Emperor Claudius and the Invasion of Britain

Rome Claudius Invasion Britannia Emperor Celts

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you will have seen that I recently deviated from my usual subject of British History and posted several photos of a recent trip to Rome.  True history lovers can appreciate all history and no one can deny the rich contributions of the Roman Empire. Of course, it’s important to remember that Britain too was once a part that great empire.  On that note, let’s take a look at the first Roman Emperor to rule over Britain, Claudius, the Accidental Emperor.

During his early years Claudius’ destiny seemed so far removed from greatness that his own family tried to remove him from public life.  Claudius suffered from a disability.  Throughout history, disabilities were seen as a physical manifestation of a character flaw or physical proof that someone was inherently ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’.  Over the centuries, historians have argued over whether Claudius had Cerebral Palsy, Polio, Tourette’s or if his disabilities were completely made up; an elaborate hoax to avoid the close scrutiny of power hungry relatives. What we do know is that he had weak legs which were known to give out under him, his head and hands shook, he foamed at the mouth, trickled out of the nose and spoke with a stammer.  However, as he got older, his symptoms seemed to improve.

Claudius was the uncle of Caligula, the young emperor vilified for his debauchery and cruelty.  Unlike his nephew, Claudius lived a quiet life hidden away from public view where he worked as an historian. However, Caligula soon brought Claudius into the political sphere by appointing him as co-consul. Despite this, Caligula bullied his uncle mercilessly by mocking him and his disabilities, playing pranks on him and encouraging others to do the same.

Caligula’s irrational nature didn’t stop with family, his behaviour towards the senate and Rome’s nobility eventually caught up with him and he was assassinated in AD41.  The conspirator’s plans may have been to assassinate the entire royal family, including Claudius, and restore the empire to a republic.  However, a member of the Praetorian Guard found Claudius hiding behind a curtain and declared him ‘princeps’ or boss, before whisking him away and putting him under their protection.  The senate, sensing an end to their original plans, probably saw the ‘weak-minded’ Claudius as someone who could be easily manipulated and agreed to install him as Emperor.

There has been some debate on whether or not Claudius was in on the conspiracy to murder Caligula and his family. Whether or not he was, he certainly benefited from their deaths.  However, he knew that he was greatly underestimated and needed to prove himself.

Emperor Claudius Rome Roman Empire
The Emperor Claudius

So, what does a new emperor do to prove his worth?  He conquers a new land.  Claudius set his sites on the previously unattainable island of Britannia.  The remote region was known for it’s fertile fields, livestock and abundance of tin and gold.  The Romans had wanted Britannia since Caesar launched his unsuccessful campaign in 55 BC. If Claudius was going to be taken seriously as a ruler, he needed that island.

The real weakness of Britannia was that it didn’t have one single ruler.  The country was split into several independent Celtic tribes.  These tribes rarely got along nor did they often work together.  With the help of an exiled Celtic client king (a puppet king loyal to Rome), the Romans were able to launch their invasion.

Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius as general to lead the invasion.  After a successful landing the Romans chased the Celts through the countryside and across two rivers with heavy battles throughout. Towards the end, Plautius called for Claudius’ assistance. This was probably a symbolic gesture as Claudius wasn’t trained for military command. Still, the emperor arrived with extra men, war elephants and heavy armaments.  Leaders from eleven Celtic tribes surrendered to Claudius at Colchester, the ceremonial capitol of the Celtic people.

Although this defeat was important, it would take another thirty years to conquer all of Britain (Scotland not included). Still, the underdog of Rome had done what even the great Julius Caesar couldn’t accomplish, he’d conquered Brittania for the Roman Empire.

His physical ailments caused his own mother to describe him as “A monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature”.  Yet this ‘monster of a man’ gained the respect of the people and with his conquests, he proved himself worthy of the term Emperor.

The Eyam Plague: A Hero’s Tale

Eyam plague

Covid-19  is currently wreaking havoc throughout the world. People are emptying stores to fill their cupboards with supplies.  What lessons can we learn from those who dealt with these sorts of epidemics in the past? One village can teach us all a lesson in self sacrifice and community responsibility.

