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An Easter Execution

If you happen to walk past Westminster Abbey during the day it’s likely that you’ll see a long, snaking queue of tourists leading to the north door. Most of these tourists pay little attention to the smaller church of St Margaret’s that stands to the left of the Abbey entrance.

Seen by most as the Abbey’s dowdy, dull little sibling, most of the tourists lining up for Abbey tickets won’t bother venturing in to St Margaret’s. That’s a shame, as it is a fascinating building. Samuel Pepys was married there, as was John Milton and Winston Churchill. Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in St Margaret’s in the chancel. Raleigh had been beheaded in Old Palace Yard just outside in 1618, charged with plotting with the French. His widow, Elizabeth Throckmorton, carried his severed, embalmed head with her in a red velvet bag for the rest of her life. Tradition states that the head was interred with the rest of the body when their son, Carew, died and was buried next to Walter.

Quite a few London guidebooks mention Raleigh and his execution, along with other executions that took place outside Parliament. Few mention that St Margaret’s is the site of a religious martyrdom. I’ve previously written about how a bloody fight in the Abbey resulted in the death of a monk, but that was not to be the last time that Abbey clergy were to be attacked.

During the reign of Henry VIII England had undergone a religious upheaval, breaking away from Roman Catholicism. The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 along with other monasteries up and down the country. The building was saved from destruction thanks to the ties between to Abbey and royalty with Henry announcing that the Abbey was now a cathedral. When Henry died his youngest child and only son Edward became king and carried on the momentum of the Reformation, pushing further towards Protestantism. Edward died of a horrible illness aged only fifteen. He was unmarried and childless, and despite his best efforts his plan to install his very Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor failed when his furious and incredibly Catholic older sister Mary marched upon London. Mary claimed her throne and eventually had Jane executed. Mary wasted no time in restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation, earning the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’ for her eager execution of Protestant ‘heretics.’

The sudden swing back to the ‘old’ ways made life very difficult for those who had embraced the Reformation.

William Flower was born in Cambridgeshire and had become a monk as a youth at the monastery in Ely. He later left, aged 21, eschewing Catholicism for radical Protestantism. He married a woman named Alice Pulton and the couple went on to have two children. They moved frequently with Flower alternating between working as a schoolmaster and physician/surgeon alongside his radical ministry. The family settled in Lambeth, across the river from Westminster. On 14th April 1555, Easter Sunday, William Flower left Lambeth to go to the service taking place in St Margaret’s. Mary I had been on the throne for nearly two years, masses in London churches were now decidedly Catholic. Flower was so overcome with religious zeal when he watched the sacrament being distributed among the congregation that he took his large wood knife and hacked at the head and hands of one of the priests, John Cheltham/Shelton. Cheltham was seriously injured but members of the congregation tore Flower off of him before the attack became fatal. Cheltham’s blood dropped into the sacred wine, tainting it so much that the congregation were forced to leave the church and celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere. The entire church also had to be reconsecrated following the bloodshed. Flower was taken to the gatehouse in Westminster and put in chains.

Such a frenzied attack may be seen as a crime of passion, yet there are aspects of the attack that point to a premeditated suicide mission. Flower had entered the church wearing a placard that read “Fear God, flee from the idol” in Latin. He also had a religious manifesto in his pocket, later admitting that if the congregation had lynched him before he could be arrested, someone could at least read it and understand his motives. Whilst imprisoned he corresponded with his friend, Robert Smith, a fellow radical who was at the time himself incarcerated in Newgate Prison. Flower wrote that he had not previously met Cheltham and had no personal vendetta,¬†and would have attacked any priest distributing the communion that day. He also told Smith that he had been to St Paul’s that morning and could not bring himself to attack anyone, but had felt compelled by the Spirit later that day to go to St Margaret’s with violent intentions, fully expecting to lose his own life in the process. Flower stated that he wasn’t repentant, telling Smith that God has chosen him to carry out his will.

On the 19th of April Flower was brought before Bishop Bonner for interrogation. Flower remained unrepentant and reiterated his belief that, as a Protestant, he did not believe in transubstantiation and that he believed he was doing holy work. Bonner then tried to convince Flower to come back to the Catholic faith, but Flower thanked him and refused. He told Bonner that if he was aware that Bonner had the power  to decide whether he lived or died, but that Bonner could never have power over his soul and that God alone could judge him.

Witnesses to the attack gave statements at a deposition and Bonner charged Flower with heresy, excommunicating him. On the 24th April William Flower was brought to the spot where he was to be executed, outside St Margaret’s church. He addressed the crowd:

O eternal God, most mighty and merciful Father, who hast sent down thy Son upon the earth, to save me and all mankind, who ascended up into heaven again, and left his blood upon the earth behind him, for the redemption of our sins, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, for thy dear Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, in whom I confess only to be all salvation and justification, and that there is none other mean, nor way, nor holiness, in which or by which any man can be saved in this world.– This is my faith, which I beseech all men here to bear witness of.

After then reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Flower was given one last chance to recant. He refused. His right arm, with which he had attacked the priest, was chopped off and his left was tied behind him to the stake on which he was to be burned. The faggots provided for the execution were insufficient to provide a large enough fire to kill Flower quickly. Holding up his severed arm for as long as he could, he prayed for God to receive his soul. The executioners had to prod him with bills into the hottest part of the fire, eventually pulling him down to a lying position into the embers. Even so, the fire still only reached his navel. Still conscious, spectators could still see his tongue move in his mouth as the bottom half of his body was consumed. It took a long time for William Flower to die.

The botched execution gave William Flower an unnecessarily cruel and prolonged death. He was the sixteenth person to die for his faith under the reign of Bloody Mary. His friend Robert Smith later would use their letters to shift public perceptions of Flower from crazed lunatic to religious martyr before himself falling victim of the Marian persecutions and being executed in August that same year, the fortyfirst to die.

284 people were executed for their faith during the 5 year reign of Bloody Mary, the last a mere 2 days before Mary herself died in 1558.Upon her death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth became Queen and quickly set about once again moving the country away from Catholicism. Bishop Bonner, a man who had been ruthlessly efficient in executing heretics, was imprisoned and died in the Marshalsea in 1569, still trying to convert others to his Catholic faith. He too has earned the moniker ‘Bloody.’ Westminster Abbey and, by extension, St Margaret’s, were once more converted into Anglican churches and have remained so ever since. Despite this, William Flower and his attack on John Cheltham are conspicuously missing from the official Westminster Abbey website and his story is not included on the audioguide. His name doesn’t feature on any memorial or monument. William Flower does live on, however, in John Foxe’s Book of of Actes and Monuments, AKA Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563.






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Beatrice Cenci – The Murderous Martyr

Beatrice Cenci. Portrait attributed to Guido Reni. Image via Wikimedia Commons

September 11th 1599 – Rome

Thousands of Romans make their way to the Ponte Sant Angelo, close to Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the intention of watching an entire family die. Most public executions were well attended with citizens keen to see justice done. Watching infamous criminals meet their bloody fates was widely considered to be an excellent form of street entertainment, a thrillingly morbid diversion from work and the authorities were satisfied that executions served as a deterrent to any potential wrong doers in the throng. Just as today, criminals could gain immense notoriety and a strange sort of celebrity. Whether the condemned were despised or grudgingly admired, their deaths provided an excellent opportunity to see renowned sinners up close.

On this particular occasion the mood of the crowds was remarkably less buoyant than usual. Several eyewitnesses describe the tone of the day as sombre. Beatrice and her family were undoubtedly guilty of the crime committed and yet those in attendance were behaving like mourners. Many carried candles and little crosses to leave by the bodies. There was no ebullience that day, rather an atmosphere of melancholy and dissent.

So why did the execution of a noblewoman who had confessed to orchestrating the murder of her own father evoke such sympathy?

The story starts with Francesco Cenci, the illegitimate son and heir of Cristoforo Cenci, a man who had made his family rich by embezzling Papal money whilst working as a comptroller at the Papal Court. Having married Francesco’s mother Beatrice Arias on his deathbed, Cristoforo died when Francesco was 12. The boy was brought up by his mother who had hastily married a lawyer. Francesco inherited an enormous fortune that included country estates in the Abbruzzi region and two Roman palazzos. He developed a sadisitic arrogance having already been taken to court for attacking a man the previous year. His tutor suggested Francesco should marry young in an attempt to quash his developing habits of frequenting brothels and “excessive” masturbation. This led to Francesco, aged 14 marrying Ersilia Santacroce, his tutor’s niece.

