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!

Howard Carter – discoverer of Tutankhamun

Two men became global celebrities off the back of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Who were they and what motivated them? British archaeologist Howard Carter chanced upon the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. His financial backer was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a man whose personal history was stereotypically aristocratic.

Who was Lord Carnarvon?

Born in the posh district of Mayfair in London. Carnarvon’s father, the fourth Earl, was a Tory politician. The young Carnarvon went to Eton College and then to Trinity College Cambridge. He married a fabulously wealthy socialite who happened to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and he obligingly provided a massive dowry clearing his son-in-law’s gambling debts.

With no cash worries, Carnarvon was able to indulge his passion for horse racing and ancient Egypt. The concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings had become available. An American lawyer, Theodore Davis, had bought the concession back in 1902 and opened about thirty tombs. Davis was sure he’d “exhausted” all possibilities at this fascinating ancient necropolis. So, in 1914, Carnarvon stepped in.

Who was Howard Carter – the man who entered the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Carter was chosen to lead the new round of digging. Born in 1873, he had arrived in Egypt in 1890 aged 17 as a junior member of staff at the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). The EEF had only recently been set up – in 1882 – to explore and excavate ancient sites.

An agreement was reached with the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Department that allowed the EEF to export many of their finds subject to official approval. This led to thousands of Ancient Egyptian treasures making their way to Britain – legally at the time. The ethics of this has been questioned in recent years.

But it should be said that individuals were normally not allowed to keep artefacts. The EEF was supported by museums, universities and libraries who expected to be the beneficiaries.

Carter worked with the legendary Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) who brought some discipline into the cataloguing of finds and preservation of artefacts. It may be controversial to say this but in the late 19th century, sites were being plundered and monuments damaged at an alarming rate. Sadly, items like papyri were discarded as valueless by robbers and dealers preferring those things that glittered.

This was a fantastic apprenticeship for Carter who by 1900 became Inspector of Antiquities in Upper Egypt. This was a man steeped in Ancient Egyptian archaeology, but his lack of a university degree and lower middle-class background meant he was the subject of constant sneering from academia and respectable opinion. It may explain why he never received any honours for his work.

FIND OUT MORE: One hundred years since Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered

Making the discovery of a lifetime

Carter’s detractors must have felt vindicated when Carnarvon took him on and for the first few years, nothing showed up in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, it seemed, had been right. Everything that could be found – had been found. A restless Carnarvon began to wonder whether he was chucking good money after bad. And indicated to Carter and his team that the money tree would soon stop delivering.

Then, like in a movie with the clock ticking, Carter made his momentous discovery. With Carnarvon’s dire warning still ringing in his ears, Carter could hardly believe his luck when one of the team – a local boy – stumbled across steps in the sand. This was a clear sign that a new burial site had been found.

He wired his benefactor and Carnarvon made his way to the Valley of the Kings. When they opened the tomb, it was rather like a moment in one of those Mummy movies when a dreadful curse is unleashed. In Carter’s own words:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber caused the candle flame to flicker but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Behind him, Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything.

“Yes – wonderful things!”

Speaking of curses, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt and died of malaria shortly afterwards. Journalists piled in with talk of a “Mummy’s Curse”. And it was Carnarvon’s death that inspired a whole slew of trashy Hollywood movies on Ancient Egyptian mummies exacting a terrible revenge for being disturbed.

Entering the tomb had to be done in the presence of an official from the Department of Antiquities. But there’s every suggestion that Carnarvon, his wife, and Carter broke in, had a look around and then sealed it up again. Honestly – I find it hard to blame them!

Howard Carter and the find of a lifetime – the tomb of Tutankhamun

What was astonishing about the discovery of 5,000 items in the tomb including the intact and ornate sarcophagus of the pharaoh was that most royal burial sites were ransacked in ancient times. Often by the tomb builders themselves – who knew how to get in and out. Yet this one had been spared from the looters.

In a speech given the following year back in England, Carter showed kinematogrphic pictures of the dig to gasps from the audience. What intrigued them was the “domestic” nature of many of the artefacts. This led Carter to comment that:

“Tutankhamun’s tastes might have been those of an average young Egyptian nobleman rather than of a royal prince. Domestic affection was suggested, rather than religious austerity that characterised other tombs.”

When Carnarvon and the Antiquities director entered the tomb, Carter had a portable electric light with a cable trailing out behind him. The sight of the pharaoh’s mask was incredibly moving for all present. But what took them by surprise was another inner chamber containing some of the greatest and most exquisite treasures.

TO BE CONTINUED

Centenary of the Tutankhamun discovery!

2022 will be a momentous year for all things Ancient Egypt related. It’s one hundred years since the discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. And it’s 200 years since the Rosetta Stone was deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion. Both events have left a bitter-sweet legacy in today’s Egypt.

Because they are milestones in what was a period of European domination in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone was discovered during the French Emperor Napoleon’s military campaign in the country in July 1799 and then fell into British hands under the terms of France’s surrender to British and Ottoman forces at Alexandria in 1801. Champollion wasn’t part of Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition, but he deciphered the hieroglyphic script of the pharaohs in 1822 – revealing the meaning on the stone.

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

British control of Egypt

Egypt came increasingly under British control. In 1882, British forces invaded and in 1899, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement led to Egypt being jointly governed by local rulers and the United Kingdom. So, it’s unsurprising that the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened by a British-led archaeological team in 1922. Even if that was the year in which Egypt won a degree of independence from Britain when Sultan Fuad took the title, King of Egypt.

