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Archive for January, 2014

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Edward Eyre – the overlander who helped map a continent

Posted in Australia, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Travel on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Australia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Edward Eyre,  picture, image, illustration

Edward Eyre and his aboriginal companion by Ron Embleton

Edward Eyre lay back in his tent and forced his tired brain to think back over his expedition which was fast becoming a disaster. Where had he gone wrong? There had to be a route between South Australia and the rich, virgin pastureland in the west. Rumours abounded of the fortunes that could be made by stock farmers but none of these dreams would come true unless a way could be found of driving the animals there. He had started from Adelaide in June 1840, determined to push inland, then strike due west.

The choice of route was a disaster. Forcing their way inland Eyre, his overseer and their three aboriginal guides came to the area now known as Lake Torrens. At that time, anything less like a lake would have been difficult to imagine. Flat desolate countryside with a curious dried crust that was firm enough for a man to walk on but which was treacherous for the horses. In less than a minute the horses had sunk over their knees in hot, salt mud. As they struggled, so they sank further until it seemed as if they must drown in the quagmire. Eyre and his companions eventually managed to calm the animals but it was hours before they could be half-dragged out of the mud. Heads, backs, saddles were covered with blue mud, their eyes and mouths filled with salt and mud also. Baffled, Eyre looked for an alternative route and then started a sorrowful retreat.

The “straight” route was just not possible then, with bogs, waterless deserts, and fierce aboriginals waiting for the unwary traveller. Eyre decided that following the coastline was the only feasible way across and his disconsolate party re-traced their steps and started the long drag round the Great Australian Bight. Not only was this uninhabited country but it was and still remains, one of the most desolate areas in the world.

They were still engaged in crossing the Great Nullarbor Plain – a 400 mile stretch of land that is treeless, waterless and so level that the railway which now crosses it has the longest straight track in the world – 300 miles. Edward Eyre was uncomfortably aware that there was just as bad country to cross, but at this stage he was too exhausted to worry about the following day. He slipped quietly into sleep until suddenly the absolute peace of the outback was spectacularly shattered.

Shouts, oaths, pistol shots and the frightened cries of the horses were rising to a crescendo as Eyre crawled to the door of the tent. Then . . . nothing but the sound of horses’ hooves. Eyre found his overseer murdered and two of his aboriginals gone. Most of his supplies had disappeared too, and somewhere in the night were two frightened, angry natives who now had an interest in seeing that Eyre did not reach safety. To go on was now doubly dangerous; to stay suicidal. But to go back was unthinkable. He crawled back into the tent and postponed all his decisions to the morrow.

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The Red Army attacked Berlin with ruthless force

Posted in Communism, Famous battles, Famous landmarks, Geography, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Berlin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Russians attack Berlin,  picture, image, illustration

The Russian assault on Berlin towards the end of World War Two by Severino Baraldi

Day after day, night after night the battle raged, closer and closer to the heart of the great, war-torn city. It was the deadliest kind of fighting, from one ruined street to another, from one shattered house to the next, with always the danger of booby-traps, or of coming face to face with the enemy round the next corner.

By day the sky above the city was thick with clouds of dust and smoke, while at night it was stained a lurid blood-red by the hundreds of fires burning below. Still the defenders fought on, and as their numbers decreased, their resistance became even more desperate. There was fighting now not only on the ground but below it, in the tunnels of the underground railway, even in the sewers.

But the end was inevitable. After a final fierce struggle in the part of the city where the conquered country’s leader and his closest colleagues had taken refuge in a subterranean fortress, the defenders surrendered unconditionally. And not long after that the leader – the F√ºhrer, as he was known to his people – escaped from his enemies in the only way now left to him, by committing suicide.

