Writing Portfolio


St George of England

Today is St George’s Day, which usually passes with a re-heated article in at least one newspaper lamenting on why the English don’t celebrate being English much, and with another (equally reheated) one about the fact that St George was not, in fact, English.

Both are, in their own way, onto something. Celebrations of English identity have not really been the done thing, which might explain why some people to this day confuse being English with being British (there is a big difference!), and I think we all know by now that St George existed before England did, and he wasn’t even widely known about in England until several centuries after he’d died.

He was a Roman soldier, born in the province of Syria Palaestina (the city of his birth, Lydda, is now called Lod and is located about nine miles south-east of Tel Aviv), who was born a Christian and refused to renounce his faith when the Emperor Diocletian embarked on the Roman Empire’s last and most severe persecution of Christians in the year 303 AD; he was beheaded on 23rd April 303 in Nicodemia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey).

He was venerated as a saint in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his reputation spread to England as a result of the Crusades (the English soldiers who went to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land being inspired by stories about an old Christian soldier). Although use of his emblem – a red cross on a white background – has been attributed to Richard the Lionheart, the first properly documented use of this particular heraldic device by an English ruler is usually credited to Edward I. St George’s Day was declared to be a feast day in England in 1222, and in 1348 Edward III put the (then new) Order of the Garter under George’s banner.

It’s been theorised that his rise to prominence in England was helped by the fact that, unlike this country’s home-grown saints (Alban, Cuthbert, etc), he wasn’t closely identified with a single location or region within England – that and the fact that St George’s Day somehow survived the curtailment of saints’ days that came with the Reformation. In any case, his symbol was so identified with England that when a combined Anglo-Scottish flag was created in 1606, three years after James VI of Scotland became James I of England (but still just over a century before the Act of Union), the Cross of St George formed the English part of the original Union Jack.

Looking further afield, St George is perhaps the most international of saints; as well as England, he is also the patron saint of Ethiopia (jointly, with local man St Frumentius), Georgia (obviously), Greece, Malta (jointly, with St Paul), Moldova, Palestine and Portugal (one of several, admittedly) – as well as the cities of Beirut, Genoa, Ljubljana, Moscow, Reggio di Calabria and at least two major international organisation (the Scouts and the Girl Guides), alongside agricultural workers, archers, butchers, saddlers, shepherds and just about anyone who rides horses.

Anyway, happy St George’s Day!


The new pound coin

As of last month, we have had a new coin to deal with. I have only received one of the new pound coins in my change once so far, and I haven’t spent it yet as it’s a pretty good conversation-piece because not everyone else has seen one yet, but since the old one is scheduled to be phased out by October it’s clearly something we’re about to see a lot more of. This is the future, so let’s get used to it.

The new pound coin is bi-metallic – just like the £2 coin, the euro coin, the Canadian ‘toonie’ and the old French ten-franc coin which was, prior to the euro, worth (roughly, depending on exchange rates) £1. The reverse shows plants representing the four Home Nations – the rose of England, the leek of Wales, the thistle of Scotland and the Shamrock of Northern Ireland – bound by a crown, while below the Queen on the obverse there’s a little hologram which, depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it, shows a little £ sign or a number 1. 

This is intended to make the new coin really difficult to forge; the main problem with the old one is that forgery’s relatively easy, with it having been estimated that between one in eight and one in ten pound coins currently in circulation are forgeries (and, given that knowingly passing on forged money is a criminal offence, most people who end up with one that they reckon might be a fake probably don’t bother to look too closely as proving the coin in question to be a fake would render it worthless, leaving you out of pocket if you try to be honest).

The new one is ever so slightly bigger than the old one (by less than a millimetre, noticeable if you have one of each to compare and contrast), and a little bit lighter (using the digital kitchen scales, I can confirm that the new one weighs in at nine grams, while the old one is ten). 

It’s also twelve-sided, another anti-forgery initiative although for older Britons this could make it slightly reminiscent of the old threepenny bit (which was also twelve-sided); Private Eye has already got in with a joke about how the new pound coin has the same spending power as three old pence did back in the day, so no-one else has to.

