January 18

Death of a Peasant Countess

On January 18, 1797, Sarah Countess of Exeter passed away at the age of 23.

Mr. Henry Cecil, while his uncle held the family title of Earl of Exeter, married a lady of respectable birth, from whom, after fifteen years of wedded life, he sought a divorce — the woman had fallen in love with the vicar and eloped with him. Deeply in debt, he put on a disguise, and came to live as a poor and humble man, at Bolas Common, an obscure village in Shropshire. No one came to inquire after him; be had vanished from the gaze and the knowledge of all his relatives.

He was known to none, and having no ostensible means of living, there were many surmises as to who and what he was. The general belief at one moment was, that he gained his bread as a highwayman. He lodged with a cottage labourer named Hoggins, whose daughter Sarah, a plain but honest girl, next drew the attention of the noble refugee. He succeeded, notwithstanding the equivocal nature of his circumstances, in gaining her heart and hand. It has been set forth that Mr. Cecil, disgusted with the character of his fashionable wife, resolved to seek some peasant mistress who should love him for his own sake alone; but the probability is that the young noble was simply eccentric, or that a craving for sympathy in his solitary life had disposed him to take up with the first respectable woman who should come in his way. Under the name of Mr. John Jones, he purchased a piece of land near Hodnet, and built a house upon it, in which he lived for some years with his peasant bride, who never all that time knew who he really was. His marriage was bigamous but after his divorce they renewed their vows.

Two years after the marriage (December 27th, 1793), Mr. Cecil succeeded to the peerage and estates on death of his uncle; and it became necessary that he should quit his obscurity at Hodnet and move to lavish Burleigh House, near Stamford. The “Cottage Countess” as she was called, did not prove quite up to the part she had been unwittingly drawn into. After having borne her husband three children (amongst whom was the peer who succeeded), she sickened and died, near having quite accustomed herself to the life of an aristocrat. 

Tennyson’s poem “The Lord of Burleigh” tells the tale rather more romantically.

January 16

Historians may justly claim that today’s date witnessed a number of significant events.

In 1493 on this date Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from his accidental discovery of the New World.
In 1604 the Hampton Court conference called for a new English translation of the Bible which resulted in the publication 7 years later of the magisterial Authorized (or King James) Version.
In 1919 Prohibition was ratified in the United States.
In 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in patriotic protest against the Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia.

But for lovers of the absurd, January 16 will be forever sacred to the memory of heavyweight boxing champ and dental fashion-plate Leon Spinks who in 1981 was mugged and robbed of his gold teeth

January 12


It was a tough year in England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:  This year, after Christmas, on a Monday night, at the first sleep, was the heaven on the northern hemisphere all as if it were burning fire; so that all who saw it were so dismayed as they never were before. That was on the third day before the ides of January. This same year was so great a murrain [infectious disease] of cattle as never was before in the memory of man over all England. That was in neat cattle [horned oxen] and in swine; so that in a town where there were ten ploughs going, or twelve, there was not left one: and the man that had two hundred or three hundred swine, had not one left. Afterwards perished the hen fowls; then shortened the fleshmeat, and the cheese, and the butter. May God better it when it shall be his will.

January 11

The first lottery in England took place on the 11th of January, 1569, at the west door of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The scheme, which had been announced two years before, shows that the lottery consisted of forty thousand lots or shares, at ten shillings each, and that it comprehended ‘a great number of good prizes, as well of ready money as of plate, and certain sorts of merchandize.’ The object of any profit that might arise from the scheme was the reparation of harbours and other useful public works.

Today, the lottery is a tried and trusted way of government revenue collection with prizes in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2016 a prize of $1.58 billion was shared among three winners of the Powerball lottery. The biggest single winner’s ticket yielded $1,537 billion.


It is interesting to consider this 19th-century view of the habit: Lotteries, by creating illusive hopes, and supplanting steady industry, wrought immense mischief. Shopmen robbed their masters, servant girls their mistresses, friends borrowed from each other under false pretences, and husbands stinted their wives and children of necessaries—all to raise the means for buying a portion or the whole of a lottery ticket. But, although the humble and ignorant were the chief purchasers, there were many others who ought to have known better. In the interval between the purchase of a ticket and the drawing of the lottery, the speculators were in a state of unhealthy excitement. On one occasion a fraudulent dealer managed to sell the same ticket to two persons; it came up a five hundred pound prize; and one of the two went raving mad when he found that the real ticket was, after all, not held by him. 

January 9

It is St Fillan’s Day. Fillan was an 8th-century Scottish saint,  known for his piety and good works. He spent a considerable part of his holy life at a monastery which he built in Pittenweem. While engaged here in transcribing the Scriptures, his left hand sent forth sufficient light to enable him, at night, to continue his work without a lamp. For the sake of seclusion, he finally retired to a wild and lonely vale, called from him Strathfillan, in Perthshire, where he died, and where his name is still attached to the ruins of a chapel, to a pool, and a bed of rock.

The uses to which the locale was put tell us much about the treatment of mental illness in Medieval Scotland: At Strathfillan, there is a deep pool, called the Holy Pool, where, in olden times, they were wont to dip insane people. The ceremony was performed after sunset on the first day of the quarter, and before sunrise next morning. The dipped persons were instructed to take three stones from the bottom of the pool, and, walking three times round each of three cairns on the bank, throw a stone into each. They were next conveyed to the ruins of St. Fillan’s chapel; and in a corner called St. Fillan’s bed, they were laid on their back, and left tied all night. If next morning they were found loose, the cure was deemed perfect, and thanks returned to the saint. The pool visited  in the nineteenth century, not by parishioners, who had no faith in its virtue, but by people from other and distant places.

