Æthelstan the Glorious


The first portrait of a king of England was made of Æthelstan (894-939).

In 934, on his way north, Æthelstan stopped at Chester-le-Street to visit St Cuthbert. Admittedly, Cuthbert had been dead for two and a half centuries, but his power as a saint and intercessor continue. This power was made all the more potent for when the king arrived, the monks reverently opened the sarcophagus containing the saint’s body to reveal it as incorrupt.

In token of his appreciation for the intercession of the saint, Æthelstan commissioned a splendid Gospel Book and presented it to the monks at Chester-le-Street (they would later move Cuthbert to Durham, where his body still resides in the cathedral). On the back of the first folio is a picture of a king presenting a book to a saint. Although neither are named, they are clearly Æthelstan and Cuthbert: the king is crowned yet still he bows before the great sanctity of the saint. For his part, Cuthbert has his right hand raised in blessing to the humble king before him. By his gift, and his honour, Æthelstan won the blessing of the most renowned saint of Northumbria, a force in heaven and a blessing among his people on earth, and he left us his portrait, the first direct depiction of a king in English history.

Edward the Elder – Alfred’s forgotten son

Edward the Elder (874-924)

Edward was old enough to remember the night when his father, Alfred, had had to flee for his life, taking his family to the marshy refuge of Athelney. He had had to wait, a child, for word as to whether his father had prevailed at the Battle of Edington or whether he would have to run again. He had been raised to fight the Viking invaders, taking his place as his father’s chief lieutenant when still a teenager, and proving worthy of that trust.

Such an upbringing inculcated a savage certainty of purpose. Through no fault or oversight of his would Edward give advantage to those pagans who would ravage his realm. To that end, he approached his marriages as the business of a king, making and breaking queens – three of them in the end – to serve his political purposes.

But there was one woman Edward did not put aside, for she had his full confidence as the other hand of the strategy he had inherited from his father: Æthelflæd, Edward’s sister, reigned as lord of Mercia, first securing her kingdom and then joining Edward in his assault on the Danelaw. Edward’s trust, however, did not extend to Æthelflæd’s daughter. When his sister died, some in Mercia would have installed Ælfwynn as a new ‘Lady of the Mercians’ but Edward removed her to a convent and brought the kingdom under his rule, the first king of a combined Wessex and Mercia.

Elves and Dwarves in Anglo-Saxon England

Illustration by E. Stuart Hardy

Apart from the gods, the Anglo-Saxons believed in many other classes of supernatural beings, including Elves and Dwarves. These beings were regarded with wary respect: they could occasionally be helpful to people, but they were more likely to do them harm.

This was something particularly associated with Elves (‘ælf’ in Old English). There were charms against ‘elf shot’, the invisible darts the Elves could shoot into people that caused sudden illnesses, and propitiatory rituals that were practised near sites associated with Elves. While Elves were clearly seen as dangerous, there must have been good fortune associated with them also, since so many parents gave their children names using the ‘ælf’ prefix, ‘Ælfred’ the Great not least among them, and it seems passing unlikely that parents would name their sons after implacably malevolent beings.

Dweorgas (dwarves) were creatures of barrows and mountains, smiths who might help people if aid was sought from them. Less fickle than the Elves, the service of a Dwarf might be bought by offering the Dwarf something he wanted in exchange for his skills as a smith. But woe to you if you tried to cheat a Dwarf of his due: their memories of double dealing were long and they liked revenge served cold.

The Old Gods of England

Woden, the Wanderer

Before their conversion, the Anglo-Saxons had no written language, so we know little about Anglo-Saxon paganism. Yes, they worshipped the Germanic goods, the names of Tiu (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thunor (Thursday) and Freia (Friday) being preserved in four days of the week while Easter keeps alive the memory of a goddess, Eostre, whose cult is otherwise completely lost, but the tales they told of these gods were forgotten and we can only piece together a little of how they were worshipped.

Paganism was a religion of ritual rather than faith. No one doubted the existence of gods and other powers; religion was there to get the gods onside. Through sacrifice, generally animal although there are some intimations of occasional human sacrifice, the gods’ blessing might be gained, thus ensuring the supplicant’s hál, an Old English word meaning fortune or divine blessing from which derive the words ‘hale’ and ‘healthy’. Pagan sanctuaries were generally woodlands groves or glades – in one such, Penda displayed the severed head and arms of Oswald after the battle of Maserfield. Such places were often named hearg, which becomes Harrow (‘Harrow-on-the-Hill’) in later English. Pagan priesthood appears to have been inherited, and the priests themselves were marked out from the rest of the elite by the taboo against them using weapons or riding stallions.

Once and Future King

Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake

The legendary image of Arthur, the once and future king, who will return in England’s direst need to deliver her from her enemies, is somewhat undercut by the fact that, if he existed at all, Arthur actually fought against the English as a champion of the native Britons, the people who would become the Welsh. But Arthur’s very existence is a moot point.

The earliest definite reference to him is in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), which was written in Wales around 830, so at least three centuries later. In the Historia, Arthur is the dux bellorum (duke of battles) rather than a king, who leads the Britons to 12 victories over the Anglo-Saxons, the last of which at Mount Badon. This is interesting because Gildas also talks about a victory for the Britons at Mount Badon, the battle taking place in the year of his birth, as well as naming the man who rallied the Britons after the shock of the initial Saxon invasion. Unfortunately, for Arthurian apologists, Gildas names this war leader as Ambrosius Aurelianus, rather than Arthur. That the Britons had war leaders who rallied them against the invaders seems certain: whether the greatest of these was really called Arthur, we simply cannot say.

