This Week in History: The Normans invaded England in 1066

1066 is a famous year, particularly in England. 1066, or MLXVI, was a great turning point in English history. It was the end of the rule of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons (who gave us England), and the beginning of the rule of the more complicated lineage of the Normans (who gave us Normandy). How did all this happen in just one year, 1066? First, on January 5, England’s King Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This left the English throne up for grabs between his cousin, William of Normandy, and his brother-in-law, the Saxon Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwineson. Second, in September, after Harold became king, an angry William crossed the English Channel to express his displeasure. The Normans landed in England on September 28. They defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings about two weeks later.

The Saxon-Norman rivalry began well before Harold and William met at Hastings.

Edward (he became “the Confessor” long after his death) was the son of England’s King Ethelred II and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. After Ethelred’s death in 1016, the Danes took control of England, and Edward’s family was forced into exile in Normandy. Edward lived in Normandy until 1041, when he returned to England. After he took the throne in 1042, Edward relied on his trusted Norman advisers. Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, did not appreciate the Norman influence, and tried to dominate Edward’s reign. Edward married Godwine’s daughter Edith in 1045, but it didn’t stop the bad blood. Edward and Godwine feuded up until Godwine’s death in 1053. However, Harold, Godwine’s son and Edward’s brother-in-law, did much for King Edward. In particular, he dealt with the troublesome Welsh and Northumbrians, securing England’s western and northern borders. After Edward’s death in January 1066, Harold—claiming to be Edward’s named successor—became king of England.

Across the English Channel, however, William, Duke of Normandy, was stewing. He claimed that Edward, his cousin, had already promised him the English throne. As William enlisted knights from Normandy and northern France, Harold prepared to defend England’s southern coast against an attack. But, to complicate things for Harold, the king of Norway suddenly invaded northern England. Harold shifted his troops north, where they defeated the invading Norwegians near York.

During Harold’s absence from the southern coast of England, William landed his army without opposition on September 28. Harold hastened south with his weary forces and gathered such militiamen as he could along the way. He met William’s invading troops at the hill of Senlac, near the town of Hastings, on October 14. The details of the daylong battle are unclear. But historians think Harold’s men held the top of the hill. Then the Normans pretended to retreat in disorder, causing the English militia on the flanks to rush down the hill in pursuit. The Norman knights split the English formation, cutting the separate elements of the enemy army to pieces. Harold was killed, probably by a Norman arrow.

On Christmas Day, 1066, William was crowned king of England. Not everyone in England thought William so kingly, however. It took him five more years to complete his conquest of England. After that, William—now “the Conqueror”—ruled England, somewhat peacefully, until his death on Sept. 9, 1087.

This week in history: English mystery author Dame Agatha Christie was born in 1890

Dame Agatha Christie, a famous English author of mystery and detective stories, was born on Sept. 15, 1890. Christie ranks as one of the most popular writers in the world. She was a leader of England’s Golden Age of detective story writing between World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), but her popularity extended throughout the rest of her life and beyond her death in 1976.

Estimates of Christie’s production vary, but she wrote at least 65 detective and mystery novels, more than 150 short stories, and over 15 plays. Her books have sold more than 100 million copies and have been translated into at least 100 languages. One of Christie’s mystery dramas, The Mousetrap, opened in London in 1952 and is still playing, the longest-running show in theater history.

Christie created a number of detective characters, the most famous being the vain and eccentric Belgian private investigator Hercule Poirot. He is featured in more than two dozen novels and many short stories, beginning with Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Christie also created Miss Marple, an elderly amateur detective who solves mysteries from her home in the fictional English village of St. Mary Mead. Christie introduced Miss Marple in a group of six short stories in 1928. The character appears in 12 novels, beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

Both Poirot and Marple have been featured in many motion pictures and on television. The Poirot character became so recognized that when he died in the novel Curtain (written in the 1940’s and published in 1975), the New York Times treated the death as a newsworthy event in its edition of Aug. 6, 1975. Poirot became the first fictional character to receive front page news coverage in the Times. From 1989 to 2014, Poirot starred in a popular TV series in England.

Christie’s characters are generally stereotypes of the English upper class of their day. Many reviewers have criticized Christie’s novels and stories, claiming they were written in an undemanding style and showed little success in portraying the depth and complexity of human relationships. Christie sustained her international success with her skill at creating ingenious plots, maintaining an atmosphere of suspense, and misdirecting the reader. Her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is considered a classic for its surprise ending. Another surprise twist ended her short story “The Witness for the Prosecution” (1925), adapted into a hit play in 1953 and a popular motion picture in 1957.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay (now part of Torbay), Devon. She began writing detective fiction while serving as a nurse during World War I. She met Archibald Christie, a flier in the Royal Air Force in 1914. Their marriage broke up in 1926. She divorced her husband in 1928 and married archeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. She accompanied Mallowan on excavations in Syria and Iraq, which provided her with the inspiration for such popular Hercule Poirot novels as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), and Death on the Nile (1937).

