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Archive for March, 2014

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Catherine the Great was a warrior empress with literary taste

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Catherine the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Catherine the Great,  picture, image, illustrationv

Supported by loyal troops Catherine took Czar Peter prisoner and became ruler of Russia, by C L Doughty

It was midnight at the prison of Ropsha in St. Petersburg. In the largest of the stone cells a man, still dressed, sat on his bed listening to the sounds of revelry and laughter from along the corridor. The noise sounded strangely ominous to him. He pulled his white silk scarf tighter about his neck to warm himself against the chill of the room, and shivered back against the pillows.

This man, until a few weeks ago, had been Peter the Third, Czar of all Russia. Then the Russian army had deposed him and proclaimed Catherine, his wife, as sole ruler. Now he was a prisoner. But a very favoured prisoner. He had been allowed his violin and his favourite dog. And when Peter had complained about not being able to sleep, Catherine had ordered that his own bed should be taken from the Palace to Ropsha prison to make his nights more comfortable.

Suddenly the noise grew louder and there were footsteps in the corridor. Then the door burst open and the room was filled with prison guards. At their head, Peter recognised Alexis Orlov – his most dreaded enemy, and one of the men who had led the revolt that had toppled him from the throne.

The guards had obviously been drinking. They danced and sang bawdy songs round his bed. Orlov held out a glass to Peter and filled it with wine. “It’s a party in your honour,” he said but there was a hint of mockery in his eyes.

Then, as Peter took the glass, a sudden brawl broke out. Two of the guards started fighting and fell across Peter’s bed. It was as if it had been arranged. Immediately Orlov sprang upon them as though to tear them apart. Instead, his hands fastened on Peter’s white silk scarf, pulling tightly at the ends. Within a few minutes, Peter the Third was dead.

A message was sent to Catherine. It told her that the ex-Czar of Russia, her husband, had been accidentally killed in a drunken brawl. She received the news calmly and informed the Russian people that her husband had died of natural causes.

Catherine was indeed now sole ruler of Russia.

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The Man in the Velvet Mask still guards some of history’s secrets

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Mystery, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Man in the velvet/iron mask first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Man in velvet mask,  picture, image, illustration

English rebel, son of a king or a minor Italian nobleman — who was the Man in the Mask held in the Bastille? Picture by Neville Dear

On an early autumn afternoon in 1698, a litter, with curtains tightly drawn, was carried into the Bastille, the formidable fortress on the east side of Paris. The great gates closed behind it with that deep, resonant boom the litter’s occupant knew only too well.

Hands drew the curtains aside, and he stepped out into the courtyard.

He paused for a moment, his eyes scanning the high stone towers that reared up above him.

The heavy velvet mask that covered his face was beginning to itch: he longed to remove it, but he knew that the Sieur de Saint-Mars, his jailer for nearly thirty years, was standing too close by, and was watching him intently. If he tore off the mask to let fresh air reach his prickling skin, Saint-Mars might kill him where he stood, just as he had once threatened him with death if he attempted to tell anyone what he knew.

That evening, when the masked man was safely locked away inside his cell, Saint-Mars sent word to King Louis XIV’s Minister for War that France’s most secret, most confidential state prisoner was once more safe from curious eyes. As ordered, no one had been allowed to scrutinise or recognise him on the long journey north from the Isle de Ste Marguerite.

On that journey, a few peasants had had a glimpse of the prisoner when he and Saint-Mars had stopped at a chateau near Villeneuve. But all they had seen was a tall, long-haired man, anonymous and faceless behind his ever-present mask.

Almost two centuries passed before anyone was able to enlarge on this flimsy evidence, and give the mysterious prisoner a name. But during that time, speculation bred a whole range of ingenious theories, and also made the velvet mask into something truly sinister.

It was Voltaire who first suggested that it had “springs of steel.” From there, it grew into the cruel restricting mask of iron, of which Dumas wrote in his novel “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1848-1850).

Dumas, like Voltaire, named the prisoner as the twin brother of Louis XIV. He was also identified, however, with various French and English noblemen, the playwright Moliere, and perhaps more reasonably, with a man known to have been a political prisoner of Louis XIV.

This was Ercole Matthioli, envoy of the Duke of Mantua, who had deeply angered Louis in 1679 when he betrayed the French king’s secret purchase of a Mantuan fortress: in revenge, Louis had Matthioli kidnapped and imprisoned.

