King John was perhaps one of the worst King’s in English history. However, he did inadvertently sign one of the most important documents in British legal history.
After a rebellion by his barons, John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter which placed certain restrictions on his royal authority. He would later renege on the deal, which sparked fresh rebellion, but it was ratified by his successor, Henry III. It’s seen as one of the founding documents of our democracy.
3. Simon De Montfort calls the first parliament: 20 January 1265
In 1855, the British explorer and abolitionist David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on what was known as Mosi-oa-Tunya - "the smoke that thunders." He named this mighty waterfall (located on the modern border between Zambia and Zimbabwe) for his monarch Queen Victoria, before continuing his unprecedented journey across Africa.
Today, statues of Livingstone stand either side of Victoria Falls in recognition of his accomplishments.
Science and religion
Livingstone was born in 1813 and began work in his father's cotton mill at the age of 10. He spent much of his youth reconciling his love of science with his all-encompassing faith in God.
Inspired by a call for medical missionaries to go to China in 1834, Livingstone saved up and worked hard in order to attend college in Glasgow in 1836. He later applied to join the London Missionary Society and by 1840 the young Scot was medically trained and ready to go abroad.
[caption id="attachment_24520" align="alignnone" width="842"] David Livingstone[/caption]
Captivated by Africa
In London, Livingstone met Robert Moffat, a missionary on leave from a posting in Africa. At the time, much of the interior of the African continent was yet to be explored by Europeans. Livingstone was captivated by Moffat's tales. He set out for Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) as a missionary and with hopes of furthering the cause of abolitionism in southeastern Africa.
Livingstone's early years as a missionary were eventful. On one occasion, while taking care of some lambs, he was pounced on by a lion. The resulting broken arm never fully recovered and he could never raise the limb above shoulder height again.
His success as a missionary was also mixed. He tried to convert the tribes and chiefs bordering British and Boer territories at the southern tip of the continent but failed to make any real breakthrough.
Livingstone concluded that before any progress could be made, he should first explore Africa to further his understanding. He identified the rivers as the best starting point for mapping and navigating inland.
Exploring the interior of Africa
There were good reasons why Europeans had not explored inland before. Most explorers were ill-equipped to deal with tropical diseases. Exploring parties were also targeted by tribes who viewed them as invaders. For this reason, Livingstone travelled light with only a few native servants, guns, and medical supplies.
Livingstone's journey began in 1852. He knew and respected the ways of the African tribes and tried to introduce Christianity and the abolitionist message gently, rather than haranguing proud chiefs into submission. The chiefs warmed to his approach and even offered him men to assist him in his ambitious goal of mapping the Zambezi river all the way to the sea - a trans-continental journey that had never been completed before by a European, despite numerous attempts.
After several long years of exploration, Livingstone arrived at Victoria Falls on 16 November, 1855. We get a sense of his wonder at the sight through his later writings, in which he describes: "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
[caption id="attachment_24519" align="alignnone" width="718"] Map showing Livingstone's travels through Africa (shown in red)[/caption]
A life of exploration
Livingstone reached the Indian ocean in 1856, his mammoth journey finally concluded.
The next year he left the London Missionary Society, which was suspicious of his scientific interests, and received a roaming exploration commission from Queen Victoria. Over the next decade he became a national hero, leading more expeditions back to the Zambezi and then the Nile. He then disappeared for years, giving rise to the famous "Dr Livingstone I presume" meeting with fellow explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
Livingstone died deep in the African wilderness in 1873, at the age of 60. He left a legacy of mutual respect among the native people he encountered, and did more than any other man to combat slavery in that part of the world, which he had explored so thoroughly.
Image Attribution: A statue of Simon de Montfort from a clock tower in Leicester.
Henry III had been in ongoing conflict which his barons leading to the signing of the Provisions of Oxford which imposed a council of advisers, chosen by the barons. Henry wriggled out of the provisions, but was defeated and captured by Simon De Montfort at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264.
