Too Much Too Young

08 31 henry viOn this day in 1422 Henry VI became King of England, he was only nine months old. Less than two months later he was also proclaimed King of France. That’s a lot of responsibility before you’re even one year old. Henry was the youngest king ever to sit on the English throne.

Henry had never even seen his father, King Henry V, who died in France whilst fighting a battle there. Perhaps from dysentery, perhaps from something called toxic megacolon, which sounds so awful I haven’t even looked it up. So how did young Henry come to be king of a country at war with his father? It’s quite complex and, unsurprisingly, didn’t work out too well. A substantial part of western Europe was going through a period of serious unrest which is now called the Hundred Years War. At the time Henry VI became king the inaptly named Hundred Years War had been raging for eighty-five years and still had another thirty-one years to go. Much of it involved a long running dispute over who should rule France.

In order to achieve what was meant to be a final state of peace, in 1420, King Charles VI of France had signed a treaty which made Henry V of England his heir. This is a bit weird because Charles VI had a son of his own who could inherit his throne. I’ve already mentioned, when I wrote about the Glass Delusion a few days ago that Charles VI was a bit odd, but perhaps he had his reasons. He claimed that his son was illegitimate and disinherited him in favour of his daughter Catherine de Valois, who he then married to Henry V.

In October of the same year that tiny Henry VI became king of England, his grandfather Charles VI also died, making him king of France too. Maybe if Henry had been older things might have worked out. But his grandfather’s disinherited son, also called Charles, claimed he was the rightful King of France and there was just even more fighting. Then in 1429 his Uncle Charles, largely due to Joan of Arc, was crowned King of France. In retaliation, Henry was crowned King of England and France and then travelled across the channel to be crowned again in Paris. Both ceremonies were carried out by the Bishop of Winchester, which didn’t go down too favourably in Paris, especially as Henry left almost immediately afterwards. As far as I can make out the main complaints were that the bishop insisted on singing a very long mass and that they brought all their own food with the, which wasn’t very nice. Poor Henry. He wasn’t terribly interested in wars and may have suffered from some of the same mental problems that afflicted his grandfather. He was deposed twice during his reign and died in the Tower of London in 1471, either of melancholy or something more sinister.

He was venerated by his supporters after his death and miracles were claimed in his name. He also left a more tangible legacy, he was responsible for founding Eton College, King’s College Cambridge and All Souls College, Oxford.

Out Of His Misery


Today I want to tell you about John Camden Neild. Not many people knew much about him until he died on this day in 1852 and left all his money to Queen Victoria. Neild was a lawyer, landowner and a miser. He inherited the massive sum of £250,000 from his father and devoted the last thirty years of his life to increasing that fortune.

Although he lived in a large house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, he had hardly any furniture in it. For quite a while he didn’t even bother with a bed, but slept on bare boards. He kept two servants including a housekeeper but paid them a lower wage when he was away collecting rents from the tenants on his estates. Neild used to spend quite a lot of time at North Marsden in Buckinghamshire where he had a considerable amount of property. If it was possible to avoid paying for a coach journey by hitching a lift on a passing cart he always took the latter. It didn’t matter to him how filthy the cart was. It could be a coal wagon and he’d still take that rather than pay. Of course Neild didn’t have his own house in North Marsden, he would just turn up and stay with his tenants. Luckily he didn’t seem to eat very much, mainly bread, milk and eggs. If he could buy three eggs for a penny he would ask his tenants wife to boil three, eat two and put the other in his pocket for breakfast. If he had been extravagant enough to bring a sandwich with him, he would ask permission to put it in a cupboard for later, Then he would keep checking to make sure it was still there.

Neild seems to have been oddly obsessed with the condition of his land. He put quite a lot of effort into counting the trees. He also used to go out with a pickaxe which he used to examine the quality of the soil. It’s a pity he didn’t put the same care into the buildings he was responsible for. When the church in North Marsden required a new roof, because the lead was cracked, rather than buy more lead he had it covered over with painted calico. Not really a long lasting solution, but he thought it would last his lifetime and that was all that mattered. He also insisted on sitting on the roof whilst the job was done to make sure everyone kept working.

That he cared for wealth above all else is best illustrated by an occasion when he was staying with a tenant and received news that his stocks had taken a dive. The tenant’s wife, Mrs Neal, had to prevent him from slitting his throat with a razor.

