The World Turned Upside Down. A post for Military History Now.

Military History Now is the other place you will find my guest posts. This site and me go back to 2012 and I’ve always loved the quirky stories that are shared there. I count it a special honour to be able to contribute to MHN, and I hope you like this little piece of myth busting I’ve done there.


Book Review. The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay.


480 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (19 May 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408827824

The Duke of Monmouth was one of those figures, so seemingly common in the 17th century, whose life was made for novelists. However the interpretation of his life has varied greatly since his death. Much as if it was a work of imagination he is by turns useless, conniving or a paragon, and as such tends to be able to be crafted into whatever a given writer requires.

I know of him best as the leader of the rebellion that carried his name. Having already read a book about the last Jacobite Rebellion, it seemed almost fate that a biography of Monmouth should appear before me. In feel and look it is very similar to Bloomsbury’s other rebellious publication mentioned above. The same fine production standard is in evidence here, with a good selection of images to accompany the text. In both cases the central protagonist, the Prince in question, stares out from their respective dust jackets. The wigs are different but the purpose was much the same, they both had a claim to the throne.
The differences between Charles Edward Stuart, who is the only other contender to the title of “Last Royal Rebel” and his relative James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, who the author grants this title, were at once acute and similar. And we can allow ourselves a little comparison for amusement. Charles Edward was born with everything, he had a good education, his parents lavished him with whatever he wished, groomed from birth to fulfil a specific destiny. However he was terribly naive, immature and totally inexperienced with handling people. He had the Jacobite advantage of knowing he could depend on a small but important power base in Scotland, which almost guaranteed an experienced, if small army of effective fighters to support him.
Monmouth on the other hand was born with little. To begin with his father and mother were never married, and mother used him as leverage to maintain a standard of living. This prompted his father Charles II, to have him kidnapped, principally to shut up his embarrassing mother. Uneducated until he was about six, Monmouth was lucky enough to become closer with his father than any other living soul, and as a result was quickly lavished with titles, riches and, interestingly given modern conceptions of 17th century parenting, affection.
Monmouth at first showed little aptitude for anything other than soldiering and his military career coincided with an interesting early entente with France, while Charles II and Louis XIV fought the Dutch with rather mixed results. Unlike his Jacobite relative, Monmouth was a talented officer, he was also humble and quite good at summing up his own strengths and weaknesses. All in all, despite his lack of education and shaky beginnings by the 1670s he seemed to present a picture of a perfect Prince. And that was the problem.

Charles Edward was seen as a similarly perfect Prince, but he was legitimate if exiled. Monmouth was illegitimate, but actually he was a much more attractive package than the mercurial Bonnie Prince Charlie. Both were barred from the throne, but Monmouth never really seems to have plotted to attain it while his father was alive. Some people had other ideas however. Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York was an out and out catholic. Multiple times the Whigs attempted to remove him from the line of succession, and it was a more than popular idea that Monmouth would fill the gap admirably. Immensely popular with the people, but all too often a victim of those who would use him, due to his father’s irritating ambiguity regarding his birthright, Monmouth first fell out with James, his uncle and then his father and he had therefore essentially lost everything by the time Charles II died. A sense of duty, a sort of moral obligation and an undeniable gullibility allowed him to be talked into becoming the figurehead of a proposed and rather slap dash rebellion to unseat James, whose son it was feared would be raised a Catholic.

Militarily speaking Monmouth was capable of commanding a successful invasion. Logistically however the odds were stacked against him. Always popular with the people recruits were never a problem, but he was unable to draw any political support from the nobility. Also unlike later Jacobite rebellions which could count on the fierce fighting qualities of the Scottish highlanders all Monmouth could bring to the field were ill trained agricultural labourers and townsmen. No match in a stand up fight with the professionals of the Royal Army.