Ersilia seems to have been unable to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband who was frequently unfaithful to her. She did however bear several children, half of whom survived. She died following a difficult labour and the baby, a girl named Francesca, also died shortly after.

Her surviving children were

  • Giacomo
  • Cristoforo (it appears that Francesco and Ersilia’s first child had been called Cristoforo but the child did not survive infancy. The second child named Cristoforo survived into adulthood.)
  • Antonina
  • Rocco
  • Beatrice
  • Bernardo
  • Paolo

During his marriage to Ersilia Francesco’s violent tendencies developed.

He was so brutal to his employees that peasants on his estate near Nemi were frequently on the brink of insurgency. Such were the accusations that he decided to hide in Aquila. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant Angelo. To buy his freedom (and rid himself of troublesome peasants) Francesco decided it would be best to sell off the estates in 1571.

He was frequently charged with beating his servants and often jailed for violence towards household staff. In 1577 Francesco was charged with having beaten a servant named Maria. Francesco had flown into a rage when Maria had apparently misunderstood his instructions. Maria testified that Francesco had savagely beaten her with a broom handle and had only ceased to attack her when he believed her to be dead. She was unable to move, eat or talk for three days following the attack.

More seriously, Francesco was also often charged and sometimes jailed for his sexual perversions. His first sodomy trial was held in 1570 (although connections with influential cardinals seem to have gotten him released without a fine) and he was regularly accused for his ‘unnatural vices.’

Homosexuality at the time was an offence punishable by death, usually those found guilty were burnt at the stake. Even if homosexuality had been legal and tolerated, Francesco was not accused of having loving sexual relationships with men. He showed no tenderness and was brutal in his quest for gratification. His partners, male and female, were often young, vulnerable and in his ¬†employ, completely dependent on him for their livelihoods. Francesco Cenci was not above using violence and manipulation to get what he wanted sexually and he abused men and women indiscriminately. Stable boys whom he’d forced himself upon were often seen with scratches and bruises on their faces.

Following the death of Ersilia in 1584 the two girls were sent to be brought up in a convent. The boys were practically ignored and their education neglected. Francesco grew increasingly sadistic and the fact that he only seemed to be punished for his crimes with easily affordable fines made him bolder and more arrogant.

In 1591, unable to stand living in the same house as his son Giacomo, Francesco moved to the second Cenci palace in Rome. Seemingly lonely, he brought Antonina, Beatrice and Rocco to live with him.

In 1593 Francesco¬†remarried, choosing a plump widow named Lucrezia Petroni. Lucrezia was 38 and had six children she was struggling to support. She must have been desperate to consider marrying Francesco, who, whilst fabulously rich, was notorious for his wickedness. After their marriage Francesco reneged on his promises to provide his stepchildren with an education and attempted to convince his new bride to let his mistress move in to the marital home. Lucrezia’s refusal seems to be one of the only occasions where she stood up for herself. Francesco did not like strong willed women. His eldest daughter Antonina was only able to marry after begging the Pope to save her from her father, offering to become a nun rather than stay with Francesco.

By 1594 Francesco Cenci was almost permanently in court or imprisoned, accused by many in his household or rape and physical abuse. Francesco attempted to shift blame onto his son Giacomo, claiming that Giacomo wanted his father in prison in order to inherit the family fortune. Francesco also accused Giacomo of plotting to murder him for his money, even though Francesco had written a will leaving Giacomo the minimum amount required by law.

Once freed in 1595 Francesco retired to Petrella Salto in the Abbruzzi mountains, two days ride from Rome. He took his wife Lucrezia and his daughter Beatrice with him. The castle there was an imposing fortress. Lucrezia and Beatrice were confined to chambers with high, barred windows that one could only look out of if stood on a chair. The doors had four locks and the rooms were poorly lit. Food was served to the women through a lockable hatch at the bottom of a door. One of their ladies-in-waiting described later how she aged ten years during the 18 months she spent incarcerated with Lucrezia and Beatrice.

On occasion Francesco would return to Rome, such as upon the death of his son Cristoforo who had died whilst fighting over a prostitute. In his absence the Cenci women were looked after by Olympio Calvetti. Calvetti ran the castle and lived there with his wife and children. Paolo and Bernardo Cenci, the two youngest children, were also briefly kept at Petrella but managed to escape back to Rome. Bernardo went to live under the protection of his brother Giacomo, Paolo died. Rocco had been killed in a duel in 1594, leaving Giacomo as the only sibling old enough to be able to help his sister and step-mother. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help them is unknown, but the ladies remained imprisoned for over two years.

By the summer of 1597 the two women were contemplating how they could escape.They were able to convince their captor Olympio to take messages to Giacomo in Rome. A new employee named Marzio Catalano, horrified by what he saw, was also used as a secret messenger. A letter from Beatrice to her brothers was intercepted by Francesco in December 1597. He immediately travelled to Petrella intent on punishing his daughter for her audacity. She tried to deny ever writing any letters which enraged Francesco even more.

He thrashed his daughter with a bull-pizzle (a whip made from a bull’s penis) until she was bloody and for the next three days kept her locked in solitary confinement. Her ladies-maid later testified that Francesco would visit the cell alone and only return ‘when satisfied.’

Rumours of enforced incest were starting to grow, further fuelled when maids report that Lucrezia had fled the bedroom she shared with Francesco and Beatrice, distraught. Francesco dragged Lucrezia back to take part in/witness whatever was happening behind the closed doors.

Later, under torture, Beatrice would allude that she had in fact, to her shame, lost her virginity to Olympio. Perhaps she had deliberately seduced him in order to get him to help her or whether Olympio had named sex as his price for his services we’ll never know. Perhaps the attraction was mutual and genuine and her shame derived from being an unmarried woman sleeping with a married man. Whatever the true nature of their sexual relationship, Olympio was increasingly involved as the plot evolved from one of escape to one of murder. Olympio was sent to visit Giacomo in Rome and after much discussion returned to the castle with a vial of poison. Unfortunately, wary of assassination, Francesco had decided to only eat food that was tasted by someone else first, and he chose Lucrezia and Beatrice for this. Poison had to be ruled out.

In September 1598 Francesco was ill and bed-bound for a while. Olympio recruited Marzio to help him kill Francesco whilst he was vulnerable. They were, however, nervous. Beatrice reprimanded them for their hesitance and declared that if necessary she would murder her father herself. Humiliated the two men entered the bedchamber and murdered Francesco Cenci in his bed.

They dressed the corpse and dragged it to the balcony, hauled it up and over the railing. Beneath was a large, rocky area that was used as a rubbish dump. Olympio and Marzio then removed some planks on the balcony floor to make it look as if Francesco had fallen through a hole to his death. Beatrice gave the bloodied sheets to a local laundress claiming that they were her own and that she was menstruating. Olympio then set about spreading the rumour amongst the locals that a dreadful, fateful accident had occurred whilst the women raised the alarm. Marzio, terrified, fled. The body was briefly examined and the wounds initially blamed on the fall.

Beatrice arranged a funeral but neither she nor Lucrezia attended, raising eyebrows. Gossip started to spread that a few tree branches could not cause the immense amount of damage found on the corpse, particularly one collapsed eye socket. The body of Francesco was laid out for such a short amount of time that further examination was impossible. Furthermore, the hole in the balcony did not look big enough for a large man to have fallen through even if the wood had, as Beatrice claimed, been rotten. Giacamo and Bernardo arrived from Rome and as soon as Giacomo had claimed the estates the group fled to Rome and away from the increasingly hostile gossip.

Rumours did reach Rome, however. The death of Francesco Cenci was investigated in November and the family members were individually questioned. They had had enough time to straighten out their stories, but were confined to house arrest. Knowing that investigators would eventually visit Petrella, Olympio returned to hide evidence. He widened the hole in the balcony floor. He ordered his wife Plautilla to destroy the bloodied mattress. She chose to hide the mattress instead, perhaps because she wanted it to be found and for her errant husband to be punished for his adultery as well as the murder. The mattresses were indeed found and locals pointed out that the balcony hole was now bigger than before.

Francesco was exhumed and examined once again. The eye socket, previously explained as a gash from a tree branch, was now determined to be a wound from a small axe.

