7 Surprising Animal Burials

Animals have always been hugely important to humans – as food, as beasts of burden and as companions. The archaeological record has offered up some fascinating animal burials from all over the world which reflect the importance of our animal friends but have frequently posed more questions than they answered. Below are seven fascinating animal burials which have puzzled archaeologists:

Hybrid animal burials:

In 2015 a series of graves were discovered in Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, England in which Iron Age peoples had seemingly buried together the remains of separate species. Archaeologists suggested this could have been an attempt to create mythical hybrid beasts. The graves revealed a cow which had been sacrificed but its legs had been replaced with four horse’s legs; a sheep with two heads – its own and a bull’s head; and a horse with a cow’s horn placed at its forehead.

The archaeologists from Bournemouth University also uncovered two jawless cow’s skulls which had the lower jaw replaced with the jawbone of a horse. The most intriguing burial was of a young woman, who it was suspected was sacrificed due to evidence her throat had been cut. She was laid on a bed of animal bones, with her head resting on a mixture of skull bones from sheep, cows, horses and dogs plus animal leg bones were placed underneath her legs as if mirroring her own body.

It is not clear why these hybrid burials occurred but the archaeologists have suggested it could be as an offering to increase the productivity of the animals – for example the horse buried with the head of a cow may have signified a wish to increase the fertility of the herd. You can read more about this fascinating dig known as the Durotriges Project here.


Illustration of a porpoise

The carefully buried remains of a porpoise were discovered at a 14th century site on an island called Chapelle Dom Hue off the coast of Guernsey. Archaeologists have puzzled over the strange remains, as although porpoise may have been eaten at that time it is unclear why the solitary monks on the island would chose to give the animal a careful burial rather than disposing of its remains in the nearby sea.

One theory put forwards by the archaeologist leading the dig Dr Philip de Jersey was that rather than being given a religious burial the porpoise was carefully placed in a pit full of brine in order to preserve it for food but it was somehow forgotten.

Egyptian crocodile mummy with four heads:

It is well known that the ancient Egyptians buried mummified animals as offerings to the gods, but researchers were recently surprised by a CT scan of a crocodile mummy from the 1st century BC. The scan revealed that the package in the shape of a mummified crocodile actually contained the skulls of four crocodiles arranged to give the shape of one single crocodile.

The mummy belonged to the Museum of Manchester and underwent a CT scan as part of the research project Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank. This research scanned and examined numerous mummified animals held in museum collections all over the world and uncovered the fact that only one third of all the animal mummies scanned contained the remains of just one animal. Some mummies contained no animal matter at all and although on the outside resembled an animal, they were in fact constructed from mud, sand and plant materials.

Photo of Egyptian cat mummies

Mummified dogs:

Archaeologists uncovered the mummified remains of over 40 dogs buried with blankets and food in Peru. This is thought to be the only case of dogs being afforded such status in burial outside Egypt. The remains date from 900–1350 CE and were so well-preserved because of the desert conditions in which they were buried. Researchers think that these dogs were especially important because they herded the llamas on which the Chiribaya people depended for food. Analysis of the remains, which resemble small golden retrievers, led the researchers to name the breed Chiribaya Shepherds. Work continues to try and establish if this was a breed native to South America.

Pet cemetery:

In Berenike on the Red Sea coast of southern Egypt a site has offered up the remains of over 100 carefully buried animals in what is thought to be one of the earliest known pet cemeteries. The site dates from 75–150 CE and unlike other animal burials from Egypt these animals were not mummified. The majority of the burials are cats, which is no great surprise as Egypt was one of the first countries to domesticate the kitty. Other animals found in the cemetery include monkeys and dogs. Researchers concluded that these animals were pets because there was no evidence of sacrifice and little evidence of disease, implying they were well looked after.

Beheaded dog:

During the excavation of part of the Roman town at Towcester near Northampton in England a strange dog burial was uncovered. The small lap dog had been carefully buried in a grave but its head had been removed and placed by its back feet. To modern eyes it would seem cruel to mutilate the body of a beloved pet thus, however evidence from contemporary Roman burials suggests this was not an uncommon practice among human burials. A site at Great Whelnetham, Suffolk revealed 40% of the burials in the Roman cemetery had been decapitated and the head laid by their legs. The significance of head removal is not yet understood but that a pet dog was treated in the same fashion as humans suggests it was an important companion.

Horse burial:

A mass grave containing 145 horses was uncovered in 1964 in Shandong Province, China. The beasts were buried in a pit 215 metres long and had been sacrificed. A further dig years later uncovered further horse skeletons, bring the total found to 251. The horses were killed and buried alongside the grave of Duke Jing the ruler of the State of Qi (547 to 490 BC). Researchers think the animals were mostly young horses, aged between 5 and 7 years old. They were drugged with alcohol before being clubbed over the head.

Illustration of a horse skeleton

Archaeologists estimate that there were in fact about 600 horses buried in a square arch around Duke King’s tomb making it by far the largest horse burial uncovered in China. Excavations continue but so far some 40 dogs and 2 pigs have also been unearthed. Sources suggest that Duke Jing loved horses so it is assumed that the sacrifice of so many animals was a great honour.

Image sources:

Porpoise: The Half Hour Library of Travel, Nature and Science for young readers, 1896 via The British Library

Cat mummies: A guide to the third and fourth Egyptian rooms : predynastic antiquites, mummied birds and animals, portrait statues, figures of gods, tools, implements and weapons, scarabs, amulets, jewellery, and other objects connected with the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians, 1904 via The Internet Archive

Horse: On the Domesticated Animals of the British Islands by David Low, 1845 via The British Library

Yew trees and graveyards

A graveyard

There are numerous reasons given as to why yew trees have become ubiquitous in our graveyards. Some trace it back to ancient times when druids considered the tree sacred. In pagan tradition the evergreen yew trees were symbolic of the regeneration of the natural world and the spirit. Yew trees were therefore planted near temples or sacred spaces and over time as these pagan temples were replaced by Christian churches the trees remained. Yew trees were therefore assimilated as sacred trees from pagan to Christian tradition.