Anna Keay has provided a very welcome modern biography of the Duke of Monmouth. And in it she wishes to make several things clear. Monmouth was the last royal Rebel, and by that she means not the last man of royal blood to try for the throne, but the last of the accepted royal family. It is a narrow distinction in honesty. The successive Jacobite princes were accepted as King by many more people that Monmouth was, and by far more of the nobility. Monmouth had been part of the inner circle, but he was exiled like the Stuart’s and as such the assertion lacks some metal.
Another point stands on firmer ground. Monmouth by his presence caused a reaction that paved the way for the Glorious revolution. Without a Protestant alternative to the Catholic succession, the ground could not have been prepared for William and England’s second partial constitution.
The biography is a sympathetic one, certainly Monmouth has his share of critical biographies, and this one focuses mostly on his better points, which as I’ve said are fairly considerable. His greatest flaw, seems to have been his neediness, his filandering and the issue of often being lead around by the nose by whoever would show him kindness or support. Indeed if I’m not mistaken Royal Rebel strays into sentimental territory now and again, but it creates a very accomplished image of the man in question.
To say that it is well written almost goes without saying, indeed it’s quite lyrical in places, imbued with a humour not out of place with the subject of Charles II’s court.
This will be a must for all lovers of the 17th century and I enjoyed it immensely.


Ask me about 1066.

So here’s the plan. I’d like between 10 and 20 questions to answer about 1066, so I can answer them in a video to help commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. So if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to know, or just always wanted to see something talked about fire a Q or 2 at me, and I’ll research the best and most interesting ones, and give the answers in the video. Ask here, YouTube or over social media and hopefully in a short time we will have put something fun together to celebrate this landmark event.

Hope you join in.


Book Review: The Cultural Revolution by Frank Dikötter.


Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (5 May 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408856492

Red, yellow and Grey. Those are the colours that shine out from the cover of The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History by Frank Dikötter. The Green of the People’s army is missing but the Cultural Revolution didn’t start with the regular army. They are fitting colours. Fashion designer Guo Pei was born in 1967, while the revolution was at its height. In an interview with the BBC she said. “The Beijing of my childhood memory is very different from today, It was basically grey. The clothes people wore were mostly grey, there are not many colours. I remember clearly that I wanted to wear a yellow dress when I was a child, but my grandmother told me that normal people are not allowed to wear yellow.” Normal people? What is that one asks. Frank Dikötter has the answer.
That young monochrome woman, clenched fist upraised, her face firm and set forwards, who glares confidently out from under the title, was what you might consider one of those normal people. And red was the only colour that mattered (unless it was a hallowed mango,) the red of the armbands of the Red Guards, to whom the girl belongs, who were inflicted on the country by Mao Zedong to destroy all links with the past. It began with Khrushchev really, the day he denounced Stalin. On that day Communism was shaken to its core, and in China, sinking under the weight of state sanctioned famine, it got people thinking. Thoughts soon turned to words, fed by those in authority. Words would play a huge part in the revolution, every shift in gear was lead by a new slogan.

“Destroy monsters and demons”
“Remember the Class struggle”
“Sieze power”
“Making revolution is no crime”

These are just some of the slogans that Frank Dikötter highlights as the triggers and perpetuations of the next phase in 20th century China’s unrelenting series of disasters. All of which indeed stem roughly from the fall of the last Emperor and the rise of the nationalists and communists. The subsequent triumph of Mao and the attempt to usher in a new enlightened age, tried to change a centuries old culture and society in three years. “I’m afraid we Chinese never manage to live more than 50 years without some terrible cataclysmic event.” Dr. Tao Tao Liu of Wadham Colledge Oxford told Michael Wood in his recent documentary The Story of China.