Beatrice, Lucrezia, Giacomo, Marzio and Olympio were charged with conspiracy and murder. Olympio fled as Marzio had done. Marzio Catalano was apprehended and imprisoned in Rome, where he confessed (probably under torture) to parts of the plot, which was enough to lead t the arrests of Giacomo and Bernardo. Fearful of what Olympio may say if tortured like Marzio, Giacomo sent family servants to murder him where he was hiding with Plautilla and his children near Terni. This was to be a mistake. News spread of the headless corpse of Olympio and the servant was arrested. Authorities found a distraught Plautilla, who despite everything seems to have been genuinely heartbroken at the death of her cheating husband. She blamed the Cenci family for his death.

The Cenci family were now subjected to torture. This was incredibly rare for noble families and could only be administered with  permission of the Pope. If the family were found guilty the Pope would be able to seize their entire fortune (mostly gained from embezzlement from the Vatican anyway) and this may be why he granted permission for torture to be used.

Both Giacomo and Lucrezia named Beatrice as the instigator of the plot. This is not surprising, torture victims would often say anything under duress. Beatrice herself is described as behaving with incredible bravery under torture and yet even she eventually broke down.

During the trial the family were defended by a notorious lawyer called Prospero Farinaccio who was not popular with the Vatican. He made much of the unbearable living conditions inflicted on the women, including allegations of incestuous rape. Rome, having always been aware of the wickedness of Francesco, were now appalled as the monstrous details emerged. Sympathy for Beatrice and Lucrezia grew. The Pope, one eye on the lucrative Cenci estates, insisted on describing Francesco Cenci as ‘a most wretched father and most unhappy husband’ to have had the fate of being murdered by his own family.

All three were found guilty. A terrible punishment was decided by what the Pope called a terrible crime. Patricide, he declared, was one of the worst crimes one could commit. Rome, however, saw the Cenci family as pitiful survivors of a monstrous patriarch.

On the 11th September 1599 Giacomo and Bernardo Cenci were taken from the Tordinona Prison on a cart and paraded through the streets of Rome. Giacomo was shirtless and his skin was slowly torn off with red hot pincers. The procession made its way to the Via Santa Maria di Monserrato and Lucrezia and Beatrice were brought out of their prison to join Giacomo and Bernardo. The ladies had to travel by foot, however. People crowded at windows and on balconies to watch the group being led to their execution. Women cried loudly and many people followed the procession with a sad quietness.

By the time the group reached the Ponte Sant Angelo there was a muffled, stony silence. The space was crammed with spectators. Some fell into the river and drowned, nearly one hundred others were injured in a crush of people that ended in nine deaths.

After private prayers in a small nearby chapel the family were brought out to the scaffold. Bernardo was brought out first. He was not condemned to die as he had not been a part of the conspiracy. His crime, the Pope had declared, had to have kept silent once he had learned what his sister and brother had done. Therefore he was to stand on the scaffold and watch them die, up close. He was 18.

Lucrezia was next. She was terrified that she fainted on the scaffold and was unconscious as her head was chopped off. Beatrice met her fate with a calm composure. The crowd was silently impressed with her bravery and her beauty. She was seen as a heroine for enduring her father and then torture with grace and poise. As far as Rome was concerned, this wasn’t the execution of a wicked murderer, it was the martyrdom of an innocent young woman. It took the executioner a single stroke to remove her head. She was 21 years old.

The Executioner's Sword that killed Beatrice Cenci

The Executioner’s Sword that killed Beatrice Cenci – Museo Criminologico, Rome

Giacomo, weakened already, was last. After making a short speech exonerating Bernardo of all blame, he knelt at the block. Giacomo was not beheaded like his stepmother and sister. He was instead bludgeoned to death with a large mallet. He was then butchered like an animal and the pieces of his body were displayed on meat hooks suspended from the gallows.

Bernardo, who had fainted several times, was then escorted back to prison. The bodies were left where they were until 11pm, displayed on the gallows so that people who had not been able to watch the execution could still view the results.

So many candles and crosses were left that the gallows looked like a shrine. The corpse of Giacomo was eventually reassembled and buried in the church of San Tommaso ai Cenci. Lucrezia was buried in a church dedicated to San Gregorio. Beatrice was carried down the Vi Giulia to San Gregorio della Divina Pieta. Thousands joined the torchlit procession and the church was filled with donated flowers and candles. Mourners held a vigil over the body for several hours. Beatrice was buried in an unmarked plot, her head placed beside her body on a silver platter.

Legend has it that two of the executioners met grisly fates soon afterwards. Within a fortnight Mastro Bracca had died, plagued by nightmares of the grisly deeds he had been required to carry out, and after another two weeks Mastro was stabbed to death at Porta Castello.

Beatrice, more than any of the conspirators, captured the hearts and minds of Rome. She became a legend, one that captivated artists and poets for centuries after her tragic life and brutal death.

Ponte Sant'Angelo -site of numerous Papal executions including that of the Cenci family

Ponte Sant’Angelo – site of numerous Papal executions including that of the Cenci family

Modern visitors flock to the Bridge of Angels for the beautiful views of the Castel Sant Angelo and the River Tiber, not to mention the lovely statuary and yet very few tourists realise what sad events played out here. It’s a sorry tale¬†that still fascinates and horrifies today.

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Murder at the Abbey


It all started on the third of April, 1367 at the Battle of Najera. Whilst England and France were quarreling¬†during the Hundred Years’ War , a civil war had erupted in Castile as two brothers squabbled over a crown. The rightful king was Peter, son of Alfonso XI. Peter had a nasty habit of waging war with Aragon to the dismay of his nobles and English allies. Inevitably various parties voiced support for a new king to be crowned in Castile. France, Aragon and Pope Urban V all backed Alfonso XI’s illegitimate son Henry of Trastamara for the position. Henry successfully deposed his brother in 1366.

Peter fled to Bayonne which at that time was held by the English and petitioned them for help in regaining his throne. Bayonne Cathedral happened to be (according to some sources) the burial-place of Peter’s would-be bride. Joan of England had left for Castile in 1348 with the blessings (and HUGE dowry and trousseau) of her father, Edward III. Joan had tragically succumbed to the Black Death whilst travelling. Perhaps Peter visited her tomb before he appealed Joan’s brother, Edward, the Black Prince, for military assistance. Edward offered to help his ally (in return, of course, for a gift of some prime Castilian real estate,) and marched on Henry with 28,000 troops the following summer. The two opposing forces met at Najera. The Black Prince, aided by his brother, John of Gaunt, faced a numerically superior force of 60,000, some being Castilian troops loyal to Henry of Trastamara but the majority being made up of French allies. The English long bow once again proved its worth and brought Peter a decisive victory.

Amidst the carnage, hostages were taken from the ranks of nobles who had fought on the defeated side as per medieval tradition. Captured nobles, knights and even wives and children would be kept prisoner by the victors. In its simplest form the custom of hostage taking was a way for victors to assert power of the losing side. Not only did it deprive the vanquished of some of their most valued family members and soldiers, it encouraged the losers to yield in further matters to the victors. It was agreed that hostages should be kept comfortably, unless, of course, their family members at home did something to aggravate the captor in which case hostages could be thrown into dungeons or executed. The welfare of a loved one or heir was a significant incentive for a conquered noble to abandon reprisals or rebellion. Hostages could be returned if their family could afford to pay an often steeply priced ransom.

Two English squires named¬†Robert Hauley (sometimes written Hawle or Hawley) and John Shakel had managed to personally capture the powerful Aragonese Alphonso, Count of Denia. The ransom was set at 150,000¬†doubles d’or¬†and, as was custom, Alphonso offered his eldest son and heir, Alphonso of Villena as hostage in his stead. The Black Prince was now responsible for the welfare of the younger Alphonso and would be due to receive the ransom if and when it was paid.

