Rescheduled Lecture Date

Our lecture from Professor Tony Badger on ‘How Did Martin Luther King Change America?’ will now be held on Monday 16 April 2018 at 7.30pm at Bolton School.


URGENT: March lecture postponed

We regret that we have had to postpone tomorrow evening’s David Clayton Memorial lecture ‘How Did Martin Luther King Change America?’, given by Professor Tony Badger, due to inclement weather.  We hope to reschedule in the near future and will post details as soon as they are available.


Dangerous Women

DSCF6455In a fascinating start to 2018, Dr Kate Ash-Irisarri told the branch about her interested in history writing in Scotland – how the written memory of the 14th century was used by historians of the 15th and 16th centuries to construct a Scottish identity, and indeed is still used in the same way now. Her talk was entitled ‘Dangerous Women of the Scottish Wars of Independence’ and was oncerned with the ways in which remembering and forgetting are important in creating identities. ‘Dangerous’ was a label used for women who didn’t know their place. War was usually very masculine and specific women were written out and written in.  All of the chronicles in the 15th and 16th centuries were written by men, but Lady Seton and Black Agnes were both specifically written into history, while Isabel, countess of Buchan, was written out.


The Wars of Independence formed a turbulent time in Scottish history.  From 1296-1341 there were protracted military engagements and battles, along with raids on castles along the borders. Margaret was the only heir to Scottish throne at 3 years old, but she died aged only 7.   The Scottish nobles went to King Edward of Enlgand in 1296 for advice as to who should become king next.  Edward, however, asked for overlordship before he would negotiate between them.  The two main claimants were Robert Bruce and John Balliol.  Both had a claim through their mothers.  Edward found in favour of Balliol, but the Bruce family pursued their claim and set themselves up as rival family of nobles.  They would cause trouble for the next 10 years.  Balliol, in the meantime, acted as Edward’s vassal.  Bruce  acquiesced in public, but in private manoeuvred himself to contest the throne.DSCF6449

Scotland was on the brink of civil war with rival factions supporting Bruce and Balliol. There was a coup d’etat in 1306 when Robert the Bruce took control, setting himself up as an independent monarch without English overlordship.  After battles at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn and the capture of Wallace in 1305, he signed the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1328.  Robert I died in 1329 and left a child as his successor – the 5 year old David.  The English saw this as an opportunity and Balliol’s supporters rallied. Edward invaded Berwick as opening shot in second war of independence.  The wars finallly fizzled out in 1342 as by then the English were also fighting the French and Scottish had lost the will to fight.


Dr Ash-Irisarri gave several examples of women who had played important roles in the conflict and discussed the ways in which they had been remembered or forgotten by the chronicles.  Her first was Lady Seton at Berwick.  Seton had given his son to the town as hostage and promised that he would give up the town if the Scottish army didn’t arrive.  When the army approached, Edward III threatened to kill the child.  Lady Seton encouraged her husband not to give in, reminding him of the importance of chivalry.

A second example was taken from Dunbar and the case of  Agnes Randolph, who defended her castle for 5 months against the English army.  Contemporary sources describe her as manful in her defence.  Salisbury threatened to execute her brother and she apparently told him to go ahead, but Dr Ash-Irisarri pointed out that this was English propaganda which served to present her as having no family loyalty.

Furthermore, 90 years passed before the women appeared in the chronicles.  They are then, however, notable for their use of speech. Lady Seton now appeared at the execution of her son, alongside her husband.  The chronicle reports that she said that they were still young so they could have more children and besides, he had died with honour.  100 years later another chronicler reported that Lord and Lady Seton were expected to be moved and not let the execution happen – it was a bluff on the part of the king.  This shows that it the chroniclers faced a problem as how to present the fact that they let it happen.  Lady Seton is shown to be a support to her husband.DSCF6456

With Agnes, the chroniclers were trying to show her manliness as a product of  her domestication – she was more concerned about the untidiness created by war than the siege itself.  Feminine preoccupations were mixed with the masculine attributes of active defiance of military threat.  But Agnes was still in charge of the her people – her servants double cross the English despite attempts to bribe them to let the English into the castle.  Like Lady Seton, Agnes become more vocal as the narratives progress and more active too.  Later versions emphasise the manly words and actions as opposed to the feminine and domseticated early accounts.

