have been made national parks and investigating whether or not it’s really true that these are the last great spaces untouched by the hand of man. Each episode concentrated on the history of a particular national park – firstly the Serengeti, secondly Yellowstone and thirdly the Amazon rainforest (bits of which are national park but they were thinking about the whole region). The message was the same in each case – that the concept of untouched wilderness is really just a nasty little racist hangover from the days of white imperialism. In all three cases people have been living in and shaping the land and ecosystem for thousands of years. So the narrative of the “pristine, untouched wilderness” erases the native peoples from the picture – like the way we talk about the “discovery” of the Americas in the 15th Century despite there having been people living there for 12,000 years who thus discovered it some time ago. It’s a narrative that only works if you consider Europeans as the only “real people” in the situation.

It definitely succeeded in being a thought provoking series – we kept pausing it to talk about it while watching. I think there’s something to be said for keeping some parts of the world as a viable habitat for wildlife rather than just building cities over everything (in particular the Amazon which has a significant affect on global climate too). But the way in which these parks were created and the way the people who lived there were treated was appalling. In both the Serengeti and Yellowstone native people were moved out involuntarily and prevented from using the land the way they used to – but tourists could still go onto the land and often cause more damage than the locals would’ve. In the Serengeti big game hunters were positively encouraged at the same time as local people were prevented from hunting for food. Removal of people is also altering the ecosystems of the parks – for instance elk in Yellowstone grew in numbers to an extent where wolves had to be reintroduced to prey on them. The Amazon was even more complex – in that there was a significant reduction in population by diseases brought by the first Europeans, possibly up to 90%. So the human part of the ecosystem had collapsed prior to the attempt to preserve the “wilderness”, but the effects of that human population hadn’t entirely unravelled.

It’s difficult to know what can be done, tho. These ecosystems were sustainable with populations of about the size that they had, who lived in traditional ways. And the modern world inevitably changes that, and I don’t think any of it is in ways that should be prevented. Modern medical care keeps people alive for longer, so the population grows and consumes more. Once you’re aware of conveniences like clean running water and electricity you’re going to want them – and that requires space and resources. And these aren’t things you should deny people to keep them “traditional” enough to live somewhere. But how do you police the land use effectively? And without that turning into its own nastiness? And if the people were moved out a couple of generations ago like in the case of Yellowstone then do they still have the knowledge and so on to live the way their ancestors did?

So yes, a very thought provoking series with more questions than answers.

(The possible subliminal messaging was in the Serengeti one, btw – every time they switched from black & white footage to colour or vice versa there was a frame or two of a still image of two Masai standing against a sunrise (or sunset).)

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber was aired to coincide with the birth of William & Kate’s son. It was presented by Lucy Worsley (who did Fit to Rule that we watched last year), and was a chronological look at the bedchambers of the English & British royalty over the last 700 or so years. It wasn’t quite what I expected in that I was expecting more about the birth or not of heirs to the throne, but really it was about the beds and the rooms. So we were shown several rather nice looking beds from various points over the centuries. And she explained how pre-Victorian times the royal bedchamber was actually a state room – and the people who had access to it were some of the most important people in the country because they had the most access to the king.

I don’t think there was anything in this programme I didn’t already know, but it was nice to see the examples of beds etc.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 1 and 2 of Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness – three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about the Rococo art movement, as a sequel to his series on Baroque art.

Episode 1 of Border Country – programme about the history of the area of Britain around the England/Scotland border, presented by Rory Stewart.

Episode 1 of Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest – two-part series about the increasing gap between the economy of London and the economy of the rest of Britain.

