The comical coronation of King George IV

In July 1821, George IV was crowned as king of the United Kingdom at Westminster Abbey. The event was a riot of glitzy kitsch with no expense spared that went some way to establishing the model for the modern coronation. But it was a comical – or rather tragicomic – day that saw George’s own queen barred from the event while he sweated inside under the weight of extravagant robes of his own design.

Meanwhile, the streets of London saw both celebration and civil unrest.

No expense was spared for this royal event. King George IV spent twenty times more than his father’s coronation had cost. My calculation allowing for inflation was that he splashed out £25million in today’s money. Though half the cost was covered by reparations imposed on France which had been defeated six years earlier in the wars against its emperor Napoleon. George viewed himself as the conqueror of France and his coronation was a kind of victory lap.

I’ve gathered many of the following details about the coronation and events around it from contemporary newspaper accounts.

A feast of bling at the coronation of King George

The coronation crown was the largest item of royal bling ever created. It included a staggering 12,314 diamonds! After the coronation, George IV pressured parliament into buying the massive bauble but MPs and Lords said no. Gradually stripped of its jewels over the years, the unloved crown went on a curious journey ending up at the Museum of London in the 20th century, then Asprey the jewellers, then the Sultan of Brunei, and finally into the Royal Collection which has placed its forlorn remnant in the Tower of London.

But George didn’t have just one crown fashioned for his coronation. Another item of stunning headwear made for the event was the Diamond Diadem, which has been worn by queens and queens consort at coronations ever since. Most famously, it was worn by the late Elizabeth II when she modelled for the iconic stamps we knew and used for decades in this country to send our mail. Here it is pictured below (article continues after this image).

At George’s coronation, all the nobility were ordered to have special clothes tailored copying Tudor and Stuart designs. This was English history cosplay on a grand scale. The king’s own coronation robe was 27 feet long and needed to be carried by nine pages. It was later sent to the waxwork museum Madame Tussauds. During the proceedings, George perspired profusely under his ridiculously rich and heavy attire.

King George’s queen excluded from the coronation

The Times newspaper noted the George IV’s coronation followed the structure of his father’s crowning sixty years later but there were huge differences. For a start, King George III was crowned alongside his wife as queen. In stark contrast, George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline was excluded from the coronation. She was reduced to banging on the doors of the abbey which were slammed in her face and at one point, guards stuck their bayonets under the queen’s chin to make the point she wasn’t welcome. Broken by this humiliating ordeal, Queen Caroline died three weeks later!

There were riots by supporters of the queen in London which meant that whereas the coronation of George III required 3,000 troops to maintain order – the enthronement of his son saw 20,000 troops on the streets. Having failed to be crowned alongside her husband, Queen Caroline petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to have her own coronation a week later while the abbey was still suitably decorated. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

A wave of national apathy for the coronation of King George

On 28 July 1821, The Morning Chronicle took stock of the coronation that had happened just ten days before. It mocked the “court journals” that had drooled over this “pompous” ceremony without pointing out “the perfect apathy with which it has been regarded by the great body of the people of England”. The newspaper remarked that so indifferent were the masses that it would be a topic of study for future historians.

What The Morning Chronicle believed it was witnessing was something stirring deep in the national soul – against the monarchy:

“Superficial observers may think temporary causes sufficient to account for it; but an indifference so marked and universal – so entire a want of sympathy on the part of the people with those observances, which in the hands of their feudal tyrants were at once the instruments of gratification and delusion, can only be fairly ascribed to causes of a more general and permanent operation.”

Instead of inspiring awe, the pomp and pageantry had many wondering gloomily how much it was going to cost. The newspaper was concerned that after a century of reining in royal power, King George was showing signs of old-style absolutist monarchy and his ministers, who should have been able to control him, had allowed this grandiose coronation to take place.

“The truth is that the whole thing is out of date and the attempt at transferring the forms of chivalry to the cold realities of a modern court produces all the effects of a ‘travesti’.”

This newspaper assumed a much bigger figure for the true cost of the coronation than the one I gave above from other sources. It estimated half a million pounds which at today’s value is an eye watering £53.7 million. The Morning Chronicle believed that downscaling the coronation to a simple oath taking would have saved the Treasury what it lost in revenue from the recent abolition of the Agricultural Horse Tax.

