History Wednesday: The Unpronounceable Country

In the minds of many Utah is almost synonymous with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While it’s true the Mormon Church did more to establish and build present-day Utah than any other single entity, it’s also important to keep in mind they were never the only game in town.

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Just by far the largest.

Yes, even the relatively homogenous history of Utah isn’t without its bumps.

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History Wednesday: Frequency Manipulation

Today I took my daughter swimming at the condo association pool next to the Command Center. Being an exceptionally nice day in Boise, some of the neighborhood kids were already there. One of them had her iPhone or whatever plugged into a speaker, playing her list of jammin’ MP3s. This experience proved to be exactly as excruciating as it sounds.

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You’d better “Beliebe” it.

Replace Justin Bieber with, say, Wham! and the iPhone with that noted paragon of past 2T culture, Z-103, and you’d have a scene very reminiscent of the Putt n’ Plunge during the mid-80s. Of course, my mind working the way it does I thought to myself, “Hey, it could have been Z-43.”

No, I’m not making an obscure Ed Wood reference here.

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History Wednesday: A Lesson in Water Safety

I was going to write about Paraguay again, but it occurred to me earlier today I should bring as much geographic balance to History Wednesday as possible. Since I began SB at least one History Wednesday has been set on every continent. Except one, and I have regular visitors from it.

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Well, two if you count penguins, but they don’t have broadband.

So it’s high time to take a look at Australia and an event which has a cautionary tale about water safety. Perfect now that summer is upon us. Or winter, as the case may be. Anyway, the Paraguay story is good, but it can wait.

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History Wednesday: The Pussycats of Pelusium

Everybody loves kitty cats, right? Of course we do! Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with ancient history, you know ancient Egypt took it a whole lot further. You see, the cat – being the sacred animal of the goddess Bastet – was held in the highest regard. Killing a cat in ancient Egypt, even accidentally, was a capital crime.

Ironically, this may have been a primary cause of Egypt’s downfall during classical antiquity.

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“Wait, what? Oh, this should be good.”

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History Wednesday: Calamity and Conceit

When I was in Riverton, Wyoming, this past weekend I had a chance encounter with a descendant of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canarie, an iconic figure of the Old West. His wife even does portrayals of her. Now there’s a History Wednesday topic if there ever was one!

It should be an easy blog entry too, right? Well, the historical Calamity Jane is so intertwined with legend, tall tales and flat out bullshit there’s not much to go on. People can’t even agree on how her real name was spelled.

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And we can’t even blame sloppy Arabic translations for that.
Image credit: Jim Gordon

According to Calamity Jane’s autobiography – which itself is called into question as most historians believe Jane was illiterate – she was born in 1852. Or was it 1850? Or 1847? Or earlier? In any event, in the mid 1860s Jane and her family moved in quick succession from Missouri to Montana to Salt Lake City. Along the way both of her parents died, leaving the (apparently) teenage Jane in charge of her younger brothers and sisters. After several more years of bouncing from place to place, by 1874 Jane settled more or less in the Fort Laramie, Wyoming, area.

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I’ll go out on a limb and say she wasn’t involved with the cold fusion hoax while in Salt Lake City.

Calamity Jane earned her nickname after ostensibly fighting in the Indian Wars alongside Generals George Custer and George Crook. This is disputed in contemporary sources. After moving to Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane then met and claimed to have married Wild Bill Hickok. While it’s accepted she and Hickok were acquainted, there’s no evidence to suggest the two were ever an item, much less married.

Note the pattern here.

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“Tell me about it. Hey, two pair!”

Despite all that’s written about her, there’s not much we can say for sure about Calamity Jane. Sources agree that she was a woman who lived in the late 19th Century American West who dressed as a man, told stories and drank too much. That’s about it. The historical provenance of just about everything else is dubious at best.

Much like this fine period piece.

Yes, Jane was clearly a master storyteller. In her later years she appeared as herself in shows throughout the country, notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite often being destitute herself, Jane was also universally recognized for her generosity. While in Deadwood, at great risk to her own health Jane often cared for seriously ill adults and children.

Jane died in 1903 after years of whiskey and hard living finally caught up to her. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok per her request. Yet even in death Calamity Jane’s penchant for embellishment continued to make the rounds. In 1941 and again in 1996, people publicly claimed to be Calamity Jane’s long-lost daughter or granddaughter. However, to date no evidence has surfaced that Jane ever had children.

