5 of the worst years in British history
Uncertainty may dominate the news, but Britain has survived difficult times before, as this 2008 article from Derek Wilson shows. Here, he nominates five years that saw the greatest tests in our history
If there is a commodity every politician would love to be able to bottle, it must surely be the "feel-good factor", that sense of wellbeing that Voltaire lampooned so effectively in Candide with the philosophy of Dr Pangloss: "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds". Ironically, it is our confrontational political system that helps to ensure that, like the end of the rainbow, that blessed state of universal satisfaction remains elusive.
Any party in opposition devotes itself to playing on the discontents of sections of the population in order to rubbish the claimed achievements of the party in power. They know that they can rely for emotional backing and votes on the much more substantial “feel-bad factor”. Thus, for example, education and the NHS will remain contentious subjects as long as there are people with unhappy experiences of hospitals and schools. It was President Hoover who observed pessimistically, but I believe correctly, that consumer-led capitalist democracy produces “constantly moving happiness machines” controlled by their autocratic desires and expectations.
Such reflections led me to ponder the question, “What times were there in British history that were really bad?” Can we identify any “no hope” years? It soon became obvious that I had to remove several possible candidates that might immediately thrust themselves into the spotlight. For example, years in which there were national disasters, such as bad harvests, or civil war did not necessarily meet the criteria. They did not affect all sections of the population (one man’s famine is another man’s increased profit) and calamities, such as the Blitz, often brought out the best in national character.
Distant and not disastrous
I also had to be wary of events that historians have dubbed “important”. The arrival of William of Orange to expel James II in 1688 was the last successful invasion of our shores and was pregnant with political consequences but how was it perceived by the majority of contemporaries? Did they really care very much who wore the crown in distant Westminster?
- Read more | How glorious was the Glorious Revolution
That for me was the crucial point: what years saw such a concatenation of disastrous events that most people were driven to despair? Having, very subjectively, of course, compiled a shortlist of five anni horribile (I use the term "year" loosely because events and movements do not fit conveniently into calendar units), just for fun I decided to select a "winner". My "judge's choice" will probably surprise many readers and irritate a few but I hope it will provoke all into reflecting further on what it was like to live through crisis years.
The human race, and our particular chunk of it, is remarkably resilient, and focusing attention on times that have seen us at our lowest ebb also highlights our ability to overcome catastrophe and pluck hope from the jaws of despair.
AD 60: Rome stamps down on the British rebels
When Nero became emperor in AD 54, he seriously considered withdrawing his legions from Britain. The Roman conquest of the island had been underway for a decade and had been very heavy going. The tribes, sometimes acting in concert, had inflicted some humiliating defeats on Roman forces and were continuing to harass the invaders. An official divide-and-rule policy was not proving strikingly successful. Nero decided to strengthen the Roman invasion forcefully, because, according to the historian Tacitus, he did not want to be outdone by his predecessor, Claudius. His decision had a shattering effect on the people of Britain.
- Read more | Everything you wanted to know about Roman Britain – but were afraid to ask
Suetonius Paulinus, who was sent to lead the advance, was a no-nonsense soldier with a reputation for fighting in mountainous terrain. This was important because north Wales had been identified as the main centre of British resistance. Anglesey was the site of the principal druidic shrine, a haven for fugitives and a source of anti-Roman propaganda. The druids were drawn from the upper echelons of tribal society. They were scholars, priests, poets and judges, who preserved and passed on ancient laws and legends.
The concept of nationalism is anachronistic in first-century Britain but the druids seem to have been a unifying force, providing a powerful ideological basis for resisting the alien Roman culture. The druids had been a respected element of society for generations. For the AD 60 Britons, it must have seemed that the druids had always been there. To strike at them, Suetonius knew, would be to demoralise the whole population.
Tacitus has left a vivid description of the confrontation of cultures:
The enemy was arrayed along the shore in a massive, dense and heavily-armed line of battle, … Women, dressed in black like the Furies, were thrusting their way about in it, their hair let down and streaming, and they were brandishing flaming torches. Around the enemy host were druids uttering prayers and curses, flinging their arms towards the sky. The Roman troops stopped short in their tracks as if their limbs were paralysed… by this extraordinary and novel sight. However, in the end, exhortations from their commander and an exchange among themselves of encouragement not to be scared of a womanish and fanatic army broke the spell. They overran those who resisted them and cast them into their own flames. Subsequently a garrison was imposed on the defeated enemy and the groves sacred to savage superstitions destroyed.