A less dramatic, but far more likely candidate than any of these was Eustache Dauger, who was named in 1890 by biographer Jules Lair. Forty years later, in 1930, the historian Maurice Duvivier pieced together Dauger’s history which, as far as official records are concerned, ended abruptly in 1668.

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Some wild orchids are becoming rare among Britain’s wildflowers

Posted in Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about wildflowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

English meadow,  picture, image, illustration

The Flowering Fields, including grey wagtail, red cardinal beetle, field vole and various varieties of grass and plants including the Southern Marsh Orchid (top row, far right); picture by Bob Hersey

June is a wonderful month for all Nature lovers, and for the botanist it is the most interesting time of the year because it is now that some of Britain’s most fascinating flowers appear. Among these are the wild orchids with their delightful colours and strange, beautiful shapes; and of the forty different kinds of wild orchids growing in Britain, the Bee and Fly orchids are particularly intriguing.

The large lip of the Bee orchid is deep brown with yellow markings and resembles a large furry bee. The three sepals are bright pink or lilac and as many as a dozen flowers may be found on a single stem.

The Fly orchid although equally common is more difficult to find because it grows in shady areas and its flowers are smaller and less conspicuous. The lip of this flower is chestnut brown with a white or blue crescent in the centre. The two upper true petals are reduced to thin stalks which look very like the antennae of a fly.

It is a sad fact that many of Britain’s native orchids are becoming rare because people pick them not realising that unless they are given a chance to set their seed they will die out altogether. So next time you come across one of these beautiful flowers in the countryside, try to resist the temptation to pick one. It may look lovely in your home, but it will bring joy to a great many more people if you leave it where it is.

Lincoln’s assassin may have escaped the Yankee soldier’s bullet

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Abraham Lincoln first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,  picture, image, illustration

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

The crackling upsurge of flame as the back of the tobacco shed was set on fire, the sharp crack of the rifle shot, the piercing cry of the man as he was hit, had taken, in all, no more than 15 seconds.

The secret service men stood gazing down at their victim as he lay sprawled and dying on the mud floor. The face was greying, already gaunt with pain, and the onlookers could not be absolutely sure that this was John Wilkes Booth, the most hated man in America.

Paradoxically, Booth, a member of a renowned acting family, was also the most lauded and admired.

It could hardly have been otherwise in a country just emerged from a terrible civil war that had scarred with hate the hearts of the losers, the Confederates of the American South.

From their point of view, it was justice, not murder, when Booth crept into President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, on 14th April, 1865, and shot him in the back of the head.

Abraham Lincoln was the President who had just harried the South to defeat, and many southerners silently echoed Booth’s theatrical cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!” “Thus all tyrants! The South is avenged!” as he leapt from the box on to the stage, brandishing a huge knife.

The gesture was spoiled, though. Booth caught his foot in the flags draping the President’s box and fell, breaking a bone in his left leg. Somehow, in all the screaming and confusion that followed the killing, he managed to scramble through the stage door and out into the street, where his horse was waiting.

Booth made his way in the only logical direction, towards the South.

On April 22nd, eight days after killing Lincoln, he crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Virginia had been one of the most prominent of the eleven states comprising the former “Confederacy” of the South, and it was here that Booth met three Confederate soldiers who agreed to help him.

They hid him in a tobacco shed on a lonely farm near the town of Bowling Green. However, it seems that Booth got no further. Trapped inside the shed by his pursuers on April 26th he was shot in the head and died three hours later.

That, at least, is what most people believed until 1910, when a writer called F. L. Bates suggested that a certain David George, who killed himself in Oklahoma in 1902, was in reality Lincoln’s murderer.

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London Underground began with the Metropolitan Line in 1863

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the London Underground first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

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A station on the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 by Pat Nicolle

Snorting, plump-bellied horses clattered along the London streets. With their harnesses jingling and the springs of their carriages creaking, they paraded through the busy thoroughfares with the dignity of true, thoroughbred carriage horses.

Clearly, they were the lords of the highway. And their fashionable passengers sitting in open carriages behind them, dressed in their finery for all to admire, oozed with aristocratic refinement.