As for my acquaintance in Riverton, he claimed descent from one of Jane’s siblings. That’s much more plausible.

History Wednesday: The Instant Presidency

It might not seem like it if one listens to American mainstream culture, but Mexico has come a long way in the last 25 years or so. While the country continues to face some very serious issues, it has also become a fairly stable multiparty democracy. Indeed, in my humble opinion one which has outpaced most of the former Soviet Bloc nations over the same time period.

This is in spite of being the scene of the shortest tenure of any head of state in recorded history. More on that in a moment.

After declaring independence from Spain in 1810, Mexico endured two absolute monarchies (one of which came courtesy of the Hapsburgs), several disastrous wars and enough outright corruption to make Silvio Berlusconi look like a paragon of honesty.

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This guy lost over half of the country yet still managed to become president … 11 TIMES.

By the turn of the 20th Century Mexico was well into a period known as the Porfiriato, an era of repression dominated by the virtual dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, who had effectively been in power since 1876. Although the Porfiriato represented by far Mexico’s longest period of stability to date, it was anything but democratic.

Finally tired of decades of stagnation, the Mexicans overthrew Diaz in 1911 after a ham-handed attempt to hand the aging strongman yet another re-election “victory.” This event sparked what became known as the Mexican Revolution.

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“Wait, did somebody say, ‘stagnation?'”

Anyway, unfortunately for Mexico Diaz’s overthrow soon degenerated into an all-out civil war with multiple competing factions. This is the era which produced Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who effectively became warlords in the north and south respectively. By the time the dust settled in late 1920 Mexico went through 11 presidents in the space of less than 10 years.

Francisco Madero was the main figure during the early stages of the Mexican Revolution. A liberal reformer strongly influenced by Benito Juarez, Madero became president in late 1911. In the hopes of establishing national unity Madero included pro-Diaz and other conservative figures in his government, who then proceeded to bring reform efforts to a standstill.

In February 1913 forces led by Generals Victoriano Huerta and Felix Diaz (the former president’s nephew) staged a coup d’etat against the Madero government with support from Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador. On 19 February Madero was forced to resign and was executed a few days later.

The idea, of course, was to make Huerta the new president. There was just one problem. Huerta wanted everything to be “legal,” but he wasn’t in the presidential line of succession. Well, that’s where our friend Pedro Lascurain comes into the picture.

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“Pedro, we have a little job for you ….”

Under the constitution of the day, as foreign minister Lascurain was fourth in the presidential line of succession. Since Huerta had already forced out the first three – Madero, the vice president and the attorney general – Lascurain was legally entitled to become president, which he did with Huerta’s blessing.

President Lascurain had two items on his agenda: (1) appoint Huerta as interior minister (and therefore next in the line of succession) and, (2) resign. He dutifully accomplished both. Huerta then called a late-night session of the Mexican Congress to validate the move, which they did with Huerta’s soldiers training their guns on them so they didn’t miss the point.

Sources disagree exactly how long Lascurain served as President of the United Mexican States, but it was certainly less than an hour. Perhaps quite wisely, Lascurain left politics immediately afterward.

Huerta then took it upon himself to establish a military dictatorship which made the Diaz regime look like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Meanwhile in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson – aghast that Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (no relation) took such a leading role in this mess – recalled the rogue diplomat and demanded Huerta schedule elections. The diplomatic situation quickly deteriorated from there, leading directly to the occupation of Veracruz the following year.

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“Yeah. Thanks a lot.”

Although the Huerta regime lasted less than 18 months before it succumbed to rebel forces, the general – often called El Chacal (“The Jackal”) – remains one of the most vilified figures in Mexican history. As for Lascurain, he quietly spent the rest of his life as an attorney and law school director.

History Wednesday: Taxed, Tanked and Ticked Off

It’s May Day. That means this week’s History Wednesday is effectively obligated to focus on the old Soviet Union, which always made May Day a big deal. You know, parades, speeches, public appearances of Politburo members, and plenty of red flags to go around. It was a good old time.

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Wasn’t it, Товарищ Эасто́я?

Ah, but plenty has been written about May Day already. As for Leonid Brezhnev, he’s about as exciting as a bowl of plastic fruit in a windowless, concrete room. That’s not what I’m going for here.