Mao’s legacy is convoluted. Revered still by many in China, were in some quarters a great nostalgia exists for the Communist days, which is something akin to the western longing for the time depicted in Happy Days and evidenced in the popularity of retro diners. In an interview with the Radio Times, Joanna Lumley, spoke of the nostalgia for the old days she found as a tourist while filming her series on the Trans Siberian Railway.
“In Beijing we visited a Chairman Mao-themed restaurant. We had little Mao flags to wave, and it was partly an amusing thing to do. But I could see in the old people’s faces that they longed for those days back again because it was safe, and I thought that was fascinating. What Mao brought them was the same thing Stalin brought people in Russia – security… You had a home, you had a job. It might not be the best home in the world or the best job, but you were safe… If he wasn’t going to kill you, Big Uncle Joe Stalin or Chairman Mao would look after you. We look at things with our western eyes, but you’re confronted with the reality, which is that for them it’s far more complex.”
Open mindedness is applaudable from any visitor, or indeed outsider however safe is hardly the word to describe the events of this book. There is a stark and unstable reality when you scratch the surface, Celebrated Mao Biographer and former Red Guard, Jung Chang was at first pro Mao, yet became disillusioned after his death. She said to the Guardian “In the mad rush of high-speed growth people did the most devastating thing – they destroyed nature.” She asked why anyone would want to follow “…the road of the man of was responsible for the deaths of well over 70 million Chinese in peacetime.” Indeed as it turned out the revolution had two faces.
Dikötter’s picture of what China went through between 1962 and 1976 shows the calamity in a new and personal light. The Cultural Revolution, and the experiments that preceded it set back China’s economic prosperity, which the world so admires today, decades, and took the future away from millions. It is staggering to learn of the damage done not just to families and individuals but the economy, education system and agriculture. Whole generations have been scarred and affected by it, yet there is a trend in China and in other places across the Far East. India, Japan and China, (not least some countries in the West) to redraw history into more palatable terms, rubbing out cultures, atrocities and crimes to suit new and worrying agendas. Books like this then, though harrowing when they confront you with such blatant acts of inhumanity, told and described in terms of the people who had to endure them are vital. When Mao unleashed the Red Guards, and the country slipped into popular unrest, followed by the intervention of the military and the subsequent distancing from Maoism as the country clawed back its future, he created an indelible chain of misery and memory that Dikötter has tapped into, along with the hitherto restricted party documents, this is the flesh and bones story of the cultural revolution.
“The Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement. It is one man with a gun manipulating the people” said Wang Rongfen, a Foreign Language Student, quoted in the book, who saw too much of Nazi Germany in Mao’s China. It was a movement of chaotic proportions that bred more chaos. The Red Guards were students, who often in the 20th & 21st centuries have been catalysts of change and upheaval. I guess at the time they figured they were making China great. But the Red Guards really did their country a huge disservice. In the eyes of the world, Mao and his minions did inestimable damage to the reputation of China, not just as a nation but as a people, degrading them to an almost sub human cypher of senseless cruelty. Such brutal inhumanity fostered by the government and perpetrated by students and schoolchildren makes for grim reading. The list of what could get you denounced, imprisoned, murdered or executed was long and strange. The wrong haircut, the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, the way you spoke, the furniture in your house right down to the colours you wore, such as a yellow dress. Everyone was some kind of specification, an ist, or a devotee of some kind of ism, and the most confusing thing one discovers here is that the tables turned and the current shifted, so that it is hard to keep track of who is on who’s side. It was hard enough at the time to figure out what was happening. 50 years on it is still bewildering and confusing. So many factions coalesced into roughly two large opposing parties, each convinced the other is counter revolutionary and each professing loyalty to Mao, eventually all kept in check by the military but the waters had been muddied. “It all seemed like an act with each one imitating the other” Ken Ling of the Red Guard is quoted as saying, describing a rally for the chairman, and in a way that fits much of the entire movement. Devotion to Mao was the only safe option for those trying to avoid denouncement, family ties were actively attacked in order to replace the chairman as the focus of loyalty. The Cultural Revolution rejected China’s ancient history & sought a new culture. Somehow Mao had managed to convince a whole generation to evince a great loathing for everything China had once been & in doing so almost destroyed its own soul. The longest uninterrupted civilisation in history was brought to the brink of utter ruin. All so Mao could dodge the blame for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, and sweep away those who might denounce him a la Kruschev after he was gone. He used his students to crush the “thinkers” who questioned him, and to cement his brand of communism on the country for ever. The method was simple, destroy the memory of the past and you only have the future, and as Dikötter notes, a common motto in the Soviet Union, appropriated in China was “today is our tomorrow”.
Yet there is more here than catastrophe. From a philosophic point of view there is will and struggle. For as always in China, disaster has been met by its people with courage. In this case, after pushing things too far with Britain, and the threat of war with Russia it was realised how weakened the country was. It is heartening to read how traditional ways of life were secretly safeguarded. No less how ordinary people began playing a game of duel identity, and in so doing managed to keep their values and heritage and yet still survive undetected, though never free of fear. Perhaps it is this resilience to constant and frightening change, which alongside the unspeakable horror of the events, shines through this book, that is the most positive testament of the Cultural Revolution. For indeed it was the people who dragged the country back onto the rails when it all went down the spout. As it is put in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms “It is a truth universally acknowledged. That everything long united will fall apart. And everything long divided will come back together again.” Indeed the historian Sima Guang agreed that “the periods of good order and harmony have been short in the history of China”. More simply observed by the Tang Poet Du Fu, “Nation shattered. Mountains and river remain.” Life goes on.
This book puts voices into people’s mouths, people who have long been considered mindless automatons, it shows that indeed people were not impressed by the one party state, but were helpless to do anything without being denounced and had to wait for Maoism to implode before they could bury it. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution, this is a timely, dramatic, and enlightening piece of research and an excellent finale to a memorable trilogy that will remain a basis for future scholars and readers for years to come.

