Sunday, April 12, 2015

The last knight

Subtitled the twilight of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern era, this book by Norman F Cantor is a biography of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the third son of Edward III and Philippa de Hainaut. John of Gaunt through his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster became one of the richest men in Europe when Blanche inherited her father's fortune.

The book looks at John of Gaunt as a landowner, a leader as a soldier and in the political scene, relationships with women, relationship with the Church and patron of the arts. He owned large estates, particularly in the north of England, as well as the Savoy Palace in London. He was a soldier and with his bother, the Black Prince, was involved in successful battles against the French however his quest to become King of Castile was not so successful. As the uncle of Richard II John of Gaunt was a man of power, particularly in the early years of his nephew's reign. Cantor looks at Gaunt's role, not just in national politics but also at the local level. The political unrest known as the Peasants Revolt made John of Gaunt one of its main targets destroying his property in London. Fortunately John of Gaunt and his family were not in London at the time. Political change was also evolving with the development of elected parliaments. John of Gaunt strongly supported the succession of the monarchy but after he died his son took over the throne from his cousin.

John of Gaunt was married three times - first to Blanche, a woman he loved as well as being a successful marriage financially, then a purely political marriage to Constance of Castile and finally to Catherine Swynford, his long-time mistress. He had fourteen children and is reputed to ensuring that they were all well looked after. Family members held positions of power in Europe for many generations.

The author also devotes chapters to Gaunt's religious beliefs - his patronage initially of John Wyclif and later of the Carmelite monks - and also his patronage of the arts, particularly in regard to Geoffrey Chaucer. Cantor argues that the Reformation was beginning to evolve during the life of John of Gaunt. There were changes in attitudes towards the Church long before Henry VII had a disagreement with the Pope. There were also changes in literature with writers such as Chaucer writing in English and reflecting on life as they saw it. John of Gaunt supported some of these changes but as he grew older his views became more conservative.

John of Gaunt had the money and the power to live in style and he did. However the end of the fourteenth century was a time of cultural and social change in England and, argues Cantor, John of Gaunt and members of his family after him were part of the these developments.

Britain's railways in wartime

Kevin Robertson has compiled a pictorial account of the important role of the railways in Britain during the Second World War. The black and white images are from the Getty Collection and show the ways railways were used to transport supplies across Britain including coal, farm equipment and military equipment, the role of women who were employed during the war to work in the railways, the evacuation of children from the large cities to country areas, damage done to stations, locomotives and tracks during bombing attacks, the result of collisions between trains blacked out for the war, methods used to black out trains, stations and equipment in case of air raids, the use of railway land for farming and the preparation of fire trains and emergency vehicles in case of a gas attack. This book records an aspect of life in Britain during the Second Word War as well as illustrationg an important record of the part played by railways during the war.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Digging for Richard III

Published in 2014, Digging for Richard III: how archaeology found the King, by archaeologist, Mike Pitts, is another contribution to the story of the discovery of the body of King Richard III under a car-park in Leicester.

The book begins with a summary of the events leading up to and occurring during the Wars of the Roses. The next section explores how Leicester remembered Richard III before the discovery of his body, Philippa Langley's campaign to gain support for her quest, the search for funding, initial exploration of the site and the involvement of the University of Leicester. Part three examines the excavation as the friary, church and skeleton are uncovered. Details of the autopsy on the body are described as well as the confirmation that the bones discovered were those of the king. The final chapter includes the discovery of the site of the Battle of Bosworth.

Being written by an archaeologist this book provides a different interpretation of the events during and after the excavation plus the relevance of the discovery to the understanding of the history of the period. Readers interested in the discovery of Richard III's body would find this an interesting book to further their knowledge.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

For God, King and Country: the Great War 1914-1919

Shirley Devery has written this book as a salute to the Blackburn, Mitcham, Nunawading and Vermont volunteers during the First World War. The book is published by the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies at Blackburn and copies can be purchased from the AIGS.

The book lists the names of the 305 identified volunteers who were born in or enlisted from the area. An alphabetical listing of names is provided along with their service number (when known) and the local memorials that list their names. Fifty-one of these volunteers did not return and a page is dedicated to the memory of each of these men providing brief details about them, where they served and where they died. A photograph of these men is included when available.

A summary of the events leading to the declaration of war is provided followed by information about Australia's involvement during the war and the impact of the war on the local community.

The sections of the index include the names of those who died, references to the various sections of the Australian Imperial Forces listed in the book, naval vessels on which they sailed and the cemeteries where those who died overseas are buried as well as a general index.

In the foreword Shirley wrote:
It has been a privilege for Jane (Davies) and myself to be able to take a glimpse into the lives of the 305 men and women who served, and into the lives of their families and the local communities they left behind. The contributions made by individuals, schools, churches etc are in themselves worthy of praise.
Australia Calls is the theme for Whitehorse Heritage Week in September and Shirley Devery will be will speaking at Vermont South Library on 17 September at 10 am about her experiences writing this contribution to the history of Whitehorse.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Death and the Spanish Lady

The February 2015 issue of Boronia & The Basin Community News contains an article by David Doughty about the Spanish Flu - the influenza epidemic that occurred after the First World War. Many of the patients were treated in temporary hospitals, including one set up in the Exhibition Building, and photographs are included with the article.

Coincidentally I have just read a murder mystery by Carolyn Morwood set in Melbourne during the Spanish flu epidemic. Eleanor Jones, an army nurse recently returned from serving overseas, had experienced many horrors when treating patients injured during battle. Her two brothers had served in the army - one had died while the other was now suffering from shell shock. Her lover had also been killed. Arriving home safely Eleanor then nursed influenza patients in the temporary hospital now occupying the Exhibition Building. Many of the patients were also recovering from their war experiences. Nursing in these conditions was a strain for the medical staff but when one of the patients, who was thought to have recovered, is found dead a murder investigation begins. Eleanor is determined to find the truth when one of her friends is considered the main suspect.

The book provides a picture of Melbourne during the period immediately after the war. It is a city of fear - people go out only when necessary and they all wear masks. Entertainment centres are closed and people meet in groups only when absolutely necessary. It also shows how families were affected by the war. Many had lost family members who had died overseas but most of those who returned home were suffering  physically or mentally as the result of their experiences. The effects on men who stayed at home is also shown with Nick being the recipient of a collection of white feathers. The description of the use of the Exhibition Building as a hospital is another interesting aspect of the book. The work by organisation such as the Red Cross is also portrayed. Those who like mysteries and / or  are interested in this period of Melbourne's history will enjoy this book. A sequel to this book is Cyanide and Poppies.