Poisonous yew berries

Yew trees can live for an inordinately long time and it has been suggested that some yew trees are many thousands of years old. One such tree is found in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex. It was dated a number of years ago to about 1,000 BC and so it has been suggested that it was originally planted by pagan druids. One of the reasons that yew trees live so long in graveyards is because here, unlike in woodlands, they have no competition from other trees, crowding out the light.

A further theory as to why yew trees are planted in graveyards stems from the symbolism of the trees themselves. The evergreen nature of the tree is seen by some as a nod to the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. It is thought that this symbolism made them an appropriate tree to give hope in a graveyard.

There have also been practical suggestions for the planting of yew trees in graveyards. Roy Vickery in A Dictionary of Plant-Lore suggests that graveyards were one of the few places in a village that free-roaming cattle and other livestock could not trample through. Yew berries are poisonous to animals and so these trees were planted in graveyards so stop the animals getting at them and falling ill. Yew wood was excellent for making bows and the theory has been proposed that during the Middle Ages villages needed to have a crop of yew trees to provide archers with good long bows. As a result the trees would be planted in graveyards where they could not be damaged by animals.

Yew trees looming over a graveyard

This theory however does not stand up to scrutiny as the huge amount of yew trees needed to make sufficient longbows for an entire army could not be covered by the few yew trees in graveyards. Evidence from the decrees of Edward IV, Richard III and Elizabeth I suggests that in fact most of the wood from which long bows were fashioned was imported from Italy, the Netherlands or Germany. This implies that there was either not sufficient native crop to cover the needs of archers or perhaps that English yew was not of as good quality for bow-making as imported yew.

Another more prosaic reason to plant yews near churches was because their bushy branches, which stayed green year round, were thought to provide wind breaks for the church, protecting it from bad weather. This would have been a very far-sighted bit of planning by our ancestors as yews are relatively slow growing and would have taken hundreds of years to be big enough to afford a church any form of protection from the weather, but it’s a nice idea!

One folk belief has that yew trees especially thrived in ground enriched with rotting corpses, and another states that the trees themselves helped to absorb the putrefaction of the rotting bodies, keeping the air in the graveyard nice and clean. Certainly some superstition has grown up around the yew tree due to its association with cemeteries – some believe that yew trees are good to plant in cemeteries as their roots entwine through the eye sockets of the dead, preventing them from rising again. Perhaps because it was familiar in graveyards the yew was inevitably associated with death and some held that yew branches should never be brought into the house or death would follow. Enid Porter recalls that in the Fens yew trees were regarded with suspicion as witches were said to gather underneath them.

One final, perhaps fanciful, theory was put forwards by the correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1779. He proposed that yew trees were planted near churches so that their evergreen branches could be harvested and used during the parades for Palm Sunday on which it was tradition to wave palm fronds, a plant of the warmer climes which could not be sourced in Britain. His theory is not a bad one as I imagine the yew branches might also have been used to decorate the interior of the church in winter. I certainly remember at my primary school in Oxford we would take part in a Palm Sunday parade each year and in place of palm fronds we would fashion leaves from green sugar paper.

So it seems there are numerous theories as to why yew trees are associated with graveyards and perhaps the truth is that each of these theories holds some merit and has added to the rich tapestry of tales and folklore which surround this tree. What is clear is that some of the yew trees found in the churchyards of Britain are very ancient indeed and this seems to confirm that the yew tree has been sacred for many thousands of years.

Books referenced: Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Edith Porter, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969

A Dictionary of Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery, OUP, 1995

Image sources: The flowering plants, grasses, sedges, & ferns of Great Britain, London, F. Warne, 1905

Photo of yew berries by Hanna May on Unsplash

Photo of graveyard by eddie howell on Unsplash

My Next Book: A Museum Miscellany

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It is with great excitement that I introduce my next book A Museum Miscellany — the final instalment of my miscellany trilogy (see here for more details on sister books The Book Lovers’ Miscellany and A Library Miscellany). I am especially excited about the gorgeous cover designed in-house by my wonderful publishers, Bodleian Library Publishing and I cannot wait to finally see all three miscellanies lined up side-by-side, looking fancy.

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

To whet the appetite here is what to expect from A Museum Miscellany:

Which are the oldest museums in the world? What is a cabinet of curiosities? Who haunts Hampton Court? What is on the FBI’s list of stolen art?

A Museum Miscellany celebrates the intriguing world of galleries and museums, from national institutions such as the Musee du Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to niche collections such as the Lawnmower Museum and the Museum of Barbed Wire. Here you will find a cornucopia of museum-related facts, statistics and lists, covering everything from museum ghosts, dangerous museum objects and conservation beetles to treasure troves, museum heists and the Museum of London’s fatberg. Bursting with quirky facts, intriguing statistics and legendary curators, this is the perfect gift for all those who love to visit museums and galleries.

Not only will A Museum Miscellany be fit to bursting with all the lists, arcane facts and potted histories you will have come to expect from me, but in a departure from previous books this one will contain … [drum roll]…ILLUSTRATIONS! It’s going to be a beauty and I look forward to sharing more details here and on Twitter (@nonfictioness) when I get my grubby mitts on an advance copy.

A Museum Miscellany is out in the UK on 4 October 2019 and you can pre-order your copy here.

The ‘Woman Question’ Solved? Female Middle Class Emigration in the Nineteenth Century

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

In 1851 the census exposed the bald truth that there was an excess of 500,000 women in Britain. Not only this, but the statistics also showed that two-thirds of women aged 20 to 24 years old and one third of women aged 24 to 35 were unmarried. This fact was seized upon by many prominent journalists, including W. R. Greg, who wrote his infamous article ‘Why are Women Redundant?’ in the National Review in 1862. Articles such as this served to cast unwed middle-class women as ‘redundant’ or ‘surplus’ and framing unmarried women as an economic drain on society and a problem to be solved.

In the mid to late nineteenth century it was only socially acceptable for working-class women to work. The role of middle- and upper-class women was as homemakers; supporting their husbands’ endeavours and bringing up children. However, many unmarried middle-class women not only wanted to, but needed to work to support themselves and gain some independence. Many single or widowed middle-class women ended up existing in genteel poverty as their families struggled to support them and their role in society came under question. Unfortunately very little work was acceptable for a middle-class woman, as any sort of manual labour was seen as degrading to their class status. One of the very few options open to middle-class women who wanted to work was as a governess, a position that did not gain glowing reviews from contemporary novels such as Jane Eyre (1847) and Agnes Grey (1847). Not only were governess positions poorly paid and lowly in status but also (conversely) much sought-after, making finding a position difficult.