In the years before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the concession rights for digging in the Valley of the Kings had been held by an American lawyer, Theodore Davis. He had bought the concession from the Department of Antiquities in Egypt. From 1902 to 1915, he discovered about thirty tombs and then declared that the valley had been “exhausted” with nothing more to uncover. But he had missed the tomb of Tutankhamun – the greatest glory of Ancient Egypt.

FIND OUT MORE: Grave robbers through the centuries!

French control of digs in Egypt

The Department of Antiquities – which reported to the Egyptian government and from which Dyas bought his concession – was established and run by French archaeologists from 1858 to 1952. It was the forerunner of today’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Despite Britain dominating Egypt militarily and politically, the French somehow managed to run the archaeology side of things to the profound irritation of British and German Egyptologists – who struggled to get a look in.

On the plus side, the Department managed to stop the wholesale looting of tombs and sites and recovered many royal mummies. There are claims that two local dealers who were brothers were tortured under the direction of the Department to reveal the whereabouts. Sadly, even though these mummies were recovered, many scarabs, statuettes and papyri had disappeared into the illegal antiquities markets.

EXCLUSIVE: Ancient Egyptian spoons!

Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

From 1899, the future discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun – Howard Carter – was the Inspector of Monuments in Egypt having worked on several digs including the exploration of Amarna – former capital of the monotheistic pharaoh, Akhenaten. This strange and charismatic ruler introduced a one-God cult based at his new city of Amarna that offended traditional religious opinion and power in Ancient Egypt. He was eventually overthrown by conservative forces.

Akhenaten’s successor was his (likely) son Tutankhamun. It seems prescient that Carter would work on this project uncovering the secrets of the father of the pharaoh that would make him a global archaeological superstar.

In the next few blog posts celebrating the Tutankhamun tomb discovery centenary – we’re going to look at this story of Howard Carter, the greatest tomb in Ancient Egypt and the worldwide sensation its discovery caused.

TO BE CONTINUED

Did the Founding Fathers oppose democracy?

In American political debate, the Founding Fathers are often evoked as the guardians of democracy and human rights. But is this completely wrong? Did these well-heeled gentlemen who framed the US Constitution really want a political system where ordinary people had a say?

The answer is an emphatic no.

A few years ago, I visited the stately home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Virginia – a beautiful estate called Monticello. I was attending a conference on democracy where Jefferson had been lauded repeatedly as a father of freedom and rights enshrined in a written constitution. So, you can imagine how faces dropped when our guide sheepishly informed us that Monticello was in fact a slave plantation – and Jefferson not only owned about 100 slaves at any one time but had a slave mistress.

It is true that in 1776, Jefferson denounced the “execrable commerce” in slaves and was instrumental in having the words “all men are created equal” inserted into the Constitution. Early on, some southern states amended that to all “freemen”. And Jefferson himself fell silent on the issue over time. Abolitionists became exasperated at the great man’s silence leading a 19th century Abolitionist, Moncure Conway, to sneer: “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do”.

But it wasn’t just slaves who would find no freedom in the new utopia of the United States. The poor and women could forget any prospect of the vote or having their opinions taken on board.

FIND OUT MORE: Roman slavery and American slavery – what was the difference?

Founding Fathers – no poor or women in our democracy

John Adams was appalled at the idea of those without property having the vote. “Few men, who have no property, have any judgement of their own,” he wrote. Instead, the propertyless will always be manipulated by those with property – so best they don’t get the vote!

As for women:

“…Why exclude women?  Because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience, in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares.”

Not that his attitude towards women being involved in politics was much different to any other privileged male of the time. And in fairness, female suffrage was still in the far distance in Europe as well as the United States.

The very idea of a Republic was a rejection of rule by the mob. Foreign Policy magazine has just published an interesting opinion piece on this. James Madison, for example, despised the notion of a hereditary monarch and rule by an aristocratic dynasty. But he sure has hell didn’t want to see it replaced with rule by the masses. Individual liberty was as much to do with wealthy individuals being protected from the rabble as it was to do with freedom of expression.

Which is why many of those who think they are acting in the spirit of Founding Fathers are doing completely the opposite. The 2021 Capitol Hill rioters may have cited the Founding Fathers in defence of their action but what they did is everything the Founding Fathers feared. In fact, the US Constitution was framed exactly in anticipation of such direct intervention by the mob in political affairs.

Madison believed direct rule by the people – such as existed in ancient Greece – unleashed populism over rationalism. He wrote in The Federalist Papers:

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.”

He hoped that America’s sheer size, even in his day, would prevent the people from being able to organise effectively to put pressure or even threaten the government. Of course, there were media outlets back then – newspapers – but they were run by the same class of people as sat in the Senate. Little could Madison have anticipated the democratic and anarchic horror of social media – with its power to organise over vast areas.

DISCOVER: American conservatives and the Portuguese dictator Salazar

President-for-life – yes, this was actually proposed!

Alexander Hamilton was lionised in a recent musical production that mocked the supposed tyranny of King George III of England. But Hamilton rather undemocratically thought that both the President and the Senate should be elected for life. Once in power, they would never have to face the people again. He thought this would lead to a better quality of decision making.

George Washington recognised the need to give the people a voice in the system. He didn’t mind the House of Representatives letting off steam on behalf of the electorate because, as he put it, things would cool off in the “Senatorial saucer”.

The Senate would be key to stopping the people running things. It would be an august assembly of the finest citizens (for which read white slave owning men). And similar types of people would sit in the electoral college and choose the President after the masses had going through the charade of making a choice.

Before 1913 and the passing of the 17th amendment, the Senate strictly speaking wasn’t even directly elected. State legislatures chose their two senators and sent them to Washington DC. Two of the Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry, thought the House of Representatives shouldn’t be directly elected either.