De Montfort summoned an assembly which has often been considered a precursor to modern day parliaments.
4. Battle of Bannockburn: 24 June 1314
Image Attribution: Robert Bruce addresses his men before the Battle of Bannockburn.
Edward’s conquests of Scotland had sparked rebellion, most notably by William Wallace who was eventually executed in 1305. Discontent continued, however, and on 25 March 1306 Robert the Bruce had himself crowned King of Scotland in defiance of Edward I who then died on his way up to do battle.
The mantle was taken up by Edward II who was not quite the leader his father had been. The two sides met at Bannocknurn where Robert the Bruce defeated an English army twice the size of his own. It ensured independence for Scotland and humiliation for Edward.
5. The Hundred Years War begins: April 1337
Amount of Ordinance Dropped in Short Tons:
Full Text Version:
The Vietnam War defined a turbulent, crusading generation, causing massive devastation to South-East Asia, collapsing the US Democratic consensus and infiltrating American culture as no other conflict has done since. At the time it was the US’s longest and most unpopular war, and it resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and in an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths.
Victory in the anti-colonial war (fought against the French between 1945 and 1954, and supported by US aid) saw Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia granted independence. Vietnam was split North and South, and by 1958 the communist north (Vietcong) were conducting military operations across the border. President Eisenhower dispatched 2,000 military advisors to coordinate the anti-communist effort in South Vietnam. From 1960 to 1963 President Kennedy gradually increased the advisory force in SV to 16,300.
In October 1963 President Kennedy supported the South Vietnam's military’s overthrow of President Diem and his regime. Ngo Dinh Diem had operated a regime that favoured the Catholic minority at the expense of the Buddhist majority, de-stabilising the country and threatening to enable a Communist takeover. Diem was murdered in the process of the coup, and although JFK did not support this – in fact the news is said to have infuriated him – his assassination means one can never know whether he would have escalated the conflict as President Johnson would do.
Lyndon Johnson's Escalation - 1964
Johnson was no hawk, but he felt the pressure of his predecessor’s foreign policy successes, and he inherited hawkish advisors. By early the South Vietnamese had lost the Mekong Delta to the Vietcong. President Johnson sought to vastly the USA’s military presence. The Gulf of Tonkin Agreemen was drawn up after a brief skirmish off the coast of Vietnam between the USS Maddox and NV naval forces in August 1964. As the situation deteriorated further in early 1965, Johnson took the decision to massively increase USA’s military presence in SV.
LBJ bypassed Congress in announcing on 2nd March 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive sustained bombing campaign on NV, aimed at demoralising and undercutting the Communist insurgency. On July 28th he also announced a 50 000 troop increase, with 50 000 more scheduled for later in the year.
In the war’s early stages US forces made sustained, satisfactory progress. In January 1967 combined US and SV forces launched Operation Cedar Falls, a 20 day search and destroy mission, in the ‘Iron Triangle’ Communist stronghold, which was interpreted at the time as a success. Revisionists have posited that a) the communists only suffered temporarily and b) the treatment of the SV civilians in particular was morally dubious and certainly counter productive.
Tet Offensive - 1968
By the start of 1968 536,000 troops were stationed in South Vietnam, but the war was stalling. On January 30th 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, the North Vietnam sprung a huge counter attack on US controlled towns and cities, making significant early gains which were subsequently wiped out.
During the offensive communist forces took the strategically crucial city of Hue. Over the next month South Vietnamese and US forces slowly won back the city in a bloody siege which destroyed the city. In that period around 2800 civilians were executed by the North Vietnamese. Together with Tet this episode signalled a turnaround in domestic perceptions of the war. Criticism of the Johnson administration grew as mutilated veterans returned and the prospects of a decisive victory diminished.