He didn’t spend a lot of money on clothes either. He wore a very old fashioned blue swallow tail coat, brown breeches and stockings that were generally full of holes. He didn’t allow anyone to brush the dirt off his clothes because he said it wore out the fabric. He didn’t even waste money on an overcoat, not even when it was really cold. Most people who met him took pity on him because he looked like a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. He never declined their charity.

Everyone was quite surprised therefore when his will was read. The sum he bequeathed to Queen Victoria amounted to £500,000. The Queen used some of the money, first to increase the bequest to his executors from £100 to £1,000. She also provided an annuity for Neild’s housekeeper, who he had not mentioned in his will at all, even though she had been with him for twenty-six years, and a sum for Mrs Neal, the tenant who had saved his life. Later she also paid for proper repairs to the church neglected by Neild and had a window installed in his memory.

John Neild was buried at this church at his own request. By the time of his funeral, news of his surprising bequest was widely known and his funeral was well attended. No one was very sad though. Someone was overheard saying that if he had known how much it would cost to get his body from London to Buckinghamshire ‘he would have come down here to die to save the expense.’

I don’t have a picture of John Camden Neald to show you. He was far too mean to have one painted. So I’ve had to make do with a photo of three boiled eggs.

Climb Every Mountain

08 29 cog railwayToday marks the birth of the Mount Washington Cog Railway in 1866. The worlds first mountain climbing cog railway. It was the brainchild of Sylvester Marsh. Marsh was then known for his advances in the meat packing industry and for something called Marsh’s Caloric Dried Meal, which I think is kiln dried grain for animal feed. I hope so because it doesn’t sound very appetizing.

Marsh had become lost one day whilst climbing the mountain and the idea of building a train track to the top struck him as a good one. Trains aren’t notoriously good at going up hill, in fact they’re terrible. So when he put the idea to state legislature, they didn’t really believe it could be done. But Marsh was offering to put up $5,000 of his own money and to build a hotel that would provide accommodation for the tourists he expected to attract. They saw no reason to decline his proposal. They told him to go ahead. They told him he could build a railway to the moon as well if he wanted.

The 1866 experimental section of track attracted enough investors for him to begin building. The railway took it’s first paying passengers in 1868, even though the track was still unfinished and did not reach the summit until July 1869. Marsh devised a special engine and track to stop the train rolling out of control down the slope. There is a massive cog in the middle of the axle which engages with a row of teeth down the centre of the track. The Mount Washington Cog Railway was massively popular and inspired many others to build similar tracks. You can still ride on it today. Though most of the trains used now run on bio-diesel rather that steam.

08 29 devil's shinglesThere is a museum at the top where you can see, among other things, the contraptions built by the men who worked on the construction of the railway. They wanted a way of getting themselves and their tools quickly back to the bottom of the mountain. So they each built themselves a sort of sledge that fitted over the central rails. They have a lovely name that tells us they were quite small and also quite dangerous, they were called Devils Shingles. It generally took about fifteen minutes to ride down the mountain in this way. The train would take around forty minutes to make the descent. It seems the fastest person made it down in less that three minutes. The Devil’s Shingles were banned in 1906 when a worker was killed. I could not find out whether these two events are connected.

New Moon

08 28 enceladus scaleOn this day in 1789 William Herschel discovered a sixth moon orbiting the planet Saturn. It was eventually named Enceladus. It is named after a giant from Greek mythology who is supposed to be buried underneath Mount Etna. I mentioned buried giants when I wrote about Pliny a few days ago. It isn’t a giant though, it’s tiny, only 310 miles (500 km) across and it sits on the edge one of Saturn’s outer rings, the E ring.

08 28 enceladus polesWe didn’t really know much about Enceladus until in was photographed by the two Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. They showed us that it was a very unusual place. It’s northern hemisphere in pitted with craters, as one would expect of an object that has been subject to impacts for millions of years. It’s southern hemisphere though shows far less damage, suggesting that it is a much younger surface. It is also has deep ridges in its icy surface, similar to the fault lines seen between tectonic plates on earth. This led scientists to realise that the moon must be geologically active and was more than likely the source of much of the material in the E ring.