Episode 4 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 1 & 2 of Pagans and Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn

Fit to Rule; The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign; Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here

The last episode of Fit to Rule backed up a bit from the end of the second episode (post) to a time when George III was still on the throne and the future of the Hanoverian dynasty looked secure. His granddaughter, Princess Charlotte (daughter of the future George IV), had married and was expecting her first child. Worsley told us that in a departure from previous royal matches Charlotte was marrying for love, she was also looking forward to a life of familial bliss. She was a tremendously popular Princess, and all seemed bright for the future. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Worsley showed us the detailed notes taken by the celebrated male midwife who was overseeing the delivery of the royal baby. After 24 hours of labour there had not been much progress, and then there began to be signs that not all was well with the baby. Finally after 50 hours the Princess was delivered of a stillborn boy. Disaster, but not yet catastrophe – that was to come during the night after when the Princess herself went from seeming fine immediately after the birth to dead. The midwife never recovered from the guilt he felt at presiding over the deaths of 2 generations of the royal family and killed himself a few months later. The nation was in mourning for Charlotte – Worsley showed us the commemorative teapots made as morbid souvenirs. The comparisons with Princess Diana are obvious, and Worsley told us that Charlotte had even been referred to as the English Rose just as Diana later would be.

Charlotte hadn’t just been the first legitimate grandchild of George III, she was the only legitimate one. So now the race was on for an heir – all the other sons of George III married (most just had mistress at this point …) and tried to be first to produce a child. Worsley quoted us a satirical poem of the day, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. Prince Edward & his wife Victoria won the prize with the birth of the future Queen Victoria in 1819. Edward didn’t live long after that, so Victoria was brought up by her mother & her private secretary Sir John Conroy. In some ways bits of their regime made sense – Victoria was trotted around the country & shown to the public in carefully controlled publicity events. This was to give her a base of popularity for when she took the throne, an important thing to have given the unpopularity of her uncles who reigned before her and her family in general (saving only the dead Princess Charlotte). However that was the only good bit – the rest of it, the isolation of Victoria from her father’s family & from any children and the way they tried to control her every thought & deed, was not good. They tried to ensure her future obedience for after she became Queen, but in doing so over-reached themselves and meant that she shook off their influence as soon as she could.

The unhappy childhood of Victoria shaped her personality – she was imperiously keen to get her own way and prone to temper tantrums when she didn’t. (I guess because she never wanted to be controlled again, Worsley didn’t spell it out.) She was industrious in the performance of her royal duties at first, tho after her marriage this began to take a backseat to her pursuit of a happy family life. She, like Charlotte before her, had married for love. And she & Prince Albert had a brood of children, who they brought up in a “private house” on the Isle of Wight – the dynasty was secure and the Queen was mostly popular, much better than the last few decades would’ve suggested. However their eldest son, Bertie, gave them concern – he seemed slow & lazy. Victoria & Albert turned to the pseudo-science of phrenology to try & figure out what was “wrong” with him. Phrenologists believed they could tell a person’s character & capabilities by examining the bumps on his or her skull. Worsley said that the practitioner they turned to thought that Bertie had inheritied his lack of intellectual capability from his mother … but was too polite (and sensible) to tell Victoria & Albert this.

Bertie finished his education at Cambridge University, and also indulged himself in a life of luxury there. He slept with an actress, and when his parents discovered this they were horrified – Albert went off to Cambridge to have a word. Albert & Bertie made up in the course of a long walk, but soon after Albert’s health went downhill. When he died Victoria blamed the stress of dealing with Bertie’s bad behaviour for his illness. She went into deep mourning, which she never came out of – and for several years she did pretty much none of the duties of the monarch, having her doctors write medical reports saying she wasn’t capable. This came close to finishing the monarchy, after all if the Queen could just ignore her duties & government could continue without her what use was she? Worsley said that actually if Albert had remained alive it probably wouldn’t’ve helped avoid a crisis, but in that case it would’ve been because Albert was becoming more & more powerful (he did most of the work of the monarch, not Victoria).

Victoria did show herself from time to time, but never recovered from the depression she entered after Albert’s death. Her court was small & very concerned with morals, while Bertie continued to live it up. When Bertie ascended the throne it was thought that he wouldn’t make a good king, but as Edward VII he actually did a good job in restoring the public image of the monarchy. He might not’ve had as much power as his predecessors but he could put on a show and provide pomp and ceremony. He didn’t reign for long, and was succeeded by his son George V. Who even changed his name during the First World War, as a PR exercise really – no longer the German surname of Saxe-Coburg, now he was George Windsor.

