Legendary Ladies: The women history forgot, No. 1 Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the first computer programmer (1815-1852)

Writing about determined and independently-minded girls in my first book has given me a greater appreciation of female role models. I am amazed at how many fantastic female role-models (living and dead) there are and even more amazed at how little we talk about them. Every fortnight, I will be trying to do my best to improve the situation by sharing with you the life and works of great women from the past who deserve to be much better known. My first ‘legendary lady’ is Ada Lovelace, a Victorian pioneer of computing.

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Ada Byron, aged four
Image source: Public domain, Creative Commons

Interesting facts to share with little legendary ladies (and little legendary gentlemen too):

  • Ada was the daughter of a famous, 19th-century celebrity, the poet Lord Byron. He died when she was eight and she never really knew him.
  • Although airplanes hadn’t been invented at this time, she was fascinated by flying and wrote a book about it called ‘Flyology’ when she was only twelve. In the book she drew a plan for a steam-driven, flying horse!
  • When Ada grew up, she became a mathematician at a time when only men did this.
  • She wrote the first ever computer programme, the instructions which tell a computer what to do, 100 years before modern computers were invented.
  • Ada wrote about her belief that one day computers could be used to create things like music and art. Everyone else told her she was mad and that all that computers could do was calculate numbers!
  • Ada Lovelace is the inspiration for the heroine of the 'Goth Girl’ series of books, Ada Goth.

A bit more about Ada Lovelace

We all know Lord Byron. Most of our modern lives now depend on computers. Yet few of us know the poet’s only legitimate daughter and the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace. Poor Ada's life would make a cracking period drama. The daughter of an unhinged A-list celebrity absentee father, starved of a bitter mother's attention, crippled by illness as a child and dogged by scandal throughout her life, Ada still made significant, though little recognised, contributions to the scientific world and then died young.

Ada, the girl scientist 

Ada never knew her father, who left England four months after her birth, having been granted a ‘Deed of Separation’ by his wife. It is said that Byron was bitterly disappointed that Ada was not the “glorious boy” for which he had hoped. As it turned out, though, Ada went on to excel far beyond most boys in the exclusively male world of mathematics. Her mother, Anne, encouraged her to study mathematics and scientific subjects as a way to avoid Ada falling into the ‘insanity’ of her father. Anne also tried to teach young Ada ’self-control’ by making her stay in her bedroom alone. Perhaps it was this enforced solitude that ignited Ada's creative spark and her dreams of flight. At the age of twelve she wrote a book on the subject called ‘Flyology’, which she illustrated with a plan for a steam-driven flying horse. Her research into the potential for flight and plans to build herself a pair of wings were cut short at the age of fourteen when she was temporarily paralysed following a bout of measles. It was during her slow recovery that she became absorbed in mathematics.

Ada becomes fascinated with computers

In her late-teens her tutor, the now celebrated Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (another exceptional woman of the time), introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, nowadays known as the ‘father of computers’. He had built a prototype for a mechanical calculator called the ‘Difference Engine’. Ada was intrigued by the ‘Engine’ and over the years she became a zealous advocate and follower of Babbage’s work. Later, when Babbage began work on a more advanced machine, an early computer called the ‘Analytical Engine’, Ada became completely fascinated and visited Babbage regularly. She also undertook much of her own research around the subject and received instruction from Babbage. When a young engineer and future Italian Prime Minister, Luigi Menabrea, wrote about the ‘Analytical Engine’ for the Italian scientific community, Ada undertook to translate it to help popularise Babbage’s ideas in England.

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Model of the 'Analytical Engine', Science Museum, London
Image credit: Bruno Barral (ByB), CC BY-SA 2.5

Ada, the world's first computer programmer

Ada’s translation was not the most important part of this work. It is her own notes which she then added to the translation of the treatise from which her renown in computing circles stems. Amongst the notes she included an example of mathematical instructions, or an algorithm, which the ‘Analytical Engine’, once completed, could use to calculate complex numbers called ‘Bernoulli numbers’. The ‘Analytical Engine’ was never completed and so Ada’s algorithm could not be put to the test. However, her algorithm is now recognised as the first ever computer programme. She also proposed in the notes that such a machine could, in future, even be used to create art and music. This suggestion was scorned by many at the time, including her friend Babbage. The import of Ada’s visionary words was not realised for another hundred years when fellow computing pioneer Alan Turing saw them and quoted them in his seminal paper, ”Computing Machinery and Intelligence”.

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Portrait of Ada Lovelace, by Margaret Sarah Carpenter
Image source: Public domain, Creative Commons

Ada's struggles with scandal

Sadly, as was often the case for independently-minded women of education in the nineteenth-century, Ada’s life was mostly an unhappy one. Her mother’s bitterness against her father coloured their relationship and she continued to treat Ada poorly throughout her short life. Ada married a fellow aristocrat, William, the 8th Baron King and later Earl of Lovelace, and had three children. However, her friendships with other men, mostly fellow mathematicians and science enthusiasts, were a regular source of scandal. This was made worse by her fame as the daughter of Lord Byron, who had known much scandal himself while alive. In fact, rumours continued to abound about his odd and shocking behaviour even after his death. Ada also got herself into substantial debts from gambling, something women simply didn’t do in those days. She had joined a syndicate and built a mathematical model to help with placing large bets, but the model had eventually failed her. Her relationship with her husband was strained as a result and he is said to have abandoned her deathbed when she told him some secret that remains a mystery to this day. Ada died of cancer, still in debt and deprived by her mother of contact with friends. She was the same age as her famous father had been at his death - thirty-six.

