Most of us are familiar with British history's landmark events: the Roman invasion, the battle of Hastings, Magna Carta, the Reformation and so forth. But what about the overlooked, lesser-known moments?
Writing for History Extra Philip Haycock, the co-author of Unexpected Britain: A Journey Through Our Hidden History, shares eight lesser-known facts about Britain’s hidden history…
Boudica was not the only Briton to cause nuisance to the Romans
Pelagius was a British heretic who caused grief for St Augustine and the Christian Church of the late Roman empire.
Pelagius was born somewhere in the British Isles at the end of the fourth century. St Jerome described him as “Scottorum pultibus praegravatus” or “weighed down by Irish porridge”, so his origins may have been in Scotland or even Ireland.
Wherever he was born, Pelagius turned up in Rome at the turn of the fifth century and began preaching views that caused great offence to St Augustine, the theological superstar of the time. While St Augustine taught that sin was original, could not be avoided and could only be solved by God’s grace, Pelagius preached that Christians possessed an element of choice. Individual humans could choose whether to sin or not. Today, in an age of free will, this idea may not seem controversial, but in the fifth century such views were considered heresy.
However, in 410 the army of Alaric was a more dangerous threat to the safety of Rome than a British heretic. Pelagius fled to Africa and then Palestine, where he attempted to prove he was not a heretic. In 418 the emperor Honorius weighed in against him and he was banned from Italy. Things got worse when the wonderfully named Pope Zosimus excommunicated him. Pelagius fled to Egypt, where he disappeared from the records.
Saxon women did exercise political influence
Corfe Castle in Dorset was the scene of Edward the Martyr’s death, on 18 March 978. Some people assume his stepmother, Aelfthryth, was responsible.
Aelfthryth, meaning ‘elf-strength’, was the beautiful daughter of a powerful ealdorman [a high-ranking royal official and prior magistrate of an Anglo-Saxon shire] in 10th-century Wessex. King Edgar sent his friend Aethelwald to check her out. Aethelwald liked what he saw and himself married Aelfthryth, while telling King Edgar that she was not worth the king’s effort. However, Edgar must have suspected that his friend had betrayed him and decided to pay Aethelwald and Aelfthryth a visit.
Aethelwald panicked and told his wife to make herself look ugly, to hide his deception from the king. Aelfthryth ignored her husband’s instructions to hide her beauty, and instead set out to make the most of her charms. Edgar was transfixed. Subsequently, Aethelwald died in a mysterious (and somewhat suspicious) accident while hunting with Edgar, and Aelfthryth became queen.
This is the scandalous story written down by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century and it may contain elements that are untrue. However, it is clear that by 964/5 Aelfthryth had married Edgar and was queen.
Aelfthryth was an active queen. She took an interest in nunneries and became a forespeca – an advocate helping to mediate between people and the crown. However, it was in securing the interest of her two sons, Edmund and Aethelred, that she was to be most active.
The problem was that King Edgar had had a child, Edward, from a previous relationship, and Edward was older than Aelfthryth’s sons. When Edgar died in 975 it was Edward who became king. His reign was cut short when, during a visit to Corfe Castle to see Aelfthryth and her surviving son, Aethelred, he was killed (Edmund had died of natural causes). What role Aelfthryth played in the murder remains unclear, but Edward was increasingly viewed as a martyr.
Following Edward’s death Aelfthryth became regent and ruled until Aethelred came of age in 984. Aethelred, known by his nickname ‘unready’ – meaning ‘without counsel’ – is better known than his mother, but it is to his mother that he owed the throne.
Harold II (the one with the arrow in his eye) was not the last Saxon king
Between 14 October 1066, when Harold II was killed at the battle of Hastings, and 25 December, when William I was crowned at Westminster Abbey, England was ruled, at least in theory, by Edgar Atheling, who took the title Edgar II, the last of the Saxon kings.
Edgar was the son of Edward the Exile and his claim to the throne came from his grandfather, Edmund Ironside, the third son of the Saxon king Aethelred the Unready. Edgar was given the name ‘Atheling’, meaning heir or royal prince, by Edward the Confessor, which suggests that Edward was considering him as his successor.