Skipping over George V as being healthy, presumably, Worsley moved on to his son Edward the future Edward VIII who abdicated. From the outside Edward looked like he was going to be a splendid King. He was sent on tours of the Empire and other places for PR purposes, and brought a fresh informal style to various events. But inside he was not having fun At All. He hated all the meet & greets, and the media interest. He hated being away from whichever married lady was his mistress of the time. Worsley read bits from his letters back to his mistress that were particularly angsty & full of baby talk, he seemed somewhat emotionally fragile. This all came to a head when he became King – he had become involved with Wallis Simpson, who was married and now divorced. Somehow he hadn’t really thought that this affair would hit the press, and when it did it caused a constitutional crisis ending in his abdication. And this is where the series finished – obviously one can’t dissect the Queen’s medical history yet, and her father is clearly also a bit too recent!

An interestingly different way to look at the various monarchs of the last 500 years, with Worsley concentrating on different people and different events to the normal story we’re told. However I was uncomfortable that the sexuality of the monarchs was part of the narrative – particularly given the subtitle was “How Royal Illness Changed History”. I think I can see why they did this, because it’s part of the lives of the monarchs that was usually kept private & out of the official history and because it could affect the succession. But it’s still wrong to lump it in with “illness”.

The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign (which was presented & written by Jonathan Dimbleby) was exactly what you’d expect: a programme about the events leading up to the pivotal Second World War battle at El Alamein in late 1942. This is the event about which Churchill said “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Before it the Allies had been doing badly, afterwards they went on to win.

Whilst Egypt was technically independent by the time of the Second World War, it still had a very large British colonial presence and was strategically important to the British Empire. The ports on the Mediterranean coast (like Alexandria) were important for control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal was vital for maintaining contact between Britain & territories such as India. The initial attacks were made by Italian troops from Libya in early 1940 – Dimbleby said this was Mussolini’s attempt to prove he was one of the big boys, to make sure he’d get a sufficiently large slice of the pie in the peace treaty. At the time it seemed that Germany was poised to conquer Britain so Mussolini had to act fast. Libya was ruled from Italy at the time, and was the obvious base for the operation but the army that crossed the border into Egypt was poorly trained & far too cautious – they were easily pushed back deep into Libya by the British forces (under the command of Wavel at this point).

This caused consternation in Germany because Italy was supposed to be securing Germany’s southern border, so if they collapsed & were defeated then Germany was at risk. So Hitler sent Rommel with some German Army divisions to help out the Italians. Rommel acted decisively taking the British forces by surprise and pushed them back to the border with Egypt. There’s now some back & forth over the next couple of years but in general Rommel wins more battles than the British do.

When things are going poorly Churchill blames the generals for not doing their job. He sacks Wavel, installing Auchinleck in his place. Later (after the first battle of El Alamein in early 1942) Auchinleck is also sacked, and Montgomery is put in command. The difficulties between Wavel & Churchill were partly a personality clash – Wavel was a taciturn man who was suspicious of politicians, Churchill was bombastic and suspicious of generals. Never going to work out well. But in both cases the fundamental difficulty was that Churchill would send orders that attack must be pressed, why weren’t the army doing something?? And the generals would feel that the troops they had available weren’t adequately trained nor ready to actually win the battle. So they would delay, and ignore Churchill’s orders, because to’ve blindly followed them would mean certain defeat (and they were running into enough defeats as it was).

There were also other theatres in the Mediterranean and until late 1942 the British forces were losing in those too. There was an ill-fated attempt to invade Greece, which pulled troops away from the front in Egypt at around the time that Rommel was really starting to press forward. And they were defeated in Greece too, it was “another Dunkirk” with the British army forced into a humiliating retreat. Malta was another key place in the Mediterranean – it was under British control and played a vital part in restricting the flow of supplies to Rommel’s troops. It was captured by the German forces whilst the campaigns in Egypt and Libya were underway, and this contributed to the defeats of the British. Just before the second battle at El Alamein (the pivotal one) Malta was back under British control & so Rommel’s supply chain was once again disrupted.