Christie was a private person who tried to avoid publicity. However, in 1926, now a famous author, she suddenly disappeared, creating a nationwide sensation in the press. A police search turned up no trace of Christie, and her husband was suspected of murdering her. Christie was eventually located 12 days after her disappearance, having suffered an emotional breakdown caused by her marriage problems and her mother’s recent death. The episode was made into the motion picture Agatha (1979), with English actress Vanessa Redgrave playing Christie.

Queen Elizabeth II made Christie a dame commander in the Order of the British Empire in 1971. She became known as Dame Agatha Christie. She died on Jan. 12, 1976. Christie wrote An Autobiography, which was published in 1977, after her death. She also wrote six romantic novels under the name Mary Westmacott.

This week in history: Canadian heroine Laura Ingersoll Secord was born on Sept. 13, 1775

Laura Ingersoll Secord was an ordinary pioneer woman of her time who did something extraordinary. Her patriotism and courage during the War of 1812 (1812-1815) made her a legendary heroine for generations of future Canadians.

Laura Ingersoll was born on Sept. 13, 1775, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at that time a British colony. During the American Revolution, which had begun in April 1775, Laura’s father, Thomas Ingersoll, fought on the side of the American colonists against the British. In 1795, however, he moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what later became southern Ontario. Upper Canada was home to many Loyalists—British subjects who left the American Colonies after the United States became independent. In Upper Canada, Laura married a merchant named James Secord. The Secords settled in Queenston, not far from Niagara Falls, and had seven children.

During the War of 1812, the United States and the United Kingdom were vying for control of Upper Canada. In October 1812, while fighting for the British, Laura’s husband was badly wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights in Upper Canada. In an act of bravery, Laura rescued James from the battlefield and took him home to recover. In June 1813, the Secords were forced to host some U.S. soldiers in their home. Laura learned that the soldiers were planning a surprise attack on a British military post about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away at Beaver Dams. The post was under the command of the British Lieutenant James FitzGibbon. Laura’s husband was not yet well, and so he could not travel to Beaver Dams to warn the British. Again exhibiting great courage, Laura set out on June 22 to inform Lieutenant FitzGibbon of the Americans’ plan. She took a roundabout route to avoid being discovered by U.S. soldiers, walking about 20 miles (32 kilometers) through a dangerous wilderness. Some First Nations people (American Indians) helped Laura on her way, and she made it to FitzGibbon’s headquarters.

On June 24, a group of First Nations warriors allied with the British ambushed U.S. troops led by Colonel Charles Boerstler near Beaver Dams. FitzGibbon later arrived with his own men, and the Americans surrendered. This British and First Nations victory helped protect the Niagara Peninsula, a strip of land that connects Ontario and New York, from U.S. control.

After the war, Laura petitioned the British government for a military pension but was refused. She did not receive official recognition for her patriotism until 1860, when she was 85 years old. That year, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, visited Canada and learned of Laura’s courageous trek in 1813. After returning to England, Albert Edward sent Laura £100 as a reward for her service. Laura died in 1868 and was buried in Chippawa, now part of the city of Niagara Falls. Today, visitors can see her monument in Drummond Hill Cemetery.

Laura Secord has become legendary as a Canadian heroine. Stories grew up around her 1813 adventure. One story tells that she brought a cow on her walk to Beaver Dams to use as camouflage, and that she milked the cow when a U.S. sentry saw her. Another story says that she walked through the wilderness barefoot. Laura has been memorialized in various forms, including books, poems, and even two postage stamps. In 1913, 100 years after she journeyed to Beaver Dams, a Canadian chocolate company sweetened her memory by adopting her name as its own!

Laura’s portrait hangs in Ontario’s Legislative Building, and the Secord Homestead was reconstructed in Queenston, Ontario, in 1971. A statue of Laura is also part of the Valiants Memorial in downtown Ottawa. This memorial honors a number of individuals who played a role in major conflicts throughout Canadian history. In 2003, Laura was declared a person of national historic significance by Canada’s minister of Canadian heritage.

This week in history: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on Aug. 30, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was born on Aug. 30, 1797, became famous in literary history as the wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and as the author of Frankenstein, perhaps the most famous horror novel in Western literature.