At intervals, however, a horse’s well-fed, dappled belly found itself poised over one of a number of holes, covered with gratings, that had begun to appear in the road. And at regular periods, there would be an eruption like a miniature volcano from the hole. Thick, sooty smoke, scalding steam and showers of sparks would belch forth from it.

If an unfortunate horse happened to be passing over the hole at the exact moment of the eruption, it received a hot blast on its belly that made it bolt in terror. A gentle jaunt became a steeplechase, and the passengers found their sedate carriage transformed into a rocketing projectile.

Meanwhile, just below the road, the device which had caused the horse’s discomfiture would be spinning along the track of London’s first underground railway. The culprit was a steam locomotive which created a great deal of smoke. To enable this to escape, “blow holes” were cut in the tunnel roof, and the resulting eruptions frequently caught horses unawares.

However, even the horses got used to it in the end, and the problem was later lessened by the introduction of improved locomotives.

Nevertheless, Londoners were pleased with their underground railway. It had been opened in 1863 and ran for 3 ¾ miles from Bishop’s Road, Paddington to Farringdon Street in the City.

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‘The Lost Dutchman’ was an elusive goldmine in Arizona

Posted in America, Geology, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about treasure hunters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

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Arizona Afterglow by Fernand Lungren

The boy who had stumbled into Simon Novinger’s ranch was something of a curiosity, even in the Arizona of the 1860s. He was a white Indian. Orphaned as a baby when redskins attacked his parents’ wagon train, he had been brought up by a number of tribes, who had each taken turns at raising the boy. Then, when it had been decided that he had reached the age of 14, he had been turned out to fend for himself.

Novinger fed the pathetic misfit, unwanted by Indians and yet totally ignorant of the ways of his own people. He gave him clothing and odd jobs around the ranch. Then one day a neighbour called to collect payment on a deal completed some time before, and as was usual in those parts. Novinger brought out a deerskin pouch and from it paid his debt in nuggets of raw gold. The white Indian watched the transaction with interest, and when they were alone he asked his benefactor a question in the Apache tongue.

“Yellow metal good for trade?”

“The very best,” Novinger assured him in the same language. “White men will trade horses, food, guns, for it. Anything.”

The boy considered the information for a while. Then he gestured towards the distant Superstition Mountains, “I know where a man may pick up as much yellow metal as he wants. Before today I did not know it was of value. Now I go to become a rich man.”

Amused, Novinger watched him go, never to return. It was not until later that a thought struck him. What a fool he had been! The boy had lived with Apaches. And who else but an Apache was reputed to know the secret of the lost Peralta mine?

Whether the Indian-raised boy knew the secret or not, the rancher never found out. Years later he was to look in vain for the mine himself, as were scores of men after him. But he was correct in thinking that the Apache Indians knew more than most about the strange, lost fabulously rich load of gold. For it was their braves who had found it in the first place.

No one knows quite when they found it, but find it they undoubtedly did, high up in the bleak, boulder strewn hills east of a point where the town of Phoenix stands today. They certainly knew that the ore was there by the time pioneer priests entered the region in the 16th century.

To the tribesmen the gold was valueless, no more than a soft, pretty looking metal with which to make ornaments. They showed the place to a Mexican priest. And two hundred years later another priest passed on the secret to Don Miguel de Peralta de Cordoba, when this fortunate nobleman was granted all the land in that area by King Ferdinand VI of Spain.

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‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ is a comic masterpiece

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Laurence Sterne first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

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Dr Slop falls from his horse – a scene from 'Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' by Laurence Sterne

The classroom was empty when young Laurence Sterne, one of the pupils at the Heath Grammar School, near Halifax, opened the door. He looked around quickly, noting the pots of paint, brushes and a ladder left behind by some painters. Suddenly, seizing one of the brushes, he climbed up the ladder and began painting LAU STERNE in bold white letters on the dark wooden beam which ran right across the newly-whitewashed ceiling.

Finishing his handiwork, Laurence started to go down the ladder again. But, just as he reached the ground, he heard the door open behind him. His heart sank as he turned and saw one of the strictest of his teachers standing there. Seeing what Laurence had done, the master wasted no time in giving the boy a sound beating.

This was Laurence Sterne’s first bid for fame, and he soon forgot his beating when he heard his headmaster say that the name would never be removed for Sterne was a genius and would surely one day be famous.