The Vietnam war coincided with and helped shape the 60s movement. Along with the Civil Rights struggle it enabled a mass anti-government movement to form. Pressure grew to the point where Johnson announced, on 31 March, that he would not seek re-election.
Richard Nixon Wins the 1968 Presidential Election
His hope that the conflict would be resolved before he stepped down was quashed by the combined efforts of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who sabotaged peace talks conducted in Paris by offering the SV a better deal should Nixon be elected in November 1968. He was elected (decisively defeating Johnson’s VP, Hubert Humphrey), but talks collapsed and the war continued another 3 years.
Nixon employed the rhetoric of ‘fear, prejudice and division’ in waging a successful Presidential campaign against incumbent VP Hubert Humphrey. He also benefited from the collapse of the Paris Peace Talks. There is strong evidence to suggest that Nixon and Henry Kissinger orchestrated this collapse in the hope of taking credit for their own peace deal after taking office.
Throughout the Nixon presidency a sequence of revelations saw that the war lost all credibility in the USA.
On April 29 1969 Nixon ordered the first of 13 bombing operations against Cambodia, codenamed Operation Menu. The aim of the campaign was to destroy some 40 000 People's Army and Vietcong troops stationed in Eastern Cambodia. The devastation of this campaign certainly limited the cross-border threat to Vietnam, but the moral implications of the campaign were huge, and many historians argue that it paved the way for the accession of the murderous Khymer Rouge.
In 1970 journalist Seymour Hersch exposed the grisly details of the My Lai massacre. On the morning of March 16th 1968 Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade, had entered the hamlet of My Lai on a 'search and destroy' mission. Over 3 hours 504 civilians were murdered in cold blood. Not a single shot was fired at US soldiers. This atrocity, the subsequent whitewash - only one soldier was ever successfully prosecuted - and scandal cemented the American public’s unfavourable perception of the War.
In 1971 the ‘Pentagon Papers’ were published by the New York Times, revealing that the Johnson administration had lied consciously and repeatedly over Vietnam. It also revealed the ‘real’ aim of the war – containment of China. On 13 June 13 1971 began publishing a series of articles based on the 47-volume history, leaked to the paper by Daniel Elsberg. The US government unsuccessfully attempted to restrict their publication, citing a risk to US military interests (lost 6-3 in the Supreme Court.)
On 15 January 1973, after the USA had conducted a huge B-52 bombing campaign, depositing 20 000 tonnes of explosive on NV, at Christmas, Nixon suspended military activities and 10 days after the Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were ratified.
Nixon resigned in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, and on 30 April 1975 South Vietnam officially fell to the Communists. The fall of Saigon and the concomitant withdrawal of US civilians and diplomatic personnel was a huge logistical challenge (Operation Frequent Wind.) That marked the end of the war as Vietnam was politically unified as a Socialist Government controlled by the Communist Party.
Unusually for a major conflict, early historical assessments of the Vietnam War were for the most part highly critical of U.S. policy. The works of Bernard Fall, David Halberstam, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were a few among many that attacked the US intervention, which was labelled variously as avoidable tragedy, a rapacious superpower agitating for global hegemony, and everything in-between.
Vietnam itself is scarred mentally and physically by the conflict. Agent Orange, a defoliant used across the country to expose hidden North Vietnamese troops, has caused many gross, inherited deformities in children born after 1975. Unexploded bombs also remain a constant threat. What is universally acknowledged is that the war was appallingly wasteful, playing host to some of the USA’s greatest shames.
Image Attribution: Edward III of England whose claim to the French throne launched the 100 Years War.
From 1066,England had been linked to France, since William I was Duke of Normandy and as such a vassal of the French King. One of the most notable results of this vassalage occurred in 1120 when King Henry I sent his son and heir, William Adelin, to kneel before the French king. On his return journey, however, William’s ship was wrecked and the young prince drowned, sending England into Anarchy.
This semi-vassalage continued until the Hundred Years War erupted in 1337.