Painting of The Governess by Rebecca Solomon, 1851
The Governess by Rebecca Solomon (1851) – note the modestly dressed, unprepossessing governess educates the child while the gaily-dressed elder daughter of the family flirts with a gentleman.

With the ongoing debate over suitable work for women rumbling along in the background various solutions to the ‘women problem’ were mooted. From 1857 the Langham Place group, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, was active in trying to improve education and open up new working options for women. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) followed in 1859, set up by Jessie Boucherett, its aim was to aid women’s economic independence by providing training (in areas such as book keeping and printing) and setting up law-copying and printing businesses in order to offer respectable work to educated women. However these campaigns had long-term goals in sight, working to improve education and opportunities was never going to be an overnight solution to an entrenched problem. As a result Langham Place members Maria Rye and Jane Lewin set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) in 1862 with the aim of helping middle-class women emigrate to the colonies where they might find work and independence. It was hoped by helping middle-class women to emigrate it would save the excess women from poverty and improve the job market at home.

Emigration had traditionally been reserved for criminals and paupers, the undesirables rounded up and sent off to the colonies to populate our overseas territories and remove their ilk from the motherland. As a consequence emigration had a very bad reputation. Furthermore by the 1830s the need for workers in the colonies had meant a large number of working-class men and women had been recruited, with their passage paid, to go and take on domestic work in the colonies. This had been a hugely successful scheme and domestic workers were in great need, a factor which encouraged Maria Rye to suppose that the colonies must also be in need of well-educated governesses.

The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, "The Emigrants," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, “The Emigrants,” in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

The press was initially sceptical of the scheme, accusing any women who volunteered for emigration of lowering themselves — not only was emigration seen as the preserve of the lower classes, it was also seen as unseemly for single middle-class women to travel alone without a male chaperone. Maria Rye took to regularly writing the the Times to publicise the scheme and attract funding. Right from the outset she was clear that although she wanted to attract educated middle-class women for emigration, they would need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in colonial life, where the average middle-class person kept chickens and churned their own butter. Rye wrote in to the Times in April 1862: ‘People are wanted here but not any sort. The people who come should be intelligent; idle people will not do in Australia.’

By December 1879 just 215 women had successfully been placed in the colonies by FMCES, a very small number which perhaps reflects not only the difficulty in persuading middle-class women that it was a viable option but also the extremely stringent parameters they had to fit into in order to qualify for assistance. They needed to be educated to a good level (therefore able to work as governesses) plus be able to cook, wash, do needlework and housework. In a sense these requirements were mutually exclusive as most middle-class women who were sufficiently educated would see it as below themselves to stoop to any sort of domestic work, and working-class women had the domestic experience but not the required level of education.

Those who applied needed to supply evidence of their educational experience and provide references to attest to their good character. If selected the FMCES would loan the women the money to pay the passage to the colonies and then assist them in finding work on arrival. The letterbook and reports of the FMCES held at the Women’s Library at LSE allows us to hear the voices of the emigrants themselves reflecting on their experience (it is worth noting that generally only the more successful emigrants wrote back to the society repaying their loan and reporting on their outcome). Miss S. E. A. Hall was one of the most successful of FMCES’s emigrants, ultimately setting up a school in the Cape Colony and employing many other female emigrants as teachers there. Despite her success, Miss Hall seemed to maintain a dislike for the colonial life and a yearning for her homeland, writing in 1877: ‘The character of the people I have more knowledge of than admiration for: as a rule it lacks those traits which we are proud to call English.’ Likewise, Lina Hastleton who took on a governess position in Cape Colony for £80 a year (a comparatively decent salary), wrote: ‘There is certainly plenty of work for any capable teacher of sound religion, and not apt to be either elated or depressed by the conduct of those around.’

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library
Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland … Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

Some of the emigrants clearly felt that they had been misled about the availability of work and how hard it might be to secure a good position: J. Caldwell wrote from Melbourne in July 1880 ‘I am sorry to say that everything here is so dear and bad for governesses that several have said to me that you and Miss Lewin ought to be told not to send any more ladies at any rate for a year or so, for there is some difficulty finding engagements.’ Elizabeth Long wrote from New Zealand in May 1880: ‘[New Zealand is] undoubtedly the paradise of servants; I am afraid the paradise for governesses has yet to be found.’ These then were girls who had emigrated seemingly unprepared for life to be equally hard in the colonies, they were surprised to find the promised jobs unforthcoming and unwilling to surrender their gentility to take on lower grade work. Miss Fanny Grofs wrote from Dunedin in July 1880 that she had struggled to find a proper position and did temporary work as a dressmaker and in houses: ‘The people are very rough and actually governesses are going out as nurses in Dunedin. There are a great number out of employ and it is pitiful to hear of the number of young women who degenerate so on account of the scarcity of situations and no home influences to keep them… I do not think I am better off here than at home.’

Others, however, were more able, or more prepared, to adapt and took to their new life and position more readily. Mary Long wrote from New Zealand in 1880: ‘I have two little girl pupils, in a clergyman’s family. I get very small pay only £30. I do a great deal of needlework and housekeeping as well as teach … But in spite of it all I would rather be a governess here than in England.’ Eleanor Blackith, also in New Zealand (and also only earning £30) wrote in 1881: ‘I am very happy out here and like N. Z, life in the summer… since I came here I have become quite clever in the art of cooking.’ Miss Barlow wrote from Melbourne: ‘I am getting quite a Colonial women, and I fear I should not easily fit into English ideas again, can scrub a floor with anyone, and bake my own bread and many other things an English Governess and School mistress especially would be horrified at.’ These letters appear to show that women who were ready to take on more traditionally working-class duties and adopt the role of a ‘colonial woman’ were more likely to find happiness and even contentment. For someone who had been made to feel redundant and unwanted in England and perhaps struggled to find any work, the opportunity to work and make a living, even if it meant surrendering ideas of English gentility, could be worth it.

The official reports of the FMCES reveal short vignettes on the fate of some of their emigrants. The 1868 report reflects on the first seven years of work, revealing a list of emigrants, ranging up to 158. The list reveals the destination, date of sailing, salary obtained in the colonies and remarks. The vast majority went to Australia c.86, with 32 to New Zealand, 20 to Africa, 9 to America, 8 to Canada and 1 to India. The reports indicate that women who were perhaps not quite up to scratch to make it as a governess in England were successful in the colonies. One emigrant to Australia in 1861 gained a £60 salary there but ‘Had failed entirely to obtain employment in England, from inability to teach music.’ – this implies the colonies were more accepting and prepared to take less qualified women. A further note reported on another emigrant who got a post in Australia for £60 a year but ‘Had experienced great difficulty in obtaining employment in England, on account of slight deafness.’

As further letters and reports on the success, or otherwise, of the emigrants reached the FMCES back in England the emphasis on recruiting the right type of candidates increased. The 1880 report stated that it was useless sending half-trained women out to the colonies as the competition there was now as fierce for governess positions as it was back home in England. They stressed that the society should be ‘strongly impressing on possible emigrants the facts proving that the distress occasioned by the keen competition among half-educated women-teachers is as extreme and despairing in the large and old-settled towns of the Colonies as in England … if teachers want work they must go “up country,” must accept the life of the family without other society, and must share the household work with the mother and family.’ The FMCES although keen to stress the importance of adaptability was also clearly unhappy that their vision for opportunities for educated middle-class women in the colonies was not playing out as they hoped, there was obviously some difference in their minds between being versatile and being reduced to unsuitable work as evidenced by this slightly shrill extract: ‘Complaints have been received also from Auckland this year of the hopelessness of obtaining  situations, reporting an excess of teachers of music in that town alone, and telling of one governess having gone into a factory, another as a servant in a shop, a third as housekeeper and only servant in a widower’s family.’ Despite this, the report goes on to a more upbeat tone: ‘It must be stated that the greater number of those who have been sent out write grateful acknowledgements to the Secretary for “the fresh start in life,” and when once they accommodate themselves to the customs and needs of the country and follow the heads of the family in readiness to give a hand in every sort of work, they soon share in the interest and happiness of life.’

The FMCES Letterbook at the Women's Library, LSE. Photo by author.
The FMCES Letterbook at the Women’s Library, LSE. Photo by author.

Ultimately between 1861 and 1886 the FMCES helped 302 middle-class women to emigrate to the colonies – a relatively minor amount compared to the thousands of working-class women who made the same trip. Maria Rye herself became disillusioned with middle-class emigration and by 1868 left the work of the FMCES to her colleague, Jane Lewin while she focused on assisting working-class children to emigrate to Canada, for a better life. By the 1890s the FMCES had ceased to exist, in part due to the improved prospects for women to find work in Britain. Although emigration did not prove a viable large-scale solution to the problem of ‘surplus’ women, the efforts of the FMCES did shine a light on the lack of opportunities for women at home and the greater need for women’s education. By giving young women agency to emigrate and seek a better life elsewhere the FMCES acted as a sort of test-bed, allowing women greater opportunity to work in the more class-flexible colonies, and opening up the conversation on improving women’s rights and access to education back home.

Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).

Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.

Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:


When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.

If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.

In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.

Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.

If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.

The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.

If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.

As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.

A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.

Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.

If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.

After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.

In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.

Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.


An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.

If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.

Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.

Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.

Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.

If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.

A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.

Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.

If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.

Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.besieged-house-ghosts-768

Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.

Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.

Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.


A graveyard
A graveyard

If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.

Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.

If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.

Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.

Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.

Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.

If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.



Revolutionary Relics: The Bastille Re-cast Anew

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution

On 14 July 1789, in what would become a defining moment of the French Revolution, Parisians stormed the Bastille prison – a symbol of the ancien regime’s authority and despotism. Within days a local builder, Pierre-François Palloy, and his team of masons began to dismantle the old prison, taking away the stones, chains and debris, and leaving nothing but a space where this once imposing building stood.

The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881)
The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881) via The British Library

Palloy described himself as a patriot, self-identifying by signing his name ‘patriot Palloy’, and he chose to use the debris from the hated to prison to create a series of revolutionary relics. He used the stones to inscribe portraits of the king, revolutionary figures and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He melted down the chains and cast medals of freedom. He even used the stones from the windowsill of the Bastille governor’s office to make a set of dominoes which he presented to the dauphin. Palloy used these stones as symbols of the revolution –  transforming a once despotic symbol into one of freedom.

The Bastille as a Symbol of Revolution

On 15 July 1789, the day after the storming, the newspaper Révolutions de Paris stated that the prison would be ‘entirely annihilated and, in its place, a monument to august Liberty will be raised’.[1] This indicates that the public immediately felt a need to memorialise and transform the space inhabited by the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille signified a moment when individuals came together against tyranny and were victorious – it signalled a huge shift in power.

Yet, very few people, in terms of the whole population of France, were actually present at the storming of the Bastille. Palloy recognised this, and saw the importance of the Bastille as a symbol of the Revolution and the opportunity it presented to amplify and spread the revolutionary message across France. By using the stones from the Bastille itself to create models of the prison, Palloy was forming portable material objects memorialising this momentous event. These models were then sent to every department in France, allowing people from all over the nation to feel part of this revolutionary moment.

The physical bulk of the prison had loomed large over Paris, and its destruction left a gap, both actually and metaphorically, that needed to be filled. Prior to the Revolution the monarchy had used a series of symbols, such as the fleur-de-lys, to lend themselves legitimacy, authority and allude to tradition. As the Revolution exploded into life, new symbols were required. These symbols came in many shapes – clothing, such as the revolutionary bonnet; monuments, such as liberty trees; and art, such as paintings of revolutionary figures. But where do Palloy’s objects fit? In his many speeches and pamphlets, Palloy defined his objects in a number of ways, embracing their multi-faceted meaning. He named them ‘reliques patriotiques’, which conjures images of sacred objects, and yet also plays on the idea that they are items from the past of historic value. He also referred to them as ex-votos (an offering to a saint or divinity) which again sacralises the stones. Additionally, Palloy called the stones ‘relics of freedom’, a name which recognised their new form and meaning.