Though very sad, Ada’s story has still found its way into children’s literature in the form of Christopher Riddell's ‘Goth Girl’ series. The heroine, Ada Goth, and her friend, William Cabbage, are modelled on Lovelace and Babbage.

Pete’s History Picks, December 12th – December 18th

Guildford’s finest teenage historical scholar, Master Pete Tollywash of time-travelling underpants fame, returns again with his pick of the most interesting events from this week in history. Over to you, Pete.

Hello, everyone. That Barford guy’s let me loose on his blog again. Awesome. It was a bit tricky finding time to write this though. I mean life’s pretty busy anyway when you’re a time-traveller (we’re still not telling Mum about that, by the way. It’s OK. She won’t read this. She can’t even send an email), but when it’s Christmas time and Kev’s just got Dragon Dancer 17 Turbo edition on the Xbox for his birthday, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Yeah, anyway, I’m here again to tell you about the stuff that happened this week in history. Unsurprisingly, as it’s almost Christmas, loads of stuff happened (although Auntie Cheryl claims that’s got nothing to do with it). So, here we go.

December 12th, 1991 - Maastricht Treaty signed to create a European Union

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This is Maastricht - Actually looks quite nice.

Everything's about this Brexit thing here at the moment. They’re saying things like, “Food prices are going to go up 'cause of Brexit”, “People might lose their jobs 'cause of Brexit”, “You might have to get a visa to go to Benidorm 'cause of Brexit”. What’s really unfair is that Ms. Cummerbund at school gave me a detention when I told her I’d forgotten my English homework ‘cause of Brexit. Anyway, apparently this Maastricht (some place in Holland) Treaty is kind of where the story started as it created the European Union, which is the thing the UK is leaving. Auntie Cheryl says it was quite a big deal at the time and quite a few people in Britain were against it. So this sort of led to the EU referendum thingy we had in June (although Auntie Cheryl says it’s also a bit more complicated than that).

December 13th, 2003 - Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is captured near his home town of Tikrit

I was a tiny baby when this happened. This Saddam guy was president of Iraq and used to be friends with the United States of America, because he didn’t like Iran, who the Americans didn’t like either. So these Americans supported Saddam in a war against Iran. People say that at the same time he started doing some nasty things to people he didn’t like in Iraq. Later on, in 1990, he invaded his other neighbour, a country called Kuwait. At this point, the USA decided he’d gone too far and went to war with him (with help from some other countries, including the UK). Saddam lost and was kicked out of Kuwait in 1991. He wasn’t happy about this, of course, and he and the US were no longer friends. They didn’t go to war again, but there was trouble every so often between them for the next twelve years. Eventually, in 2003, the US decided it wanted to get rid of Saddam once and for all, and invaded Iraq (again with help from other countries like the UK). This time, they didn’t just beat Saddam, but they captured him and put in place a new government. In the end, Saddam was executed. You probably know all this, ‘cause you probably weren’t a little baby then like me.

December 15th, 533 - Byzantine general Belisarius defeats the Vandals, under King Gelimer, at the Battle of Tricamarum

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The guy on the right in the crown is Emperor Justinian. They reckon the other dude is Belisarius.

Well this Belisarius guy obviously didn’t do a very good job of it, ‘cause the vandals were back again last night graffiti-ing the cricket club changing rooms. Anyway, Auntie Cheryl says these were different vandals. In fact, she says they were a tribe who came from what’s now Poland. Because they attacked and looted Rome in the year 455, people started using the word ‘vandalism’ to describe any act of damaging stuff on purpose. These Vandal guys didn’t hang around it seems and in the year 533 they’d left Poland far behind and they were rulers of North Africa (land they’d conquered from the Romans). The Romans, by this time referred to as the Byzantines (I’ll get Barford to explain another time), wanted North Africa back, so the Emperor Justinian sent this Belisarius dude to get it. The Battle of Tricamarum was the last in Belisarius’s war against the Vandals and he beat them so badly that they gave the land back to the Romans. The Romans (or Byzantines) then sailed from there to reconquer Italy which some goths had taken off them (the goths at my school couldn’t conquer a plate of fish and chips, so that’s pretty impressive). Again, Auntie Cheryl says they weren’t those kind of goths but another tribe called 'the Goths' from somewhere around modern Poland or Germany. The Romans only held North Africa for another hundred years or so when these new guys called the Muslims arrived from the Middle East and took it off them again. But that’s a whole other story.

December 16th, 1653 - Oliver Cromwell appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland

I’ve just come back from my latest time-travelling adventure in Tudor times, where I met a guy called Thomas Cromwell. I thought he was this guy, Oliver Cromwell, but apparently not. Thomas Cromwell was friends with the king, Henry the Eighth in this instance, while Oliver Cromwell definitely was not best mates with King Charles the First, whose head he had chopped off in 1649. Four years later he was made ‘Lord Protector’ of the Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland (poor Wales didn’t get a mention). He was very clear to everyone that he definitely wasn’t a king, even though he got referred to as ‘Your Highness’, his head appeared on coins and he passed the title on to his son, Richard. Richard bottled it, or so they say, and in 1660, King Charles’s son, also helpfully called Charles, became king.