But what about Russians and vodka? Now there’s a target-rich environment. Let’s do it! Right, so here we go:

When Brezhnev died in 1982 the Soviet economy was basically dead in the water, committed to an arms race it increasingly couldn’t afford and a massive bureaucracy run by dour old men. Brezhnev’s successor as Communist Party general secretary (and therefore as the country’s de facto leader), was one of these old, dour men, Yuri Andropov. The highlight of Andropov’s rule was that he disappeared from public view for months until the Soviets announced his death in 1984.

Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even less interesting than that.

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*insert static-filled elevator music here*

Chernenko kicked the bucket after only 13 months at the helm. He was followed by someone I bet you’ve heard of: Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev was willing to do something about the ever-growing clusterfuck that was the Soviet economy. He did so by attempting to address the shortcomings of his notoriously boozy culture and increase revenue at the same time. To wit, shortly after taking power he raised the price of vodka and other alcoholic drinks.

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“Дерьмо!”
Image credit: ProhibitOnions

Now in statecraft there are several things you simply don’t do. You don’t barf on the Japanese prime minister. You don’t piss off the King of Spain. And you definitely don’t screw with a Russian’s vodka. The policy had a minimal effect on alcoholism statistics and at the same time cost the government billions of rubles in lost revenue.

It may be tempting to dismiss this as a rookie mistake on Gorbachev’s part, but he really should have known better. Lenin attempted to ban vodka altogether, but that proved to be a miserable failure. It took Uncle Joe Stalin, a guy not exactly known for his commitment to civil liberties, to reverse this policy. As for Gorbachev, he quietly lightened up on his policy a couple years later.

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“Naturally, we will opt for vodka.”

In the grand scheme of things an abortive effort to regulate alcohol nearly 30 years ago may not seem like much, but it was. It’s been theorized that this policy started a chain reaction of unintended consequences which ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that context, it’s a big freakin’ deal.

It’s important to remember that toppling communism is not what Gorbachev had in mind. What’s more, despite continued international acclaim Gorbachev remains deeply unpopular in Russia. Despite that, attempts to raise vodka prices continue in Russia today.

If you’re so inclined, have a shot of Stoli this May Day. But keep in mind this silly little drink may very well have changed the world.

History Wednesday: Pranking Made Elementary

Last week’s History Wednesday was a bit on the dark side, so this week I wanted to lighten the mood. What happened in Boston earlier this week only makes the call for a less intense article all the more stronger.

Today History Wednesday travels back to 1917, but not to the bleak, war-torn landscape often associated with that year. Instead this story takes place in the countryside of Great Britain, specifically a town called Cottingley in West Yorkshire. It was here in this unassuming hamlet nearly a century ago that two girls pulled off a hoax that bamboozled an entire nation and made a very famous author look foolish indeed.

And so it was in this pastoral environment of rural north-central England that 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, often found themselves dirty and wet after playing in the stream near their home. They explained to their exasperated mothers that they frequented the area because fairies lived there.

One day, the girls decided to “prove” it. Arthur Wright, Elsie’s father, was an amateur photographer who had set up a darkroom on the property. Consequently Elsie – a gifted artist – was somewhat adept at photography as well. Using illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, the girls made several two-dimensional fairy drawings. Elsie then took a picture of Frances with the figures.

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Pictured: Photoshoppe -13.0.

A couple months later the girls repeated the prank, posing Elsie with a “gnome.” Arthur Wright, who was sick and tired of the girls screwing around with his equipment, forbade them access to the camera after that.

That should have been the end of it right there. However, Elsie’s mother, Polly, believed the photographs were the real deal. A couple years after the incident she took them to a local meeting of the Theosophical Society, a group that researched esoterica such as, you know, fairies.

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Kind of like this, but without the LSD.

Needless to say, the photos were a big hit. Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, became their prime apologist. After they were featured at the society’s national conference, they were “authenticated” by a guy who merely said the negatives weren’t tampered with (which was true). But hell, close enough, right?

Well, they were close enough for a certain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an active Spiritualist who learned about the photographs through his editorial contacts. As the more astute among you know, Conan Doyle was a famous Scottish author best known for creating a character named Sherlock Holmes. He totally bought the “fairies are real” line, even after the photographic companies Kodak and Ilford expressed their, um, doubts.

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The mustache, however, is obviously fake.

That’s when things started getting seriously stupid.

In order to corroborate the “evidence,” Conan Doyle sent Gardner to Cottingley to meet the Wright family and get some more fairy photographs. Gardner brought with him two new Kodak cameras and some marked photographic plates. He taught the girls how to use the cameras and then left, charging them with taking the pictures themselves. The girls in turn would only take photographs when no one else was around, as they were the only ones the “fairies” trusted. Sure enough, three new fairy photographs appeared and the plates were dutifully shipped back to Gardner in London.