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution
One of the models of the Bastille cast by Pierre Francois Palloy

The Revolution created a new political culture which saw groups of people who had not previously engaged with politics emerge, this meant that Revolutionary propaganda became essential, not only to commemorate the key events of the Revolution but also to unite people and spread revolutionary ideals. Palloy did just that by creating smaller, multiple models of the Bastille. He demonstrated his agency and mastery over the despotic prison by defeating this once huge building and recasting it, in smaller form, anew. At the same time, Palloy was treating these transformed stones with reverence, ordering that they be celebrated as symbols of freedom, and therefore using them to unite people in common purpose.

The Making of the Models

Palloy’s Bastille stones were not only direct relics from the Bastille, and therefore were witness to years of oppression, but they were also then transformed by the hands of revolutionaries themselves. Palloy’s models were collectively created in his workshop by masons who had actually taken part in the demolition of the prison. These men who had torn down the stones were now remaking them in a new image which embodied both the despotic past, and the idealistic revolutionary actions of the present, at the same time. This fact lent the stones a whole new level of meaning, a meaning which could only be communicated if people knew of the context of their creation. Palloy ensured the provenance of the stones were announced at each models’ unveiling. In a speech given to mark the arrival of one of Palloy’s Bastille stones in the department of the Cote d’Or, the president of the administrative assembly, Navier, alluded to their power of evocation: ‘At the appearance of this monument, they believe they see the sombre dungeons; the noise of chains strikes their ear; the long wails of the victims resound in their hearts: a salutary horror will keep away tyrants everywhere.’[2]

As the Revolution continued, and competing factions vied for ascendancy, there was a need to narrate and define the transformation of power. Not only this but an end point was required at which revolution would stop and the new society could emerge and move forwards. Palloy himself was clear that his intention with his revolutionary relics was to use them as symbols of liberty even as the dominant ideology shifted around him, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1791 he said: ‘I have immortalized every epoch of the Revolution with trophies that I have dedicated to freedom.’[3] A simple model of the prison would serve only as a reminder of the old order. Palloy’s models were the Bastille crushed and remade, their meaning transformed by the hands of the demolishers themselves.

Palloy: The Barnum of the Bastille

The speed with which Palloy swooped in and took control of the demolition of the Bastille and appointed himself as custodian of its rubble has led some to claim Palloy was hoping to commodify and profit from the fall of the Bastille. Tom Stammers even referred to him as the ‘Barnum of the Bastille’,[4] and it is true there was something of

Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet
Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet

the ringmaster in the way Palloy managed the Bastille models and dictated their celebration and display. However, Palloy was not actually reimbursed by the government for the demolition of the Bastille until 1791/2, and between 1789 and 1799 Palloy published over 100 pamphlets and tracts of speeches, posters and designs for monuments he wanted to erect on the site of the Bastille, all at his own expense. In his 1794 autobiography Palloy wrote that the demolition of the Bastille, the distribution of the relics and the publication of his writings had left him financially ruined – which all attest to his life-long commitment to his vision of spreading the revolutionary message through his relics of the Bastille. When Palloy was mistakenly arrested and imprisoned by the Commune over alleged embezzlement, he clearly thought he might become a victim of the guillotine and, revealing his passion for the Bastille relics, he asked that he be buried under a Bastille stone inscribed ‘Here lies Palloy, who in his youth laid siege to the Bastille, destroyed it, and scattered the limbs of this infernal monster over the face of the Earth.’[5]

Today a number of Palloy’s Bastille models survive, some in museums, others built into the fabric of public buildings – their significance lessened by the passing of time, their curious provenance reduced to a historical footnote. Yet during the Revolution itself, thanks to the monumental efforts and vision of one man, these very same objects served to embody multi-faceted meaning. Palloy ensured through his speeches, pamphlets, festivities and parades that these multiple, miniature models of the Bastille could cast their Revolutionary message across France, to all levels of society. Their ability to represent past, present and future combined with Palloy’s talent for propaganda allowed these very simple objects to tangibly represent a victory over despotism.


[1] Révolutions de Paris, (Paris, 15 July 1789) quoted in Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), p. 26.

[2] Claude-Bernard Navier, Procés-verbal de ce qui s’est passé a la séance du 13 Novembre 1790, (1790).

[3] Pierre-François Palloy, speech to the Constituent Assembly (October 1791)

[4] Tom Stammers, ‘The bric-a-brac of the old regime: Collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France’, French History, vol 22, Issue 3, (2008), pp. 295–315.

[5] Pierre-François Palloy, printed defence, (Paris, 1794).

Traditional Signs of Guilt

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard

In the time before DNA testing, dusting for fingerprints and blood-spatter analysis proving guilt or innocence was a rather less scientific matter. Folklore, superstition and religion ruled.

The high German epic poem Nibelungenlied, written in about 1200, features a scene in which the dragon-slayer Siegfried has been murdered and his body laid out. When his murderer, Hagen approaches, Siegfried’s wounds begin to bleed afresh, indicating Hagen’s guilt. This phenomena was known as cruentation, whereby a victim’s body would react should the murderer approach, and before forensic science developed in the early nineteenth century, this was one of the many methods used across Europe for proving guilt .

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard
From Tales of Terror (1808) via The British Library


The word cruentation comes from the Latin cruentatus, which means to ‘make bloody’. The method likely originated in ancient Germanic practices and from about 1100 spread across Europe. To carry out cruentation, the body of the victim would be laid out on a bier in the courtroom (hence the practice’s alternate names: bier-right or ordeal of the bier) in the belief that it retained some sentience after death. The suspect was then required to approach the body, perhaps circling it a number of times, or placing their hand upon it. If the suspect was guilty, the body would supposedly signal this by frothing at the mouth, bleeding from the nose or oozing from existing wounds.

In an indication of the pervasive nature of this belief, Shakespeare’s play Richard III (in Act I, Scene II) includes a scene of cruentation when Lady Anne confronts the murderer of King Henry VI, saying:

O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds

Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.

Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,

For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood

In reality modern science has shown that from about six hours after death all the blood in a dead body would have congealed. The fluid which may have leaked from these dead bodies (let’s face it its likely they would have been jiggled about a fair bit when getting them into the courtroom) was probably what’s delightfully known as ‘purge fluid’ which is created in the early stages of decomposition.

By the end of the seventeenth century British courts no longer used cruentation and the Germans followed suit by the end of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment saw Europe begin to turn away from superstition. However the Americans continued to occasionally employ the method right up to the mid-nineteenth century (for more on late American cases of cruentation see this wonderful post).

Trial by ordeal

Another method to uncover guilt was trial by ordeal. This was founded on the belief that God would protect the innocent from being falsely accused or intervene to show a sign of their guilt.

Trial by fire was used across the world in a number of different guises. The Indian epic poem Ramayana depicts Sita going through a trial by fire when Rama doubts her purity. Her innocence is proven after she stands in a circle of flames and remains entirely unscathed. Similarly in Europe the accused was often asked to plunge their hand into a fire to retrieve an object, or to hold a red-hot iron. Their innocence was proven as long as the wound appeared to be healing, rather than festering, within three days of the trial.

Sita’s ordeal by Fire via The British Museum

The most famous trials by water were seen in seventeenth-century Salem during the infamous witch trials. Here the accused were bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Those who sunk were deemed innocent and hauled out, those who floated were branded as guilty of witchcraft.

Witch-finding was a hotbed of superstition and a number of extremely dubious methods to extract ‘confessions’ or proof of guilt were utilised. This included: making the accused read aloud the Lord’s Prayer — any stumbling or mistakes and guilt was proven; bringing their bewitched victims before them and making the accused touch them, no reaction proved innocence whereas any ‘waking’ proved they had been under a spell; and ‘pricking’ supposed witches’ marks on the body of the accused, if they showed no pain, they were guilty.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III banned priests from cooperating with any trials by fire or water, a ruling which helped the practice to become less frequent in Europe, but witch trials during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the practice revive and it did not truly die out until after the American witch trials of the seventeenth century — indicating the extent to which folk belief pervaded all levels of society.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books for more on arcane history, books, words and libraries.

The Strange Afterlives of Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Illustration of the pyramids of Giza via The British Library, from Travels in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea and the Holy Land by Stephen Olin, 1843

The mummified remains of Ancient Egyptians have always held a certain gruesome fascination but today the closest we are likely to get to one is looking through glass in a museum. Even the modern display of a mummy for educational purposes brings up certain ethical questions about our treatment of the long dead, and yet this prickly moral minefield all seems rather tame when we look back in time at how, since the tenth century onwards, these ancient bodies were treated and used as commodities.

Mummy medicine

Arab doctors began using the ground up residue from ancient Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes around the tenth century. The reasoning behind this is fairly circuitous. Originally it was bitumen (also known as asphalt), a naturally occurring semi-solid form of petroleum, which was extracted from the ground in Persia and the Near East and used as something of a cure-all. However bitumen was a scarce resource and so alternatives were sought. The historian Abdel Latif, writing in the twelfth century, revealed that doctors had wrongly assumed that the blackened state of some of the decomposing mummies was caused by the use of bitumen in the embalming process. This assumption led them to believe that the use of ground up mummy itself could be substituted medicinally for bitumen. In the Persian language bitumen was known as mum or mumiya, and as a result ancient Egyptian preserved corpses became known as ‘mummies’ and suddenly they became a useful commodity.

By the sixteenth century a trade in mummies had flourished, with whole bodies or body-parts being dug up by peasants in the countryside and transported to Cairo. Despite restrictions being placed on the trade in mummies these were flouted (with the help of a few well-placed bribes) and the bodies were transported all over Europe for use in medicine. Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle both recommended using ground up mummy for treating falls, bruising or preventing bleeding. One trader, John Sanderson, wrote of a collecting trip to Egypt in 1486:

‘I broke of all the parts of the bodies to see how the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers heads, hands, armes and feet, for a shew; we brought also 600 pounds for the Turkie Companie in pieces; and brought into England in the Hercules: together with a whole body: they are lapped in above an hundred double of cloth, which rotting and pilling off, you may see the skin, flesh, fingers and nayles firme, altered blacke.’

The supply of genuine mummies could not always be maintained and it was alleged that when the supply was scant, the desiccated sun-baked bodies of animals or people who had perished in the desert were at times passed off as mummy in their stead.

Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library
Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library

Mummia as it was known became an important part of the European apothecaries’ armoury of medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The bodies were ground up into powder and this was either applied topically onto the skin, or mixed into liquid and taken as a drink. By the mid eighteenth century the efficacy of mummia as a medicine was being questioned and it began to fade from use, although it was still available from some suppliers up until the twentieth century – in 1924 a kilogram of mummia was listed by German firm E. Merck for the price of 12 gold marks.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Aside from their medicinal purposes, mummies were also in great demand as curiosities, with whole mummies or embalmed body parts often the crowning glory of any cabinet of curiosity, combining as they did both natural history and human history. In sixteenth-century France a number of collectors held mummies, Boniface de Borilly (1587–1648), whose collection was kept at Aix, was said to have ‘four crocodiles, one very large, and three smaller. Diverse bodies petrified and embalmed. One foot and a leg of a mummy.’

However the conditions in European cabinets of curiosity were quite markedly different from the mummies’ original hot, dry resting places and antiquarian John Woodward (1665-1725) cautioned:

‘I myself saw here a mummy, brought formerly out of Egypt that, after it had been for some time in our more humid air, began to corrupt and grow mouldy, emitted a foetid and cadaverous scent, and in conclusion putrefied and fell to pieces.’

Sir Hans Sloane was said to have a mummy in his cabinet of curiosity in the 1730s but by the time his collection was gifted to the nation, forming the basis for the British Museum, the mummy was no longer part of the collection and it seems likely this may well have been due to decay.

The British Museum finally acquired its first genuine Egyptian mummy in 1756 and the Louvres Egyptian rooms opened in 1827 (furnished by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt) marking the move from private museums and cabinets of curiosity to national museum collections. This would have allowed many more people to see an Egyptian mummy with their own eyes.

Unrolling mummies

By the 1830s mummies became embroiled in a new type of spectacle – the mummy unrolling party. The supposedly ‘scientific’ gatherings took place across France and Britain and saw the great and the good assemble to witness the unrolling of an ancient Egyptian mummy.