January 7

2015, the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French satire magazine, known for its uncompromising (not to say crude) attacks on right-wingers, religions of all sorts, and politicians. In 2006 the magazine printed cartoons which mocked Islam and its founder, Muhammed. This provoked lawsuits but Charlie was undeterred, continuing to satirize Islam. A 2011 issue listed Muhammed as one of the editors and claimed that he was opposed to religious violence. Their offices were firebombed shortly thereafter but Muslim-targeted cartoons continued.

On January 7, 2015, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, French-born of Algerian descent entered the Charlie Hebdo offices and killed 12 people and wounded others, some of them journalists but also police officers, a janitor, and passers-by. They claimed to be operating under the sanction of al-Qaeda and shouted “Allahu Akbar! Allah is greatest!” as they escaped. Two days later the gunmen were cornered and killed as they tried to shoot their way past police.During this standoff, one of their supporters in Paris took hostages in a kosher grocery story and killed four shoppers.


January 4

1999, Death of a cultural appropriator

In a 1971 public service announcement so iconic that it made The Simpsons, Iron Eyes Cody, seemingly a nature-loving native American, is depicted crying at the litter that pollutes the landscape. On this day in 1999 that actor died.

Iron Eyes Cody appeared in over 200 films and 100 television episodes making a comfortable living portraying the Indian part of “Cowboys and Indians”: Chief Black Feather, Chief Sky Eagle, Chief Watashi, Chief St Cloud, Chief Thundercloud, Chief Big Cloud, Chief Grey Cloud, Chief Yellow Cloud, Crazy Horse, Crazy Foot, Crow Foot, etc.

To the end of his days, Mr Cody insisted that he was a Cherokee, or a Cree, or some other sort of tribesman. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, born Espera Oscar de Corti. He began his Hollywood career as an extra and ended it having his own star on the Walk of Fame.




December 29

In 1162 Henry II sought to bring the English Church under strict royal control by appointing to the archbishopric of Canterbury his chancellor and good friend, Thomas Becket. But in raising Becket to the primacy, Henry had misjudged his man. As chancellor, Becket had been a devoted royal servant, but as archbishop of Canterbury he became a fervent defender of ecclesiastical independence and an implacable enemy of the king. Henry and Becket became locked in a furious quarrel over the issue of royal control of the English Church. In 1164 Henry issued a list of pro-royal provisions relating to Church-state relations known as the “Constitutions of Clarendon,” which, among other things, prohibited appeals to Rome without royal license and established a degree of royal control over the Church courts. Henry maintained that the Constitutions of Clarendon represented ancient custom; Becket regarded them as unacceptable infringements of the freedom of the Church.

At the heart of the quarrel was the issue of whether churchmen accused of crimes should be subject to royal jurisdiction after being found guilty and punished by Church courts. The king complained that “criminous clerks” were often given absurdly light sentences by the ecclesiastical tribunals. A murderer, for example, might simply be banished from the priesthood (“defrocked”) and released, whereas in the royal courts the penalty was execution or mutilation. The Constitutions of Clarendon provided that once a cleric was tried, convicted, and defrocked by an ecclesiastical court, the Church should no longer prevent his being brought to a royal court for further punishment. Becket replied that nobody ought to be put in double jeopardy. In essence, Henry was challenging the competence of an agency of the international Church, whereas Becket, as primate of England, felt bound to defend the ecclesiastical system of justice and the privileges of churchmen. Two worlds were in collision.

Henry turned on his archbishop, accusing him of various crimes against the kingdom. And Becket, insisting that an archbishop cannot be judged by a king but only by the pope, fled England to seek papal support. Pope Alexander III, who was in the midst of his struggle with Frederick Barbarossa, could not afford to alienate Henry; yet neither could he turn against such an ardent ecclesiastical champion as Becket. The great lawyer-pope was forced to equivocate—to encourage Becket without breaking with Henry—and Becket remained in exile for the next six years. At length, in 1170, the king and his archbishop agreed to a truce. Most of the outstanding issues between them remained unsettled, but Henry permitted Becket to return to England and resume the archbishopric. At once, however, the two antagonists had another falling out. Becket excommunicated a number of Henry’s supporters; the king flew into a rage, and four enthusiastically loyal but dim-witted barons of the royal household dashed to Canterbury Cathedral, intimidated Becket and his monks, and then murdered him as he was saying Mass.

This dramatic atrocity made a deep impact on the age. Becket was regarded as a martyr; miracles were alleged to have occurred at his tomb, and he was quickly canonized. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, Canterbury was a major pilgrimage center, and the cult of St. Thomas enjoyed immense popularity. Henry, who had not ordered the killing but whose anger had prompted it, suffered acute embarrassment. He was obliged to do penance by walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and submitting to a flogging by the Canterbury monks (who seem to have enjoyed the episode immensely).

December 20

Trapped inside the doomed “cauldron” at Stalingrad, Wehrmacht pastor Kurt Reuber drew a charcoal picture of the Madonna and Child on the back of a map and labelled it “Life, Light and Love, Christmas in the Cauldron Fortress Stalingrad 1942”. He took it from bunker to bunker to cheer the troops at Christmas 1942. Reuber described the effect on displaying it:

When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall. …The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love. …Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.

The work was sent out on the last transport plane to leave the siege but the artist was left with the rest of the Sixth Army to fall captive to the Soviets. Reuber died in a Russian prisoner of war camp in 1944. The picture was suppressed by Nazi officials during the war but is now on display in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.