When Edward died in January 1066, Edgar Atheling may have had the strongest blood-claim to the throne, but he did not have the political support in the witan [the council summoned by Anglo-Saxon kings] enjoyed by Harold Godwineson or the military strength of either Harald Hardrada or William of Normandy. Therefore, his claim to the throne was ignored.
However, following the death of Harald Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066 and Harold Godwineson at Hastings in October, Edgar was the obvious choice for those who still opposed William. The witan in London was quick to get Archbishop Stigand to crown Edgar. However, as William approached London and began burning villages to intimidate the Saxons, support for Edgar vanished.
Edgar did not give up and he was to spend the remainder of his life campaigning to become king of England, or at least to establish his influence over Norman England. He and his family headed north for Scotland, where its king, Malcolm III, was happy to give refuge to Saxons escaping from the Normans. Edgar’s sister Margaret married Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069 and as a result Scotland was to provide a safe haven for Edgar for much of the rest of his life. It was often from Scotland that he campaigned to influence events in England.
When William died in 1087 he left his land in Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthouse, and his younger son William Rufus became William II, king of England. In the subsequent power struggle between William’s sons, Edgar backed Robert, hoping that the elder son would win. Once again, Edgar ended on the losing side, as in 1096 Robert went off to Crusade, which he financed by mortgaging Normandy to William Rufus.
Edgar went on to outlive William II, who died in a hunting accident in 1100, and the throne of England passed to Henry I. Edgar continued to support the claims of Robert Curthouse, Duke of Normandy. He was imprisoned when Henry I defeated Robert at the battle of Tinchebray. However, he was released thanks to his Scottish connection. His niece Edith, daughter of his sister Margaret and Malcolm III, had married Henry I of England.
Edgar is thought to have died in 1125. His rule, as the last of the Saxons, may have been a matter of weeks, but he was to outlive both William and his sons.
Henry VIII was never intended to be a king of England
Prince Arthur was the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and was the legitimate heir to the Tudor throne, rather than his younger brother Prince Henry.
Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in August 1485 and installed the Tudor dynasty. In January 1486 Henry Tudor strengthened his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster.
Almost exactly nine months later, on 19 September 1486, Henry and Elizabeth’s first son was born at St Swithun’s Priory in Winchester. The proud parents chose the name Arthur, hoping his reign would introduce a new ‘Arthurian age’. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur [telling the legends of King Arthur and his knights] was hot off the Caxton press, published the previous year.
In 1490 the young Arthur was invested as Prince of Wales and, at the grand age of six, was appointed keeper of England and king’s lieutenant when his father was away in France. In 1497 Henry VII arranged for Arthur to marry Princess Catherine, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.
Catherine and Arthur were married in St Paul’s cathedral in October 1501. Shortly afterwards they left for Ludlow, where they established their residence. However, the couple’s happiness was short-lived and, according to Catherine, their marriage was never consummated. Arthur fell ill and died on 2 April 1502 at the age of 15. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral.
Catherine of Aragon, of course, stayed in England and became the first wife of Arthur’s younger brother Henry.
The Civil War began in 1642, when Charles I left London, having failed to arrest his enemies in parliament. It ended in 1646 when the king surrendered to the Scots. Before the king’s execution in 1649, a further civil war was fought as royalists in Kent, South Wales and Scotland took up arms against the New Model Army of parliament. The 1648 siege of Colchester was the last engagement of this war. As Lord Goring led his royalist army away from Kent to link up with royalists in Suffolk he took shelter in parliament, supporting Colchester.
The siege lasted from June to August 1648. It was a particularly brutal affair, given that the parliamentary army claimed to be God-fearing individuals. When the parliamentary army seized St John’s Abbey, they exhumed the body of the mother of the royalist leader Sir Charles Lucas and put locks of her hair on their hats.
Having failed to storm Colchester, the parliamentary army built wooden forts around the town and settled down to starve the royalists into surrender. It was innocent civilians who suffered most. The meagre food available was commandeered by the royalist army. With a side of dog going for six shillings, many citizens were forced to survive by eating their candles, which were made from mutton fat. The women of Colchester sat on the street outside royalist headquarters asking for help. None was forthcoming, so the women fled outside the town to appeal to Fairfax and his army. The parliamentary army laughed at the women and threatened to strip them naked if they didn’t go back into the town. Humiliated, they did as they were told.