The Strange Case of Dr Haugh

Oliver Haugh became addicted to cocaine infused toothache medicine.

The young Wilbur Wright, a brilliant scholar and athlete, seemed destined to leave his little home town, go to Yale University and embark on a famous career. Then, when playing an ice hockey match, a player from the opposing team smashed Wilbur in the face with his hockey stick, knocking out most of his upper front teeth. Wilbur suffered months of pain, followed by bouts of depression and withdrawal. Yale was out of the question. What’s more, their mother, Katharine, was ill with tuberculosis. Wilbur became her carer and, having retreated to the confines of the house, he read and read and read.

The 15-year-old boy who smashed Wilbur Wright’s face and changed the history of aviation grew up to become one of Ohio’s most notorious serial killers. Oliver Crook Haugh was three years younger than Wilbur and lived a couple of blocks away, but was known as the neighbourhood bully. It’s not clear whether he meant to hit Wilbur, but the course of his later life suggests it was a premeditated strike. While a bully, Haugh was not a steretypical oaf: he qualified as a doctor and began practising in Dayton, Ohio (presumably Wilbur was not among his patients).

Obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Haugh began experimenting on himself, seeking to prove that “two beings can exist in one body”. He also experimented with marriages – he had at least nine, many simultaneously, and four of his wives did not survive the union – and, as there were unexplained deaths among his patients, started to move around, opening up new practices, then moving on when the questions became too pressing. Haugh returned to Dayton in 1905, moving in with his parents and brother.

But then he learned that his parents had cut him out of their will. On the night of 5 November 1905, the Haugh family home caught fire. Oliver Haugh escaped, but his parents and brother did not. In the subsequent trial, Haugh pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed by electric chair on 19 April 1907. At the time of Haugh’s death, Wilbur was in Europe, negotiating with interested governments over the sale of the brothers’ technology.

5 Facts About the Wright Brothers

“I like scrapping with Orv,” said Wilbur, “he’s such a good scrapper.” Spirited disagreements drove the brothers towards the solutions of the many engineering problems they faced.

Katharine Wright, the brothers’ younger sister, was the only member of the family to get a degree. She became a teacher at Dayton High School.

The Wright brothers, having patented their designs, sued other manufacturers for stealing their ideas. However, all patents were pooled when the United States joined World War I.

The brothers had promised their father never to fly together, to ensure that a crash wouldn’t claim the lives of both his sons. They kept their word.

On 25 May 1910, Orville Wright took his father, by then 82, for his one and only flight. The plane rose to over 100 metres, with Milton telling his son, “Higher, Orville, higher!”

The Current War

The electrocution of Western Union Lineman John Feeks became part of the propaganda during the Current War.

Edison had invented the light bulb, but he needed to devise a system to distribute electricity to houses and businesses so that they could use his light bulbs. The system he developed used DC (direct current), a low voltage, high current system. George Westinghouse, using ideas developed by Nikola Tesla, came up with a competing system that used AC (alternating current), which used high voltages and low currents.

The battle was on. Tesla had first worked for Edison, but Edison had dismissed his ideas as impractical. However, it soon became clear that the AC system was superior, particularly over longer distances, allowing electricity to be run to remote and rural districts. To fight back, Edison started a campaign highlighting the safety implications of a high-voltage system, going so far as to demonstrate its dangers by inviting journalists to watch when he got a stray dog to stand on a sheet of tin attached to an AC generator. The switch was flipped and the dog yelped and died.

Further support for Edison’s view that AC was a lethal technology was provided when it was used in the first execution of a prisoner by the electric chair. On 6 August 1890, William Kemmler, who had been convicted of murdering his common-law wife, was strapped to a chair and electrocuted. But the first shock did not kill him; it required a second, higher voltage burst to finish Kemmler off, although this set his hair and coat on fire.

Despite Edison’s attempts to tie AC to Kemmler’s execution and brand it dangerous, the system’s superiority prevailed, and in one of Edison’s few failures, the world today runs on AC.

The Space Race

Buzz Aldrin working outside the Gemini 12 spacecraft in Earth orbit

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world, and in particular the United States, by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into space and brought him safely back to earth. The space race had begun and the Soviet Union had a clear lead. In a time when the world was locked into a confrontation between the communist Soviet bloc and the West, the propaganda advantage in leading the race into space was immense.

In response, on 25 May 1961 President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to commit the nation to, “before this decade is out, […] landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Following Kennedy’s assassination, this pledge became sacrosanct. To catch up with the Soviet lead, the Americans planned a series of manned spacecraft, beginning with the Mercury rockets crewed by a single astronaut, going on to the two-man Gemini missions that pioneered many of the technologies and techniques necessary for a flight to the Moon, and culminating with the three-man Apollo programme designed to take men to the Moon. Despite the Apollo 1 disaster, when three astronauts were killed in the Command Module during testing on the launch pad when a fire broke out, by the late 1960s the American space programme had overtaken the Soviets. Now all that remained was to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge.