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Archive for February, 2013

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In 1282 bloodthirsty Sicilians cast off the hated French yoke

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Thursday, 28 February 2013

This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

Sicilian Vespers, picture, image, illustration

In Palermo a young Sicilian stabs a French soldier which triggers the notorious massacre of the Sicilian Vespers, by John Millar Watt

The Crusading spirit was blossoming out in France again. The reigning king, Louis the Seventh – called Louis the Young because his reign began when he was 18 – was, like his father, a zealous Christian and he had not long been crowned before he had taken the Cross and was on the march to Jerusalem.

With King Louis went his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a romantic, capricious and beautiful Queen who bestrides the medieval European scene like a story-book princess.

Eleanor was a determined woman, very fond of her own way. Her way, however, was not the way of her pious husband. Much more to her liking was fiery-tempered Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Divorce and its complications counted little to Eleanor; she simply left her King and married her Count.

The result of this marriage was that when her new husband became King Henry the Second of England, Eleanor achieved the remarkable feat of having been separately Queen of France and England.

Her second marriage and Henry’s inheritance of the English throne boded ill for France. For Eleanor was a powerful woman in her own right, lord of a large part of France that included the duchy of Aquitaine. To this territory Henry was able to add his own French possessions, Maine, Anjou and Normandy, as well as England.

One day in 1154, therefore, King Louis woke up in his bed with the sombre realization that the King of England and his Queen, Louis’s own late wife, owned a good deal more of France than he did.

This was the precarious state of France which Louis, when he died in September 1180, bequeathed to his 15-year-old son, Philip the Second.

A boy made of lesser stuff might have been excused for surrendering what little he had in the face of all the power gathered around him. But not so Philip. His first trump was that his potential enemies, the Plantagenets, were hopelessly divided among themselves; the sons hated their father and spent their youth so busily fighting him that Philip had no cause for fear.

And his second trump was that the oldest of the Plantagenet sons, Richard, was his best friend.

Faced with his family’s hostility, King Henry of England had to make peace with young King Philip. Several times they met under a French elm tree and vowed their friendship; holy crusades, they agreed, were much more important than European strife.

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The shearwater and tuatara share a home

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 28 February 2013

This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

tuatara, picture, image, illustration


Nature often arranges odd partnerships between different creatures which can be of use to each other. For years one such alliance was believed to exist in the waterless offshore islands of New Zealand, where the tuataras, lizard-like creatures, were popularly supposed to make use of the burrows dug by colonies of sooty shearwaters, which are members of the petrel family of sea-birds.

Such an arrangement could work quite well, for the swift-flying sooty shearwaters only use their burrows for nesting or occasionally for resting in at night, while the tuataras are nocturnal creatures which retire underground during the day.

When the tuataras want to hibernate for the winter the shearwaters have already winged their way northwards. Consequently the two creatures would rarely need to occupy a burrow at the same time.

Unfortunately for this theory, the latest observations do not bear it out. Not only are the islands in question riddled with burrows, so that it is impossible to say whether they were dug by the sea-birds or the lizards, but the tuatara is known to eat the shearwater’s young. Not the act of a friendly lodger!

What are these creatures like that inhabit these lonely islands, and why could they have been believed to have worked a “lodger” system?

The slow-moving tuatara (sphenodon punctatus, from the rhynchocephalia group) is one of the most primitive reptiles left. Sometimes described as a “living fossil,” it is the sole survivor of the beak-head reptiles which flourished millions of years ago, before the age of the dinosaurs.

Fossils of this reptile have been found in South Africa, South America, Eurasia and even Britain, but the actual tuatara has survived only in the remote islands of New Zealand where, because of lack of water, there are no creatures like weasels, rats or wild cats to hunt it down. It is such a valuable specimen that it is protected by government law from slaughter.

Olive-brown and yellow spotted, with a crest of yellow scales down its neck and back, the tuatara has a remarkable “third eye” in the top of its head. In young reptiles, a transparent scale covers this opening in the roof of the skull, with a “lens” but no iris. As the reptiles grow older, the skin thickens over this big brown “eye” until it is doubtful whether any light enters at all.

