Let’s be frank, 2016 has been an annus horribilis for planet Earth. We’ve lost countless cultural icons — David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman and Prince to name just a few.
The far-right in Europe and the US is threatening not only the Global economies but our civil rights and the environment. So yes, unless you’re ‘an adorable deplorable’ or an ardent enemy of the EU this has been an awful year. However, humanity has experienced many calamities in its time on Earth, and if history has taught me anything, it’s that events are cyclical. So, is 2016 the worst of the bunch? Well…maybe, but before we treat this year as a complete write-off, let’s have a look at some other years that shocked and appalled the world.
1016: The Viking Invasion of England / Norman Conquest of Sicily Begins
If you happened to be Sicilian or Saxon 1016 was a year of ups and downs, to say the least. The fateful year marked not only the fall of Byzantine rule in Sicily but also the humiliation of the ruling house of Wessex.
In England, the Royal House of Wessex fell spectacularly after a series of wars with the Viking Kings Sweyn and Cnut. From 1003 Viking forces had been besieging Saxon England, plundering its coasts and only retreated when the beleaguered Saxon King Aethelred II or the Unready, paid them off. However, in 1013, Aethelred’s luck ran out and his fled to Normandy leaving throne in the hands of Sweyn. Pretty terrible right? Well, things slowly went from bad to worse. In 1014 Sweyn died and Aethelred, not learning from his mistakes, returned to England to take the throne. Over in Denmark Sweyn was succeeded by the Cnut, who arrived in England in 1015 with an army of around 10,000 Danes and 200 longboats and the intent of conquering England. What ensued were a series of intense battles throughout the kingdom of Wessex with Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset devastated by the armies of not only Cnut but also the Saxon Prince Edmund Ironside. Unable to take the strain of constant warfare and the continued humiliation of losing province after province, Aethelred died leaving his son Edmund to pick up the pieces. Edmund fought five battles against Cnut but effectively surrendered in October handing over England – save the historic counties of Wessex – to Cnut. Shortly after this final blow, Edmund died, allowing Cnut to properly get his feet under the table.
For Saxon England this was a period of great turmoil and, while Cnut ended up embracing the culture of his newly conquered kingdom, his death saw a struggle over the throne between his Viking sons, his children with Emma, and Aethelred’s son Edward. Of course, it was the Saxon Prince Edward who eventually triumphed, becoming Edward the Confessor, but only after years of chaos.
Over in sunny Sicily, the once powerful Byzantine rule was slowly crumbling and a Lombard nobleman, Melus of Bari, fancied his shot at the big-time and mounted an attempted coup 1009 capturing the town of Bari and holding it until 1011. Melus, with the help of Norman mercenaries he picked up in Monte Gargano, then attempted another coup in 1016. Melus promised the Norman pilgrims great riches, and, for a while, the Lombard-Norman forces did pretty well. However, Melus’s luck (and the Normans) went south, and Melus fled to the Papal States while the Normans stayed in Sicily and, slowly but surely, colonised it.
1216: The Year of Three Kings / The First Baron’s War
When you ask people to think of a particularly shitty year in the early 1200s they’ll probably come up with 1215, the year King John was forced to issue the Magna Carta. I’ve spoken about Magna Carta and King John’s fairly torrid reign a fair amount, and while Magna Carta did shake things up by at least attempting to limit the absolute power of the king, the chaos it caused is perhaps more devastating than the Great Charter itself! Firstly, in a spectacular backtrack, King John reneged on the deal while the wax of the seal he used to legitimise the deal was still warm. John found an unlikely ally in Pope Innocent III who’d placed England under interdict (a fancy word for excommunicated) for six years over a falling out regarding Innocent’s appointee for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Much to John’s delight, Innocent ruled that the Magna Carta was “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust,” and ruled that it was “null and void of validity for ever” as John had been “forced to accept it.”
In the eyes of Papal law, this should have been an open and shut case, but English barons have never been a group to go quietly, and in 1216, the First Barons’ War, which had been brewing since November 1215, began in earnest. The war, which started with the sacking of Berwick-on-Tweed and raids on southern Scotland in January quickly escalated to the full on invasion backed by the barons and led by Prince Louis of France, later King Louis VIII. The French forces landed in May and marched from Thanet in Kent to London without any opposition. When safely in the capital Louis was unofficially crowned King of England in Saint Paul’s cathedral despite the fact that John and his male heir Henry were still very much alive. Louis spent the remainder of 1216 systematically conquering half of England with only Dover and Windsor Castle putting up much of a fight. John spent thousands of pounds on armies and fireboats, but he gave up in October, dying of dysentery at the age of 50. In a final act of ineptitude, John left his nine-year-old son Henry to pick up the pieces and continue his father’s battles. Henry was crowned Henry III in Gloucester Cathedral on October 28th and was soon surrounded by barons desperate to curry favour with an impressionable new king. The barons rightly saw that their best interests lay with the young king and not with an overly ambitious French prince and by the beginning of 1217, most had defected back to the Plantagenet crown. Henry III ended up sticking around for 50 years, mainly thanks to his rambunctious son Edward (the future Edward I)but he spent the early parts of his reign hamstrung by Magna Carta and the suspicion and dislike his father had garnered.