Churchill was under a lot of pressure from politicians during this period – it seemed like he was presiding over a losing war, and motions of no confidence were called more than once in Parliament. This probably contributed to his pressure on the generals out in Egypt to act more decisively. He was firm in his belief that winning in North Africa was a prelude to winning the whole war, and kept pressing that in both domestic & international politics. In terms of international politics Churchill was fighting an up hill battle both to bring the US into the war despite a complete lack of public support for this in the US, and also to get them to fight in North Africa first. Eventually Pearl Harbour tipped the balance (and Dimbleby quoted from Churchill’s diary at the time where he’s quite gleeful about it, which I didn’t really think was appropriate when what he’s talking about is a lot of dead people even if it does mean he gets what he wants finally). Even after that the US wanted to fight in Europe first, but eventually Churchill wore them down and that pivotal battle at El Alamein was the prelude to the first Allied operation (which came at the Libyan based German & Italian divisions from both sides and defeated them).

I’ve missed out loads in this summary – things like the various battles for Tobruk, the anecdotes about how badly prepared the various armies were, the details of the political situation. All of it was also illustrated with quotes from soldiers as well as the generals & politicians involved. Dimbleby didn’t forget the human cost, either – talking about the horrific casualty figures & visiting the graveyards where the soldiers are buried.

The version of Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here that we had recorded turned out to be a cut down version of the full thing (20 minutes instead of an hour). But it was still interesting, if rather brisk. Jeremy Black talked about both what it was about Britain that made it fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution to get started, and how it changed society.

The driving force for the start of the Industrial Revolution was coal. Before Britain had used wood for fuel, but this was beginning to become scarce. Coal was plentiful in Britain & easily accessible near the surface. It also turned out to be a better fuel than wood. As coal mines got deeper, they drove the need for machinery to keep them operational which started the process of mechanisation of various industries.

The political & social conditions in Britain at the time encouraged entrepreneurs & inventors. Black was saying that the Parliamentary Monarchy of Britain meant that there was more stability of government. Also important were the network of societies & coffeehouses where men could meet to discuss the scientific & engineering discoveries of the day. And not only educate themselves but contribute their own ideas. It was also possible to become rich by inventing new machinery – which is a great incentive to do so!

The programme then moved on to the ways that the Industrial Revolution changed Britain. Black talked a bit about Wedgewood, who isn’t just someone who made china dinner services but also in effect the inventor of modern marketing. The demands of new mass produced goods and factories for raw materials drove the creation of a better road network, and the creation of the canal system. (And presumably the railways, but that wasn’t covered – a bit too late perhaps? or maybe it is in the full programme.)

A shame I only found the 20 minute version when I recorded it, I’ll have to keep an eye out for the full thing.

Fit to Rule; Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat

The second episode of Fit to Rule covered the end of the Stuarts, and the four Georges. Lucy Worsley skipped over Charles II entirely, and only briefly mentioned James II. Unlike his brother, James did actually manage to have a male heir, but unfortunately for him this is what led to his being deposed. James had converted to Catholicism much to the disgust of Parliament so when his second, Catholic wife had a son it Parliament invited William of Orange to invade. William was married to Mary, the eldest daughter of James (by his first wife) and both of them were staunch Protestants. William turned up with an army, but when he got to London James II and family fled. Worsley pointed out that this was a paradigm shift – Parliament were now the deciders of who should succeed to the throne.

William & Mary might’ve been strong in the right religion, but their health was another matter. William was physically weak – he was short & he was also asthmatic. His asthma got worse once he was living in London, so he & Mary moved to Hampton Court. This removed them from the political centre of the kingdom, which didn’t help to ease the friction between the foreign King & his Parliament. Worsley said that Mary was mentally fragile – she suffered greatly from guilt over being involved in deposing her father (which he made sure to fan the flames of, quoting the Commandments in letters to her etc). She also believed that women should not involve themselves in politics, but ended up being regent while her husband was away at war. The couple also failed to have any children – not even a single pregnancy. Worsley said that even at the time there was speculation that this was William’s fault – either through physical problems or possibly that he was gay. Whatever it was, they had no heir. Mary died young, of small pox in her 30s and William died 8 years later.