FIND OUT MORE: The chaotic funeral of King George III

Crowds leave the coronation of King George for baser amusements

Once King George IV’s procession had entered Westminster Abbey, most of those outside departed hastily for Green Park according to The Observer newspaper. The reason being that a certain Mr Green was to ascend in a large hot air balloon as a stunt to celebrate the coronation. Watching this daredevil act of bravery enthralled the crowd more than the crowning of the king. There was some concern as Mr Green ascended until he was entirely lost from view eventually managing to descend again near South Mimms in the county of Essex.

At sunset, an estimated half a million people descended on Hyde Park to watch a firework display. This included an “illuminated transparency” of King George IV drawn in a carriage by “milk white horses”. According to one account, whole oxen and sheep were roasted in Hyde Park to feed the multitude.

I live close to an area of south London still called Vauxhall. Before the Victorians stuck a railway line through it, this was a centre of public entertainment. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens saw the city’s glitterati rubbing shoulders with politicians, entertainers, thieves, prostitutes, and thrill seekers attracted by a night of entertainments. For the king’s coronation, Vauxhall witnessed a huge masked ball.

The Morning Chronicle newspaper listed what visitors could expect to experience. Ramo Samee was a celebrity magician from India whose act included fire eating, sword swallowing, and a curious trick that involved swallowing beads followed by a string and then regurgitating a strung necklace. The equally renowned Mr Wilson would perform on the tightrope. A performance of Italian marionettes called the Fantoccini and a Chinese shadow puppet show called the Ombres Chinoises would also feature that evening.

DISCOVER: Worse royal funeral ever!

Ten years later, King George IV breathed his last – one of the least mourned monarchs to ever sit on the throne. It was up to Queen Victoria to bring some dignity and respect back to an institution that could very easily have not survived the 19th or early 20th century.

Diamond Jubilee 1897 – amazing images!

Regular visitors to the blog know that I have a huge archive of old books and newspapers stretching back 300 years. And one dusty, crumbling specimen is a photo album published for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.

It includes images that reveal a Britain that is at once familiar and very different. In this most royal of weeks, leading up to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as I write, let me share some of these images with explanations. They are a fascinating insight into England 120 years ago.

DISCOVER: England’s lost royal palaces

The first scene below is in front of Buckingham Palace. The building may look a bit unfamiliar because in 1913, sixteen years later, a new Portland stone facade was slapped on the front of the palace to match the gleaming white Victoria memorial in front and to create a more impressive backdrop for royal events. Behind the facade is the original palace that was built throughout the first half of the 19th century.

What we see is an honour guard of sailors on the left and “blue jackets” on the right who may look like police but – and correct me if I’m wrong – were actually sailors as well, sent to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China amongst other things.

With the next image, we glimpse Queen Victoria leaving for her Diamond Jubilee procession. Note that today’s impressive railings around the palace are absent and obviously the memorial to Victoria I mentioned above isn’t there either as she was still very much alive. The Mall has yet to be turned into the wide roadway we see in 2022.

FIND OUT MORE: The impressive state funeral for Queen Victoria

Below we get a view of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession going through the City of London near the Bank of England and Mansion House. In the foreground towards the left you can see a large group of ‘Bluecoat’ boys from Christ’s Hospital school. The pupils were from poorer backgrounds. The school was founded by King Edward VI in 1552.

It was housed in the remains of a Franciscan monastery shut down during the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII. Five years after this photo was taken the boys were moved to a new school outside London ending centuries of being based in the middle of the city. The school is still thriving and today admits girls.

The next image has the Diamond Jubilee procession heading down Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square and a huge multi-level stand has been erected at the junction. Of particular interest is the reference to “various West Indian regiments” as these could have come from Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean colonies, which now are questioning their future in the Commonwealth following the death of Queen Elizabeth II who was still their head of state.

Finally, Queen Victoria arrives at St Paul’s cathedral, which remains an iconic presence on the London skyline. The masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, constructed after the Great Fire of 1666 that incinerated the ancient medieval cathedral. The buildings to the right are mostly still there but elsewhere around the cathedral, the Blitz of the Second World War levelled a great number of buildings.