Isabel, countess of Buchan was instrumental in Robert Bruce’s inauguration – one mid-14th century chronicle describes her being the one to crown him because the relevant earls weren’t available. Nevertheless, he was crowned in the normal manner according to the early Scottish chronicles.   She simply took the place of the absent earls whose right it was to crown him.  Isabel’s husband was John Comyn, cousin of the man Bruce killed to gain the throne.  She ought to align herself to the Balliols, but she also has family ties to the Bruces.  If women are expected to become the repository of family memory, then Isabell should be on the Comyns’ side not the Bruces’.   Was she choosing to go back to her old family ties not the new ties by marriage?  Dr Ash-Irisarri also suggested that it was perhaps a way of showing people that they needed to come together against a common enemy.  If so, why is her presence at Bruce’s inauguration written out of the chronicles?  This makes it more likely that division was a problem.  She emphasised that Isabel’s was a very masculine role, far more so than those of the other two women.  If you question her right to crown him, you will also question his legitimacy.  Therefore the easiest way to legitimsie it is to ‘forget’ she was there at all.

English histories, on the other hand, remember her presence clearly! They use it to attack him.  For the English,  she goes to Scone out of lust, not patriotic duty.

Isabel was captured at the battle of Methan and caged at Berwick where she was imprisoned for 4 years, apparently singing and groaning to draw attention to herself.  She was a spectacle in her cage on the side of the tower – something to wonder at and be amazed by.  No Scots wereallowed to speak to her, and Dr Ash-Irisarri commented that this lack of access to her speech speaks volumes about her importance to both sides: she was a rallying point for the Sots but a potentially infectious bad influence for the English.  What ultimately became of her is something of a mystery.  It’s possible that she went into a convent but the records lose sight of her; she had died by 1314.


Stephen Kelly – Reassessing Airey Neave

Airey Neave was the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland until he was assassinated by the INLA in 1979.  Dr Stephen Kelly argued that Neave is a neglected figure in Anglo-Irish politics, known mainly for his alliance with the secret intelligence services.

Stephen Kelly 1


Dr Kelly’s lecture to the branch in December was based on his research into the papers of both Neave and the late prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Her papers are held at Churchill College, Cambridge, and show that by the time she became prime minister, and certainly after the Brighton bombing, Northern Ireland figured high on her list of priorities – she had to consider negotiating with terrorists.  Airey Neave’s personal papers are held in the House of Parliament archives but have never really been used.

Dr Kelly, of Liverpool Hope University, set out to debunk the myth that Neave was just a militarist.  Instead, he argued that Neave was a remarkable individual.  Not only did he have close links to the intelligence services, he was also a barrister and lived for a short time in Germany during the 30s.  He served the British during the war, he even escaped Colditz, but this period shaped his views against fascism and nazism.  He then became involved in MI9. As well as being a political writer, in 1953 he was elected to the House of Commons as a member of Conservative Party. He retained his seat until his assassination.  Neave’s political career blossomed after Thatcher’s election as party leader in 1975.  He wasn’t well liked within the party but she needed to reward him for his loyalty, since he had played a big role in an election which no-one believed she would win.

Stephen Kelly 2Dr Kelly explored Neave and Thatcher’s attitude to Northern Irish devolution and their interest in power sharing or majority rule.  Thatcher had never played any role in conservative Irish policy so she followed Neave’s policy.   Warning the audience to bear in mind that the 1975 Labour administration was contemplating leaving Northern Ireland altogether and letting the UN take over, Dr Kelly pointed out that Neave chenged his  policy on that north at that time.  Having initially suported develotution, by 1975 he could see that  it wasn’t working, so insted, he suggested regional councils.

The Conservative Party was opposed to British withdrawal.  Likewise, it refused to make concessions, negotiate nor surrender to republican terrorists and would not give political status to paramilitary prisoners.  The Conservative government even considered the reintroduction of the death penalty, especially after Birmingham pub bombings.  Dr Kelly claimed  that Thatcher and Neave both supported this policy but they were overruled by the cabinet.  Although it is clear that she permitted top level talks in the 1980s, this was due to the fact that by then she’d been worn down.

From Books to Battledress

GM 1914

Bolton Librarians at War

by Lois Dean, a volunteer for Bolton History Centre

Workplace memorials for the First World War are not uncommon, but one of Bolton’s more unusual ones is a Roll of Honour that names 14 local authority librarians who exchanged the peace and quiet of their workplace for the noise of the battlefield between 1915 and 1917.

Bolton County Council as it was known at this time, promised that their jobs would be held open for them. All but one returned from the war, but not all remained in library work.Bolton image

The first to enlist was George Slinger who joined the Royal Field Artillery in April 1915, aged 22. After the war he returned to his position of Senior Assistant Librarian at Bolton Library and was promoted to Librarian in Charge of Farnworth Library in March 1919 and remained there for the rest of his career.


