Holocaust Memorial Day

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Arbeit Macht Frei – work makes one free – the gates of Auschwitz (wikiemedia commons)

Between 1941 and 1944 the Nazi Party made it their priority to try and wipe out anyone who didn’t meet their ‘Aryan Race’ ideal. That meant that they rounded up gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and anyone who didn’t have the same religion as they did. And it was the Jews who are most remembered out of all of those targeted – between 1941 and 1944 millions of Jews lost their lives in Hitler’s Concentration Camps.

It was systematic and brutal – Jewish people were rounded up and transported to the camps that had been set up to hold them. The Nazi party who organised these deportations told those who they were taking away that they were simply being ‘relocated’. It was, of course, a lie. They were instead placed on freight trains that were so overcrowded that there was barely any room to sit, and on the journey they were refused food and water whilst the only sanitation that they had was a bucket in the corner of the carriage. Many died on the journey which could take between days and weeks, depending on the amount of stops made.

From the train they were taken to the camps, the best known of which being Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the largest Nazi concentration and death camp and located in Poland. Another well known one is Bergen Belsen, located close to Celle in Germany.

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RAF aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau (source)

Once in the camps, families were often split up. The people had their belongings taken away and today, you can still see the piles of belongings held in Aushwitz museum. They were then often forced into labour whilst dealing with overcrowding, incredibly poor sanitation, lack of food and disease. It was a miserable existence only made more terrifying by the constant fear of being murdered by the Nazi’s.

Previous to the death camps, the Nazi party had initiated a Euthanasia programme which was aimed at the eradication of inferior races – such as the Jews – as well as unfit Aryans and the disabled. The euthanasia programme was just a taste of what Aushwitz and the death camps would have to offer – special carbon monoxide chambers were built in places like the Euthanasia centre at Hartheim Castle, where those deemed unfit were subjected to lethal injection or gassing. Between 1939 and 1941 over half a million people were murdered by these programmes.

What was to happen at the concentration camps in the 1940’s was known to the Nazi party as the ‘Final Solution’ – it was their way of destroying those they believed unfit and had no place in the creation of the German ‘master race’. It was decided that the best way to implement this Final Solution was killing on a mass scale – in places like Aushwitz, these gas chambers used a gas known as Zyklon-B. Those chosen to be killed were told they were simply going to be deloused however many suspected that they were actually going to be murdered. They were herded into the chambers which had been made to look like shower rooms, accompanied by Nazi guards who remained with them until just before the doors were closed. The guards even endeavoured to keep the people calm by initiating small talk with the prisoners, talking about their lives in the camp or their families. Once the doors were closed, the Zyklon-B filled the room, killing all of those trapped inside.

The bodies of the prisoners were then disposed of – to start with they were buried in mass graves however they were later disposed of by cremation.

Not every camp was a death camp. Some, such as Bergen-Belsen near Celle, were forced labour camps. Belsen was originally an exchange camp, where Jewish prisoners would be held before being exchanged for German prisoners of war. Although there were no gassing chambers within Belsen, over 50,000 prisoners still died there thanks to the overcrowding and lack of sanitation which led to disease such as typhus and dysentery. Belsen is best known as the camp from which Anne Frank and her sister Margot never left, having died there in 1945.

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The Bergen Belsen memorial (wikimedia commons)

When the Allies began to liberate these camps following the end of the Second World War, the true horror was realised. In 1945, the Russian Red Army liberated Aushwitz and came face to face with the horrendous methods of mass murder whilst the American and British armies liberated the camps in Western Germany. Belsen was liberated by the British Army in April 1945 and although the first sight of the camp was that of horror, thanks to seeing the thousands of unwell and starving prisoners, a lot of the prisoners had actually been relatively well treated. They were thin thanks to the lack of food, but otherwise greeted their liberators enthusiastically. But still horror lurked within Belsen and as the British went deeper inside, they found just how badly many of the prisoners had been mistreated. With over 60,000 prisoners deposited in Belsen in the weeks preceding the liberation, overcrowding was rife and had become a breeding ground for disease. Over 20,000 emaciated dead inmates were also found unburied, just left upon the ground – some had starved to death where they lay. Those who had survived were described as living skeletons.

