Monthly Archives: March 2011

Battle of Towton, War of the Roses, Britain’s Bloodiest Battle

Paul Bignell for The Independent, March 20, 2011:

It was one of the biggest and probably the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. Such was its ferocity almost 1 per cent of the English population was wiped out in a single day. Yet mention the Battle of Towton to most people and you would probably get a blank stare.

Next week marks the 550th anniversary of the engagement that changed the course of the Wars of the Roses. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers took part in the battle in 1461 between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the English throne. An estimated 28,000 men are said to have lost their lives.

But this bloody conflict is unlikely to remain forgotten for much longer. Archaeologists believe they will unearth what is likely to be Britain’s largest mass grave this summer.

Work is to begin in June, at a site 12 miles south of York between the villages of Saxton and Towton where the battle took place in snowy March weather. The locations of the graves were discovered by archaeologists using geophysical imagery and now, with funding in place, they are able to begin excavating.

Experts believe these new sites – up to five in total – could yield the remains of several hundred men.

Tim Sutherland, a battlefield archaeologist from the University of York, said: “We think there will be three or five very large grave pits at the site. These are the main mass graves found right in the middle of the battlefield. They are the big ones. Every time the field is ploughed we go to this exact spot and as soon as the rains wash the surface clear we start finding fragments of human remains.”

In an attempt to safeguard the artefacts, the Towton Battlefield Society has set up the country’s first accreditation scheme for metal detectorists on a historic battlefield. Anyone seen on the site without authorisation can now be prosecuted.

Very few records of the battle survive, which is one reason that so little is known about it. Historians believe this could be due to an early propaganda campaign by the Tudors.

Author and historian George Goodwin, who this month publishes a new book: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle, said: “The Tudors did a tremendously good propaganda job in making Bosworth the key battle because that was the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses. They were the winners and they got to write the history books. Because Towton was a Yorkist victory that wasn’t really very useful to them.”

The exact losses are a matter of continuing debate for historians, though they all agree the battle was brutal. England was in the grip of civil war between the North and South. Towton represented the appalling climax of the disastrous 40-year reign of England’s youngest ever king, the pious and weak Henry VI from the House of Lancaster. Henry was just nine months old when he succeeded his father to the throne.

The houses of Lancaster and York met at Towton on a cold, Palm Sunday, on 29 March, 1461. The Lancastrians, who initially had the upper hand with a larger force and a position on higher ground, retreated when a fierce blizzard turned against them and Yorkist reinforcements arrived. No quarter was given and the battle soon turned into a massacre, with bodies piling up by the minute.

Subsequent studies of some of the remains offer a frightening glimpse of the brutality inflicted on the Lancastrian soldiers. Experts found multiple chops, incisions, punctures and cuts on the facial areas and some evidence that prisoners may have been summarily executed.

“It was Britain’s most brutal battle because there was absolutely no quarter, and the victorious army had licence to kill anybody,” Mr Goodwin said. “The Yorkists had the blood-lust of victory. Part of the reason it was so atrocious was because a sense of ‘the other’ had crept in, and there was a real hatred of the enemy.”


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First World War Football Saved for Posterity

Story by Steven Morris for The Telegraph, March 10, 2011:

A leather football that British soldiers dribbled through no man’s land while coming under machine-gun fire during a first world war battle has been saved for posterity after being discovered in an old box.

Members of the London Irish Rifles soccer team smuggled the ball out of their own trenches – against orders – during the battle of Loos in 1915 and passed it among themselves, determined to boot it into the German lines.

They didn’t make it and the ball ended up pierced on barbed wire. It was retrieved from the battlefield, displayed for a while at the regimental museum and eventually stored in a container, forgotten and in danger of perishing.

The ball has now been conserved by experts and is to go back on display this weekend at the regimental museum in Camberwell, south-east London.

Nigel Wilkinson, vice-chairman of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association, said the soldiers originally had six balls that they planned to take with them into no man’s land but their commanding officer shot five of them when he heard what was being planned.

The sixth was stuffed up the tunic of the team captain, Private Frank Edwards, who inflated it as he prepared to charge from the British trench.

As the whistle for the “big push” sounded, Edwards booted the ball out. It was passed around before it ended up being pierced on barbed wire on the German frontline.

Wilkinson said: “The London Irish had a first-class football team and they were keen to score a goal in Jerry’s frontline trenches. One of the platoon commanders thought that this was a bad idea and just before the whistles blew for the attack he went round puncturing all those that he could find.

“A deflated ball was concealed under Private Edwards’s tunic and reinflated. Defying orders, the London Irish kicked off the big push by punting the football into no man’s land and went hell for leather after it.”

