Needy knights and rich old ladies: Sir John Sandys and social mobility in late Medieval England

In 1980, Terry Jones, actor, presenter, writer and Monty Python member, published what has become something of a literary event. Chaucer’s Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary is a book that had medieval historians foaming at the mouth for many a year afterwards. It generated much debate and forever altered the landscape of the knightly class and ‘chivalry’ in academic circles.

Jones proposed that Chaucer’s knight, far from being the chivalric gentleman, was in fact a ruthless careerist in pursuit of titles, land and wealth via the conventional trade of war. Ransom, kidnapping, extortion, profit and abduction was the new stock in trade, rather than saving the honour of the defenceless or fighting evil. Chaucer’s General Prologue and Canterbury Tales (c.1380s) are packed with similitudes and, like the best fiction, tell more of real life than non-fiction can.

One of the chief tasks of the medieval knight in literature was to rescue or at the very least, preserve the honour of the damsel, but in reality it was the often the knight himself who placed the damsel in distress.

One such real person I encountered during my research is Chaucer’s Knight to the life, an exact contemporary with the Canterbury Tales. In November 1375, orders were sent to William Upton to keep safely all the goods of John Sandys, a ‘fugitive’ from Cheshire, which were in his keeping; the king’s sergeant-at-arms were then commissioned to arrest all goods of John Sandys in William Upton’s keeping and bring them to London to the king for disposal.

John Sandys was charged with the abduction of the recently widowed Joan Bridges from Romsey Abbey (Hampshire), where she had been staying. It was found that he had on his person possessions worth over £120 (£100,000 today), which belonged to the lady’s previous husband. One of the Black Prince’s esquires was sent to Chester to bring the lady back to London for examination by the King’s Council. It was then discovered, however, that Sandys had already married her.

On 8th April 1376, Sandys secured a royal pardon for all homicides, rapes and felonies of which he stood indicted. He subsequently acknowledged that he owed the King a fine of £1,000 (around £900,000 today) but this sum was never paid, for it was assigned to the Black Prince, who before his death expressed a wish for it to be pardoned in full. (Sandys was fortunate; the Black Prince died in June 1376.)

It was his service with the Black Prince that was Sandys’ salvation. Sandys is first recorded in the service of the Black Prince, who was earl of Chester (Sandys’ place of origin), as well as Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England. On 27 January 1367, before Prince Edward sailed from Gascony to Spain, he granted him a substantial annuity of £50 (£50,000 today) for life from the issues of the earldom. Sandys probably fought in the battle of Najera, thereafter remaining for some time in the prince’s company in Spain and France.

 

“A knight there was, a worthy man…he loved chivalry, truth and honour….”

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Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (Luttrell Psalter f202v) c.1350

 

The later fourteenth century abounded with ‘proto-professionals’ – free-booters and mercenary leaders such as Sir John Hawkwood in Italy, Sir Robert Knolles in France or Nicholas Sabraham whose campaigning life took him from Brittany to the Black Sea. Included in these groups were opportunists and criminals, deserters, mutineers. It was a diverse, volatile world in a shifting culture and it was from this world that John Sandys emerges, his military career typical of many who served during this time.

However much Sandys military careerism may prove to be part of a developing trend in late 14th century warrior society, his abduction of a wealthy widow is the key to his stake in local society, politics and dynastic security. Without land, he was nothing, and the widow he apparently snatched from Romsey Abbey gave him that anchor.

Joan Bridges was the widow of both Peter Bridges and of Giles Norman and brought to Sandys four Hampshire manors with the marriage. Joan, however, was worth much more. She was the cousin and eventual heir of Sir William Fifhide, on whose death she stood to inherit three manors in Sussex and five in Hampshire, something Sandys would have been aware of in 1375.

John Sandys’ marriage to Joan and his previous military career positioned him well for a busy political career in Hampshire; he was commissioner of array between 1377 and 1392 (with involvement in putting down the rebellions of the summer of 1381); coroner from 1378, sheriff 1382-3 and 1394-5, JP 1384-95 (and JP in neighbouring Wiltshire 1391-4), MP eight times between 1381 and 1393 and deputy constable of Southampton castle in 1386.

During a military campaign in Aquitaine in 1380 Sandys was knighted, and his rise in society sealed. Sandys was now a made man; he dined with Bishop Wykeham’s household. (We have the only surviving household account roll, for six months in 1393 and he is specifically mentioned as a guest on Monday 16 June. He was in good company. On 25 July, King Richard II and his wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia lunched with the bishop and 234 others.) One imagines the fugitive-soldier of fortune turned landowner, MP and sheriff silently toasting his good fortune with the son of a stonemason turned Bishop over the wine and capons supplied to the kitchen that day. Sandys obtained a preacher’s licence from the Bishop for his own chaplain in 1385.

He may not have been born with a silver spoon, but he quickly learnt how to use one. Whatever his background as soldier of fortune from Cheshire, alleged rapist and murderer, by the 1380s, we would surmise that Sandys was very the epitome of Hampshire county society, an upstanding pillar of the community – one might even say, poacher turned gamekeeper.