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

Note the amount of soot on St Paul’s. I remember it took until the middle of the 1980s for London to be cleaned of all its soot revealing a very different city to the dark place I grew up in. Creamy exteriors we had previously thought to be pitch black.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

On 29 January 1820, King George III died bringing an end to a very long reign of sixty years, long surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II who was on the throne for seventy years. George III was Elizabeth’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Because of intermarriage, they’re related in other ways too. Unlike the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, that of King George was a chaotic and disorganised affair as news reports of the time testify.

Aged 82 and after sixty years on the throne, King George III died at Windsor Castle. Once news had arrived in central London, the Privy Council descended on Carlton House, the extravagant home of his son the Prince Regent, who was about to become George IV. The new spendthrift monarch was set on demolishing Carlton House, deeming it wasn’t good enough for his new role.

He had long waited for his father to pass away and now was able to become the undisputed monarch.

DISCOVER: The worst royal funeral ever!

Prelude to the chaotic funeral of King George III

According to The Observer, the body of his late father George III wasn’t embalmed in the “usual manner” but wrapped in cerecloth, a very medieval way of preserving the body. This involved binding the king’s body with strips of fabric impregnated with wax to exclude air and therefore decomposition.

The king had once been a hefty figure, generously proportioned. But The Observer reported that at death “the corpse of his Majesty exhibited a painful spectacle of the rapid decay which had previously taken place in his constitution. His once vigorous frame was reduced almost to the appearance of a skeleton”. For this reason, conventional embalming was deemed to be too difficult to perform on a body that had wasted away.

Tightly wrapped, the king was then placed in a mahogany coffin with an interior fold of white satin. This was then placed inside a lead coffin, which was then inserted into yet another mahogany coffin.

“The whole will finally be enclosed in the state coffin, which will be covered with crimson velvet, richly ornamented with gilt nails, and bearing the royal arms.”

On top of this funereal Russian nesting doll of multiple coffins was the following inscription:

DEPOSITUM

Serenissimi Potentissimi et Excellentissimi Monarchae

GEORGII TERTII

Dei Gratia, Britanniarum Regis, Fidei Defensoris

Regis Hanoverae ac Brunsvici et Lunenburgi Ducis

Obiit xxix die Januarii. Anno Domini MDCCCXX

Aetatis sure LXXXII, Regnique sui LX

The funeral was to be in Windsor where George had died so he lay in state in the castle and was then removed to his tomb. This meant that vast crowds descended on this small town just outside London. The streets became a sea of confusion with a jumble of carriages and “jaded horses”. And things only got worse.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

There was little by way of crowd control and those who had come to gawp at George were not especially well behaved or dignified in their conduct:

“Males, females, and children, were huddled together in an indiscriminate mass and the shrieks of the latter as they were crushed against each other, or against the railing by which their numbers were confined, were so dreadful, that apprehensions were entertained of the most serious mischiefs, and many were extricated with difficulty from a state of the greatest peril.”

The Observer’s description is chilling and leaves a lot of unpleasantness to the imagination. Having emerged from that hell, mourners found themselves flung into another. At each entry point into another part of Windsor castle people were “sucked into the vortex of an impatient throng”. The report went on:

“It was a complete scramble, in which the infirmities of age, the delicate habits of many respectable and beautiful females, who were intermingled with the throng, and the helplessness of infancy, were alike disregarded.”

Ten years later, George III’s son George IV would die after just ten years on the throne. His passing was far less mourned, but some lessons had been learned from the chaotic scenes in 1820. And in 2022, we see a police operation around the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that beggars belief in terms of scale and cost.

Worst Royal Funeral ever!

On June 26, 1830 – one of the most unpopular monarchs of England died. King George the Fourth breathed his last. And it seems that nobody particularly cared. This was possibly the worst royal funeral ever!

Goodbye to a hated king!

The Times published an astonishing commentary referring to George as a “pompous and secluded monarch” who had easily identifiable vices while his virtues were not in evidence. “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

It then went on to say: “If George IV ever had a friend – a devoted friend – in any rank of life, we protest that the name of him or her has not yet reached us.” The reason, the commentary continued, was his utter selfishness.