One other event I’d also like to mention that happened on this day in 1773 is something called the 'Boston tea party’. This wasn’t one of those annoying things Mum has on Saturday afternoons where she gets Maureen, Barbara and Auntie Cheryl round to talk about people they knew, but whose names they’ve forgotten. It was actually this big protest in Boston, in the US, where some people who called themselves the 'Sons of Liberty’ jumped on a boat that was full of boxes of tea and threw it all into the water. It was something to do with them being unhappy about tax on tea. This was a big deal and Auntie Cheryl says it was an important step along the way to America’s independence from Great Britain (I didn’t know we ever ruled America. How awesome would that be? Being King of America? Actually I guess that’s kind of what the President is).

December 17th, 1398 - Timur (or Tamerlane) captures and sacks Delhi, beating the Sultan’s army of elephants

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Apparently Timur built this mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It is pretty awesome.

This Timur dude (or Tamerlane as he’s also called) sounds pretty cool (well not if you were fighting him). He was a ‘Turco-Mongol’ emperor from what’s now Uzbekistan and he conquered loads of places. In 1398, he invaded India and marched on Delhi. The ruler of Delhi, the Sultan Nasir-u Din Mehmud, fought him with an army that had elephants in it (that dude was crazy). Timur’s men were scared of the elephants (fair enough), so Timur got them to load hay onto the back of their camels and set it on fire (poor camels). The flaming camels went running towards the elephants sending the elephants running back at the Sultan’s army. Suffice to say, the Sultan’s army got spooked and Timur won easily.

So there you have it. Quite a week, hey? I hope you found it useful. Oh and if you want to find out more about me and my adventures, just look at Barford’s ‘My Books’ page on this website. Have a great Christmas and I’ll see you in a fortnight.

Pete’s History Picks: November 28th – December 4th

Fresh from his recent adventure in Tudor England, our very own time-travelling scholar, Pete Tollywash, returns to tell us some of the fascinating and important things that happened in this week in history. I now hand over to our guide.

Thanks Barford! Some really important stuff happened this week in history and a lot of it involved some very important women. Auntie Cheryl tells me you don’t see much about women in history. She says that’s for two main reasons - women weren’t normally allowed to get involved in political stuff and that men wrote the history. Anyway, it sounds like this was a very important week for women, as we’ll see.

November 28th, 1893, New Zealand is the first country to allow women to vote

You know that boring voting stuff grown-ups do? I’ve realised it might actually be a big thing. Apparently lots of people have protested and even been killed just so people could be allowed to vote. Women weren’t allowed to vote in Britain until 1918 and even then they had to be really ancient (like 30 years old!). New Zealand (apparently it’s some islands near Australia) was way ahead of Britain and the rest of the world on this and on this day in 1893, all women in the country were allowed to vote. At the same time, a woman was elected mayor of Onehunga (yeah, I dunno how you say that one either) in Auckland - the first woman mayor anywhere in the British Empire. Go Kiwis! Britain eventually caught up and on this same day in 1919, someone called Nancy Astor became the first female member of parliament.

November 29th, 1745, ‘Bonnie' Prince Charlie occupies Carlisle and sends soldiers into Manchester

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A monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland - looks nice.

This one really surprised me! Auntie Cheryl was telling me that the Scottish and English haven’t always been the best of pals and in fact were at war in 1745. There was this guy called Charles Stuart, who apparently said his dad, James, was King of Great Britain because Charles's granddad, also James, had been king (are you still with me?). But Charles's granddad had been kicked out and replaced by Charles’s Aunt Mary and Uncle William. Quite a lot of people in Scotland wanted Charles’s dad to be king and egged Charles on to invade Britain. The French also liked the idea and said they’d help. Charles, or ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie as they nicknamed him, came to Scotland to begin the invasion. He had hoped that a French army would help him, but their ships got caught in storms. Even so, with the hep of local Scottish soldiers he managed to get control of Edinburgh and then marched into England. He took over a place called Carlisle and even got as far as Manchester, but apparently his mates told him the English had got a really big army and were coming to do him in. So, his mates decided to return to Scotland, even though Charlie didn’t want to. The English followed and in April 1746, his Scottish army was smashed at the Battle of Culloden. Charlie escaped and got back to France, but never returned to Scotland again.

December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of the bus

We’re now about to meet one of the other important women of this week in history. This one sounds a bit like nothing, doesn’t it? In fact, surely the back of the bus is the best place to be? Away from the teachers, right? I’ve found out, though, that the back of the bus isn’t always a good place to be. In fact, in some parts of the United States of America, even in the 1960s, it was a really bad place to be. That’s because in some of the states of the US, they used to make black people sit in the back part of public buses while only white people could sit in the front. On this day in 1955, a lady called Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat so a white person could sit down. She refused and was arrested. But it didn’t end there. She had inspired so many others that they launched a boycott of public buses in Montgomery and elected a man called Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the boycott. This was the start of something called the Civil Rights Movement, which, over many years, led to improvements in the position of black people in America.

Apparently also on this day in 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. What a day for women!

December 4th, 1619 - Was this the first Thanksgiving?

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Apparently it might have looked something like this. Not so sure myself.

My mate Kev got punched by an angry lady trying to grab an Xbox off him in Asda on Black Friday last year. Auntie Cheryl said it’s probably the fault of some people who went to America in 1619. These people left England because they thought they’d have a better life in the ’New World’ (that’s what they called America). Sounds like it might not have turned out like that as some other people already lived there and weren’t that keen on sharing their land with the new guys. But anyway, these guys from England promised that when they landed in the New World, they would give thanks to God AND celebrate the anniversary of the day they landed every year after that. So this is how that Thanksgiving thing in America started. Dunno if these guys invented Black Friday as the day after Thanksgiving, probably not, but there wouldn’t be a Black Friday and Kev wouldn’t have got punched if these guys hadn’t invented Thanksgiving. So, you see, it’s their fault.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s history picks. Thanks for reading. See you again in a fortnight!