Would any, or all this political activity have been possible without the widow Joan and her inheritance?

Joan was a prize worth having. Her life was lived out in the unequal patriarchal society, as heiress, wife and widow. If Sandys was Chaucer’s Knight, with all the ambiguities of the ‘chivalric’ career, then Joan was Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (like her, thrice married). Joan was the person with property, not John; Joan had the gentility that Sandys needed to enter into Hampshire society, once Sandys had washed himself of the blood and sweat from his numerous campaigns.

It was the heirs of their union (and her property) who would maintain the social status in the county community. Joan retained her rights over her freehold property from before the Sandys marriage, the land that had come to her during the marriage (from the Fifhide estate) and she would recover them if she became a widow, which indeed she did. Medieval land was ‘held’, not owned; what was at stake was the ‘right’ to their land and it was this that defined their possession. Sandys was seised in of Joan’s lands in right of her. Whilst married to John, she could not dispose of the land herself without his agreement; he couldn’t sell her land without her consent, or else the conveyance could be void at a later date.

As a widow, Joan was vulnerable because she was a woman of property in her own right and heiress. As an independent widow, Joan would have to take her own legal action in court (and women did) rather than her relatives take the action on her behalf.

 

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The Wife of Bath, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

 Literature includes stories of knights dressed as friars assaulting women. See Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale – “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte”, a phrase which has a modern echo in a notorious comment by Donald Trump!

 

There is no record of Joan taking any such action. Perhaps it was a consensual match. Sandys was clearly a powerful man with a reputation, who would protect her. Perhaps not. When Sandys died, Joan married a fourth time, to the well-known lawyer, Sir Thomas Skelton, who had no connections with Hampshire and made no intention of making any. Does this mean Joan suffered silently with Sandys or just that once again she needed protection as a widow of means whose property was at risk?

Sandys not only wanted Joan’s property, which would be his during her lifetime, but his heirs by her would have the rights over her first two husbands’ property and inherit the Fifhide manors, which they did. Clearly Joan was either childless when Sandys carried her off, or with infant children who died because it was Sir John’s son by her – Walter – who inherited the properties and during the 15th century the family prospered (it was always harder for ‘new’ men to get established – older families often had a male heir, however distant, to take on the estate).

In 1501, at the dawn of the Tudor age, Sir Walter Sandys was 26 when he inherited eleven Hampshire manors, the bulk of them Joan Bridges’ inheritances. His younger brother Sir William went on to become Lord Sandys, 1st Baron of the Vyne in 1523, who built a new house at Sherborne which was visited by Henry VIII in 1510 and 1531.

The Sandys dynasty was firmly established, begun by an advantageous (forced) marriage by a career soldier with powerful backing and continued by good fortunes of fertility and survival (the average survival rate of the male line was 21% amongst peerage and gentry).

But what made Sandys unusual in Hampshire at least, was that he was one of very few, if perhaps the only, man to have married into the local gentry from a background without social parity in the period c1300-c1500, whose family became a leading local family. Widows and heiresses were key to the transmission of landed estates throughout later medieval England, but most marriages were conducted between families of equal status and from the local, or regional area. Sandys was neither.

Sandys was an exception to the rule. He not only broke out of the murky world of career soldiering but managed to build a local dynasty thanks to his marriage to Joan. In a man’s world of derring-do, high politics, and foreign adventures, the most important feature of later medieval landowning – and therefore local power –  was the women – often nameless, mostly unknown – but they were crucial to the family fortunes. Real power lay with them.

 

Dr Toby Purser, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education and Humanities

Inside Wandsworth Gaol: A historian’s perspective on prison visiting

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As a academic historian who works on the history of crime (and most of that in London) when I was offered the chance to take a peek inside a working English prison I could hardly refuse. I run modules on crime and punishment at the University of Northampton and help students explore the changing nature of penal policy over 200 or more years from the late 1600s to the early 20th century.

So when the nice people at London Historians organised a behind-the-scenes visit to Wandsworth Prison Museum I was quick off the block and bagged one of the 10 places on offer.WPmain gates

Last Sunday I trekked across the capital to the imposing gates of Wandsworth Prison to meet up with the other lucky visitors and our guide, Stewart McLaughlin a serving Prison Officer and curator of the small prison museum.

We started in the museum which is about the size of a scout hut, and packed solid with neatly labelled exhibits. Stewart has gathered together an impressive collection of prison relics which he’s arranged chronologically so that it tells the story of Wandsworth from its early days (as the Surrey House of Correction) through the nationalisation of prisons (in 1878),to  its use as a military prison during the First World War, and on to the present day.

We ‘met’ famous inmates like Oscar Wilde and the man that killed Dr Martin Luther King (James Earl Ray), and some of those that ended their days inside on the end of a rope. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol and this is where George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski – a ‘Ripper’ suspect), John Haigh and the wartime traitor William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were all executed. We saw Albert Pierrepoint’s execution rope and other memorabilia that reminded us that until 1961 murderers were still being ‘dropped’ at Wandsworth.