“Selfishness is the true repellent of human sympathy. Selfishness feels no attachment and invites none – it is the charnel-house of the affections.”

The London Medical Gazette pulled no punches on July 17, barely three weeks after the king’s death, detailing the “remarkable degree of obesity in the person of his late majesty”.

“We understand that the quantity of fat enveloping the several viscera in the person of his late Majesty was very great. An immense deposit was found about the kidneys, and the adipose matter seemed even to have pervaded the ‘intersfical’ texture of these glands.” There was so much fat around George’s heart, The Times was sure it had “oppressed its action to a considerable extent”.

When it came to reporting the king’s funeral a month later, The Times said it was required to cover the event “though at the sacrifice of more important matter”. “Our hearts sicken at the insincerity of the closed and darkened house, the dismal knell, and ‘all the forms, modes, and shows of grief’ wherewith the court sycophant bemoans departed majesty, and with obsequious bow, and smirking smiling face, rejoices in the event”.

DISCOVER: Why King Henry VIII had no friends

Royal Funeral with little respect for the King

The Morning Chronicle reported that on the day of the funeral ‘common-place jokes’ were being told by courtiers.

The whole lying in state and funeral was conducted at Windsor Castle which George IV had spent a vast amount of money refurbishing at a time when the country was in economic turmoil. We’re used to the idea of British royal occasions being perfectly stage managed but before Queen Victoria – this was not the case.

Both the funerals of George IV and his father George III were chaotic. At this funeral, both women and what were described as “effeminate” men complained loudly about the crush of the crowd. Once mourners found themselves by the coffin of the king, The Times noted that there was far less interest than there had been for king George III.

And on the streets of Windsor, “the only sign of mourning” was in what people were wearing. “There is no affectation of grief”, the Times reported, “no sound of lamentation in the street”. The procession to the king’s tomb was described as “more tumultuous than magnificent – more pretending than interesting”.

And quite shockingly to us after seeing the respect shown to Queen Elizabeth the Second – The Times noted that when the “Royal Body appeared, not a single mark of sympathy was exhibited”. The VIP guests found themselves seated without a view because royal servants and their friends who lived locally including carpenters and upholsterers had taken the best seats and refused to give them up.

London shut down as the funeral was a public holiday and people thronged the streets – especially Fleet Street and The Strand. But there were rowdy scenes. St James’s Church in Piccadilly held a special service for the king but only six people turned up. At St James’s Clerkenwell, the preacher condemned the king railing against the “voluptuousness of his companions” and his “habits of reckless expenditure”. He continued: “In no portion of his life was he fortunate in his choice of friends”.

As for George’s stormy relationship with his wife, “it would be well for the memory of his late Majesty if the alienation from the Queen formed no part of his history”.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

Before the Royal Funeral – His Majesty’s grim death

Details of George’s final hours of life were given. Contrast that with the scant details provided about the last day of Queen Elizabeth II. King George IV was moved from his bed into a chair as death clearly approached with his fixed and his lips quivering. Attempts were made to revive him splashing Eau de Cologne on the royal face “and such stimulants as were at hand”.

The king tried to raise his hand to his chest and whispered: “Oh God, I am dying!”. Then after a few seconds: “This is death!”. The king’s doctors were not present but once they got to what was now a corpse, they noted his chest was “much swollen as well as the abdomen and legs” while the upper part of his body “exhibited all the appearances of extreme emaciation”.

Aside from heart disease, the king also had cancer and The Times described the lead up to his death with obvious relish: “The torture which the King must have suffered during the paroxysms of this disorder, must have been excruciating. His moans were at times even heard by the sentinels on duty in the Quadrangle”. So disturbed were the soldiers on guard by the noise that they moved away from the king’s apartments to avoid hearing it.

In short, despite some people’s best efforts, George IV was ushered out of this world with little dignity or respect.

England’s lost royal palaces

Some of England’s royal palaces have gone missing – lost at some point in history. Grand structures that once dominated the landscape have vanished into thin air. So, what happened to them?