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Mary was born in London to two famous parents. Her mother was the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was the political philosopher William Godwin. She was largely educated at home within the stimulating intellectual environment in her parents’ household. This environment largely shaped Mary’s independent spirit as an adult.

Mary met Percy Shelley in 1812, and over a period of time they fell in love. She eloped with Shelley to France in July 1814, and they were married in 1816, after Shelley’s first wife committed suicide. After her husband was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, Mary returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing his writings. She published Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) and edited his Poetical Works (1839). Mary’s published notes on her husband’s works as well as her Journal and letters have provided literary historians with a rich source of biographical information about her and her celebrated husband.

Mary published Frankenstein in 1818. Its full title was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The novel reflects a popular literary style of Mary’s day called Gothic romance. The book is credited with introducing science fiction into English literature.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a Swiss student of science who creates an artificial man from pieces of corpses and then brings his creature to life. The creature, who is never given a name, is despised and rejected for his terrifying appearance. It learns human ways but never finds companionship. The creature haunts Frankenstein and insists that he create a female companion. Frankenstein at first agrees but ultimately cannot go through with the creation. The creature eventually turns to evil and destroys Frankenstein.

Mary conceived the story on a stormy June night in Geneva, Switzerland, during a ghost-writing contest with friends. The novel immediately captured the imagination of English society. It was discussed in newspapers, inspired political cartoons, was adapted into dramas, and even was debated in Parliament. The nameless creature became the most famous monster in Western literature. Many critics claimed a woman could not have written such a novel and credited her husband as the author.

Mary Shelley wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the autobiographical Ladore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Many scholars consider The Last Man (1826) as her finest work. The novel is an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) tells about the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement as well as a description of the summer the couple spent in 1816 in Geneva, where Frankenstein was born. She also wrote many essays, book reviews, short stories, and poems.

Mary Shelley had four children, but only the fourth, her son Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889), survived her. The first three died in infancy. Mary died on Feb. 1, 1851.

This week in history: Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state on Aug. 21, 1959

Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii. © Shutterstock

Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii. © Shutterstock

On Aug. 21, 1959, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Hawaii to the Union as the 50th state. Hawaii was the second state to join the Union during the Eisenhower administration (1953-1961). Alaska had become a U.S. state earlier that year, on Jan. 3, 1959. Hawaii and Alaska were the first states admitted to the Union in 47 years. A new U.S. flag, with a 50th star representing Hawaii, became official on July 4, 1960.

The Polynesians were the first people to live in what is now Hawaii. The seafaring Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian chain from other Pacific islands about 1,500 years ago. Local chiefs ruled the islands until 1810, when King Kamehameha united the islands into a single kingdom. In 1893, a small group of American sugar growers organized a coup that led to the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. The revolution was led by nine Americans, two Britons, and two Germans. They received the help of American marines and sailors who landed to keep the peace.

The revolutionaries wanted the United States to annex Hawaii. But an investigator President Grover Cleveland sent to Hawaii found that most Hawaiians had opposed the overthrow. Cleveland urged that the queen be restored to her throne. The Americans and Europeans involved in the overthrow refused. They and their followers formed the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. Sanford B. Dole, a judge, was elected the first and only president of the republic.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Hawaii became a strategically important military base for U.S. troops fighting in the Philippines. Representative William Sulzer of New York declared Hawaii “a naval and military necessity” and “the key to the Pacific.” On July 7, 1898, after intense debate, Congress formally approved the annexation of Hawaii. Two years later, Hawaii officially became a U.S. territory.

In 1919, Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, Hawaii’s delegate to Congress, introduced the first bill for Hawaiian statehood. Many more statehood bills followed, but most were not even voted on. Finally, in March 1959, Congress approved legislation to admit Hawaii as a state. President Eisenhower signed the bill on March 18. In June, the people of Hawaii voted almost 17 to 1 for statehood.

This week in history: FDR signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Eighty years ago, on Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, which formed the basis of the U.S. Social Security system. Implemented as part of FDR’s New Deal, the act set up a system of unemployment compensation and old-age and survivor’s insurance. The law also provided payments for people with disabilities and for needy children. The act was key among the New Deal programs that helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. However, of the many laws enacted during the Roosevelt presidency, the Social Security Act has had the greatest long-term impact on the country’s economy. Controversial upon being signed into law, the Social Security Act still faces challenges today.