The survivors were washed and deloused before being admitted to a makeshift hospital where they were attempted to be rehydrated and given food. Some had lost their ability to even digest food thanks to being starved for so long – some passed away within minutes of food passing into their systems. But the staff managed to put together an easily digestible food which did wonders for those within the hospital.

The dead who had been left unburied also had to be attended to. The allied forces began by making the German guards load the dead onto trucks to be taken for burial but this proved to be too slow – eventually the dead were simply bulldozed into their graves.

Once the camp was empty, the survivors moved into homes commandeered from the local population, the camp was burned to the ground. Today the site is marked by a simple memorial.

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The memorial of Anne and Margot Frank (wikimedia commons)

Today, January 27, marks Holocaust Memorial Day when we stop and think of the absolutely atrocious happenings of the Holocaust. There are those who say that the Holocaust never happened, a belief that makes me sick to my stomach – there are still people alive today who survived the Holocaust and we only have to look at the photographs that came from that time, we only have to listen to the stories told of the brutality of those years to know that the Holocaust did happen. It happened and millions died because of it. There are also those who don’t even know what the Holocaust is – it seems as if to many these awful happenings have just disappeared from public memory and it is now down to us to make sure that it is never forgotten.

We must make sure that these atrocities are never repeated and we must make sure that we remember the Holocaust. We must never forget the millions of people who lost their lives thanks to the hatred of the few and I will make sure that I pass the knowledge of these horrors on to those who come after me. It’s something that we should all endeavour to do.

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[Review] The White King by Leanda de Lisle

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Less than forty years after the golden age of Elizabeth I, England was at war with itself. The bloody, devastating civil wars set family against family, friend against friend. At the head of this disintegrating kingdom was Charles I. His rule would change the face of the monarchy for ever.

Charles I’s reign is one of the most dramatic in history, yet Charles the man remains elusive. Too often he is recalled as weak and stupid, his wife, Henrietta Maria, as spoilt and silly: the cause of his ruin. In this portrait — informed by newly disclosed manuscripts, including letters between the king and his queen — Leanda de Lisle uncovers a Charles I who was principled and brave, but also fatally blinkered. He is revealed as a complex man who pays the price for bringing radical change; Henrietta Maria as a warrior queen and political player as impressive as any Tudor. Here too are the cousins who befriended and betrayed them: the peacocking Henry Holland, whose brother engineered the king’s fall; and the magnetic ‘last Boleyn girl’, Lucy Carlisle.

This is a tragic story for our times, of populist politicians and religious war, of a new media and the reshaping of nations, in which women vied with men for power. For Charles it ended on the scaffold. Condemned as a traitor and murderer, he was also heralded as a martyr: his reign destined to sow the seeds of democracy across Britain and the New World.

I clearly remember when I was studying my A-Levels, sitting in my history lesson and learning about Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings. I remember studying the causes of the English Civil War and thinking “this has to be the most boring part of English history I have ever had the misfortune of studying”. Little did I know that when I moved on to University I would end up falling in love with the English Civil War and specialising in the battlefield archaeology of the Battle of Cheriton for my dissertation. I’m not sure what it was that suddenly changed my mind, only that all of a sudden I realised that there was so much more to it than the Divine Right of Kings and ship money. I began to find the whole era incredibly romantic. I became embroiled in the history of the battles. I even, for my sins, joined the Sealed Knot as a musketeer in the Royalist Henry Tilliers Regiment of Foote. A life long love had been sparked and I devoured anything I could get my hands on about those torrid years of war. In the past few years that love has taken a bit of a back seat to the Italian Renaissance, but it’s always been there niggling in the back of my mind, and when I heard that Leanda de Lisle was working on a biography of Charles I I knew I had to read it.