Every day I pass by an office block called Edinburgh House in south London – a typical post-war block on a busy street. Hard to believe it was once Kennington Palace – built by the Black Prince, one of the military heroes of the Middle Ages. Yet today, not a scrap of the place is left. Why?

Kennington is one of several lost palaces in London alone. There is the mystery of Baynard’s Castle, a looming presence on the river Thames up until the 17th century. Now the site of a 1970s brutalist monstrosity.

One of our largest lost royal palaces

Or the vast 1,500-room Whitehall Palace that King Henry VIII built in Westminster and from where the Tudor monarchs terrorised the country with their conflicting ideas on religion. Whitehall rivalled the Pope’s new Vatican palace in the 16th century and was only eventually outshone by Versailles, constructed by the ‘sun king’, Louis XIV. Today, a solitary building – Banqueting House – is all that remains.

DISCOVER: The filth and stench at Versailles

Where the Savoy Hotel now stands was once the Savoy Palace, home to John of Gaunt. He was the brother of the aforementioned Black Prince and arguably the most powerful politician of the medieval period. But his once sumptuous home has gone. A victim to a wave of violence that swept the city.

To find out more about our lost royal palaces, watch the film below for some answers that might surprise you!

Has royal tradition been largely invented?

This week just gone saw the death of Queen Elizabeth II who has been a constant in my life as somebody born and raised in the United Kingdom. It’s an event that’s had a justifiably big impact. But in the hours and days that have followed, I’ve watched with a quizzical eye some of the allegedly ancient traditions unfold. Normally involving men in strange costumes yelling proclamations around the country. But to what extent has much of this royal tradition been invented?

In other words, is it all as old as they’d like you to believe?

Well, it may come as a shock to both Britons and royal watchers around the world to know that some of these venerable traditions really aren’t that old. Unless you regard fifty, one hundred and even two hundred years as incredibly ancient. In fact, a great deal of the pomp has grown with the development of mass media and the public appetite for spectacle.

The monarchy has also been deployed during volatile political periods in the 19th and 20th century to curb radical and even revolutionary currents stirring within the British population. In an excellent book – The Invention of Tradition – edited by the late Eric Hobsbawm, things you may have regarded as both eternal and true like Scottish tartan were breezily demolished. The book showed how royal glitz has been an effective distraction from growing social unrest.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

The book also examined how royal ‘tradition’ was extended to the Indian Raj and colonial Africa to foster deference and the idea of an empire upon which the sun would never set. For example, the British took the idea of the ‘durbar’, a traditional royal feudal gathering in India, and turned it into the Imperial Durbar. Three grand processional events held by the British in 1877, 1903, and 1911. At the third one, King George V oversaw the proceedings in person as Emperor of India (a title invented in Queen Victoria’s reign and scrapped in the 1940s after Indian independence).

So let’s look at some other traditions around the monarch that may not be quite as old as if often claimed:

The State Opening of Parliament: The website for Parliament claims this ceremony is 500 years old. But then it lets the cat out of the bag admitting that in its ‘modern’ form – ie, what you see on TV – it’s only existed since 1852 when Queen Victoria established the route to be taken and much of the ritual. Indeed, in the early part of Victoria’s reign, a state opening would have been impossible because the Houses of Parliament had burned down and were being rebuilt.

The Honours system: If you think the honours system with the OBE, MBE, and CBE dates back centuries, I’ve got bad news for you. It celebrated its centenary in 2017 having been introduced in the closing years of the First World War and the same year as the Russian Revolution.

The national anthem: While the music and words to the national anthem, do date back to the mid-18th century, the anthem only started to be used in earnest at royal occasions from the mid-19th century. It wasn’t even played at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.

In short, we can rightly point an accusing finger at the Victorians whose love of kitsch – and frankly rather camp – takes on medieval history and ritual are well recognised. They created much of the royal ‘tradition’ that we believe dates back countless centuries.

Elgin Marbles

Should the UK hand over the Elgin Marbles to Greece?

There is growing pressure on the British Museum in London to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens in what would be a historic move. For two hundred years, the museum has owned and displayed two-hundred sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon – a temple built 2,500 years ago at the height of ancient Greek power, dedicated to the goddess Athena.

