Elizabeth II, Churchill and links to the past
Some people defy the whole idea of historical eras
It now looks like Louis XIV is going to hang on to his record for some time, the Sun King having remained on the throne for about 600 days longer than Elizabeth II.
One of the most remarkable things about the late Queen was her sheer historical span, reigning over a great period which saw the greatest cultural change in 500 years. During this second reformation almost all our cultural values transformed, and the monarch’s importance to people was partly due to her being the one constant.
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She was a link to the past. It’s been remarked on many times that Elizabeth’s first prime minister was born in 1874 and her last in 1975, and the connection between Churchill and Truss seems strange as to defy our ideas of history being compartmentalised. Few people connect different eras, and in a rare venture into the listicle format I present some other examples for my historical listicle, or histicle.
Winston Churchill himself took part in a cavalry charge in the Sudan in 1898 and survived into the era of nuclear weapons and Beatlemania.
Suggested by Sirs Further.
Queen Mary, the late queen’s grandmother, knew seven British monarchs, from Victoria to Charles III.
From Ned Donovan.
Likewise, Prince Philip in his youth met Prince Arthur, the last surviving son of Queen Victoria, who was baptised by Archbishop John Bird Sumner, born in 1780.
Thanks to John Gage.
Clarissa Eden, widow of the prime minister Anthony Eden, died last November, aged 101. Her late husband, who she married in 1952, passed away in 1977 and was best remembered for the Suez crisis of 1956, Britain’s greatest humiliation (at the time, at least).
From Benjamin Jones and David.
Samuel Seymour appeared in a 1956 episode of the game show I’ve Got a Secret. His secret? He was the last witness to Lincoln’s assassination. Aged five, he had been in the theatre and seen the US president come into the box.
A number of veterans from the American Revolutionary War lived long enough to have their photographs taken.
Meanwhile, four widows of American civil war veterans survived into the 21st century, the very last one living to see the election of Joe Biden, who was her classmate at school (that’s not real, obviously, it’s a hilarious joke about his age).
Thanks to Nature Boy, Ed Cumming and Richard Morris.
Harrison Ruffin Tyler, the 93-year-old American businessman, is the grandson of John Tyler, US president in the 1840s. His great-grandfather was Thomas Jefferson’s college roommate.
St Godric was born in 1070, four years after the Battle of Hastings, in what was then very much Anglo-Saxon England; he died in 1170, the same year as Thomas Beckett, and lived to see the language of his youth disappear, as Old English was permanently changed by the Norman Conquest. The last entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Peterborough in the 1140s, are recognisably Middle English. The very final piece of writing considered Old English dates from around 1190 in Canterbury, and that has some scribbling next to it from the 13th century, stating ‘unknown language’. Godric would have seen his native language disappear in his lifetime, so unrecognisable that later Middle English speakers like William Caxton mistook it for ‘Dutch’, ie German.
Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in 1917, was born in 1881 and lived until 1970, having escaped Russia following the Bolshevik takeover. He died in New York where he held a chair in War, Peace and Revolution Studies and would see anti-Vietnam protests outside his office.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born during the Armada Scare in 1588, and the famously gloomy author reflected: 'My mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear’. During the course of his long life, he travelled across France and Italy, where he met a then-elderly Galileo in 1636, and also spent time in exile; Hobbes’s great work Leviathan, which posited that the natural state of man meant ‘no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,’ managed to offend both sides during the Civil War and so he had to flee.
However, following the Restoration in 1660 the magnanimous Charles II invited his old teacher to court, where he taught maths. Still, the author fell out with the Church and there was a move to have him tried for heresy; and while it was not clear whether the law about burning heretics was still valid, ‘Hobbes, who prided himself on his timidity, did not want to test it’, as Alan Ryan put it. (In fact Edward Wightman, in 1612, would be the last person in England to suffer this fate.)
Hobbes ended the book Leviathan with the hope that his doctrines might be taught in the universities, perhaps including his alma mater Oxford, from where ‘Preachers and the Gentry’ would ‘sprinkle’ his ideas on the people. When he died in 1679 the university had his books ceremonially burned, so that’s a no then.
Suggested by Heresy Corner and Matthew Lyons, who observes, ‘born in the Armada year, lived long enough to hear about the Popish Plot. Or, to put it another way, born around the start of Shakespeare's career and outlived Milton.’