It was not until 1759, more than twenty years later, that this prediction came true. But it was the same light-hearted ambition to be famous which spurred Sterne on to write his book “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” In it, he tells the rambling and boisterous tale of the people who lived at Shandy Hall. Sterne himself said, when the book was finally published, “I wrote not to be fed but to be famous,” and famous he suddenly was, for the book was an immediate success.

Until his rise to fame, Sterne had led the life of a moderately well-to-do clergyman, living with his wife and one daughter in the north of England. But now the dazzle of London society tempted him and he left his quiet Yorkshire home to go south. In London, he was received enthusiastically, going out to dinners and parties every evening and meeting many famous people of the day. He even had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the finest portrait painter in England.

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The Pre-Raphaelite revolution in English art ended as wallpaper

Posted in Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Pre-Raphaelite Movement first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

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Holman Hunt spent his time painting poor pictures in the Middle East by John Keay

Of the three leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Millais was now content to be an orthodox figure of the Art Establishment. The former rebel who had produced such a magnificent painting as Ophelia, was now a respectable artist happy to paint portraits of elegant society ladies. William Holman Hunt had become obsessed by a religious frenzy and had gone to the Middle East where he produced a string of poor paintings; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had fallen so much in love that he saw little of his friends and, like Millais and Hunt, he veered away from the original Pre-Raphaelite ideals.

Other painters such as Hughes, Brett and Wallis came along and flourished briefly. The movement seemed to be dying in the late 1850s and yet it had some thirty years more to run. This last period was divided into two distinct phases. First, there was the time when most pre-Raphaelite paintings seemed to deal with the nobility of labour, and Ford Madox Brown was the leading exponent of this. His major social painting was simply titled Work. On the right it shows the intellectuals; in the centre are the fine, healthy figures of a group of “navvies,” and on the left is a barefoot beggar. In the background is a full, crowded panoply showing all levels of Victorian life. In Brown’s eyes, all are equally admirable. The workman is just as much of an artist as the artist is so often a workman. It seemed that art had come to the people and only an idealist would consider moving it away again.

After this phase came the final decline towards the decadence of the early twentieth century when the most notable artist of the movement was Edward Burne-Jones. Like William Morris, Burne-Jones was at first greatly influenced by Rossetti who had begun to paint Mediaeval subjects again. The wheel of the Pre-Raphaelite movement had come full circle as the artists turned once again to Medievalism. It was to be the last phase of the movement.

All three artists became deeply involved in the world of medieval romance that has the Arthurian legend as its cornerstone. The lovely Jane Burden, a lady whose beauty typifies the Pre-Raphaelite heroine, married Morris and posed for Queen Guinevere for the painting of the same name (now in the Tate Gallery, London). It was virtually the last painting which Morris produced. He had already begun to realise that his talents lay in the field of design and he went on to become, perhaps, the most famous designer of wall paper and patterns for drapes that England has ever known.

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The Hungarian Uprising was put down by Russian tanks

Posted in Communism, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Revolution on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Hungarian Uprising first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

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Soviet tanks and troops rolled into Budapest and the heroic but futile street fighting began by Graham Coton

Two young men climbed to the top of the massive metal statue and dragged up a heavy cable which they attached to its head. The crowd below roared its approval. Many hundreds of hands hauled on the rope but the statue did not budge. Then the three workers came with acetylene torches and began to cut into the statue’s knees. The crowd stood hushed as it began to topple. Then cheering broke out as Joseph Stalin pitched forward from his plinth and lay face-downwards in the square. The place was Budapest and the date the 23rd of October, 1956 – the Hungarian revolution had begun.

What had brought it about? Hungary had emerged from the war in moral and political confusion. She had officially been an ally of Germany but had bred a spirited resistance movement as well. In 1947 the communists seized power and eventually the country was governed by Matyas Rakosi. Rakosi reproduced in Hungary the tyranny which Stalin imposed on Russia and the country underwent a long period of privation and terror. The death of Stalin and his subsequent denunciation by the Russian leader, Krushchev, encouraged the Hungarians to overthrow Rakosi in July 1956. But there was little change under his successors. Nevertheless, the spirit of rebellion was abroad.