 

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the prison’s long history and Stewart has pieced it together with considerable skill (and limited resources!) This is an example of one man’s efforts to preserve and display history and one wonders what will happen when he decides to hang up his keys for good.

It is one thing to be allowed to peer into the past via an exhibition of the artefacts of penal history, it is quite another to be invited to walk through the  gates of a working prison. This is exactly what we all did next though, carefully moving under Stewart’s guidance from the reception area to the large open star that links the five man wings (A to F) together. This central boss used to allow officers (then warders) to see right down each wing and control the prisoners. Not quite a panopticon as Jeremy Bentham envisaged his ‘inspection house’ but effective all the same. We stood while Stewart explained the prison’s history and working structure and patiently answered a stream of questions.

As he did so the prison carried on all around us, with the sounds of cell doors clanging, keys (and more keys!) and male voices. All of this was permeated by the smells of a closed institution: Sunday (‘school’) dinner, laundry, stale air, but (surprisingly given all the media coverage of prisons) not a trace of drugs. This was a calm space as far I could see. Outside in the exercise yard men were chatting in the sunshine, no one paid this small group of visitors any attention, they just seemed to be getting on with life.

As we wandered through Stewart took us to the staff room in one wing. Quite an ordinary space with kettle, cups and tupperware lunch boxes. Well ‘ordinary’ except that this was one one of two condemned cells in Wandsworth and so suddenly we were left to imagine how some people may have struggled to relax while they waited to see if an appeal was successful or the executioner would lead them off to the gallows.

Outside, as we stared up at the razor wire that is intended to prevent modern prisoners emulating the Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs and scaling the high walls, our attention was brought to the concrete paths that cover the ground between the walls and the prison itself. Under here, we were told, lie the remains of those who were executed within the confines of the gaol. Since the abolition of hanging families have been able to exhume their loved ones and rebury them, but many don’t. As our guide pointed out most murderers kill people close to them and so the hanged are often the second deaths in a tragic set of events. Let sleeping dogs lie is often the most obvious reaction.

One young man whose remains were taken away to be cremated outside was John Amery, the son of Leo Amery the Conservative politician and (like Churchill) a noted opponent of appeasement. Unlike his father John Amery was attracted to the Nazi cause and became a fascist and follower of Hitler. He was hanged at Wandsworth in December 1945 for his treasonable activities during the war.

The final place we visited was the set of smaller wings that used to make up the women’s prison until the late 1800s. During the First World War this was utilised by the military as a detainment camp. Here the prison held squaddies that broke the rules or absconded as well as conscientious objectors and (following the Easter Rising in 1916) upwards of 200  Irish Republicans accused of ‘betraying’ their king and country.

And then – and I have to admit this was quite a relief – we were back to the reception house and, once we’d handed over our passes, the doors were opened and we exited into the afternoon sun. The walk across Wandsworth Common took me past couples of all ages, children playing, dogs running free, ice cream vendors and people sitting outside the nearby pub enjoying a pint with their friends. It was a sobering reminder of what everyone in that prison had given up – albeit not all voluntarily.

Wandsworth Prison museum is not open to the public but is open for academic visitors, researchers and local history groups. All you have to do is make an appointment and be curious (and brave) enough to cross the threshold.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, History, University of Northampton).

Elizabeth Greenhalgh. Military Historian.

Jim Beach of UoN History reflects on the passing of a remarkable historian.

 

This is not an obituary. Nor is it a eulogy. It’s probably ‘an appreciation’. But Elizabeth, who died this month, would perhaps have pulled a face at that description. So let’s call it a paean; a song of praise that the Ancient Greeks offered up for their dead heroes.

Having come to the subject late in life, Elizabeth quickly established herself as a world-class military historian of the First World War. Within a decade she had published three landmark works with Cambridge University Press; Victory through Coalition (2005), Foch in Command (2011), and The French Army in the First World War (2014). In addition to this impressive output, Elizabeth also engaged in lively debate, through a series of articles, about Anglo-French relations during the conflict.

 

Greenhalgh books

 

My first encounter with Elizabeth was a dozen years ago at a conference on the Battle of the Somme. We ended up sitting next to one another during dinner and, having asked me some polite but tough questions about my recently-completed thesis, she immediately suggested avenues I could pursue as well as offering me snippets from her own work.

After that I saw her mainly during research trips to Europe from her home in Australia.  Elizabeth’s historical generosity continued, and I will be forever grateful for various titbits taken from dark archival corners on both sides of the Channel. And as her books came off the presses, like the rest of the historical community, I was consistently impressed by the depth of her research and their lively writing. Her work is also now embedded into my undergraduate teaching.