In terms of British currency, the pound coin is a relatively new thing (not counting gold sovereigns), having first been introduced in 1983, a year after the 20p coin (pound coins were intended to replace pound notes, which were phased out by the Bank of England in 1988 although they continue to be issued in the Channel Islands and by one of the Scottish banks that’s allowed to print money). Although they were only introduced last month, the new ones all bear the date ‘2016’, which should confuse any future historians who feel inclined to study the history of post-decimal British coinage. Actually, coins being minted before they enter circulation (done by the Royal Mint in order to ensure that there are enough of them) are nothing new. The bi-metallic £2 coin was first minted in 1997 prior to its introduction the following year, and going a bit further back the old 10p and 5p coins had been minted in decimal form since to 1968, and the old 50p coins since 1969, even though decimalisation didn’t come about until 1971 (it’s worth noting, though, that the pre-1990 5p and the pre-1992 10p coins were the same size, and the same value for that matter, as the old shilling and two-shilling coins, which continued to appear in change until the sizes of said coins were reduced in the early Nineties).


Historical English crime: 'Stand and deliver!'

Even today, the mention of the word ‘highwayman’ conjures up a certain image – that of a masked, well-dressed man astride a horse, brandishing a pistol and demanding that rich travellers in a stage-coach ‘stand and deliver’ (in other words, hand over whatever cash and assorted valuables they might have on them) somewhere on an open road at some point in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Having made off with the loot, he would of course outwit the authorities if they sent anyone after him. It can be a rather romantic image even though the reality was far from romantic – these were brutal, violent men operating in a brutal, violent era.

In a very real sense, there was nothing new about highway robbery even though it only really became a thing in the seventeenth century. Thieves who operated on foot – footpads – had been robbing travellers for as long as there had been roads. However, the gun-toting thief on horseback was something new to the seventeenth century. This was a violent age, and the increased availability and effectiveness of firearms combined with the proliferation of men, often former soldiers, who either lacked or didn’t much care for gainful employment and knew how to use a gun while riding a horse (the latter being vital to ensure a quick getaway). They were helped by the ineptitude of the law enforcement system of the period; in the days before organised policing, the job invariably fell to the parish constable who was usually under-equipped to deal with anything other than minor crime, and who was often thought of as being lazy or incompetent (Shakespeare having set the standard for that particular stereotype with Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing).

The mounted thieves started to become known as ‘highwaymen’ in the mid-seventeenth century; they were also known as ‘gentlemen of the road’ on account that many of them dressed smartly enough to pass for gentry even if they were of more humble birth. The famous demand to ‘stand and deliver’ goes back to that time, while the earliest references to the follow-up ‘your money or your life’ are from trial reports dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. The growing print industry produced pamphlets detailing their crimes, which brought them to the attention of the public (this would continue in the eighteenth century with publications like the Newgate Calendar and plays like The Beggar’s Opera, followed by the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the nineteenth century).

One of the earliest highwaymen to become well-known in England was James Hind, who had fought for the Royalists in the Civil War and took to highway robbery during the time of the Protectorate, preying in particular on those associated with the Parliamentarian cause (he once tried, and failed, to rob Oliver Cromwell himself). Others followed, some becoming famous in their time. Claude Duval was a Frenchman who operated just north of Restoration-era London; one of the first highwaymen to dress in fashionable clothes and put on gentlemanly airs, he’s said to have once agreed to only take some of his victim’s money, as opposed to all of it, if the man’s wife agreed to dance with him by the side of the road (which she did). William Nevison was a former soldier who rode from Kent to York in less than a day (a previously unheard-of feat) in order to establish an alibi, a tale that greatly amused Charles II. Robert Congden was an Old Etonian gentleman-farmer by day and a highwayman by night who held up the Earl of Dorset for a thousand guineas.

Most famous of them all, though, was the Essex publican’s son Dick Turpin, who had started out as a butcher before turning to crime; in addition to being a highwayman he was also a poacher, a burglar and, like many of his fellow-highwaymen, a cold-blooded killer. Such was Turpin’s fame that acts performed by other highwaymen, such as Nevison’s ride to York, ended up being attributed to him. Despite their often-violent behaviour some highwaymen – Turpin in particular – were to a degree idolised in that way in which criminals are sometimes, and somehow, made out to be popular heroes (a point picked up in an episode of Blackadder, wherein Baldrick describes a highwayman as “halfway to being the new Robin Hood … he steals from the rich, but he hasn’t got round to giving it to the poor yet”).

From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, the main roads of England became hunting-grounds for the highwaymen and as such very dangerous places – especially the bits that ran through what was then open country on the outskirts of London (although robberies in London itself were not unknown; it was partly concern about highwaymen in Hyde Park that led William III to ensure that Rotten Row, the road between Westminster and Kensington Palace, became the first road in the country to be artificially lit). Highwaymen often chose isolated areas that the main roads passed through; Bagshot Heath, crossed by the roads to both Portsmouth and the West Country, was popular. To the north, Finchley Common on the Great North Road acquired a certain reputation, while to the south on the Dover Road Shooter’s Hill was the venue of choice for hold-ups (it had already got its name from being a place where archery was practiced in the Middle Ages). Many such places had gibbets where the bodies of executed criminals were displayed in metal cages to deter others from a life of crime, and these were well-known to people who often travelled out of London; Samuel Pepys, for example, once mentioned riding past “the man that hangs on Shooter’s Hill”.