08 28 enceladus coreIn 2005 another space probe, Cassini, was able to send us much clearer images of the surface of Enceladus. What was discovered were four deep fractures over the south pole. Thermal imaging revealed that the moon’s temperature beneath the ridges was much warmer that elsewhere. Further images showed that huge plumes of vapour were continually spewing out through vents much like a geyser. The vents are throwing out as much as 440 lb (200 kg) of material a second. When tested the vapour was found to be largely water with some salt and a few other minerals. It is this water vapour  that produces the lumps of ice found in Saturn’s E ring. Some of the ice though, falls back to the surface and as it builds up, pushes and folds the icy crust much in the same way that mountain ranges are pushed and folded here on earth. This means that somewhere beneath the surface of the moon there is an ocean of liquid water. The surface temperature of Enceladus is -198 °C, so what is it that heats the ice enough to melt, expand and be pushed out through the vents? And why is it happening at one of the poles, we would expect the warmest temperatures to be found at the equator. Although Enceladus is composed of rock, it is much too small to have a molten core. It is possible that the gravitational pull of Saturn is causing friction inside the moon, that could raise the temperature. But the answer is no one knows yet.

Cassini is still in orbit around Saturn, and we may still find out more about Enceladus. With the presence of liquid water and minerals it is, at the moment, the most likely place in our solar system where we might find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, which would be amazing.

Invasion Postponed

08 27 julius caesarRobert Chamber’s tells us that on this day in 55 BC, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar first landed in Britain. Of course we can’t know the exact date but Chambers has done an awful lot of research. He has looked at the date of the autumn equinox, the phases of the moon, even the times of the tides in that year. He even tells us that it was a Sunday and I believe him. Robert Chambers published a book in 1869 describing notable events on every day of the year. I like him very much and look to him on days when wikipedia lets me down. As I’m in Edinburgh at the moment I will probably, at some point, be on the street named after his brother, but I digress.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, Britain was right on the edge of the known world. It was so on the edge that some people believed it to be a mythical place. Others though knew it to be an excellent source of tin. Once the Romans had started to move in on Gaul they wanted to see what Britain was like. If Caesar had intended to invade our island, it didn’t go very well. It seems that they tried to land at Dover, but were kept away by angry Britons throwing spears at them from the cliffs. They were forced to move further along the coast, perhaps to Deal. Chamber’s source, a Mr. Lewin, thinks that the tide would have taken them west, to Romney Marsh, he further suggests that may be how the marsh got it’s name.

Some of the Roman ships were unable to reach the shore because of a storm. The ones that did make it didn’t fair too well either. The Romans, being from the Mediterranean, were surprised by the high tides and storms that we have here. Caesar’s beached war ships filled with water. The ones anchored further from the shore were driven against each other and many were wrecked or rendered unseaworthy. By now the Britons were hoping the Caesar would be stranded over the winter months and they would be able to starve him into submission. But the Romans managed to repair enough of their ships to make it back to Gaul before the weather worsened.

Even the Roman Emperor, who was pretty full of himself, had to admit that his mission hadn’t resulted in his ‘accustomed success’. Back in Rome though news of the landing had still been a cause for celebration. The Senate organised a twenty day festival of thanksgiving. Even then politicians were good at spin.

Caesar returned to Britain the following year but still failed to make any headway. Ostensibly he wanted to conquer Britain because they were helping the Gauls in their battles against the Roman invaders. It is quite likely though, that they were hoping to plunder the rich mineral sources here. What they found were a people that already had strong trading links, not just with Gaul, but as far away as Phoenicia. The Britons were, we’re told, polygamous and had other unspecified ‘exotic social habits’ and were fond of painting themselves blue. Caesar was most impressed by their skill with chariots in warfare.

It would be almost another hundred years before the Romans launched a successful invasion of Britain. Emperor Caligula did try in 40 AD but he was a bit strange and just came back to Rome with a load of sea shells that he had made his troops gather from the coast of Gaul. He claimed that is was plundered from Neptune, the god of the sea and everyone had to pretend it was marvellous.


08 26 princess alexandra of bavaria.Today I want to tell you about Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria who was born on this day in 1826. When Alexandra was in her twenties, she wasn’t having an easy time. She was the only one of eight surviving siblings who remained unmarried and lived a rather isolated existence. She was already displaying some symptoms of anxiety. She was obsessed with cleanliness and always wore white. Then her father, King Ludwig I, had a very public affair with Maria Gilbert, an Irish actress who performed as a Spanish dancer under the name of Lola Montez. He wasn’t a very popular king and his people really hated Lola. She was not at all regal and was rude to the queen. For these reasons he was deposed in 1848 when Alexandra was 22. Shortly afterwards her parents noticed that she was walking sideways along the palace corridors and obviously with some difficulty. They asked her what was wrong. She told them that when she was small she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass and that it was still inside her. Poor Alexandra, she was walking that way because she was afraid the glass piano inside her would break if she knocked into anything. It seems like a really odd delusion to have, but her already nervous disposition, her isolation and her father’s situation which she was powerless to do anything about must have made her feel very fragile indeed. It’s interesting that she chose a piano. Something hidden inside her that could have made beautiful music but she had felt unable to allow it to play. She did receive treatment and was eventually well enough to become a writer and to produce plays for children so perhaps she did find her voice in the  end.