Many opponents argued that the act would kill jobs. In addition, when the act was originally passed, it provided cash benefits only to retired workers in commerce and industry. By exempting farm and domestic workers, the law excluded two-thirds of the African American labor force from benefits. The act also excluded many women from receiving benefits. In 1939, Congress amended the act to include benefits for wives and dependent children of deceased workers. In 1950, the act began to cover many farm and domestic workers, nonprofessional self-employed workers, and many state and municipal employees. Coverage became nearly universal in 1956, when lawyers and other professional workers came under the system. Congress added disability insurance to the system in 1956 and set up Medicare in 1965.

In 1983, Congress passed legislation that sought to protect the financial health of the Social Security system over the next 75 years. For the first time, Congress reduced future benefits while it raised taxes to boost future revenue. From the mid-1960’s through the mid-1980’s, the taxpaying labor force was enlarged by the entry of the baby boom generation. Baby boomers are the group of people born during a period of high birth rates from 1946 to 1964. As a result, during the late 1900’s, the number of workers paying taxes into the Social Security system grew more rapidly than the number of retirees collecting from the system. As large numbers of baby boom retirees began collecting retirement benefits in the 2010’s, tax revenues began falling below program costs. Retirement age, which had been 65, is expected to reach 67 in 2022. The Social Security Administration estimates that if no further action is taken, trust funds will be exhausted in 2034.

In FDR’s public statement on the day he signed the act into law, he expressed concern for “young people [who] have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age.” Today, many younger workers are concerned that the benefits promised to them under the Social Security Act will no longer be available to them upon their retirement. In recent years, as U.S. government leaders and lawmakers have focused on reducing the country’s deficit, critics of the program have called for a reduction in Social Security benefits as well as an increase in the retirement age.

This Week In History: Edward Eyre, explorer of Australia, was born in 1815

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Edward John Eyre was a British-born explorer who became the first European to cross southern Australia from east to west. With his Aboriginal companion Wylie, Eyre crossed the treeless Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia.

Eyre was born in Bedfordshire, England, on Aug. 5, 1815. As a young man, he emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on March 20, 1833. He soon began work herding sheep and cattle. In early 1838, he and his overseer and companion John Baxter searched for a direct route from Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, to Adelaide. The trek was unsuccessful, and the men were forced to take a more indirect route along the Murray River. In mid-1839, Eyre explored the Flinders Ranges. Later that year, he headed an expedition along the western coast of a peninsula now known as the Eyre Peninsula. He then explored and named the Gawler Ranges and Lake Torrens before returning to Adelaide. In January 1840, Eyre sailed to Albany, in Western Australia. There, he met an Aboriginal man named Wylie, who would prove to be a valuable companion. From Albany, Eyre drove a herd of sheep and cattle overland to the Swan River settlement.

Eyre made his most famous journey in 1840 and 1841. He offered to lead an expedition from Adelaide into Australia’s largely uncharted interior. Beginning in June, the group explored the Flinders Ranges, Lake Torrens, and the southern portion of what would later be named Lake Eyre. Eyre then decided to resupply the group and head west in search of an overland route for sheep and cattle. He sent Baxter to Streaky Bay, on the northwestern part of the Eyre Peninsula, and sent another member of the expedition to Adelaide for supplies and to secure official permission to continue the journey to the west. Eyre and the rest of the group traveled to Port Lincoln, on the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula. In November, the expedition gathered at Streaky Bay. From there, Eyre and his companions headed northwest along a bay called the Great Australian Bight. The group established a depot at what is now the town of Fowlers Bay.

The terrain was difficult, and water was scarce. Eyre decided to send most of the members of the expedition back to Adelaide. On Feb. 25, 1841, he continued the journey with Baxter, Wylie, and two other young Aboriginal men. The group trekked over the dry, difficult terrain of the Nullarbor Plain. The Aboriginal men showed Eyre and Baxter how to find water, but supplies were extremely limited. On April 29, the two young Aboriginal men murdered Baxter, took the remaining food and firearms, and fled. Eyre and Wylie continued the difficult journey. In June, they sighted a French whaling ship near Esperance. They rested on the ship for two weeks before continuing their journey. Eyre and Wylie reached Albany on July 7.

Eyre went on to have a prosperous political career in other British colonies. At different times, he served as lieutenant-governor of New Zealand, lieutenant-governor of St. Vincent (in the Caribbean), acting governor of the Leeward Islands (also in the Caribbean), and governor-in-chief of Jamaica. In October 1865, disputes between planters and workers in Morant Bay, Jamaica, led to a peasant revolt. Eyre declared martial law, and British troops forcefully put down the revolt. Eyre was recalled to the United Kingdom, where many people felt his crackdown on the rebellion was needlessly violent. Eyre retired from politics. He died near Tavistock, England, on Nov. 30, 1901.