King Rubbish the Awful

Last time you got a top 5 best English monarchs, but in the interests of balance and fair representation, it is worth remembering that the monarchs of England and Great Britain, like those of just about every other country, were on the whole a bunch of feckless idiots who hadn’t the faintest idea how to rule and were distinctly underqualified for the job. And here, to represent them as best (or worst) as possible is a Top 4 (because seriously, this post is long enough already without having to pick another one of the morons), distilling from a long and competitive list the four worst rulers ever to sit upon the throne of England. Or Great Britain.

Once again, we proceed in chronological order…

Ethelred the Unready*(978-1016) 

In his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’, Winston Churchill describes Ethelred as ‘a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature’, and by all accounts that wasn’t a bad description. One of the few kings whose bad reputation doesn’t come from having fallen out with the Church or a subsequent King, Ethelred’s utter uselessness almost single-handedly ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England- twice.

Ethelred came to power at a time when Vikings had, after being kept out first by Athelstan and several subsequent generations of Saxon kings, began once again to pillage the coast of England. However, whilst other kings had faced down the invaders with an army at their back, when Vikings landed on Ethelred’s shores he simply paid them to go away. These ‘Danegeld’ payments were made in 991, 994 and 1002, costing England 56,000 pounds in total to buy a peace that kept being broken. On their own, this might have been fine, as even Alfred the Great had bought the Danes off to buy him time, but they utterly failed to stop the raids and Ethelred for his part did not prevent them from still coming. Rather than preparing for the inevitable open war that would surely result he instead became paranoid and made one of the most horrific and downright cowardly orders in history; that every single Dane living in England, even Anglicised Danes who had been living there for years, was to be assassinated on the same day. The St. Brice’s Day massacre was pure bloodthirsty genocide, as Ethelred’s men even burnt down churches full of people in one of the world’s most horrible displays of the savage side to human nature. One-third of the Danish population of England are estimated to have died, including a noblewoman called Gunhilde. Gunhilde’s brother, Swein Forkbeard, happened to be King of Denmark, and next year he came across the north sea and attacked England. Twice in the next ten years Ethelred paid the Danegeld again, costing a total of 84,000 pounds this time, before finally he was uprooted from the throne and replaced with Swein’s son Canute.

That wasn’t the end of the invasions Ethelred brought to England. He had married Emma of Normandy, who later married King Canute and, when neither of his sons produced heirs, this allowed the throne to pass back to Ethelred’s son Edward the Confessor. However, Emma’s brother Robert would later produce a son who would rise to become Duke of Normandy. It was this loose link to the Ethelred (Edward was his second cousin), that gave his claim to the English throne legitimacy, and led William, Duke of Normandy to invade and become William I of England.

Although that one can’t really be judged his fault.

*Ethelred’s nickname ‘the unready’ is actually a mis-translated play on his name; ‘red’ or ‘raed’ means ‘counsel’ in old English, and Ethelred roughly translates to ‘noble counsel’ (or ‘good advice’). His Old English nickname was actually ‘Unraed’, which roughly means ‘no counsel’ or ‘bad advice’. His name is, therefore, the Old English equivalent of a pun; ‘Good counsel the no counsel’ (jokes were very much in their infancy back then). Whether ‘no counsel’ should be taken to mean ‘ill-advised’ or ‘bad planner’ is unclear, but it illustrates the point that, whether he or his advisors were to blame, Ethelred’s reign was not a good one. Although, admittedly, he did apparently make some good legal reforms; just a shame about all the Vikings getting in the way.

John (1199-1216)

Everyone knows about king John and his general awfulness, even if their image is straight out of Robin Hood. The signs weren’t good from before he even took the throne; acting as caretaker ruler whilst his brother Richard (who almost made this list himself) was fighting the crusades, he both attempted (and failed) to rebel against him and then, when Richard was captured he (allegedly; the Church may have made this up) sent a message to the Holy Roman Emperor offering him a large sum of money not to let him go. An even larger sum eventually bankrupted England and got Richard home again, whereupon he promptly set off to France to get killed in a siege and landed John on the throne. This annoyed a lot of his French barons, who promptly switched their allegiance to John’s twelve year-old nephew Arthur instead, and when John had Arthur captured and killed he successfully alienated the king of France and most of his barons. With noble after noble allying themselves with the French, John lost all the French possessions his father Henry II had won, and then crowned the catastrophe by losing Normandy to the French as well. It was this that earned him the nickname ‘Softsword’.