Pete’s History Picks: 14th – 20th November 2016

It gives me great pleasure to welcome back the hero of my ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ adventures and Guildford’s premier historical scholar, Master Peter Tollywash, to fill us in on some of the interesting and exciting things that happened this week in history. Take it away Pete. Hello again! Thanks for coming back for more of my history picks (or welcome if it’s your first time). Auntie Cheryl says lots of stuff’s been going on recently that’s probably going to be important in the future. I think she might be right. Until I started doing this time travelling (I hope you haven’t told my mum about that), I thought that history stuff didn’t actually have anything to do with what’s going on now. In fact, I thought it was just stuff that history teachers probably made up so they could make children’s lives misery. But, yeah, it seems this stuff actually explains a lot about why things are like they are today. Anyway, here’s my picks for this week.

14th November, 1380

King Charles the Sixth crowned King of France aged 11

King Charles the Sixth of France was crowned on this day at the age of 11! If he can be king at 11, I don’t know why Mum won’t let me go to the corner shop at night on my own at 13. Charles became king right in the middle of the Hundred Years War, which might have been why he later became known as Charles the Mad, ‘cause he had some mental health issues (this seems a bit harsh). He really annoyed his son, also called Charles (bit confusing), by agreeing to the King of England, Henry the Fifth, being the French king after him. This other Charles got so cross he got some teenage girl called ‘Joan of Arc’ to help him fight against the English. Anyway, that’s enough on crazy King Charles the Sixth and his angry son.

16th November, 1532

Pizarro defeats the Incan Emperor Atahualpa

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Apparently some of those Inca guys lived here. Wow!
I always wondered why they speak Spanish in places like Mexico and Argentina. Apparently it’s because some Spanish guys called the ‘conquistadors’ (the conquerors) conquered those places. One of them was a guy called Pizarro (I thought he was a striker for AC Milan, but Wikipedia says not). He fought against these people called the Incas, who were the people living in Peru when the Spanish arrived there. Seems a bit odd, because I don’t think the Incas were much of a threat to Spain, what with being on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and having no idea Spain existed and all. Auntie Cheryl says that someone had told Pizarro the Incas had loads of gold and that’s why he went after them. Anyway, on this day almost five hundred years ago, this Pizarro bloke captured the Incan Emperor Atahualpa after defeating him at the battle of Cajamarca. And that was the end of Atahualpa’s empire.

17th November, 1558

Queen Elizabeth the First crowned Queen of England

This is her - doesn't look too happy.
This is her - doesn't look too happy.
You may have heard that I’ve just come back from an adventure in the time of King Henry the Eighth. Well on this day in 1558, his daughter Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England. She’d had a bit of a hard time of it as her sister, Mary, who was queen before her, had put her in prison and wanted to chop her head off. What is with that family and wanting to chop people’s heads off? Actually, come to think of it, I’d quite like to chop my brother Jim’s head off, but Mum might not be very impressed. Anyway, Mary died before she could cut her little sister's head off, so then Elizabeth became queen instead. Apparently she also liked to chop people’s heads off and do other nasty things to them if they didn’t agree with her. Shame I don’t have that power.

18th November, 1916

The Somme Offensive comes to an end

As you probably know, we’ve just had this thing called Remembrance Day where we are meant to pay our respects to people who died in wars trying to keep us safe. Apparently it started after the First World War. On this day one hundred years ago one of the biggest battles of the war called the 'Somme offensive’ ended. It’s one of the worst battles ever because of the number of men who were killed. It was meant to make a big breakthrough and end the war. It didn’t. Anyway, I was thinking the other day that it seems a long time ago, but I guess it wasn’t really - my mate Kev’s great grandma is almost 100 years-old!

19th November, 1863

Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

He's the one on the right.
He's the one on the right.
Apparently the Gettysburg Address is a speech and not a building. Auntie Cheryl says it’s an important event to talk about with what’s going on in America at the moment. The Republican President of America, Abraham Lincoln (who I had actually heard of before this, but I thought he was Bart Simpson’s grandad) gave a speech to some soldiers called Unionists at the opening of a cemetery for dead soldiers in Gettysburg. The Unionists were fighting in the American Civil War against soldiers called Confederates (who wanted to break away from America among lots of other complicated things I don’t really understand). This speech he gave is meant to be one of the most famous ever (not that I can think of many, if any, famous speeches). It spoke about the importance of democracy and the things that the people who declared independence from Great Britain believed in. I’ve had a look. It’s actually quite good. I hope you’ve found my history picks interesting. If you want to find out more about my adventures, you can do that here. My next adventure, ‘Tudor Trouble’, is out later this month!

Pete’s History Picks: 31st October – 6th November

It gives me great pleasure to announce a new feature of my blog. Every week, my esteemed colleague, Master Peter Tollywash (of time-travelling underpants fame), will be presenting us with some of the interesting facts he has discovered about the past. So, without further ado, I hand you over to Guildford’s great historical scholar.