De Lisle’s “The White King” was one of my Christmas gifts and I got stuck into reading it as soon as I possibly could. Now, I don’t want to sound cliched, but from the moment I opened it I literally could not put it down. And it was the first time that any biography on Charles I had gripped me in such a way. I’ve read a lot on the ill-fated King and I will be the first to admit that a lot of it is incredibly heavy going, dry reading. In “The White King”, de Lisle does the near impossible – she makes the history of Charles Stuart accessible. She makes it exciting. She goes beyond the whole ‘these were the mistakes Charles made and they were the only causes of the war’. It truly makes a refreshing change in pace.

This book is a balanced view of the man that many in England saw as a tyrant and a traitor. Not only that but de Lisle gives a sympathetic view of the King and his beliefs. She weighs the causes of the War up and comes to the conclusion that although Charles did make mistakes, he wasn’t the only cause of a war that literally split England right down the middle. We see a man who loved his family and who believed that what he was doing was right. We see him fighting for what he believed in and at the same time we see parliament doing the exact same thing – they believed that what they were doing was for the good of the country, as did Charles.

Charles I wasn’t all black and white. His grey areas proved to be his ultimate downfall – despite being brave, he believed so wholeheartedly in his divine right that it proved to be his end. And what a sad end it was. I have never read a better account of King Charles I’s trial and execution, nor have I been practically moved to tears when reading about his incredibly brave end.

This wonderful biography is truly a pioneering work in the history of the Seventeenth Century and I would even go so far as to say that this book should be considered the Bible on the history of Charles I. Whilst it tells his story, it also offers insights into lesser known parts of his history – including a short affair towards the end of his life as well as offering up previously unknown correspondence between him and his wife. Reading this book has rekindled my love of the English Civil War and made me want to pick up my own work on it again.

An excellent biography and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Caroline Court.

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My Top 10 Books of 2017

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a bit of a book problem. And when I say a bit, I mean I have a HUGE book problem. All of my bookshelves are full to bursting and I even have piles of books on my living room floor and boxes of books under the bed and in storage. In fact, if I’m not busy typing away on whatever project I’ve got going on then I can be found with my nose in a book.

Over the past twelve months I have read some absolutely cracking books. So I thought I’d do a bit of a round up of ten of the best ones I’ve read. Now, some of them weren’t new releases when I read them whereas others were – and they aren’t all history related!

10. The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay

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The life of James Duke of Monmouth has long been a fascination of mine, and I promise it’s nothing to do with the overly handsome portrait….okay, maybe it is a little bit. When I found out about this book I got really quite excited as it had been a while since I had read a decent and engaging biography of the tragic young Duke. If you have any sort of interest in the Seventeenth Century and Restoration then I would heartily recommend this book.

9. The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

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This book was under the Christmas tree in 2016 and was the first book I read in 2017. Being a bit of a fan of the Italian Renaissance, I wanted to expand my horizon towards the later (High) Renaissance, and what better way than a biography of a member of one of the most influential families of the time? This truly is a remarkably well written biography that makes you feel as if you are living in the treacherous world of the Renaissance. Highly recommended.

8. Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Mary de Guise by Melanie Clegg

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I must admit that for a while, before reading this, I’d been avoiding reading anything much related to the Tudor dynasty. There’s a very simple reason for this – a while back I’d developed a bit of Tudor fatigue as let’s be real…it can be a bit overdone. It’s only really within the past year or so that I’ve been getting back into it, particularly given the links that the dynasty have with my own interests. This book brings to life Marie de Guise, a woman who is better known as the mother of Mary Queen of Scots and let’s just say that her life was a turbulent one. A quick read, granted, but one I thoroughly enjoyed.

7. 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal

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This is another book that I had gotten seriously overexcited about although I was a little late to the party in reading it. Rideal’s book takes the reader through one of the worst years in English history up until that point – plague had wracked London, followed by the Dutch Wars and then the ruinous Great Fire of London. It really brings to light just how awful 1666 was. Another one I would highly recommend to anyone interested in Restoration England. Plus, Samuel Pepys gets a mention and he’s just brilliant.

6. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who grew up reading Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ books and following in Lyra’s footsteps. From the moment I found out that Pullman was writing a prequel, I awaited its release with bated breath – and on release day I took myself off down to the bookshop and got this beauty into my grubby little paws. It did not disappoint in the slightest and I found myself once more lost in Lyra’s world of the alethiometer, Dust and daemons.