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Today is a good day to fight

DSCF6121Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Aberystwyth, Martin Alexander, spoke to the branch in early November about the significance of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  It was an excellent evening with an audience worthy of the speaker – our numbers were swelled by visiting donors to the school.  The title of Prof. Alexander’s talk was ‘Today is a good day to fight – the Montana campaign and Battle of the Little Big Horn’.

It was a lively evening, both stimulating and thought-provoking, yet also including many humorous anecdotes to keep the audience entertained.  Prof. Alexander commented that many of us think we know about the battle from film and television, from the Penguin books of childhood and more scholarly historical tomes; there is even a board game!  He pointed out that native Americans did not normally fight the US, but more usually fought other tribes.

dscf6128.jpgHe began by ascribing the conflict to the pressure of whites moving westwards into native American territories.  The driver for this migration was economics, as gold had been found in the Black Hills.  But the migrants were desperate for gold because there’s been a catastrophically deep economic crash, not because of greed.  The industrial heartlands of Pittsburgh & Chicago  were facing particularly hard times and high levels of unemployment.  Those without jobs went west, not looking for fortunes but to survive and subsist. They wanted to ranch, work on farm or to prospect for gold.

The Sioux nations usually fought one other, but the whites tore up the agreement granting them the sacred space of the Black Hills and this threw the Sioux nations together – they were united in the face of a common enemy.  The US authorities then had to decide whether to o let the panhandlers be massacred by the natives, or  to send in the army to protect them.  He suggested, therefore, that the migrants and the government were responsible for the war of 1875-6.

dscf6150.jpgSherman and Sheridan were the commanders of the army, but although they were field marshals, they were not the grand masters of the campaign. They believed fully in the manifest destiny of the whites to settle these areas.  Sheridan was in the cavalry and organised a three pronged force.  Many of the commanders were experienced soldiers, but not experienced in fighting irregular forces such as the natives.  It was Custer who was experienced in this area, so he was the field he key general was Custer.  Although he’d nearly been thrown out of military training and come bottom of his class at West Point, he’d performed great service in the civil war.  In the eyes of many union commanders and his own soldiers he could do no wrong.  According to Prof. Alexander, Custer was brave but not always smart.  He came from a quite poor background and he wanted glory and fame, in what was the first modern media age.  On the expedition in the 1876 campaign he had with him a Canadian journalist.

The 3-pronged campaign was intended to force the native Americans back to their reservations.  All the Americans knew was that there were recalcitrant Indians in the area, and the plan was that they would have no getaway because they’d be surrounded.  Crook ran into a large force and was defeated at the Battle of the Rosebud.  He broke the plan and turned back south without sending any dispatch rider to tell the other two ‘prongs’ that he’d turned back, how many Indians he’d seen and where, nor how vicious they’d been.  The other companies carried on in ignorance of this happening.   Custer’s troops were riven by factional in-fighting because Custer had appointed many of his friends and family as officers, and they were referred to perjoratively as the ‘royal family’ by people who were excluded.  This ultimately contributed to the problems at Little Big Horn because Captain Benteen, who’d been sent out to scout for Indians to the west, dawdled on his return. Prof. Alexander also pointed out that although the Indians won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, they proved to be real losers, because Custer’s defeat unleashed a huge US effort to bring the Indian Wars to an end.  He concluded that the battlefield is now a place for remembrance, remorse and respect.


The Borgia through time

Dr Stella Fletcher opened her fascinating October lecture on ‘The Borgia Through Time’ by asking a provocative question:

Why are all the novels and plays about the Borgia?

  • Alexander VI wasn’t the first pope to recognise his children
  • Nor the first to play one family off against another
  • And he wasn’t the first to arrange marriages between lay kinsmen and ruling families

So why does all the attention focus on Alexander?

  • He was not the first pope to make serious effort to control Papal States and their vicars
  • Nor the first to hold a jubilee
  • He was certainly not the first to promote his kinsmen because they all did it.
  • He was not even the first Catalan speaking pope.

So what made the Borgia stand out?

DSCF5980Three main characters populated Dr Fletcher’s lecture: Pope Alexander VI (elected in 1492); his illegitimate son, Cesare, Duke of Valentinois; and Lucretia, Alexander’s daughter.   Another important person was another son –  the Duke of Gandia – Juan or Giovanni. He was murdered and his body thrown in the Tiber.  His killer was never identified, not least because there were many people with grudges. The Pope refused to blame various people who’d been identified as possible culprits, which suggested that he knew who had commited the murder but wouldn’t say for political reasons. Cesare comes into the frame because he benefited from Juan’s death and rumours that he was responsible for the murder surfaced 9 months later.  This led people to wonder whether the pope abandoned the search for Juan’s murderer because it was his own son?

