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Subject: ‘Famous Last Words’

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An American traitor and a British spy met very different ends

Posted in America, Espionage, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about the American Revolution first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

 Death of Major Andre,  picture, image, illustration
The Unfortunate Death of Major Andre

Visitors to the battlefield of Saratoga in New York State, U.S.A., can see one monument so strange that it seems to make no sense.

The battle, fought in 1777 between the British under General Burgoyne and American regulars and militiamen, was a turning point in the American Revolution, for the defeat of the British helped bring France in on the side of the one-year-old United States and make their final victory certain.

The strange monument commemorates the soldier who did more than anyone else to bring about the American victory, but it does not name him! The inscription relates that he was the most brilliant American soldier and that he became a major-general after the battle. It has a cannon carved on it, also a wreath, a badge and a boot, and that is all.

Elsewhere in the state, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, is a granite memorial erected by Americans to honour a man who could have lost the war for them, a British officer they hanged as a spy in front of a vast crowd who mourned for him. His name, John André, is engraved in the stone of his memorial.

The two monuments are linked, for the first commemorates the achievements of the most famous of all American traitors. Benedict Arnold, before he betrayed his country, and the second, the man who was his link with the British High Command. Treachery and scandal bind the two forever in history, one of whom died unlamented and disliked in London in 1801, the other on that hill overlooking the Hudson. More than half a century later, John Andre’s body found a final resting place in Westminster Abbey.

The American Revolution began in 1775 after relations between Britain and her 13 American colonies had reached breaking point over many issues especially the fact that the colonists were taxed without their being represented in the British Parliament. From the beginning, many of them stayed loyal to the Crown, so it was as much a civil war as a struggle for independence.

But one person whose loyalty to the American cause was certain was Benedict Arnold, or so everyone believed.

His exploits early in the war were fabulous. He was 34 when it broke out and soon became the most dashing of all American commanders, more so even than a far greater man, the American Commander-in-Chief, George Washington.

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Sir Richard Grenville’s ‘Revenge’ took on the entire Spanish fleet

Posted in Famous battles, Famous Last Words, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships on Thursday, 20 February 2014

This edited article about the ‘Revenge’ first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 559 published on 30 September 1972.

Grenville on the Revenge,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Richard Grenville, a famous British sailor, tried to sail the Revenge single-handed through a fleet of 53 Spanish ships off the Azores in 1591; fifteen of them surrounded him, and battle was joined

Six fine ships of sail riding at anchor in the island bay, warmed by the August sun reflected off a calm and dappled ocean; it was a scene which must have looked as pretty as a painting.

But to Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Richard Grenville, the ships’ admirals, that scene at Flores, one of the westerly islands of the Azores in the Atlantic, was anything but pretty.

It had, they agreed disconsolately, been a bad trip. They had set off from England with fine hopes of cutting off a rich Spanish treasure-fleet going home from the New World.

Instead of the treasure trove they had met only with sickness and steadily reducing morale. At Flores, with half their men ill and “utterly unserviceable” they had dropped anchor to provision the ships and do what they could for the sick.

It was three years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and England, still at war with Spain, still ruled the waves. Only it didn’t much seem like it to the dispirited Howard and the downcast Grenville that warm August afternoon.

The messenger who broke into their deliberations aboard Grenville’s ship the Revenge stuttered out his news anxiously.

“Spanish warships have been sighted, sir. Fifty-three galleons, no less.”

Howard raced on deck and raised his eyeglass. He could see them already – the biggest enemy fleet since Drake destroyed the Armada coming round the island.

“Weigh anchor!” he roared and then it was a case of every ship for herself.

Five of them were soon clean away; the sixth lingered and in those lost moments was the genesis of one of the most daring stories in the annals of the Royal Navy. The sixth ship was Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge and by the time she put to sea the wind had dropped, catching her in the Spanish trap.

Exactly why Grenville was the last to get away has never been discovered. It may have been because nearly half his 190 men were ill and ashore at the time and doubtless moving them back to the Revenge took precious time.

Or it may have been because Grenville utterly refused to flee and determined to stand and fight. If this was the case it was an act of recklessness, for all 53 of the galleons towered over the Revenge and any two of them “could have crushed her into shivers.” But it would have been an act in keeping with the man.

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The assassination of Julius Caesar weighed heavily upon Brutus and Cassius

Posted in Ancient History, Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 26 November 2013

This edited article about Julius Caesar first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 463 published on 28 November 1970.