Visiting Canberra a few years back, Elizabeth and her husband Michael provided me with a lovely home-cooked dinner, some great wine, and a lift back to my hotel. But perhaps most delightful of all was the fact that she had, without me asking, raided her institution’s library shelves for every ageing text related to my research. Best short-term loan system I’ve ever encountered!

Elizabeth’s tenacity and thoroughness in pursuing historical targets was both remarkable and inspirational. Like a great detective in crime fiction, for her there seemed to be no such thing as a cold case. As secretary of the Army Records Society, I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat for one of these pursuits.

Having proposed a book of documents and diary entries written by the French liaison officer to British GHQ, over many years various obstacles blocked Elizabeth’s path. A lesser historian might have retired with honour from what seemed an impossible task.  Instead she doggedly chased down strange French copyright regulations, obscure bibliographic references, and elusive retired academics. The resulting volume, Liaison: General Pierre des Vallières at British General Headquarters, January 1916 to May 1917, is one of the society’s best.

For any military historian starting out, I think Elizabeth’s scholarly life tells you this:  Don’t let age or gender hold you back from joining the fray, follow your passion and seek out fresh evidence, then challenge any consensus you might collide into. Back yourself.  However, always take the time to find out properly what others are researching so you can lend a helping hand when paths intersect.

I will miss her. Military history will too. But from what I knew of her, Elizabeth would not want a fuss. Instead she’d probably want us to just get on with some decent archival research and then get it written up.

Wolverhampton First World War Conference Report

One symptom of a good conference is that you find yourself struggling to decide which parallel session to attend.  It’s a good problem to have and it plagued me throughout the recent conference entitled 1918-2018: The End of the War & The Reshaping of a Century.

At one point I had to decide between the demilitarisation of the Belgian capital in 1918 or a British Army vegetable show in the same year.  Was it to be Brussels or Brussels Sprouts?

Hosted by the University of Wolverhampton, the conference included six keynote lectures, sixty shorter papers, an after-dinner address, a round-table discussion, and the launch of digital exhibition.  The latter, entitled ‘Aftermath’, was focused on the social, economic, health and political issues affecting veterans. 

 The conference sponsors included the Royal Historical Society, the Western Front Association (WFA), the First World War Network, and the five AHRC-funded engagement centres.

Unsurprisingly given this support base, attendees came from a broad spectrum; WFA members, a variety of students, plus academics at all career stages and from around the world.  Probably because of this mixture, the event was noticeably informal in tone and the Q&A sessions were some of the best I’ve witnessed.

On the second day I was joined by Nick Mansfield, also from Everyday Lives in War.  He made copious notes on Panel 11 and, as you can see, I captured them for posterity.

 

Nicks-notes-1024x699

 

And Panel 11 itself was a good example of the diversity of the conference content.  Tammy Proctor unpacked the uneasy transition from war to peace in Belgium; Peter Stanley offered the hitherto untold story of the Territorials who served in India; while Ian Isherwood showed how the publishing industry shaped the stories told in the immediate aftermath of war.

Of the keynotes, Laura Ugolini’s exploration of masculinity was especially interesting.  I also found Alison Fell’s examination of women veterans very thought-provoking and it has certainly prompted me to reconsider the canon of interwar intelligence memoirs.

The conference was bookended by lectures from two world-renowned scholars of the conflict.  John Horne began by challenging the American/Western European notion that the war ended on 11 November 1918.  Then, at the end of proceedings, Jay Winter suggested that there were, in fact, two overlapping wars; the well-known one that ran from 1914 to 1918 plus another, far more brutal, conflict that began in 1917 and ended in 1923.

This should perhaps give us pause for thought.  In Britain we have just come to the end of a conflict commemoration process that has, generally, been disconnected from the rough and tumble of contemporary politics.  Across East/Central Europe and the wider world, the centenaries between 2019 and 2023 will almost certainly be more contested.  And yet, in many instances, the British were deeply involved in those events.  How might we mark them?

 

Dr Jim Beach, Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History

 

This blog first appeared on the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre website: https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/2018/09/wolverhampton-first-world-war-conference-report/  

Ten Tips for a Successful Seminar

Starting university can be a bit overwhelming, and the last thing you want to do is worry that you are not getting the most out of the seminars, or that you are completing the prep in the wrong manner.

Seminars can be a wonderful environment for debates that are enlightening, and the preparatory work is very rewarding. So, to help you out – and maybe even a gentle reminder for those commencing their subsequent years – here are the ten tips that will enable you to get the most out of your education this year.

 

1. Spend time on the readings. This will enable you to get the most out of the seminars as this is where the learning really occurs; you can’t have a debate if you don’t know the facts! Seminars are there to reinforce your understanding and to invoke debates about themes within the reading, or simply to ask for clarification on a point. So, spend as much time as possible reading, understanding and even exploring different formats such as e-books or short journal articles to expand your knowledge. Which leads me nicely onto my next point…

2. Take detailed notes. Tip: if it might be useful for an essay jot down the bibliographical information otherwise you’ll be trawling through those books all over again… Also, a summary after each question for quick reference might be useful (especially if the lecturer puts you on the spot!).