This week in history - 31st October - 6th November

Hi everyone. I’m not really used to this writing about history thingy, but since I started my time-travelling adventures (don’t tell Mum) I’ve become really, like, interested in things that happened a long time ago. One thing I’ve realised is they kind of explain quite a lot of stuff that happens today too. Who’d have thought that, hey? Right, anyway, Barford’s asked me to share with you some of the stuff that I’ve found out about that happened in this week but in, like, history. So here’s the best bits I’ve found from this week in history.

31st October, 1517 - Martin Luther posts 95 theses on Wittenberg church door

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This is Martin Luther - looks a bit like Thomas Cromwell who I met on my recent adventure.
This one sounds really boring, right? I thought that too. I was hoping I’d find out something about how the first Halloween happened or something fun like that. But, actually, this one’s a really important event. I’ve recently come back from Tudor England (Barford’s writing that one up at the mo and you’ll be able to read it later in November) and this Martin Luther guy hanging a bit of paper on a church door explains a lot about what was happening while I was there. Before that, though, just so you know, this guy isn’t the same as that Martin Luther King guy (I thought he was to begin with). Barford tells me Martin Luther King was alive in the twentieth century (the one just before this one) and he was really important in getting more rights for African-American people. Anyway, it’s not that guy, although maybe that guy was named after him? Martin Luther wasn’t happy with the way the Catholic Church was being run and he made a list of 95 things he wasn’t happy about or things he wanted to change. This started something called the Protestant Reformation, which would be really important in the history of England (see 3rd November for more).

2nd November, 1355 - King Edward III of England lands at Calais to invade France

Crazy, right? I didn’t know we’d ever invaded France, but Auntie Cheryl tells me it happened a lot (she knows this kind of thing ‘cause she’s a history teacher). I was also surprised as I wondered why the French didn’t just close the Channel Tunnel, but Auntie Cheryl says there wasn’t one then. They had to go in boats. But yeah, apparently we were fighting a lot with the French at this time and actually ruled bits of France. It was part of something called the Hundred Years War which actually went on for 116 years. Though, Auntie Cher says they weren’t fighting the whole time just on-and-off. She also told me that England actually ruled Calais until 1558. Not sure why we were so keen to keep Calais, unless it was for all the big supermarkets that Dad always makes us go to on the way home from camping in France.

3rd November, 1534 - English parliament accepts Act of Supremacy and King Henry the Eighth becomes Head of the Church of England

Henry the Eighth - not a bad likeness actually.
Henry the Eighth - not a bad likeness actually.
As I think I said, I’ve just come back from my latest time-travelling adventure (seriously, don’t tell Mum) and it was in the year 1535. I even met King Henry the Eighth (but that’s enough as I don’t want to ruin the surprise when Barford’s book on the adventure comes out shortly). Anyway, I said that the list that Martin Luther stuck on that church door in 1517 was a really important event, well this is one of the reasons why.  King Henry had really disagreed with Martin Luther in 1517 and even written something in 1522 about why Martin Luther was wrong and a bad’un. But by 1534 Henry was really keen for the Pope in Rome to stop being in charge of the Church of England, partly because Henry couldn’t divorce his wife if he was. So, Henry was quite keen to have a ‘Protestant Reformation’ (the thing Martin Luther started with his list) in England to get rid of the Pope as head of the Church of England. This act of Parliament put Henry in charge instead, meaning he could decide how things worked instead of the Pope. Even now Queen Elizabeth the Second is in charge of the Church of England.

4th November, 1922 - Howard Carter discovers tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt

Tutankhamen's death mask - imagine how heavy that must have been to wear. Oh right, he was dead.
Tutankhamen's death mask - imagine how heavy that must have been to wear. Oh right, he was dead.
This one’s cool and a little bit creepy, which makes it even cooler. This Howard Carter guy had spent a really, really long time, trying to find the tombs of the old Egyptian pharaohs. I dunno why. Doesn’t he know Egyptian mummies have special powers and can zap you with their laser eyes? Anyway, he really wanted to find them and in 1922 he found the tomb that made him really famous - the tomb of some eighteen-year-old pharaoh called Tutankhamen (imagine being king at eighteen, that would be, like, awesome). Apparently it was full of gold and jewellery and stuff. Not sure where King Tut's xboxes and iPhones went. After that it all got creepy and people who had been part of the discovery of the tomb, like, started to die in 'mysterious circumstances’. People were saying it was cursed and this was the pharaoh’s revenge. That Howard Carter guy said it was a load of rubbish, but he wasn’t one of the poor people that ended up mysteriously dead!

5th November, 1605 - The Gunpowder Plot is discovered in the Houses of Parliament

What I really like about finding out about this history stuff is that I’m finding out so much of it is linked. I used to think what happened in history was kind of irrelevant, but apparently it isn’t. Anyway, you know all the fireworks and bonfires we do on 5th November? This is why. And what’s weird is it’s linked to two of the other events I mentioned earlier - Martin Luther King and his list and King Henry becoming head of the Church of England. Guy Fawkes, who was the guy they found with all his gunpowder, was part of a group of Catholics who were unhappy about the Protestant Reformation. They didn’t like the fact that the Pope was no longer in charge of the Church of England and the way Catholics were being treated in England. They hoped that, if they could kill King James the First by blowing him up as he opened Parliament, they could replace him with a Catholic king or queen. Weirdly we now celebrate these people being stopped from setting off explosives by setting off explosives and burning stuff. At least I know why now.

Until next time...