Meanwhile, Peter¬†was proving slow to reward the Black Prince for the victory he had delivered at Najera.¬†Edward had severely depleted his coffers by embarking on the campaign and desperately needed the compensation that Peter had promised. Not only did Peter show no signs of repaying Edward financially for his restored crown, he disgusted his would-have-been brother-in-law with his vicious temper and nasty habit of having large numbers of people murdered. Edward left Iberia, penniless. When Henry of Trastamere returned to oust his brother from the throne a second time, Peter found himself with no allies left. After the a crushing defeat at the Battle of Montiel in 1369 Peter sought refuge in a fortress there controlled by the Order of Santiago. He approached Bertrand du Guesclin, a French commander who had fought alongside Henry of Trastamara, for aid. He offered du Guesclin 200,000 gold coins and the control of numerous Castilian towns if du Guesclin could assist him in his escape and sneak him past the army camped outside the fortress. Du Guesclin readily agreed, promising to return soon with help. Du Guesclin however went straight to Henry instead, informing him of the bribe and offering to bring Peter straight to Henry if Henry could offer him a larger reward. Henry agreed and du Guesclin was soon leading Peter to a tent within the camp where Henry was waiting. The brothers began to fight violently. With a helping hand from du Guesclin, Henry was able to gain the upper hand and murdered Peter, stabbing him in the face repeatedly in a frenzied attack that ended with Henry being proclaimed Henry II of Castile. Bertrand du Guesclin earned a dukedom for services rendered. The corpse of Peter was left, unburied, for several days to be kicked and spat upon. With Peter’s death the chance of the Black Prince receiving his money also died.

The Murder

Several years later in 1375 the Black Prince signed over his rights to most of the ransom money for Alphonso of Villena to Hauley and Shakel themselves, with a nominal amount still due to go to Edward III. This also meant that Hauley and Shakel were responsible for the welfare of the hostage. The prospect of such a handsome payment on the eventual safe deliverance of their charge must have been dizzying for men such as Robert and John. By now English forces in France had been severely hit by plague and repelled from most of the land they had once held. The French and their allies the Aragonese were now in a much stronger position. The payment of ransoms and the return of hostages was looking increasingly likely. Hauley and Shakel were looking forward to a huge payday and soon others in London became jealous of their expected future wealth. By 1377 their benefactor, the Black Prince, had died and the ten year old Richard II had ascended the throne. Rival claims were made against Hauley and Shakel to the rights of the ransom of the hostage and it was ordered that Alphonso should be removed from their custody. Appalled, Hauley and Shakel attempted to hide Alphonso. As Alphonso was a royal member of the House of Aragon this was a huge diplomatic error. Hauley and Shakel caught and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. They appealed to the King (their petition can be viewed here) for a hearing to reassert their rights to the ransom. Impatient and desperate after nearly a year of incarceration, Hauley and Shakel escaped from the Tower of London in 1378 and sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

To seek sanctuary, the accused must enter a church, confess his sins, and surrender any weapons. He was then under the protection of the priest or abbot. After 40 days he could choose to stand trial for his alleged crimes or choose to publicly announce his guilt and go into exile (from which if he returned he would face excommunication or execution.) Until the 40 days were up, the person seeking sanctuary was untouchable by the authorities. Seeking sanctuary was a common practice. Some churches and monasteries, including Westminster Abbey, were even granted to extend their sanctuary zone to include buildings surrounding the churches themselves. To this day, the area and buildings immediately outside the West Gate of Westminster Abbey are known collectively as the Sanctuary.

This particular high profile case caused problems in high places. John of Gaunt, never as interested in French gains as his brother, definitely had a vested interest in the ransom case. He had married the daughter of the murdered Peter in 1371. He soon assumed the title of King of Castile (in right of his wife, the Infanta Constance) and immersed himself in Spanish politics. He would not have welcomed the situation involving a captured enemy of his wife (and therefore his ‘throne’) becoming an international scandal.

Letters were written to the Abbot of Westminster Abbey from the Tower demanding that  the errant prisoners be returned, but Abbot Litlyngton refused on the grounds that the 40 days had not yet elapsed. Having not managed to acquire the surrender of the Hauley and Shakel by peaceful means, the Constable of the Tower resorted to more violent means. On the 11th of August 1378 the Constable, Sir Alan de Buxhall, assisted by SirRalph de Ferrers and 50 soldiers broke into the Abbey by force during High Mass. John Shakel surrendered without fuss, but Robert Hauley tried to resist rearrest. He was cut down by soldiers and died of his wounds in the Quire of the church. A monk named Richard, a sacrist, was also hurt in the confusion and died from his wounds. Entering the church armed was enough to break the rules of sanctuary, but by spilling blood de Buxhall and his men had seriously desecrated the church. Pope Gregory XI was incandescent with rage and immediately excommunicated de Buxhall, his armed retinue, and all others implicated in the plot to drag Hauley and Shakel back into custody. Only Richard II, still only a boy, his mother and John of Gaunt escaped excommunication. 


¬† ¬†Hauley was buried in the south transept of the Abbey, where he was eventually surrounded by titans of English Literature in what is now known as Poets’ Corner. The Latin inscription on his grave translates as¬†

Me did trickery, anger, the raging of the multitude and of the soldiery…with swords, in this renowned refuge of piety, while the priest of God read exhortations at the altar. Alas, o woe, in my death I sprinkled the faces of the monks with my own blood; the Choir is my witness for all time. And now this holy place holds me, Robert Haule, because it was here that, wronged, I first felt the death dealing swords.

  Shakel was returned to the Tower where he remained for another year. Once freed he somehow managed to regain the rights to the ransom of Alphonso. However, after yet more legal disputes Alphonso was released and Shakel received nothing.

John of Gaunt¬†invaded Castile with the help of Portuguese allies in 1386.His campaign was a disaster that resulted in many of his men dying of starvation and sickness. A year later renounced his (and his wife’s_ claim to the throne of Castile in a treaty with John I of Castile (son of the fratricidal Henry II) that also saw John of Gaunt paying John a hefty annual payment, as well as promising his daughter Catherine of Lancaster in marriage to John’s son Henry (who would become Henry III of Castile) which was in itself another form of taking a hostage.

Alan de Buxhall was able to reverse his excommunication – for a substantial fee.

Westminster Abbey was reconsecrated four months after the murder of Robert Hauley and the monk named Richard.


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The Bloody History of Two American Labyrinths Part 2 – The Murder Castle

Following on from The House That Bullets Built we come to our second American maze, just as tragic as the Winchester mansion but far more violent.

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1861. He developed a fascination with death at an early age. When Mudgett was 17 he married his first wife Clara Lovering. Within a few years they had a son named Robert. To support his young family (and to indulge in his morbid obsessions,) Mudgett enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School and graduated in 1884. Whilst studying he devised an insurance fraud scam. Mudgett broke into the school laboratories and stole corpses. He would take out life insurance policies on the deceased and would then carefully disfigure the bodies to make it look as if death had been accidental. He collected the insurance pay outs and had the added joy of experimenting on dead bodies.

A few years after graduating Mudgett moved to Chicago to become a pharmacist. Along the way he’d married another woman bigamously and fathered a daughter. He also ditched his memorable name and called himself Henry Howard Holmes. ‘Holmes’ applied for a job in 1886 at a Chicago drugstore belonging to Dr Holton. Holton was bedridden, dying of cancer. His wife was struggling to run the store by herself as well as nurse her husband. Mudgett offered his services and Mrs Holton gratefully accepted. Spotting an opportunity, ‘Holmes’ made sure that he soon become indispensable to the frazzled Mrs Holton. He used his charisma to charm her and his pharmaceutical skills to give her time to tend to her dying husband. Soon Mudgett was running the show. Dr Holton died shortly afterwards and Mudgett made his move on the grieving widow. Mudgett offered to buy the store from Mrs Holton and promised that she could carry on living in the upstairs accommodation without having to worry about moving or earning a crust. He mortgaged the entire contents of the drugstore to pay Mrs Holton. However, Mudgett defaulted on the repayments. Mrs Holton was furious, and threatened to take Mudgett to court. Mrs Holton disappeared soon after. Having ‘taken care’ of Mrs Holton, Mudgett made sure to tell the town gossips that Mrs Holton had gone to California to be with relatives, needing comfort after the tragic death of her husband. After a while he added that she had decided to stay, to live out her retirement among family.

Having grown a taste for murder, Mudgett began work on a massive project that would satisfy his homicidal needs. The lot opposite the drugstore came up for sale and Mudgett bought it, intending to build a new drugstore within a massive hotel of his own design.