Not content with merely losing half of modern France (and spending a ton of money in the process, and pissing everyone off with his heavy-handed attempts to keep the economy afloat, and dropping the Crown Jewels in quicksand for good measure), he then proceeded to argue with the Pope too. This, more than anything, cemented his dreadful reputation, since the Church wrote the history books; the Vatican effectively excommunicated the entire country and declared all baptisms that occurred illegitimate, and John responded by nicking a ton of Church land in an attempt to drum up some much-needed cash. This got John himself excommunicated, and under any other circumstance he would surely have been replaced in no time. However, with no other proper claimant to the throne, it was John’s barons who took the initiative, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta to ensure he toed to a line of some sort. Not that it worked, and the First Barons War started as a result. And the country got a French prince on the throne for a year.

Richard II (1377-99)

The reign of this most unmemorable of Richards (the only one of England’s 3 thus far not to die in battle) started with such promise. When the most famous of England’s peasant revolts took place in London in 1381 (in response to some particularly harsh post-Black Death economic measures), killing several officials at the Tower of London, the fourteen year old king was ‘volunteered’, presumably by his terrified advisors, to go and meet with their leader Wat Tyler. Upon being presented with a list of demands that would have made Lenin look like a Tory, Richard made the smart move (from both a political and a ‘keeping-your-neck-intact’ perspective) of simply agreeing with them and asking to meet the next day and go over the details. In that meeting, Tyler was killed, Richard was able to calm everyone down and the mob were dispersed without any of their demands met.

Unfortunately, Richard failed to utilise any of this tact and manners when dealing with his nobles, and as he grew older he grew particularly bad-tempered and unpopular (some historians believe he may have been schizophrenic or have some other personality disorder), particularly among his barons. Richard believed in the absolute royal right to rule and disliked having to appease his other landed gentry; this was not unusual at the time, but Richard was a vain man (the first to insist on being called ‘your majesty’) and lived expensively, wasting most of the money saved by peace. His belief in his own power also led him to become increasingly tyrannical. He packed the court with his favourites (and possibly a gay lover too) rather than the person best suited to the job, and lavished money on them; when asked by his barons to sack his Chancellor Michael de la Pole, he refused to dismiss ‘a scullion’ on Parliament’s wishes, and war was imminent. Richard lost, was returned to the throne (minus his favourites, many of whom were executed) by his uncle John of Gaunt*, spent eight years brooding about it and then started nicking the land of all the nobles who’d rebelled against him. When he finally took the land of Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir to the throne, the country rallied to Henry and swept Richard from power (becoming Henry IV). He died in prison a year later, and history remembers him as another king who pushed Parliament too far.

*John of Gaunt was the dominant political figure of Richard’s age and was so called, for some reason, because he came from Ghent. His main claim to fame comes from the oft-quoted claim that everybody in Europe today is, statistically, his descendant.

Charles I (1625-49)

When we’re talking about pushing Parliament too far, it’s hard to trump the sheer idiocy of Charles I. Like his father James I, Charles was brought up to believe in the divine right of kings; that God had placed him on the throne and no man had the right to challenge his authority. Again like his father, he was also sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and was married to a French catholic. This was not sensible in a country such as England, where a hard line Puritan Parliament was a noble’s main source of funding and power and Catholicism was reviled across the land; but this might have been tolerated as it was for his father and son had Charles not taken to his role with such sheer arrogance. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and arresting nine men after they disagreed with him, which was seen as downright tyrannical, and then attempted to rule without Parliament for 12 years, something even his father hadn’t dared try. With this major income source cut off, Charles embarked on a series of deeply unpopular, often inefficient and in places straight up illegal moneymaking techniques, which did nothing to improve his PR. When he attempted to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland without asking anyone first, the resulting backlash ended in military defeat and he was finally forced to call Parliament again. A month later, amid massive financial argument, Charles dismissed his Parliament, got trounced by the Scots again, and was forced to recall it. After getting half his advisers convicted of treason and Parliament granting themselves a sharp increase in power just to put two fingers up to Charles, Ireland chose that moment to erupt into religious civil war. Charles’ power was falling about around his ears, but not even this was enough to persuade the English to do something so bad-mannered as to rebel against their arrogant, unpopular, Catholic-sympathising king.