This happened in the spring of the year 1945. The conquered country was Germany, the city was Berlin, and the man who committed suicide was Adolf Hitler, the hysterical dictator whose mad schemes for making Germany the greatest nation in the world had brought ruin to his country and death and untold suffering to millions of innocent people. The invaders, who came from the east and who reached Berlin before their allies could get there from the west, were the Russians. The fall of Berlin marked, for all practical purposes, the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Russia had been a latecomer to the war. When it broke out, in September 1939, following Germany’s unprovoked and bullying attack on Poland, she had stood aside. She had even signed an agreement with Germany not to interfere.

Russia didn’t do this out of friendliness towards Germany, but merely to keep herself out of trouble at least for the time being. However, her action caused much anti-Russian feeling in the countries that were fighting against Germany, notably Britain and France. This was so strong that, for a time, there was even a possibility that Britain and her allies would go to war with Russia too Luckily, this never happened.

It was the Germans themselves, and Adolf Hitler in particular, who brought Russia into the war by attacking her. They had two reasons for doing so. Firstly, they did not trust the Russians, seeing them as a threat to their eastern borders. If they could get rid of that threat, they would be able to concentrate all their forces on the war in the west. Secondly, with an arrogance typical of them at that time, they completely underestimated the Russians’ ability to withstand them.

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Cowboys drove thousands of cattle on the Chisholm Trail

Posted in America, Animals, Historical articles, History, Industry, Trade on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

On the Chisholm Trail,  picture, image, illustration

Cattle were driven up from Texas to Abilene on the Chisholm Trail

From the Rio Grande to Abilene, the Chilsholm Trail, named after a half-breed Indian trader, wound through 1,000 miles of dirt, dust and Indian country to become the premier route for the Texas cowboys driving their vast herds northwards to feed a nation.

“Point ’em North!” The year is 1866, and all over the great plains of Texas, thousands of long-horned cattle are moving slowly, like a great brown sea. They move in an endless column, flowing across the grass of the prairie, the dust from thousands of hooves rising high in the sky. On either side of the herd cowboys mill around on fleet-footed ponies, shouting, cracking whips, whistling – anything to keep the steers on the move.

“North! North! Point ’em North!”

North to the stockyards at Abilene, Kansas, by way of the Chisholm Trail.

Abilene exists today as a quietly prosperous country town, but the trail that brought it to life has long gone. It has vanished so thoroughly that even historians of America’s pioneer days cannot agree as to exactly where it ran. But that the Chisholm Trail existed is beyond question, for in a few short years it changed the whole pattern of the Wild West.

At the end of the Civil War, the Southern States were in ruins, yet thanks to the foresight of General Grant, the defeated Confederate soldiers were allowed to return home riding their horses and carrying their guns. This was not just a gesture of chivalry towards a gallant foe. So far as the president was concerned it was important to the country to remember that the Southerners were farmers and stockbreeders almost to a man. A horse and a gun were the tools of their trade, and without them it would take that much longer for one time rebels to become useful citizens again.

Few men of the Confederate army found that they could pick up their lives where they had left them at the outbreak of war in 1861. Towns had been shelled or burnt to the ground, and plantations had become overgrown. The State of Texas, too huge to be entirely overrun, posed very special problems. The homecoming Texans were not too concerned to find their ranches in a poor way, for they had built them in the first place and were prepared to do so again. What did cause alarm was the sight of thousand upon thousand of unbranded longhorn cattle running wild upon the open range.

The ranchers repaired their homes, then banded together to round up the tough, bad tempered cattle that were the descendants of the early herds imported from Britain and Ireland. Where a steer carried a brand there was no trouble: the owner took her back into his herd. But the bulk of the steers, born during the years of war, bore no distinguishing mark. Between them, the ranchers shared out the stock, and overnight found themselves owners of enormous herds.

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Peter the Great loved Russia more than his subjects

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Peter the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Peter the Great,  picture, image, illustration

The First Fleet built by Peter the Great at Voronej by Maurice Randall

Peter the Great was brutal and barbaric, a man without scruples, who was incapable of committing an act of kindness. His cruelty was exceeded only by his ability to commit murder without a qualm. He was, in short, a typical tyrant.