By this time Parliament had had some time to determine who should be next – Mary’s younger sister Anne who was also a Protestant. Anne’s medical history is rather sad – in 16 years she had 17 pregnancies most of which ended in miscarriage or still birth. Of the 5 who made it out alive, the longest lived child was only 11 when he died (which was before Anne took the throne). Worsley told us that contemporary doctors thought that Anne’s difficulties with pregnancy were due to an imbalance in her humours (that was still the dominant medical theory at the time) – in effect they thought she was slippery (had an excess of cold & wet humours) so the foetuses just slipped out. Obviously implausible to us today, but there’s not enough evidence of what was wrong to diagnose her from this distance of history. One thing that Worsley & the expert she was talking to did draw out was that Anne was obese, which can lead to pregnancy problems (but this wasn’t the whole problem).

Towards the end of her reign there were also rumours about her sexuality. Blenheim Palace was built by Queen Anne (using public money) for the Duke of Marlborough after his victory at the Battle of Blenheim. This caused a certain amount of political problems but it wasn’t Anne’s relationship with the Duke that caused raised eyebrows, instead it was her relationship with his wife. The two women had been very close friends for years, and scandalously treated each other as equals even after Anne became Queen. The Duchess had a lot of power and held the most important offices for a Lady of the Bedchamber and this caused resentment among others of the aristocracy. I’m not sure if there was any truth to the rumours – I don’t remember Worsley saying one way or the other.

After Anne the Stuart dynasty was over – and Parliament cast around for a suitable heir, eventually settling on George, the Elector of Hanover who was a Protestant. Worsley skipped quickly past George I, clearly other than being too German for comfort for his new country there wasn’t much wrong with him. George II didn’t have any medical problems (that Worsley told us, anyway) instead he had family drama. The Hanoverian monarchs were much more fertile than the Tudors & Stuarts had been but this lead to its own issues. Frederick, the eldest son & heir of George II, fell out with his father and this helped to further polarise British politics. The political party system was starting to get going during this era, but wasn’t yet as defined as modern political parties. Now with an adult heir who wasn’t getting on with the King there was an alternative court, so politicians in disagreement with the policies of His Majesty’s Government had a new centre they could revolve around. And the Prince of Wales could attract people to his court with promises of what would happen once he was King.

Sadly for him tho Frederick pre-deceased his father. Instead his son, George II’s grandson, George inherited. George III is famous for his madness, but Worsley was saying that it shouldn’t overshadow what was actually a very long and mostly sane reign. The madness itself is often thought to’ve been porphyria, but Worsley told us that the current theory is actually that this was a manic episode. She spoke to a doctor who has used the same techniques he uses to diagnose modern patients to look at the letters of George III before & during his madness, and he seemed fairly convinced that were George III to see a doctor today he’d be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

George III might’ve been mad, but he was also fertile and so his eldest son was old enough to be regent during his father’s madness. Worsley told us that this George (later George IV) was probably reacting against his childhood all his life. He’d been sent away from the family as a child to be educated strictly, and to have discipline instilled in him. In adulthood he indulged himself in as much vice as possible. He overate, he drank to excess, he took large quantities of laudanum (which is opium in alcohol), he was a notorious womaniser. Worsley showed us several satirical cartoons of George IV which were drawn by his contemporaries. When he died he was apparently not much mourned.

And that was the end of this episode, saving the rest of the Hanoverians for next time.

We decided we were just about ahead enough of the PVR filling up to watch one of the non-HD programmes we recorded more recently – because we were both intrigued to watch the most recent Horizon episode: The Secret Life of the Cat. For this programme some researchers had fitted GPS-tagged collars to 50 cats living in the same village. They recorded the tracks of the cats over a week, and also filmed some with cameras set up round the village and attached cameras to others. They picked where & which cats to film based on the early data from the first couple of days of GPS tracking.