That year, Philip VI of France seized the English held territory of Aquitaine which led Edward III to challenge the might of the French by declaring himself rightful King of France through his mother’s line (she had been the sister of the previous King of France: Charles IV). The resulting conflict divided Europe for over 100 years.
6.The Black Death arrives: 24 June 1348
Bubonic plague had already laid waste to much of Europe and Asia, but in 1348 it arrived in England, probably through the port of Bristol. The Grey Friars’ Chronicle reports 24 June as the date of its arrival, although it likely arrived sometime earlier but took time to spread. In a few years it killed between 30% and 45% of the population.
7. The Peasants Revolt begins: 15 June 1381
On 7 January 1785, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his American co-pilot John Jeffries completed the first successful crossing of the English Channel in a balloon.
Their achievement was another milestone in the already eventful history of hot air ballooning.
Joseph Montgolfier was the first to begin experimenting with hot air balloons. The idea struck him one evening when he found he was able to inflate his shirt over the fire.
Joseph and his brother Etienne began experimenting in their garden. On 4 June 1783 they made the first public demonstration using a balloon made of cotton and paper carrying a basket of wool.
[caption id="attachment_1693" align="alignnone" width="365"] The Montgolfier brothers' first demonstration of ballooning. Credit: Library of Congress[/caption]
The brothers next set their sights on a manned flight. They had a willing test pilot in local chemistry teacher Pilatre de Rozier, but first they had to make sure a living thing could survive the change of altitude.
As a result the first manned balloon flight carried an audacious crew of a duck, a cockerel and a sheep. After a three-minute flight, performed in front of King Louis XVI, the balloon landed and the Montgolfier brothers were relieved to discover their indomitable menagerie had survived.
Humans in flight
Convinced that if a sheep could survive a balloon flight then a human probably could too, de Rozier finally got his chance. On 21 November 1783 de Rozier and a second passenger (required for balance) achieved a 28 minute flight, reaching 3000 feet.
[caption id="attachment_1696" align="alignnone" width="365"] De Rozier's first manned flight, on 21 November 1783. Credit: Library of Congress[/caption]
In the months that followed, “balloonomania” swept across Europe.
In September 1783, Italian Vincenzo Lunardi attracted 150,000 spectators to witness the first balloon flight in England. According to the Morning PostSt Paul’s Cathedral even increased its entry price for balloon enthusiasts wanting to climb the dome for a better view.
Balloon pilots became the celebrities of their day. But they were also bitter rivals.
In competition with the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloons, scientist Jacques Charles developed a hydrogen balloon, capable of rising higher and travelling further.
Crossing the Channel
The first goal of long-distance balloon flight was to cross the English Channel.
De Rozier planned to cross in a hybrid balloon design, a combination of a hot-air balloon with a small hydrogen balloon attached. But he wasn’t ready in time.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard was inspired by the Montgolfier brothers’ early demonstrations and took his first flight in a balloon in March 1784. In England Blanchard met American doctor and fellow balloon enthusiast John Jeffries, who offered to fund a flight across the Channel in return for a place in the basket.
On 7 January 1785 the pair made their ascent in a hydrogen balloon over Dover and headed for the coast. The flight almost ended early when the pair realised their basket, loaded with equipment, was much too heavy.
[caption id="attachment_1699" align="alignnone" width="618"] Blanchard's successful crossing. Credit: The Royal Aeronautical Society[/caption]
They dumped everything, even Blanchard’s trousers, but kept hold of a letter, the first airmail. They completed the flight in two-and-a-half hours, landing in the Felmores Forest.
Superstars of flight
Blanchard and Jeffries became international sensations. Blanchard subsequently became the first person to make a balloon flight in North America, conducted in front of President George Washington on 9 January 1793.
But ballooning was a dangerous business. After losing out to Blanchard, de Rozier continued to plan a crossing of the Channel in the opposite direction. He set off on 15 June 1785 but the balloon crashed and both he and his passenger were killed.