In the summer of 1665 the bubonic plague was sweeping through London. This was the same virus that had decimated Europe 300 years earlier and now it was back. Victims would start off with flu like symptoms of fever and vomiting, their lymph nodes would swell, creating ‘buboes’, and their skin decayed. After days of agony, they would succumb to the contagion.

In September of that year, one hundred and sixty miles north of London in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, Alexander Hadfield, the village tailor, received an order of cloth from London.  His assistant, a travelling tailor by the name of George Viccars, unwrapped the cloth and hung it over the fire to dry. Unbeknownst to him, burrowing in the weave were fleas infected with the plague.  George Viccars soon fell ill and by the end of the week became the first victim of the Eyam outbreak. From the tailor’s house, the virus spread quickly throughout the community and by the end of the year 42 people had died.

A Selfless Plan 

During the cold winter months, the death rate slowed but by June of 1666 it had once again risen. Frightened residents prepared to flee the area, most heading to the city of Sheffield. The rector, William Mompesson, recognised the risk to surrounding communities if potentially infected people moved away. He believed that the village needed to take the radical decision to be quarantined. The people of Eyam would need to sacrifice themselves to keep the virus from spreading any further.

Mompesson had replaced the former vicar, Thomas Stanley, a few years before and he wasn’t well liked by his new parishioners. He knew he’d need Stanley on his side in order to convince the villagers. After approaching his predecessor, the two agreed on a plan.

They called an outdoor meeting of all healthy residents and put forward their plan. Many people expressed concerns, after all a quarantine would mean certain death for many of them. In the end, they reluctantly agreed.

Mompesson promised his parishioners that they would not starve or lack necessities. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived in nearby Chatsworth House, and the neighbouring villagers at Stoney Middleton agreed to provide whatever the townspeople needed.  They drilled small holes into the village’s boundary stones then filled them with vinegar, a disinfectant. Goods would be left on the stones and coins could be dropped into the holes as payment. Residents were also asked to dispose of their own dead.

A Lover’s Tale

Emmett Sydall was a young woman who lived with her family in Eyam.  She was betrothed to Rowland Torre of Stoney Middleton.  When the outbreak made it impossible for the two to visit each other openly they would secretly meet at a secluded spot between their two villages.  To protect Rowland from any infection, they took care to stand at a reasonable distance.

In April of 1666, Emmett stopped meeting Rowland. He had to wait until the outbreak ended and the quarantine was lifted to find out that his fiancé had died.

And A Mother’s Agony

Elizabeth Hancock lived with her husband John and their six children on the outskirts of the village at Riley’s Farm. The plague struck their house in August of 1666.  Within eight days her entire family were dead.  Following the rules of quarantine, Elizabeth had to dig plots in a nearby field and bury each of her loved ones herself.  Some of them were too big for her to carry so she was forced to drag them along the ground to their final resting place.  People from Stoney Middleton were said to have watched her from a distance but due to the quarantine were unable to help.

The End Finally Comes

In late October 1666, Abraham Morten died, he was the last of the plague victims. After 14 months, Eyam’s hellish ordeal was finally over. Out of a population of around 700, it is believed that nearly 260 people had died, including Mompesson’s beloved wife Catherine. The lives that they saved by stopping the spread is immeasurable.

Modern Implications 

350 years later the descendants of the survivors of the Eyam outbreak are providing genetic information about their ancestors. In December 2000, a study done on the DNA of 100 descendants still living in Eyam showed a higher than normal proportion of those villagers carried the Delta 32 genetic mutation.  This mutation gives them immunity to the Bubonic Plague. Also, if  inherited by both parents, Delta 32 is known to give immunity to HIV/AIDS.

Eyam village is now a popular tourist destination with museums, shops and tearooms. In front of some of the houses are plaques telling the story of the plague victims who once lived there. The Riley Graves, the final resting place of Mrs Hancock’s husband and six children, has been preserved by The National Trust and visitors are welcome.

Eyam is now known as a beautiful little village in the picturesque Peak District National Park but its story of sacrifice in the face of certain death has attracted people from all over the world. Considering the incredible heroism of those residents of Eyam, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we could have made the same decision.