There was a bit much “gee wow isn’t this exciting” and fluffy time-filling interviews with the families that owned the cats for my tastes. I’d rather’ve seen more of the data & some more in depth analysis. However there were some interesting results. There was quite a lot of variance between different cats, with some staying close & some ranging much further. They said that the male cats tended to have a longer range than female – I wanted to know if that was entire males or if it was also true for neutered males (and if there’s a difference does it depend on age at neutering?) but they didn’t talk about that. Where the cats are more tightly packed in the centre of the village they saw them time-share territories, which was interesting. And amusing (although not surprising) were the cats that left their own house, sauntered across the village into another house through some other cat’s catflap and finished off that cat’s food. The video they recorded of one of these showed that it wasn’t particularly wary as it did this – clearly it was something usual & the cat felt safe.

Overall it was still fun to watch, just I would’ve preferred something more in depth. It did make me wonder (not for the first time) where Toby goes when he goes out. We’ve thought before about fitting him with a camera or a gps device, but if he goes into our neighbours’ houses I think I’d rather not know 😉

Fit to Rule; TOWN with Nicholas Crane; Isaac Newton: The Last Magician

Fit to Rule is a series about the British monarchs from early modern times through to Edward VII presented by Lucy Worsley who is looking at the kings & queens through the lens of their medical history. This first episode covered the Tudors & the early Stuarts, getting us from Henry VIII to Charles I.

She started with the familiar story of Henry VIII’s desperation for an heir, and how this lead him to go through several wives and change the religion of the country to get what he wanted. But she also talked about how the health of the King was inextricably linked with the health of the country in people’s minds. Henry was scrutinised at all times by a whole collection of physicians, in particular she mentioned that his urine would be examined for changes & signs of his health. And she talked about how the lack of an heir must’ve taken its toll on his psyche – he is said to’ve cried when Edward was born, and Worsley presented this as tears of relief that the stress was over. But she didn’t mention any of the other health issues around the King, for instance the leg wound he got in a tourney that never quite healed or the (much later) idea that he might’ve had syphilis (I think that’s now discredited but surely still worth a mention?).

Next up is Edward VI, who inherited the throne when he was only 9 – Worsley told us the story of how his procession through London on the eve of his coronation was halted when he wanted to watch the acrobats. He didn’t stay childish for long though. Three years later in his diary he notes the ways in which he thinks his uncle (who is acting as his Protector during his minority) is abusing his power and working against Edward’s interests. And a little later there’s a diary entry stating rather coldly that his uncle was executed. There wasn’t really much about medical matters in this segment, just the fever he catches at the age of 15 and dies from.

Worsley name checked Lady Jane Grey before moving on to Mary. Lady Jane Grey was queen for 9 days because Edward felt she was a more acceptable (Protestant) heir than his Catholic elder half-sister Mary. Mary wasn’t willing to let this stand, and was the only person in this era to successfully revolt and take the crown – she was after all the real next in line to the throne. Worsley told us how Mary was the first ruling queen of England (the Empress Mathilda presumably doesn’t quite count), and was crowned as both King and Queen with two sceptres. Her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain was intended to secure the succession of a Catholic heir, and had to be fenced around with special considerations to overcome the “normal” roles of wife & husband. Philip was firmly in the place of consort not King, and should Mary pre-decease him he would not become King – her heir (hopefully her child) would become the monarch.

Mary was in her late 30s so time was running out for her to have a child, but she showed signs of pregnancy soon after her marriage. At the time protocol required a pregnant Queen to retreat to her chambers & see no-one but her ladies & midwives. This was awkward in the case of a ruling Queen as it removed Mary from the day-to-day politics of the court. Worsley & the expert she was talking to agreed that Mary must’ve shown physical signs of pregnancy because there are so many eye-witnesses that agree. Her physicians (men) couldn’t examine her directly but could take reports from the midwives and look at her external appearance, and they agreed she was pregnant. The Queen also reported feeling the child move. But as the due date came & went, no baby was born. Worsley discussed the possible reasons – a phantom pregnancy (i.e. all in her head), a false conception (i.e. some misshapen mass of flesh that wasn’t a real foetus) or possibly cancer which is what killed her a few years later.