Britons had inflicted humiliating defeats on Roman forces
While Suetonius’s men were harrying enemies in the West, a bigger rebellion broke out on the other side of the country. The underlying reason for the revolt led by the Iceni and Trinovantes of East Anglia was the insensitivity of the new regime.
More like this
Claudius’s officials had created client kingdoms, seeking to co-operate with tribal rulers, and Suetonius treated the Britons with contempt born of fear. He and his men were trying to hold down a large hostile population from a few fortified settlements with the support of client chieftains on whom they could not completely rely. Suetonius’s response was to enforce his authority ruthlessly.
Pushed too far, several of the tribes rebelled. Under the leadership of Queen Boudica of the Iceni, they overran Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium and Verulamium (St Albans). They cut to pieces a sizeable contingent of the Ninth Legion and moved west, a disorderly host exhilarated by success, and gorged on booty.
Suetonius concentrated his hastily-gathered force of some 10,000 legionaries in a tactical position, perhaps somewhere near Nuneaton. They were horrendously outnumbered, probably by more than ten to one. The battle, when it came, was hard fought and lasted for hours. It was brute force against discipline and superior weapons. Eventually, British ranks buckled. No accurate casualty figures are possible but Tacitus’s estimate of 80,000 Britons killed in the fighting is probably not too great an exaggeration.
Survivors may have wished that they had fallen in battle for Suetonius’s reprisals over the ensuing months spread death and destruction through the land.
AD 60 qualifies for my list because it left a people, not just humiliated, cowed and conquered, but deprived of their own laws, their myths and legends.
1349: The Black Death stalks the land
Any short list of disastrous times must feature the Black Death of 1348–50. The plague, which assumed bubonic and pneumonic forms, landed in Bristol from the continent in the summer of 1348 and spread rapidly along trade routes, reaching London in autumn. The natural reaction of people in smitten areas was to flee, which hastened the spread of infection. Ironically, the Scots unwittingly rushed to embrace it. Armies crossed the border to take advantage of England’s weakened state and the soldiers carried the disease back with them.
- Read more | Were medieval people cleaner than we think?
By the end of 1349 the plague had reached all mainland regions and had crossed to Ireland. When the pandemic was over in mid-1350, it had carried off more than 30 per cent of the population of these islands. Contemporary records bear pitiful testimony to widespread shock and distress. The suffering of the afflicted, the grief of survivors and the sight and stench of unburied bodies beggars imagination.
The suffering of the victims and stench of dead bodies beggars imagination
The shattering of national morale was all the worse because the Black Death came at a time when England was riding high in Europe. Under the leadership of the belligerent, youthful Edward III, impressive victories had been won over the French and the Scots. After the battle of Crécy (1346) and the capture of Calais (1347) troops arrived home laden with booty and it was said that no woman in the country lacked for some graceful gown or valuable trinket. Edward actually celebrated while the plague was at its heights, by forming the Order of the Garter.
- Read more | Edward III: the family man
It is almost inconceivable that the lords and ladies who celebrated at lavish banquets and tournaments could be unaware that all around them the social fabric was falling apart. They seem to have been as indifferent to the suffering of the people as most of us are to the impact of HIV/Aids in Africa, even though, as the Italian writer Boccaccio observed, “many valiant men and fair ladies breakfasted with their kinsfolk and supped with their ancestors”.
In an age when all manner of diseases were rife and life expectancy among the lower orders was in the mid-thirties, perhaps the piecemeal reports reaching the royal court did not seem to be all that catastrophic. King and Parliament thought they could legislate their way out of the crisis.
Faced with a mobile labour force of peasants leaving their manors and demanding high wages from employers desperate to have their flocks tended, the government enacted the Statute of Labourers in 1351 ordering people to return to their masters on pain of imprisonment. But the effects of the Black Death went further than the undermining of feudalism and the emergence of a wage economy. People in distress looked immediately to those whose job it was to help them – the parish clergy and the members of religious orders. Many men and women of God went about their work heroically among the sick and dying, but there were many more who fled the pestilence and left their flocks to die without the benefit of masses.