If you’d like to take a stroll through the village of Eyam from the comfort of your computer, follow these Google Street View Links:

Plague Houses and Church

The Riley Graves

The Other Princess Charlotte: The Tragic Death of a Nation’s Hope

The Other Princess Charlotte: The Tragic Death of a Nation’s Hope

200 years before the birth of Kate and Will’s daughter Charlotte, there was another Princess Charlotte who captivated a nation. Her father the Prince Regent and future King George IV was universally disliked for his excesses. Years of too much drinking, partying and general unrestrained living had not endeared him to the nation. His disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick had ended in separation shortly after Charlotte’s birth, a mere nine months after their wedding. Charlotte was George’s only legitimate heir and a ray of hope in the eyes of a fed up nation.

On the 2nd of May 1816, Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coberg-Saalfeld. It was a love match for which Charlotte had fought hard. However, with King George III nearing the end of his life, while completely held in the grips of insanity, and her unpopular father acting as Regent, there was no time to waste in producing an heir.

After two miscarriages, it was announced in April of 1817 that Charlotte was once again pregnant. The nation was captivated by the news and bookies began taking bets as to the sex of the baby, economists were predicting a stock market rise after the birth.

After gaining what was considered too much weight, her Accoucheur (male midwife) Sir Richard Croft put her on a strict diet and occasionally had the princess bled. Unfortunately, this only served to weaken her. Leopold’s physician, German doctor Christian Stockmar, was appalled by what he saw as archaic prenatal practices. He had been asked to join Charlotte’s royal medical team but refused on the grounds that if something went wrong the foreigner would be blamed.

On the 3rd of November, Charlotte went into labour. The first stage went very slowly with weak contractions dragging out for 26 hours. Charlotte was not allowed food during this time. Early on, Dr Croft diagnosed the baby as breach but he took the decision not to intervene. Using forceps would have assisted in the delivery but, in a time before anaesthetics, forceps could have resulted in injury to the baby or even death to the mother.

The second stage of labour, which is characterised by the actual pushing, lasted an incredible 24 hours. The doctors became concerned when they spotted meconium, a dark green sludge which comes from a newborn’s bowels, a clear sign that the baby was in distress.

At some point during the labour, Charlotte’s personal physician, Dr. Matthew Baillie, sent for the noted obstetrician Dr. John Sims but Richard Croft refused to let him see her. On 5th of November, a full 50 hours after her water broke, an exhausted Charlotte gave birth to a 9 pound stillborn baby boy. The placenta was only partially separated after the birth and was manually removed.

The doctors afterwards determined that Charlotte was in relatively good health. They allowed her to eat then left her to rest. Around midnight the princess began to vomit and was having trouble breathing. Dr Croft arrived to find her cold to the touch with a feeble and erratic heart rate, she was also bleeding.

Leopold, who had not left his wife’s side throughout her difficult labour and delivery, had gone off to get some rest. When his wife took a turn for the worse, Dr Stockmar went to get him but found him difficult to rouse. At this point, Stockmar heard Charlotte shout his name. He ran in to see her but found that he was too late, Princess Charlotte was dead.

The accepted diagnosis for Charlotte’s death was a haemorrhage. Early intervention would have sped the labour along but still may not have saved the princess’s life. It is believed that her forced diet and sessions of being bled during pregnancy resulted in the princess almost certainly being anaemic during childbirth. A major loss of blood would have been too much for her overworked body to cope with.

The Prince Regent was so distraught by the death of his daughter that he could not attend her funeral. Charlotte’s mother Caroline fainted on hearing the news of her daughter’s death. Of Leopold, his physician and friend Dr Stockmar wrote, “November saw the ruin of this happy home, and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness of Prince Leopold. He has never recovered the feeling of happiness which had blessed his short married life.”