1066: England’s Magnus Annus.

1. Signs in the heavens.

"These men wonder at the star" ISTI MIRANT STELLA.
“These men wonder at the star” ISTI MIRANT STELLA.

It began in the heavens, when on the 24th of April 1066, before the Kalends of May and on the eve St Mark’s day, a cursed light was seen to creep into the night sky. The next day was a rogations day given over to prayer and fasting known commonly as the “Feast” of Letania Major, and a penitential procession would mark the occasion. For 7 nights this “long haired star” distracted worshipers from pious thoughts and redirected their gaze to its brilliant long trailing flare. It travelled over the dome of the world, so bright that it seemed to extinguish those lesser stars that got in its way. It turned eyes from the message of forgiveness and repentance to introspection and endless discussion of what it might mean. The ravenous object had come at a portentous time for signs and wonders. King Harold had not been on the throne a year yet, nor the sainted king Edward in his grave much longer, before this javelin of white fire slowly glided over in the mystic void above the heads of the watchers below.
At doorways, windows and rooftops, around campfires, and on lonely town ramparts and broad city walls the people of England gazed with quiet horror at this glimmering messenger from a world beyond. It was a haunting sight, disaster comes from the Greek for bad star, these messengers of the cosmos were set in motion to warn mortals of coming calamity and those who saw them never forgot them.

Halley’s Comet, the serene spectre that haunted England in April of 1066.

“Thou art come!” Old brother Eilmer of Malmsbury had cried at the spectre, falling to his knees and continuing to call out with almost frantic terror, “A matter of lamentation to many a mother art thou… I have seen thee long since; but I know behold thee much more terrible threatening to hurl destruction on this country”. To men like the venerable Eilmer, this was an evil sign, that had dogged his footsteps since childhood. Something as personal as a shadow and just as hard to describe. Participation with the cosmos was rare and frightening, in that inky realm the universe was at work and affected the doing of mortal humanity, to see one of its heralds in motion was a mighty and fearful thing to behold. It’s indifference to the misery it wrought plain in its remorseless and uncaring path through the stars. This herald took his time, no shooting star was this, a brief flash of transient light, this vain busybody wished to be observed. For why should a messenger care for what he imparts? His only duty is to pass on what he has been told and leave.
King Harold had been at Westminster to celebrate Easter, the great embroidered cloth at Bayeux, shows him at court, being told of the mysterious sign by a servant who whispers the news in his ear. What Harold thought of it is anyone’s guess but he’d have known it would upset the people. The brothers of Malmsbury knew well enough that the scriptures told of wonders in the heavens and signs in the earth below, of blood, fire and columns of smoke. In France it was thought to portend the overthrow of kingdoms. Meanwhile through the dark vigils of the last week of April, the people of England star gazed with unspoken trepidation at the phenomenon. Some watched with wonder, others thumbed rosary beads, while the pagans clutched their totemic neck charms, until slowly the brilliance began to fade and on the 8th night disappeared from the sky as if it had never been there, ending the brief interaction between Earth and the powerful force that guided it. On the “tapestry” ghostly ships begin to collect in the bottom margin. The year of invasions had begun.



Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

Gesta Regium Anglorum. William of Malmsbury.

Campaigns of the Norman Conquest. Matthew Bennett.

Hastings 1066. Christoper Gravett.

Millennium. Tom Holland.

Normand Conquest. Marc Morris.