People power and democracy as we understand it was about as far from the Founding Fathers’ vision as you could get. They viewed themselves as an educated and rationally minded elite making the best decisions for an unruly nation. What they would make of the United States today is anybody’s guess.

Queen Victoria assassination attempt

Queen Victoria – the eight assassination attempts

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there was a wave of anarchist inspired political assassinations. The Empress of Austria, King of Italy, Prime Minister of France, King of Greece and President of the United States (William McKinley) were all killed by assassins. But one ruler blithely survived an astonishing eight assassination attempts during the 19th century: step forward indestructible Queen Victoria.

DISCOVER: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

While other heads of state breathed their last – the Queen of Britain and Empress of India seemed to almost bat away the bullets. So let’s list all those attempts on Her Majesty’s life:

  1. Edward Oxford was the first would-be queen killer taking a shot at Victoria in 1840. She was still a young woman and had barely been on the throne for three years. Her assailant was a mild-manner unemployed man called Edward Oxford. Victoria’s security was unbelievably lax. Shooting her as she drove past in her carriage was beyond easy. Oxford just stepped forward, took aim and fired. At his trial, claims to be part of a conspiratorial group called Young England proved to be a fantasy and it soon become clear he was insane. The jury certainly thought so and off he went to an asylum for the next 24 years. After which he was sent off to Australia where he assumed a new identity and married a woman who apparently never knew who he actually was. Oxford – now called John Freeman – was an upstanding member of the local community and nobody was any the wiser.
  2. Two years later and a man called John Francis, described by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, as a “little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”, pulled out a pistol and fired on the queen as she drove down Constitution Hill. But the pistol mercifully jammed and Francis ran away.
  3. Well, if you don’t succeed the first time – come back and have another go. Incredibly, the following day – 30 May 1842 – Francis did exactly that. This time he was arrested, sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to death. Strictly speaking, the punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I’ll spare you the details. This horrific medieval punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1870. Francis, it turned out, was the son of an employee at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Before taking aim at the queen, he’d been seen walking round the nearby park yelling obscenities about Victoria – so not exactly keeping a low profile.
  4. 1842 was going to be quite memorable for Queen Victoria. Because she’d barely got over two assassination attempts in May when along came another one on 3 July. This time the pistol wielder was John William Bean. His gun was a ramshackle affair that failed to fire. Bean was only four feet high and severely disabled. He was clearly a very unhappy chap and the subsequent story was that his assassination attempt was more or less a cry for help. But Victorian England wasn’t such a kind place. The order went out – I kid you not – to round up every ‘hunchback’ in the vicinity. Bean was captured but shown some leniency – by which I mean he wasn’t hanged publicly but sent to a pretty dreadful prison. In fact, he was imprisoned at the Millbank Penitentiary – which is now the site of Tate Britain in south London. Eventually released, he got married, had a son but happiness proved elusive. He lived not far from my house here in the Camberwell district of London and in 1882, killed himself with poison.
  5. Bean claimed to have been inspired by Edward Oxford – as did the perpetrator of the next assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Like Oxford, William Hamilton was unemployed. His gun was only loaded with powder and there doesn’t seem to have been a serious desire to murder the queen. Hamilton was Irish and had left his homeland during the appalling famine of the 1840s. By 1849, when he took aim at Her Majesty, he was broke and like many at the bottom of society, thought prison might be a better option than life on the streets. However, Hamilton instead was transported to Gibraltar and from there to Australia.
  6. Hard to know whether to regard this one as an assassination attempt – but Robert Pate certainly meant the queen considerable harm. A former army lieutenant in the Tenth Hussars, life on civvy street hadn’t been kind to this gentleman. Many Londoners saw this strange man marching frantically around Hyde Park as if he was still on military service. Frankly, he became a bit of a joke. Even, it’s said, Queen Victoria was aware of him. But the joke turned sour when he ran at her coach and whacked the sovereign on the head with a cane. She was left with severe bruising and I think it’s safe to say that despite her famous stiff upper lip – this was a deeply unpleasant incident. This was in 1850 and it’s simply mind-boggling that Victoria’s protection was not up to scratch.
  7. Queen Victoria now had a two decade respite in her long reign until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor raised his gun. Like Hamilton, O’Connor was an Irishman. But whereas Hamilton seemed to have no political motivation, O’Connor claimed his act was intended to goad the British state into releasing Irish Republican prisoners. This was a time when the movement for Irish independence from the British Empire was gathering pace. And Irish nationalists were the first to bring what we would now call terrorism to the British mainland to make their point. Well, another Celt – the queen’s Scottish servant (and very, very close friend) John Brown – wrestled O’Connor to the ground. As with previous assassins, he was spared the rope and instead got prison, a spell in an asylum and transportation to Australia.
  8. Ten years later in 1882 came the final assassination attempt by Roderick Maclean. Now this was at a time when anarchist killings were picking up. But Maclean’s shooting at Victoria outside Windsor Station was a clumsy affair. Schoolboys from Eton College beat him to the ground with their umbrellas – which can hardly have been the heroic image he was striving for. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

There clearly wasn’t the appetite in 19th century England to impose draconian punishments on these assassins. Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy with radical movements like the Chartists and the emerging trade unions as well as other pressure groups campaigning for a more humane and just society.

For her part, Queen Victoria seems to have been bitterly disappointed at the relatively lenient punishments. She wanted consequences that were way more severe. A noose around the neck and a long drop. It left the queen with the distinct impression that parliament viewed these incidents as either irrelevant or maybe worse – amusing.

She, though, was not amused.

What caused the madness of King George?