Yet it was this man, who in a generation, lifted the land of Russia, which had been sunk in the mire of mediaeval ignorance, to the level of the great European nations. He taught her to build ships and to operate a powerful navy. He founded St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and he banned marriages which were not by mutual consent, and tried to bring women out of their traditional isolation.

Anxious to bring the civilising influence of Western manners to his country he ordered a book to be published on etiquette, which gently broke the news to the Russian people that it was not quite the thing to pick one’s nose or to spit in public. This did not prevent him, however, from spitting into the face of an officer who had bored him with his conversation.

From all this it must be fairly clear that Peter’s character was full of contradictions. He established orphanages and hospitals and tried to control the worst excesses of the landowners who treated their serfs like cattle. On the other hand, he allowed thousands of workers to die of disease, exposure and malnutrition during the building of St. Petersburg. Always in search of new ideas which he could use to strengthen Russia’s position in the world, he visited Prussia, Hanover, Holland and England, where he was quite happy to listen while workmen explained their craft to him. In other matters he could be insufferably arrogant. Deciding that the male population of Russia would be far better clean shaven, he ordered everyone who had a beard to remove it or be fined, which was in direct defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ruling that shaving was a sin. To make his position even more clear his courtiers were forcibly shaved – by no less a person than their royal master. He professed to love his sons but when his first son became involved in a treason plot, he was able to watch him being tortured to death.

Peter, who was born in 1672, spent most of his early life within the walls of the Kremlin in the company of the court fool, making only rare public appearances in a little gold coach manned by dwarfs. This seemingly sheltered, if somewhat bizarre upbringing, which could have done nothing but harm to the sensitive child, was even more violently marred when he was made Czar on his tenth birthday, an event that started a rebellion which brought an unruly mob of Moscow’s privileged soldier caste, known as the Streltsy, storming into the Kremlin. In front of the boy’s horrified eyes they butchered his uncle and some of the ministers – an act which he was to avenge in later years.

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The road to Mandalay was immortalised by Kipling

Posted in Historical articles, History, Trade, Travel, War, World War 2 on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Burma first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Mandalay Waltz,  picture, image, illustration

The Mandalay Waltz was published after 1885 when the British occupied the fabulous city during the Third Burmese War

It was not just that the road to Mandalay took a long time to build. Several wars had to come and go before people even realised that they hadn’t got one. But then it was easy enough in the early 19th century for the British in India to take things for granted. They knew vaguely that Burma lay to the north east, full of great rivers and ruby mines. That there were hundreds of pagodas in the ancient city of Mandalay. And wasn’t there an age old caravan route from India that wound its way to it through the hills?

In 1823, it became only too clear that there wasn’t any road to the city of pagodas through the hills or by any other way. War had broken out between Burma and the East India Company, and during the course of it the British discovered that the jungle covering much of the country was so dense that it formed a natural barrier against even the toughest troops. The only route into the interior was by way of Rangoon and the great Irrawaddy river, up which the army travelled by boat. Although victorious, many of the soldiers died of malaria, and it was not until the third Burmese War in 1885 that British troops actually succeeded in occupying Mandalay. They would probably not have reached it even then had it not been for the miscalculations of Thibaw, the Burmese king.

King Thibaw had never fully appreciated that any power in the world might be greater than his own. Encouraged by his financial advisers, he tried to confiscate the property of some British firms – with disastrous results.

The British sent soldiers north from Rangoon to show King Thibaw the error of his ways. As they sailed up the Irrawaddy they watched the country’s source of wealth going the other way – great rafts of teak wood floating down towards the sea.

In Burma, it was not only soldiers who used boats for transport. Nobody, unless they could possibly avoid it, used anything else. They were convenient and they were comfortable. Why, people argued, should anyone consider building a road all the way from India when it was so easy just to step aboard a steamer at Mandalay, sail down to Rangoon and then embark on a further, well organised voyage to Calcutta?