Mudgett concocted a bizarre plan that spread dozens of rooms over 3 floors plus basement and took up the entire width of the block. The ground floor comprised of shops, including the drugstore, whilst the top floors could offer plenty of accommodation for tourists. Mudgett hired several crews of builders to construct his creation. It was quickly nicknamed ‘The Castle’ by locals who watched on curiously as Mudgett fired contractor after contractor. No crew lasted long on the site, always being dismissed quickly with Mudgett refusing to pay wages or material costs due to ‘unsatisfactory work.’ Mudgett couldn’t risk any contractor noticing how peculiar the plans were….


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The floor plan was a warren of secret passages, concealed entrances, staircases leading to dead ends or sheer drops and windowless rooms with doors that couldn’t be opened from the inside. There were chutes and fake elevators from the accommodation levels leading to the basement, which boasted two kilns each large enough to fit a person as well as an autopsy room, vats of acid and pits of quicklime.

By 1893 the hotel was officially opened for business, conveniently launching in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World’s Fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World. The fair was to last for 5 months and was expected to attract millions of tourists to Chicago. Exhibits were to include marvellous new electrical inventions, technological advances and world famous musicians. Even Antonin Dvorak conducted an orchestra at the fair. There was a replica Viking ship and the first ever Ferris wheel. The entire event was a stunning success, with 5 million visitors each month. The fair even inspired the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz novel by Frank L Baum.

Conveniently for Mudgett, these 25 million visitors were in need of a place to stay whilst they indulged in the carnival atmosphere. The Castle was soon doing a roaring trade, particularly with young, single women. He also hired female hotel staff who were required to take out life insurance policies naming Mudgett as sole beneficiary, old habits die hard!) who lodged in the top storey.

Mudgett started to prey on the lone travellers and vulnerable young employees utilising some truly sadistic architectural traps. The inescapable rooms were sound-proofed. Mudgett would hold his victims prisoners for weeks, sometimes several months, inflicting torture on his terrified captives. He even had a medieval style rack. To make sure no-one escaped, alarms were fitted to every room that would sound in his office if anyone attempted to open the doors. If he grew tired of inflicting pain, the rooms each came with a gas line with which he could asphyxiate his prisoners with the flick of a switch. One of these rooms was no bigger than a cupboard and had a trapdoor leading straight down to the basement. Scorch marks on some of the walls showed that Mudgett ignited the gas with inbuilt blow-torches so that his victims would be incinerated. Other victims were merely locked in a vault until they suffocated or starved. The vault was next to his office, he could hear the screams of the dying from the comfort of his desk.

With some of the corpses Mudgett would indulge in his hobby of performing autopsies in his custom-built morgue in the basement. He’d made so many contacts at medical school that he was even able to sell some of the organs and skeletons to his old classmates and professors.

Mudgett killed tourists, employees, mistresses and even children. He lured vulnerable lonely women to his Castle by posting in the Lonely Hearts adverts, and killed all those who had not informed a friend where they had gone. He kept trophies of jewellery and watches in his basement. He performed illegal abortions, destroying the dead women from any botched attempts. Victims were disposed of in the kilns, with any remaining bone fragments thrown into the acid vats of lime-pits.

By the end of the Fair, Mudgett had racked up a gruesome body count. He’d deliberately targeted people whose disappearances would most likely go unnoticed and unreported, nevertheless, around 50 missing persons could be traced back the The Castle. It wasn’t until an unrelated crime that Mudgett was caught, however.

Mudgett as briefly jailed for a horse racing betting scam. Whilst in prison he befriended train robber Marion Hedgepeth and shared a plan for faking the death of an associate, Benjamin Pietzel. Mudgett was to acquire a corpse and burn it so that it was charred beyond recognition, and claim it was Pietzel. Pietzel and Mudgett were to share the insurance pay out, worth a heft $10k (over quarter of a million now.) Hedgepeth recommended a crooked attorney named Howe to make sure the scheme went off without a hitch. All Hedgepeth required was a ‘finder’s fee.’

Mudgett decided to murder Pietzel and burn his corpse rather than find another body and claim the insurance pay out for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s children for good measure. He neglected to send Hedgepeth his cut of the money. Hedgepeth took his revenge by relaying the details of the scheme to police before Mudgett had a chance to kill Mrs Pietzel and the remaining Pietzel children. Mudgett was pursued by the Pinkerton detectives as the Castle was searched for evidence. Police soon realised that Mudgett was far worse than an insurance scammer. The police search uncovered the macabre killing mechanisms and torture chambers of the building. They could scarcely believe what they had found, so sadistic and efficient were the devices. Detectives found the remains of the Pietzel children, among others.

Mudgett was arrested in Boston and brought to Philadelphia to stand trial for the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. A newspaper paid him £7,500 for an exclusive confession. Mudgett owned up to 27 deaths, although the real figure will never be known. The toll could be 200 or more, judging by fragmentary remains found at the Castle and missing persons lists.

Mudgett AKA H H Holmes was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He was executed in 1896 just short of his 36th birthday. He had requested that his coffin should be filled and covered over with concrete so that he would not be dug up and dissected. Amazingly, given how many of his victims he had himself dissected, the judge agreed. When ‘Holmes’ was executed his neck didn’t snap. He dangled, slowly suffocating, for over 15 minutes.

The Castle, swiftly redubbed the Murder Castle, also did not survive. It burnt down to the ground shortly after the execution. An empty petrol can suggested arson, either by an associate wanting to destroy evidence or family of a victim wanting to erase it from the town. A post office has been built on the site. Now nothing but photos, floor plans and ghost stories remain of the building built by the man dubbed America’s first serial killer.







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The Bloody History of Two American Labyrinths Part 1 – The House That Bullets Built

History is liberally doused in stories of gore, crime, lamentable insanity and tragedy, of which America claims its fair share. Here is the first of two such true tales of  mazes steeped in blood in the United States.

The House That Bullets Built

   Americans take great pride in their right to keep and bear arms, a freedom provided in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment was adopted in 1791 and allowed any citizen to own firearms even if they were not serving in the military. To this day Americans defend this constitutional right fiercely with 50% of all the guns in the world owned by US citizens.

   The American love affair with firearms is by no means a modern concept and is reflected in the history of the gun itself. If we put aside the frantic race for military supremacy made during the two World Wars, the majority of advancements in weapons technology have arguably been American. The States also have a long-standing dominance in the manufacture of firearms and most recognisable gun brands are from the US.

   America was clearly the right place for ambitious men with business savvy an eye for an opportunity and perhaps, few scruples.

¬† ¬†Step forward Mr Oliver Winchester, a Bostonian born in 1810. Olly had first tried to make his fortune by manufacturing clothes in New York but was on the look out for a new venture. He spotted his chance when he noticed a floundering division of Smith and Wesson. Smith had made a few improvements on a new type of gun patented by Walter Hunt in 1848. The gun was still not a big seller, being complex and unwieldy. Winchester promptly got a few fellow investors together and bought stocks of the ailing branch of the company. Within a few years he’d manoeuvred himself to be the principal stockholder and eventually bought out the business outright in 1857. He hired a brilliant engineer named Benjamin Tyler Henry who greatly improved the design. Henry was rewarded for his¬†ingenuity¬†with a patent naming the rifle the Henry Rifle.

By now the American Civil War was looming. The Henry rifle was used by only a few Union military units and the Confederates didn’t use them at all as there had not been enough time to successfully test these newfangled guns sufficiently or to train troops how to use them effectively.

It was to be peace time that would really prove lucrative for Winchester, with his subsequent gun improvements and designs finding their principal market not with the army, but with civilians.

Having renamed the company after himself, Winchester now made sure that he was on the forefront of gun design and manufacture. He began working with John Browning (who would later go on to develop some of the most famous guns used during the two World Wars) and together they developed gun technology so quickly that the military couldn’t even keep up.

Pioneers in particular adored Winchester rifles and bought them in huge quantities. Teddy Roosevelt used them whilst hunting and even the great Apache warrior Geronimo owned one.

Oliver Winchester died a very wealthy man in 1880, leaving the business, )and a huge wodge of cash,) to his son William Wirt Winchester.

William had already been struck by tragedy after his only child died whilst only a baby. William’s wife Sarah was inconsolable at the loss of their tiny daughter Annie and suffered from depression afterwards, never to fall pregnant again.

William was head of Winchester Repeating Arms Company for only 4 months, quickly following his father to the grave after succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 43.