The perils of flight also caught up with Blanchard. He suffered a heart attack during a flight in 1808, and fell more than 50 feet. He died a year later.
Image Attribution: The death of Watt Tyler as depicted in 1483 in Froissart’s Chronicle.
In the aftermath of the Black Death fit workers were in high demand and they used this scarcity of labour to attempt to establish better working conditions. The landowners though were reluctant to comply. Coupled with high taxes this discontent among peasants led to a revolt led by Watt Tyler.
King Richard II met the rebels and persuaded them to lay down their arms. After Tyler was killed by the king’s men Richard persuaded the rebels to disband by promising them concessions. Instead they received reprisals.
8. Battle of Agincourt: 25 October 1415
Over the centuries, King John’s name has become a byword for badness. Unlike the French, who commonly identify their medieval kings by nicknames like "The Bold", "The Fat", and "The Fair", the English have not tended to give their monarchs sobriquets. But in the case of the third Plantagenet ruler we make an exception.
What the nickname "Bad King John" lacks in originality, it makes up for in accuracy. For that one word best sums up how John's life and reign panned out: bad.
A troubled start
When we examine the bare bones of John's biography, this is hardly a surprise. The youngest son of Henry II, he caused plenty of trouble before going anywhere near his father’s crown. He was known in his youth as Jean sans Terre (or "John Lackland") on account of his want of a landed inheritance.
Henry’s attempt to carve out something for John to govern in central France was the cause of armed warfare between father and sons.
John's poor behaviour was evident when he was sent to Ireland to enforce English royal prerogatives. Upon his arrival, he provoked the locals by needlessly mocking them and – according to one chronicler – tugging their beards.
It was during his brother Richard the Lionheart’s reign that John’s behaviour became actively perfidious, however. Barred from England during Richard’s absence on the Third Crusade, John nevertheless interfered in the politics of the realm.
When Richard was captured and held for ransom on his way home from the Holy Land, John negotiated with his brother’s captors to keep Richard in prison, giving away lands in Normandy that his father and brother had fought hard to win and keep.
In 1194, Richard was released from prison and John was fortunate that the Lionheart decided to pardon him out of piteous contempt rather than ruin him, as would have been quite justifiable.
The Lionheart's death
[caption id="attachment_5765" align="alignnone" width="750"] Richard I was the foremost soldier of his generation.[/caption]
Richard’s sudden death during a minor siege in 1199 put John in contention for the Plantagenet crown. But although he seized power successfully, he never held it securely.
While Henry II and Richard I were the foremost soldiers of their generations, John was a middling commander at best and had the rare ability not only to alienate his allies but also to drive his enemies into one another’s arms.
Within five years of becoming king, John had lost Normandy – the bedrock of his family’s sprawling continental empire – and this disaster defined the rest of his reign.
His hapless and dizzyingly expensive attempts to regain his lost French possessions put an intolerable fiscal and military burden on English subjects, especially those in the north. These subjects had no sense of personal investment in winning back what the king had lost through his own ineptitude and they felt increasing resentment at having to bear the cost.
Meanwhile, John's desperate need to fill his war-chest also contributed to a long and damaging dispute with Pope Innocent III.
A regrettably present king
[caption id="attachment_5738" align="alignnone" width="750"] King John granted the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215, only to renege on its terms shortly after. This romanticised 19th century painting shows the king 'signing' the Charter - which never actually happened.[/caption]
Not helping matters was the fact that John’s permanent presence in England (after more than a century of more or less absentee kingship since the Norman Conquest) exposed English barons to the full and disagreeable force of his personality.
The king was described by contemporaries as an unchivalrous, cruel and mean-spirited cheapskate. These traits would have been tolerable in a monarch who protected his greatest subjects and their property and provided evenhanded justice to those who sought it. But John, alas, did quite the opposite.