Edwards was said to have dribbled the ball for 20 metres before he went down injured when he was shot through the thigh.

In the battalion’s record, it was noted that the men were seen to pass and repass the ball until they disappeared in a smoke cloud towards the German frontline. Another soldier wrote that the men cried out “On the ball, London Irish” as they advanced.

Wilkinson said the ball had not been lost – but had been neglected. “It was in a very poor condition and was at risk of disintegrating into dust,” he said.

The episode is reminiscent of stories of British and German soldiers taking part in kickabouts in no man’s land during brief truces.

Edwards’s granddaughter, Susan Harris, said: “I remember my grandfather very well and remember his love of football. His story is one that has been forgotten about, so I’m delighted that his ball has been conserved for the future.”

Yvette Fletcher, head of conservation at the Leather Conservation Centre in Northampton, where the ball was restored, said: “It came to us in quite a bad state. There were a lot of tears in the leather which was very weak and we were concerned that it would fall apart. There is still the rudimentary stitching on the ball from where it was repaired having been cut on the barbed wire. It is still very fragile, which is not surprising as it has been through the first world war.”


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The 1911 Triangle Fire Remembered

Ruth La Ferla for The New York Times, March 22, 2011

One hundred years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, the fashion that employed small armies of seamstresses at the turn of the last century endures.

The American shirtwaist was a trend that, quite literally, had legs. This brash but sensible pairing of tailored shirt and skirt offered a glimpse of the ankles, which was as rare in its day as it was freeing.

Designed for utility, the style was embraced at the turn of the 20th century by legions of young women who preferred its hiked hemline and unfettered curves to the confining, street-sweeping dresses that had hobbled their mothers and aunts.

Few looks have been as versatile — or as egalitarian — adapting through the decades to all sorts of shifting conditions and sociopolitical landscapes.

And few have so nimbly walked the line between function and frivolity.

By 1911 the Triangle factory, a half-block east of Washington Square Park, was the largest maker of waists in New York City. Pressed elbow to elbow at the factory, in Greenwich Village, hundreds of women, working 12 to 16 hours six days a week, earned $5 a week or less to help dress Americans in the white, gauzy blouses — also called shirtwaists — that when worn with a skirt completed the look.

In the last minutes of the work week, on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a match or a cigarette tossed into a waste basket ignited a fire that fed on the scraps of cloth and paper patterns hanging overhead. The blaze swept through the factory — the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the 10-story building — within a half-hour, leaving 146 dead, all but 23 of them young women. About 50 jumped to their deaths to escape the relentless flames.

As hundreds of events this week mark the 100th anniversary of the fire on Friday, the shirtwaist style has proved its remarkable staying power.

Democratic from its inception, the shirtwaist was “one of America’s first truly class-shattering fashions,” wrote David Von Drehle, who briefly outlined its history in “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003).

DiorPat English/Time Life Pictures, via Getty ImagesTania Chez Dior, a French dress model. View more photos »
The cast of Columbia TriStar, via Getty ImagesThe cast of “The Donna Reed Show.”View more photos »

The practical uniform of factory hands, clerks, shopkeepers and librarians, it “both symbolized and enabled a wave of women’s liberation,” Mr. Von Drehle argued, the “perfect repudiation of corsets and bustles and hoops — all the ludicrous contraptions that literally imprisoned women in their own clothes.”

The earliest shirtwaists — originally shirts and separate skirts — were engineered for mobility, their popularity coinciding with a huge urbanization that saw women rushing about the streets, demanding the vote and, ultimately, flooding the workforce.

By 1910, when the entire American population was only 90 million, more than 5 million women held jobs outside the home. At that time, as Mr. Von Drehle noted, nearly a third of all factory workers in New York State were women, the majority dressed in a shirtwaist and skirt.

Shirtwaists flourished in the early 1900s as a badge of confidence and athletic femininity, the sporty attire of the Gibson Girl. They attained a touch of worldliness in the late 1940s when Christian Dior introduced a version, propped up by petticoats, as an essential component of his fabled New Look.

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Henry VIII’s Madness Explained

Story by Emily Sohn for Discovery News, March 11, 2011:

Among a long list of personality quirks and historical drama, Henry VIII is known for the development of health problems in mid-life and a series of miscarriages for two of his wives. In a new study, researchers propose that Henry had an X-linked genetic disorder and a rare blood type that could explain many of his problems.

By suggesting biological causes for significant historical events, the study offers new ways to think about the infamous life of the notorious 16th-century British monarch, said Catarina Whitley, a bioarchaeologist who completed the research while at Southern Methodist University.