Hope you liked this and thanks to Barford for helping me with spelling and stuff. See you next week for more Pete’s History Picks. By the way, Barford's recently written a short story about some crazy stuff that happened when I went to a Roman bathhouse. Join his mailing list for a free copy.

Great days out in ‘Roman Britain’ part 3 – the North

Barbarian country

Imagine yourself in a windswept, freezing cold fortress, over a thousand miles from home and surrounded by hostile natives. No, you are not a young British soldier in the days of the Raj. You are a Croatian conscript in the Roman Army, garrisoning a fort on the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, circa 140AD. Civilisation is a very hard march away over desolate country (it’s difficult enough getting up there in a car in the twenty-first century) and there are definitely no cosy tea rooms or picturesque steam cruises. So we have arrived in the North of Roman Britain, our last stop on my tour. Though you are as far north as you could be in the Roman Empire and almost as far from Rome as you are from our poor Croatian conscripts’ Mediterranean home, there is a surprising wealth of Roman remains in the North. Gone, though, are the fine villas we saw in Kent and Wiltshire. Instead, unsurprisingly, given the locals’ distaste for Roman rule and love of raiding, we find perhaps the most famous of all Roman military constructions - Hadrian’s Wall. We also find the fine city where my love of all things Roman began - Chester or Deva. But this is not all you will find in Northern Britannia.

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne Wear

Built as a way of confirming and strengthening the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s wall is an embodiment of the Emperor Hadrian’s desire to maintain what he had rather than expand the Empire. It is phenomenally well intact and remains of varying quality are visible for much of its 80 mile stretch. It is littered with forts, the most famous of which are almost certainly Housesteads and Vindolanda. However, there are also remains worth seeing at Chesters (which also has a great museum) in Northumberland, Birdoswald in Cumbria and Segedunum in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.

Housesteads Roman Fort, Northumberland

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Image credit: Philip Corke
Though Chester was the birthplace of my love of the Romans, Housesteads Roman Fort played a vital part in nurturing this love. There is still a picture of me somewhere in my parents’ house ‘excavating’ a stone in the fort at the age of 9 or so (please don’t tell Historic England). I still remember the latrines at Housesteads, which my 9-year-old imagination found it quite amusing and interesting to reconstruct. It had such an impact on me that latrines play a crucial part in my soon-to-be-released children’s time-travelling adventure set in Roman Britain. In fact, I understand English Heritage awarded Housesteads the much-coveted best Roman loos in Britain award. Latrines aside, it is the stunning setting of Housesteads that makes it a must-see on Hadrian’s Wall.

Vindolanda Roman Fort, Northumberland

Not far from Housesteads lies another fantastic Roman fort with a great Roman Army Museum. Though less impressively located than Housesteads, Vindolanda boasts a well-preserved bathhouse (it wasn’t all bleak discomfort far from home on Hadrian’s Wall) and thanks to the wetness of the surrounding land, its museum holds a number of impressive and rare finds, including the only Roman wooden toilet seat found to date (I promise the rest of the post will not be about toilets). The most incredible of these finds are the Vindolanda Tablets (the rest being at the British Museum). These are a fascinating record of the lives of soldiers on the Wall and those of their families and slaves. One of the tablets found included a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, the wife of the commander of a nearby camp, to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the prefect of the cohort based at Vindolanda. For me it is a fascinating and touching appearance of two women in what is normally an almost exclusively male history.

Chester, Cheshire 

chester-roman-amphitheatre-hero
Image credit: English Heritage
We now head quite a way south to the important Roman city and port of Deva Victrix. Chester as we Britons now call it was such a vital pace as it began life as a base for waging war on the Brigantes of Roman Britain. It grew into a thriving city as the remains of a bathhouse, amphitheatre and parts of its wall (now incorporated as the foundations of the medieval city wall) now testify. Two museums I loved as a child were the Grosvenor Museum and the Dewa Roman Experience. The former is a treasure-trove of artefacts from Roman Chester including tombstones, coins, pottery and other day-to-day items. The Dewa Roman Experience is an interactive museum which recreates what life in the city would have been like. My abiding memories are of the men dressed as Roman legionaries, which was all a ten-year-old boy could ask for, and the gallery where you actually get to walk through the layers of Medieval, Saxon and Roman Chester.

York, North Yorkshire

The Roman city of Eboracum was another vitally important location in the Northern Roman Empire which rose to prominence because of its military importance but became a thriving civilian settlement as well. In fact, two Roman emperors died here - Septimius Severus in 211 AD and Constantius Chlorus (father of Constantine the Great) in 306 AD - and Septimius Severus took up residence here during his campaigns in Scotland. There are few visible remains left in York, but they include remains of the basilica in the undercroft of York Minster, parts of the Roman city wall incorporated in the medieval wall and the Roman bathhouse within the aptly named Roman Bath pub. As in Chester, many finds from the Roman city can be viewed in the main museum - the Yorkshire Museum.

Leicester, Leicestershire 

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Image credit: English Heritage
Not really in the north, I appreciate, but I feel Leicester is worthy of a mention because of the surprisingly good, if limited, Roman remains the city has. Long before the locals were burying English kings under car parks, Leicester was another bustling Roman city (as the suffix ‘-cester’ a corruption of the Latin ‘castra’ or fort signifies). At the Jewry Wall Museum you will find the Jewry Wall itself, a substantial Roman wall that was once part of the Roman bathhouse and impressive Roman artefacts, including a mosaic of a Peacock. I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this museum is.