Having already become bitter and sad after mourning her daughter for fifteen years, Sarah now found herself a widow. She inherited a substantial chunk of the business and a daily income of $1,000 a day (around $23,000 a day in modern terms) as well as roughly $20million (around $454m today.) Despite of her enormous wealth, unsurprisingly Sarah didn’t feel very blessed with no-one to share her fortune with.

Depressed and increasingly desperate, Sarah sought out the services of a Boston psychic. This psychic confirmed Sarah’s worst fears. The Winchester family was cursed and Sarah would be doomed to a life of misery unless she took action. The psychic explained that the Winchesters were haunted by the ghosts of every person who had been killed with a Winchester rifle. The vengeful spirits had taken the lives of both her baby daughter and her husband and unless they were appeased, the spirits would take Sarah next.

Desperate to escape such a fate, Sarah asked the psychic how tragedy could be averted. The psychic told Sarah to head West and build a massive house for the ghosts to live in, having been deprived of a long life and dignified death.

Sarah left Connecticut shortly after, never to return. In 1884 she headed for California where she already had relatives and purchased a farm house still under construction. Sarah vowed to complete the building in such a fashion as to satisfy the victims of the cursed guns.

With almost unlimited funds at her disposal, Sarah hired armies of builders who were to work on the house in shifts, day and night. Sarah was constantly terrified that the house was never going to be finished in a way that would satisfy the ghosts, so every time a design was finished she’d find a new architect to add more and more to the property. If there was a delay in finding something to add to the existing work, Sarah would order finished rooms to be torn down and rebuilt to altered designs.

One man allegedly spent over thirty years continually laying down exquisite, intricately designed parquet floors, ripping them up as soon as they were completed, and starting again from scratch. Elegant fittings were imported from the finest European craftsmen and each room, when finally deemed satisfactory, was decorated lavishly with expensive furnishings.

Because of the numerous workmen on site and the never ending parade of architects, no-one seemed to know the complete design of the house and got lost in the maze of corridors even if they had worked on the site for years. Sarah was the only person who knew the exact location of every last nail.

Paranoid of the fate that might yet befall her, Sarah installed architectural tricks to confuse any malevolent ghosts that may wish to harm her. The house therefore contains staircases that lead nowhere and doors that open to reveal brick walls. There are a myriad of secret passageways and dead ends. Sarah never slept in the same bedroom for more than a single night at a time to make it difficult for a malevolent phantom to find her by studying her habits. She did however spend some time each evening in her very own séance room, communing with spirits to check that they were satisfied with the construction and to receive their requests.

By 1900 the house had grown into a sprawling, seven storey maze. In 1906 a massive earthquake ripped through the San Francisco area, destroying parts of the house and trapping Sarah in one of her bedrooms. She was convinced that the ghosts had sent the earthquake to voice their dissatisfaction with the nearly completed front half of the house. Sarah had 30 of the offending rooms shut up, unrepaired, and ordered work to resume in earnest at the rear of the property, with for structural reasons was pared down to a mere 4 storeys.

Sarah finally died, mercifully in her sleep, in 1922 aged 83. Finally, the construction work that had gone on uninterrupted even by weekends or Christmas days for nearly 38 years ceased. Sarah left behind a mansion with 160 rooms including 13 bathrooms, (all but one fake!) two unused ballrooms, 40 bedrooms, 2,000 doors, 47 staircases, 6 kitchens, 10,000 windows and so many fireplaces that some rooms have two.

Curious servants opened up Sarah’s safe when she died, hoping to find treasure. They found a lock of her baby’s hair, a yellowed newspaper cutting of the baby’s obituary and mementoes of her beloved husband.

The contents of the house was inherited by Sarah’s niece, who promptly sold nearly all of the furniture. It took six removal crews six weeks working flat out to remove all of the furniture. The house itself was auctioned off and bought by a local who opened it up as a visitor attraction. So many legends sprang up about life at the mansion that it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

The story of Sarah Winchester is both intriguing and tragic and it is a testament to her strong character that the mansion remains a popular attraction for tourists to this day, unchanged from how she left it on the day that she died.

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Sunken Cities of Ancient Greece

Mention a sunken city of Ancient Greece and you’d be forgiven for automatically thinking of the legendary¬†civilisation of Atlantis described by Plato.¬† It’s the irresistibly fascinating tale of a great city destroyed in a single day and disappearing without trace.¬† The possible sites of Atlantis have caused much controversy and debate and to this day it has not been identified.

But what many don’t know is that Atlantis is far from an isolated case. There are quite¬†a few greek cities lying beneath the waves. Some were destroyed¬†in a matter of minutes, others were submerged centimetre by centimetre over a period of years.

Helike and Boura

     Helike was a city founded in the Bronze Age on the northwestern coast of the Peloponnese. Homer describes the city as contributing one ship to the Trojan war effort in the Illiad.

    Helike was the leader of the first Achaean League, a group of the 12 neighbouring cities of Achaea including Boura, further inland.  Helike was well on its way to become one of the great cities of Greece, rivalling Athens, Sparta and Corinth. It was large and successful enough to spawn two colonies, Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene is Asia Minor. Helike had a sanctuary and temple dedicated to Poseidon and as a religious centre was second only to Delphi. Poseidon appeared on the coins of Helike and was held in high regard by the citizens, but unfortunately Poseidon apparently got a tadge annoyed with the town.

    Their colonists wrote to the mother city asking for a beautiful statue of Poseidon to adorn the new colony, but the Helikeans proved to be rather selfish and kept the statue for themselves. Some even claim that the Ionian delegation were murdered.

¬†¬†¬† Soon afterwards, in winter 373BC¬†the animals of the city started to flee the city and ‘immense columns of fire’ sprang up. Five days after the animal exodus, in the middle of the night,¬†the earth began to shake and Helike¬†and¬† Boura¬†sank into the ground.¬†¬†A tsunami, sparked off by the earthquake, promptly submerging the two cities and drowning any inhabitants who had managed to survive the initial¬†quake. Ten Spartan ships anchored in the harbour were dragged beneath the swell. In the aftermath, thousands of people attempted to help recover the bodies, all in vain.

‚ÄúGreat earthquakes occurred in the Peloponnesos¬†accompanied by floods which engulfed the open country and cities in a manner¬†past belief . . . The blow came at night, so that . . . the majority¬†who were caught¬†in the ruined houses were annihilated, and when day came some dashed from the ruins and, when they thought they had escaped the danger, met with a greater and still more incredible disaster. For the sea and the wave rose to a vast height, and as a result all the inhabitants together with their land were inundated¬†and disappeared. Two cities in Achaea bore the brunt of this disaster, Helike¬†and Boura. Before the earthquake Helike was first among the cities of Achaea.‚ÄĚ Diodorus of Sicily

   The remains of some of the taller buildings of Helike jutted out from the waves, and 150 years after the disaster a philosopher named Eratosthenes reports that fishing nets were in danger of getting snagged on a bronze statue of Poseidon. The lagoon eventually became a popular tourist attraction. Pausanius visited in the 170s AD and writes that the walls are still clearly visible, but that salt had corroded some of the architecture. Other illustrious visitors include Strabo and Ovid.

      Eventually the submerged streets and buildings were swallowed up in silt. The site became harder to find and soon became forgotten, until a coin was found over two thousand years are the disaster. Archaeologists began to search in earnest.

     Eventually, after searching for nearly a decade, Dora Katsonopoulou and her Helike Project team find signs of a building in 1994 using magnometer. The building turned out to be Roman, but the team were on the right track. After also finding remains of a prehistoric settlement, the team hit jackpot in 2001.

    Excavations have continued every summer since, uncovering buildings, roads and a cemetery.  As it turns out the city did not fall into the sea. Rather, the quake created an inland lagoon which gradually silted up. Helike has the potential to be the Pompei of Greece, destroyed in a day and no salvage attempts are reported to have taken place. It will be really exciting to watch the archaeological excavations unfold there to see what we can learn about life is Classical Greece.


¬†¬†¬†¬† Before Helike¬†and Boura, another town of the Peloponnese was consumed¬†by water. Pavlopetri¬†is a submerged city at the other end of the Peloponnese and is about 5 millennia old and flourished for a long period before sinking into the sea about three thousand years ago. That means that Pavlopetri¬† was a vibrant town at around the same time as the legendary¬†Trojan Wars, but was wiped¬†out only a couple of centuries later. Pavlopetri is a modern name (meaning Paul’s Stone or Paul’s and Peter’s) and as yet historians haven’t been able to rediscover the ancient name of the sunken city.