This article from The Newcastle Weekly Courant from December 1889 provides a fulsome account of one such mummy unrolling that was held at the botanical theatre of University College London:

‘Mr Budge unrolled the mummy which was closely swathed in scores of yards of thick yellowish linen of fine texture … At the beginning of the process of unrolling there was a very perceptible sickly smell of aromatics, which as the work went on gave place to a more pronounced and decidedly disagreeable odour…When at last the coverings had been removed the body was found to have been of a very dark brown colour, so dark indeed as to be almost black. The skin, where it remained, was hard and shiny.’

The article, somewhat frustratingly, does not tell us what happened to the mummified corpse once it had been unwrapped but it can be assumed that it would not have survived for long uncovered.

A 'graceful' mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations
A ‘graceful’ mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations

These public unwrappings no doubt provided fuel for Victorian ghost stories and encouraged the cliché of the revived, rampaging mummy that persists to this day. However as greater scientific rigour was demanded and the emphasis switched to the preservation of ancient artefacts the spectacle of mummy unrolling became consigned to the past.

Mummy brown

But the indignity of the mummy did not end here.  Since the eighteenth century ground up mummy had been mixed with myrrh and white pitch to create a deep brown paint pigment, known as ‘Mummy Brown’ or ‘Egyptian Brown’. The pigment was most frequently used mixed as an oil paint and with a good level of transparency it was especially good for shading, shadows and, of course, flesh tones.

By the nineteenth century Mummy Brown was especially sought after and it was thought to have been used by Eugene Delacroix for his decoration at the Salon de la Paix at the Hotel de Ville in 1854 – although this was unfortunately lost to a fire in 1871. Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones was also thought to have used the pigment and Art Historian Phillip McCouat reports that the artist’s wife, Georgiana Burne-Jones told the following anecdote revealing how shocked Burne-Jones was when he discovered the provenance of the pigment:

‘Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.’

Ultimately Mummy Brown fell out of popularity as its exact colour could not be relied upon due to the varied nature of its source material and so was replaced by more stable pigments.

From commodity to museum specimen

By the early twentieth century the ancient Egyptian mummy had been through a number of incarnations as a commodity to be exploited by Europeans from medicine through spectacle to pigment. The development of museums and the increased interest in preserving the past meant that by the mid-twentieth century the unregulated trade in mummies finally became a thing of the past.

If you enjoyed this article take a look at my book How to Skin a Lion for more fascinating outmoded practices. 

10 Wars with Very Unusual Names

War (huh), what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Well, that is not strictly true. Although all the killing and the destruction is very bad, some of the names given to wars and stories behind them are actually pretty interesting. Below are 10 wars with very unusual names and the reasons why:

1. The War of Jenkins’ Ear

This war was fought between Britain and Spain 1739 to 1748 and, to differentiate it from the numerous other wars Britain fought with Spain, it was given this unusual name by essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1858. The reason behind this strange name can be traced back to 1731 when Captain Robert Jenkins’ merchant ship ‘Rebecca’ was boarded by the Spanish coastguards in the West Indies. The Spaniards pillaged the ship of its goods, set it adrift and then, for good measure, cut off Captain Jenkins’ ear.

In 1738 Jenkins appeared before the British parliament to give evidence of Spanish atrocities in the West Indies. Jenkins reportedly brandished his severed ear, which had been pickled in a jar and it was this visual reminder of Spanish brutality that whipped the MPs into a frenzy of anger, precipitating the war.

Spain and England during this period were constantly at odds over control of the lucrative trade with the New World and the War of Jenkins’ Ear was played out in the Caribbean. Numerous skirmishes saw neither side victorious, and when the French joined with the Spanish against the English the tide turned and the fighting merged into the wider conflict of the War of Austrian Succession which raged 1740–48.

2. The War of the Oaken Bucket

During the early medieval period, Italy was not a unified country but was made up of a series of city states. To complicate matters further, some were loyal to the Pope, while

Map of Italy from A Pilgrimage to Italy, etc by James Smith (1899)
Map of Italy from ‘A Pilgrimage to Italy, etc ‘by James Smith (1899) via The British Library

others owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. The city states of Modena and Bologna were just 31 miles apart and yet had a long history of antipathy, with Modena in support of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Bologna the Pope.

Things came to a head in 1325 after soldiers from Bologna raided Modena, causing havoc and destruction before taking away their booty in an oaken bucket stolen from the town. When Modenese soldiers launched a return attack to raid Bologna they found the bucket stuffed with Modenese treasures next to the main well in the city centre. The outraged soldiers stole the bucket back again and displayed it in their own town centre to prove their victory.

The residents of Bologna were enraged and demanded their bucket of stolen treasure be returned, arguing that they had looted it fair and square. Needless to say Modena refused and on 15 November 1325 the War of the Oaken Bucket commenced in which 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 mounted knights on the Bolognese side met just 5,000 Modenese foot soldiers and 2,000 knights on horseback.

Despite their superior numbers the Bolognese army was taken by surprise by a sunrise attack and the Modenese forces swept into Bologna, destroying numerous castles and killing thousands. After the victory the people of Modena were allowed to keep their oaken trophy, which remains on display today at the Torre della Ghirlandina.

3. The War of the Golden Stool

The Ashanti Kingdom (part of modern-day Ghana) was annexed by the British in 1896, and keen to establish control they exiled the king Prempeh I. In 1900 the British decided to exert greater control on the region which until then had been allowed to follow its own governance and sent in Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson with a small number of troops.

In typically colonial fashion, Hodgson grandly announced plans to control the Ashanti government and then demanded they bring him their sacred Golden Stool so that he might sit atop it. The golden stool was extremely significant to the Ashanti people, representing their history and power. Only royalty were allowed to sit on it as it symbolised leadership of the tribe. The Ashanti refused Hodgson’s outrageous request and would not reveal the stool’s hiding place. While Hodgson continued to search for the stool the queen mother, Yaa Asantewa, began gathering her forces, determined to rid her kingdom of the British and bring her son back from exile.