5. Young & Damned & Fair by Gareth Russell

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When I reviewed this book, I believe that I called it ‘the Bible on Catherine Howard’ and I still believe that. There has been so much written about Catherine Howard that slanders her as an adulterous whore who deserved everything she got. But Russell does a wonderful job in this book, painting a picture of the doomed Queen that shows us she wasn’t that whatsoever. It’s a sympathetic look at a young woman who was, in many ways, nothing more than a victim.

4. Julian of Norwich by Janina Ramirez

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I was definitely late to the party with this little gem of a book, especially given as how Dr Janina Ramirez is a favourite historian of mine. Julian of Norwich is a beautiful little book, telling the story of the anchoress who spent her life walled in a cell. Brilliantly written it brings a subject of history to the fore that I myself knew very little about.

3. In The Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

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When I first opened the prequel to this novel, I did so with a hell of a lot of trepidation. Nearly every single novel that I had read that featured the Borgia family was just badly written and regurgitating the incest myths that have surrounded the family for centuries. In Blood & Beauty, Sarah Dunant proved that a novel on the Borgias could be well researched, accurate and beautifully written. Her second book was no different. It tells the story of the later part of the Borgias and heavily features the character of Machiavelli. The characterisation is just top notch and the scenes are woven together beautifully. This has to be one of my favourite novels of all time.

2. The Colour of Betrayal by Toni Mount

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Toni Mount’s Foxley Medieval Murder Mysteries – where on earth do I begin with how brilliant these books are? Set in Medieval London, Mount weaves together stories of murder, love and betrayal so expertly that you are immersed in the world that she has created. Sebastian Foxley has, I am completely unashamed to say, become a bit of a crush…

1. The Templars: The Rise & Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

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And at the very top spot in my top ten books of 2017 is this beauty. I’d been expecting a lot from Dan Jones with this book, given as how impressed I’d been with his work on the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet’s but he really surpassed himself here. I have a bit of an interest in the Templars and Crusades thanks to visiting a number of Templar strongholds in Portugal and have dipped into other books on the subject, but this? This book brings the subject to life for those who don’t know much, and also to those who are well versed in Crusader and Templar history. The narrative is so beautifully written, showing the Templars in an incredibly sympathetic light. In this book you see the good and you see the bad – Jones certainly doesn’t shy away from describing things, as gnarly as they were. It is definitely the best historical biography I have read in a long time, and I honestly think it’ll be one hell of a job for anything to beat it!

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2017 in Review

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It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to sit down on New Years Eve and write a little something to review what’s happened in the year that’s coming to an end. And here we are again. It’s been…well, it’s been a year full of ups and downs and it’s been exciting in many, many ways.

Publication wise, 2017 has been wonderful. I started out the year with an article in Tudor Life Magazine on English Royalty and the Borgias, for The Tudor Society (an amazing website with loads of cool stuff for members. Swing on by and sign up) before signing a contact for my second book, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher.

My Savonarola Journey throughout 2017 was just amazing and it’s something I will never forget. In May, my partner and I went to Florence for our holiday – except it wasn’t just a holiday, it was a research trip as well and my opportunity to walk in Savonarola’s footsteps. We spent our days wandering the hallways of San Marco and the Palazzo Vecchio, we stood before Savonarola’s memorial plaque, I sat in both of Savonarola’s cells, I stepped into churches and the Cathedral where he had delivered his fiery sermons. And during that week I felt closer to my subject than I ever had done before. But it was also an opportunity to drink in other parts of Renaissance history – we walked in the footsteps of the Medici, of great artists and scientists. It truly was a wonderful week over in Tuscany, a week of history, plenty of walking, lots of wine and amazing food!

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

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Exterior of San Lorenzo. Photo by me.

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Mini Savonarola marking the place of his human counterparts execution

June saw the release of my first ever online course – The History of the Borgias – a very brief course giving an overview of the infamous family for anyone looking to learn the basics. I certainly learned a lot myself in doing the course – and these things are always learning curves. Confidence, it seems, is my issue when it comes to speaking in front of a camera and that is something that I know I need to work on. Confidence, after all, is the key behind public speaking and that is definitely something I need to look to when being in the field of history. It will come! I’m still super pleased with the outcome of the course, though, and really looking forward to working with Medieval Courses in the future (watch this space for news on that front!)