“What really made us look at Henry was that he had more than one wife that had obstetrical problems and a bad obstetrical history,” said Whitley, now with the Museum of New Mexico. “We got to thinking: Could it be him?”

Plenty of historians have written about Henry’s health problems. As a young man, he was fit and healthy. But by the time of his death, the King weighed close to 400 pounds. He had leg ulcers, muscle weakness, and, according to some accounts, a significant personality shift in middle age towards more paranoia, anxiety, depression and mental deterioration.

Among other theories, experts have proposed that Henry suffered from Type II diabetes, syphilis, an endocrine problem called Cushing’s syndrome, or myxedema, which is a byproduct of hypothyroidism.

All of those theories have flaws, Whitley said, and none address the monarch’s reproductive woes. Two of his six wives — Ann Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon — are thought to have suffered multiple miscarriages, often in the third trimester.

To explain those patterns, Whitley and colleague Kyra Kramer offer a new theory: Henry may have belonged to a rare blood group, called Kell positive. Only 9 percent of the Caucasian population belongs to this group.

When a Kell positive man impregnates a Kell negative woman, there is a 50 percent chance of provoking an immune response in the woman’s body that attacks her developing fetus. The first baby of a Kell positive father and Kell negative mother is usually fine. But some of the baby’s blood will inevitably get into the mother’s body — either during development or at birth, leading her to produce antibodies against the baby’s Kell antigens.

As a result, in subsequent pregnancies, babies may suffer from extra fluid in their tissues, anemia, jaundice, enlarged spleens, or heart failure, often leading to miscarriage between about 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Ann Boleyn is a classic example of this pattern, Whitley said. According to some accounts (and there is still much dispute about the details, including how many pregnancies there actually were), Elizabeth — Anne’s first daughter with Henry — was born healthy and without complications. But her second and third pregnancies miscarried at about month six or seven.

Katherine of Aragon carried as many as six pregnancies. Only her fifth led to the birth of a live and health baby, a daughter named Mary.

In addition to Henry’s problematic blood type, the researchers propose that he also had a rare genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome. Carried on the X-chromosome, the disease generally affects only men and usually sets in around age 40 with symptoms including heart disease, movement disorders and major psychological symptoms, including paranoia and mental decline.

The disease could explain many of Henry’s physical ailments, the researchers propose. It could also explain why he may have become more despotic as he grew older and why he shifted from supporting Anne to having her beheaded.

“This gives us an alternative way of interpreting Henry and understanding his life,” Whitley said. “It gives us a new way to look at the reasons he changed.”

Without any genetic evidence, however, there’s no way to know for sure whether the new theories are right, said Retha Warnicke, a historian at Arizona State University and author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII.

Other conditions could explain the miscarriages, she said. Until the late 19th-century, midwives did not wash their hands. And in Henry’s time, up to half of all children died before age 15.

As for Henry’s woes, dementia could explain his personality shifts, she added. Lack of exercise — after an active youth — combined with a hearty appetite could have led to his obesity and related ills.

“Could is the big word,” Warnicke said. “It’s an interesting theory and it’s possibly true, but it can’t be proven without some clinical evidence, and there is none.”


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Fleas Did Spread 14th Century Plague

David Paine for Worcester News, March 14, 2011:

COUNTY archaeologists have provided conclusive proof that the plague which wiped out about 60 per cent of the European population in the 14th century was caused by fleas.

Human skeletons excavated from pits near Hereford Cathedral helped scholars at Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service definitively confirm the plague’s origins.

The team were working as part of an international science project in partnership with the University of Mainz in Germany.

Their findings, published in an online journal, provide final proof that the plague spread via the transmission of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which was passed on through bites from fleas carried by black rats.

This effectively rules out other common theories, including that the Black Death was actually a fever, and resolves a long-standing debate about the cause of the devastating disease.

For Derek Hurst, Worcestershire County Council’s senior archaeological project officer, the findings are revolutionary.

He said: “This research settles a major aspect of controversy surrounding the Black Death in that it resolves the question of what was the causative agent. Excitingly, after years of debate, this advance in knowledge provides a firm base from which to finally answer remaining questions such as the exact route the disease took and the exact method by which people became infected.”

Fascinatingly, research was based on the DNA analysis of teeth from 76 human skeletons excavated from mass plague graves, including three pits discovered in the precincts of Hereford Cathedral.

The Hereford excavation project – which started back in 1993 – is the largest of its type ever undertaken in Herefordshire with the remains of more than a thousand individuals uncovered.

In the 14th century Hereford was a thriving market town and a centre for religious pilgrimage.