¬†¬† As with Helike¬†and Boura, it is probably an earthquake that sounded the death knell for Pavlopetri, and no further earthquakes have ever pushed the buildings and streets back up to the surface. Unlike Helike, the site never silted over and dried up, and is lying in about 4 metres of water, a stone’s throw from the beach. The site was rediscovered¬†in the 1960s and is currently being excavated.

¬†¬† Pavlopetri¬†is the oldest submerged town so far found and is a wonderful time capsule for Mycenean life. Even the ancient greeks¬†of the classical era didn’t know much about their Mycenean ancestors. They even believed that the city of¬†Mycenae itself must surely have been the capital city of a race of giants, because the blocks of stone used to construct the city walls were so colossal.

¬†¬†¬† Pavlopetri¬†was perfectly situated for a Bronze Age/Mycenean town. Ships at this time weren’t moored to jetties, instead they were dragged¬†up onto¬†the beach. The flat sandy beaches at Pavlopetri¬†were protected¬†in a convenient bay and were the ideal choice to build a trading town. In the excavations of the last few years marine archaeologists have found evidence that shows¬†that the merchants of Pavlopetri¬†didn’t just trade with nearby towns but had trade routes from much farther afield.

    It is wonderfully exciting to learn about a town that flourished in the period of the Greek legendary heroes. I hope that one day historians will be able to match a name to the place so that we can learn more about the city from any mentions in myths and tales.

¬†¬† Modern technology is now being used to uncover more and more of the ancient city. The prehistoric streets and buildings can now even be reconstructed, if only through CGI wizardry. Here’s a brilliant video featuring Dr Jon Henderson, the British Director of the Pavlopetri Underwater Archaeology Project.

¬†Jon is also a fascinating tweeter when he’s not discovering and analysing amazing ancient things (no idea how he finds the time) and is very lovely to chat to. He answers all of my silly questions with grace and patience and is admirably enthusiastic about sharing his extensive knowledge of the site. So thank you, Jon, if you’re reading this clumsy love letter to your work, for inspiring my curiosity. For everyone else, you simply MUST follow him on Twitter. Find him at @DrJonCHenderson. Also, the Pavlopetri website is an engrossing read with some excellent photos and videos (such as the one above)


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Remembering the Victims of the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park Terrorist Attacks, 30 Years On

I met my husband through my first love, music. A musician since the age of five, by eleven I joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Band Service and fell in love with symphonic wind band and military music.¬†At nineteen I spent a week with the Band of the Life Guards to learn about life as a musician in the army. I never did join the armed forces like my father and grandfathers before me, instead I’d fallen head over heels in love with a reserved young Lance Corporal and in time became the wife of a soldier and carried on with my burgeoning museum career instead. For me, playing in a military band (or four) in my spare time was enough. It provided me with a huge new social group, an invaluable musical education, the chance to travel across the globe and unparalleled access to the kind of gigs that other amateur musicians can only dream of (The Royal Tournament 1999, The Queen’s 80th birthday party at Kew Palace, on board the decks of HMS Warrior and HMS Victory among others.)

My experiences with the RNVBs and as a Corps of Army Music WAG have made my life immeasurably better and made me friends for life, so I would like to share a story with you that deeply affected so many people in our military music and Household Cavalry communities.

On the morning of the 20th July 1982 the ceremonial duties of the army were being carried out in usual in London. Crowds of tourists gathered to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and lined the route that the soldiers took from there to the barracks.

The Blues and Royals were parading down Rotten Row in Hyde Park for the Changing of the Guard when a nail bomb hidden in a car exploded close by. Nails and bomb shrapnel tore through soldiers, horses and tourists. Three soldiers died instantly, and later another would die in hospital from his wounds. Seven horses were killed or had to be put down.

Two hours later in Regent’s Park a concert was well underway at the bandstand. The Band of the Royal Green Jackets were playing a crowd pleasing piece, a medley of tunes from Oliver! I’ve played it several times myself. An audience had gathered, enjoying listening to the music in the beautiful surroundings of the park. Another nail bomb had been hidden beneath the floor of the bandstand and had been timed¬†to detonate in the middle of the concert. Every single musician was injured and seven killed, with many of the audience also hurt.

In the days that followed the IRA took full responsibility. I can’t even bring myself to write what they said about it.

I’ve met survivors of the blast and they still feel the pain of that day very deeply, 30 years on. To this day the Band of the Royal Green Jackets have never played Oliver! since.

Please take just a minute today to pay your respects to those that died in the terrorist attack.

Anthony Daly of the Blues and Royals, aged 23

Simon Tipper of the Blues and Royals, aged 19

Jeffrey Young of the Blues and Royals, aged 19

Roy Bright of the Blues and Royals, aged 36

Graham Barker of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged 36

John McKnight of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged 30

Robert Livingstone of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged  31

Laurence Smith of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged  19

Keith Powell of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged 24

George Mesure of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged 19

John Heritage of the Band of the Royal Green Jackets, aged 29


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The Sinking of the RMS Lancastria

The 17th of June is the date of a tragic maritime disaster. The story isn’t widely known, but it should be.

RMS Tyrrhenia was a 176 metre long cruise liner built in Scotland for the Cunard Line in 1920. Later renamed the Lancastria (easier for passengers to pronounce!) the ship was used for transatlantic voyages and as a mediterranean cruise ship.

When World War Two loomed RMS Lancastria was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence and transformed into a troop ship. So far, so unremarkable.

Everyone knows the story of Dunkirk. Many of us, myself included, have relatives who were rescued from the beaches, or manned the flotilla of boats to save troops. The Dunkirk evacuation, named Operation Dynamo, took place in late May and early June 1940. Essentially a large scale retreat, Dunkirk was nevertheless publicised as an Allied victory, and has been included on school history syllabuses ever since.

But, just as D-Day is only remembered for Omaha Beach whilst large swathes of the operation are skimmed over, the same is true for the evacuations.

immediately following Operation Dynamo was Operation Cycle, this time centering on removing Allied troops from the coast around Le Havre, and then came Operation Ariel, which focussed on the ports of western France.

Whilst Operation Ariel ran fairly smoothly in St Malo and Cherbourg without much enemy interference, the troops at St Nazaire weren’t to be so lucky.

Five large troopships, including the RMS (now MHT) Lancastria were sent to St Nazaire, but it was difficult to get close. Instead, the ships anchored in a nearby bay whilst smaller vessels able to navigate easily in the Loire estuary ferried troops from the shore to the waiting ships.

There were thousands of Allied servicemen and civilians who needed to be evacuated to England and the order was given to ignore the official capacity guidelines (2,200 including 375 crew members) in light of the situation. Unfortunately, due to the following events, we will never know how many people boarded the Lancastria. The lowest estimate is 4,000, but survivors claim that many more were aboard, perhaps as many as 9,000 people.

At 1.50pm one of the other ships, the SS Oronsay, was hit by a German bomb during an air raid. The Oronsay was another former liner, built for the Orient Line, and in her former guise had sailed a route from the UK to Australia. Just like the Lancastria, she had been requisitioned for military use. The German bomb hit the bridge of the ship, destroying the steering and wireless controls as well as charts of the route back to the English coast. Several people were injured and killed, but the ship remained afloat. The Captain, nursing a broken leg, heroically managed to sail the damaged Oronsay back to England using a pocket sized compass.

Because of this disastrous air raid, naval commanders urged the Lancastria to sail, but the Captain didn’t want to leave until there was a naval destroyer to act as an armed escort. This, unfortunately, proved to be a mistake. At 1548 hours German aircraft returned. The Lancastria suffered from three direct hits and sank within 20 minutes. The sinking ship haemorrhaged over 1,400 tons of fuel which choked many of the survivors of the initial explosion, and to make matters even worse, strafing fire from the German aircraft ignited the oil.

‚ÄúShe was going down fast. Her bunker oil was released and spreading all over the water. We couldn‚Äôt escape it. At the same time the b*****ds were machine gunning us in the water and dropping incendiaries to try to set fire to the floating oil.‚ÄĚ Michael Sheehan

2,477 people were rescued from the burning water. This means that between 1,500 and 6,500 people perished, depending on the estimates of those aboard. The number most often used in 4,00o. That means more people died aboard Lancastria than in the Titanic and Lusitania tragedies combined. So why does nobody know about it?