The rest of the country also grieved for the loss of their princess. Fabric suppliers ran out of the colour black as people went into mourning. It was said that even the poor and homeless wore black armbands. Shops closed for weeks and even gambling dens closed their doors on the day of Charlotte’s funeral. Charlotte was buried on the 19th of November 1817 at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

Despite assurances from both the Prince Regent and Leopold that he was not to blame, Dr Croft was wracked with guilt over his part in Charlotte’s death. Three months later, he was found dead in his home from a self inflicted gunshot wound.

With the loss of The Prince Regent’s only legitimate heir, it fell on his brothers to provide for the future of the throne. George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Duke of Kent soon proposed to Leopold’s sister Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Together, they had Alexandrina Victoria who would later become Queen Victoria, one of the United Kingdom’s greatest monarchs.

The medical professional also learned a few lessons from this senseless tragedy. The use of contraction stimulants were implemented, birth anaesthesia became more widely used, doctors began experimenting with blood transfusions after birth and they were more likely to intervene with the use of forceps in prolonged second stages of labour. Queen Victoria would find birth anaesthesia especially useful in her nine pregnancies.

The Secret of York Minster

The Secret of York Minster

York Minster, one of the most important religious sites in Europe, has a secret. Underneath this mighty cathedral lie the remains of nearly 2,000 years of history. Some of the events that happened on this site still have implications for us today.


Across from the Minster stands a reminder of a once great empire. A single Roman column marks the site of the principia, or headquarters, of Eboracum—as York was then known. On the exact spot where York Minster now sits was a basilica, a ceremonial room within the principia.

It was almost certainly in this basilica in AD306 that Constantine was proclaimed Emperor of Rome.  He was visiting Briton when news of his father’s death reached him. The Sixth Legion, stationed in Eboracum at the time, quickly proclaimed him Emperor.

Constantine would later convert to Christianity and make the religion legal in the Roman Empire. No longer could Christians be persecuted here for their beliefs, paving the way for Christianity to spread throughout Europe and onto the rest of the world.  It is especially symbolic then that in the spot where he was first declared Emperor now stands one of the most important religious buildings in all of Christendom.

The Normans

Centuries after the Romans left Britain, William of Normandy became king of England.  The North, led by its unofficial capital of York, rebelled against William’s right to rule.  In the winter of 1069 William began a merciless campaign to punish the region, dubbed the Harrying of the North.  The Northeast of England was literally set ablaze as towns, livestock and crops were destroyed and a reported 100,000 people lost their lives from either direct Norman aggression or starvation.

William replaced the Northern ruling class with his own men including appointing Thomas of Bayeux as York’s Archbishop. Originally, Thomas repaired the Saxon Minster which had been badly damaged during the Harrying of the North. However, a few years later it was completely destroyed by the Danes. Thomas took this opportunity to begin building a Norman masterpiece which he placed directly on top of the remains of the old Roman fortress.

The new Cathedral was impressive, spanning around 365 feet with a large nave and three semi-circular apses. The interior was decorated with ornately carved columns and brightly painted with biblical scenes. Its size, beauty and noticeably French architecture was a symbol of Norman superiority.

Gothic Rivalry

By the early 13th century, cathedrals were being built in the Gothic Style. Pointed arches, flying buttresses and soaring ceiling heights allowed these huge buildings to soar higher than ever before, reaching up towards heaven.

The new Archbishop of York, Walter de Gray, watched as Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster’s historic rival, was rebuilt in this new style.  In response, Walter began what would be a 250 year building programme to make York Minster the largest Gothic building in Britain.

Alongside all of the things one would expect from a Gothic building, high ceilings, flying buttresses and pointed arches, York Minster boasts enormous painted glass windows and a 235 foot (72 m) central tower. This tower is large enough to fit the entire leaning tower of Pisa inside!

Modern Discoveries

In the mid 1960’s a study of the Minster’s stonework began.  To their horror, they discovered that the central tower was buckling under its own weight.  Subsidence had caused huge cracks, distorted walls and rotting foundations.  The central tower was very near collapse.

Although they knew that the Minster sat on top of the foundations of the old Norman cathedral, it was believed that those foundations were sufficient to hold up the newer one.  Unfortunately, they discovered that the Norman foundations sat on top of the remains of the Roman basilica which was not built to hold such a mighty building.  This proved to be the ultimate cause of the near collapse. Work began in the early 1970’s to repair the cause of the damage.