Elizabeth I is next, but the programme pretty much skipped past her – she didn’t have interesting ailments. Neither did James VI & I, her successor, but his more or less open homosexual affairs later in life affected the politics of the realm so we dwelt on him for a while. He also was the first monarch for sometime to come to the throne already in possession of an heir and a spare. His heir, Henry, was the epitome of a Prince – charismatic, handsome, virtuous. Unfortunately at the age of 18 he died of a fever devastating his family, in particular his father. James VI & I’s favourites became more prominent after this, in particular George Villiers (later Lord Buckingham). Diarmaid MacCulloch was the expert Worsley talked to for this segment and he was telling us how having male favourites destabilised the court in a way that a King having mistresses didn’t. Women weren’t regarded as important, so were more easily ignored. But men were potentially political rivals so couldn’t be ignored by the court in general and the closeness of Buckingham (in particular) to the King was resented. Early in his reign James VI & I was an accomplished statesman, but after Henry’s death his infatuation with Buckingham lead to poorer judgement.

And last monarch of this episode was James’s son. Charles I was originally the “spare” and as a solemn, shy child this may’ve lead to his feeling less important and to feel he needed to prove himself. He was also not a very healthy child, Worsley showed us boots that were probably his as a young child. They have particularly reinforced heels & ankles, and she said that his would be to help him stand & walk – he’s known to have had rickets. When he was made Duke of York as a child there were worries he might not manage to stand through the ceremony, so two courtiers were positioned one either side to catch him if he fell. Worsley tied his childhood need to prove himself, and to cover up his weaknesses, to his later conviction he was a divinely appointed monarch who didn’t need Parliament interfering with his governance of the realm. Of course this was to have fatal consequences in the Civil War, ending with his execution. Worsley also showed us one of the two shirts Charles wore as he walked out to be executed – he put two on so that no-one would see him shiver in the January and think him afraid … still trying to hide any weaknesses right to the bitter end.

The second episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane was about Saffron Walden – a town in Essex near the border with Cambridgeshire. I’ve never been to it, but when I worked in Cambridge the year before I did my PhD at least one of my colleagues lived there.

Saffron Walden is an older town than Oban (the subject of the first episode), dating from Saxon times. Back then it was just called Walden & wasn’t all that big. After the Norman Conquest the de Mandeville family built a castle next to the town & moved the market there from a nearby town. The town was then renamed Chipping Walden (Chipping means it is where the market is, which I didn’t know before). The town was fortified at that time, and despite expansion remained within the lines of its fortifications until the 19th Century (I think that’s what Crane said). It since expanded considerably with more expansion on the cards. The town was also the centre of a saffron crocus farming area, hence the modern name. These days the market for home grown saffron is small, because it’s cheaper to import it from overseas, but Crane talked to a man who is starting to farm it in the area again as a speciality product.

Coming up to the present day there’s a lot of surviving medieval housing & other architecture in the town, and Crane spent some time talking to a plasterer who does pargeting designs on new buildings. When we were watching this bit J & I commented that this looked like the decoration on Ancient House in Ipswich – and I was amused when I looked up pargeting in wikipedia to find that one of the two examples pictured is Ancient House. Crane also visited nearby Audley End house, the seat of the Lords Braybrooke, which is now run by English Heritage and open to the public. He spoke to the oldest daughter of the current Lord Braybrooke who sadly won’t inherit because she’s female (and so are all her siblings – there was no mention who would inherit).

While the market still exists it’s no longer the primary focus of the town – nowadays it’s a commuter town, the train journey to London from Audley Station takes under an hour and the M11 is also conveniently close. Crane visited the newsagents at the station, which is also an off-licence. As well as normal sorts of wines it also sells much more expensive wine – between £100 & £500 per bottle. The chap who runs the shop said he sells 2 or 3 of these per week to people popping in on their way home from work. Which gives you a flavour of the sorts of people who commute from there, I guess!

There were also some spectacular displays of NIMBYism from the townsfolk that Crane spoke to. There’s a development being planned of a reasonably significant amount of housing on the outskirts of the town, and consensus appeared to be that the residents didn’t want it to happen at all. Several of them mentioned it as “affordable housing” and I couldn’t help but feel that part of the objection was that they felt they lived somewhere posh and now there might be riffraff moving in. I’m being a bit unfair here, people did also bring up the problems there would be on the roads given that the proposed development is on the opposite side of town to the railway station. But even so, I think that just means some thought should be put into planning how the road network will cope. The population of the country is growing whether people approve of that or not, and those people need to live somewhere.