He persecuted those closest to him and starved their wives to death. He murdered his own nephew. He managed to upset those whom he needed in a bewildering variety of ways.
It was no surprise in 1214 when defeat at the calamitous battle of Bouvines was followed by rebellion at home. And it was no surprise in 1215 when John, having granted the Magna Carta, proved himself as faithless as ever and reneged on its terms.
When the king succumbed to dysentery during the civil war he had helped create it was taken as read that he had gone to Hell – where he belonged.
From time to time it becomes fashionable for historians to try and rehabilitate John – on the grounds that he inherited a nightmarish task in keeping together the territories his overachieving father and brother had united; that he has been wrongly defamed on the evidence of uptight monastic chronicles whose authors disapproved of his abuses of the English church; and that he was a decent accountant and administrator.
These arguments almost always ignore the loud and near-universal judgment of contemporaries who thought him an appalling man and, more importantly, a lamentable king. Bad he was, and bad should John remain.
Image Attribution: A 15th Century miniature depicting archers at Agincourt.
With the French King Charles VI sick, Henry V took the chance to reassert English claims to the throne. He invaded Normandy but when a much larger French force had him pinned down at Agincourt it looked like his number was up. However, the result was a remarkable victory for the English.
The subsequent victory of Troyes left Henry as regent of France and his heir Henry VI would become King of England and France.
9. The Wars of the Roses begins at St Albans: 22 May 1455
Henry VI’s military defeats and mental fragility led to divisions within the court which would escalate into full scale war at the Battle of St Albans. Although tensions had been building for many years the First Battle of St Albans is often seen as the real beginning of the War of the Roses. For most of the next three decades, the houses of York and Lancaster would battle for the throne.
10. William Caxton prints the first book in England: 18 November 1477
William Caxton was a former merchant in Flanders. On his return he established the first printing press in England which would print, among other things, the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.
11. Battle of Bosworth Field: 22 August 1485
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that there were three big issues of the 20th century - imperialism, fascism and Stalinism - and George Orwell got them all right.
These powers of prescience and perception are evident in this review, published at a time when the upper classes were backpedalling hard on their initial support for the rise of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich. Orwell acknowledges from the outset that this review of Mein Kampf lacks the 'pro Hitler angle' of previous editions.
Who was George Orwell?
George Orwell was an English Socialist writer. He was libertarian and egalitarian and he was also hostile to the Soviet Communist Party.
Orwell had long held a great hatred for Fascism, a form of radical authoritarian ultranationalism, characterised by totalitarianism (when a dictatorial regime that had complete control over everything).
Before war with Germany broke out, Orwell had taken part in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) on the Republican side, specifically to fight Fascism.
When World War Two erupted in 1939, Orwell attempted to sign up for the British Army. He was deemed unfit for any kind of military service, however, because he was tubercular. Nevertheless Orwell was able to serve in the Home Guard.
Although Orwell was unable to join the army and fight Adolf Hitler's Third Reich on the front lines, he was able to attack the German dictator and his far-right regime in his writing.
This was most clearly shown in his review of Mein Kampf in March 1940.
Orwell makes two superb observations in his review:
1. He interprets Hitler's expansionist intentions correctly. Hitler possesses 'the fixed vision of a monomaniac' and he intends to smash England first and then Russia, and ultimately to create 'a contiguous state of 250 million Germans...a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens excepts the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.
2. Hitler's appeal has two fundamental components. First that Hitler's image is of the aggrieved, that he emits the aura of the martyr that resonates with a beleaguered German population. Second that he knows that humans 'at least intermittently' yearn for 'struggle and self-sacrifice.'
Image Attribution: An illustration of Lord Stanley handing Richard III’s circlet to Henry Tudor after the Battle of Bosworth Field.
After the death of Edward IV, his son Edward had briefly succeeded him as King. However he died along with his brother while in the Tower of London and Edward’s brother Richard took over. Richard, however, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor who established a brand new dynasty.