The opportunity for an archeological excavation could not be passed up. So, over the course of the next few years engineers and archaeologists worked together. The engineering work was so impressive that even now engineers will come to look at the restoration. Archaeologists found a huge number of artefacts that tell us about the early life of the church and of Eboracum

Filling in the excavations created by the engineers was deemed to be too costly. The decision was made to convert the new space into an undercroft museum. In 2013 a newly refurbished and interactive Undercroft Museum opened to the public. Visitors can see Roman walls, early coins, a Viking ceremonial horn and Norman pillars. The museum takes you through 2,000 years of York’s history including the day-to-day operations of the Minster.

If you would like more information about York Minster or the Undercroft Museum, click on the links below:



Explore York Minster yourself by following this link to Google Earth.  Drag and Drop the little man (bottom right corner) over the dots to get the best views.  https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/York/@53.9621362,-1.082884,239m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x4878c340e19865f1:0x4774ab898a54e4d1!8m2!3d53.9599651!4d-1.0872979

Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Stonehenge, the world’s most famous Neolithic megalith, is under crisis.  Built around 4,500 years ago, it is only recently that archaeologists have begun to understand the true complexity of this ancient site. Unfortunately, time is running out on archaeologists as the modern world encroaches on the ancient one.

The Henge

For centuries it was believed that Stonehenge was simply an isolated outcropping of stones put there by ancient men to celebrate rituals that we no longer understand.  In the early 2000’s a new archaeological project was begun to study the surrounding area.  It discovered that Stonehenge is far more than the large standing stones everyone recognises.  It is, in fact, part of a much larger complex spanning several miles which encompass up to 17 other henges including Avebury, Woodhenge and the newly discovered Bluestonehenge.  Also unearthed are various pathways, pits and dozens of burials.

In 2013 a brand new visitor centre opened its doors to better accommodate the site’s 1.3 million yearly visitors.  It replaced a smaller centre opened as a temporary structure in 1968.  By 1989, that same structure was dubbed a ‘national disgrace’ yet somehow it remained in place for a further 20 years.

The original visitor centre sat directly across the A344 road from the ancient monument. Visitors could park in its small car park, pay the entrance fee then use an underpass to take them under the busy main road and out into the large field where Stonehenge resides. From here they could get a 360° view of the ancient monument.

For those not wanting to pay the entrance fee and not worried about seeing Stonehenge from all angles, they could walk along the footpath on the main road, getting almost as close as the paying visitors.  While the nearness of the road was great for tourists wanting free access to the site, it was a disaster for traffic as drivers inevitably slowed their cars down to look.

The solution to both the ‘national disgrace’ of a visitor centre and the traffic, was to close the A344 altogether and move the visitor centre to Larkhill, a mile and a half from the monument. The new visitor centre cost £27 million and is simply amazing.  It holds archaeological finds, replica Neolithic houses, and even the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man, based on a skeleton found on the site.

The Rock

Closing the A344 was an important step, however the nearby A303 road also runs within eyesight of Stonehenge.  Although the monument is now further off in the distance, tourists can still get a decent look at the ancient stones from the road, making slow traffic a continuing problem.

In response, central government has approved a plan to build a 1.8 mile long tunnel as part of a £2 billion scheme to improve the A303. Leading cars underground will stop them from slowing down as they will no longer be able to see the monument.  The problem is that Stonehenge isn’t just what people can see from their cars.  Not only will underground archaeology be compromised by a tunnel, the sightline from Stonehenge will also be in danger. The Western entrance to the proposed tunnel would be bathed in artificial light creating a permanent glow over the horizon, blocking the last rays of the setting midwinter sun.

The Hard Place

It has long been known that Stonehenge aligns with the sunrise during the Summer Solstice. On the longest day of the year, the sun can be seen rising over the nearby ‘Heel’ stone, casting a shadow into the centre of the stone circle.  Recently, it has become apparent to historians that Stonehenge hosts another solar phenomenon in the winter. On the shortest day of the year, the tallest stone, Stone 56, aligns with the midwinter sunset.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and was a significant time for early civilisations. Animals would be slaughtered both for food and because it was difficult to keep them fed during the harsh winter.  For people living during the this time, the Winter Solstice was potentially far more important than that of the Summer Solstice. Unfortunately, the creation of a tunnel will stand directly in the line of site of the midwinter sunset, thus stopping any future study of its alignment.