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“Hey, hey. Let’s tell them we found a way to turn brown sauce into diamonds. They’ll totally go for it!”

So did Gardner or Conan Doyle catch on? Oh, hell no! Upon hearing of the new photographs, Conan Doyle replied:

I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance.

Conan Doyle triumphantly published his findings in December 1920. While some fell for the hoax, many others were quick to call bullshit. In other words, the world wasn’t completely stupid in 1920 after all. As for Elsie and Francis, they finally owned up to the hoax.

In 1983.

History Wednesday: A South American Cautionary Tale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation with a more bizarre history than Paraguay. I could easily write about it for the next month’s worth of History Wednesday installments. That would get tedious though, and we don’t want that.

Some years ago noted satirist P. J. O’Rourke infamously commented Paraguay is “nowhere and famous for nothing.” O’Rourke eventually recanted his remark. Paraguay may be remote, but it’s definitely not boring.

Today’s journey takes us to 1860s. By this point Paraguay had been independent of Spain for a little over 50 years. Those years were dominated by the dictatorships of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia – a guy commonly known by the modest title of El Supremo – and Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was primarily interested in beefing up the country’s military. Both Francia and Lopez pursued extremely isolationist foreign policies, which would prove to be very detrimental in the coming years.

In 1862 Lopez died and power passed to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. Clearly groomed for leadership, without any noteworthy talent or training the younger Lopez became a general when he was 18 and was the country’s vice president by the time he was 30.

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He was also a big Bonaparte fan.

Within a few years of taking power Lopez became embroiled in a dispute with neighboring Brazil over Uruguay. Lopez was an ally of Uruguay’s government at the time, while Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II supported an ongoing revolution there. This came to a head in October 1864, when Brazil invaded Uruguay to support its revolutionary allies.

Two months later, Paraguay retaliated by declaring war on Brazil. A short time later Lopez asked Argentina to allow him to cross their territory to get to Brazil. The Argentinians refused, but Lopez went and did it anyway. Meanwhile, the Brazilians and Uruguayan rebels succeeded in bringing down the pro-Lopez government and set up a Brazilian puppet state there. The result was the Triple Alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. How … original. The alliance vowed to not only defeat Paraguay, but to crush it so it couldn’t cause problems again.

In other words, a country which endured many years of a repressive, isolationist cult of personality and a massive military buildup found itself ruled by the relatively inexperienced son of the previous leader, who then proceeded to go out of his way to pick fights with much larger powers.

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Sound familiar?
Image credit: petersnoopy

At first things went well for the Paraguayans. They started out with the largest military in Latin America at the time. They also caught all three of their enemies by surprise. Lopez invaded the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Argentina’s Corrientes Province. However by summer 1865 the tide began to turn against Lopez after the Brazilians decisively defeated the Paraguayan Navy.

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Seriously. To this day landlocked Paraguay has a navy.

Unfortunately for Paraguay, Lopez didn’t understand the concept of “quit while you’re ahead.” As the war dragged on through the rest of the 1860s, Paraguay’s military might was gradually sapped away by the Triple Alliance’s war of attrition. Both sides employed weapons and tactics similar to those used in the recently-concluded American Civil War, and experienced the same sort of horrific casualties. However unlike the alliance, isolated Paraguay was unable to replenish its resources and munitions.

On New Year’s Day 1869 the alliance captured the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Even that didn’t convince Lopez to throw in the towel, who by then was conducing a guerrilla campaign in the mountains northeast of the city. By this point resources were so scarce among the Paraguayans that the few soldiers remaining were occasionally forced to fight unarmed – in the hopes of picking up a firearm from a fallen comrade – as well eat their horses.

Finally on 1 March 1870 Lopez was killed in battle, effectively ending the Paraguayan War. It’s estimated Paraguay lost anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of its population due to war and disease, including the vast majority of the country’s adult males. To put that in perspective, even the grimmest estimates place Cambodia’s national death toll at “only” around 40 percent during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to the human cost, Paraguay permanently lost a significant amount of its territory. The war also affected the victorious Triple Alliance in unintended ways. Notably, it’s widely believed it helped end slavery in Brazil, as the country was forced to free many to fight.

If Lopez had a redeeming quality, it was his tenacity. Because of this and despite the massive losses inflicted upon Paraguay during his rule, many Paraguayans today consider him a national hero.

