history, reading for kids, ian mortimer, centuries of change, bodley head, history teaching materials

The Shed has accepted a proposition that this is a reasonable time for a post on Ian Mortimer’s guide to 10 Of The Worst Years In History, summarised below.
Mortimer, the author of Centuries Of Change: Which Century Saw The Most Change (Bodley Head), offered …

saw the country face invasion not once but twice: first in the north, where King Harold defeated a Norwegian and Flemish army led by his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada; and then at Hastings. The native ruling class was almost entirely eliminated. All property passed to the new foreign king, who distributed it among his henchmen. Imagine all the land in the country being taken by a foreign warlord and shared out among his followers, who do not speak English and who rule us all with violence and impunity from their defensive castles.

King John was not a good man. His petulant refusal to accept Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury caused a rift with Pope Innocent III. Innocent was not a pope to mess with; in March 1208 he placed the whole of England under an interdict. The result was that no church services could be held. No one could get married or have their children baptised. No one could have a funeral service. In the highly religious 13th century, people believed that, because of John’s tantrum, they or their loved ones would be damned to hell for eternity.

saw a second consecutive harvest failure: an exponentially bad situation as it left farmers without seed for the following year. Thousands died. In some cases, people turned to cannibalism. Politically, it was a nightmare too, with a rising in south Wales, led by Llywelyn Bren; a rebellion in Bristol, which had to be put down by force of arms; and the continued destruction of Ireland by the Scots, including the defeat of an English army at the battle of Kells.

The worst news year in British history was surely the year that the Black Death reached these shores. When it was over, according to modern reckoning, more than half the population had been killed. People’s confidence in God’s providence was another casualty. Cults of mortification and philosophies of human wretchedness began to emerge. Nothing in the last 1,000 years of human experience comes close to the fear and shock of the disease.

Richard III’s short reign ended in fear, chaos and death. Over the course of just two years, he personally alienated many of his supporters – through the deposition of his nephew Edward V (not to mention his possible murder of the boy and his brother), the summary execution of Lord Hastings, and his employment of a coven of close enforcers. Nevertheless, people looked on Henry Tudor’s invasion in 1485 with trepidation. If you were loyally standing by Richard III, and Henry defeated the king, what penalties and loss of titles and estates would you face? Conversely, if you joined the invader, and the king defeated him, you could expect to die for your treachery. So everyone had to gamble – and had every reason to be fearful. But what really made this year deadly was that the first epidemic of the sweating sickness fell on England, killing tens of thousands of men and women.

Our explorers were traversing the globe, natural philosophers were making significant advances in science and a certain William Shakespeare was attracting attention with his plays. However, at the same time, tens of thousands of their compatriots were starving. Consecutive harvest failures had left many people desperate. About a quarter of the population of Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford was sleeping rough and begging or stealing food. It was estimated that there were about 30,000 homeless people in London – perhaps as many as one in seven people in the city was a vagabond. The equivalent in modern terms would be a million homeless people in the city. In real terms, the wages of a full-time English worker sank to just two-thirds of what they had been 150 years earlier.

Battles raged up and down the country as parliament and royalists inflicted heavy casualties on each. Farmers whose lands lay in the path of armies on the move saw their cattle and sheep killed for food, their horses requisitioned and their barns used for the troops’ accommodation. At the same time, parliament reintroduced legislation imposing censorship of the press. And the weather was foul – the 1640s saw some of the coldest, most drought-ridden years of the last millennium.

It was just one of those years. Revolutions swept across Europe. The French monarchy fell, the Chartists held mass rallies and presented demands; anarchism became a watchword for many political agitators; but not much changed. In Ireland, the potato famine reached its height, killing hundreds of thousands of people and forcing as many again to emigrate.

While 1914 was anything but encouraging, the list of calamities in 1916 marks it out as particularly depressing. It was the year that saw conscription introduced. It saw Zeppelin bombing raids and income tax rise to 25%. The battle of Jutland – the great naval conflict of the war – saw 14 ships sunk and more than 6,000 men killed. But even louder in our memories is the echo of the battle of the Somme, which started on 1 July: 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 40,000 injured on the first day alone.

In January rationing started. By May, the German invasion of France had forced British troops back to Dunkirk. Auschwitz opened for its horrific business. Dozens of British warships were sunk by the German navy. The Channel Islands were occupied. And the Battle of Britain started: the Luftwaffe bombed London, Sheffield, Coventry, Plymouth and other cities in southern England. London was hit every night for 57 consecutive nights, and on 29 December more than 100,000 incendiary bombs struck the city.


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