Theodore of Tarsus was a child of antiquity who became a great man of the Middle Ages. Born in modern-day Syria to a Greek family in 602 during the reign of the Emperor Maurice, at a time when Latin was still the official language of the eastern Roman Empire, he witnessed the Islamic conquest of Christianity’s heartlands. In his fifties he had gone to Rome, a city now experiencing a sort of rebirth following the reign of Gregory the Great. Then, aged 66, he was sent to the very ends of the earth, a windswept, barbarian island that must have appeared incomprehensibly alien and primitive. There he served as Archbishop of Canterbury for 22 years, becoming one of the most influential people in the foundation of the English church and, to a great extent, England itself.
Suggested by Niall Gooch and S.I. Rubinstein.
Perhaps the last great survivor of our age is Henry Kissinger, who experienced beatings from the Hitler Youth in his teens and went onto become a central figure of mid-late 20th century geopolitics. He’s still publishing books, his most recent being about the wisdom of six great 20th century leaders, all of whom he would have met and all of whom are long dead.
Thanks to Nicole Lampert.
Another great survivor, and perhaps even more impressive, was Lazar Kaganovich. He was an associate of Stalin, a position with a notoriously low life expectancy, although he largely survived by ensuring others didn’t; after playing a part in the Holodomor Kaganovich afterwards become an active participant in the Great Purge, arresting numerous railwaymen during the paranoid regime’s hunt for ‘saboteurs’ to explain away its failures. He outlived Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev and almost the USSR itself, passing away in the summer of 1991, aged 96. Why do the good die so young?
Thanks to Matt Corden. And Jack Tindale.
W.E.B du Bois. The founder of the NAACP was born in Massachusetts just three years after the Civil War, and died in the newly-independent Ghana in 1963, three months before Kennedy and a year before the Civil Rights Act.
Thanks to Cymru Fod.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) had been raised by his grandparents, his grandfather being former prime minister Lord John Russell. As a young man the older Russell had visited Napoleon in Elba, while Bertrand, during his long life, knew Gladstone, interviewed Lenin and turned the Beatles against the Vietnam War.
Via Steve Sailer.
Simeon of Bulgaria is the last living head of state from the Second World War and, it should be noted, the last living tsar. Monarch of Bulgaria from 1943-45, he ascended the throne aged six after his father King Boris had died of a heart attack following a meeting with Hitler. Boris had joined the Axis side in the war, although Bulgaria saved most of its Jews from the Holocaust following a public outcry. Simeon was forced into exile by the communists; however, he returned after the fall of Communism to become prime minister in the early 21st century, a unique quasi-restoration.
Thanks to Senor Chang.
Moltke the Elder was born in the Holy Roman Empire in 1800, and when he was five, Napoleon’s troops destroyed the family home. He died in the Second Reich of Wilhelm II, in 1891, having played an active part in the wars against Denmark, Austria and France that would create a united Germany. Appropriately, his remains were all destroyed when the family estate was overrun during the Soviet invasion of 1945, and the land is now part of Poland.
Thanks to John Bull.
Similarly, August von Mackensen fought in the Franco-Prussian War, commanded an army group in the First World War, and lived to see the Allied occupation of Nazi Germany.
From David MS.
Friedrich Hayek, the great Austrian, in both senses, had been born in the Habsburg Empire in 1899, seen the old world blown away by nationalism and then totalitarian state control of left and right – a wrong turn that inspired his great The Road to Serfdom. A counter against the spirit of the age, it famously influenced Thatcher and a generation of economic liberals. Hayek was the epitome of the saying that if you live long enough you see the bodies of your enemies float by, in his case that of the Soviet Union, which collapsed three months before his death in 1992.
Thanks to Karl Williams and Bruno Prior.
Likewise, Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) witnessed (both) Russian Revolutions from the windows of his home in St Petersburg, and lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union, not to mention the election of New Labour and the first Harry Potter book.
Via Rev Richard Coles.
Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who fought with his cousin Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn in 1876 and was also present at the Wounded Knee massacre; he lived into the 1950s, a relic of a culture that had been virtually destroyed.
Suggested by Cognitive Empathy.
Strom Thurmond was a US senator from the old Dixiecrat wing of the Democrats and long-term segregationist. He was already pretty old, at 42, when he took part in the D-Day landings, and when he was elected in 1954 his fellow senators included Connecticut Republican Prescott Bush – by the time Thurmond retired in 2003 Bush’s grandson George W Bush was president, by which time the old man had long since switched to the Republicans. By this point both parties were totally unrecognisable from his youth.