It made sense and would have continued to have done so, had it not been for the growing tea industry of Assam. Increasing demand made it necessary to build both a railway and a road from India’s Calcutta to the centre of the tea industry at Dimapur. It was a good half of the road to Mandalay. But unfortunately the little state of Manipur lay between the end of the road and the Burmese border.

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The awesome fire-power of Tudor England under Henry VIII

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, War, Weapons on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Tudor cannon,  picture, image, illustration

Cannons from the era of Henry VIII with (inset right) Queen Elizabeth's "Pocket Pistol" and a two-gun wooden cart by Pat Nicolle

The 16th century saw few spectacular changes in firearms. But there were steady improvements in both design and manufacture, while the ancient superstitions about devilish gunpowder and Satanic sulphur lingered on.

It was against this background that one day the Doge of Venice looked at a pile of letters that his secretary had brought in.

“Indeed our ambassadors in London have been busy,” he sighed. “Now what have we here? A report from old Pasqualigo. He says that King Henry of England has four hundred guns on carriages and all very fine. Um! That was some time ago. Here’s another report; it’s from Bavarin, our ambassador to London years back. What does he say? ‘Henry has enough cannon to conquer Hell.’ Is this still true?”

“Recent reports indicate that King Henry is still just as interested in the arts of artillery as he ever was,” the secretary muttered.

The Doge frowned. “Then King Francis of France had best look to his defences; there will be war I fear.”

The Doge was right. Venice, like England, tried hard to keep out of the endless struggles between Europe’s two mightiest monarchs, Francis of France and the Emperor of Germany. Every country spied on everyone else and that is why such a lot of what we know about King Henry VIII’s army comes from the State Archives of Venice.

As the Doge had predicted, there was war and English artillery won it. France had supported England’s age-old foe, Scotland, so a clash became inevitable. In 1544 an English army burst out of Calais, which England still occupied, and swooped on the French in Boulogne with the most formidable array of artillery Europe had yet seen. We know just what the siege of Boulogne looked like from copies of some wonderful wall paintings that used to be in Cowdray House. Unfortunately, the originals were burnt, but the copies we still have show mortars and guns of all sizes, as well as sandbagged trenches and even mobile guns on carriages a bit like tanks. This really was the army of an artillery-minded King!

In the front lines, archers and musketeers blasted away at any Frenchman who dared show his head. Next came cannon shielded by huge baskets of earth. Further back were the mortars hurling hollow “shells” full of explosives over the city walls. Close by these mortars were other artillery-men busily beating plugs and fuses into already-filled shells.

Henry VIII was particularly interested in scientific and military progress. He bought guns from the continent and encouraged gun-foundries in England. In fact it was English gun-founders who made the first really reliable cast-iron cannon. Cannon had usually been made of bronze, but iron cannon, though harder to make, were stronger and cheaper.

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The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous historic street

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Edinburgh's Royal Mile,  picture, image, illustration

A picture history of Edinburgh's Royal Mile by Peter Jackson

More than half a million years ago, great glaciers ground and crunched through Europe, scouring away the soil and rocks and leaving behind them, when the weather warmed, floods which smoothed the devastated areas into broad valleys.

One of these valleys lies like a midland girdle across the map of Scotland, studded with huge “bosses” of rock too hard for the ice to shift: the remains of old volcanoes. Once the floods retreated, early men clung to these giant crags. They built fortresses atop them, wattled huts surrounded by rough stone ramparts. In the valleys they hunted, and gathered berries and spring water.

Two of these great mounds dominate the city of Edinburgh. The narrow spiny strip running between them is one of the most historic miles in all Britain: the Royal Mile. If the Thames can fairly be called liquid history, this surely is solid history!

At one end, Castle Rock rears its head, crowned by Queen Margaret’s Chapel and the grim castle itself; at the other, Arthur’s seat, with the skeleton of the ancient Abbey of the Holy Rood, and the palace where David Rizzio, Queen Mary’s secretary, was dragged screaming from her dining-table, blood spurting from his dagger-wounds.