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Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher was released into the world on 8 August 2017 and to date is my proudest achievement. That probably sounds really big-headed, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. It was a long and eye-opening journey from start to finish and seeing the finished product in my hands was just…well it was mind-blowing, really. I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has brought and reviewed it so far and a thank you to everyone planning to read it! I’d also like to extend a huge thank you to my wonderful publishers MadeGlobal for giving me the chance to publish with them again – I couldn’t imagine a better, more professional, bunch of people to work with!

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In October my partner and I took ourselves off to the BBC History Weekend at Winchester where we had an absolutely lovely evening listening to talks by Ian Mortimer and the fabulous Janina Ramirez – I even got books signed by both of them as well as pictures with both! I even shyly gave Dr Ramirez a copy of The Renaissance Preacher. Both talks were absolutely wonderful and we both learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the way the Reformation really began and how it linked all across Europe.

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This year I also hosted two very big interviews with two gentleman who are both heroes of mine – the fantastic Dan Jones stopped by to give some advice on how not to procrastinate and tell some stories about how it was he got into history. And then, Mark Ryder dropped in for an interview in which we talked about his role as Cesare in Canal +’s Borgia Faith & Fear, his experiences playing the infamous warlord and which historical characters he’d like to play in future. A huge thank you to both Dan Jones and Mark Ryder for stopping by this year. I also gave my first ever interview over on Adrienne Dillard’s website, talking about the release of The Renaissance Preacher, my ways of getting over writers block  and who I’d invite, living or dead, to a dinner part. If you can, do go and pick up Adrienne’s books as she a fantastic author and a lovely person – Adrienne’s books can be found on Amazon.

All in all it’s been a very successful year and I hope that such positivity can carry on into 2018. There are a lot of exciting things planned for 2018, the first of which being a trip to Rome in February. This is a research trip mainly, for what will end up being my third book. I can’t say anything yet on the book, but watch this space for details! I also turn…the dreaded thirty!

I’d like to wish each and every one of you a very Happy New Year. If you’re going out tonight then see in the new year safely and in the same way, if you’re staying at home and watching Jools Holland then stay safe and enjoy yourselves. I shall be cracking open the Prosecco and, if Jools Holland gets too much then I’ll probably end up playing video games. I’ve written my last words for 2018 both here on the blog and for my latest project so here it goes…

See you all next year!

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A Very Historical Christmas

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First off, before the food coma and Prosecco drinking commences, I’d just like to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I hope your day is spent relaxing and that you all have a wonderful time catching up with friends and family.

As I’m sure you all know, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to books. Meaning that I adore them. And I have far too many of them, And I spend far too much money on books. So it’s no surprise that my Christmas list this year was all books…

And what a haul it was!

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The White King by Leanda de Lisle and To Catch A King by Charles Spencer are books that I’ve had my eye on for a while. I love Seventeenth Century England and in particular both Charles’! The Catholic Reformation by John C Olin is another one I’ve had my eye on for quite a while – let’s just say that I’m incredibly spoiled to have had that one under the tree!

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Now then. I’m a HUGE fan of The Witcher video games which are based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and I’ve wanted to read these for ageeeessssssss! These ones will be cracked open ASAP!

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Now this one…this one truly is this icing on the cake and when I opened it, I might have squealed a little bit. Dinastia Borgia is more than just a book – it has three music CDs, all of which are Renaissance and Borgia inspired music, as well as a DVD documentary on Jordi Savell and his Borgia journey. The book, alas, is all in Italian so I’ll have to get learning! I absolutely cannot wait to start listening to the wonderful Renaissance music on these CDs – it’ll certainly get me in the mood for our upcoming research trip to Rome!

Once again, a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to each and every one of my readers. I’ll be cracking open the Prosecco later on and eating far too much – my blood sugars won’t like it but…It’s CHRISTMAS!

 

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