Students, dissatisfied with conditions in the universities, and factory workers, demanding high wages, joined forces; they were in turn joined by all those who resented the repressive system by which the country was governed. A series of strikes and rallies reached its climax in the destruction of the towering statue of Stalin which symbolised for the rebels the oppression and the exploitation which their country had suffered.

Their triumph swiftly turned to tragedy. The A.V.O., the Hungarian security police opened fire on the crowds and many were killed. But the police could not quell the defiant citizens for long, and more and more people flocked to demonstrate in the streets of Budapest.

Hungary turned for help to Russia. In the small hours of the following morning Russian tanks began to arrive in the city, but even they could not drive the people home. The Russian soldiers were, in fact, reluctant to attack the crowd at all; some wept when they saw the destruction which the A.V.O. meted out to its fellow-citizens.

The revolution gathered momentum and spread across the whole country. The government had to decide whether it should go on fighting the rebels or whether it should try to quieten them by giving in to their demands for a new leadership. In the end it decided on the latter course and Imre Nagy, a liberal politician who had been disgraced in the days of Stalin, was allowed to form a new government. Janos Kadar, who had also suffered under the Rakosi regime, joined the new government too.

Soon Nagy was able to announce that the Russians had withdrawn their troops from Budapest. But the withdrawal was really a clever piece of stage-management; as the tanks fell back, fresh Russian troops were moved towards eastern Hungary.

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Czar Peter III was murdered by his wife, Catherine the Great

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Czar Peter III first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Peter III of Russia,  picture, image, illustration

Peter III of Russia

It was the evening of Christmas Day, 1761. Peter, who had been appointed Czar of all Russia that very day, was holding a sumptuous and riotous supper party in the vast banqueting chamber of the glittering royal palace in St. Petersburg. He had insisted that his guests wore their gayest clothes. He laughed and joked incessantly while the court musicians played loud, merry music. There was nothing to indicate that in the very next room the body of his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, lay in state, surrounded by weeping mourners. She had died that very morning.

Early in the new year, the funeral took place. The funeral procession was huge and magnificent. Thousands lined the streets to see it. But Peter seemed unaware of the solemnity of the occasion. He walked behind the hearse, two courtiers carrying his regal train. He laughed and giggled to himself like a child intent on playing pranks. Suddenly he would stop so that the hearse went on several yards ahead while the entire procession behind came to a halt. Then Peter would run on, capering madly, leaving the procession to catch up with him as best they could. To Peter, the funeral of his aunt seemed like some ridiculous game.

This was Peter the Third, the man who was now ruling Russia. It was hardly surprising that his reign was to continue for only three years, or that it should end in violence and death. But Peter, on this funeral day, could know nothing of that. Nor could he know that he was to be the one short link between two great Empresses of Russia – Elizabeth, his aunt, and Catherine, his wife, later to be known as Catherine the Great.

Peter was born in 1728. He was only three months old when he lost his mother, the beloved sister of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. His father neglected him and during his childhood Peter suffered more neglect and ill-treatment. Then his father died too and Peter became an orphan.

When Peter was 14 years old and then Duke of Holstein, Elizabeth arranged for him to be brought to Russia. Elizabeth had adored her sister. She was determined to do all she could for her nephew. She had decided that she would make Peter heir to the throne of Russia.

She quickly discovered that Peter was a thin, awkward child with rounded and almost deformed shoulders, and a thin, high-pitched voice. Elizabeth did everything she could to try and improve his poor health and his loutish ways, but Peter responded to none of this. He was cowardly and boastful. He was also destructive by nature, and when given toys he would pull them to pieces and then lose interest in them.

However, Elizabeth, was determined that he should be the next Czar of Russia. When Peter was 16, she decided that it was time he should marry. She had already chosen the bride – an obscure German Princess, Sophia. Sophia was brought to Moscow and educated to Russian ways. She was even made to change her name to Catherine, after Elizabeth’s mother.

Previously, Catherine had only seen a miniature portrait of her husband-to-be. This had depicted Peter as a handsome young man. She was horrified when she first met him and found that he was childish, cruel, ungainly and almost repulsive. But nevertheless the marriage took place.

Five years later, a son was born – Paul. The Empress Elizabeth immediately had the baby taken under her own care. Catherine was heartbroken. Indeed, it was 40 days before she even had a first glimpse of her son. But Peter remained completely disinterested.

And now Peter, at the age of 34, was the rightful Czar of Russia.

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