The Ashanti forces blockaded the British fort at Kumasi, cutting telegraph lines and disrupting food supplies until a force of 700 British soldiers broke the siege and the governor and his troops fled. A couple of months later with renewed forces the British attacked again and defeated the Ashanti, exiling Yaa Asantewa and other local leaders to the Seychelles. The region was absorbed into the British Empire until 1957 when they finally won independence. The British never did get to sit on the stool which remained hidden until the 1920s when it was uncovered by road workers, who started to strip the gold, before the stool was rescued and returned to the Ashanti.

4. War of the Three Sanchos

During the Castilian Civil War of 1065–71, King Sancho II decided the time was ripe to expand his territory. Sancho II invaded the territory of his cousin, King Sancho IV of Navarre. Sancho IV was not about to give up his lands without a fight and so he appealed to another cousin, named (yes, you guessed it) King Sancho I of Aragon. As a consequence the three cousins all named Sancho fought it out until at last Sancho II’s Castilian troops were defeated and retreated back to their lands.

5. Aztec Flower Wars

Despite their pleasant floral name, these wars were anything but. During the reign of the Aztec leader Tlacaelel, the practice of human sacrifice grew, as subjects were needed to assuage the gods after a long famine, 1450 to 1454, had hit the area. Tlacaelel targeted

An Aztec Sacrificial Stone from ‘A Popular History of the Mexican People’ (1888) via The British Library

the nearby city-state of Tlaxcala from which to harvest new victims. A strange agreement was set up which instigated the Flower Wars, in which both sides would regularly meet for a ceremonial battle at which no one would be killed but warriors would be taken captive on each side for later sacrifice. The agreement seemed to suit both sides as they each needed a constant flow of victims to meet the demands of their gods and although being taken captive was pretty rough, being sacrificed to the gods was seen as an honourable way to die.

Although the continual Flower Wars kept the Aztecs happy, the people of Tlaxcala began to fear their neighbours and resentment grew. Ultimately when the Spanish came to conquer the Aztecs, the people of Tlaxcala joined the Spanish forces which contributed to the defeat and downfall of the Aztec empire.

6. The Fantastic War

Between 1762 and 1763, as part of the wider Seven Years’ War, the Spanish invaded neutral Portugal. A huge Spanish force entered the country but the hilly terrain and hostile peasants severely hampered their efforts. A number of minor skirmishes were fought in which the larger Spanish forces came off much worse, losing many soldiers and failing to gain any ground. Ultimately because no major battles were fought and comparatively few Portuguese lives were lost, the Portuguese dubbed this short-lived war the Fantastic War.

7. The War of the Oranges

In 1801 during the height of the Napoleonic wars, France threatened Portugal, asking

An illustration of an orange from Flore médicale des Antilles (1821) via BHL

them to break their allegiance to Britain and instead join with France and Spain, effectively ceding a large portion of their territory. The Portuguese refused and prepared for war.

Spanish minister Manual de Godoy led the French troops into battle and quickly took Olivenza near the Spanish border. Godoy then travelled to Elvas where he picked some oranges which he sent to the queen of Spain with a message that they would next march for Lisbon, and hence the conflict became known as the War of the Oranges . Fearing further casualties the Portuguese entered into negotiations with France and Spain which resulted in the Peace of Badajoz. As a result Portugal agreed to break links with England, refusing them entry to their ports; give Olivenza to Spain and surrender some of their territory in Brazil to France – in return however they got the desired peace.

8. The Pemmican War

In the early nineteenth century, the riches of the Red River Colony in Assiniboia, in present-day Manitoba, Canada were exploited by two rival trading companies – the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and the North Western Company (NWC). An uneasy truce had allowed the companies to co-exist until 1814 when the 5th Earl of Selkirk, Thomas Douglas, who had founded the colony and held a stake in HBC, decided to try and scupper the rival NWC. As a result the Pemmican Proclamation was announced, which forbade the export of any provisions from the colony for a year which severely impacted both the NWC, who relied on pemmican when they travelled out of the territory to hunt, and the local Métis who supplied the NWC with buffalo meat.

The year after, the governor took it one step further and banned the Métis from hunting buffalo with horses and then confiscated 400 bags of pemmican. The Métis and NWC banded together and began attacking the colony, hounding families and destroying buildings, causing a tit-for-tat war with HBC which continued on and off until 1820 when the death of Lord Selkirk allowed the British Crown to force the merger of HBC and NWC, and peace was restored.

9. Ragamuffin War

This conflict was in fact of war of independence, when the southern half of Brazil mainly occupied by gauchos (or cowboys) rebelled against taxation by the Brazilian government. In September 1835 the rebel forces captured Porto Alegre beginning ten years of war which was dubbed the Ragamuffin War because the gauchos in their fringed suits were said to resemble scruffy peasants or ragamuffins which in Portuguese is farrapos.

The gauchos set up the breakaway Riograndense Republic but their leader, Bento Gonçalves was captured and imprisoned in 1836. However, Gonçalves would not be held and in an improbable fashion he escaped from his island prison by diving into the sea and swimming for a boat held by his allies. The Farrapos Revolution raged on with the Brazilian government re-taking Porto Alegre which the farrapos immediately began besieging. A peace was finally agreed in 1845, reuniting the country and giving pardons to the rebel leaders.

10. The Pastry War

Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 the country suffered a certain lawlessness, with rioting, looting and rampaging commonplace. One day the unruly residents of Mexico City picked on the wrong person by ransacking the pastry shop of a French chef named Remontel.

Distraught at the damage to his livelihood Remontel unsuccessfully attempted to gain compensation from the Mexican Government. Not willing to let it go, Remontel decided to take his case directly to the French king, Louis-Phillipe. The French were already pretty annoyed with the Mexicans over monies owed after the Texas Revolution in 1836 and so were all too pleased to have another reason to demand some of their cash back. They quickly demanded the Mexican government pay them 600,000 pesos, including a hugely inflated 60,000 pesos for the pastry shop.

Of course the Mexicans refused and as a result the French sent ships to blockade Mexican ports in an act of war and invaded the port city of Veracruz. The Mexican army quickly regrouped under war hero Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna who led the charge (and lost his leg in the process) to expel the French invaders. The four-month-long war came to an end in 1839 when the Mexicans agreed to pay the 600,000 pesos, including the 60,000 for the pastry shop – unfortunately it is unknown whether or not Remontel ever reopened his shop.