Oh what an illustrious date for England and some of the country’s best known ancestors.  25th October has been one of the most celebrated days in English history but it has also seen the passing of a literary giant and mass slaughter during two inglorious battles.

My historical briefing begins in the middle of the 12th century with the passing of a King, whose monarchy was bedevilled by the most horrific, anarchic violence imaginable.

King Stephen861 years ago on 25th October 1154, King Stephen, the grandson of William the Conqueror, suffered an agonising death at Dover Castle; he was 50-54 years old.  It is thought that he had suffered acute appendicitis, which was aggravated by bleeding haemorrhoids.

King Stephen was buried alongside his wife at Faversham Abbey, an institution which he founded in Kent.

This man’s 18 year reign is often referred to as ‘the anarchy’; it was marred by a power struggle between his supporters and those allied to his cousin Matilda, who was the daughter of Henry I and thus, the legitimate heir to the throne.  During the civil war which ensued, England witnessed murderous conflict and appalling atrocities, as documented in the Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Most of King Stephen’s problems stemmed from his inability to lead men; he was amiable but weak and politically inept. After his death, England’s first Plantagenet monarch, King Henry II, succeeded to the throne.

 

 

Chaucer

Three centuries later on or around 25th October 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer died; he was approximately 56 years old.  The best evidence for the date of his death comes from an engraving on Geoffrey’s tomb, which was erected more than 100 years after he died.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey, which was his right because he had lived as a tenant of the Abbey ‘Close’.

Geoffrey Chaucer is considered by many to be the ‘Father of English Literature’; he was certainly the country’s most successful and best known poet of the Middle Ages.  He was a much travelled man with an international outlook and enjoyed or endured a busy career as a bureaucrat, a courtier and a diplomat; he was sent to Florence and Genoa on government missions so he would have been exposed to the dazzling brilliance of the Italian Renaissance.  Chaucer worked in the households of King Edward III and Richard II and he would have been known to the usurping successor, Henry IV.  He played a vital role in promoting and developing the legitimacy of vernacular ‘Middle English’ at a time when French and Latin were the dominant literary languages in England.

In 1556, Geoffrey’s remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, making him the first writer to be interred in the area known as ‘Poets’ Corner’ in Westminster Abbey.

 

600 years ago on St. Crispin’s Day, Friday 25th October 1415, the Battle of Agincourt {known by the French as ‘Azincourt}, was contested in northern France.

AgincourtThis brutal and ferocious struggle was the latest in the series of conflicts that we know as ‘The Hundred Years War’ between England and France.  On this occasion, King Henry V led an army of 6-9000 men comprising mostly English and Welsh soldiers, against numerically superior French knights and men-at-arms.  King Henry had intended to leave the Continent via Calais but as he attempted to find a crossing of The Somme, his path was blocked by the huge French army and Henry had little choice but to give battle.  It has been estimated that the French force was between four and six times larger but Henry V secured a spectacular and unexpected victory after his opponents got themselves bogged down in wet mud before being cut to pieces by a devastating avalanche of arrows, delivered by the renowned English and Welsh longbowmen.

It is thought that approximately 7-10,000 Frenchmen were killed in the bloody affair.  The heavy defeat crippled the French military effort for many years and allowed King Henry to take full political advantage; Henry recovered French territorial possessions, which he believed ‘belonged to the English Crown’.  The astonishing victory established Henry V as a national hero both for his own time and in subsequent, popular tradition.  The ‘Ballad of Agincourt’, composed in 1606, gives a feel for the national psyche.

Upon St. Crispin’s day
Fought was this noble fray
Which fame did not delay
To England to carry.
Oh when shall English men
With such acts fill a pen,
Or England breed again
Such a King Harry ?

 

George IIIt was not such a good day for one of our Georgian monarchs.  On 25th October 1760, King George II died in Kensington Palace, London at the age of 76.

Arrogant and indifferent, King George’s first language was German.  He learned to speak English but his guttural accent made him appear very foreign to British subjects. He was perhaps fortunate that his 33 year reign coincided with a period of great prosperity at home and abroad.  In 1743, George II took to the field of battle, the last British monarch to do so: he led his army to victory against the French at Dettingen.

George had a taste for music and continued royal patronage of Handel; he is said to have been so moved on hearing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in ‘The Messiah’, that he spontaneously rose to his feet, starting the custom which has been observed ever since whenever that piece of music is performed.

George II was buried in Westminster Abbey.  He sired 8 children but it was his famous grandson who succeeded him as King George III.

 

Charge of Light

My final historical account describes an unintended but nonetheless, heroic charge, which had terrible consequences for the British participants.

It was on 25th October 1854, that the renowned or perhaps infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ took place on the south Crimean coast in Ukraine.

This terrifying charge, led by Lord Cardigan, was part of the much wider Battle of Balaclava.  In short it followed miscommunication in the heat of conflict and resulted in the Light Brigade of the British Cavalry attempting a more difficult military objective than was intended by the overall Commander, Lord Raglan.  673 men rode straight into a ‘Valley of Death’ and the fire from heavy Russian guns.  There was massive loss of life: the army suffered 278 casualties and 335 horses were also killed.

Alfred Lord Tennyson encapsulated the futility of this war and others that followed.

..”Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die.
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred”…