CesareborgiaDr Fletcher then examined the story’s cultural journey from actual history to myth, and in doing so, she provided the audience with a fascinating glimpse into the way history reflects the time in which it was written. The blackening of the Borgia name began with the election of Pope Julius II.  Italians were xenophobic and resented foreigners, and  Naples was invaded – Italy was being used as a battlefield by other powers.  Stories circulated that Alexander’s election was a result of a pact with the devil. Protestants lapped this up and spread the tale. One of the principal agents in this was the English printer, John Bale, who wrote his Pageant of the Popes in 1550.  Now the Pope was equated with the Devil.

Attention moved from Alexander to Cesare in the mid-seventeenth century, with the first publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince in English translation.  The response to Titus Oates and the popish plots led to Cesar Borgia: a tragedy, which turned out not to be the way to impress the patron, James duke of York, who was Catholic. There were lots of anti-Catholic jibes in the play.


In 1800, Byron saw the love letters to Lucretia and declared them to be the ‘prettiest ever written’.  By this stage there was interest in why there was a woman in the Vatican.  As there wasn’t a lot to say, they invented stories laden with suspect morals.  Even the efforts of the Unitarian William Roscoe couldn’t resue her reputation.  He came to Italian Renaissance history through poetry  and found a discrepancy in poetic accounts of Lucretia. Although he took the positive view of her, her bad reputation was still too strong.  Victor Hugo’s imagination ran wild – despite his claims to have read various sources there is no evidence of it in the text he wrote.  Attributes various poisonings to her without any evidence.    Hugo’s  version of events was was hugely influential.

From 1905 the Borgia took a popular turn, which was unsurprising in the cinematic age, then in the 21st Century, Mario Puzzo (creator of the godfather) wrote ‘The Family’, portraying the Borgia as the earliest mafia.  They even appear in the video game, Assassin’s Creed III.  Dr Fletcher concluded that the graphic violence of these recent contributions to the historiography of the Borgia are a reflection of our post-Christian society more than theirs.

Help needed – missing brochure

I’m sure you all enjoyed Monday evening’s lecture as much as the branch committee did. I’m writing to you now to ask for your help in locating an item which went missing on the evening – a souvenir brochure of the Little Big Horn re-enactment that was brought along by one of our members to show the lecturer. It was left with his other books on the table at the front, but was missing when the member came to take it back at the end. It is a small booklet, A5 size, with the title and a photo against a white background on the front cover. Please could you check if you picked up the item by mistake, as it is of some personal value to the member. We would appreciate any help in finding it, and please get in touch if you have any idea of its whereabouts.

A visit to Little Bighorn

Branch treasurer Michael Taylor, recently attended a re-enactment at the Little Bighorn, and has kindly written the following introduction to next month’s lecture.  All the photographs were taken by Michael at the event.

P1040632Among the ridges, steep bluffs, and ravines of the Little Bighorn River, in south central Montana on June 25-26, 1876, The US 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, fought with warriors of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne & Arapaho tribes in a battle that would come to be seen as a showcase of American heroism and glory, as well as a clash of two fundamentally different cultures.

Custer’s regiment was only one element of a larger force which had been given the task


A treaty signing

of forcing the submission of the non-reservation people of the northern plains tribes, and the battle itself was just part of the larger conflict, but the event quickly passed into legend, soon becoming known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Originally regarded as a heroic action against overwhelming odds, Little Bighorn has more recently become regarded as noble peoples making an ultimately futile attempt to defend their way of life.  Although it is undoubtedly an important battle in the context of the wider war, the characters involved often receive more of the spotlight than the reasons behind the battle and its consequences: Custer himself, the Civil War hero, a general at the age of twenty three, who was undoubtedly brave, but also vain and reckless, clashing with, on the Indian side, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others, now often portrayed in a romantic light.

After all this time, many questions and controversies remain: Why did Custer split his forces?  Did he need to attack when he did and, most of all was there really a Last Stand?

All this, the broader context of the war, and much more, will be addressed in this month’s lecture.



The event we attended takes place annually close to the battle site, with several  performances over the anniversary weekend. It is not a strict reenactment of the battle itself, but rather a series of representations, starting with the local Indian culture, practices and beliefs. These were followed by, and interspersed with, portrayals of several historical events including Lewis and Clark, the Fetterman Fight, the Fort Laramie Treaties, Custer’s Black Hills expedition, all leading up to (and including) the battle. It was all very impressive, in particular the use of wild horses which were rounded up from the local area beforehand before being released after the event.


Lewis and Clark