King George III reigned from 1760 to 1820 during which time he lost one empire and set about getting another. The United States won its independence but British rule extended into what is now Canada as well as the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the world. France under Napoleon was defeated. And the industrial revolution made Britain the economic powerhouse of the world. So – a mixed report card but on balance positive. However – for the king himself – his reign was marred by periods of madness.

Nobody doubts that from 1788, King George experienced episodes of mania. He would talk incessantly until he began to foam at the mouth. On one occasion, he planted a beef steak in the ground firmly believing it would grow into some kind of beef tree. And he tried to shake hands with an oak tree believing it was the King of Prussia. More worryingly, King George tried repeatedly to climb the very high Great Pagoda in Kew gardens. This and other odd behaviour led to him being physically restrained – which was an unprecedented way to treat a monarch.

Diagnosing mental illness properly is frankly something we still struggle with today. Must declare a personal interest at this point as my mother was on the medical staff at an asylum in the 1960s and 1970s. So, psychiatry has always fascinated me. My mother’s hospital pioneered a concept known as the ‘therapeutic community‘ where patients were involved to a degree in the running of the institution. King George was also subjected to a treatment regime that was fairly new – even revolutionary.

DISCOVER: Was George III really a tyrant?

Francis Willis and the Moral Treatment approach

The doctor who treated George III – Francis Willis – is remembered by most people for putting poor George in a straitjacket and humiliating him. However, although not without fault, he was a great deal more sympathetic to patients than was the norm in that era. Willis was already 70 years old when he began treating the king and had run an asylum in Lincolnshire with some recorded success.

Some of the snobbery directed at Willis by the court physicians – who had failed to tackle’s the king’s insanity – has percolated down to us today. There’s a perception that Willis was a barely qualified charlatan making it all up as he went along. This is hugely unfair. Willis may not have been a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and his approach involved a degree of experimentation but his approach was as scientific as anybody else – arguably more so.

Willis adopted a regime based on good manners. King George had to behave himself. If he didn’t, he’d be treated like a naughty child. He would then have to earn the right to see other people or have a knife and fork at the table by being good. This infantilised the king but was based on an idea Willis developed that mental illness was caused in part by over-stimulation. This was called the ‘Moral Treatment’ where outright brutality was replaced by a stern paternalism and would eventually earn Willis a handsome government pension in his retirement.

Some of his other treatments though were more questionable and based on the dubious idea – that persists into our own times – of ridding the body of “toxins”. This was done by applying purgatives, blistering the skin and administering arsenic. The latter led to dangerous levels of arsenic being registered in the king’s hair after he’d died. It could also have triggered the medical condition that many have argued caused his madness: porphyria.

The argument over Porphyria as a cause of the madness of King George

Porphyria refers to a group of disorders that involve a build up of porphyrin in your body. Now I don’t want to get too technical here but basically, this can lead to physical symptoms such as vomiting, skin disorders and palpitations but also psychological symptoms including confusion, paranoia and hallucinations. If it was true that porphyria was the cause of madness then the finger of blame could be partly directed at Willis – at least for later outbreaks of insanity – and that would undermine entirely his diagnosis and approach.

Since the 1960s and the work of two psychiatrists – mother and son team Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter – porphyria has been widely accepted as the cause of King George’s madness. Like many scientists they had an underlying theory to prove. In their case, it was a rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis in favour of biological psychiatry. The king wasn’t mentally ill in the accepted sense but essentially experiencing a form of physical poisoning that sent him round the twist.

The Macalpine/Hunter view gained the ascendancy pretty quickly. Willis was made to look like a total fool. But in recent years, their view has been challenged. The rival opinion is that the king had four or five episodes of bipolar disorder. That it really was mental illness pure and simple.

Macalpine and Hunter did analyse the contemporary medical reports. They showed that the king suffered jaundice, abdominals pains, discoloured urine and other physical symptoms ahead of each incidence of insanity. The colour of his urine was very noteworthy and to them pointed to porphyria. In the 1990s theatrical play The Madness of King George – later a movie – the monarch’s blue urine before his 1811 burst of madness is one of the key dramatic moments.

But the opponents of the porphyria diagnosis point out that the king’s urine wasn’t always blue before a period of irregular conduct. Ahead of his 1811 madness, there were six recorded observations of clear urine and the king had also been prescribed extract of gentian that would have turned his urine violet.

There is, of course, a good reason to hope that Macalpine and Hunter were right and that this is to remove the stigma that bipolar disorder – which is hereditary – might be a recurring feature in the British Royal Family. Better to believe for political reasons that the origin of King George’s madness was biological rather than psychiatric. We don’t want to start thinking there’s something unstable about those Hanoverians.

Elizabeth I – why was she a Virgin Queen?

In 1998, the movie Elizabeth was released with Cate Blanchett as the queen who resolved to never marry nor have children. Audiences in the United States were so moved by her strength and defiance that some stood up to shout “go girl!” during the film. The decision by a real-life female monarch to reject all those royal male suitors and become the almost ethereal Virgin Queen is a hugely compelling narrative. But is it true?

Well, let’s look at the different theories about Elizabeth – the allegedly Virgin Queen.

Powerful royal women – but this was the first Virgin Queen

Many women had exerted power behind the throne in England for centuries. Powerful and intelligent women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret of Anjou. But the Tudors in the 16th century gave us two women who ascended to the throne in succession: Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth. Both daughters of Henry VIII and as strong-willed as their father.

DISCOVER: Tudor treasure stolen in England

Elizabeth was crowned as the last Tudor monarch after a stormy century of religious turmoil and war. Her rise to power was by no means assured and on many occasions she had good cause to fear for her life. Elizabeth was constantly at the centre of court intrigue for which she could easily have paid with her head. But good fortune saw her succeed to the top job. However, holding on to power was a formidable challenge.