Although the belief that a part of your body is made of something very fragile was not terribly common, there are other cases cited as far back as the 15th century and right up until the 19th century. It even has a name, The Glass Delusion. It is mentioned in Robert Burton’s 1621 publication, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Sufferers would avoid contact with others because they were afraid that they would shatter. It seems to be the way that symptoms of anxiety manifested themselves. The condition was most often associated with people who lived an isolated existence. It was thought of as a symptom of what was called melancholia. Sometimes people would think that a part of their body was made of glass or that they were turning into a glass object such as a bottle or a lamp.

King Charles VI of France believed that his entire body was made of glass and wore special clothing that was re-enforced with metal ribs to protect him. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, wrote a short story called The Glass Graduate about a man who suffered from the delusion. It was a condition often treated by shocking the patient into realizing that they would not break. One man who slept in straw had his bed set on fire, another who believed that his buttocks were made of glass was beaten on the bottom until he understood that he would not break. A rather brutal treatment, it probably led to the person replacing this delusion with another one. Luckily we have now found kinder ways of helping people.


08 25 pliny the elderToday I am celebrating the life of Pliny the Elder. I don’t know when his birthday was, probably some time in 23 AD. I do know when he died though. It was on this day in 79AD, the day after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. I mentioned the first stirrings of the volcano the day before yesterday when I wrote about Vulcanalia.

If you’ve watched QI you might be familiar with his work. Pliny wrote a lot of books but he is most famous for his massive thirty seven volume work called Naturalis Historia. His aim was to gather together in one place, all the knowledge in the entire world. The topics he covered were: astronomy, meteorology, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, pharmacology, magic, aquatic life, mining, mineralogy and art. It was an ambitious project which I couldn’t hope to even summarize here. He had to do an awful lot of reading. With the help of his assistants he trawled through 2,000 volumes by 100 authors. This wasn’t even his job, it was something he did in his spare time. He would be carried from place to place rather than walk so that he could read as he went. He would have someone read to him while he ate and he would have someone else taking notes for him. Staying up long into the night reading was something that he saw not as losing sleep but adding to his life.

Naturalis Historia was widely admired and used as a scholarly text well into the middle ages. In the early 7th century Isadore of Seville relied heavily on it for his own encyclopaedic work Etymologiae, a collection of knowledge so vast that he has been made patron saint of the internet. Pliny’s work was one of the first ancient European texts to be printed in Venice in 1469. It’s a massively useful book for anyone who wants to know what life was like in Ancient Rome.

Pliny knew that the earth was a sphere suspended in space. He knew that the time of the sunrise depended on where you were on that sphere. He also deduced that amber was made from petrified tree sap, because of the insects that were sometimes trapped in it. At the same time though, he thought that the fossilized bones of dinosaurs were the bones of giant humans.

08 25 cynocephalusIt’s really some of his more outlandish beliefs though that make him so endearing. He tells us that bear cubs are born as formless lumps that are licked into shape by their mothers. He has a lot to tell us about people from lands far away, such as the Cynocephali, a dog-headed race of people. Belief in their existence persisted well into medieval times. Pliny had their description from a Greek historian called Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC. No doubt belief in the Cynocephali came from people who had seen Egyptian carvings of their god Anubis. Other mythical races that he describes are harder to pin down, such as the Sciapods, the people with only one huge foot or the Astomi, who had no mouths but drew sustenance by smelling apples and flowers.

Some of the cures he suggests are most unusual. For baldness, he suggests rubbing mouse poo into your scalp. If you had a headache, the thing to do would be to get some fox genitals, put them in a bag and tie them to your forehead. My favourite though is his suggested treatment for incontinence. You should drink a glass of wine mixed with the ash of a burned pig’s penis and urinate in your or your neighbour’s dog’s bed.

Pliny died after he went to investigate the aftermath of the Versuvius eruption and ended up rescuing a couple of friends. Even though he tied a pillow round his head in an attempt to avoid dust inhalation, it was quite likely the cause of his death. His friends though, escaped to tell the story. If you’re wondering if there was a Pliny the Younger, there was. He was Pliny’s nephew. He’s not called Pliny the Younger because it was his given name. It seems it was a condition of his uncle’s will that he take that name.