It was hit by three successive devastating outbreaks of plague in 1349, 1361 and 1369, which killed off large swathes of the population.

Now, from beyond the grave, some of these unfortunates have helped to unlock the secrets of the plague thanks to cutting-edge DNA technologies.

Tooth pulp from seven of the Hereford skeletons was tested along with samples taken from locations across Europe including Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands, at the University of Turin in Italy.

These tests confirmed the presence of Yersinia pestis.

The Black Death was devastating for Worcestershire too. Mediaeval records show that up to 45 per cent of the church clergy died within the Diocese of Worcester while in the countryside up to half of all farmers died.

Tellingly, the figures do not even take into account the impact of the plague on children in the population.

The Black Death swept through Europe and Asia on several more occasions, the last of which is thought to have been the Russian plague of 1770-1772.


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History Marginalized in UK Schools

Article by Graeme Paton for The Telegraph, March 13, 2011:

Ofsted said history suffered in many primary schools because of weak subject knowledge among staff and the use of “disconnected topics” in lessons.

At secondary level, growing numbers of pupils are now exposed to just two years of compulsory history classes instead of the recommended three.

In a damning conclusion, the watchdog warned that England was the only country in Europe where schoolchildren were allowed to stop studying history at the age of 13.

In all, more than 100 state schools also failed to enter a single candidate for the subject at GCSE, it was revealed, a 25 per cent increase in just 12 months.

The disclosures follow claims from the Coalition that children are growing up ignorant of British history, with lessons for many pupils consisting of little more than a “cursory run through” of Henry VIII and Hitler before most pupils abandoned it altogether.

The Government has now launched a review of the National Curriculum in a move that is likely to specify the key dates, events and historical figures that all pupils should learn.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, said: “It is worrying that Ofsted finds that many pupils lack a chronological understanding of history and are unable to make links between events.

“It is also a concern that secondary schools are squeezing history out of the curriculum or into general humanities courses.

“The facts, dates and narrative of history cannot be learnt in disparate chunks – without them we cannot compare, interpret or evaluate the past or draw lessons from them.”

The report, History For All, was based on inspections of 166 primary and secondary schools in England over a three year period.

History teaching was good in around three-quarters of primary schools, Ofsted said, but teachers “found it difficult to establish a clear mental map of the past for pupils”.

It said weaknesses were down to a lack of teachers’ expertise in the subject combined with poor National Curriculum specifications that treated topics in a “disconnected way”.

The report told of one primary school curriculum that skipped from the Romans and Ancient Egypt to the Tudors and then the Victorians in subsequent years.

Similar weaknesses were identified in secondary schools.

Currently, history is compulsory during Key Stage 3 – traditionally from the age of 11 to 14. But many schools now squeeze this stage into just two years to allow pupils to start GCSEs earlier.

It found that one-in-five secondaries allowed pupils to give up history early or combined history and geography into generic “humanities” lessons.

Although the subject remained popular at GCSE level, growing numbers of schools now failed to offer it beyond the age of 14 at all, the watchdog suggested.

Just 20 per cent of pupils in the Government’s flagship academies took history at GCSE compared with almost half of privately-educated teenagers.

“In England, history is currently not compulsory for students beyond the age of 14 and those in schools offering a two-year Key Stage 3 course can stop studying history at the age of 13,” Ofsted said.

“England is unique in Europe in this respect. In almost all the countries of the European Union, it is compulsory to study history in some form in school until at least the ages of 15 or 16.”



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New Website Marks 150th Civil War Anniversary

Story by Brett Blume for CBS St. Louis, March 14, 2011:

A new website launching this week marks the start of St. Louis’ observance of the Sesquicentennial of America’s Civil War.

The site,, is a collaboration by the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, Metro, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the Jefferson National Parks Association and Bellefontaine Cemetery.

It will provide visitors with comprehensive event, exhibit and other information related to the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial and the role that Missouri, and more specifically, St. Louis played in that historic conflict.

“There was an honest effort in the years following the war to move the capital of the United States to St. Louis,” points out Dr. Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum.  “And part of that was the sense that the nation needed a fresh start.”

The new website includes tabs to events and attractions such as the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site, the Missouri History Museum, the Old Courthouse, Bellefontaine Cemetery and the Gateway Arch.

It also has a “Signature Events” page that provides information on upcoming activities like “Camp Jackson” The Tipping Point”, scheduled for April 29-May 1 at Jefferson Barracks Park.

“The St. Louis metropolitan area has a significant story to tell regarding its role before, during and after the Civil War and a wealth of resources to do so,” says Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC).  “ is another great resource to help people explore and experience the pivotal role St. louis play in this conflict.”


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