Well, the Titanic sank in peacetime and therefore was a huge news story. The tragedy of the vessel never completing its maiden voyage with the loss of 1,514 people is quite rightly commemorated.

The Lusitania sinking is mainly remembered as the catalyst that brought the United States of America into the First World War. Posters depicting drowned women urged young Americans to enlist and fight in Europe. The tragedy was used to prove that Germany was an evil force that must be defeated. The Lusitania caused a propaganda whirlwind that changed the course of history, and is again, quite rightly remembered.

So why not the Lancastria?

Top brass did not want the public to know what had happened for several reasons.

Any lists confirming who had actually boarded the ship had been taken to the bottom of the ocean. Official numbers were not known, and any reports of actual numbers or personalities killed would be pure speculation.

Just as Dunkirk was hailed as a great victory rather than a mass retreat, The government was very careful about how certain events in the war were publicised. There was no positive spin on the sinking of the Lancastria, and therefore Churchill issued a D-notice, which urged the newspapers not to publish the story. At a time when keeping morale high was paramount, such a tragedy would deeply affect both Allied servicemen and the millions of civilians suffering on the home front. As well as this, no-one wanted Germany to be able to boast about the large numbers of Allied dead. It was imperative not to give anybody the notion that Germany had succeeded in something.

A few papers ignored the D-notice, but the story never really took flight. Even survivors were reluctant to tell the story for fear of court martial.

However, the disaster happened 72 years ago. Why, so long after the war, has the truth never really been told?

There are memorials constructed in Clydebank, near where the ship was built, and at St Nazaire where she sank. Both were only erected after a lot of campaigning. The Clydebank memorial was only sanctioned two years ago. The British Government even refuses to declare the wreck site a war grave, a move which the MOD describes as ‘merely symbolic.’ However, in 2011 an estimated 100 survivors were still alive and many families still mourn the loss of a loved one to this day, and have no site to properly mourn them.

Even the National Memorial Arboretum only has a single tree. Executed military murderers got more than that.

There are but a handful of books on the subject, albeit very good ones, and to date only one documentary that I can find, which is difficult to get hold of.

I’m hoping that you’ve read this and have become inspired to know more. This site is excellent:

You will find survivor accounts and a list of all confirmed fatalities, as well as photos and a news section.

I’d love for this story to be more widely known so that the dead can be commemorated as they deserve to be, not just by a handful of relatives, campaigners and military historians. Please reblog and retweet this so that we can honour their memory. I hate to think that they lie forgotten and uncared for.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.


Filed under stories from history

Southwick – The D-Day Village

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landing, a turning point in the Second World War that swung the odds into Allied favour.

Twitter will be full of historians describing the events on the Normandy beaches, Pegasus Bridge etc etc. Whilst I will no doubt post a few of my customary factoids on my @TourGuideGirl feed, I thought it best to devote a blog post to an unsung hero of Operation Overlord.

I grew up in Portsmouth, it is justifiably famous as the premier base of the Royal Navy and scene of countless events of historical significance. Yet, just over the hill to the north, lies a tiny little village called Southwick. Quaint, unassuming and quiet, Southwick played a massive role in the run up to D-Day but is frequently forgotten when the events of the 6th of June 1944 are recounted.

My fascination with the area started at the age of 11, when I joined the HMS Dryad Royal Naval Volunteer Band as a clarinettist. In the centre of the naval base is a beautiful Georgian building called Southwick House, although we knew it as The Wardroom.

A View of Southwick House

The band often performed at Mess Dinners in the Wardroom, and between sets we’d retire from the main dining room for some refreshments into one of the other rooms in the house. I vividly remember the first time I poked my head round a door into the Map Room. As a pre-teen, although my love of history was growing, my breadth of knowledge wasn’t wonderful, but some of the members of the band started to tell me more about the history of Southwick House and its significant role. Fifteen years later (crikey,) and I’ve been able to do my own research and fit it in with other events of the war.

It’s a brilliant story. The squire of the Southwick Estate was an eccentric chap called Colonel Evelyn Thistlethwayte. In the early years of the war he frequently invited various Admirals to while away a few spare hours on his estate to join him in some pheasant shooting. These Admirals made a note of the spectacular situation of the house whilst firing at dozy game birds and by late 1941 the entire Estate was requisitioned by the Navy to house the Royal Naval Navigation School, which had had to be relocated from the heavily targeted Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Just south of Southwick Village is Fort Southwick on the crest of Portsdown Hill, part of a defensive line including four other forts built in the 1860’s in case of an impending French invasion. I learnt much of Fort Southwick’s wartime role from my time as a tour guide at the Fort next door, Fort Nelson. Whereas Nelson was adapted and used as an ammo store, Fort Widley used to billet WRNS and Fort Wallington as the military telegraphic HQ (also relocated from the dockyard,) Fort Southwick eclipsed them all. Fort Southwick was chosen to be the underground nerve centre of the planning of a large scale mainland invasion, with a labyrinth of steel lined tunnels being added below the original Victorian tunnel system.

Southwick House, a stone’s throw from the fort and already inhabited by the Navy, was a natural choice for the main HQ building. The Navigation School was moved yet again, and the Allied Commanders moved in.

The old drawing room became the Map Room, and Chad Valley toy company made a huge plywood map of the English south coast and Normandy that filled an entire wall.

The D-Day Planning Map in the drawing room of Southwick House

Nissen huts and mobile homes sprung up around the house. One mobile home was used by General Montgomery, although his main billet was the nearby Broomfield House, where he entertained George VI, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower among others. Prince Philip was also present in Southwick at the time as a Naval Lieutenant, and when he accompanied the Queen on a visit to Southwick in 1973 he was seen pointing out his favourite wartime pub to her. This pub is the Golden Lion, (not to be confused with the Red Lion a few doors down) and was partially converted into an officer’s mess at the time. You can go to the Golden Lion and have a pint in the very same spot as Eisenhower drank beer with Monty. Why the Golden Lion isn’t constantly full of history buffs is a question that baffles me.

For months in early 1943 Southwick was buzzing with activity. It was a huge undertaking to organise thousands of sailors and troops from Britain, America, Canada and various other Commonwealth countries. 6,939 Naval vessels were involved in the invasion and the shipping of 7,000,000 tonnes of equipment from the US had to be organised. It is from Southwick that General Eisenhower, General Montgomery and Admiral Ramsay wrote their famous letters to the troops on the eve of battle, and it was from Southwick House that Eisenhower took the decision to postpone the invasion for 24 hours on advice from the specially built weather station built in the grounds. Monty and Eisenhower remained at HQ at H-Hour of D-Day, Monty departing for Normandy that afternoon and Eisenhower following him the next day, having spent the day orchestrating the invasion by land, sea and air. Thousands of troops who had been billeted in the surrounding villages and in Portsmouth and Southampton had disappeared overnight, but they had left hundreds of chalk ‘thank you’ messages on walls and pavements to the locals who had looked after them so well. Within a day or two the wounded were returning to the south coast, this time accompanied by Axis POWs. And so Southwick returned to being a sleepy little chocolate-box village, just as it had been for centuries. Only a few people venture to visit, despite it’s illustrious history and roll call of famous former residents. Fort Southwick remained with the Navy until 2003. I remember visiting it often to watch my dad on parade with the Royal Naval Reserves. It’s now privately owned and almost impossible to get into. Access is limited, the last time I checked the only access given was to a ghost hunting expedition. I sincerely hope the current reclusive owner is looking after the place! I believe he wants to turn the redan into flats. Southwick House and it’s environs also remained naval property, being compulsorially purchased when the war was over. As HMS Dryad it was the Maritime Warfare School until 2004, when it was decommissioned. I cried when it closed as HMS Dryad Royal Naval Volunteer Band, who I’d been a member of for eight years also had to disband. We played a final event to march the sailors out. The site has since been turned into a tri-service military police training centre. It’s not impossible to visit Southwick House and stand where great general and admirals stood and planned the greatest invasion in history. Details of access can be found here: The Golden Lion serves brilliant food with (so my husband tells me) excellent beer brewed on site. I highly recommend a trip to the D-Day Museum in Southsea, Portsmouth after that for their excellent exhibitions, including a replica Mapboard in case you can’t get into Southwick House. You’ll find the museum next to Southsea Castle.


Filed under stories from history, Uncategorized