During a public consultation, archaeologists raised concerns that a tunnel would require “expensive and time consuming” work to recover and record findings.  As a World Heritage Site, they also worry that the tunnel “lowers the bar for allowing development to overrule conservation”.

The council has asked why Ministry of Defense land, which surrounds Stonehenge, was not being considered for use. However, the ‘big guys’ in historic sites, English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England have stated that the tunnel “has the potential to deliver huge benefits if designed and sited well”.  On the other hand, they have particular concerns over the location of the western portal of the tunnel, presumably as this will be the point which compromises the sightline for the Winter Solstice.

With the public consultation finished, it is now up to the Highway Agency to consider all of the options and come up with a final plan.  In the meantime, we wait to learn the fate of Stonehenge.

What do you think about the proposed plans to build a tunnel near Stonehenge?

To see for yourself how close the road is to Stonehenge, follow the link below for Google Street View.  Then click on the Satellite button along the bottom menu and zoom in to see the location of the A344 and the old Visitor’s Centre :


To learn more about Stonehenge follow this link to the English Heritage website:


The Great Whisky Caper

The Great Whisky Caper- Isle of Eriskay, Scotland

The year was 1941, the location, the tiny Hebridean Isle of Eriskay off the West coast of Scotland. Famous for being the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first stepped foot on British soil at the beginning of the 1745 uprising. Now, 200 years later, this island was about to become infamous for an entirely different reason.

The war was taking its toll on this remote island with the residents suffering under rationing. Although they grew their own food, whisky was almost impossible to come by.

In February, the SS Politician set off from Liverpool to Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. It’s cargo? Bicycles, linen, tobacco, £145,000 in Jamaican 10 Shilling notes and most importantly, 264,000 bottles of the finest Scotch whisky.

Distilleries and warehouses had been targeted in the war by the Nazis. The ignition of such a flammable substance was found to be as dangerous as hitting live shells. After a mass public campaign the whisky was loaded up to be sold in safer places across the Atlantic.

As the SS Politician passed the Isle of Wight, gale force winds forced the ship to change its course. The storm continued to batter the ship, pushing it further off track. On the morning of the 5th of February, 1941, it ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay. With its oil tanks ruptured and the engines no longer working, the crew had no choice but to abandon ship. The hold in which the whisky was kept had been flooded with water and fuel oil. Therefore, the captain didn’t believe that the cargo could be salvaged.

The ‘helpful’ islanders hoped otherwise and set up unofficial salvage teams to collect the cargo. Many men donned their wive’s dresses to keep their clothes clean from the ship’s leaking oil. Under the cover of darkness, they rowed out to the SS Politician and used their wits to get to the flooded hold. They salvaged whatever they could carry.

When word got out of the whisky on board, people from neighbouring islands, some as far as Lewis (130 miles away), made their way to Eriskay. In the words of one man, they were simply “rescuing the whisky”. In all, around 24,000 bottles were salvaged. To put that into perspective, the population of the entire Isle of Eriskay at that time was around 400. Local resident Mairi MacInnes later recalled that, “Men were dancing in the streets and singing songs and everyone joined in. It was very exciting.”

The authorities, and certainly the ship’s owners, saw the islander’s salvage efforts as nothing short of thievery. After all, duty hadn’t been paid on any of the cargo. The customs officers began combing the islands, confiscating the loot and arresting those found with it.

The locals on the Isle of Eriskay were crafty when hiding their spoils. Bottles were hidden everywhere, in hen houses, amongst rocks and buried deep in people’s gardens. Very little of it was hidden in their homes. Many of them simply tried to drink the evidence, although there was far too much to get through so quickly. Very few were ever caught with their loot. Eriskay was awash with a sense of adventure, community spirit and whisky!