The end

So, here I will leave you. I hope you have enjoyed reading my tour of Roman Britain as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Please do let me know your favourite Roman sites in Britain in the comments below and your thoughts on my selections.
 
My children’s book set in Roman Britain, ‘Rule Britannia’, book one of the ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ series will be released shortly.

 

Great days out in ‘Roman Britain’ part 2 – Wales and the West

What must it have been like as a Roman soldier on the coast of Wales or the West Country? Staring out over the Atlantic Ocean towards what you probably thought were the ends of the world. Though it was almost certainly not number one on a list of Roman legionary's dream postings, archaeological finds in Western Britannia suggest life wasn't as bleak as we'd imagine.
 
As I continue my tour of Roman Britain (inspired by my upcoming children's time-travelling adventure ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’), we now travel to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire (Wales, the West Country and West Midlands to you and me).  It might surprise you to know that these far-flung Roman possessions still have a number of fantastically well-preserved sites to visit. From the splendour of Bath to the military might of Caerleon, the western edge of the Roman Empire is rich with its own great monuments. To be honest, I’ve been a little surprised myself as my research has turned up many wonderful sites I’d never even heard of. But I will begin with one of the most famous Roman sites in Britain.

Bath, Somerset

Image credit: romanbaths.co.uk
Although extensively and tastefully redeveloped by the Georgians to become the ‘modern’ spa town we see today, Roman Bath is still very much visible. It was named Aquae Sulis after the local Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans incorporated into their own worship as Sulis Minerva, in an attempt to win local ‘hearts and minds’. Walking into the Roman baths is very much one of those ‘going back in time’ moments. Entering the Great Bath is perhaps the moment that sticks with me most, as, although much of it has been reconstructed, you are struck by how much of the original bath is still there. What I also love about the baths is that these are a piece of important day-to-day life in the Roman age. As you go through the remains of the changing rooms and the different pools (from the sauna to the cold plunge pool), you are following in the footsteps of everyday Roman subjects as they enjoyed a fundamental part of Roman life.

Caerleon, Gwent 

We now cross the modern-day border into Wales, which, of course, would have meant nothing to a Roman traveller who would simply have been continuing their journey in the Roman province of Britannia. At Caerleon we find extensive remains of a Roman fort, baths and an amphitheatre. This really dispels the image of the poor, unfortunate Roman legionary packed off to Britain with none of the creature comforts of home. Isca Augusta, as the Romans knew it, named for the nearby River Usk, really was an important town in Roman Britain. The well-preserved amphitheatre and the barracks (supposedly the best preserved Roman barracks in Europe) are perhaps the highlights of a visit. There are also a Roman Baths Museum and a Roman Legion Museum and everything is free entry. Proving that Isca Augusta was not an isolated example of a well-developed Roman town in the far west, you can also visit the smaller remains of Venta Silurum nearby, which include those of a marketplace, town wall and temple.

Wroxeter, Shropshire 

Image credit: photographers-resource.co.uk
A surprisingly well-preserved town which started life as a military base for the Roman invasion of what is now Wales. The Roman town of 'Viroconium' boasts the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in Britain, a large bathhouse and even a reconstructed Roman townhouse. It also includes well-preserved public latrines where the men of Viroconium would have talked business while they did their business! 

Littlecote Roman Villa, Wiltshire 

Not a bad find to dig up in your back garden. The owner of nearby Littlecote House discovered Littlecote Roman Villa in his grounds in the eighteenth century. Not much remains of the villa, but what does remain is perhaps one of the finest mosaics in Roman Britain still in situ. The 'Orpheus Mosaic' is remarkable for its quality and its state of preservation. In amongst various animals and elaborate designs you will find the great figure of classical myth Orpheus, of course, but also the gods Bacchus and Apollo. 
Image credit: archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Cirencester or 'Corinium' was fortified by the Romans from very early on in their occupation of Britain. Though some remains are visible of the amphitheatre and walls, Cirencester’s significance is in its Corinium Museum. It is well-known for its collection of mosaics from sites around the Cirencester area. Highlights of the collection include a tombstone for a lady called Bodicacia - a name not seen before and believed to be derived from that of the rebel British Queen Boudicca - and jewellery including an exquisite bronze cockerel from a child’s grave.

Honourable mentions 

I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of western Roman Britain, but before we leave it behind, I’d like to make honourable mentions of a few sites. Lunt Roman Fort in Warwickshire is a large-scale reconstruction on the excavated remains of an original fort. It deserves particularly honourable mention as it was built in the aftermath of Boudicca's rebellion - the same period as that in which my book is set. The site will give you a good impression of what a Roman fort would probably have been like and is also the scene of fun-looking re-enactments.
 
And finally I will leave you on the far western shores of the Roman Empire, in Anglesey. I loved reading the Roman historian Tacitus’s tales of the Roman invasion of Anglesey (complete with terrifying British women brandishing flaming torches and awe-inspiring Druids chanting prayers) and I remember being flabbergasted that the Romans made it this far. Further evidence of the Romans' conquest of this island, which must have seemed a world away from Rome, can be found at Segontium Roman Fort, just outside Caernarfon and at Holyhead Roman fort, a stone’s throw from the ferry to Ireland.
 
You will be able to find out more about Roman Britain in the first book of the 'Pete's time-travelling underpants' series, which is out later this month.
 