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3. Do not fret if you end up starting the seminar prep the night before. Once you chat with your fellow students, you will find that a lot of them do this. It is not a reflection of your organisational skills as even the most organised will succumb to this. I wish someone had told me this in my first year, it would have saved a lot of stress and worry. But seminar prep usually is 2-3 hours per module, so make sure you factor in enough time to fully complete it!

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4. Bring notes to class. This might seem like an obvious one, but you’ll be surprised as to how many don’t. You cannot deepen your understanding, or even really know what is going on, if you do not have them with you. You can colour-code the information, italicise or put keywords in bold, whatever works best for you. Only you will see your notes, so you can organise them however you like. Just make sure that they flow.

5. Attendance is key. Statistics show that the higher your attendance is, the higher the chances are that you will achieve a higher grade. If you are taking ‘Blood and Iron: Europe, 1815-1914’ taught by Dr Jim Beach, you will see this chart.

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6. If you have time after completing the required preparations, do move on to other formats of learning. Documentaries, lectures and podcasts are a great way to learn whilst on the go. But, make sure you check out the credentials before listening to any of them. You want to be learning from a reputable source, to ensure the facts and theories are correct. If you commute into university, it is also a great way to get in extra studying without much effort and to make use of your time. Create mind-maps and flash cards along the way to help condense the information and to cut down on revision prep.

7. BUT, if you don’t have time to do wider research, don’t feel bad. Some of us have more commitments than others such as families or playing for a county sports team or in an orchestra. Whatever your circumstances are, if you can meet the required 24 hours of independent study a week, then you’ll be fine. Plus, there is always the long summer holiday break to follow your nose. Likewise, if you do end up fitting in some wider research and its always on the early modern period for example, don’t worry about it. That’s just your interest coming through and at least you’re learning. Who knows, it might even be a hint as to a good dissertation topic for you to pick for your third year.

8. Engage in both prep and the seminars. Talk to your fellow students and lecturers in the seminars. I really cannot stress how important this is. You will learn so much more and be exposed to such a diverse range of ideas and perceptions. If you’re stuck on a prep question, talk to your friends and try to decipher the readings that way. You might be able to reciprocate when they are unclear. Plus, it can highlight your strengths and weaknesses which you can work on before the next essay. Also, really look closely at the artwork each week and try to come up with concepts that the paintings might relate too. You’ll be surprised by how much a portrait can reveal about the social and cultural ideals and gender relations of that period. If you engage with the material, you will learn and subsequently remember a lot more of the information.

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9. Respect each other. It is hard enough to talk to a room full of people anyway, without someone cutting you off mid-sentence because they interpret a source differently to you. The beauty of university is that there are no right or wrong interpretations – if you can back up your point with evidence. So, everyone in the room can interpret the same source very differently. Don’t be afraid to say your opinion. Give each other time to fully develop their argument and allow the lecturer to explain concepts. If you extend the courtesy to others, they will do the same to you, and a healthy debate will be created, which is a lot more productive.

10. Inform the lecturer if you have not completed the prep. Some will ask you to go to the library and complete the work there, but do not fumble your way through the seminar. It won’t be productive for you or anyone else, and if you get chosen to answer a question, it will become apparent very quickly. It’s better to just be honest, whatever the reason is.

 

The first year will go by in a blur, and it will be an incredible year with hindsight. Enjoy it and be excited for the next two years ahead of you, no matter how exhausted you are after the exam period. You will be surrounded by some incredible minds and your own will be expanded.

 

Kay Montero, a BA History student at the University of Northampton who is just starting her second year

“If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap for Stalin!”

Preparing teaching materials for a new term can lead to some surprising discoveries. My highlight this year, while getting things together for my history of Communism module, was coming across the Revolting Russians episode of Horrible Histories on Box of Broadcasts, the video streaming service for schools and universities.

The show takes a typically light-hearted, sketch comedy approach to exploring the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, but also leaves some room to focus on some of the serious ideas behind this momentous history. I think it gets a nice balance, for a children’s show, but others may disagree.

Highlights, for me, included a weather report by a very camp Karl Marx, forecasting revolution across Europe in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Lenin’s formation of the Bolshevik faction in London in 1903 descended into an argument over how to share ice creams equallyat London Zoo.

Stalin’s propaganda of the 1930s was reflected on too, through the rewriting children’s rhymes: if you are happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, clap for Stalin – otherwise you might get ten years in a forced labour camp!

The Second World War itself was examined via a parody on gamer videos, featuring Gamer Dave TDS, taking on the ‘End of Level Boss, Stalin’ in the ‘Operation Barbarossa’ level:

Also, for kids (of all ages) who like poo jokes, a sketch about Stalin ordering the collection of Chairman Mao’s excrement in 1949 arguably offers a way in to thinking about the paranoia and deep tensions that tended to develop between (male) Communist leaders in the years after 1945.