Ironically, the dearth of clergy after 1349 led to many unsuitable men being hastily ordained, with a concomitant fall in moral and educational standards. Small wonder that anticlericalism became a feature of national life and, before the end of the century, fed into the “English heresy”, Lollardy. Even if people were not lured into false belief, they tended to embrace a morbid scepticism. The Dance of Death became an increasingly familiar painted image.
The Black Death challenged the traditional certainties on which society rested. People inevitably asked why it happened. Was it a divine punishment? Did it presage the end of the world? Was it all the fault of the Jews? Britain managed to avoid the worst excesses of persecution and wild apocalyptic preaching that hit the continent nor was there the kind of religious revival which often followed major disaster. On the contrary, looting, prostitution and profiteering became commonplace in Britain and went, largely, unpunished. It was not just human bodies that were destroyed by the plague.
1536: Tyranny leads to persecution and revolt
In October William Tyndale, the Protestant reformer, was burned at the stake with these words on his lips, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”, and the people of Lincolnshire rose in revolt claiming to deliver the same king from his Protestant councillors. This was the year the Reformation storm, building up for a decade, finally burst.
Angry that the Pope, a foreign potentate, could determine the fate of the Tudor dynasty by refusing permission for him to divorce and marry again to sire a male heir, Henry VIII had been happy to give some encouragement to the small, but growing and influential Protestant minority. He had used Parliament to cow the clergy, break with Rome and have himself proclaimed head of the Church in England.
Henry VIII was like a lion whose claws could lash out at anyone
None of these events impacted greatly on ordinary parishioners. Traditional practices and beliefs throughout the land remained unchanged and conventional Catholics were, doubtless, reassured by the seeking out of Protestant "troublemakers" (Foxe's Book of Martyrs lists 180 men and women who burned or were forced to recant between 1527 and 1535). In 1536 everything changed.
- Read more | Henry VIII’s savage Reformation
With Henry the personal and the political were always intertwined. In January he had a serious tiltyard accident and for several hours his recovery was despaired of. The shock had psychological repercussions. Always belligerent and determined, the King now became vicious and intractable to the point of paranoia. Made forcefully aware of his mortality, he untangled himself from his marriage to Anne Boleyn, who had failed to provide him with a male heir. The Queen and her alleged “paramours” were executed in May. This reassured those of the political elite who hated Anne for her Protestant sympathies but, as Thomas More had warned, Henry was like an unpredictable lion whose claws could lash out against anyone.
Anger and suspicion
He now showed that “head of the Church” was no empty title. In March an Act was passed dissolving all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200. As well as the distress caused to the small communities of monks and nuns, anger and suspicion were aroused among their neighbours, who suspected that this was the thin end of a land-grabbing wedge. Their suspicions deepened when commissioners were sent out to assess the wealth and spiritual condition of the remaining monasteries. Then, in July, Parliament passed into law what were ironically called Articles of Faith to Establish Christian Quietness. Among its clauses was one condemning superstitious and idolatrous practices. When Henry was warned that these measures would stir unrest, he responded by forbidding all preaching for three months, which closed the lid on boiling discontent.
Feelings ran particularly high in the North and the East Midlands. The last straw was the arrival of the King’s tax gatherers in September. Rumours spread that the officials had come to remove church treasures. In Lincolnshire angry mobs, egged on by priests, raised the standard of revolt and took the King’s men prisoner. The Lincolnshire rebellion was nipped in the bud by a show of force, but trouble had spread across the Humber and most of the North was up in arms. York, Hull and Pontefract were soon in rebel hands and 30,000 “pilgrims” were encamped.
It was all over by March 1537 but that should not lead us to conclude that this revolt, the Pilgrimage of Grace, was anything less than a serious inflammation of the body politic. The rebellion embraced nobles, priests, merchants and peasants and they had sympathisers at court. The army Henry sent against the rebels was outnumbered and the dissidents only dispersed on receiving Henry’s promises of pardon and redress of grievances (which he had no intention of keeping). Henry was apoplectic with rage at the traitors. When the Duke of Norfolk reported that 74 rebels had been hanged he demanded to know why there were not more.