The tuatara was said to keep the burrow free of pests while the owning shearwater bird was away. This should have been easy, for the tuatara lives on a diet of insects, worms, snails and the wingless grasshoppers native to New Zealand.

Many burrows are dug by the shearwater bird, which uses its hooked beak to delve deep into the thick compost of leaves, twigs, shells, feathers and dead insects which litter the ground under the canopy of trees on the islands. As the shearwaters live in colonies the islands are riddled with burrows beneath the topsoil, sometimes three to a square yard.

The shearwaters (also called the mutton-bird) belong to the petrel family (procellardiidae) of web-footed sea-birds. Magnificent in flight, they can glide on their black, pointed wings, for nearly a mile above the surface of the ocean, dipping down to catch fish or plankton. The distances they cover are fantastic, over thousands of miles to Greenland and the Faroe Islands each winter in search of warmer ground and back each spring (September) to breed on the New Zealand islands.

One of the strangest things about the sooty shearwaters is that when they set off for their wintering grounds in the Northern Hemisphere, they leave their young behind. Somehow the young birds manage to find their own way over the vast seas to join the parent birds – by what instinct no one has yet discovered. . . .

Meanwhile, as the fledgling shearwaters swoop off northwards across the oceans the tuataras settle themselves peacefully into their own burrows for the winter. . . .

A German Zeppelin was destroyed by Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford V.C.

Posted in Aviation, Bravery, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 1 on Thursday, 28 February 2013

This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

Zeppelin shot down, piucture, image, illustration

Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford shoots down a Zeppelin by Wilf Hardy

In Britain during the First World War, the word that had a deadly, sinister ring was “Zeppelin.”

Imagine the feelings of the people whose land had not been violated for centuries, suddenly finding that death could drop on them from the skies. Aeroplanes were small and primitive and the bombs they carried were puny. But the great gasbags stealing in through the night sky could carry real cargoes of death.

They flew high, out of range of the guns. Our planes could hardly reach them, and if they did their armaments were primitive. Belgium had been overrun by the Germans and the flight to Britain was short. The Zeppelins could even remain hidden in the clouds while an observation car was lowered on a cable with a man inside it to give directions by telephone.

The courage of the Zeppelin crews is never to be doubted, for they were always at the mercy of the elements and many were brought down by storms. But the bombed people of Britain were demanding action – any action.

Then, on June 7, 1915, they got it. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford of the Royal Flying Corps was flying a French machine, a Morane Parasol, over Belgium at three o’clock in the morning when he saw the massive outline of a Zeppelin. The airship saw him – and promptly made for its base near Ghent. Warneford chased it and when it came down to land he fired at it several times – with a rifle! The airship crew fired back with rifles and machine guns. He spun away and climbed rapidly until the great gasbag was below him.

He carried six small bombs, and his only chance of downing the monster was to drop them on to it, knowing full well that if he did make a hit his own plane might be blown to pieces with the force of the explosion.

The bombs went down. Two of them hit and exploded. To Warneford it was like the end, for his tiny craft spun over into a complete somersault and the engine went dead. As the Zeppelin burst into flames, broke up and crashed to earth, Warneford brought his plane down in a lonely field and worked frantically on the engine. A party of German soldiers came rushing up as he swung the propeller. The engine fired, he climbed aboard and escaped.

All the airship crew was killed with the exception of one man, who was in the forward observation car which broke away from the Zeppelin.

Speke and Grant discovered the source of the Nile

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about John Speke originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

Speke and Grant, picture, image, illustration

John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant

Somerset-born explorer John Speke sat under the awning on the deck of the little boat that slipped smoothly down the River Nile towards Khartoum and gazed contentedly down at the muddy waters of the great river.

Contentedly, too, Speke thought back to the day nearly three years ago when the Royal Geographical Society in London had asked him to lead an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. Now, with thirteen hundred miles of trekking through scorching, steaming jungle behind him, Speke was going home, his mission completed.