Creating Elizabeth – Gloriana and Virgin Queen

To do that, Elizabeth crafted an image of herself. She used her body, her sex and her appearance as propaganda tools. Her Ladies of the Bedchamber worked tirelessly on her dress, make-up and hair to project Gloriana – the Virgin Queen. In effect, Elizabeth politicised her body to create a myth. That she was married to England and no prince would come between her and royal duty.

It was a secularisation of the wedding between Catholic nuns and Christ – appropriate for the newly Protestant England. This spiritual marriage was to a country now independent of the Pope and his church. Elizabeth’s chastity was a statement of dedication to her country – not to God and Rome.

But sceptics abounded. Elizabeth was the subject of gossip with regards to several very eligible courtiers. Expert Dr Anna Whitelock believes the rumours of illicit relationships between Elizabeth and various male aristocrats were dealt with by her ultra-loyal Ladies. If necessary, they would take a bullet for the queen and claim to have been seeing the man involved themselves.

Whitelock details how Elizabeth batted away attempts by her Privy Councillors to force her to marry soon after becoming queen and how this pressure to wed continued into her 40s as she approached the menopause. Her contemporaries and many commentators down the centuries wrestled with the question of whether she simply concealed her affairs, was incapable of having sexual relations or if her propaganda was in fact the truth.

No choice but to be a Virgin Queen?

Maybe Elizabeth simply couldn’t have sex – for solid biological reasons. The playwright Ben Johnson (1572-1637) believed “she had a membrana on her which made her uncapable of man, though for her delight she tried many” (his spelling). Peter Bayle writing in 1710 stridently asserted that “it is certain, she had no vulva”. A gynaecologist writing last year thought that Johnson and Bayle were referring to a condition called vaginismus – where penetration is impossible due to a combination of fear and pain.

Even in death, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen left instructions to ensure that there would be no embalming. This would have led to the prying hands and eyes of physicians taking a good look at the royal corpse. And that would not be allowed to happen. Her womb, as was the custom, would not be examined to see if it had borne children. Her secret would go to the grave.

Henry VIII health

Henry VIII’s health report – obesity and impotence

As a child, one monarch of England fascinated me more than any other. It had to be Henry VIII. What other king worked his way through six wives, changed the religion of the country and presented such an iconic image of himself. Built like a quarterback with a generous beer belly. Yet his macho image belied paranoia, chronic obesity and possible impotence.

His own public relations projected robust good health and strength. Yet his fallibility has been only too obvious to his critics. Charles Dickens despised Henry calling him “a disgrace to human nature and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England”. Strip away the image control in his portraits and Henry was a psychological and physical mess.

So here’s a run down of the king’s health issues in one blog post.

What exactly did this king suffer from ?

FIND OUT MORE: Me dressed as Henry VIII on TV

Smallpox: In 1513, Henry VIII’s health hung in the balance as he endured an attack of smallpox. In 1980, the World Health Organisation declared that smallpox had been eradicated thanks to 150 years of vaccinating. But before that – for centuries – this disfiguring disease was rampant across Europe. And at the age of 23, Henry VIII successfully shook off the disease. He was lucky. The death rate from this virus-born illness in the Tudor era was very high.

Malaria: A disease associated with the tropics these days. But even into the 19th century, malaria was prevalent in England. The “Essex Ague” affected people all over the Thames estuary on account of the area’s marshlands having not yet been drained. The fetid air that rose off the swamps was believed to the cause – whereas we now know the culprit is a parasite carried by mosquitoes. Once you had malaria, there would be periodic fits or “shakes”. Henry VIII contracted it around the year 1521.

Brain damage: There is concern these days about the health impact on the brain of contact sports like boxing and American football. So imagine the risks posed by jousting on horseback with long lances. Henry VIII began his reign as a sporty chap with a muscular physique. But he suffered some appalling jousting accidents. In 1524, he was caught above the eye with a lance after which he experienced terrible migraines. But worse in 1536 when his horse fell on top of him and he lay unconscious for two hours, unable to speak. This is believed to have accounted for a range of disorders from violent mood swings to possible impotence.

Henry’s impotence has excited increasing interest in recent years. Could it account for the rotten comments he made about Anne of Cleves and subsequent divorce? One theory attributes the Tudor droop to a blood condition inherited from his great grandmother, Jacquetta Woodville. His failure to perform and to produce a male heir from different women might have been the result of the presence of the Kell antigen in his blood that could in turn lead to a condition called McLeod syndrome which can spark psychosis.

Leg ulcers: This is probably the best reported of his many dire health issues. The crushing of Henry’s legs under his horse led to the formation of appalling ulcers that could be smelled several rooms away. Treatment was more like torture with the application of poultices and bleeding that contaminated the wounds leading to fevers and near death. Unbelievably, his doctors even used red hot pokers on the ulcers. Little wonder that Henry VIII took a personal interest in medicine – possibly hoping he could cure himself.

Henry’s legs are a bit of a mystery. They started out being one of his finest attributes. He showed them off in his paintings with a garter to accentuate his bulging calves. But towards the end of his life, the diplomat Eustace Chapuys bravely declared that Henry had “the worst legs in the world”. Some have conjectured that syphilis may have been at the root of the problem. But there’s no evidence of Henry being treated for this sexually transmitted disease, nor any of his many wives contracting the “great pox”.

DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head

Obesity: Henry VIII’s obesity seems to have been a consequence of other health issues, particularly the injuries sustained from his jousting accidents. Last summer I went to look at his suits of armour at the Tower of London. You can see how Henry ballooned from an athletic 30-something with a 32-inch waist to a chronically obese 50-something with a 52-inch waist.