The year 1536 revealed to the people that they were governed by a tyrant. It began a period when ancient customs were banned, churches despoiled, clergy and laity imprisoned and executed. But regimenting faith was beyond even Henry. The seeds of change he sowed could only produce fruits of division, bitterness, anger and confusion.
1812: War rages, revolution beckons
Jane Austen was putting the finishing touches to Pride and Prejudice in 1812. Surely the year which saw the Bennets, Bingleys and Wickhams engrossed in their own jealous rivalries and petty snobberies could not qualify as an annus horribilis?
What we may easily forget is that Miss Austen's romances are escapist literature and not social commentary. If they project a secure, structured, well-ordered society it is because their first readers needed the reassurance that such fiction conveyed. To take the most obvious example, we can read Jane Austen's entire oeuvre and find just fleeting references to the French wars, which Britain had been engaged for almost two decades.
- Read more | Romance and reality in Jane Austen’s world
But that was not the worst calamity strike Britain in this doleful year. The Midlands and much of the North were revolt. "Sheer insurrectionary fury has rarely been more widespread in English history," wrote EP Thompson The Making of the English Working Class. The troublemakers called themselves Luddites, were organised in mobs and broke into textile mills to smash newly-installed machines. Commercial dislocation caused by the war had forced manufacturers to economise by laying off workers, cutting wages and installing machines that did the work of several artisans.
Mill owners and their exploitation were the targets of angry, poverty-stricken demonstrators but the underlying causes of conflict were high prices and taxes (bad harvests drove the cost of a loaf of bread to its highest ever level) and also disturbing egalitarian ideas infiltrating from revolutionary France. The voting class demanded tough action.
Yorkshire mill owner William Horsfall spoke for many when he declared himself willing to wade through Luddite blood to restore order. In the event it was his own blood that flowed when he was gunned down by an anonymous assassin. The Government panicked and brought in capital punishment for machine-breaking, but there was no end to the social upheaval.
- Read more | Where history happened: Luddites
The political centre was in disarray. In the previous year George III had finally succumbed to illness and his indolent and unpopular son was vested permanently with full regency powers in February 1812. “Prinny” was lampooned by caricaturists, received sackfuls of abusive mail, and graffiti chalked on walls offered 100 guineas for his head. While the country faced war abroad and revolution at home the head of state devoted his energies to supervising plans for Regent’s Park and throwing lavish parties in Brighton. He was quite incapable of stamping his authority on a government riven by conflicts of personality and policy.
Bad harvests drove the cost of a loaf of bread to its highest ever level
Spencer Perceval had been prime minister since the end of 1809 but was frequently at odds with his own colleagues. On 11 May, he was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Many right-thinking people were horrified by this atrocity – but many more were not. When the assassin, John Bellingham, was brought to execution cheering crowds surrounded the scaffold and 5,000 troops had to be mobilised to prevent the incident sparking an insurrection.
Meanwhile, the war pursued its laborious and costly way. In Spain, Wellington was gradually wearing down the French defenders but final victory was still not in sight. Autumn saw Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, the prelude to his eventual downfall, but the scale of the French disaster was scarcely known in London by the end of the year.
By this time Britain’s military authorities had something else to worry about. On 19 June, the United States of America declared war on Britain. Not only was the nation now facing hostilities on two fronts, British possessions in Canada (where many families had relatives) were threatened. Worse still for morale was the fact that Britannia, which claimed to “rule the waves”, suffered some humiliating naval reverses.
Britain in 1812 was a divided nation. Economic disruption was severe. The cutlers of Sheffield were working at half capacity. In Birmingham, 9,000 factory workers were laid off. There was anarchy at home and debilitating war abroad. The Government was bereft of leadership and the country was at an all-time low. We know that things did improve – war gave way after 1815 to prolonged peace; the Industrial Revolution rocketed Britain into world economic leadership, and programmes of reform began. But Jane Austen’s troubled contemporaries were not equipped with crystal balls.