1316: English Financial Crisis / The Second Battle of Athenry/ The Great Famine of Europe
You could blame many of the problems that crop up in 1316 on the weak rule of sixth Plantagenet monarch Edward II. In January through March the Welsh Prince Llywelyn Bren led a revolt in Wales against the English presence there. The Welsh had been long protesting English presence in Wales with some modest successes here and there, but the revolt 1316 led to the attacks on Caerphilly Castle, Glamorgan, Gwent, Kenfig Castle, Llantrisant, Dinefwr Castle, Llangibby, and Cardiff. Eventually, Edward II ordered the 4th Earl of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun to put a stop to the revolt for good. Armed with a royal army, de Bohun advanced into West Wales forcing Llywelyn to abandon the siege of Caerffili and retreat to the North. Llywelyn quickly surrendered to de Bohun and was sent to the Towe of London. In an act of sheer bravery Llywelyn begged that he be punished while his men spared which earned respect amongst his captors, including Roger Mortimer (yes that one). Edward II was persuaded to pardon Llywelyn’s men, but he made the idiotic decision to hand the Welsh prince over to Hugh the younger Despenser one of his court favourites in 1317. The decision was a PR disaster for Edward, the Desepenser family were almost universally hated by the English barons and famed for their cruelty and, in true form, Hugh Desepenser ordered Llywelyn to be hanged without a trial and without the King’s consent. This senseless act of cruelty coupled with the fact that Desepenser pocketed Llywelyn’s lands, only added to the national distrust of the Despensers and a growing resentment of their influence over the English crown.
Another problem for Edward and England was the shock inflation of the English sterling. While historians cannot predict the exact date, in the English sterling experienced the highest rate of inflation in its history, rising a shocking 100.4% which more than halved its value; beat that Brexit!
However, we can’t blame all the issues of the year on Edward II, that would be cruel. Over in Ireland a three-year military campaign known as the Bruce Campaign was raging and the native Irish were bearing the brunt of it. The campaign began when Robert the Bruce sent men to Ireland after his success against the English crown at the Battle of Bannockburn…maybe this is Edward II’s fault after all. Robert’s plan was to force the Norman settlers into crowning his brother Edward High King of Ireland. Unfortunately, Robert and Edward picked the wrong enemy to mess with because, while Edward II’s English troops were poorly managed, the Norman forces in Ireland were as ruthless as their 1066 counterparts had been. The Normans were led by Rickard de Bermingham and William Liath de Burgh who slaughtered a reported 5,000 Scottish/Irish soldiers including two Irish Kings. Fedlim O Conchobair and Tadhg O Cellaigh. Chronicler John Clyn said of the battle:
‘According to the common report a sum of five […] thousand in all [were killed] the number decapitated was one thousand five hundred.’
The Battle soured Anglo-Irish relations even further, the Annal of Loche Ce referring to the actions of the Irish/Scottish forces as a ‘martyrdom.’
Lastly, the one crisis that can’t solely be blamed on the British: The Great Famine of Europe. The Great Famine began in 1315 and continued throughout 1316 and 1317 although some historians date it from 1315-1322. The initial cause of the famine was a bad spring in 1315 which led to mass-spread crop failures for the next two years. Although famines are a fairly common occurrence in medieval England, the famine of 1315-1317 affected Britain drastically, in fact, the economy and population didn’t recover until 1322. The bad weather and rain continued in 1316 and the European population struggled to sustain itself due to lack of food reserves. Children were abandoned by their families, the crime rate soared, and some chroniclers mention several cases of cannibalism.
As grain continued to fail, livestock began to perish as they had nothing to eat, this led to a shortage of food and explosion of food prices. For example, wheat prices grew by a whopping 320% which made simple food like bread completely unaffordable for peasants who represented 95% of the European population. The period saw a constitutional and religious crisis throughout Europe which was eventually exacerbated by the Black Death 1348.
1916: Battle of the Somme
It’s pretty much impossible to speak about the Battle of the Somme lightly, so I’m not even going to try. The Battle of the Somme is considered the costliest and most tragic battles of World War One, with both the Allied and German sides experiencing heavy losses. The battle, also known as the Somme Offensive, was fought from July until November 1916. From the beginning day, it was a disaster for both sides, although the Germans were forced out of their defensive position by the French, it was the worst day for British casualties in history, with 57,470 recorded casualties and 19,240 fatalities. The Somme marks the first use of the tank and is considered on of the costliest battles of World War One, aptly summed up by German Officer Friedrich Steinbrecher who wrote:
‘Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.’
The total loss for the Brits during Somme totalled at 513,289 which is why it has become symbolic of the shambolic leadership displayed by Field Marshall Haig who led the British troops. Haig, a deeply religious man, was maligned by the British press over his repeated failures and was even dubbed ‘Butcher Haig.’ Due to huge losses throughout the WWI particularly in The Sommes, Verdun and Ypres
Haig’s name has become synonymous with ‘the carnage and futility of First World War battles.’ It’s needless to say that history has not been kind to Douglas Haig. However, perhaps the saddest consequence of the Somme is that humanity has learned nothing of just how precious and fragile human life is. In 1918, once the dust had settled historians called WWI ‘The Great War to End Wars‘, humanity was supposed to learn fromt the carnage. Sadly, less than a generation later, humanity was at war all over again with even more devastating consequences that would affect humanity far beyond its conclusion in 1945. Looking at the aftermath of WWII and from what different societies have done in Vietnam, Korea, Eastern Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria it’s very hard to argue that we as a society ever really learn from our mistakes.
This all may seem rather bleak but that;s why it’s important to look back at 2016 with hope; because humans been through times of turmoil and uncertainty and survived. Let’s be honest, the Saxons probably thought it couldn’t get any worse in 1016 and I’m pretty sure the farmers of England weren’t best pleased about mass famine but still, society found a way to survive and adapt to change. For better or worse, humans are remarkably resiliant regardless of despot-elect Tonald Dump and pointless referendums.
Over and Out, and a Happy New Year!