As he got older, I think it’s fair to say he engaged in comfort eating on a magnificent scale. We have some of the royal menus that for a single meal contain a vast mountain of protein. Giggots of mutton plus veal, swans, larks, venison, pheasant, carp and the list goes on. All washed down with beer, ale and wine.

One can safely assume that Henry would have suffered from diabetes and hypertension in the latter years of his life and growing heart problems. He passed away at the age of 55 – a grim picture of ill health. His coffin was vast and seated on top was a huge wax effigy of the great man himself – still terrifying the populace from the grave.

salazar fascist

American conservatives and Portuguese fascist Salazar

Over the last couple of years, some American conservatives have been going public on their admiration for the former Portuguese fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Convinced that democracy as presently constructed isn’t working in their favour, they’ve wondered whether a more illiberal approach to enforcing conservative values wouldn’t be out of the question.

I’m not indifferent to this debate as I’m half Portuguese and grew up with the name of Salazar being mentioned favourably and unfavourably around me all my life. As late as 2007, a Portuguese TV poll asked the public to name the greatest Portuguese hero of all time. There was incredulous horror, when Salazar got 40% of the popular vote. I was utterly dismayed myself.

It may seem incredible now, but Portugal and Spain had fascist dictatorships stretching from the 1930s through to the 1970s. On 25 April, 1974, Portugal erupted into revolution and overthrew the dictator. By that time it was Salazar’s successor Marcello Caetano at the helm. Salazar had suffered a stroke after his deckchair collapsed under him in 1968 before dying in 1970.

How did these dictators survive the Second World War after the demise of Hitler and Mussolini? Well, the answer is the Cold War. With Hitler out of the way, the post-war era saw the United States and the Soviet Union squaring off against each other. Fear of communism overrode distaste towards the politics of Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain.

Salazar was a fascist – and proud of it

Take a close look at the images I’ve attached to this blog post. Yes, that is a photograph of Mussolini on Salazar’s desktop. So why is it there?

Contrary to some of the nonsense I’ve read on certain websites, Salazar was ideologically aligned with the prime objective of fascism. To terminate liberal democracy in order to crush communism and defend private property. His style was hugely different from the swagger of Mussolini and he didn’t embrace the genocidal policies of Hitler, but he indisputably recognised himself as part of the fascist wave that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Don’t take my word for it – read what Salazar himself said.

“Our dictatorship clearly resembles the fascist dictatorship in the reinforcement of authority, in the war declared against certain principles of democracy, in its accentuated nationalist character, in its preoccupations with social order”

As a bookish academic and with a burning hatred of liberal democracy, Salazar knew exactly what he was doing. The structure of his ‘new state’ – the Estado Novo – bore a close resemblance to the corporate state of Mussolini. With ‘vertical’ unions and organisations that sought to unify the ‘nation’ as opposed to the class-based ‘horizontal’ organisations of the socialists, communists and trade unions.

The fascism of Salazar and Mussolini was at root the same in terms of substance – even if the style differed. Some people today are confusing form and content. Salazar certainly didn’t.

Salazar and Mussolini – nationalism and globalism

There are two variants on the fascist right that are well recognised. The ultra-nationalist and reactionary mindset versus the global new order. Salazar was more the former. His instincts were always opposed to change and anything that smacked of disruption. He was not looking towards a brave new world but the reawakening of a mythical glorious past.

Salazar adopted the stance of a grim and sombre patriarch bringing an unruly family into line. He referred to the Portuguese people as ‘children’ who needed a stern father figure. There was no Mussolini-style swagger or Hitlerite screaming from the podium. Salazar bored the nation into submission. Tedium was his preferred weapon. But under the dining room table, his right hand held a big stick.

Portugal was run like a stifling, over-disciplined Victorian family. Not for Salazar what he termed the ‘Pagan Caesarism’ of Mussolini. Unlike his Italian counterpart, Salazar had never gone through an anti-clerical phase. The Portuguese people would attend mass on Sunday. Women would know their place in the kitchen. Men would be the breadwinners. And children would be strictly obedient.

Salazar’s fascism was essentially an ultra-nationalist, socially reactionary dead hand laid firmly on the country. He was suspicious of progress, rising living standards and modernism. Church, landlords and industrialists were the right people to run the country with enforced deference from the rest of the population.

That deference was guaranteed by a secret police – the PIDE – modelled to a degree on the Gestapo. The PIDE tapped into a culture of ‘denunciation’ that some historians have suggested is a psychological scar inflicted by the activities of the Inquisition in past centuries. An internal 1964 report by the PIDE revealed that in the northern Portuguese town of Guarda, people had no qualms about snitching on young men avoiding military service and other alleged misdemeanours.

Every factory had a director whose job was to discipline bolshy workers. I know because, regrettably, one of my cousins (long dead) performed this role at a workplace near the city of Porto. This was not dissimilar to the German Labour Front set up by the Nazis to replace the free trades unions.

Salazar building a fascist movement

Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Salazar came into government in 1926 as finance minister without a ready made fascist party behind him. The government in question was a military dictatorship that had just overthrown democracy in Portugal. Its inability to get a tight grip on society convinced Salazar of the fascist approach.

From 1930, he built a political force called the National Union which may not have emulated the street-based thuggishness of the National Socialists in Germany but two years later became the only legal political party in Portugal. That would remain the case until 1974.

In 1932, Salazar became prime minister. This was the title he held throughout his unelected dictatorship. One of Salazar’s first acts was the creation of a distinct secret police force that came to be known as the PIDE. It had responsibilities around immigration and counter-espionage – but its key fascist function was political repression.