Yeah, things have been brutal in the Corazon de America, but they’ve never been boring.

History Wednesday: How to Drive the Family Business Into the Ground

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve noticed that most old-timey nation-states in Europe and elsewhere were ruled by dynastic kingdoms, with a son (or sometimes daughter) succeeding the parent. As History Wednesday has pointed out before, successions such as these can lead to giving absolute power to complete incompetents. Today we travel to the 14th Century to examine another one of these yutzes.

The Plantagenet Dynasty came to power in England in 1154. Except during a period in the 1210s when King John had his ass handed to him by both the French and his own nobility, resulting in the Magna Carta, the Plantagenets provided decent leadership in England for the next 150 years or so. In 1272 the English crown passed to Edward I, an imposing figure and a very capable military leader.

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Who could have been England’s starting center had James Naismith lived a few centuries earlier.
Image credit: Steve Lipofsky, Basketballphoto.com

Edward was all about conquest. After a series of successful campaigns, by 1285 he had effectively assimilated Wales into his domain. During the latter years of his reign, Edward often faced off against the Scots and their fabled military leader Mel Gibson William Wallace. Although Wallace and his cohorts proved to be excellent fighters, Edward had the last laugh by defeating Wallace at Falkirk and executing him a few years later.

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“Mad Max? Never heard of him.”

Edward died in 1307 and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. Unlike his all-business father, Edward II was all about the lifestyle and bling, caring little for annoyances such as, you know, government. More importantly, he “had so little confidence in himself that he was always in the hands of some favorite who possessed a stronger will than his own.”

While Edward II was heir apparent he became close to a knight from present-day southwestern France named Piers Gaveston. Real, REAL close according to some contemporary chroniclers, if you know what I mean. Edward went out of his way to please him, regardless of how ridiculous or extravagant the request. Gaveston proved to be such a nuisance that shortly before Edward I died he was sent into exile. However, once Edward II became king he immediately recalled Gaveston, made him Earl of Cornwall and arranged a sweet marriage package deal for him.

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And there was much rejoicing.

Unfortunately for Gaveston, none of this sat well with the rest of the English nobility. His earldom was especially resented as it was traditionally reserved for members of the immediate royal family. In addition, Gaveston continued to be an arrogant pain in the ass around just about everyone except Edward. Political maneuvering forced Edward to exile Gaveston in 1308 and again in 1311. Shortly after he returned from his third exile, nobles took matters into their own hands and flat out killed him.

Meanwhile the Scots, who were clearly on the ropes when Edward II became king in 1307, slowly but surely began to bounce back. By 1314, the Scots under their king Robert the Bruce had erased almost all of Edward I’s territorial gains against them. Eager to keep a strategic castle under English control, in June 1314 Edward II slapped together a poorly-trained army and marched north. The resulting Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most epic ass-kickings of the Middle Ages, guaranteeing an independent Scotland for the next 400 years.

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“Haggis and single malts for all!”

Surrounded by suspicious nobility and with his father’s Scottish ambitions in total ruins, Edward II was not in the best of positions to say the least. Even so, towards the end of his reign he took on another favorite who irritated the hell out of everyone, a guy named Hugh Despenser. Depesnser became royal chamberlain in 1318 and with his father (also named Hugh Despenser) proceeded to wreak havoc on the country for the next eight years. While Gaveston was little more than an arrogant ass, the Despensers were straight up tyrants. They engaged in land seizures, torture, corruption and even high seas piracy. As for the king, he simply let them do what they pleased.

Finally even Edward’s wife was done with this crap. In September 1326 Queen Isabella, joined forces with the noble Roger Mortimer, raised an army in France and proceeded to invade England. Edward, who by this time had alienated just about everyone in the country, was unable to recruit an army in response. By January 1327 Mortimer and Isabella had de facto control of England. Edward was forced to abdicate and the Despensers were executed. Hugh Despenser the Younger’s demise was particularly gruesome, making a standard draw and quartering look like a deep tissue massage.

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Gibson Wallace got off easy.

Sadly, the truly badass story (pun intended) of Edward’s execution via hot poker up his rectum is likely apocryphal. Even so, he disappears from history after 1327. Mortimer and Isabella ran the country for the next three years until they were removed from power by a young Edward III, who proved to be a far more competent ruler. Contrary to what’s implied in Braveheart, Edward III is not Mel Gibson’s William Wallace’s son.