Assassination of Caesar, picture, image, illustration
The assassination of Julius Caesar by Tancredi Scarpelli

The plan was simple enough. Each conspirator was to come to the Senate with a dagger concealed in his toga. At a given signal they would throw themselves at their victim and stab him to death. The act was to be carried out in full view of the Senate – thus making it clear that this was an honourable deed carried out by patriots determined that no tyrant should ever rule Rome again.

And so one by one, the conspirators had arrived at the Senate. Standing now in an uneasy group, they waited for their intended victim. Even at this late stage some were troubled by the enormity of the deed they were about to commit. The victim was, after all, Julius Caesar, Rome’s greatest son, on whom the State had bestowed honours never accorded to any other Roman. Loved and respected as a military genius and an inspired leader, his death could only lead to bloodshed. Why then had these men embarked on this course of action?

To answer this we have to know something of the powers and privileges which had been granted to this remarkable man whose military conquests had enriched Rome with so many new territories on other continents. After quelling a civil war, Caesar had been made a dictator with a complete control over the affairs of Rome. Such power was likely to corrupt any man, but generally speaking, Caesar had used it wisely, mainly by trying to eliminate the many injustices which were constantly being inflicted on the masses by the aristocracy. Under his orders statutes were prepared to see that the roads were well maintained and that the grain supply should be supervised in such a way that it could be shared fairly.

The announcement of every new law or project was greeted with resentment by the aristocracy, and many members of the Senate, who realised that by placing such power in the hands of Caesar, they had reduced themselves to mere figureheads.

Although their motives were selfish, they had some just cause for complaint. All Romans had been brought up to believe in the soundness of a republican government in which every issue affecting the State could be voted on by the Senate, which was supposed to exist primarily as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of the people. Under Caesar’s rule, this was now a thing of the past.

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“Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”- Madame Roland

Posted in Famous Last Words, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Revolution on Wednesday, 26 June 2013

This edited article about Madame Roland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 304 published on 11 November 1967.

Madame Roland, picture, image, illustration
The famous last words of Madame Roland

It is not for her work as a revolutionary, nor for her bravery when she became a victim of the revolution which she had helped to start, that Madame Marie Jeanne Roland is specially remembered today. Her claim to popular fame is based on a few words she spoke before she was executed in Paris. “Oh, Liberty,” she cried, “what crimes are committed in thy name!”

Perhaps these words are remembered because they so exactly summed up the darker side of the French Revolution.

Marie Jeanne Roland, who was born in Paris on 18th March, 1754, passionately believed in liberty and the idea of founding a new and just State in France. In 1780, she married a government official who shared her views. Together they worked for a revolution which would bring equality to all, and to this end they became leaders in the Girondist movement.

The Girondists – so-called because many of their members were from the Gironde district of Bordeaux – were opposed to the revolutionary leader Marat. In May, 1793, Marat won the struggle for power and the Girondists were persecuted in the following Reign of Terror. Among the victims was Marie Roland. On 8th November, 1793, she was taken to the guillotine, where she met her end with great bravery.

Who poisoned Napoleon Bonaparte?

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Royalty, War on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about Napoleon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon on his deathbed clutching the cross of the Legion d’honneur which he had himself founded

The storm which came sweeping in from the sea battered at the doors and windows of Longwood House on the lonely island of St. Helena. Draughts crept in through cracks in the badly-built walls and made the candles flicker.

Weak light played over the face of the man who lay on the little curtained bed. Only the faintest suggestion of movement under the blankets showed that he was alive.

The merest whisper came from the delicate, half-open lips: “At . . . the head . . . of the . . . army . . .”

And then no more.

At ten minutes to six on the evening of May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died, and the people gathered around his bedside wept.

So ended the life of the greatest soldier the world has ever known. For six years Napoleon had been living in exile on St. Helena, an island in the middle of the Atlantic, where he had been sent by his British conquerors. And for the whole of that time he had been guarded night and day, for fear that he might escape and plunge Europe into war again.

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The heroic failure and tragic death of Captain Scott

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Famous Last Words, Famous news stories, Geography, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 8 January 2013

This edited article about Captain Robert Falcon Scott originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 809 published on 16th July 1977.

Scott's expedition, picture, image, illustration

Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole

When the old whaling ship, Terra Nova, edged her way out of London’s river on 1st June, 1910, her captain, Robert Falcon Scott, was not aboard. He was in Capetown, South Africa, raising money for his Polar Expedition.

It seems strange, nowadays, to realise that he had to beg in order to pay for the privilege of attempting to be the first man to reach the South Pole. But Scott was a remarkable man. Though short, he had great physical strength.

Among his party were Dr. E. C. Wilson, who was in charge of the scientific staff, Petty Officer Evans, and two army officers, Lieut. Henry R. Bowers and Captain L. E. G. Oates.