In 1936, Salazar allowed the creation of a compulsory membership youth movement called the Mocidade Portuguesa which was closely modelled on the Hitler Youth. My mother, at school in the 1930s and 1940s was pressured to join but my grandmother destroyed her uniform as my grandfather had been imprisoned by the Salazar regime in its first years.

Just as Hitler had his own hotheads with the brown shirts of the SA, Salazar faced a group of ‘blue shirts’ called the National Syndicalists who wanted a much more overtly fascist state in Portugal. They adopted Nazi-style attire but instead of a swastika, bore the Templar-style cross of the Portuguese Order of Christ on their arm.

If you recall, at the urging of the German establishment, Hitler drowned the SA in their own blood during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Salazar didn’t have to resort to such a violent purge but he arrested and exiled members in 1935. It’s hard not to see a parallel here.

Goodbye democracy, hello Salazar

To Salazar, the democracy Portugal experienced after the end of the monarchy in 1910 up until the military takeover in 1926 had been one of chaos and disorder. And indeed, the military dictatorship wasn’t much less chaotic. To understand Salazar you have to grasp his complete aversion to any form of instability which to him included parliamentary debate, questioning of state and church authority, liberal values and intellectual inquiry.

His fascism – and I paraphrase him – was about the systematic infantilising of the nation. Politics was for Daddy. The rest of you just shut up and behave. On several occasions, Salazar made it clear that only he truly understood the challenges Portugal faced. And when he resolved how to meet these challenges – he expected total compliance.

Social organisation would be influenced by the papal encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Presented as documents outlining Vatican concern for the plight of the working classes, what these pontiffs really wanted was an end to class conflict. Pius XI – who signed a concordat with Mussolini creating the Vatican state – argued for medieval style guilds where employers and employees were required to work together in compulsory harmony. Music to the corporatist ears of both Mussolini and Salazar – no matter what their style differences.

Thanks to Salazar, Portugal was subjected to political chloroform for decades. The National Assembly (parliament) would be ‘apolitical’ (just one party) and social organisations like unions and guilds would represent all classes along nationalist and ultra-conservative lines. The Catholic church would determine the moral values of the nation and the history taught to children would be one heroising the Portuguese navigators of the 16th century and emphasising Portugal’s ‘civilising mission’ in its colonies – especially Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

This ideology would be used to justify the catastrophic colonial war in those three African countries that raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in which most of my relatives aged over 70 today were required to fight. Unless of course they wanted to discuss their conscientious objections in a secret police cell with electrodes attached to their body. These wars, fought as Britain and France were giving their colonies independence, would eventually gobble up half of Portugal’s GDP.

Salazar and balanced budgets

Those lauding Salazar today always mention his budget balancing acumen. There was healthy economic growth in the post-war boom and what had been a very rural society saw increasing industrialisation. But the creation of an ever larger urban working class was always viewed as a potential threat by Salazar.

Other hallmarks of his economic policy included protectionism. This meant dumping Portuguese goods on its African colonies. Foreign investment in those same colonies was also discouraged and raw materials were extracted on favourable terms for the mother country.

Incredibly, Coca-Cola was banned in Portugal until 1977. For different political reasons, the Communist Party continued opposition to this ‘imperialist’ product after the 1974 revolution. I was at a disco in 1979 aged 16 and innocently slurping a Coke when a girl marched up to me and announced that I was drinking ‘the dirty water of imperialism’. Sounds better in Portuguese: agua suja do imperialismo!

The legacy of protectionism was hard to ditch. Intended by Salazar to protect his rich friends’ businesses, it then became a policy for protecting workers’ jobs.

Salazar’s budget balancing miracle was achieved by predictable means. Raising taxes that hit the urban poor and colonial populations hardest, driving up the cost of food and cutting public expenditure on the civil service and pensions. With no free trade unions and opposition parties to object – it really didn’t matter what anybody thought.

Where Salazar did spend money on infrastructure, it was to create public buildings from town halls to railway stations that conformed to ‘authentic’ Portuguese styles. Not for Salazar the futurism of Mussolini.

As a child, I visited Portugal under the Salazar and Caetano years. Coming from Britain – where my mother had emigrated to in 1959 – the poverty was glaring and untreated diseases were very evident. There was no public health service until after the 1974 revolution (in 1979).

For a visitor, there were plenty of charming scenes in those days. The peasant women clad in black gathering seaweed off the rocks on the beach to fertilise their family owned farm plots. The crudely made farm carts drawn by oxen with great big lumps of wood for wheels. Villages that seemed lost between the Middle Ages and modern times. Around 1972, I stayed in a stone house where my ground floor bedroom was right next to a hog pen.

I’ve got heaps of fond memories but even then was aware that there was a stark contrast between me in my Harlem Globetrotters T-shirt and new flared jeans and kids walking around in rags.

DISCOVER: Ten weird facts about Hitler

American conservatives and Salazar the fascist dictator

If Salazar today is viewed as a gentle, thoughtful and mild authoritarian ruler who simply wanted to protect his people with conservative family values – then that is a victory for his propaganda machine. And it’s a victory that keeps giving beyond the grave.

Because right now, Salazar is going through yet another rehabilitation. Especially on the American conservative right. He is portrayed as a ‘benevolent autocrat’. And despite his closing down of liberal democracy, banning of all parties except his, creation of a corporate state and a secret police – he has been unfairly described as a fascist according to one new biography. This recently published life story of Salazar includes an ominous statement that a similar kind of leader may be called upon in the future.

American conservative publications and pundits have increasingly invoked Salazar as a credible alternative approach to liberal democracy. To do this, they have to first remove the ‘fascist’ tag. So Salazar’s stated differences with Mussolini are transformed into outright opposition to fascism – which is utterly ridiculous. There is no doubt that Salazar saw his regime as part of the fascist wave but with a distinctive Portuguese flavour.