Indeed, had it ended there, Charles’ reign would probably have been almost a carbon copy of King John’s; military failure followed by disagreement with Church and nobility forcing Charles to hand much of his power over to the latter. Here, however, Charles played his trump card of insanely dumb ideas; marching into Parliament armed with 400 soldiers and attempting to arrest his five main opponents- which would have been fine were freedom from arrest within the chamber not one of the fundamental rights of Parliament, and the fact that they hadn’t done anything illegal. Having successfully alienated pretty much the entire country, Charles then proceeded to lose the English Civil war, become the only English king ever to get beheaded  and put the Puritan Taliban (sorry, Oliver Cromwell and co.) in charge of Britain. So thanks a balls ton.

And the worst part is, there’s even historical proof that it was all unnecessary. Charles’ son, Charles II, was also anti-Parliamentarian (digging up those who had executed his father and re-hanging their dead bodies, among other things), a Catholic sympathiser and a frequently absentee monarch, but when he remembered to recall Parliament his charm was such that he was cheered through the House of Commons and invited the members to the royal wine cellar for a drink. Charles II was a likeable, friendly character who disagreed with parliament about everything and still managed to enjoy 25 peaceful years in power. Charles I was an arrogant twerp who nobody liked, and we got one of Britain’s bloodiest wars out of it.


A final note; developments in my personal life mean that, at least for the moment, I’m going to have to once again drop the post count. For the immediate future, posts will be on Saturdays only


Shining Curtains

When the Vikings swept across Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, they brought with them many stories; stories of their Gods, of the birth of the world, of Asgard, of Valhalla, of Jormundur the world-serpent, of Loki the trickster, Odin the father and of Ragnarok- the end of this world and the beginning of the next. However, the reason I mention the Vikings today is in reference to one particular set of stories they brought with them; of shining curtains of brilliant, heavenly fire, dancing across the northern sky as the Gods fought with one another. Such lights were not common in Europe, but they were certainly known, and throughout history have provoked terror at the anger of the various Gods that was clearly being displayed across the heavens. Now, we know these shining curtains as the aurora borealis (Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, whilst boreas was the Greek name for the north wind (because the aurora was only observed in the far north- a similar feature known as the aurora australis is seen near the south pole). The name was acquired in 1621).

Nowadays, we know that the auroras are an electromagnetic effect, which was demonstrated quite spectacularly in 1859. On the 28th of August and 2nd of September that year, spectacular auroras erupted across much of the northern hemisphere, reaching their peak at one o’clock in the morning EST, and as far south as Boston the light was enough to read by. However, the feature I am interested here concerns the American Telegraph Line, stretching almost due north between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Because of the great length and orientation of this line, the electromagnetic field generated by the aurora was sufficient to induce a current in the telegraph, to the extent that operators at both ends of the line communicated to decide to switch off their batteries (which were only interfering) and operate solely on aurora-power for around two hours. Aside from a gentle fluctuation of current, no problems were reported with this system.

We now know that the ultimate cause of the aurorae is our sun, and that two loads of exceptional solar activity were responsible for the 1859 aurora. We all know the sun emits a great deal of energy from the nuclear fusion going on in its core, but it also emits a whole lot of other stuff; including a lot of ionised (charged) gas, or plasma. This outflow of charged particles forms what is known as the solar wind, flowing out into space in all directions; it is this solar wind that generates the tail on comets, and is why such a tail always points directly away from the sun. However, things get interesting when the solar wind hits a planet such as Earth, which has a magnetic field surrounding it. Earth’s magnetic field looks remarkably similar to that of a large, three-dimensional bar magnet (this picture demonstrates it’s shape well), and when a large amount of charged particles passes through this magnetic field it is subject to something known as the motor effect. As every GCSE physics student knows, it is this effect that allows us to generate motion from electricity, and the same thing happens here; the large mass of moving charge acts as a current, and this cuts across the earth’s magnetic field. This generates a force (this is basically what the motor effect does), and this force points sideways, pushing the solar wind sideways. However, as it moves, so does the direction of the ‘current’, and thus the direction of the force changes too; this process ends up causing the charge to spin around the magnetic field lines of the earth, causing it to spiral as this mass of charged particles moves along them. Following these field lines, the charge will end up spiralling towards the poles of the earth, at which point the field lines bend and start going into the earth itself. As the plasma follows these lines therefore, it will come into contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, and one section of it in particular; the magnetosphere.