It was in Melbourne, Australia, on the journey south, that Scott received a fateful telegram. It read: BEG LEAVE TO INFORM YOU PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC – AMUNDSEN. So it would be a race to the Pole between him and the famous Norwegian explorer.

On the voyage and long before the real hazards began, things were difficult enough. The ship sprang a leak and the pumps failed; later they had to battle their way through pack ice. Finally, however, they reached Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound, and sledging journeys were undertaken to lay down food depots before the winter set in.

Then they settled down to await summer, when they would make their dash to the Pole, refusing to be panicked by the news that Amundsen and his party had made a landing far nearer to the great objective.

At last came the sun, and a party, equipped with motor sledges, set out as an advance guard. They reached the Great Barrier, but near Camp Corner, after a journey over the hummocked ice, the motor sledges had to be abandoned. When Scott caught up with them with his ponies, he was greatly disappointed. But at least the motor sledges had saved the ponies from a difficult stretch of hauling.

Now at last all the months of planning had reached their climax. The route ahead was clear, up the Beardmore Glacier and due south to the Pole – nine hundred miles (1,450 km) of tough going.

At first, all went well. But then unseasonable weather began to delay them. Marching into strong headwinds and snowstorms, they still managed to cover fifteen miles (24 km) a day, but the ponies were now becoming exhausted.

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Sir Humphrey Gilbert combined personal failure with a romantic imperial vision

Posted in Bravery, Exploration, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, Ships on Monday, 5 March 2012

This edited article about Sir Humphrey Gilbert originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 659 published on 31 August 1974.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, picture, image, illustration

Sir Humphrey Gilbert claims Newfoundland in 1583 by Andrew Howat

It had not been a happy voyage, which was hardly surprising as many of the sailors were ex-pirates, but now the little fleet had safely reached St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s great moment, for he was about to plant England’s first colony overseas. He took possession of the island in the Queen’s name, claimed a suitable amount of land for himself and his heirs, and announced that if anyone spoke “dishonestly” of the Queen, “he shall lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated.”

And so the mightiest of all empires was born, though, alas, this first fragment of it collapsed almost before it started, and a few weeks later Gilbert was dead.

What had gone wrong?

Sir Humphrey Gilbert was born in 1539 in Devonshire, where many of Elizabeth’s eagles began their soaring careers. He was one of the unluckiest of them, though he brought some of his troubles on himself, for, unlike his great kinsman, Sir Walter Raleigh, he was not a born leader of men. Educated at Oxford, he spent his early manhood fighting in France, and then in Ireland, where he was knighted for his services. The English were planting settlers there, and this turned his mind to empire-building.

As early as 1566 he was petitioning the Queen to let him try to find the fabulous North-West Passage to China from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic seas. Not until our own century has it been “found,” and then only by tough modern ice-breakers, but the dream was a reasonable one and he was not the first to try and find it.

The Queen, however, thought he was better employed in Ireland and did not answer him. After more service, then a spell as Plymouth’s M.P., he fought with the Dutch against the Spanish in the Netherlands, then returned to write about his dreams.

He made a basic mistake which was to cost him dear, for he believed that a colony could be peopled by “gallows-fodder” – wrongdoers, idlers and outright criminals – and too many people at that time shared his views, unlike the writer, Francis Bacon, who said it was shameful for “scumme” and “wretched condemned men” to be “planted” and rightly suggested that the ideal colonists would be carpenters, labourers, ploughmen, doctors and so on.

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Greatest of all Romans, Julius Caesar bestrode the world like a colossus

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Ides of March, picture, image, illustration

‘The Ideas of March’ by Sir Edward John Poynter, depicts  Calpurnia trying to persuade Caesar not to go to the Senate

‘This young man,’ said the Roman dictator Sulla, ‘hides the soul of a Marius.’

Marius was Sulla’s great and deadly political rival, one of the most powerful men in the Roman republic in the last century before the birth of Christ.

The tousled-haired young man of whom Sulla spoke did indeed hide the soul of a Marius. But he hid much more than that. For although the daggers of assassins were to bring the career of Gaius Julius Caesar to an untimely end, he stands as one of the few men who, single-handed, changed the history of the world.

Arguably the greatest soldier of all time, a scholar and writer of distinction, and an orator and statesman of wonderful insight, Caesar, born in the year 100 B.C., was the greatest of all the Romans.

His parents were wealthy patricians, but there was nothing aloof about young Caesar. He had a ready smile and wore his clothes carelessly. Who would not have laughed to scorn the suggestion that this relaxed and affable youth would some day be the conqueror of the world and the most powerful man in Rome?