Towards the end of the Second World War – both Salazar and Franco rapidly pivoted towards the US and UK. Not on principle – but to survive. However not without a good deal of teeth gnashing on both sides. Salazar, for example, bitterly resented the pressure put on him to give Portugal’s colonies independence.

And this makes a laughing stock of one current claim doing the rounds that Salazar had no expansionist ambitions – unlike Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he may not have invaded new countries – but he spent half the nation’s GDP trying to hold on to big chunks of Africa.

Salazar’s alleged anti-Nazi credentials are ‘evidenced’ by the Hollywood movie ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on the grounds that the protagonists are trying to get to the neutral city of Lisbon, capital of Portugal. Seriously. That is offered as proof of Salazar opposing the Nazis. My advice… Try finding a full-throated condemnation of Hitler from Salazar instead because you may have difficulty!

As regards claims that Salazar was not anti-Jewish, the huge number of visas issued to Jewish refugees by Portuguese consulate around Europe during the Second World War is cited as proof Salazar wasn’t anti-Semitic. An illuminating corrective to this is the story of one diplomat, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Issuing Portuguese visas to Jews fleeing Hitler was explicitly banned by Salazar. Mendes, based in Bordeaux, continued to do so and not only lost his job but had his life wrecked.

There’s also a spurious claim that Salazar wiped out illiteracy in Portugal. This is not not backed up by the adult illiteracy campaigns that were launched after the 1974 revolution to tackle what was an endemic problem. One British diplomat in the 1950s succinctly summed up Portugal as a country where the middle classes lived off colonial war profits and the poor were “miserable and destitute”. It was a country of vast inequality where many left school early and without any qualifications.

Yet American conservatives write this about Salazar:

If we Americans lack the self-discipline necessary for self-government, if liberalism is off the table, the only alternative to a tyrant like Lenin or Hitler may be a man like Salazar: a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.”

Or how about this:

“…the Estado Novo and its supporters did not treat its enemies with kid gloves. They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers.”

We’ve lived through a phase of democratically elected ‘strong men’ in recent years. Many of them have subverted democratic institutions to increase their grip on power. There is a logic to moving to the next stage. Why bother with democracy at all? But do we really think a new Salazar is the answer?

I sincerely hope not.

torture museums

The world’s museums of torture!

Chicago has just seen the opening of the first dedicated museum of medieval torture in the United States. Eight interactive learning spaces with truly gruesome displays. This is the latest addition to a global network of torture museums that shows no signs of losing steam. People just can’t get information on Spanish racks and thumbscrews!

Whether these reflect the truth of life – and death – in the Middle Ages is open to question. But experiencing (at a safe distance) the painful fate of heretics who rejected the teachings of the church or traitors caught conspiring against the king or queen is clearly irresistible. Otherwise these torture museums wouldn’t keep opening.

So let’s take a look at the new Chicago torture museum and see how it compares to other such delightful venues around the world. The owners are sure they’re on to a surefire winner. The website boasts: “You’ll discover the world’s most detailed collection of confinement and torture devices, instruments of slow death and execution.” The waxworks are certainly lifelike and you’ll probably have bad dreams after glimpsing one poor fellow getting impaled.

Here is a short promo video from our grim buddies in Chicago!

But as I say – there are many of these museums in Europe.

The quaint historic town of Rothenberg in Germany has an Iron Maiden. It’s also got a cage where a baker would be put if caught cheating with the ingredients. There’s also a pillory for grabbing selfies. And a collection of “shame masks”. All contained in the town’s Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

Back in the 1970s, I went with a schoolmate to The London Dungeon not long after it had opened. Back then it was Madame Tussauds with more bloodshed and gore. Since, it’s evolved into an ‘experience’ where, for example, you are condemned to death and metaphorically hanged.

TALKING POINT: Should the dead be on display in museums?

Other torture museums vary from the London and Chicago approach with a theme park interactive feel to some which frankly border on the deathly dull. The sort of places that need to keep telling how informative and evocative the exhibits are as you suppress another yawn.

Medieval cities like Prague, Toledo, Bruges and Vienna boast torture museums – just in case the castles and palaces haven’t entertained you enough. And it came as something of a surprise to discover that the tiny country of San Marino – surrounded by Italy – also has a torture museum. Indeed Italy is blessed – if that is the right word – with torture museums in Rome, Siena, Luca, Volterra and San Gimignano.

Must confess – but not under torture – that I’ve visited most of these Italian cities and NEVER thought of going to the local torture museum! But presumably for many tourists they offer a frisson of excitement after a day spent wandering through baroque churches and ancient ruins. They don’t feel that history has been truly experienced until confronted by a wax figure contorted in agony being forced to sit firmly on a chair covered in sharp studs. Each to their own!

Personally, I don’t find the instruments of torture that compelling. Especially as many of them are reproductions. What really puts me in the zone of the afflicted is the very genuine graffiti left by prisoners that I saw this year at Carlisle Castle and the Tower of London. Often incredibly moving pleas or religious symbols to show their faith was unshakable. Getting inside the mind of a prisoner being tortured is way more jarring than gawping at some bone breaking implements.

In 2019, I went to the prison in Palermo, Sicily where the Spanish Inquisition tortured many people for a variety of reasons before executing them in public (Spain ruled Sicily from 1409 to 1713). There were no thumbscrews on display. Instead, the walls were covered in drawings by the inmates using a mix of dirt and their own urine. I filmed what I saw and take a look below. This really brought home to me what people endured at the hands of sadistic torturers.