Revolting Russians featured two excellent songs, one a reworking of Back in the USSR by the Beatles, called Yes We’re the USSR: “Revolution here has been a great success, reds no longer under the bed”, sings Lenin, with Stalin (as Ringo) on drums. “Yes, we’re the USSR!”

The other song features Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky doing a version of Coldplay’s When I Ruled the World, and here they lament the collapse of the one mighty USSR. “The people gave the Berlin Wall some welly” sings Stalin, and adds “first revolution to be watched on telly”.

This is also an important point, as by this time TV was a new way for the spreading of news. The collapse of Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe helped to inspire further nationalist revolts in the Soviet republics in 1990 and 1991. Also, notoriously, people started crossing the Berlin Wall itself following a botched televised press conference briefing by Günter Schabowski, a spokesman for the German Politburo.

Horrible Histories is not the only one to mock the USSR though jokes. Ronald Reagan was famously a fan of using humour to undermine the Soviet Union in the era of Gorbachev. Here is a YouTube clip collating some of his ‘classics’:

Whatever else you say about Reagan, he was certainly wittier than Donald Trump – though admittedly this is quite a low bar.

Comedy was also a feature of life in Communist countries, and humour in the Soviet era could be a way to subvert the system. As one Soviet era joke went: (Q) What would happen if five year plans were introduced in the Sahara Desert. (A) It would be all right for a while, but soon there would be a shortage of sand.

Another from East Germany mocked the Trabant car: (Q) What’s the best feature of a Trabant? (A) It has a heater in the back to keep your hands warm when you are pushing it.

The BBC TV series The Lost World of Communism, also available on Box of Broadcasts, features a number of satirists, including Jaroslav Dolecek in Czechoslovakia. His films poked fun at the idolisation of Communist leaders, the black market and collective farms. He revelled in the ‘we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us’ way of life of late Communism.

Hammer and Tickle, another documentary available on Box of Broadcasts, has attempted a survey of the entire history of Communism through jokes. Though sometimes descending into Eurotrash-esque voice-overs, the programme examines many ways satire allowed people to sustain a sense of perspective on life under Communist rule, and later also revolt against the system, and is well worth a watch.

Jokes also formed part of the memory of Communism. For example, one joke that circulated in East Germany after the regime fell highlighted the ways the Stasi monitored people’s lives. Supposedly, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many Stasi agents became taxi drivers. This was very useful because, at the end of a heavy night out, you just had to remember your name and the taxi driver could take you straight home.

More recently, the excellent film by Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin, combined In The Thick of It humour with the end of Stalinism. It poked fun at the absurdities of the leadership crisis that gripped the USSR in 1953, while also revealing the ways personal one-upmanship and fear, rather than Marxist ideology, dominated the motives of leading protagonists such as Lavrentiy Beria and Nikita Khrushchev.

Not everyone likes this type of humour though. Notably, Peter Hitchens criticised the Death of Stalin as he felt the film made a joke of the leaders, which also made light of those who died under Communism. As he put it, ‘If you trivialize the death of a mass-murderer, you trivialise the deaths of his victims’.

Richard Overy meanwhile highlighted the film was inaccurate – which it was. The film was also very controversial in Russia, and was banned.

While I certainly disagree with the point that the Death of Stalin was tasteless, people like Overy do make a good case for the problems found in the blurring of accuracy as a result of comedy. It is important to remember humour can inadvertently gloss over true horrors.

For example, the ways North Korean leaders have been repeatedly the butt of jokes, and are portrayed as ridiculous, can inadvertently turn our attention away from the extremes of life under the regime.

While dark humour can certainly help us deal with some real horrors, it should not make us forget the true nature of the past either.

Dr Paul Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History

 

The Emotional Impact of University

Starting university can throw up a whole host of emotions, and everyone will experience their first year in a different way. But being prepared for what emotions you might feel may put you at ease and realise that you are not alone in what you are feeling.

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The “I cannot believe I am at university” emotion. It is a mixture of excitement and fear. It will hit you one day, and it might not be for a few weeks. Usually within your friendship groups, one will declare this feeling which leads to everyone else saying the same. University is a big eye-opener for everyone and the reasons behind it will be personal to you. It will pass, but by the end of year it will come back again. But this time you’ll be less panicky.

 

Pic 7The “I can’t fit in everything, there’s too much to do” emotion. Feeling overwhelmed is very normal. It is a big step coming to university, as for a lot of people it will be the first time away from home. For mature students, you might have anxieties about how long you have been out of education for. This is all normal. Just have a chat to your Personal Academic Tutor (PAT) or any of your lecturers. At the Northampton, Dr Drew Gray runs a drop-in workshop for History students that would also be good if you want a chat about any concerns, or just history in general!

 

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The “I just want a hug” emotion. The first year can be very stressful at times, and with the mix of fresher’s flu and caffeine in your system, sometimes you just want a hug. Feeling run down gets to us all, and it is usually when you first fall ill that you realise you really need a ‘mum’ hug. Homesickness is a big thing, no matter how much you have tried to mentally prepare yourself for it, so if it’s anything that I have learned from my first year, is that one of you will be calling the other one up giving each other support in times when you need it most.