The magnetosphere is a region of our atmosphere that covers the upper level of our ionosphere which has a strong magnetic field. Here, the magnetic fields of both the charged plasma and the magnetosphere itself combine in a rather complicated process known as magnetic reconnection, the importance of which will be discussed later. Now, let us consider the contents of the plasma, all these charged particles and in particular high energy electrons that are now bumping into atoms of air in the ionosphere. This bumping into atoms gives them energy, which an atom deals with by having electrons within the atoms jump up energy levels and enter an excited state. After a short while, the atoms ‘cool down’ by having electrons drop down energy levels again, releasing packets of electromagnetic energy as they do so. We observe this release of EM radiation as visible light, and hey presto! we can see the aurorae. What colour the aurora ends up being depends on what atoms we are interacting with; oxygen is more common higher up and generates green and red aurorae depending on height, so these are the most common colours. If the solar wind is able to get further down in the atmosphere, it can interact with nitrogen and produce blue and purple aurorae.

The shape of the aurorae can be put down to the whole business of spiralling around field lines; this causes, as the field lines bend in towards the earth’s poles, them to describe roughly circular paths around the north and south poles. However, plasma does not conduct electricity very well between magnetic field lines, as this pattern is, so we would not expect the aurora to be very bright under normal circumstances. The reason this is not the case, and that aurorae are as visible and beautiful as they are, can be put down to the process of magnetic reconnection, which makes the plasma more conductive and allows these charged particles to flow more easily around in a circular path. This circular path around the poles causes the aurora to follow approximately east-west lines into the far distance, and thus we get the effect of ‘curtains’ of light following (roughly) this east-west pattern. The flickery, wavy nature of these aurora is, I presume, due to fluctuations in the solar wind and/or actual winds in the upper atmosphere. The end result? Possibly the most beautiful show Earth has to offer us. I love science.

Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so…

In the dim and distant past, time was, to humankind, a thing and not much more. There was light-time, then there was dark-time, then there was another lot of light-time; during the day we could hunt, fight, eat and try to stay alive, and during the night we could sleep and have sex. However, we also realised that there were some parts of the year with short days and colder night, and others that were warmer, brighter and better for hunting. Being the bright sort, we humans realised that the amount of time it spent in winter, spring, summer and autumn (fall is the WRONG WORD) was about the same each time around, and thought that rather than just waiting for it to warm up every time we could count how long it took for one cycle (or year) so that we could work out when it was going to get warm next year. This enabled us to plan our hunting and farming patterns, and it became recognised that some knowledge of how the year worked was advantageous to a tribe. Eventually, this got so important that people started building monuments to the annual seasonal progression, hence such weird and staggeringly impressive prehistoric engineering achievements as Stonehenge.

However, this basic understanding of the year and the seasons was only one step on the journey, and as we moved from a hunter-gatherer paradigm to more of a civilised existence, we realised the benefits that a complete calendar could offer us, and thus began our still-continuing test to quantify time. Nowadays our understanding of time extends to clocks accurate to the degree of nanoseconds, and an understanding of relativity, but for a long time our greatest quest into the realm of bringing organised time into our lives was the creation of the concept of the wee.

Having seven days of the week is, to begin with, a strange idea; seven is an awkward prime number, and it seems odd that we don’t pick number that is easier to divide and multiply by, like six, eight or even ten, as the basis for our temporal system. Six would seem to make the most sense; most of our months have around 30 days, or 5 six-day weeks, and 365 days a year is only one less than multiple of six, which could surely be some sort of religious symbolism (and there would be an exact multiple on leap years- even better). And it would mean a shorter week, and more time spent on the weekend, which would be really great. But no, we’re stuck with seven, and it’s all the bloody moon’s fault.