So, have your favourite sites in 'Western Britannia' made it into the list? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

Great days out in ‘Roman Britain’: Part 1 – London and the South East

The Romans: the reason I love history

I’m not going to lie. I love history. Absolutely adore the stuff. This will be no surprise to friends and family whom I've regularly bored over the years. It all started among the Roman ruins of Chester as a child. I just found it all fascinated me (much to the annoyance of my brothers who wanted to go home and play football or Nintendo) and I was hooked from that point on.
 
Though my love of history has led me to explore many different periods, thanks to those early days in Chester, the Romans still hold a special place for me. So, it’s probably no surprise that my next book (a kids' time-travel adventure) is set in Roman Britain. To celebrate this, I thought I’d share with you my suggestions for the top days out in ‘Roman Britain’ to inspire you and any little budding historians you may know.
 
I was going to write one blog post about this, but realised I just wouldn’t do it justice. I’m going to start this week in the South East of England (as the Romans themselves did) and then cover the other parts of Roman Britain (i.e. broadly speaking modern England and, although often tenuously held, Wales) in subsequent posts.

All roads lead to the British Museum 

What have the Romans ever done for us? A visit to the British Museum will more than answer that question for you (hint: it wasn't just the aqueducts and sanitation). This is THE place to start your exploration of Roman Britain. There is so much else to see here, of course, such as the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the astonishing Assyrian gallery (I love the colossal winged lion statues with human heads) and Anglo-Saxon treasure like the Sutton Hoo hoard. Oh, did I mention it's free too?
 
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The Ribchester helmet - Image credit: British Museum
But we are talking about Roman Britain, so, to start your tour, go to the Weston Gallery. You'll find artefacts from all over Roman Britain like mosaics from Kent, silver treasure hoards from East Anglia and Roman armour and helmets from Lancashire. I particularly love the incredibly ornate cavalry helmet (pictured) which was found by a clogmaker's son in the eighteenth-century in Ribchester, Lancashire. It's hard to think of anything like this surviving, let alone in the North West of England. I find it so captivating as it makes you think of the wearer, who must have been an elite soldier. Was he an Italian who had been sent to the cold, barbarian lands of Northern Britain? What did he think of it all? Probably not much going by the complaints of soldiers found in the Vindolanda tablets found at Hadrian's Wall.

Hidden Londinium

It may surprise you, but there is still plenty of other Roman stuff to see in what was once Londinium. The Museum of London (which is great for kids by the way) has to be the next stop. Their Roman London gallery is chock-full of brilliant stuff which surprised even me, a battle-hardened veteran of Roman sites across Italy, France, Germany and Spain. There are statues, mosaics, reconstructions and you can even see a stretch of Londinium’s Roman wall! The star attraction, though, is probably the recently found Roman eagle sculpture - an extremely rare find. The museum also has a great app for kids called ‘Streetmuseum Londinium’ which is free to download (particularly great if you’re not based in the South East). It includes a virtual archaeological dig game where you can (re)unearth Roman artefacts found around London. If you have kids and a tablet or smartphone, I’d recommend you download it - it’s really good.
 
Roman Wall, London - Image credit: PastLondon
Like the Roman wall at the Museum of London, Roman sites pop up where you least expect them. Perhaps the weirdest of these is the temple of Mithras. It is located in amongst modern office blocks in the middle of the City and is incredibly easy to miss (took me a while to find it myself). Unfortunately, you can’t see it today as it is currently in storage due to building works in the area, but you’ll soon be able to see it again just a stone’s throw from Cannon Street station. For now, you can still see finds from the excavation of the temple at the Museum of London. Another odd little bit of Roman Britain hiding in the middle of the City is the remains of the amphitheatre which lie beneath the medieval Guildhall. It’s an odd experience to descend beneath the city to these eery ruins. I will just mention one more of the odd, little Roman sites that just pop up around London (though it is by no means the last): a Roman villa in the leafy South London suburbs. Crofton Roman Villa in Orpington (which would, of course, have been in the middle of countryside in Roman times) is a great, kid-friendly culmination to a tour of Roman Londinium. Not as extensive as the villas I mention below, but still worth a visit, especially for its proximity to central London.

Beyond Londinium 

The Romans are known for their villas and the South East has some notable ones. Favourites of mine are Lullingstone in Kent, which even has a Christian chapel, Fishbourne Palace near Chichester, with its outstanding mosaics and Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex. I love Bignor in particular due to its stunning location in the middle of the South Downs. Standing amongst the ruins and looking up at the multi-coloured slopes around you on a summer’s day is a real privilege.
 
Dolphin Mosaic, Fishbourne Roman Palace
 It wasn’t all luxury in Roman Britain, though. In fact, it mostly wasn’t luxury, and for a reminder of the terrifying brute force which built the Roman Empire, you only need to go to Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent. Though obviously now a collection of ruins, it isn’t hard to imagine how impressive Richborough Fort would have been to the local Celtic tribes. You could even say this is where Roman Britain began and ended as it started life as a bridgehead for the Roman invasion of Britain and finished as a heavily fortified defence against the Saxons who would soon replace the Romans as the occupying force. Standing in amongst the ruins beside the Kentish marshes seems a good place to leave our exploration of Roman Britain for this week. Next week I will head west to the West Country, South Wales and West Midlands.
Richborough Roman Fort - Image credit: English Heritage
 
So, what do you think? Have I missed any of your favourite Roman sites in London and the South East? Let me know in the comments below.
 
My new children's time-travelling adventure set in Roman Britain, 'Rule Britannia’, book one of the ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’ series, will be out in mid-June.