Via David Palmer.
Jack Good worked with Alan Turing on Enigma and the first computers, and lived to see the iPhone, launched two years before his death in 2009.
Suggested by Tom Chivers.
Quite a few musicians spanned different eras:
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was old enough to have attended Tchaikovsky's funeral, in 1893, and to have been invited by the Kennedys to the White House.
From Ivan Hewett.
Austrian composer Robert Stolz (1880-1975) played for Johann Strauss in 1899 and conducted Austria's 1960 Eurovision entry (it got just 6 points).
Thanks to Richard Bratby.
And Spanish cellist and composer Pablo Casals played for both Victoria, at Osborne House, and JFK, in the East Room.
Via Edwin Moore.
While pianist Alice Herz Sommer knew Mahler and played for Kafka, and was interviewed by the New Yorker in 2013, a year before her death.
Thanks to Toby Saul.
Otto von Habsburg was born before the First World War and fled Austria with the arrival of the Nazis, who sentenced him to death; he spent the war in Portugal and the US, where he tried to recruit an Allied Austrian Battalion. Afterwards his plans for a Danube Federation were ended by Stalin, alas, and he became a private citizen.
Yet his career wasn’t finished, and after entering the European Parliament in the 1970s Habsburg became a leading advocate of European unity; in 1989 he played a major role in the ‘Pan-European Picnic’, which helped erode the Iron Curtain.
A relic of a previous era, Habsburg once had to restrain Ian Paisley — a relic of an even older era — from heckling the Pope. Before his death in 2011 the Austrian had become a vocal critic of Putin, warning that he was an increasing threat to European peace.
Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) lived through all of Germany’s 20th century, winning the Iron Cross in 1914 and the Goethe Prize in Literature in 1984, among other things. Despite being one of the few German nationalists to openly denounce the Nazi regime, he fought again in the Second World War, before being posted to Paris, where he met all the most famous artists of his day, including Picasso, and vaguely hung around conservative anti-Nazi circles without ever getting arrested. He would outlive his son, killed in 1944, by 54 years.
Via James Teresa.
Astronomer Patrick Moore, who died in 2012, was the only person to have met the first man to fly a powered aircraft, the first man in space and the first on the moon: Orville Wright, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong respectively. Known for his somewhat Right-of-centre views, Moore also became friends with Nigel Farage, and once said of his politics: ‘I may be accused of being a dinosaur, but I would remind you that dinosaurs ruled the Earth for a very long time.’
Suggested by Napoleon S Mill and Null and The Pirate Ninja.
Soong Mei-Ling, aka Madame Chiang. Born in 1898 in imperial China, she attended Wesleyan College in Georgia in 1912 and was involved in Chinese politics from 1928 before becoming an active player in the Second World War, rallying American support for the Chinese nationalist cause. She and her husband moved to Taiwan after the civil war; then, after his death in 1975, she went to New York where she would live another 40 years, beating cancer twice. She was living in the Upper East Side at the time of 9/11, and died two years later, aged 105.
Thanks to Ant Breach, Matthew Pennekamp and Gabriel Milland.
And finally — let’s not forget Archbishop Laud’s tortoise. The reptile arrived in Lambeth Palace alongside the unfortunate clergyman in 1633 and survived until 1753, estimated at 180 years old, outliving even Richard Cromwell. His remains are still to be found at the palace.
Thanks to Jessie Childs.
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Samuel Whitmore was not a king. He was a colonist living near Lexington, Massachusetts when the Revolution began. An 80 year-old veteran of the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War), Whitmore heard that the British were coming and went out to meet them -- alone, with his guns and a sword. He managed to killed one and severely wound another before he was shot, beaten, and left for dead. Not only did he marry again and have another child, he lived to be 90, having witnessed the entire 18th Century. Certified badass.
What helps me grasp the momentous changes of time is my great great grandmother. She was never famous but she was born in the early 1842 and died in 1935. The earliest photographs we have of her as a child in the early Victorian puffed skirts for children, followed with the full crinoline as a woman on the eve of her marriage, including a deep bonnet, to the corsets and bustle of the 1870s, the puffed sleeves of the 1890s, the extravagant hats of the Edwardian era, to finally, the simple blouses and twin sets of the 1930s. Only the latter is recognizably modern and could be worn today. But this woman, in her quiet life, spanned a century of remarkable changes in women's fashions and saw her granddaughters scandalously expose their calves! and great granddaughters in shorts!