Quite a few highwaymen ended up on the gallows, having either been captured in the act or found out later (when people noticed that they’d suddenly started spending a lot more cash than they usually did, for example). Hind was done for treason rather than highway robbery because of his overt support for the Royalist cause, resulting in his being hanged, drawn and quartered. Congden had shot and killed his first victim when he had tried to resist (they really did mean the bit about ‘your money or your life’; robbery and murder both carried the death penalty, back then), while Nevison had killed a constable who’d tried to arrest him; both were hanged for murder. Duval, somewhat unusually it would seem, was actually hanged for no more than highway robbery. Turpin, meanwhile, was arrested for horse theft which was a capital offence at the time – and although some in the government wanted him to stand trial in his native Essex, his trial and subsequent hanging took place at York.

The ‘golden age’ of the highwayman is usually considered as having been the period between the Restoration (1660) and the death of Queen Anne (1714), although Turpin’s ‘career’ post-dates this (he is thought to have turned to crime in the early 1730s, and was hanged in 1739 at the age of 33). Yet there were still some fairly audacious highway robberies being carried out well into the eighteenth century; in 1774, no less a person than the Prime Minister, Lord North, wrote of being “robbed last night as I expected … at the end of Gunnersbury Lane”. For much of the eighteenth century, travellers along England’s roads took to preventative measures – Horace Walpole, the writer (and son of Britain’s first PM), wrote of being “forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going into battle”. When encountered by two highwaymen outside London, the Duke of Montrose shot and killed one of them (the other escaped, with the duke declining to give pursuit on the grounds that enough blood had already been spilled). The subject of whether or not one should shoot a highwayman, regardless of whether or not he’d shot first, is one that Samuel Johnson (who defined ‘highwayman’ in his Dictionary as simply “a robber that plunders on the publick roads”) had few doubts about. Boswell records that, when it came up in conversation, the great man of letters stated: “I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey … I am surer I am right in the one case than in the other. I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man’s life, when we are heated by the injury”. Boswell retorted that Johnson “would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage”, to which Johnson replied: “Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.”

In such an atmosphere, it became a matter of routine for coachmen, post-boys and the like to travel either armed or accompanied by someone who was, the weapon of choice usually being a brace of pistols – as guns back then were of the muzzle-loading, single-shot variety it paid to have more than one loaded and ready to fire – or a blunderbuss (an early form of shotgun with a flared muzzle, easier to load while on the move but only effective at close range). Rich travellers, particularly those heading along the Great West Road to the fashionable spa town of Bath, took to travelling with as little money or jewellery in their coaches as possible – the wealth could go on ahead, stuffed in the pockets and saddle-bags of a single servant on horseback, preferably carrying a gun of some sort for his own protection.

Sometimes, a lone rider confronted by a highwayman could get the better of him; one story is of a servant carrying his master’s money who, when confronted by a highwayman, said he’d willingly hand over the cash but asked if the highwayman would be so kind as to put a bullet through his hat first, so that he later could show that he’d put up some sort of resistance before standing and delivering. After the highwayman had obligingly fired, the clever servant produced his own pistol who had been concealed in his coat! As the highwayman had only been armed with a single pistol, the servant now had the advantage and took his opponent to the nearest town to hand him over to the authorities (and, presumably, collect any reward that may have been on offer).

Some highwaymen responded by forming gangs, although many of these were short-lived as they invariably fell out over how to divide the spoils. One of the more notable gangs of highwaymen operated in and around Cherhill, a Wiltshire village on the Great West Road, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; being poor men who only owned one set of clothes each (clearly highway robbery was not always lucrative), they became (in)famous for doing their robberies naked so that no-one would be able to identify them by their clothes.

Highway robbery in England died out in the early nineteenth century. Some would assume that it was killed off by the railways, but it would appear there were a number of factors at play. Highway robbery had actually become quite rare by the time that century began, and the last recorded one took place in 1831 (two years after Stephenson built his Rocket). The increase in the turnpike system with its tolled and gated roads had combined in the mid-to-late eighteenth century with the increased enclosure of farmland to limit highwaymen’s activities (there was, quite simply, less open space), and in the early nineteenth century they were limited further by the expansion of cities (especially London) into what had been open countryside. As the cities grew, policing became more effective, and the increased use of banknotes helped too as they were easier to trace than gold coins. The ‘gentleman of the road’ had had his day.