Africa and its perils were no novelty to John Hanning Speke when the London geographers sent him off on his path of discovery in 1860. In one of his earlier excursions into the continent natives had attacked his party and tied him up. As he lay on the ground with his hands bound one of the natives had coolly attempted to spear him to death. Speke jumped up, knocked the weapon from the native’s hand, sent him sprawling and escaped to a waiting boat.

Another time, on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, fever inflamed his eyes and practically blinded him. But nothing daunted, Speke pushed on into the continent and discovered a huge lake, which he named Victoria Nyanza. From what the local natives told him he was sure that the lake was the clue to one of the great geographical mysteries of the nineteenth century – the whereabouts of the source of the Nile. But when all attempts to get boats for an exploratory voyage failed he had to return to London.

Speke’s report and his discovery of Victoria Nyanza caused earnest discussion in London and when the new expedition was mounted in 1860 Speke was named as its commander with Captain J. A. Grant as his deputy.

From London Speke took his men to Zanzibar, thence towards Victoria Nyanza, via Uganda. Here steady rain turned into a torrent; many of the mules died; disillusioned natives continually deserted, and supplies ran precariously low.

Along this tortuous route Captain Grant fell ill and Speke decided to go on without him. Fresh troubles awaited the explorer when his party arrived at the city of King M’tesa of Uganda.

M’tesa had all the temper and unpredictability of an early English king. None of his subjects dared to cross him; none was allowed to sit in his presence, and executions of those who had displeased this tyrant African ruler were an habitual occurrence.

Speke decided that if he showed servility when he met the King it might be taken as a sign of weakness. So when M’tesa did not turn up on time for a prearranged meeting Speke told the King’s astonished courtiers that he was prepared to wait five minutes – and no longer. After that he would go.

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Who was the lady upon the white horse?

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Religion, Royalty on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about traditional verse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

Elizabeth I at Tilbury, picture, image, illustration

Queen Elizabeth I, riding a beautiful white horse, exhorts her troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approaches by C L Doughty

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

The fine cross for which Banbury was renowned and which stood in the market place, was destroyed around 1600 by the inhabitants, who were well known for their extreme Puritanism.

In their efforts to rid the town of anything associated with religious extravagance or popery they attacked the stone cross until it was completely defaced. The memory of the big cross remained, but it is unlikely that the rhyme originated after 1600.

Earlier versions vary in the description of the lady. Sometimes she is referred to as an old woman riding a black horse. The “fine lady upon a white horse” by popular tradition is believed to be Queen Elizabeth, who had a fantastic wardrobe from which she could choose the most elaborate finery.

It has been suggested that “bells on her toes” may have found its place in the fifteenth century when bells were sometimes fastened on the long extended points of fashionable footwear.

The term “ride a cock-horse” refers to a fine, splendid high-stepping animal holding its head high. Alternatively it can also mean an extra horse used to help a team pull a coach up a hill.

“She shall have music wherever she goes . . .” and who is more likely to command the playing of music than a queen?

The Echidna is one of Australia’s strangest animals

Posted in Animals, Australia, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about the echidna originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

echidna, picture, image, illustration

The Long-spined echidna or Porcupine ant-eater

Australia is the land where Nature never quite made up her mind when she designed the animals: so many of them seem to consist of bits and pieces borrowed from other creatures.

There is the platypus, for example, which has a beaver’s body, a duck’s bill, and lays eggs. Then there is the kangaroo, which can grow to a height of six feet, but at birth is an inch long and until it can fend for itself is carried about by its mother in a pouch.

But the strangest of all Australia’s strange animals is the echidna, or spiny ant-eater. In other countries ant-eaters have fur coats and have their families in the normal way. The Australian ant-eater has a fur coat, but it also has spines like those of a porcupine: and it lays eggs.

All animals have descended by the slow process of evolution from egg-laying reptiles, but the egg-laying echidna and platypus are the only two instances of present-day animals that still lay eggs.

Scientists have a special name for these curious links with animals’ first ancestors. They call them monotremata, from a combination of Greek words meaning “egg-laying.”

There are two species of echidna. One is native to Australia and Tasmania, and the other is found in New Guinea. There is very little difference between them except that the New Guinea echidna is rather bigger than its Australian and Tasmanian cousins and is more furry.