Today, if you get to visit the Parthenon in the Greek capital Athens, it’s very much a shadow of its former self. But then this iconic monument has experienced a rocky and turbulent history. Originally, it was a huge temple and strong-walled treasury for the ancient Greeks in the fifty century BC.

Later, when Athens became part of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon transformed into a church in the sixth century AD when the Romans converted to Christianity. Incredibly, this involved adding a bell tower to the temple.

In the 15th century, Greece was invaded by the Ottoman Empire – a Turkic and Muslim kingdom that came to dominate eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East for centuries. The Parthenon was changed into a mosque and the bell tower extended to become a minaret. Yet despite all this, the Parthenon was surprisingly intact as it marked two thousand years of existence.

But then disaster struck. In 1687, the Ottomans were at war with Venice – which was then an independent country. In the film below, I detail what happened to the Parthenon. Bit of a spoiler but basically, it was left in the condition you see today. If you think the Parthenon collapsed thousands of years ago, think again. It was wrecked just 340 years ago.

Semi-demolished and unloved, the Parthenon was looted for building material. A fate shared by many ancient buildings at a time before tourism and the notion of conservation. But in the 18th century, wealthy, intellectual Britons took a growing interest in the classical past. They made a beeline for Rome and Athens undertaking what became known as the “Grand Tour”.

DISCOVER: London’s great plague in 1665

Meanwhile in the Ottoman capital Constantinople, the British ambassador was a member of the British nobility called Thomas Bruce – though you know him as Lord Elgin. Initially he sent a team to make drawings and casts of the Parthenon friezes but this somehow developed into the removal of half the Parthenon sculptures. What came to be known – notoriously – as the Elgin Marbles were then shipped to London.

I’ve looked back at newspaper commentary from Elgin’s lifetime and his lordship had plenty of critics. Although you get the impression that some of his critics were jealous they hadn’t got there first. However, Elgin’s claim that he had the approval of the Ottoman authorities to remove the marbles from the Parthenon and ship them off was greeted with scepticism – even in parliament.

One report in The Times on June 8, 1816, covers a debate in parliament where Elgin’s version of events was derided. His argument that he was rescuing the marbles from the Parthenon was rubbished. It was said that he had been given permission to “view” and “contemplate” the sculptures – not to pull them down and ship them off.

What should have happened ideally was that the Ottomans – referred to as Turks in this parliamentary debate – could have been taught to value these monuments as opposed to having them whipped away by Elgin. Parliament viewed Elgin’s conduct – especially in his role as an ambassador – as thoroughly inappropriate. Here is an excerpt from that 1816 newspaper article.

Elgin claimed to have spent something like 74,000 pounds to secure the marbles from the Parthenon. A select committee of the House of Commons looked into the whole affair in 1816 and decided to offer Elgin under half that amount to buy the marbles for the nation.

The committee sympathised with the argument that Elgin had “saved” the marbles, declaring they would have been destroyed over time by the “apathy of the Turks” and “barbarous violence” by passing travellers carrying off fragments. But the sympathy didn’t extend to given Elgin what he was demanding financially. There’s a constant inference – to be blunt – that Elgin was a bit of a chancer and a man in public office who was lining his pockets.

Black British Georgian Rebel – William Davidson

In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.

Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.

Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.

This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Black British Rebel – William Davidson

Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.

Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!

Loch Ness Monster

The enduring legend of the Loch Ness Monster

In the rugged highlands of Scotland there’s a large freshwater lake known as Loch Ness. It stretches for 23 miles flanked by rolling hills. And its depth reaches nearly 800 feet. The reason you’ve probably heard of Loch Ness isn’t because of the dimensions but what allegedly lies beneath its murky surface. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the lake is home to some type of prehistoric animal. Otherwise known as The Loch Ness Monster.

Saint Columba tames the Loch Ness Monster

Nearly all these claimed sightings date from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, there is one alleged account from the sixth century AD. At this time, in what used to be termed the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, monks from Ireland kept the flame of Christianity burning. One of their number, Columba, journeyed to what is now Scotland determined to bring the gospels to the pagan inhabitants.

His mission was largely successful.  A century after Columba’s death, the abbot of Iona Abbey – a man called Adomnán – wrote a two-part biography of the heroic Irish monk. In the second part, he describes an encounter between Columba and Nessie (as the monster is fondly known today).