 

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The “I don’t know what I’m doing”, “I don’t have authority on this” or “Everyone is going to realise I don’t know what I’m talking about (even though I do!)” emotion. This is commonly known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and affects everyone, regardless of what level degree you are studying, how old you are or how long you have been in the profession for.  There’s no one ‘cure’ that magics this away, but strategies like positive thinking and trying to visualise a different outcome when you are feeling this way can help lessen the emotions. There are tons of articles on the internet that provide different ways of coping, and YouTube also has a few good videos for further explanation and strategies.

 

These are just a few examples of the emotions that you may face when you begin, or return, to university. Everyone is different and some of you may thrive off the stress of essay deadlines and have a wonderful time from beginning to end – and that’s OK! But don’t forget that there are provisions put in place to help you if you are feeling a little bit lost.

It will be easier to talk to your PAT at the first sign rather than leaving it a few months in, as you can create a course of action and nip it in the bud before it feels like everything will spiral out of control.

There is also a free and confidential Counselling and Mental Health Team that the University of Northampton  offers, and there is Northampton Nightline (supported by the Students Union) which is run by students, for students. Don’t be afraid to use these services if you need them, you never know what might happen in your time during university; there is no shame in asking for help.

 

Kay Montero, a BA History student at the University of Northampton who is just starting her second year.

Research Seminars 2018-19

Here are the History contributions to the Education and Humanities Research Seminars at the University of Northampton. All papers are at Learning Hub LH017, Waterside Campus at 6pm.

25 October: Dr Toby Purser (UoN), ‘The dog that didn’t bark: Sir John Sandys, social mobility and the community of knights and esquires in late medieval Hampshire’

8 November: Prof Andrew Williams and Fred O’Dell (Northampton General Hospital), ‘UK premature baby care 1947-1965. The Doctor Isaac “Harry” Gosset Collection’

6 December: Dr Huw Davies (King’s), ‘The British Army’s use of military knowledge, information and intelligence, 1750-1850’

17 January: Jane Crellin (formerly Foreign and Commonwealth Office), ‘”Sacred images for a secular society”: Southern icons in black and white from 1930s America’

14 February: Antony Bounds (UoN), ‘Decolonisation and Federation in the West Indes, 1945-62’

14 March: Dr Sarah Goldsmith (Leicester), ‘Re-embodying the Aristocrat: A History of the Eighteenth-Century Elite Male Body’

All welcome!

For further information please contact matthew.mccormack@northampton.ac.uk

The ‘Female Blue Beard’?: Rumour and sensationalism in the case of Sarah Dazley

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This week is the 175 anniversary of the execution of Sarah Dazley at Bedford Gaol, the first and only woman to be hanged in public at the prison. Sarah’s crime was the murder of her second husband (William) and the suspected killing of her previous one (Simeon Mead) and their son Jonas. Dazley may well have been guilty but I rather suspect she was convicted for what she was seen to be rather than for any actual crime she carried out.  Sarah’s story also exposes a early newspaper industry that was far from particular about which ‘facts’ it reported as ‘truth’ and which it allowed to be aired for sensational effect.

Let’s start with what we think we know.

Sarah Reynolds was born in 1819 in Potton in Bedfordshire. Her farther died when she was very young and her mother had a series of relationships with other men following her husband’s death. This seems to be significant as it contributes to the backstory of Sarah’s life that the newspapers later presented to their readers.

When she was 19 Sarah married Simeon Read and they had a son (Jonah) who died within the year.  In October 1840 Simeon died after a short illness. Sarah remarried two years later, but her relationship with William Dazley was apparently fraught. It was suggested that he hit her and that she wasn’t inclined to put up with it (as many wives and partners did in the nineteenth century).

It seems that Simeon Mead had been just as abusive as Dazley was, and the newspapers later revealed a long history of violence against Sarah from both her partners. There were also dark rumours that Sarah had decided to take her revenge on William for his mistreatment of her.

So, when he fell ill and died in October 1842 suspicions began to circulate. When Sarah upped sticks and headed for London to escape from difficult questions a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was picked up and returned to Bedford to face the music.

Now this is where it all gets a little confused and where conjecture and rumour seem to trump facts. Both Jonas and William Dazley were exhumed so that their bodies could be examined for any signs of poisoning. Simeon’s corpse was far too decomposed to be able to be examined but clearly Sarah was suspected of poisoning him as well.

It was alleged at her trial that she’d bought arsenic and mixed it to make pills to use to poison William. On one occasion her step daughter (Ann Mead) had supposedly eaten one of the pills and Sarah had scolded her for it to prevent her taking any more. The Times thought that Jonas was a ‘daughter’ and repeatedly refereed to Sarah as ‘the Female Blue Beard’. A usually sober paper, the ‘thunderer’ was playing this case for every sensational twist it could get.