The Last Kingdom (the second series, three episodes in)

“I am Uhtred, son of Uthred…”

So begins each episode of The Last Kingdom, the BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon’ novels which has deservedly returned for a second series. In this, the real-life struggle of Alfred the Great’s Wessex (the kingdom of the title, it being the only one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that hasn’t fallen to the marauding invaders from Scandinavia) is intertwined with the adventures of the fictional Uhtred, a warrior whose life’s ambition – to retake the northern coastal stronghold of Bebbanburg which is his by right but his villainous uncle’s by possession – is frequently put on hold so that he can either fight for Alfred or chase after women. He’s the one saying that he’s Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of course – although I cannot for the life of me figure out what accent he’s saying it in (the actor who plays him, Alexander Dreymon, was born in Germany and has appeared on stage in Paris and London but knowing that doesn’t leave me any the wiser; but hey, at least he’s well-spoken).

In a world of sharply-defined loyalties – for late ninth-century Britain, it’s generally Christian Anglo-Saxons versus pagan Vikings – Uhtred is a curious mixture of the lot; a Saxon raised by Vikings and a pagan who, as he reminds us at some point, has been baptised not once but twice. His enemies fear him, while his allies are somewhat wary of him as they can never be entirely sure of his loyalty. His weakness (or, if we’re using a fictional warrior analogy, his Achilles heel) is women; were he to put them from his mind, or at least stop trying to sleep with every other one that he encounters, he would probably be warming himself in front of the fire with a flagon of ale in his hand following a slap-up feast for himself and his motley band of followers in Bebbanburg’s great hall by now.

At the end of the first series, having helped Alfred secure his great victory at Ethandun, Uhtred rode north to retake Bebbanburg. However, we weren’t that long into the first episode of the new series when he’d been easily distracted from this ambition that he keeps going on about, not even making it half-way through Mercia before a woman with whom he had shared a one-night stand tried to make off with his money and his sword, only to be thwarted by Hild, the nun-who-wants-to-be-a-warrior (her reward was to have Uhtred try to look at her while she was washing herself in a river). As Father Beocca wisely noted, Uhtred would probably fancy a goat if someone put it in a skirt.

Back down south, Alfred was busy thinking of the future – for it is he who is laying the foundations of what will become England. His latest plan is for an alliance with Mercia (the kingdom to the north of Wessex) by way of marrying off his daughter, Aethelflaed, to a Mercian noblemen. Watch out for her; the Lady of the Mercians, as she is known to history (although she has tended to get airbrushed out of some accounts of the creation of England), is going to matter a big deal as this series progresses.

Next up for Uhtred, however, was a madcap scheme to turn Guthred the slave into a king, which was actually going rather well until Uhtred slept with Guthred’s sister Gisela; for this, he was sold into slavery and ended up on the rowing-deck of a galley bound for Iceland. He was released thanks to his foster-brother Ragnar (son of Ragnar) and Hild, the latter of whom had to remind him that he was indeed Uhtred, son of Uhtred (since some people had started referring to him as Osbert, which was his original name, perhaps he needed reassuring). Our hero then managed to make a rod for his own back by killing the evil Abbot Eadred – over Gisela, of course – which ultimately gave him no option but to swear an oath to fight for Alfred once again in order to avoid facing trial for killing a priest in a church. Bebbanburg, it seems, can wait (and it’ll have to, for the TV series is only on the third novel of Cornwell’s series; there are now ten, with the latest – published late last year – focussing on, you’ve guessed it, a much older Uhtred’s continuing ambition to capture the place).

It’s been noted by various critics that this show – what with the muddy fight scenes, men with beards claiming to be kings, regular killings-off of characters and all that – is very much a British version of Game of Thrones; the same idea but done on a smaller scale, with less overtly naughty stuff (swearing, nudity, etc). That’s as maybe, but what that somewhat easy analysis overlooks is that The Last Kingdom is no fantasy epic – this is historical drama, based on a series of novels which are themselves about stuff that (mostly) really happened. It’s very well acted, with – get this – Scandinavian actors having been cast in the Viking roles, and I’m prepared to forgive the whole thing about what accent Uhtred’s speaking with as there have been far worse accent-related transgressions on the box; at least the viewer can clearly understand Mr Dreymon even in the fight scenes!