“The brute lay asleep in the riverbed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”

Well, of course, confronted by this astonishing sight – the locals deserted their pagan gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Now, stories of heroes taming or killing beasts and dragons have been a feature of both Christian and pre-Christian mythology going back millennia. Normally as a way of proving that my god is better than your god. Look what he can do!

In Christian scripture, we have Saint Philip described in the Acts of Philip – a gnostic gospel the church chose not to include in the bible – casting a dragon out of a temple dedicated to Apollo. Then there is Saint George who as everybody knows slew a dragon. Saint Theodore of Amasea did a similar deed. And in the Book of Revelation, we see Michael the Archangel sticking it to a devilish reptile.

Was Columba’s beast Nessie? That is a moot point. His biography states the monster was to be found in the River Ness, which flows from the lake. And that’s good enough for Nessie fans.

DISCOVER: So – did aliens from outer space civilise us?

Fast forward to the 1930s

We then have an enormous gap in the Nessie story from the sixth century AD to the 1930s. Had the monster gone into a multi-century hibernation – or swum off elsewhere? Who knows?

But for whatever reason, Nessie takes off in the decade that brought you the Great Depression and the Third Reich. Were people in the 1930s looking for a little escapism? Or were they influenced by Hollywood movies that had begun to master special effects. In the 1933 epic King Kong, we see the gigantic ape kill dinosaurs in the jungle. Could this imagery have been burned into the public consciousness?

In 1933, a newspaper article in the Inverness Courier sparked the Nessie craze. A married couple had seen a whale-like creature in Loch Ness.

“The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”

Something about this story fired people up. A circus offered a £2,000 reward to capture the beast (how very King Kong!!).  While the Daily Mail newspaper sent a big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to see if he could bag the monster. A breathless Wetherell reported back that he found gigantic footprints by the lake. Sadly, these turned out to have been created by hoaxers using the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus.

Incredibly, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury group Virginia Woolf was swept up by Nessie mania. She wrote to her sister:

“We met a charming couple in an inn, who were in touch through friends, with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at intense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”

For the next twenty years, glimpses of the monster would continue to be reported. In 1959, a local firefighter, Peter O’Connor, was condemned for planning to kill Nessie. A year later, the chief constable of Inverness, J. R. Johnstone, called on parliament to pass legislation protecting the monster from “human villainy”.

The 1960s gets a bit silly

The decade that brought us the permissive society also loved to poke fun at pomposity. It took the Loch Ness legend and turned it into a comic British movie with a smutty title: What a Whopper.

The movie’s protagonist Tony Blake – played by real-life early 60s pop heartthrob Adam Faith – is an author whose book on Nessie has just been roundly rejected by publishers. So, to drum up interest he goes up to Loch Ness to fake a sighting. When his plan fails, Blake is forced to flee across the lake from angry locals…at which point the real monster appears.

Is this movie garbage? Oh god yes! As an aside, I worked with Adam Faith on a media venture forty years later at the turn of the 21st century and made sure I never mentioned What a Whopper to him. Some points in your life are best forgotten.

The use and misuse of science

There have been numerous attempts to apply scientific methods to the search for the Loch Ness Monster. In May 1973, a Boston patent attorney called Robert Rines took sonar and underwater photographic equipment to Loch Ness and claimed to prove the existence of “at least two large marine animals”.

Rines had set up an organisation called the Academy of Applied Sciences that despite its name, railed against “official science” because, as Rines told journalists, “organised science doesn’t know how to handle oral evidence”. This is a familiar trope of pseudo-science – arguing that real science should be a blend of peer-reviewed evidence and what a bloke said down the pub.

Over the last fifty years, expeditions to Loch Ness have used sonar probes, a submarine, a gyrocopter, a trained dolphin, a baited cage, an amphibious Volkswagen, and a model monster smeared with salmon oil to try and locate Nessie.

The sightings have come thick and fast with sceptics rolling their eyes and attributing the visual phenomena to otters, ducks, seals, cormorants, mirages, shadows and even rotting vegetation. All of this not helped by the dark gloom of the water, which is caused by the surrounding peat. It gives the lake an impenetrable and mysterious aspect.