Mary’s unhappy ghost haunts the Royal Mile. At the further end, in the rough security of one of the castle’s tiny rooms, she gave birth to the baby who was to unite three kingdoms for the first time: James VI of Scotland and I of England (“the wisest fool in Christendom”). The castle, too, was her last stronghold; held by her loyal followers for three years when hope was virtually gone.

Scores of times, over the centuries, it was besieged, and stormed. Once the raiding party climbed the rock at black of night, led by a lad who had earlier learned to scale it in the dark to visit his girlfriend!

Edinburgh’s name is popularly believed to have come from King Edwin, the 7th-century King of Northumbria, who certainly needed a strongpoint to dominate the wild northern fringes of his territory. But there are other possibilities. The Gaelic eudin means “a hill-brow.” And it was 400 years after Edwin that the city really entered history, with King Malcolm III, who moved his capital there from Dunfermline. It was Malcolm’s beautiful and saintly Queen Margaret who ordered the building of the sturdy little chapel (the oldest building still standing in the city) on the summit of Castle Rock.

It was Margaret’s pious son, David I, who built the Abbey a mile away. Out hunting one day, he suddenly found himself cornered by a vicious white hart. He was only saved by a mysterious (he believed miraculous) “rude” (cross) which appeared between the beast’s antlers, forcing it back. In gratitude, he founded the Abbey of the Holy Rude in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. He also granted the Canons of the Abbey the right to establish their own burgh (town) between the Abbey buildings and the burgh of Edinburgh, which had grown up around the castle.

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James Ross made great Antarctic voyages of discovery

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Antarctic exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Ross claims the Antarctic,  picture, image, illustration

James Clark Ross planting the Union Jack into the Antarctic ice in 1840 in the name of Queen Victoria and the British Empire, by Graham Coton

The sudden reports that shattered the silence of the Antarctic twilight sounded like shots fired from a gigantic pistol and the men aboard the great sailing ship knew that this was the beginning of the end. After running in front of a violent storm and being driven off course by the never-ending westerly gale, they had been blown further and further south through fog and waters clogged with floating ice. Without their being able to stop it, the cold, clammy hand of Antarctica had reached out and they were imprisoned in a monstrous sea of pack ice.

As the giant grip of the ice closed in, timbers snapped like matchsticks. In temperature well below freezing men worked desperately for hours, then days at the hand pumps, trying to keep the water level down. With the galley flooded and neither hot food nor drink to sustain them, seamen fell down exhausted caring little if they died of exposure. Then, as if laughing at their puny efforts, the ice moved in again and the sounds which broke the silence meant that the vice was finally tightened.

Within minutes it was clear that all their efforts were in vain. More timbers had been shattered and the great ship began to list. At last the Captain had to concede defeat and soon afterwards men, looking like black ants against the immensity of the landscape around them, were dragging lifeboats, stores, and tarpaulins on to the ice. There they took what shelter they could and watched grimly as the ice crushed their ship out of existence.

Each man knew that death from exposure was now only days away. For this was 1820 when no one but the hardiest of seal hunters ventured into Antarctic waters. With their ship, the “Lady Trowbridge” gone they were left alone on one of the largest blank areas on the map of the world. The highest, coldest, windiest and most fearful of all the earth’s continents had claimed yet more victims in the chill reign of terror which it had waged on unwary seafarers and explorers who dared to try and unlock its secrets.

* * *

At the other end of the world a young man of 20 was thinking about the mysteries which the Antarctic still held at much the same time as the “Lady Trowbridge” sank into an icy grave. James Clark Ross was no stranger to the cold ends of the earth and despite his youth this was his second major voyage to the Arctic. He strode up and down the deck watching the snow freezing to rigging and sails as they edged cautiously north, thinking less of this expedition than another which he secretly hoped would be his in later years.