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Prehistoric lizards which changed into birds

Posted in Animals, Birds, Historical articles, History, Prehistory on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about prehistory originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

Prehistory, picture, image, illustration

The age of terrible Lizards

During the Carboniferous period, which began about 280 million years ago, rich vegetation in the form of ferns and palm-like trees started to cover the land. The climate throughout the world was hot and moist and on the shores of the continents there were vast swamps.

These conditions continued into the Permian period, which is sometimes called the Upper Carboniferous period. A warm climate and plenty of vegetation were all that was needed for the development of land animals (top illustration).

These first land animals were amphibians which divided their time between the land and the water.

One of them, the Stegocephalus, would not be out of place in the world today. It was a newt-like creature about three feet long which crawled along the soft ground or paddled in shallow pools.

Its body was clad in an armour of strong scales and its flat head was armed with sharp teeth. For the stegocephalus was a fierce cannibal that fought and ate its own kind.

Other animals of that far distant period were quite unlike any creature we know. One of the largest and strangest was the edaphosaurus.

The edaphosaurus was the giant of its day, sometimes growing to a length of ten feet or more. Its most characteristic feature was the enormous comb or frill of body spines that ran along its back.

Although they looked so terrifying, edaphosaurus were timid, inoffensive creatures. Because of their tiny teeth they ate nothing but plants.

Both the stegocephalus and the edaphosaurus hatched from eggs laid by the females in swampy pools and spent the early part of their lives in the water. Like all amphibians, they were descended from fish of the Devonian period that through millions of years had adapted themselves to life on land.

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France’s Viking invaders became Christians and Normans

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

William the Conqueror, picture, image, illustration

William the Conqueror falls from his horse by John Millar Watt

Just as the Vikings from Denmark had plundered, looted, pillaged and burned the coasts of England, now, in the ninth century, under their leader Hasting, they turned their fierce gaze upon the coast of France.

When the Vikings had gained a foothold on the land they went one day to the Bishop of one of the seacoast towns and told him sadly that Hasting was dead.

“His last wish was to be buried as a Christian,” they chorused sadly. “Unless this happens, how can he enter Paradise?”

The Bishop was touched. Here was a golden opportunity to introduce Christianity to these warring pagans. Eagerly he called his parishioners to a funeral service for the great Hasting in his church and solemnly the coffin was carried in before a procession of Vikings and Christians.

When everyone was inside and the doors closed, up popped the coffin lid and out came a very much alive Hasting, sword in hand. The Vikings closed in on the Christian “mourners” and killed them all. Then they rifled the Church of its treasures and sailed away.

Over the years not all the Vikings were content to make such hit-and-run bandit raids. Thirty thousand of them under their chief Rollo, sailed, up the Seine in their long ships to Paris and laid siege to the city while the King, Charles the Fat, was away in Germany.

The Parisians, under their leader Count Eudes, drew up their drawbridges and prepared to keep the invaders at bay.

A year went by – a year of tightening belts, of starvation and of famine. Still the Parisians held on grimly, watching from the city walls as their tormentors roasted fine lean meat on spits upon the ground below and ate their fill.

Then one night Count Eudes escaped from the city. Undetected, he galloped through the besiegers and rode as fast as he could go to the King in Germany. Having obtained the pledge of Charles the Fat to return with a large army and raise the siege, he rode back to Paris and again under cover of night got back into the city.

But Charles the Fat was also Charles the Coward. When he did come back to Paris, and he was a long time coming, instead of attacking the Vikings he paid them a large bribe to go away.

The agony of Paris was over but its fury with the King had just begun. Charles the Fat was deposed and Count Eudes then became King.

When Eudes died Rollo the Viking was still foraging in northern France. But even roving Vikings eventually liked to settle down somewhere, and now he accepted the offer from King Charles the Simple of a handsome grant of land, a title, baptism as a Christian, and a French princess for his wife – in return for his allegiance to the crown of France.

The title Charles gave to the fearless Viking was Duke of Normandy. In due course Rollo’s great-grandson William was to succeed to the title and emblazon his name on a page of English history as William the Conqueror.