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited

In December 1961, an organisation was set up to investigate claims about Nessie: The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited. The founders were David James MP, Richard Fitter, the author Constance Whyte, and Sir Peter Scott.

Scott was a conservationist and the only son of the famous and fabled Scott of the Antarctic – the doomed explorer. Sir Peter worked with the above mentioned Rines and in 1975, they provided blurry photos of what looked like an underwater prehistoric creature, which was given the Latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx.

Now I remember as a 12-year-old how exciting this was initially until some people began to analyse that Latin a little more closely. Didn’t it look suspiciously like an anagram? The Daily Telegraph newspaper decoded it as: “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S”. A furious Rines countered that it could also read as: “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”

The damage, however, was done – and no more was heard about that photo. In 2008, before his death, Rines announced that he believed Nessie had become extinct due to global warming.

Russian versions of the Loch Ness Monster

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember as a child reading a sneering feature article in a Soviet publication laughing at the west’s obsession with childish fantasies like the Loch Ness Monster. It was symptomatic of our inferior bourgeois, capitalist mentality.

Only, Russia can hardly lecture the west on this subject. Back in 1953, members of a geological expedition claimed they could verify a local folktale about a monster living in a large body of water in Russia’s far east. The Labynkyr Devil was described by local fishermen as a “huge aggressive monster with a big mouth full of sharp teeth”.

What nonsense, the Soviet scientists initially retorted – before apparently running into it. One of the geological team, Viktor Tverdokhlebov, described a dark, grey creature moving at speed. “There was no doubt, we had seen the Devil – the legendary monster of this locale,” Viktor said afterwards.

And then there’s the Brosno Dragon, tales of which go back 800 years. Allegedly when the Mongols swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, the dragon obligingly stopped the Mongol army from seizing the city of Veliky Novgorod. As the Mongols unwisely watered their horses by the dragon’s lake – it leaped out and tore the warriors to pieces.

The rise and fall of Nessie?

In many ways, Nessie was a creation of mass media. The popular press and radio latched on to this fantastical story and amplified it globally. But one newspaper article in recent years has raised the point that modern media today is a double-edged sword. It can spread fake news and conspiracy theories with remarkable speed and impact. But it also punctures silly stories very quickly. The journalist posed the question whether the internet has now killed off Nessie?

Alaska Russia Putin

What if Russia invaded Alaska?

On the wall of my study is an 1829 map that I bought in a book store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back showing north America. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, still ruled Texas and California. But what a modern viewer might find shocking is that Alaska is part of Russia. And not just the Alaska you know today. But a territory ruled by the Russian tsar that extended right down to Oregon.

You may be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase that saw the United States buy a huge chunk of territory from Montana to Louisiana from the French government in 1803 that doubled the size of the U.S. But less well known is the Alaska Purchase of 1867. That saw what we now call Alaska bought from the Russian Empire.

DISCOVER: The history of Russia and fake news goes back a long way!

In the previous decade, Russia had lost the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire (ruled from what is now Istanbul). That had been a war provoked by Russian imperial aggression. But having been defeated, Tsar Alexander II decided he couldn’t commit resources to defending this far off province. At the same time, he didn’t want Britain to grab it – as they already ruled Canada. So – he sold Alaska to the United States. Hence that strange part of the U.S. detached from the rest of the nation.

The price was crazily cheap at way less than a dollar a mile. Thirty years later the Russians would kick themselves as the Klondike Gold Rush overwhelmed the state in the 1890s. Over a hundred thousand prospectors would descend to get rich quick. Russia had to watch helplessly wondering why it had let that mineral-rich land go at a rock bottom price.

They’re still sore today. And there have been concerns voiced in recent years about growing Russian encroachment. As the ice cap melts and new waterways are created, Arctic and Native American communities have noted an increasing Russian naval presence. If you spin the globe northwards and look down at the balance of power in the Arctic as a region, it is massively tilted towards Putin and Russia. That’s in terms of deep water ports, airfields and ice breakers.

Maybe Putin has the same 1829 map on his study wall and every so often glances at it with a malevolent leer. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem improbable!

The cheque that bought Alaska!