Y’see, the sun’s daily cycle is useful for measuring short-term time (night and day), and the earth’s rotation around it provides the crucial yearly change of season. However, the moon’s cycle is 28 days long (fourteen to wax, fourteen to wane, regular as clockwork), providing a nice intermediary time unit with which to divide up the year into a more manageable number of pieces than 365. Thus, we began dividing the year up into ‘moons’ and using them as a convenient reference that we could refer to every night. However, even a moon cycle is a bit long for day-to-day scheduling, and it proved advantageous for our distant ancestors to split it up even further. Unfortunately, 28 is an awkward number to divide into pieces, and its only factors are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. An increment of 1 or 2 days is simply too small to be useful, and a 4 day ‘week’ isn’t much better. A 14 day week would hardly be an improvement on 28 for scheduling purposes, so seven is the only number of a practical size for the length of the week. The fact that months are now mostly 30 or 31 days rather than 28 to try and fit the awkward fact that there are 12.36 moon cycles in a year, hasn’t changed matters, so we’re stuck with an awkward 7 day cycle.

However, this wasn’t the end of the issue for the historic time-definers (for want of a better word); there’s not much advantage in defining a seven day week if you can’t then define which day of said week you want the crops to be planted on. Therefore, different days of the week needed names for identification purposes, and since astronomy had already provided our daily, weekly and yearly time structures it made sense to look skyward once again when searching for suitable names. At this time, centuries before the invention of the telescope, we only knew of seven planets, those celestial bodies that could be seen with the naked eye; the sun, the moon (yeah, their definition of ‘planet’ was a bit iffy), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It might seem to make sense, with seven planets and seven days of the week, to just name the days after the planets in a random order, but humankind never does things so simply, and the process of picking which day got named after which planet was a complicated one.

In around 1000 BC the Egyptians had decided to divide the daylight into twelve hours (because they knew how to pick a nice, easy-to-divide number), and the Babylonians then took this a stage further by dividing the entire day, including night-time, into 24 hours. The Babylonians were also great astronomers, and had thus discovered the seven visible planets- however, because they were a bit weird, they decided that each planet had its place in a hierarchy, and that this hierarchy was dictated by which planet took the longest to complete its cycle and return to the same point in the sky. This order was, for the record, Saturn (29 years), Jupiter (12 years), Mars (687 days), Sun (365 days), Venus (225 days), Mercury (88 days) and Moon (28 days). So, did they name the days after the planets in this order? Of course not, that would be far too simple; instead, they decided to start naming the hours of the day after the planets (I did say they were a bit weird) in that order, going back to Saturn when they got to the Moon.

However, 24 hours does not divide nicely by seven planets, so the planet after which the first hour of the day was named changed each day. So, the first hour of the first day of the week was named after Saturn, the first hour of the second day after the Sun, and so on. Since the list repeated itself each week, the Babylonians decided to name each day after the planet that the first hour of each day was named, so we got Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday.

Now, you may have noticed that these are not the days of the week we English speakers are exactly used to, and for that we can blame the Vikings. The planetary method for naming the days of the week was brought to Britain by the Romans, and when they left the Britons held on to the names. However, Britain then spent the next 7 centuries getting repeatedly invaded and conquered by various foreigners, and for most of that time it was the Germanic Vikings and Saxons who fought over the country. Both groups worshipped the same gods, those of Norse mythology (so Thor, Odin and so on), and one of the practices they introduced was to replace the names of four days of the week with those of four of their gods; Tyr’sday, Woden’sday (Woden was the Saxon word for Odin), Thor’sday and Frig’sday replaced Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday in England, and soon the fluctuating nature of language renamed the days of the week Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

However, the old planetary names remained in the romance languages (the Spanish translations of the days Tuesday to Friday are Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi and Vendredi), with one small exception. When the Roman Empire went Christian in the fourth century, the ten commandments dictated they remember the Sabbath day; but, to avoid copying the Jews (whose Sabbath was on Saturday), they chose to make Sunday the Sabbath day. It is for this reason that Monday, the first day of the working week after one’s day of rest, became the start of the week, taking over from the Babylonian’s choice of Saturday, but close to Rome they went one stage further and renamed Sunday ‘Deus Dominici’, or Day Of The Lord. The practice didn’t catch on in Britain, thousands of miles from Rome, but the modern day Spanish, French and Italian words for Sunday are domingo, dimanche and domenica respectively, all of which are locally corrupted forms of ‘Deus Dominici’.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a natural conclusion, or even much of a point to it. But hey; I didn’t start writing this because I wanted to make a point, but more to share the kind of stuff I find slightly interesting. Sorry if you didn’t.