During the civil wars between Marius, of the popular or plebeian party, and Sulla, of the aristocratic or patrician party, Caesar had to hurry into exile. This was because Sulla, during the period of his dictatorship, was brutally executing all who had supported his rival Marius.

When he returned to Rome at Sulla’s death, Caesar concealed a shrewd purpose under that smiling exterior. He had seen in exile how vast the Roman dominions had grown, and yet how corrupt was the rule of the republic in Rome. In that rule the distribution of wealth was fearfully unequal, and capital and pauperism faced each other menacingly. There was only one way to put that right, Caesar decided, and that was by the iron rule of one man.

And that one man was himself.

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The trial and execution of England’s first Utopian, Sir Thomas More

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Saints on Monday, 19 December 2011

This edited article about Sir Thomas More originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 881 published on 2 December 1978.

Thomas More and Henry VIII, picture, image, illustration

Sir Thomas More and his wife entertain Henry VIII at their home in Chelsea by Ken Petts

The moment Sir Thomas More entered the courtroom, people could tell that he was a dying man. Even if he was found not guilty of high treason, and was not beheaded, his weak, shuffling walk, dim eyes, and stooped figure, signalled his impending death.

A murmur of sympathy sounded through London’s Westminster Hall, as the great statesman and writer moved slowly towards the dock. He used a stick to keep himself upright. But, even so, he twice almost fell as he faced the Court of the King’s Bench.

The Attorney-General, Sir Christopher Hale, was one of the few who did not feel sorry for the sick man. He eyed More coldly, as he told how the former Lord Chancellor had refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and accept King Henry VIII as supreme head of the English Church.

Looking much older than his 57 years, Sir Thomas listened attentively to him and replied: “Concerning the matters you now charge and challenge me with, the truth is so wordy and long that I fear that neither my wit nor my memory, nor yet my voice, will serve to make as full and sufficient an answer as the seriousness of the matter does demand.”

This short, but emotional, opening speech visibly took its toll of More, who had suffered a long and painful confinement in the Tower of London. He swayed as he addressed the jury, and was then allowed to sit down.

With effort, he continued his defence by stating: “For my taciturnity and silence, neither your law, nor any law in the world, is able justly and rightly to punish me.”

Immediately, the Attorney-General jumped to his feet protesting: “Though we have not one deed or word of yours to object to against you, yet we have your silence, which is an evident sign of the malice in your heart.”

“That is not so,” replied More, with a determined show of spirit. “He who keeps silence gives his consent. I have never openly criticised His Majesty for breaking with the Church of Rome. I have merely refused to sign an oath supporting his action.”

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Charles I betrays Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

Posted in Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Monday, 12 December 2011

This edited article about Charles I and the Earl of Strafford originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 876 published on 28 October 1978.

Earl of Strafford. picture, image, illustration

The Earl of Strafford on the way to his public execution by Hyppolyte Paul Delaroche

“He wants to be dictator of England! He’s the King’s favourite! He has his own private army and he plans to suppress the people with it!”

The awed whispers that had started in London became shouts of rage and indignation as they swept round the country. The subject of them, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, did not bat an eyelid. He was a charmless, hard-headed Yorkshireman who never showed any emotion – so right to the end no one could honestly say whether or not he was planning to become the dictator of England.

But Strafford, called “Black Tom” by all who knew him on account of his dark hair and his gloomy, foreboding countenance, and the fact that he always wore black Puritan clothes, was certainly the King’s man. Charles the First, friendless wherever he turned as the melancholy clouds of war brooded over England, relied more and more upon Black Tom for advice. The King had made him Lord President of the North and Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Now it was rumoured that Black Tom would soon be Lord of All England. Who would have dreamed that between these two friends, the haughty Yorkshireman and the lofty King, staunchly united against the people, there would one day soon be a terrible betrayal?

In the early years of the 17th century, it was not a far-sighted man who chose to become the friend of King Charles the First. At Portsmouth, the King’s feckless favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was run through with a sword. “God bless you!” cried the people, as the murderer stood back to admire his handiwork.

For any friend of the King who believed he ruled by God’s divine right, and therefore could rule as he chose, was considered to be an enemy of the people.

Black Tom was different from the fast-spending and unscrupulous Villiers. As Leader of the House of Commons – he had become an M.P. through the wealth of his father, a Yorkshire wool-merchant – he tried to play a double game. He supported all the measures in the Commons aimed at curbing the power of the arrogant King and at the same time did his best to curry royal favour.

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