After many months, the authorities finally gave up and the islanders were left alone. To deter any further looting, the hull of the ship was destroyed. This prompted one resident to declare, “Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”

Although the incident was never publicly reported, the story was picked up by Scottish author Compton MacKenzie and made into a book, Whisky Galore, which was later immortalised on film.

To this day, whisky is still being found under water and in forgotten hiding places on the island. In 2013, two recovered bottles of whisky were sold at auction for just over £12000.

The money has its own story. In the hold, the cases of Jamaican notes had been covered with fuel and water and later believed to be swept out to sea. However, within a few years, notes began showing up in banks in Northern Scotland, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and London and later internationally. By 1958, just over £105,000 had been recovered. To this day, no one knows exactly how the Jamaican shillings could be used in such remote parts of Scotland in the middle of a war.

For more information on this story, have a look at this online exhibition at     The Merseyside Maritime Museum: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/displays/politician/ 

Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Let’s face it, some people are just more interesting than the rest of us, Teddy Roosevelt, Brian Blessed, Forest Gump (ok, he’s not real, but still…). Their exploits are what fill history books and propel our world forward.

One of the most interesting people in early American history is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Yet you may have heard whispers of his existence in great literature and maybe your school governance classes. He rubbed shoulders with famous people, sailed on famous ships and signed a very famous document. He is one of America’s great pilgrim fathers, Stephen Hopkins.

Hopkins was born in Hampshire, England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His early life seemed to be fairly uneventful, he married, had children and worked as a ministerial clerk. In 1609, Hopkins was given the opportunity to sail to the Jamestown Colony in the new world. He left his wife and children and sailed out on the Sea Venture in June of that year. His fellow passengers included John Rolfe (future husband of Pocahontas) and Thomas Gates, the new governor of Jamestown.


Two months into the voyage, the Sea Venture was was hit by a storm, strayed off course and ended up shipwrecked in the Bahamas. The survivors, of whom there were many, managed to land on a tropical paradise with plenty to eat. The group built new ships to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown. Some opted to stay and form a new colony. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

Before they set sail, Hopkins voiced his dislike of Thomas Gates’s leadership and was arrested for mutiny and sentenced to death. However, it seems that the other castaways liked Hopkins and pleaded his case thus winning his release. Hopkins, along with several other men sailed for Jamestown.

News of the shipwreck and the attempted mutiny eventually reached England. It is believed that the story may have inspired William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The character Stephano, a drunken fool, may have been a thinly veiled nod to Stephen Hopkins.


When they arrived in Jamestown, they found the inhabitants starving and the settlement near collapse. In truth, Jamestown had been colonised by a group of upper-class privileged dandies who considered the manual labour required for survival beneath them. Luckily, a supply ship followed soon after and, with the colony saved from starvation, Hopkins and his fellow shipmates stayed.

During his time in Jamestown, Hopkins learned the ways of the Native American including their language, a skill which would come in handy in years to come. It is believed that Hopkins probably met Pocahontas not long before she married his fellow Sea Venture castaway, John Rolfe.

Four years after arriving in Jamestown, news reached the colony that Hopkins’s wife had died. He immediately travelled back to England to be with his three children. He stayed in England for several years and eventually remarried. However, the lure of the new world never left him.


In 1620, Hopkins learned of a new venture led by a group of Separatists to create a new settlement in the colony of Massachusetts. Hopkins took his wife and children and they boarded The Mayflower, on their way to the new world. Along the gruelling two month journey across the sea, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, Oceanus, the only baby born during the journey.

Once they arrived in Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins was one of 41 men to sign The Mayflower Compact, one of the most important documents in early American history. This was the first time anyone had written down a framework of governance in the colonies and is sometimes referred to as the world’s first constitution.

Stephen Hopkins and his family settled into their new home in Plymouth Colony. Because of his earlier experience with Native Americans in the Jamestown colony, Hopkins was used as an expert when dealing with the local tribes. The first meeting between the settlers and the natives was held at the Hopkins family home. Over the years his understanding of native languages proved useful and he was sent to accompany the pilgrims on visits to meet with the natives, including the great Wampanoag leader Massasoit.