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Henry the Navigator had to found a Portuguese Empire overseas

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sea, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Henry the Navigator first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Henry the Navigator,  picture, image, illustration

Henry the Navigator at the school of navigation at Sagres by C L Doughty

A small sailing vessel was rolling and surging southwards beneath a blazing sun. There was land on her port hand, as there had been for many days now and ahead, off her port bow, a great flat-topped mountain rose against the sky.

The long voyage continued. The sun disappeared, storm clouds gathered and the little ship was tossed about by huge waves. But still she pressed on, along the coast now bearing away eastwards.

Then the clouds cleared away. The sun shone again. The land fell right away, farther and farther to the east, and then to the north. A new ocean lay ahead. . . .

This voyage was a historic one. Bartolomeo Dias had pioneered a route to the Orient round the south of the great continent of Africa. The final cape he had rounded, once known as the Cape of Storms, was rechristened the Cape of Good Hope because of the promise it gave of new prospects of exploration, conquest and trade. The huge waves the little ship had encountered were to become well known to mariners as the Cape Rollers.

Bartolomeo Dias made his epic voyage towards the end of the 15th century, in the year 1488. He was Portuguese. During the whole of that century it was Portugal that led the way in exploration by sea.

How did such a small country become such a great seafaring nation?

The answer lies partly in Portugal’s geographical situation. Portugal is really just a strip of coastal land on the Atlantic coast of Europe. It is isolated from the rest of the continent by Spain and the only way it could expand was seawards.

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Francis I loved the art of painting as well as war

Posted in Art, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, War on Thursday, 30 January 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Battle of Pavia,  picture, image, illustration

Francis I of France is captured at the battle of Pavia in 1525, by Tancredi Scarpelli

Few kings in the saga of world royalty have made such an impact as England’s Henry the Eighth. Vain, showy, sport and pleasure loving, and viciously cruel, these are some of the qualities for which Henry is remembered with curious affection.

Across the English Channel Francis the First was reigning in France at the same time that Henry reigned in England. The two men were so much alike they might have been brothers. For a time they were certainly friends – or as friendly towards each other as two of their kind could be.

They met for the first time at the celebrated “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” near the French town of Guines. The meeting, called to discuss joint plans for an assault on the Holy Roman Empire, gave both kings a splendid opportunity to exercise their talents for showmanship. Each vied with the other in decorating his retinue, until the place truly glittered with gold and jewels.

Henry built a wooden palace gilded with gold on the field, while Francis pitched an enormous gold and velvet tent. Unfortunately for him, before he met Henry a storm blew away his work of wonder, so that he had to stay in a nearby castle. In matters of rivalry, Francis was to know many more misfortunes.

Tournaments, balls and jousts that went on for weeks followed the meeting of the two great kings. Never before had Europe seen such a carnival atmosphere. It was all part of the fun when Henry laughingly challenged Francis to a wrestling match.

The French king was delighted to accept and the two men stripped for action. They struck and parried evenly until suddenly Francis threw Henry to the ground. The English king sprang to his feet – at which point the surrounding nobles anxiously advised him that his supper was ready. Jovially, the two kings embraced but perhaps the supper gong had averted what might have been an ugly incident.

Like Henry at this stage in his career, Francis was impetuous and full of action. Early one morning he marched into Henry’s wooden palace and was told that the King was still asleep. Without stopping, Francis strode on into Henry’s bedroom and woke up the English king.

While Henry dressed Francis stayed with him, doing the servants’ work or warming the King’s clothes and pouring his washing water. When the English and French nobles heard what was happening they were aghast, but Henry and Francis only laughed.

It was a jolly friendship – while the Field of the Cloth of Gold lasted. For when, later, Francis made war on the Holy Roman Empire, he was surprised to see that, instead of being on his side, the soldiers of his old friend Henry were lined up against him.

But for the rest of his life Francis was not much concerned with England’s Henry. He had, in his view, a much more important rival in Charles the Fifth, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. From the time that Charles was elected to the emperor’s throne, Francis nursed a bitter grievance, for he had wanted to be emperor himself.

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