The talking history blog for 21st to 27th April 2014

21 April 753BCE – according to the Roman historian Varro this is the day that Romulus founded Rome. Now this ‘event’ is a classic ‘is it real/is it false’ scenario. Here is not the place to discuss that but … it is described in detail in Book 1 of Livy’s history that Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars’ ‘union’ with Rhea Silvia, were to be thrown into the river Tiber to drown. They were, but Mars intervened; the boys were brought up by a ‘she-wolf’. As befits sons of Mars, the god of war, the boys became what we may now call ‘hooligans’ or something much stronger. In time they decided to found a city of their own – but quarrelled as to who should name the city and become its’ king. This turned into a brawl; Romulus lost his temper and killed his twin Remus. Left alone now he founded a city which he called Rome after himself. To use a modern phrase ‘Other versions of this story are available.’
Thursday 21 April 1926 saw the birth of our present Queen – Queen Elizabeth II. Her official ‘birthday’, though, is celebrated on a Saturday in June in accordance with a tradition introduced by her father King George VI

Saturday 22 April 1662 saw the death of John Tradescant – arguably the most influential gardener of the first half of the 17th century. An East Anglian by birth he became a major force in the early 17th century gardens – described by many as a ‘painful industrious searcher and lover of all nature’s varieties’. He became financially involved in the ‘Virginian trade’ and had many new plant species brought over from America. One was a plant known as ‘spiderwort’. It was later given the ‘technical’ name of Tradescantia virginiana. In 1618 he visited Russia as a group’s naturalist. The trip was less than successful than expected for everyone except Tradescant who returned with a load of plants – the first major ‘shipment’ of Russian flora into England. Two years later he risked pirate attacks when he landed on the Algerian coast as a gentleman adventurer but he brought back Apricots and the ‘Corn flag of Constantinople’ – Gladiolus byzantinus. By 1630 he was gardener to King Charles I. In his later years he specialised in fruit; his garden list included 57 kinds of plums, 49 kinds of apples, 49 of pears, 24 of cherries, 10 of vines, 9 of nectarines and 8 of apricots. For anyone/everyone keen and/or involved in gardening – give thanks to John Tradescant who passed away on this day in 1662.

Sunday 23 April 1922 – Tom Driberg writes in his diary: ‘As I discovered again at Wormwood Scrubs this evening, a prison audience is one of the best to talk to – responsive, quick-witted, asking questions a good deal more intelligent than those asked at many meetings. A special form of accident-proneness affects prison lecturers: like bread falling on the carpet butter downwards, they constantly find their tongues forming phrases or alluding to subjects which might be considered tactless. Thus, when discussing the Budget, I found myself inadvertently referring to subsidies as ‘a relatively simple method of redistributing wealth.’ There was a slight frisson in the audience. I hesitated, decided to risk it, and added parenthetically: ‘No doubt other methods will occur to some of you … ‘. I am glad to say that they roared with laughter.”

Tuesday 24 April 1900 saw the launch of the Daily Express newspaper by Sir Arthur Pearson. Pearson’s first job had been as a journalist for publisher George Newnes and within a year he had impressed Newnes enough for him to make Pearson his principal assistant. In 1890 Pearson left Newnes and formed his own publishing business. His first product was ‘Pearson’s Weekly’ which was reported to have sold a quarter of a million copies of its first issue. In 1898 Pearson purchased the Morning Herald, and two years later, on this day in 1900, he merged it into his own, new, Daily Express. At a halfpenny a copy the Express was a great success – perhaps helped by the fact the paper was different to every other one on the market. The difference was that the Express DID NOT carry advertisements on the front page as all the other papers of the time. The Express’s front page carried ‘NEWS’ and ‘JUST NEWS’.

Monday 25 April 1284 saw King Edward I honour the promise he had made to the Welsh chieftains that he would give them a Prince who could speak no English. Making good that promise this day he presented them with his not yet speaking baby son – and in doing so began the custom still adhered to today, that the first born Prince of the monarch shall be given the royal title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

26 April has been a key date in many events through history. For instance – William Shakespeare was baptized; Prince George, later King George VI, married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the US rocket Ranger IV landed on the moon but failed to send back pictures due to ‘a technical problem’. However, I have picked something that, in both the short and long term as far as I am concerned, is much more important than anything else.
It was on this Saturday in 1986 – at around 1.20 am to be more specific – a chain reaction in one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went out of control. The result was a massive sequence of explosions. Thirty people died instantly and very many more died over the weeks, months and years that followed. It was two days before – on 28 April – the Tass news agency released its first report. The abnormal levels of radioactivity had already been detected in Scandinavia, and were soon traced across Europe and beyond. To say ‘nothing would be the same again’ is a rather significant understatement.

27 April every year is the feast day of St Zita. Zita, also written Citha or Sitha, lived between 1218 & 1272. Born in Monsagrati, she was a serving maid of the Fatinelli household from the age of 12 to the end of her life. She was often misunderstood and criticized by them but won their respect through her preserving devotion. In the later middle-ages her cult spread across Europe and her memory was confirmed in 1696; and her name was added to the Roman Martyrology by Pope Benedict XIV in 1748. In England she was/is most commonly known as St Sitha and was invoked by housewives and domestic servants, especially when they had lost their keys or were in danger from rivers or crossing bridges. She appears in mural paintings in All Saints’ Church, Shorthampton in Oxfordshire; in stained glass in St Andrew’s Church Mells and All Saints’ Langport in Somerset and on rood screens at St Michael’s in Barton Turf in Norfolk, St Mary’s in Somerleyton, Suffolk and St John the Baptist in Ashton, Devon. However, her cult appears to have been popularist, and unofficial because there are no records of an English church being dedicated to her. However the 11th century church of St Benet Sherehog in London did have a chapel dedicated to St Zita.

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