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When English players triumphed at Wimbledon

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about tennis originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

Fred Perry, picture, image, illustration

Wimbledon champions Fred Perry and Dorothy Round (inset)

Wimbledon . . . and an English crowd thrills to the power-packed forehand drive of a young player slashing his way through the finals of the men’s singles. A few moments later they are on their feet, cheering wildly, as game, set and match are declared his. Fred Perry has won the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship – the first Englishman to do so for twenty-five years.

In that same week in 1934 at Wimbledon another English player, Dorothy Round, a former Sunday School teacher, romped home to victory in the women’s singles over her redoubtable opponent, the American star Helen Jacobs, and collapsed in tears of relief in her mother’s arms afterwards.

And so 1934 was the year in which England celebrated two first-class tennis victories at Wimbledon by young stars over seasoned players from all parts of the world.

The public did not take much notice of Fred and Dorothy, both born in 1909, when they first started working their way up through British tennis tournaments. After all, their names were so ordinary and English, unlike the splendid-sounding titles of current popular champions – Lili Alvarez, Von Cramm, Helen Wills Moody. Only the selectors watched and encouraged.

Fred, son of a Midland M.P. and already an ex-table tennis champion, took up lawn tennis in 1929. Two years later he was picked to play in the British Davis Cup team. By 1933 he was American singles champion and French doubles champion. A year later he made his sensational win against the Wimbledon title holder, Jack Crawford (6-3, 6-0, 7-5). In a fast and furious game it took him just eight minutes after losing his first three games to get into his winning third set.

Dorothy, from Worcester, soon won herself the title of the “girl who would not play tennis on Sundays.” She kept this resolution all through her career. Her first big chance came when she was picked for the Wightman Cup team against America in 1931. In 1933 and 1934 she won the British Hard-court championships. After her great win at Wimbledon in 1934 she went on to win the Australian championships as well.

One of the greatest sights in lawn tennis, before Fred turned professional and Dorothy retired to marry a doctor, was in 1935 and in 1936, when the two played side by side to win the mixed doubles at Wimbledon.

John Paul Jones – the Scot who founded the American Navy

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Revolution, Ships, War on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about John Paul Jones originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

John Paul Jones, picture, image, illustration

John Paul Jones, with his ship flying the flag of the rebellious colonists of North America, by John Keay

It was July in the year 1792, and they had just buried John Paul Jones in an unmarked grave in the St. Louis cemetery in Paris. He was only forty-five when he died – an almost forgotten man in the city where he had once been hailed as a hero.

He had been a slave trader, and a man who had been on trial for murder. He had fought against his own country, and for good measure he had also been a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy. From all this one might assume with some cause that John Paul Jones was something of a scoundrel, a man willing to sell his sword and soul to the highest bidder.

This assumption would be quite wrong. Today, John Paul Jones is one of America’s national heroes.

His story, as must be already obvious, is a strange one.

He was born plain John Paul (the Jones came later) on July 6, 1747, in the parish of Kirkbean, on the coast of the Solway Firth, Scotland. This fact, in itself, was to have an important bearing on his life.

Sent to sea at the age of twelve, he made several voyages to America before he eventually landed up as chief mate on a Jamaica-owned slaver-brigantine.

Several years later he turned up in America, under the name of John Paul Jones, and almost immediately embraced the cause of the revolutionaries, who were engaged in the War of Independence against the British rule there.

Why was Jones, a Scotsman, willing to fight against his own countrymen? The answer was that he believed wholeheartedly in the principle of liberty, and the right of a nation to determine its destiny without interference from a foreign power. So, when the American Congress resolved to fit out a naval force he enlisted immediately as a senior lieutenant.

In the space of two years, Jones was commander of his own ship, and already famous for his courageous exploits, which had culminated in a daring raid on Whitehaven, on the Solway Firth, where he landed at night with 31 volunteers and calmly spiked the cannons of the two forts there.

From the records that exist, it does not appear that Jones even thought it strange that fate should decree that he should land and fight in Whitehaven, the town in which he had spent so many happy childhood days.

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