Isaac Newton: The Last Magician was a biography of Isaac Newton partly told by interviews with a selection of historians, and partly by dramatised interviews with Newton & contemporaries (using the words of letters by & about Newton). Oh, and some dramatised stuff by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote a biography of Newton back in the 1940s based on papers of Newton’s that Keynes bought at auction in the 1930s. The dramatised bits were a bit hammed up, but that kept them entertaining rather than over-earnest.

Newton starts life in inauspicious circumstances in 1642. He was been a small & premature baby and wasn’t expected to live long. His father dies when he is very young, and his mother abandons him to be brought up by his grandparents when she re-marries when he is 3. He did well at school, not so well with other people (in the sins he listed in code he included things like threatening to burn down the house with his mother & her husband in it), and started on some of the obsessions that would stick with him for the rest of his life. For instance he turned the attic into a giant sundial – marking out how the light changed in the room with time.

At the age of 17 his mother pulled him out of school to come & run the farm now her husband had died. He did sufficiently badly at that that he was sent off to Cambridge to study instead (which also reinforced his sense that he had a destiny to study & to work out how the world functioned). He studied natural philosophy, what would now be called science. He then began to experiment and investigate time, light, optics and many more subjects for himself. It’s during this period that he did some of the things he’s remembered for – he did the experiments with the prisms showing that white light can be split into colours but these coloured lights cannot be further split. He did the experiments on optics that could’ve blinded him – looking at the sun in a mirror to see how it affected his vision, inserting a bodkin under his eyeball to see what effect deforming the eye had on vision. He also invented calculus (but didn’t tell anyone about it). The programme made no mention of Leibniz, I guess so as not to complicate the story.

Eventually his peers at Cambridge brought him to the attention of the Royal Society & Newton started to share his work & thoughts. He published a paper on his work on splitting light into colours, but this was reviewed by Hooke who pronounced it not of much worth. Newton flounced off in a huff, and took his toys with him. He did no more scientific work for the next 12 years – and until Maynard Keynes bought up some of his papers in the 1930s it wasn’t known what he had been doing. He was engaged in alchemical experiments – trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone which would transmute things into gold. And trying to figure out what made things alive (I think this fits into this bit). During this time he also developed his theological ideas into a sufficiently extreme form as to count as heresy. He did not believe in the Trinity, in particular insisting that Christ was a man and not the Son of God.

Newton returned to non-occult science via a correspondence with Halley about the orbits of the planets. Inspired partly by the idea that his enemy, Hooke, couldn’t figure it out Newton set to working out why the planets orbit how they do – leading to his theory of gravity, and his laws of motion. His publication of these ideas (as the Principia Mathematica) was well received, except by Hooke who tried to claim that he’d thought of it all first. The two men had an undignified spat, but Newton won out this time.

Newton had a nervous breakdown in 1693, the causes of which are unclear. The various talking heads on the programme suggested reasons ranging from him having recently worked with large quantities of mercury to the breakdown of a particularly close friendship with a Swiss mathematician immediately before. After his nervous breakdown they were saying that he never really did any more work – he refined some ideas, but that was it for novel ideas.

In later life he became more of a politician – he was made Warden of the Royal Mint, and was also the President of the Royal Society. He remained arrogant and poor at dealing with people, however. In a letter to the Royal Astronomer he orders the man about demanding that he provide data that Newton wants. This rather predictably puts the man’s back up as he regarded himself as a peer of Newton, not a servant.

After Newton died he was buried in Westminster Abbey, in with the Kings & Queens, despite his extreme Protestantism (the extent of his heresy wasn’t really known at that time). His reputation afterwards was as the first rationalist, the start of the Enlightenment. The experts on the programme were saying that to keep this reputation intact any papers of Newton’s that referred to alchemy or religion were kind of shuffled under the carpet – locked up in a box until sold off at auction in the 1930s.

An interesting & informative programme – the dramatisation of the bits from the letters really brought them to life. And it showed how much more there was to Newton than the myth.