- Read more | The capture of the Chesapeake: how the British Royal Navy rescued its reputation in the War of 1812
1937: Rudderless and depressed
What was so cruel about this year was that, after a brief period of optimism for national and international affairs, hopes were dashed and people found themselves face-to-face with both economic collapse and war. Events that cumulatively undermined morale were intertwined and we can best understand the deepening mood of gloom by following them chronologically, starting shortly before the opening of our year, in October 1936.
The main event making the headlines in this month was the Jarrow Crusade. Around 200 men from this shipbuilding town, where 68 per cent of the workforce was unemployed, marched by stages to Downing Street to demand jobs. They were greeted by cheering crowds everywhere and drew sympathetic support from all classes.
People were face-to-face with economic collapse and war
Unemployment, the worst manifestation of the Great Depression, had actually been falling since 1932 but the national average still stood at 18 per cent with figures much higher in the industrial North and Midlands. Successive governments had attempted various solutions but recovery was painfully slow and, within a year, jobless numbers would increase again.
All activists had their own “solutions” for Britain’s economic ills and another march held in this same month led to riots in London’s East End. Sir Oswald Mosley and his black-shirted British Union of Fascists paraded provocatively through the Jewish quarter.
The main events of November and December were symbolic, rather than illustrative of Britain’s decline. On 30 November, the magnificent Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was burned to the ground. The disaster seemed to many to close the curtain on Britain’s economic world domination.
A bigger shock occurred 11 days later. Edward VIII broadcast to the nation his decision to resign the Crown. The abdication crisis had been fought out in the press for several days – the Mail, Express and Mirror versus The Times and Telegraph. Readers debated who was behaving more disreputably, the King or the press barons.
Fear of extremism
So 1937 opened bleakly, and things didn’t get better. Domestic issues played more insistently with people than foreign affairs but no one could be unaware of the ominous changes disturbing the international scene. Ideologues pointed to the demons of communism or fascism as the reason for political and economic decline. The two systems were locked in armed conflict in Spain and 2,000 British left-wingers went off to fight in the civil war. Even the uncommitted majority were alarmed by news in April that German planes supporting General Franco had bombed the Basque fishing village of Guernica and its civilian population. The mounting belligerence of Germany and Italy (which had formed their Axis alliance in October) was pushing people towards thinking the unthinkable.
The "unthinkable" was that the Great War, which most Britons could still remember, might not be the "war to end wars". Hopes of perpetual peace had been pinned on containment of Germany, general disarmament and the League of Nations. All three had proved broken reeds. A resurgent Germany refused to be constrained by the Treaty of Versailles (and many Britons supported it in the fight against the "greater menace" of communism).
The British government had been forced to divert funds from economic recovery to rearmament. The Ark Royal was launched in April. Spitfires and bombers were rolling off the production lines as, more ominously, were gas masks. The League had shown itself to be toothless when faced by nations that flouted its rules. By 1937 Germany had walked out, Japan declared its intention to do so and Italy resigned before the end of the year.
Disillusionment with politicians of all stripes was indicated in the general election of May when voting numbers reached their lowest level since 1923. Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin who had, at least, been parliamentary figures of stature, both departed the scene.
Leadership fell into the hands of mediocrities unable to raise the nation’s morale. The Government made no objection when Ireland (under the name of Eire) severed its last connection with the United Kingdom.
The weary acceptance of inevitabilities numbed public consciousness and when, in August, news arrived of a second Wall Street crash there was a widespread feeling of “here we go again”.
To most Britons it seemed that the ship of state was adrift without a rudder in seas that were becoming increasingly turbulent.
What is the worst year in British history?
These grim snapshots are like faded photographs in some old album. They speak to us of dislocated societies cut off from their past and fearful of their future. If I have to choose the worst, my vote goes to 1812 for two reasons.
One is that so many things went wrong in that year, facets of life that affected all sorts and conditions of people.
The other is that, like the plain wallflower at the dance, it has been out-dazzled by other events – the turning of the Napoleonic War, the gathering pace of Industrial Revolution and the apparent self-confidence of that society we see through the pages of Jane Austen. It is the historian's job to try to put the record straight.
Derek Wilson is the author of Sir Francis Walsingham: Courtier in an Age of Terror (Constable, 2007)
This article was first published in the February 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99