The papers reported that arsenic was found in the remains of William Dazley but this was also contradicted in some articles so clearly there was some doubt. Forensics was hardly an exact science in the 1840s and Sarah may well have been subjected to the prejudices that surrounded a young woman who had married twice (and was apparently on the verge of marrying again).

Quite simply Sarah Dazely was seen as a promiscuous woman who wanted to control her own life rather than let herself be controlled by men. Having lost her father at seven she’d grown up without that strong paternal figure that all young girls ‘needed’ (or so the rhetoric went). Both her husbands had abused her and while that was hardly unusual in Victorian Britain, her refusal to accept it also spoke to her combative nature.

Sarah was no passive victim, either of domestic abuse or the criminal justice system and a society that had condemned her. She strongly protested her innocence and refused to meekly accept her fate. It did her no good of course and she was hanged at Bedford on the 5 August 1843 in front of thousands of spectators.

The papers reported that 10,000 people watched her last moments:

the signal was given, and the moment the drop fell, and the unhappy wretch, after a few convulsive struggles, ceased to exist in this world’.

Well at least that’s what the papers say happened. Given that they also reported she’d been hanged for the murder of two husbands and her daughter (which was false of course) we might take their reportage with some skepticism at least. In fact nearly all reports of executions are the same: the crowd is quiet at the point the executioner ‘turns off’ the condemned; they ‘struggle’ briefly, ‘expire’, and are cut down. There is no description of the awful trauma that a body can experience in a hanging like this, almost as if no one dared to look upon the person dangling at the end of a rope.

Sarah Dazley fitted the image of the Victorian murderess: she used poison, refused to bow to male authority, and seemingly took control of her own sexuality. In other words she challenged the patriarchy and paid for it with her life.

Drew Gray (August, 2018)

References:

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843

The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843

 

 

 

Farewell Park and Avenue (and hello Waterside!)

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On Wednesday this week I will be moving into my open office space in the Learning Hub at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus. I’m pretty excited about the change because I’ve been down to Waterside and it looks fantastic. In fact it has exceeded my hopes so far and I hope and believe that this is going to really place Northampton on the university map.

But it wouldn’t be right to make this change without looking back at the time I’ve enjoyed at Park (and Avenue) campus over the years. For me its been quite a journey as well; I arrived on Park campus in September 1996 as one of the first new freshers on Nene College’s new BA History degree.

I’d decided (at 33) to finally get around to taking the History degree I should have taken at 18 had ‘life’ not interfered with my A levels. I was certainly older than some of the tutors and many (but not all) of my peer group. We were a good year I think – not too many troublemakers and mostly hard workers. We had no e-books then, no access to journals online either, so everything we read we read in the library or were given by the lecturers (who must have spent half their lives photocopying!).

I haunted the library because it was easier to work there than at home in my shared house. Eventually they must have taken pity on me because they gave me a job. Now I was stacking shelves and soon issuing books at the counter (yes, there were no automatic issue machines then folks). I also got a job at Waterstone’s in town so I had my book supply completely covered!

I got involved in other things at university, did some volunteering at the local school, interviewed the VC (Professor Gaskill) for the SU magazine, but mostly I studied. That paid off because I graduated with a first class degree.

I’d been inspired by the tutors that taught me, one of whom (Cathy Smith) is still here, as Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Education and Humanities. Cathy, Peter King and Elizabeth Hurren encouraged me to stay on and  do a PhD. I finished that in 2006 and became one of the first year of new doctorates awarded by the University of Northampton. Previously degrees had been awarded by the University of Leicester but now we had the power to confer our own.

So in my time I’ve seen Northampton go from being a HE college to a University College to a full blown university. And in 2006 Sally Sokoloff (the head of History) employed me on a part time basis to teach history. From student to tutor in 10 years!

I’ve seen the departure of some brilliant historians – Peter King, Matthew Seligmann and Matthew Hughes (now at Brunel), Elizabeth Tingle, Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester), Tim Meldrum (who gave up history for business), Heather Shore (professor at Leeds Beckett), Matthew Feldman (fighting the good fight against the far right) and many others.

All of them have come and gone but the ethos in the history department remains the same as it was when I started as a student. Everyone is enthusiastic about their area of history, and they bring that into the classroom. Everyone cares about the students they teach. And (and this is unusual in academic departments) we all get on.

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Waterside is exciting but it is also challenging. It is a very different environment to the place we know so well. We won’t have offices like we have been used to, we’ll have to work harder to connect with each other and our students. But I’m very confident we’ll manage that and continue to deliver an excellent set of modules at undergraduate and masters levels.

So, farewell Park and Avenue and thank you for helping me find what it is I really like doing. I wasn’t sure what that was at 33 but 22 years (OMG!) later I’m delighted not only to be teaching in the History department but also to be leading it. And if you are starting a History degree with us this September then just think, you could be wearing my shoes someday. Well, you never know eh?

Drew Gray