Even when the siege was over there was no sense of reconciling a divided nation. The royalist leaders Lucas and Lisle were executed and the town was fined £14,000, despite having supported parliament throughout the war.
The British army was using rockets more than a century before the German V1
The British army first came up against rockets in India in the late 18th century: in 1780 Indian rockets ignited the British ammunition stores at the battle of Pollilur. Colonel Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, was impressed by the destructive power of Indian rockets. When the war ended in 1799 some rockets were brought back to the Royal Military College at Woolwich as trophies.
At Woolwich the rockets were discovered by William Congreve, who set about refining the design and turning skyrockets into military weapons. By 1805 he had developed rockets with a range of 2,000 yards – well over a mile. At first these ‘Congreve rockets’ were used in naval attacks on Boulogne and Copenhagen. Despite some setbacks with the accuracy of the weapons fired from a rolling ship, they helped the navy set fire to buildings in both cities.
In October 1813, the Second Rocket Troop of the Royal Artillery was the only British unit at the battle of Leipzig, the so-called battle of Nations. The rockets put to flight an entire French column of 2,500 troops.
A Brit almost beat the Wright brothers in the race for powered flight
Percy Pilcher was a naval engineer with a penchant for flying, and he came close to discovering the secrets of powered flight in Britain four years before the Wright brothers took to the air in the United States.
In 1895 Pilcher built his first glider called ‘The Bat’, which took to the air at Cardross in Scotland. He travelled to Germany to seek inspiration from the gliders of Otto Lilienthal, using these as inspiration to build two further gliders, ‘The Beetle’ and ‘The Gull’. Pilcher’s finest glider was ‘The Hawk’, which featured the world’s first sprung, wheeled undercarriage. This made flights of up to 820 feet and was even flown by a woman, Pilcher’s cousin Dorothy Pilcher.
Pilcher’s ultimate ambition was powered flight, and in 1896 he filed a patent for a powered aeroplane. By 1899 he had built a triplane and a lightweight engine to power it. He organised a demonstration of his plane for 30 September at Stanford Hall near Market Harborough. The stage was set, but unfortunately the crankshaft broke days before the first flight. Desperate for sponsorship and unwilling to let the opportunity pass, Pilcher decided to fly ‘The Hawk’ glider instead.
Tragically the flight of ‘The Hawk’ ended in a crash that could be heard hundreds of yards away, and Percy was terribly injured. He never regained consciousness and died two days later at Stanford Hall.
A scientist who worked on the development of a nuclear bomb ended up winning a Nobel peace prize 50 years later
Joseph Rotblat was born in Warsaw in 1908. By 1938 he had a PhD from Warsaw University and was making a name for himself as a physicist. Rotblat came from a Jewish family and as the clouds of war gathered over Poland he was offered a fellowship by the University of Liverpool.
By 1944 Rotblat had established himself as one of the world’s leading nuclear physicists. He was invited to join the Manhattan Project and work on the world’s first nuclear bomb. He accepted, fearing that the Germans would succeed in making their own nuclear weapon, and he saw the development of an allied weapon as an effective deterrent.
However, when it became clear that Germany would be defeated before it was able to develop a usable nuclear device, Rotblat felt that he could no longer justify working on such a powerful, destructive weapon. Consequently he returned to Liverpool University.
In 1955 Rotblat was one of 11 scientists, including Albert Einstein, to sign a manifesto calling upon scientists to cooperate and to try to prevent nuclear war. In 1957 Rotblat became a founding member and the secretary-general of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs – a position he held until 1973. Named after a village in Nova Scotia where they first met, the conference included scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The conferences played a key role in ending the Cold War, and for this work Rotblat received the 1995 Nobel peace prize.
Philip Laycock is the co-author [with Stuart Laycock] of Unexpected Britain: A Journey Through Our Hidden History (Amberley Publishing, 2015). To find out more, click here.
This article was first published by History Extra in March 2016.