Years later, Stephen Hopkins opened a tavern. While the community allowed him to sell alcohol, he had to obey their strict laws. This is where he began to run afoul of the authorities. During his time as an innkeeper, he seriously wounded someone in a fight, was fined for serving alcohol and allowing shuffleboard on a Sunday, he was charged with selling beer at double the price and for allowing people to drink excessively in his house.

The real trouble came in 1638 after his maidservant Dorothy Temple fell pregnant by a man named Arthur Peach. Peach was a highwayman who was caught and hanged after the murder of a Native American. Plymouth Court ruled that Hopkins was financially responsible for Dorothy and her child for the two years remaining on her terms of service. Hopkins refused and was found in contempt of court, landing him in custody. Another man stepped in and agreed to support Dorothy and her child thus releasing Hopkins of his obligations.

Hopkins continued to run his tavern until his death in 1644. In his will he requested to be buried alongside his wife.

From a possible Shakespearean muse, to a pilgrim father, to town troublemaker, Stephen Hopkins lived a life filled with more adventure than most people could ever dream. His spirit embodies the toughness and perseverance required to survive in the early days of America.

For more information about Stephen Hopkins, the Pilgrim Hopkins Heritage Society have their own website here: http://home.pilgrimhopkins.com

Magna Carta’s Little Brother

Magna Carta's Little Brother: The Forest Charter

The Magna Carta, one of the world’s most influential documents, was signed in a field near the English town of Runnymede in 1215 by King John. After a bitter dispute with his barons over rising taxes, John was forced to sign a charter calling for more rights for the noble class. This was the first time that the divine right of a king had been challenged and John had no intention of following its authority. The Pope sided with the king and had the original version of the Magna Carta annulled.

While the king and the barons bickered, common folk were suffering from a different type of royal excess. Their rights to the fair use of forests were being abused, making life very difficult for the poor.

A forest in medieval terms was any land officially set aside for hunting purposes. This could include fields, villages and heathland as well as woodland. During the reigns of Henry II and his sons Richard and John, royal forests were greatly expanded. They took up nearly 1/3 of the land in England with a large population of the country living within them. People who needed access to these forests faced strict regulations with penalties including heavy fines or even death. In a time when use of the land was vital for daily survival, forest laws were oppressive.

A year after the death of King John, his son Henry III signed a new version of the Magna Carta. This one was accompanied by a second smaller document, The Forest Charter. While the Magna Carta was for the benefit of the barons, the Forest Charter held up the rights of the land for all other freemen. The two documents would forever be linked in English Law.

The Forest Charter was made up of sixteen articles, far fewer than the 63 in the Magna Carta. However, its rules eased the living conditions of a much larger percentage of the population. It put the boundaries of royal forests back to where they were before Henry II, freeing many people from any regulations for land use. It also allowed people to farm pigs, collect timber or charcoal, build structures such as mills and hunt on the land. Most importantly, the penalties for poaching were reduced. After the Forest Charter, poaching was no longer punishable by death.

Over the centuries, The Forest Charter was ignored by some kings and used for political advantage by others. Early Parliaments used the Charter to set up private game parks and aid in the production of timber. In the 20th century, as the country moved away from an agricultural economy, the public used The Forest Charter as a right to use the countryside for recreational purposes.

The Forest Charter was repealed in the 1970’s. By then, most of its original articles were imbedded in different aspects of English Law, a testament to the importance of public access to the countryside. Today, societies such as The Woodland Trust are calling for a new Forest Charter as a means to protect the environment.

The Forest Charter gives us a glimpse into the lives of Medieval commoners. For people who survived by living off the land, the countryside served a vital purpose. Henry II, Richard and John had put many lives at risk by taking away their right to use the land freely. Their misuse of such an important resource sparked a countryside revolution with the implications lasting centuries.

If you’d like to see an original copy of The Magna Carta and The Forest Charter, take a trip to Lincoln Castle. You can find out more information at https://www.lincolncastle.com

Outside of the UK, the best place to see these documents is on The British Library’s website https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-forest-charter-of-1225